Cotton by Paul J. Heard – Melanie Wilkerson, one of the law clerks in Courting Death, returns 25 years later in Cotton as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. She has recently returned to Georgia after accepting a position in Atlanta.
The thirst for investigation that led her to investigate the death of a law clerk in Courting Death is undiminished. She is intrigued when contacted by James Murphy, a journalist in Clarkeston, who has found online a photo of the beautiful Diana Cavendish who disappeared 5 years earlier at the same time as Jacob Granville.
The conservative mores of Clarkeston are evident when Murphy feels compelled to confess to an associate Baptist minister at his local church that he has been looking online at bikini clad women when he found the photo of Cavendish. Even more striking he choses to resign as a deacon of the First Baptist Church of Clarkeston.
Murphy has never felt comfortable with the original investigation. He was convinced the local establishment, including the police, did not believe Granville would have killed her. He has believed Granville disappeared after killing Cavendish.
Does the photo mean Cavendish is still alive? It is impossible to know from the website whether the photo was taken before or after she went missing.
When Wilkerson looks into FBI files on the alleged abduction she sees a direction to anyone with questions about Granville to call a number in Little Rock, Arkansas. When she makes the call she is abruptly dismissed and that phone disconnected.
Determined to look further she contacts Professor Stanley Hopkins in Los Angeles. The sociologist has been studying the porn industry for several years. While not a tech wizard he starts probing into the murky world of online soft porn. Owners of such websites prefer to be concealed from the public.
Back in Clarkeston looks into the prominent defence of Granville at the time of the disappearance by the Episcopal pastor, Ernest Rogers. With Rogers deceased Murphy approaches the new pastor, Thorsten “Thor” V. Carter, who turns out to be interested in his predecessor’s actions.
It is a difficult investigation that eventually reaches to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland. I wondered how Heald would credibly tie an investigation in Georgia with the WTO in Europe. It turns out to be a very direct connection. The clue is in the title. I acknowledge it took a long time for me to see the connection.
Cotton is a good solid book.
Yet I wish Wilkerson had been more a lawyer and less an investigator. The plot sees her avoiding the use of her position as a U.S. Assistant Attorney. She keeps it a secret from her superiors. I understand the need for secrecy. It would be implausible for her to be able to involve the other characters in an investigation if it was being conducted by the Department of Justice. At the same time I think plots with lawyers works better, as John Grisham does brilliantly, if the lawyers conduct their investigations as lawyers rather than private investigators.
A minor irritation is that everyone is either handsome or beautiful depending on their gender. While I acknowledged a bias in my review of Courting Death with regard to beauty pageant winners as lawyers I can assure readers most lawyers are neither conspicuously handsome nor strikingly beautiful.
The conclusion teased me. I was ready to be impressed by an ending that did not have the perfect resolution where there is justice for all. It is rare in the real world and rarer in crime fiction. Cotton proved to have a conventional finish.
I think Heald is developing as an author. Cotton not Courting Death was actually the second book published in his Clarkeston Chronicles series. I liked Courting Death better because it was more of a legal mystery. I hope Heald can proceed with future mysteries that focus on the law. I consider his writing about lawyers and legal issues to be his strength. (Feb. 25/17)