Friday, February 4, 2011


Just when I think I shouldn't read another novel on the Civil War, I come across one that I am glad I didn't disregard because I have read so many.

Nominated for the Edgar Award for best first novel in 2009, David Fuller's Sweetsmoke didn't disappoint. In 1862, on a Virginia tobacco plantation, Cassius Howard, a slave, determines to solve the murder of Emoline, a freed black woman who once saved his life and secretly taught him to read and write.

As Cassius inquired into what happened to Emoline, he discovers important secrets, secrets that can harm the Confederate cause, and, of course, his knowledge of them puts his life in serious jeopardy. As Fuller develops the mystery that surrounds Emoline's death, he takes the reader into the world of slavery --- its injustices and cruelties not left up to the imagination --- but Fuller also vividly describes, in one of the best fictional accounts I have read, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Not since Howard Bahr's The Black Flower (published in 1998 -- and a terrific read), which focuses on the Battle of Frederickburg, has a writer so eloquently and realistically portrayed the frenetic and chaotic nature of battle.

In one of the novel's most descriptive passages, Cassius finds himself caught in a corn field in the early morning fog while the second battle of Manassas rages around him. Cassius, as bystander, "could not wrap his brain around the images in front of his eyes. He tried to remember that each one of these men had a life, a family, a mother, father, children, fears and hopes and ideas; each one worked and dreamed and had once been a child, and not screamed in astonished agony. He lost his sense of reality, as if his intelligence shut down to preserve him from madness."

Vividly written and well-researched, Fuller's powerful prose carries the novel as what ever the reader wishes -- fictional slave narrative, historical fiction, or mystery -- regardless, Fuller's tempo misses few beats.


And yes, readers, Cassius was named for the character in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.