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by Carolyn Haines

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Carolyn Haines has written several acclaimed mysteries, but here she mines much darker, more serious territory, resulting in a suspenseful, lyrical, passionate and literary crime novel.


Carolyn Haines has written several acclaimed mysteries, but here she mines much darker, more serious territory, resulting in a suspenseful, lyrical, passionate and literary crime novel.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Far from Haines's fluffy Southern cozies in tone, if not geography, this thriller from the author of Crossed Bones aims at a noirish literary quality it only partly achieves. On the plus side are powerful scenes of suspense and a moody evocation of time and place. Eschewing anything so obvious as naming an actual date, Haines makes it clear through subtle clues that the action is happening just after the end of WWII. The entrenched racial structure of a small Mississippi town of that era is similarly well done. Chief among the novel's shortcomings is the heavy-handed rendering of the love story between a mixed-race beauty, Jade Dupree, and all-white deputy Frank Kimble. Other interracial relationships are integral to the story, but the tantalizing possibility of a strong unifying theme is lost in banality and cliche. After society queen Marlena Bramlett, Jade's white half-sister, is brutally raped and Marlena's young daughter kidnapped, the plot thickens like cold grits. Haines loses control as her story builds to a discordant conclusion, which could be setting up a sequel but otherwise fails to satisfy. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Gale Group
Publication date:
Thorndike Reviewers' Choice Series
Edition description:
Large Print Edition
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The black Cadillac convertible churned down the dirt road, whipping whirls of dust behind it. The car, low-slung and fast, disappeared behind a stand of dark pines, leaving the landscape unexplainably barren. In a pasture beside the road an old mule grazed on grass burned dry by a merciless sun. From the shadow of a leaning barn came the low of a cow. The car sped by them, almost a vision, leaving only the settling dust and the taste of scorched dirt.

Behind the wheel, Marlena Bramlett pushed dark sunglasses higher on a perfect nose. A white scarf protected her hair, except for her bangs, which bobbed in hair-sprayed curls on her forehead. The red-and-white striped shirt she wore hugged her breasts; darts emphasized her narrow waist. She drove as if her profile were the masthead on a ship.

Beside Marlena, standing in the middle of the seat, a six-year-old girl faced the wind. Brown pigtails, tipped with white bows, fluttered wildly behind the child.

“I see him!” Suzanna pointed up the road, her childish voice rising in excitement. “He’s there. He’s waiting for us.”

“Sit down,” Marlena told her daughter. “You act like a heathen.”

“Will he have olives? The ones with the red things inside?” Suzanna bounced up and down on the seat.

“I don’t know.” Marlena passed the back of her hand over her forehead, smoothing the blond curls that, only half an hour before, had been pinned to lie just so.

“Big Johnny lives on a red dirt road, and he tastes like chocolate,” Suzanna said.

“He gives you chocolate,”Marlena corrected. “And he thinks you’re very smart. But that’s our secret, remember? If you tell anyone, I mean anyone, you can never come with me again.” The car fell into shadow as it entered a thick grove of pines. The road narrowed, and sand grabbed at the wheels.

“I won’t tell.” Suzanna glanced at her mother, hurt. “I’d never tell on you.”

Marlena slowed the car, finally stopping. She pulled her daughter to her side. “I know you won’t tell. You’re the one who loves me best.” She kissed Suzanna’s cheek, then quickly brushed the fine dust from her daughter’s skin. “If I didn’t trust you, I wouldn’t bring you. Now let’s make sure we look good.” She turned the rearview mirror so she could check her ruby lipstick.

“Does Big Johnny really think I’m smart?” Suzanna twisted both pigtails in front of her chest. “He says I’m pretty, like you.”

“Does he really?” Marlena’s attention focused on the man half-hidden in the shadow of the car. She drove slowly abreast of the two-toned Chevy and stopped. The man sitting behind the wheel was tall, his black hair Bryllcremed back, white shirt unbuttoned at the collar. The ringless hand on the window was long and tanned, the nails neat. One finger thumped a rhythm.

“You’re late,” he said.

“I couldn’t get away. Lucas brought someone home for lunch.”

Suzanna felt the tension between the two adults. Big Johnny was angry. He looked hot, inside and out. His olive skin was slick with heat, his black eyes burning. If Johnny acted ugly to her mother, Marlena would be upset for days.

“I can count to a hundred,” Suzanna said.

“I’m sorry we’re late,” Marlena said. “I came as quickly as I could.”

“We brought some iced tea,” Suzanna said. Big Johnny loved iced tea. She held up the heavy gallon jar, lemons floating on top and ice rattling against the glass. “I’ve got glasses, too. And Mama dug worms for me.” At last she had Big Johnny’s attention.

“You brought worms?” His voice strained in an effort to be jolly. “Worms for Susie-Belle-Ring-o-ling.” Big Johnny got out of the car, his white teeth showing in a false smile. In his hand he carried a leather satchel. He went around to the passenger door and got in. Suzanna stood on the seat between the two adults, feeling suddenly trapped. Marlena put the car in gear and slowly drove away.

“I’ve missed you,” Marlena said, her hands on the wheel and her gaze on the dirt road that wound ahead of them through the pine forests. “Where’ve you been?”

“Up to Mendenhall and Magee, Collins and Hattiesburg. I had to take Lew’s route when he came down with the fever. I would have called, but I can’t.” His voice was bitter. “Your husband might answer the phone.”

Marlena glanced at him, and Suzanna saw the pleading in her eyes. “I’m sorry. That’s just the way things are.”

“I’m tired of the way things are.” Big Johnny stared straight ahead, his voice low.

Suzanna leaned against the seat. She could feel the hot leather, now dust-coated. She didn’t like it when her mother and Big Johnny were angry. She liked it when they laughed and teased each other, then her mother’s blue eyes sparked and she was beautiful and alive. When they were angry, the fun left her mother and only the hard, cold shell of her body was there.

“Mama said we could go fishing today,” Suzanna said. Usually Big Johnny liked it when they went fishing.

“I don’t have time.” Big Johnny’s voice was punishing.

“Please, Johnny.” Marlena turned to him. “I made an excuse to stay out for three hours. It’s hard for me to find that much time away.”

“I feel like I’m renting you. Watch the road,” he snapped.

“Don’t say things like that.”

“That’s the reality. I feel cheap.” Johnny pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, the air from the moving car pushing the smoke behind them. His laugh was harsh. “Isn’t that the best? I feel cheap. I want more, Marlena.”

There was a long silence that made Suzanna furious. She hated Big Johnny and she hated her father. They were stupid jackasses. She’d learned that word at school, and she was proud of it.

Finally, Marlena spoke. “I don’t have more to give right now, Johnny. If you’d like, I can take you back to your car.”

Suzanna watched the corner of her mother’s mouth, the tiny tuck in the lips and flesh. Her chin was trembling and in a moment her mother would be crying. In a flash of fury, Suzanna turned on the man beside her. “I hate you!” She drew back her foot and kicked, catching the man in the ribs. He made a strange sound and leaned forward.

“Suzanna!” Marlena slammed on the brakes and put the car into a skid. The Cadillac turned sideways, wheels making the sound of tearing as they slewed through the sand.

“Goddamn it!” Johnny leaned across the seat and grabbed the wheel. He gave it a vicious jerk. The car swung heavy and fast, then righted itself and stopped in the center of the road. “You could have killed us all!” His arm was around Suzanna’s legs, holding her as she braced her hands against the top of the windshield. “She would have been thrown out of the car if I hadn’t caught her.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Marlena’s head dipped to the steering wheel. “I don’t know why I’m alive,” she said. “I want to die.”

“Mama!” Suzanna struggled free of the man’s grip. “Mama, it’s okay. Don’t cry.” She hugged her mother’s shoulder and felt hatred again for the man beside her. She glared at him. “Fix it,” she demanded.

Johnny got out of the car and moved around to the driver’s side. Marlena slid over and leaned her face into Suzanna.

The car started smoothly and Johnny kept driving. He didn’t turn around. He didn’t say anything. He put one arm on the door and drove, the wind drying the sweat on his forehead.

Suzanna saw the shaded timber trail ahead even before Johnny slowed to turn. This was her favorite place to fish. The two-track road, wallowed out in mud holes, wound to the river. It was a slow, brown river with deep places darkened by rotting leaves and the trunks of trees caught in a swirl of currents and forever doomed to remain there. The day was hot enough to wade in the shallows, if her mother would let her. She couldn’t swim. No one had time to teach her.

