It isn’t often a mystery surprises me. I mean, sure–I’m often surprised by the solution. But the storytelling of a mystery tends to be fairly structured, so I’m not often surprised by the journey along the way. I recently found Nelscott by way of a solid, deceptively simple short story in Chicago Blues, and decided to check out her longer works. Maybe it is because I went in without expectations, but Nelscott managed to surprise me in a very positive way.
Dangerous Road begins with Smokey Dalton driving down a road in a green Oldsmobile, musing on the events that led to his and Jimmy’s current state of homelessness. “We hardly speak to each other any more. There isn’t much to say. Martin Luther King, Jr., is dead, assassinated in our hometown, in our neighborhood, and both Jimmy and I played small roles in his death.” To Smokey, the seeds of the event were sown in December 1939, when Atlanta went wild celebrating the premiere of Gone With the Wind.
Smokey doesn’t stay very long in the past; he quickly returns to that fateful Monday in 1968 when Laura Hathaway first showed up in his office. “She said the name as if I should know it. I didn’t… I could wait for the information. Patience usually threw off white reporters. It often irritated white members of the Civil Rights Commission. I’d see which one she was.” It turns out that Miss Hathaway is bound by terms of her mother’s will to give Smokey ten thousand dollars, and both she and Smokey are concerned as to reasons why. It is curiously similar to a payment Smokey received a few years back from an anonymous source. Meanwhile, Memphis is in the midst of a serious struggle. The city sanitation workers are on strike, in a dispute dismissed as a “black issue.” When Smokey is asked by one of the leading ministers to play a peacekeeping role, Smokey refuses in an attempt to remain apolitical.
Atmosphere is done well. While Nelscott must have done a ton of research to be able to evoke 1968 Memphis, it is integrated well, feeling organic to the story. I admit, I wasn’t looking for a political story–but then, neither is Smokey. He is drawn in inadvertently, first as he attempts to help two teenage boys with an indifferent mother, and secondly through his ties to the black community. Of course, the case will hit Smokey personally–we all saw it coming from the beginning, even Smokey–but it wasn’t clear just how deep and intimate it would be. Narrative challenges of diving back into the past is done well, feeling seamless. The main characters are done amazingly well, with a lovely complexity to Smokey and Laura’s actions.
A Dangerous Road ended up taking me on an unplanned drive where I encountered a thoughtful time-period character exploration on a road marked ‘mystery.’ Not the breezy noir read I expected, it proved a surprisingly emotional journey. I strongly recommend it.