In Shadow of Light, Tennessee-born author James E. Cherry looks at a long history of racial violence in the South without simply recounting the story from the victim’s point of view. Instead, Cherry examines issues of race and class through the minds of several characters, including members of a gang of white teenagers who, in an attempt to burglarize an elderly African-American woman, leave her for dead after she has been raped and shot. As she lingers in the hospital, it is up to Walter Robinson, an African-American homicide detective, to find and arrest the criminals before a wave of racial violence erupts.
In this coming-of-age story disguised as a mystery novel, we learn of Robinson’s past even as he finds himself ankle-deep in personal and professional turmoil as the manhunt takes over the town. In the meantime, he begins to question his own life as the rare middle-class black man in a city that offers few opportunities for people of color.
Detective Robinson, we learn, went to college in the North and often wonders about the way he was brought up, his lifestyle and his career. Robinson appraises his own situation this way: “I’ve always worked twice as hard, made sure I spoke proper English when I had to, and that has only gotten me so far. When I’m off duty, my fellow officers pull me over with some bullshit about broken taillights just to search my vehicle. You know how many times I’ve had guns pulled on me by my fellow officers while I’m off duty and the next day those sonofabithches are laughing behind my back? More than I can count.”
It’s no easy task to write compelling social commentary that also has an enjoyable and unpredictable plot, but Cherry more than pulls it off here. As a character, Detective Robinson transcends stereotypes, and the novel’s plot is filled with surprises and twists that suggest that Shadow of Light may be the first in a series. If those potential sequels are as good as the original, let’s hope that’s the case.