Written by Ben H Winters – American journalist and teacher Ben H Winters started out writing the kind of literary mash-ups that were en vogue around the turn of the decade. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and Android Karenina were his entries. However, in the world of crime fiction, his novel The Last Policeman (2012) won the Edgar Award for best Paperback Original, and our erstwhile contributor mybookishways nominated it as her book of the year. Two more books in the series about an American policeman trying to continue with his duties in the event of catastrophe, Countdown City and World of Trouble, completed that well-regarded trilogy.
Now Winters is back with another high concept thriller, this time asking the question – what if slavery had never been abolished in the United States? In this alternate history, the union was preserved after the American Civil War, but the price of victory was compromise. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Carolina chose to continue with the practice which has been outlawed elsewhere and huge corporations profit from People Bound to Labor (peebs).
There is huge opposition to slavery elsewhere and many people in the so-called Free States are angry and embarrassed about it. Many peebs try to escape and run north to the Promised Land – Canada – with the help of sympathisers from the north, a network known as the Underground Airlines. The US Marshalls service is tasked with capturing the runners but time has taught them that most law enforcement agencies will at best not cooperate, and at worst aid the fugitives.
That’s where people like Victor come in. Victor is a Free Man now, but that freedom hangs by a thread. Victor was a peeb once, and then a fugitive, but after his capture was offered a choice – a return to slavery or a job hunting other fugitives. A microchip surgically inserted into his neck lets the US Marshalls know his location at all times and stops him running again.
As the novel begins, Victor is in Indianapolis trying to gain the trust of Father Barton. Victor is in character, pretending to have a wife in Labour who he wants to bring north, and Barton is thought to be active in the Airlines. Victor’s real purpose is catching a priority case, a runner thought to have been headed this way but details are uncertain. If Victor can establish his bona fides, he might get a line on the young man.
It is Victor who narrates the story and he has a fascinating voice. Clearly there is some cognitive dissonance as a result of his role, and as the novel begins he is all business. The case turns out to be anything but straightforward and as he works his way through it he begins to unravel. He realises more and more that he is being used (in an even worse way than he knew about), and increasingly his mask begins to slip. Visions of the night he escaped with his older brother, and the ruthlessness he needed to manage that, begin to distract him from his work. Victor starts taking risks he shouldn’t.
Underground Airlines is a powerful work, and in these current times, a topical and no doubt controversial one. Quite how a white American writing this story will be received remains to be seen. To his credit Winters makes no attempt to sugar-coat the barbarity of slavery, and he shows us not just the physical violence but the unvarnished ugliness of a mentality that seeks to strip people of their humanity and dignity. In a particularly chilling touch he shows us the Pantone-like colour-coding employed to describe slaves: “Late-summer honey, warm tone, #76” or “Moderate charcoal, brass highlights, #41”.
I am hard-pressed to find anything about this book to complain about. The only minor grudge is that near the end there is a suggestion of redemption for Victor, which feels like a deviation from the overall tone of the book. Perhaps that was a small compromise necessary for a mainstream publisher to back such a brave, controversial thriller.
Another book looking at race in America is Darktown, written by Thomas Mullen and due out in September. It was covered in our of feature of 2016’s most wanted crime books.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars