UNCIVIL DEATH
M.E. Cooper


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Padlock Mystery Press, 2001
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Historical Mystery, American Confederacy 1862

The Confederate Army is encamped, waiting for a break in the weather. The plan is for his soldiers to rest and recuperate while General William Loring is recovering from illness. The mood of relaxation in camp changes radically, when a woman is discovered murdered just outside the perimeter. The cowardly rat who committed such a heinous crime must be found and punished.

UNCIVIL DEATH introduces us to a new detecting team, General Loring and his aide Lieutenant Conley. General Loring is confined to his bed and needs Conley to conduct preliminary interviews and comb the terrain. They have the eager help of almost the whole camp, because these Southern men feel that no woman-killer should be allowed to escape unpunished. The unknown factor is the presence in camp of a group of traveling entertainers and a doctor of obvious education but questionable origins. The outsiders become more important as it becomes clear that the murder has wider implications. Yet as our naïve Lieutenant Conley discovers, familiar people may and often do have different lives going on behind their faces.

In UNCIVIL DEATH, M.E. Cooper created an environment that stuck with me and made me want to read more about the period. She immersed herself in the culture of the Old South and gives us recognizable character types from the time. General Loring himself is a historical person, and some of the events of his life and the politics of his career give flavor to the narrative. We have no indications that his aide Lieutenant Conley really existed, and indeed, for most of the book he doesn't so much exist as serve to be our lens. Since he isn't looking at himself with the intensity he bestows on the people around him, for quite some time we see only the parts of Conley’s character that he himself notices. Finally, about three quarters of the way through, he suffers a loss of control, and then he suddenly becomes a lovable human being.

As part of creating a realistic novel set in a particular culture, an author must accept, or at least understand, and lay out for the reader, the ideas characteristic of the time and culture. Cooper's characters fight the Civil War on the issue of states' rights, put their women on pedestals, and dehumanize their slaves. It is a measure of the author's success in conveying this frame of thought, that Lieutenant Conley's occasional uneasy inkling that the General's slave Othello might have hidden feelings of his own is endearing; because in speculating thus he is reaching out beyond the confines of his culture. This will not of course be endearing to the reader who can’t go along for the ride on this viewpoint. Indeed, UNCIVIL DEATH may turn out to be a "regional" book, or specialized for Confederacy buffs, for this very reason.

The style of UNCIVIL DEATH is richer than M.E. Cooper’s previous historical mystery, KEY DECEPTIONS. The more an author's sentences contain words and phrases that evoke secondary images and tiny trains of thought, the more fully we experience the events of the book. We follow a sentence as it leafs out like a new green branch, and the branches together create a full environment. In creating the Confederate camp, Cooper writes this kind of environment. Based on these two books I would predict that her style will continue rapidly evolving, from the objectivity appropriate for her True Crime books to the greater emotional freedom and creativity of the novel.

July 2001 Review Originally Published on the Independent Reviews Site

 

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