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Master of the Delta
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Master of the Delta

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by Thomas H. Cook

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In 1954 Mississippi, Jack Branch returns to his father’s Delta estate, Great Oaks, to perform an act of noblesse oblige: teaching at the local high school.While conducting a class on evil throughout history, Jack is shocked to discover that his unassuming student Eddie is the son of the Coed Killer, a notorious local murderer. Jack feels compelled to


In 1954 Mississippi, Jack Branch returns to his father’s Delta estate, Great Oaks, to perform an act of noblesse oblige: teaching at the local high school.While conducting a class on evil throughout history, Jack is shocked to discover that his unassuming student Eddie is the son of the Coed Killer, a notorious local murderer. Jack feels compelled to mentor the boy, encouraging Eddie to examine his father’s crime and using his own good name to open the doors that Eddie’s lineage can’t. But when the investigation turns in an unexpected direction, Jack finds himself questioning Eddie’s motives—and his own.

As the deadly consequences of Jack’s actions fall inescapably into place, Thomas H. Cook masterfully reveals the darker truths that lurk in the recesses of small-town lives and in the hearts of well-intentioned men.

Editorial Reviews

Dennis Drabelle
Cook…provides well-wrought characters, among them Branch's father, forever working on a biography of Lincoln, and Eddie Miller, a student of Branch's who has a particular interest in evil—his dad was known as the Coed Killer, a nickname well-deserved…This is a novel that rises above its rhetorical excesses.
—The Washington Post
Marilyn Stasio
Cook writes in a multiplicity of voices and time frames, and with a profusion of literary references that in another context might seem showy. But from the perspective of a learned narrator who has lived long enough to rue the day he tried to play God, the convolutions of both plot and thought—so tortured and twisted and ultimately so futile—are entirely in character. That's the romantic curse of living in a Cook novel, breathing in the regional melancholy and brooding on distant fathers and lost sons.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Edgar-winner Cook (Red Leaves) examines the slow collapse of a prominent Southern family in this magnificent tale of suspense set in 1954. Jack Branch, who's returned to his hometown of Lakeland, Miss., and taken a job at the same high school where his father once taught, is dismayed to learn that one of his students in his class on historical evil is the son of the town's infamous Coed Killer. Eddie Miller's father confessed to torturing and killing a local girl when Eddie was five, but died in jail before he could stand trial. Hoping to help Eddie step out of his father's shadow, Jack proposes that the boy write a research paper on the Coed Killer. Eddie is soon immersed in the project, which grows in scope until it encompasses the entire town's sordid past. When Jack's own father's history is brought into question, Jack realizes that he's started a fire he may be unable to control. Excerpts from transcripts of an old trial that slowly unfolds alongside Jack and Eddie's story heighten the drama. (June)

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Kirkus Reviews
A high-school teacher's course on evil through the ages bears unexpected present-day fruit. Before he shot himself and inflicted a head wound that turned him into a recluse, Jack Branch's father was a legendary teacher in Lakeland, Miss. To honor him and give something back to the community, Jack returns to Lakeland in 1954 to begin a stint in the classroom. There he designs a new course focusing on villains: Iago, Benedict Arnold, Jack the Ripper. Jack asks his students to each choose a subject for a report. Eddie Miller, a hitherto unremarkable student, wants to write a paper on his father, Luther Ray Miller, the so-called Coed Killer who abducted and murdered a Lakeland senior years earlier. Drawn for reasons he can scarcely explain to help the boy come to terms with his family demons, Jack is stunned when the boy's questions lead to Jack's own father, and ultimately to a catastrophe that Jack's narrative has been hinting at from the beginning. Cook, normally the master of the retrospective thriller (The Cloud of Unknowing, 2007, etc.), offers a case whose lack of tragic inevitability is only heightened by his insistence on heavy-handed Had-I-But-Known foreshadowing.
From the Publisher

"The plot is laced with unexpected twists, and Cook's writing is deeply atmospheric."--Associated Press

"[An] enthralling tale ... thrilling ..."--New York Times Book Review

"a joy to read ... nearly perfect."--Kansas City Star

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Master of the Delta
By Cook, Thomas H.
Harcourt Copyright © 2008 Cook, Thomas H.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780151012541


I was badly shaped by my good fortune and so failed to see the darkness and the things that darkness hides. Until the stark moment came, evil remained distant to me, mere lecture notes on the crimes of armies, mobs, and bloodthirsty individuals whose heinous acts I could thrillingly present to my captive audience of students.

For that reason, it wasn’t unusual that I was thinking of old King Herod that morning, the torment of his final days, his rotting genitals, how they’d swarmed with worms. It was a vision of guilt and punishment, of afflictions deserved by an abuser of power, and I knew that at some point during the coming semester I’d find a place for it in one of my lectures.