After the car stopped, Suzanna got the fishing pole from the backseat and the worms in a can from the floorboard. She hated threading the worm on the hook, but Big Johnny had taught her how to do it, and he would mock her if she acted squeamish. She took the cane pole and the can of worms to the bank of the river.

“What was the Indian tribe that lived on this river?” Johnny asked her as he lifted his satchel from the floorboard.

“The Chickasawhay Indians. They were Choctaws,” Suzanna answered, unable to hide the thrill of being right. Every time they met, Big Johnny taught her something new, and then the next time he would quiz her on it. She always knew the answer, and she liked the way he smiled when she was right. “Mama, can I wade?”

Marlena walked to the edge of the river. About four feet from the bank a sandbar beckoned just below the surface of the lazy water. “No further than the sandbar,” she said. “And wear the life jacket.”

Suzanna’s jaw locked into place. “I hate that thing. It stinks. I can’t hold the fishing pole good. I won’t---”

“Then sit on the bank.” Johnny’s voice bit into her complaint.

She was stunned. Big Johnny never talked to her that way. That was how her father spoke to her. “I want to go home,” she said. She threw her pole to the ground. “I want to go home now.”

“Baby, you can wade to the sandbar,” Marlena said. She flashed a look at Johnny.

“I’m not wearing the life jacket.” Suzanna dared them to defy her.

“Okay, but don’t go any further than the sandbar.” Marlena got the jar of tea and a blanket. Johnny picked up the picnic basket that was covered with a cloth on the floorboard of the backseat. “We’re going to set up the picnic. We’ll eat after you catch three fish. Remember, call out to us before you come, okay?”

Suzanna nodded. She liked for them to leave so she could be alone. She sat on the bank of the river and removed her Keds. They were brand new, the white rubber around the soles still pristine. She’d gotten them at Marcel’s, the only clothing store in Drexel. The shoes had been a special present from her mother, something to wear for the rest of the summer.

She heard Johnny’s deep laughter and the sound of her mother’s squeal. They weren’t angry anymore. She turned back to the water. She was going to catch a mess of bream, but first she had to bait the hook.

She got a worm from the can, gripping the writhing creature tightly. Johnny had told her to cut the worms in half with a piece of broken glass, but she didn’t want to do that. She hooked the night crawler three times and threw the line into a dark pool by the bank. The red and white cork floated under a hanging branch where a huge fish swirled, hungry, in the dark water. Squinting her eyes against the glare on the water, she waited.

A copse of thick briars, dogwoods, privet, and huckleberry bushes hid her mother from view, but she could hear Marlena’s low laugh, the soft sound of pleasure she made. Suzanna knew to stay away. Big Johnny wouldn’t give her the treats he’d brought in his satchel if she disturbed them. Once, she’d asked her mother what they were doing. “I have a terrible pain, right here,” her mother had said, taking her hand and putting it between her breasts. “Sometimes, Johnny can touch that spot and make it better.”

Since that time, Susanna had worried that her mother would die. It was a fact that Marlena sometimes had trouble breathing in the woods. Susanna had heard her, more than once, heaving for air and making sharp noises in her throat as if a bone was stuck.

Suzanna’s cork bobbed in the water and she jerked it, pulling up a five-inch bream. The silvery fish arched and bucked as it dangled from the hook. A tiny drop of blood oozed down the silver scales of its head, fluttering in the moving gills.

Johnny had taught her to put the fish on the ground and to step on it with her shoe so that the sharp dorsal fins couldn’t prick her hand. Instead, though, she grasped the fish between her thumb and forefinger and worked the hook out of its mouth. There was a torn place below the bony structure of the lip. The fish opened and closed its mouth, gasping, losing the fight to live in the oxygen-rich air. She drew back her arm and threw the fish to the middle of the river. She’d lost her desire to catch dinner.

