Authors: Thomas H. Cook
“Cook has crafted a novel of stunning power, with a climax that is so unexpected the reader may think he has cheated. But there is no cheating here, only excellent storytelling.”
“Cook’s writing is distinguished by finely cadenced prose, superior narrative skills, and the author’s patient love for the doomed characters who are the object of his attention.… Highly recommended.”
“Gripping.… The simple plot becomes more than the sum of its parts—a haunting evocation that gains power and resonance with each twist of its spiral-like narration.”
“Cook is a gifted writer, and here he infuses every page with the kind of melancholy that has defined the southern gothic novel for years.”
“I’m a pure fool for the kind of cadenced, melancholy, distanced-in-time prose that Cook uses here. It reminds me of
To Kill A Mockingbird.…
This is the best crime novel I’ve read so far in 1995 against some strong opposition, and it may well be the best on December 31st. Cook does a superb job of building and maintaining an almost relentless suspense from the opening paragraphs to the final few pages of the book. You’ll think you know who (and maybe you do) and you’ll think you know why (and I suppose it’s possible); but trust me, you won’t have guessed everything.
is one of the best written and most marvelously crafted books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s dark, and it’s sad, and it’s very, very good, a personal best from a fine writer. Read it.”
“One of Cook’s most evocative, captivating and haunting [novels]…. Cook is a truly lyrical writer.…
is a book to read slowly and savor, but it is so compelling that readers will be turning the pages as fast as they can. This haunting story will stay with you long after you’ve read the last page and reluctantly set it aside.”
“A thrilling story of close to unbearable suspense.”
The Neshoba Democrat
“An opening line to rival the best. A story that also rivals the best.
is first and foremost an outstanding mystery, but it is also a distinguished novel.”
“A seductive mood piece.”
The New York Times Book Review
“There’s something Conroyesque in Thomas H. Cook’s
.… A book to be read for the intensity of its plot and the beauty of its words. This is a rare combination from any author, but Cook manages to pull it off. A triumph.”
The Rockdale Citizen
“The writing here is extraordinary.… A haunting read that will stay with you a long, long time.”
Contra Costa Times
“In the style of Pat Conroy, Thomas Cook poetically weaves a tapestry of love and deceit that will not soon be forgotten.”
San Antonio Express-News
THE CHATHAM SCHOOL AFFAIR
And coming in hardcover from Bantam Books:
Available from Bantam Books
This edition contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition. NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.
A Bantam Book
Bantam hardcover edition published July 1995
Bantam paperback edition / August 1996
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1995 by Thomas H. Cook.
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For Susan Terner
Through the darkness,
still at my side.
HIS IS THE DARKEST STORY THAT I EVER HEARD. AND ALL
my life I have labored not to tell it.
It goes with gray clouds and heavy rain, and when I remember it, I see her feet running over sodden ground. But actually the sun was full and bright the day it happened, and the kudzu vines they found tangled around her legs were thick and green at the end of a long spring growth. In fact, the vegetation had become so thick on the mountainside by then that even from a short distance it would have been hard to hear all that went on that afternoon, all that was said and done.
And yet there are times when I do hear certain things very distinctly: her body plunging through the undergrowth, birds fluttering from their nests, a frantic scurrying through the leaves and shrubs as small landbound creatures rush away, panicked by the same alarm that has disturbed the birds.
From time to time, though rarely, I actually hear her voice. It is faint, but persistent. Sometimes it comes in the form of a question:
Why are you doing this to me?
Since then there have been many summers as beautiful
as that one more than thirty years ago, and yet there is none I can recall as vividly. I remember the way the azaleas had flowered in a fiery brilliance, their red and white blooms like small explosions just above the ground, how delicate pink fluffs had hung from the mimosas, how even the great magnolias appeared to strain beneath their burden of unscented blooms. More than anything, I remember how the violets had overflowed every garden wall and window box, flooding the town with a torrent of purple flowers and filling the air with their powdery, sweet smell.
Many times during the years that have passed since then, my friend Luke Duchamp has commented on how exquisite the world seemed that afternoon. He means the flowers, of course, but there has always been an edgy tension, a sense of unanswered questions, couched within his description of that resplendent summer day.
He last mentioned it only a few days ago, and as he did so, I once again felt the truth approach me like a dark figure, grim, threatening, determined to do me harm. We’d just come from one of the many funerals that punctuate small-town life, though this one had been more significant than most, since it was Kelli’s mother who had died. We had attended it together, then returned to my house to have a glass of tea, the two of us sitting on my front porch as the sun slowly lowered over the distant range of mountains.
Luke took a quick sip from the glass, then let it drift down toward his lap. He looked thoughtful, but agitated as well, his mind no doubt recalling what he’d seen so long ago. “It’s still hard to believe that someone could do something like that,” he said.
He meant to Kelli Troy, of course, and so I answered with my stock reply. “Yes, it is.”
His eyes were fixed on the high wall of the mountain, as if clinging to it for support, and his face took on that odd stillness that always comes over it when he begins
to think about it all again. “Hard to believe,” he repeated after a moment.
I nodded silently, unable to add anything further, unable, despite all these many years, to relieve the burden of his doubt, offer him that truth which is said to set us free.
“An awful thing for a teenage boy to see,” he added quietly.
In my mind I saw Kelli’s body as Luke had seen it, lying facedown on the forest floor, her long, curly hair splayed out around her head, a single arm reaching up toward the crest of the slope. I could hear Mr. Bailey’s voice ring out as he’d displayed the last photograph to the jury.
This is what was done to her
And as I recalled it all, I felt that Luke was right, that it
hard to believe that such a thing could have happened, that she could have ended up in such disarray, with her white dress soiled and her hair littered with debris, her right arm stretched out, palm down, fingers curled, as if she were still crawling desperately up the slope.
“I still can’t imagine why,” Luke said softly, though not exactly to himself. His eyes shot over to me. “Can you, Ben?”
His eyes were motionless as they stared at me, and I knew that I had to answer quickly in order to deflect all those other questions that have taunted him through the years, colored his view of life, darkening its atmosphere.
“Hate,” I said.
It was the same answer Mr. Bailey had given so many years before, and I could easily remember the way he’d held the photograph up before the jury, his words washing over them, high and passionate, filled with his righteous anger.
This is what was done to her. Only hate can do a thing like this
Luke continued to watch me steadily. “Maybe so,”
he said. “But you know, Ben, I’ve never quite believed that explanation.”
“Because there wasn’t all that much hate,” Luke said. “Even here. Even then.”
Here. Then. Choctaw, Alabama. May 1962.
At those times when I feel night come toward me like something closing in for the kill, I recall that vanished time and place. In memory, it seems kinder than the one that followed it, but I know that it was not. It was closed and narrow, a small-town world where nothing towered above us but the mountains and the churchhouse spires, nor loomed in distances more vast than those that separated us from the next village streets. Most of the seven thousand people who lived in Choctaw had either been born at the local hospital or in one of the hundreds of farmhouses that spread out along the valley on either side of the town. It was a Protestant world, entirely without Catholics or Jews, a white world despite the small black population that lived, as if in a vague netherworld, on the far side of town. More than anything, it was a world in which we trusted only people exactly like ourselves. And so, when I imagine Kelli plunging through the green, I sometimes see her not as she was that day, a young girl running desperately from the sudden violence of a single person, but as a stranger, wrongly accused and set upon by a huge, howling mob.