It was a bright April morning in 1954, a little less than one hundred years since the beginning of a conflict that had, by the time it ended, orphaned half the children of the South.

I was twenty-four years old, and for the last three years had taught at Lakeland High School. At that time, Lakeland was typically demarcated by race and class, with a splendid plantation district, where my father still lived, and a New South section where local tradesmen and shop owners congregated in modest one-story houses strung together on short, tree-lined streets. The workers who manned the town’s few factories resided in an area known as Townsend, and which consisted of small houses on equally small lots, though large enough toaccommodate the vague hint of a lawn. To the east of them lived that class of people for whom, as goes the ancient story, there has never been room at the inn, and which was known as the Bridges.

A Negro netherworld made up the east side of town, unknowable as Africa itself, and with nothing rising from it, at least not yet, save the fervent voices of its ministers and the singing of its choirs, both of which, during the long, languid summers of religious revival, were broadcast by loudspeakers mounted precariously in the trees gathered round their always freshly painted churches. During these humid evenings, their voices stretched as far north as the antebellum mansions where the Delta’s eternal rulers sat on their verandas, sipping iced tea and chuckling at the religious revelries of the "Nigra" preachers.

As a boy I’d sat with my father on just such a veranda, evenings that despite all that has happened since still hold a storied beauty for me. There was something calm and sure about them, and it would never have occurred to me that anything might shatter the sheer stability of it all, a father much admired, a son who seemed to please him, a family name everywhere revered and to which no act of dishonor had ever been ascribed. As a son I could not have imagined a more noble father than my own, save perhaps that fabled one who’d once cut down a cherry tree, then refused to tell a lie.

And so the event my father forever after called the "incident" took me completely by surprise, though he never failed to make clear that it had sprung from a long-standing affliction he called the "bottoms," black moods that for generations had stricken the Branches, both men and women: its family disease. The "incident" itself had occurred twelve years earlier, while I was at boarding school, and though I was still quite young, it should have suggested that I lived in a world whose unsteady underpinnings remained invisible—a walker on a pier whose rotten timbers lie hidden beneath the water.

But no such warning sounded in my mind, and so I sailed blithely on through boarding school and college, until at last I faced the decision of what to do with my life. As a fortunate son, I’d had many options, of course, including heading North, as my father suggested, and which had been his own early goal, though even this had not been as important as "writing a great novel," a hope he’d claimed to have abandoned long ago. I had no such grand ambition, however, and simply decided to mark my return to the Delta with an act of noblesse oblige.

I took a teaching job at Lakeland High School, and by that means hoped to render service to the people over whom my family, in concert with a few others equally highborn, had maintained a long dominion, and among whom it had flourished both before and after the Civil War. Thus I would follow in my father’s footsteps, for he had taught at Lakeland for nearly twenty years before the "incident." I saw no reason why I might not do the same. After all, I was the only son of an aristocratic family whose fortune still counted among its assets that romantic vision of the world without which, as romantics hold, nothing can be changed.

Three years later, I was still at Lakeland, now quite re-accustomed to the dreamy countryside through which I drove toward school each morning, the Spanish moss and winding estuaries, the morning mists that rose sleepily from swamps and streams, the strange phantasm of the Delta, the spectral quality of its ever-changing light.

It was a spring day, the one in question. One of my students described me this way:

Mr. Branch was already at the front of the class when I came in that morning. He said hi to us as we came in. He was smiling, like usual. He was a friendly person and it seemed like he enjoyed teaching school. In class, he liked to hear himself talk. The only strange thing about him was that he never came to the football games or basketball games like the other teachers did. Dirk said he thought he was better than us because he came from a rich family. Dirk said he looked down his nose at us. Maybe he did, but what I noticed is the way you couldn’t tell who he liked and who he didn’t like. At least before things changed, and he picked one to like the best. But he’d been at Lakeland three years by then.

Wendell Casey, Statement to Police

True enough, but there was something Wendell left out in his assessment. I was good at teaching, and knew I was good at it, a fact that was later officially recorded in court documents:

Mr. Titus: So you liked your occupation, Mr. Branch?

Mr. Branch: I believe it is a vocation, sir.

Mr. Titus: Fine, then. But you are a teacher, are you not?

Mr. Branch: Yes, I am.

Mr. Titus: And do you consider yourself a good teacher, Mr. Branch?

Mr. Branch: Yes, I do. Particularly for the kids at Lakeland.

Mr. Titus: Why particularly them?

I hadn’t had time to answer fully then.

Now I do.