Putting her pole on the ground, she eased through the dead oak and sycamore leaves, finally dropping to her knees to crawl up to the huckleberry bushes. She’d promised never to do this. Had promised to keep all of this a secret from everyone, especially her father. Now her mother and Big Johnny were quiet. There was the sound of a long sigh, an exhale of contentment. She knelt at the base of the bushes and worked her hand into the dense foliage. When she pulled the lower branches aside, she saw her mother leaning against a tree trunk. Big Johnny’s head was dark against the pale white of her mother’s stomach and thighs. Her large breasts tipped toward his face, and as Suzanna watched, Big Johnny took one nipple in his mouth. Her mother tilted her head back, exposing the long, white throat that she covered each night with a milky lotion.

“My God, that feels good,” Marlena said.

“Let me show you what feels better,” Johnny said, his voice strangely full. He sat up and pulled her farther down the blue picnic cloth.

Suzanna gasped.

Big Johnny’s head came up, coyote eyes narrowed as he scanned the undergrowth. “Where’s that kid?” he asked. He rose to his knees. He still wore his pants but was shirtless. “If she’s not at the riverbank fishing, I’m going to give her the spanking she’s needed for the last five years.”

Suzanna backed out of the shrub and ran to the riverbank. She snatched up her baitless hook and threw it into the water, the splash of the cork sounding just as a limb crackled behind her.

Big Johnny didn’t say anything. She felt him standing behind her on the bank, towering over her. Suzanna kept her gaze focused on the water, thinking how the submerged sandbar was exactly the shape of her mother’s rounded hip.

Behind her another stick crackled. There was a grunt and the sound of someone crashing down the bank. She started to turn, intending to confront Big Johnny and tell him that she wanted none of the candy or bribes in his black satchel. She was going to tell her father about the fishing trips, and then Big Johnny would never dare to threaten her with a spanking again. Defiant, she turned, one pigtail brushing across her chest. She opened her mouth to speak.

A hand covered her mouth, the grip so hard it felt as if her jaw would pop out of place. Another hand grabbed her hair and snatched her off the ground. The cry that was smothered in her throat was part rage and part fear. She struggled against the cloth sack that was thrust over her head, and when she choked and sneezed at the flour that invaded her eyes and nose and mouth, she heard laughter.

“She’s a little hellcat,” a man said. She didn’t recognize the voice.

“Shut up and bring her.” Another man she didn’t know spoke. Where was Big Johnny? Where was her mother?

And then she was lifted, her back pressed to the man’s chest, his arm around her, squeezing too tightly. She started to scream, to cry out for her mother, but the cry was choked back in her throat by the cruel fingers of the man who held her. She flailed her arms and legs, finally jamming her heel as hard as she could into the man’s crotch. He doubled over in pain, but his grip didn’t loosen.

“You little bitch,” he ground into her ear.

The other man laughed. “Shut her up,” he said. “We don’t want the brat to spoil our surprise.”

Copyright © 2006 by Carolyn Haines

Meet the Author

Carolyn Haines was born and raised in Mississippi. The author of the Sarah Booth Delaney mysteries and several other novels, she lives in Alabama, where she writes, teaches, and tends to her horses. Visit her Web site at

