Overseeing the Evil and the Good

Wiley Cash’s new novel weaves a tale of mystery

By Stephen E. Smith

It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read Wiley Cash’s previous bestselling novels — A Land More Kind Than Home, This Dark Road to Mercy and The Last Ballad — that his latest offering, When Ghosts Come Home, is a sophisticated, skillfully rendered mystery that focuses, despite being set in late October and early November 1984, on the personal, societal and racial conflicts that trouble Americans in the moment.

Cash, like most accomplished writers, is attuned to the environment from which he’s writing (even if the events he’s describing occurred decades ago), and he has, with good reason, consistently drawn on North Carolina as his setting of choice: He was born and raised in Gastonia, teaches at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and lives in or around the Wilmington/Oak Island area, the region of the state that serves as the locale for his latest mystery.

The coastal setting may be familiar to many North Carolina readers, but the story that unfolds has nothing to do with a family outing at the beach. If the region suggests tranquility, it’s also the source for the grisly ingredients that make for a good whodunit, and Cash’s leap-frogging narrative continually moves forward with an economy of style and structural tension that’s a balance of the familiar with the unexpected. Despite numerous twists and turns, Cash is always the consummate craftsman; not a word or gesture or errant piece of information proves irrelevant.

This storytelling acumen has earned for Cash the status as one of our state’s literary celebrities, and his latest novel places him among such luminaries as Fred Chappell, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle and Clyde Edgerton. If this suggests a degree of parochialism, it shouldn’t. Cash has earned national accolades aplenty. The Last Ballad was an American Library Association Book of the Year and received the Southern Book Prize, the Sir Walter Raleigh Award and the Weatherford Award — the list goes on and on.

Moreover, the characters he creates aren’t easy Southern stereotypes; they may live in an atmosphere troubled by shifting notions of race and social standing, and they are almost always dangerous to themselves and each other, but their view of the world is more comprehensive, more contemporary, than those of the usual Faulknerian rabble. If his characters exhibit anger, bigotry and violence — all in plentiful supply in the South — Cash never displays contempt for the foolish and unwashed, never sets himself up as arbiter. He simply oversees the evil and good, and allows his readers to make their final judgments based on their view of the available world.

The mystery opens with 63-year-old Winston Barnes, the Brunswick County sheriff and the novel’s protagonist, awakening to the roar of a low-flying aircraft approaching a little-used local airport on Oak Island. Barnes is at a crisis point in his life: His wife is being treated for cancer; his daughter’s marriage is failing after the loss of a child; he’s up for re-election in a few weeks — his prospects are less than promising; and he desperately needs the health insurance that comes with his job. He knows that the disturbance created by the aircraft is reason for concern, and that the publicity generated by his handling of any criminal activity on the island could be crucial to his re-election.

Cash’s strong sense of place is apparent when Barnes leaves home to investigate the downed aircraft, and his use of detail and small observations deftly and beautifully brings the moment into focus: “. . . Winston watched the light from the Caswell Beach lighthouse at the far eastern end of the island strafe the waterway in perfect increments. It flashed in his rearview mirror, and for a moment he could both see and feel its light in his eyes. . . . He had been at this exact spot on the bridge at night what must have been a million times over the years, and each time he felt like he was leaving the bright gleam of the lighthouse for the tiny spot of the beacon light, a light that was overwhelmed by the darkness of the mainland that waited for him in the woods across the water.”

As a young man, Cash took in those same sights on mornings when he drove to catch the ferry to Bald Head Island, where he worked as a lifeguard. “. . . when Sheriff Winston Barnes leaves home in the pre-dawn hours to drive to the airstrip to explore the sound he heard, he drives past dark, shuttered businesses, some of them closed for the off-season and others of them simply closed for the night,” Cash revealed in a recent pandemic/email interview. “I made this same drive every morning before dawn during the summer of 1998 when I was 20 and my parents had first moved to Oak Island. . . . I had to leave my parents’ house to catch the ferry to make it to a shift that began at 7 a.m. It was summer, and the island was incredibly busy, but I was always struck by how those pre-dawn hours were so still and haunting. We’d only recently moved to the island, and everything about it, especially at that early hour, felt strange and haunting. I was observing as an outsider because I didnt belong to it, and neither does Winston.”

When he arrives at the airstrip, Barnes discovers an abandoned DC-3 with its cargo hold empty. Not far from the plane, he happens upon the body of a local Black man, Rodney Bellamy, who has been shot in the chest. From these simple clues the mystery wholly unfolds, and the elements in this straightforward block of information play out in the novel’s action from beginning to end.

The essential characters are quickly introduced — Colleen, Barnes’ daughter; Jay, Rodney Bellamy’s teenage brother-in-law; Ed Bellamy, Rodney’s father and a former Marine sharpshooter; Deputy Billy Englehart, a furtive white supremacist; Bradley Frye, Barnes’ opponent in the upcoming election and the obvious antagonist; and FBI agents Roundtree, Rollins and Grooms, who have ostensibly been assigned to investigate any drug connections with the case. Add to these a cast of cameo characters who agitate the subplots and there’s much to consider by way of human imperfection — race, class, jealously, betrayal, old animosities, personal history — all of it churning up a jumble of possible suspects.

When Cash digs deep into his characters, he reveals the secrets that shape their prejudices, and the straightforward structure of the traditional mystery assumes a vaguely parabolic intent. Set in a time when, believe it or not, racial attitudes were less obvious, readers will sense that Cash is addressing the present racial tensions that plague America. This is no more apparent than in a scene that plays out between Barnes and Vicki, a long-time receptionist at the sheriff’s office. She’d received a deputy’s report concerning Klan members who have been cruising a Black neighborhood brandishing weapons and a Confederate flag, but she’d failed to pass this information on to Barnes, and he’s forced to confront her.

“She hesitated. Winston looked into her eyes, imagined her mind tossing around words and phrases she’d grown up hearing, long-held beliefs that she insisted on holding against Black men like Ed Bellamy and his dead son. Asking her to work against suspicions and beliefs so deeply held as to seem intrinsic to life was like asking Vicki to attempt the impossible task of separating her skin from her own skeleton.”

This epiphany must be similar to what many Americans have experienced in recent years. In a country divided against itself, we are suddenly forced to confront the frightening truth that underlies the attitudes and beliefs of once-trusted friends and acquaintances. 

“The awakening that Winston has to his secretary’s racial and cultural attitudes reflects the experiences that many of us — primarily white folks — have had over the past several years,” says Cash. “There was a time — especially in the South in the 1980s — when political and cultural attitudes were much more implicit, especially with Ronald Reagan sweeping 49 states in the 1984 election. But the past several years have caused those attitudes to become much more explicit, from the politics of vaccines and masks to carrying tiki torches when protesting the removal of monuments to storming the U.S. Capitol to overthrow American democracy. The attitudes and beliefs that were once below the surface have now become markedly apparent. Whether on social media or T-shirts or hats, we’re besieged by markers of political beliefs and cultural attitudes that align with or conflict with our own. And we’re not one bit interested in investigating the roots of our beliefs; we’re much more invested in ferreting out those who don’t agree with us.”

When Ghosts Come Home is a mystery that’s compelling in its suspense and topical intrigues. Cash creates a wealth of fully dimensional characters, and he permeates the novel with a melancholy that will leave readers wondering about an open-ended denouement that invites them, via a gentle authorial nudge, to participate in fleshing out the novel’s most brutal and unexpected consequence, an act of dehumanizing violence and betrayal that could only occur in the frightening world in which we now find ourselves.

When Ghosts Come Home will be in bookstores on Sept. 21. Wiley Cash will read from his novel and sign books at The Country Bookshop at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept 25.  PS

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.


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