At Ole Miss during the 1960’s, a fraternity boy would simmer in silence when he lost a rigged game of poker, but might take vengeance if he saw the cardsharp wearing starched and pressed khakis when he himself had to wear wrinkled pants.
In present-day Jackson, a graying matron who plays bridge and fusses over her lawn might kill to preserve a secret from her days as a sorority girl.
A statewide real-estate empire, doing very well in Oxford and the Gulf Coast, might give ample cover for a series of crimes.
“Oxford’s not like Jackson. Folks up here aren’t used to a dead body showing up for the whole world to see.”
These are four shrewd observations that underpin The Five Manners of Death, by Darden North, a mystery that zigzags between two different levels of Mississippi’s consciousness.
The title draws on the ways in which coroners classify death – as homicide, suicide, accidental, natural, or unclassified. Over the course of the book, numerous deaths will test these categories. There will be a shooting during a stick-up, a shooting in self-defense, a suicide by gunshot, a drug-dealing pharmacist found overdosed in her condominium, an elderly man who drops dead in the street, an allergic reaction to bee venom, an assault that leaves a body floating in the James W. Silver Pond on Sorority Row, and a “recognized, but rare, complication of advanced infertility drugs” (the author is an obstetrician and gynecologist) – to all of which must be added a skeleton unearthed during construction on campus.
In early chapters, the book unwinds slowly. North often lets his characters talk too long. And while all mysteries begin as puzzles, it can be confusing when North cuts back and forth among a slew of characters – some of whom will die, some of whom are killers, some of whom will solve the crimes.
The book finds itself when the author looks back fifty years, to a dorm room at Ole Miss in the fall of 1965. From this point, North’s characters show that he can draw from life and his plotting shows that he can pace a narrative. His details evoke college life from that past era, a time when entering freshmen had their heads shaved, and dormitory monitors walked the hallways in the evenings. (Doctors in Jackson will also find hospital scenes authoritatively drawn.)
The Five Manners of Death follows other thrillers and mysteries that North has written, sharing characters with his Iraqi War thriller Wiggle Room. Alumni may debate whether students who watched Tommy James run touchdowns could have ordered pizza from Kiamie’s or from Pasquale’s, or indeed whether Pasquale’s at that time was still Dee’s. They will revel in the local color, and they will find the plot twists worthy of John Grisham.
Allen Boyer grew up on the Ole Miss campus. He lives and writes on Staten Island. His new book, “Rocky Boyer’s War,” was published last month by the Naval Institute Press.