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Penumbra 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 41 reviews.
Colleen08 More than 1 year ago
I would give this 3.5 stars for the ending, but I enjoyed the book overall, so I bumped it to a 4. Haines did a wonderful job depicting the south and racial influences of the past. Though highly disturbing at times because our world has become so modern when it comes to bi-racial relationships, the detail in writing is what took me back to a place in time where these kind of incidences occurred. I feel let down by the ending; the story was stopped very short; almost as if the writer was on a deadline and just had to put words on paper to turn it in and publish it. I would hope for a sequel to answer some questions and perhaps focus on the new relationship that begun between Jade and Frank.
magnoliafaye More than 1 year ago
When I finished this book, I wanted something I usually avoid...a sequel. The characters are so well developed they seem real and you want to know more and more about them. Good job, Ms. Haines. I really, really liked this one, and will now read the Bones series.
AvidReaderWG More than 1 year ago
Having long been a fan of Haines' "Bones" mystery series, I was excited to get my hands on Penumbra. And WOW, I was not disappointed. This was a much darker story that illustrated in heart breaking clarity the oppressive and stifling environment the 1950's deep South could be. Forbidden love, societal pressures, intense savagery born from hate and greed, gripping's all in here and I was deeply affected by the strength and courage of some characters contrasted to the cowardice and pure ugliness of others. In all honesty I wasn't completely satisfied at the story's end because I was left wanting just a little more but I know that in reality there isn't always the "happily ever after" that we all tend to hope for. Ms. Haines definitely has a talent with words and creating characters that I can really grab ahold of. This story may haunt me for a while.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I don't know why the first two reviewers either disliked this book or were lukewarm about it. I loved it, though the beginning was a bit slow. It was a mystery, but what I loved most about the novel were the well-developed characters. The story is set in 1952 Mississippi, with characters both white and black, with the central character a mulatto woman, Jade. I felt that the meshing of all the characters, various secrets, and the various mysteries that came together in the end were all well done. I do agree with one other reviewer that felt the ending was a bit rushed and disappointing. It more or less begged for a follow-up novel to settle some of the ragged ends and questions you were left with. That would be my only problem with this book, but it was well worth the read, even though it is not light and fluffy like Haines' 'Bones' series.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is great! Eventhough the subject of the book is sometimes taboo, Haines' characters and setting rang true for me. Black and white relations in the South had to clash somewhere and this book is it. The mystery and supernatural elements of the story kept me going until the very end. I can't wait for the sequel ( and I told the author so). This book could very well be a 5 star rating if there is a follow up but by itself, it leaves me to wonder at the end.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In the 1950s in Drexel, Mississippi, the color barrier remains rigidly in place with each race understanding their sphere. Jade Dupree is raised by her black adopted parents, Jonah and Ruth, although her biological mother is the very socially powerful white Lucille. Jade¿s half sister Marlena is married to the wealthiest and most powerful figures in town, Lucas Bramlet. Marlena treats Jade like a servant paying her for services rendered including watching her daughter Suzanna. --- Marlena accompanied by Suzanna meets her lover, a traveling salesman, by the river. However, men wearing masks attack them. Marlena is rushed to the hospital while Suzanna has vanished. Jade is there watching over Marlena but her husband is at home waiting for a ransom.. Jade has to be careful as some whites feel she needs to be reminded of her place and she has to be careful of the Peeping Tom who is stalking her. --- Carolyn Haines known for her lighthearted amusing paranormal mysteries has taken a 180 degree turn around with this dark foreboding historical suspense thriller. Readers see how bad things can get for Blacks living in a 1950¿s deep South small town even for a woman who could easily pass as white. The audience becomes absorbed with the historical tidbits, but soon the question of who assaulted the mother and daughter takes center stage especially in light of a spouse who does not seem to care what happens to his wife and daughter and whether Jade faces retribution for breaking the color barrier. Ms. Haines writes a strong period piece. --- Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Twists & turns. Shocking reveals, sad, held my interest. 238 pages
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Highly recommend!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I have read in some time. The characters were well developed and interesting. The plot was exciting from beginning to end. The writing was great. I have nothing bad to say. It was a great read and I highly reccomend it.
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CarmieJo More than 1 year ago
This mystery was a good read. It is set in the post WWII segregated south which adds depth to the story.
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christytilleryfrench More than 1 year ago
Post World War II, Jade Dupree owns her own beauty shop and is also the undertaker’s assistant in the small Southern town of Drexel, Mississippi. Jade is half-black, her white mother Lucille Longier having handed her over to her black handyman and his wife to raise. Jade’s white half-sister Marlena is married to Lucas Bramlett, the wealthiest man in Drexel. Although Jade’s skills as a hairdresser are sought after by the rich, white women of Drexel, she understands she will never be considered anything but black and these women are not above pointing this out. When Marlena is brutally raped and her daughter disappears, Jade begins to spend time with her sister, hoping to find out who raped her and where her daughter is. Sheriff’s deputy Frank Kimble is investigating the case and he and Jade share an attraction for one another which Frank is more than willing to pursue but Jade reluctant. Haines excels at portraying the temperamental atmosphere of a small Southern town’s racial infrastructure. There is a melancholy cast to the story, told from Jade’s point of view, that brings to heart the biases blacks faced during that era, as well as the prejudices some held against whites and their own race. The mystery isn’t a complex one and more tertiary to the story than the complexities of and interactions between characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ms. Haines has done it again. A Southern murder mystery set in a time period of the past. I recommend this book highly.
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