George Dawes Green made a huge splash onto the literary scene with his mid-1990s bestsellers, The Caveman’s Valentine and The Juror. The release of his critically acclaimed third novel, Ravens, came 14 years later. And now, 13 years after that, Green is back with the intriguing and immersive The Kingdoms of Savannah, a darkly mesmerizing mystery that will enthrall readers with its original premise and characters as Green escorts them through the titular city’s glittering society circles, criminal underworld and extensive homeless community, all rife with terrible secrets past and present.
While Savannah, Georgia, has, as one character muses, “all the conviviality and the outrageous beauty and the characters and the sunlight and the aromas,” it also “rests upon a bed of history so vile no novelist could invent it,” as the author writes in a note at the book’s beginning. What Green did invent, though, is the wealthy and powerful Musgroves, a white family whose roots in the city reach back to the 1800s. When Luke, a young man experiencing homelessness, is found stabbed to death in a decrepit building and his friend Stony, a 43-year-old Black woman who works as a contract archaeologist, goes missing, Morgana Musgrove is hired to investigate. (One of her late husband’s many businesses was a detective agency, you see.) The owner of the building where Luke’s body was found is the mobster-esque Archie Guzman, and he’s offering a lot of money for answers as to what happened. But why does Guzman care about Luke and Stony? And why is he insisting Morgana play detective?
Morgana’s granddaughter Jaq, an amateur documentarian, and estranged son Ransom, who’s been living at an encampment under the highway, join her on the case. The trio pingpongs off one another in ways that are both entertaining and poignant, their different life experiences and painful histories affecting how they see both one another and the case. Family secrets bubble up to the surface even as the trio ignores ruffled society-people feathers and you’d-better-back-off threats. Green follows Morgana, Jaq and Ransom on their quest for truth, moving between marvelous mansions and homeless encampments, police stations and dive bars. All the while, ghost-tour carriages rattle by in the background, serving as chilling reminders of tragedy twisted into glib entertainment.
Green’s historical notes at the end of the book offer fascinating details about the real-life people and events that inspired him to write The Kingdoms of Savannah, which is a masterful and multifaceted work: finely crafted mystery, thought-provoking social commentary and an indelible portrait of a complicated city.