I was a good teacher for the kids at Lakeland because I’d adapted my teaching style and course content to the kind of students they were, generally indifferent to formal learning and easily distracted, so that the real challenge was simply to engage them, keep their thoughts from drifting toward family troubles or the usual school gossip, or if not these, then into that white zone where nothing happened at all. My method was to add a shocking detail, bloody or macabre, though I’d found that tales of inconceivable stupidity also worked well, mostly by giving them a brief sense of superiority. They loved to hear about schemes they’d have seen through, blunders they wouldn’t have made. But there was a painful if unspoken self-awareness in their snickering derision, because in their hearts my students suspected that they were losers, too, deficient in some quality, some ingredient left out, ineffable but potent, the alchemic mystery of their lives.

That morning they arrived at Lakeland as they always had, some on buses, some in rattling cars, one in an old brown van that would later be quite thoroughly described:

It had a sloping front bumper and no hubcaps and all its rear windows had once been covered in black plastic torn from garbage bags and taped to the glass, and on that day it had carried a shovel and a bag of lime and had gone up an old logging road and gotten stuck in the mud and had come back down with mud all over the wheels and splattered across the sides, rocking and jolting because there’d been a bad rain and everything was glistening and slippery, and so the man behind the wheel was having trouble just keeping it on the road.

The young author of that passage no doubt walked to the building alone that morning, as he always had before, surrounded by other students, some moving singly, like himself, some pulled tightly in little knots of conversation. It was early spring, the first weeks of the last semester, the prospect of summer already crowding my students’ minds. They’d shed their coats and jackets, caps and scarves, along with the gloominess that is imposed by the bleak look of a Southern winter. By then the bare trees and low, overhanging clouds had given way to budding plants and bright blue skies so as I got out of my car and made my way toward the school that morning, I found all but invisible what would appear so clearly to me later on: the world behind this world, where the string of fate spins on, and she who cuts it is stone-blind.

Copyright © 2008 by Thomas H. Cook

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.


Excerpted from Master of the Delta by Cook, Thomas H. Copyright © 2008 by Cook, Thomas H.. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

THOMAS H. COOK is the author of twenty-one novels and two works of nonfiction. He has been nominated for the Edgar Award seven times in five different categories, including Best Novel for Red Leaves, which was also nominated for the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Duncan Lawrie Dagger and won the Barry for Best Novel. The Chatham School Affair won the Edgar for Best Novel. He lives in New York City and on Cape Cod.

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Master of the Delta 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
KiwiJR More than 1 year ago
Another one of my favorite authors. He has won a boatload of awards and all are well deserved. Pick ANY of his books at random and you will not be disappointed. This book, however, is my favorite. All of his books are chilling, disturbing, eerie, thoroughly researched and will leave you saying "wow." And you will never, ever guess the endings. Read them all, but start with this.
jenpalombi More than 1 year ago
I chose this book because it got a red-star review from Publisher's Weekly. And I am pleased to report that it really did turn out to be a good choice. My reading copy has earned a permanent spot on my library shelf. (This is the second highest honor I can give a book. The books that earn an Excellent rating are the ones that have inspired me to seek out a signed first edition for my library.) Set in a 1950's southern town, Master of the Delta is told in the first person from the point of view of Jack Branch, a privileged southern gentleman from a fine old plantation family. Jack has chosen to take on a life of "noblesse oblige" - teaching at the town's public school, as his father before him had done. There, he convinces the administration to allow him to teach a special curriculum class, "On Evil." Soon he learns that one of the underprivileged pupils in his class, Eddie Miller, is in fact the son of a notorious local murderer known as "The Coed Killer." When he assigns a term paper requiring each student to write about an evil person, he encourages the boy to write about his father in an attempt to help him face, and ultimately overcome, the demons of his family past. Jack takes the boy under his wing, but as their relationship deepens and they work together to uncover the past, they unwittingly set off a dark and tragic chain of events in the present that will forever change the lives of everyone involved. While I agree with PW that this book is a keeper, I must admit that I thought it got off to a VERY slow start. Loaded with heavy-handed foreshadowing in the form of future-flashes, the early chapters of this book were actually a bit frustrating to read, with purposely vague allusions to events that the reader is not yet able to follow or fully understand. But as the story gains momentum, the hints and allegations start to coalesce and readers find themselves drawn fully into this very good and very well written story. By the half-way point at least, it develops into "a page-turner." The narrative explores not only Jack's relationship with Eddie, but Eddie's relationships with his peers, Jack's relationship with his own reclusive and eccentric father, and, on a grander scale, the relationship between the classes themselves in a 1950's Delta society. While that sounds like a lot to undertake within the context of a single story, Cook in fact does equal justice to all of those relationships and the result is a must-read for fans of literary suspense. And while I never, EVER include spoilers in my reviews, I will say that there was one subtle twist in this story that I didn't see coming in spite of all the foreshadow-y details. the mark, I think, of a truly good book. This review originally appeared on my blog, The Lit Witch: A Book Blog.