In May of 1857, the body of Duncan Skinner was found in a strip of woods along the edge of the plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, where he worked as an overseer. Although a coroner's jury initially ruled his death to be accidental, an investigation organized by planters from the community concluded that he had been murdered by three slaves acting under instructions from John McCallin, an Irish carpenter.
Now, almost a century and a half later, Michael Wayne has reopened the case to ask whether the men involved in the investigation arrived at the right verdict. Part essay on the art of historical detection, part seminar on the history of slavery and the Old South, Death of an Overseer is, above all, a murder mystery-a murder mystery that allows readers to sift through the surviving evidence themselves and come to their own conclusions about who killed Duncan Skinner and why.
Elements of class privilege, social ambition, interracial sex and violent death lend the flavor of a mystery to this crime story-cum-history about the brutal murder of an overseer, set on a Mississippi plantation in 1857. The main characters include the apparent instigator of the murder, John McCallin, an Irish-born carpenter and cotton gin builder who hoped to marry the widowed owner of the plantation; Dorcas, a slave and house servant who was his mistress of 15 years; three slaves who confess to the murder; and assorted blacks and whites of diverse status. The crime story is the matter of the first chapter. Following that, Wayne slips into the role of historiographer, presenting the evidence in original documents and reviewing the protocols of slavery, inheritance law and politics at the time. Although Wayne continues to refer to the characters, the work assumes the tone of a repetitious, academic lecture that's sometimes overtly pedagogical, sometimes collegial, and is not likely to hold the interest of general readers. After an account of McCallin's later years married to a black field hand, the book ends curiously with a fictional document written by Wayne: a letter to his son in which McCallin confesses to having consorted with slaveholders and dreamed of owning slaves, though he sees himself as a victim of the treachery of others. (Feb.) Forecast: Although blurbs from James McPherson and Catherine Clinton (author of Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars) give this book a trade gloss, with its four appendixes of primary documents, an essay on sources and suggestions for further reading, it is essentially a book for the classroom and amateur historians. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.