What is it with Southern writers? I’m certain there must be a lot of inkslingers living in trailer parks south of Mason Dixon, banging out slop on second-hand PCs (as I myself did at one time), but again and again you come on these southern authors who display the same kind of technical brilliance combined with lyrical grace, like one antebellum mansion after another along a road in an exclusive neighborhood. Maybe the very experience of speaking with a drawl gives a person time to strategize word choice, while we northerners with our nasal, jackhammer diction just stutter our prose out like salt from a highway department ice control truck.
In any case, Richard North Patterson, whose novels I’ve never tried before, is a darn good wordsmith. The Outside Man is an older novel of his (1981), so I wouldn’t be surprised if the liberal ideas this book suggests have metastasized into something that would give me a stroke if I read a more recent example, but for now I’m highly inclined to try him again.
The Outside Man is narrated by the main character, Adam Shaw, a northerner and a lapsed Catholic who married a rich southern girl and moved to Birmingham, Alabama to join her father’s law firm. He and his father-in-law don’t get along, and he generally feels like an outsider in Birmingham society.
As the book begins he is running an errand for the firm, delivering a document to Lydia Cantwell, the wife of one of their most important clients. Finding the door unlocked, he goes inside and finds her strangled to death. Police suspicion immediately falls on Henry, her husband. Adam is determined to prove him innocent—not only because he’s a client, but because he’s one of the few local people Adam has found to be a true friend.
You’ll have already guessed the general tone of what follows. The veneer of southern aristocratic respectability is found to conceal volcanic passions, poisonous hatreds and hypocrisy. In fact it’s largely a question of discovering which passions, hatreds and hypocrisies are actually relevant, and which don’t apply to the case.
But it’s very well done. Recommended, with the usual cautions for language and adult subject matter.