Shadow of Death
Inkwater Press, 2017
It’s all too easy to brush off Southern Literature, because it is overly reliant on local color, a skewed sense of history, and a mood of lazy romance bordering on fetish. This isn’t meant as a strike against Southern writing, but rather writers. There are too few Southern writers who write the South as something real, something more than quirk or caricature. In a way, this is the challenge facing all authors who desperately want to tell the stories of their unique place in the world.
Here is where readers can place Jean Sorrell’s novel, a story set in the South and certainly infused with it but not about the South. Because of which, it succeeds as a literary thriller.
Set in a leper colony run by nuns along the Mississippi River in Louisiana in 1940, we travel with Catherine Lyle as she deals with the apparent suicide of her sister Mary Gretchen. It is quickly made clear to Catherine that Sister Mary Gretchen suffered some kind of foul play, and she sets her sights to discover the truth. A mystery or thriller most often engages and succeeds when it refuse to overly complicate itself, when the surface belies a sinister depth and Shadow of Death certainly accomplishes this.
The novel’s strength comes from its hero Catherine who’s sheltered existence is surrendered but still rife with an inner conflict to overcome–
“I did prefer the dark, though. Everything was equal then. Whatever meanness lay beyond a closet door was invisible if one was invisible too. It never found a person in that dark hiding place.”
Catherine discovers meanness comes no matter how invisible or forgotten one may believe oneself to be. Interestingly enough, the tools she needs to find the truth about her sister’s death grow out of her isolation. I particularly enjoyed how Catherine’s love of classical paintings was her lens relating to the world around her. But from the first, Catherine has a confidence in her voice, one that demands deserved answers but also one that’s intensely inquisitive and intuitive. Though a slowburn of sorts, she makes an earnest and adept protagonist.
Sorrell allows her story to reveal itself steadily giving just enough clues for readers to stay comfortably alongside Catherine experiencing tensions with her. The setting of Shadow of Death gives us nuns, doctors, and lepers as suspects making it seem impossible there could be a murderer among the residents much less anything nefarious enough to warrant such an act. As we suspect, all is not what it seems. But such is the nature of murder mysteries, and alongside Sorrell’s thorough research and deep historical knowledge we read as a curious world is spun through her narrative. Lovers of mystery and historical fiction will certainly not be disappointed.
Jean Sorrell is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma and the University of Louisiana-Lafayette with a PhD in English-Creative Writing. She was editor of Classical Magazine, an instructor of Humanities and Life Writing at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, and author of screenplays and numerous articles. She resides in Lafayette, Louisiana.