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Beneath a Ruthless Sun

I listened to this on audiobook, after surgery, so the first few chapters are lost in a haze of painkillers. This made following the extensive cast of characters quite difficult at times--which isn't the book's fault. By the second day of listening I found myself engrossed in the question of what really happened in Lake County FL in the 50s and 60s, under the reign of Sheriff Willis McCall.

There are two layers to that question: what happened the night Blanche Knowles was raped? And what happened to turn justice so awry that no one was ever tried for the crime, but a man was held for a decade and a half without trial anyway? The book focuses more on the second question than the first, which I appreciated. I do like a solid true crime mystery, but more than that I want to know what it takes to frame someone for a crime and get away with it.

The answer is complex. There is a corrupt, power-hungry sheriff who is also a KKK leader with a private clubhouse full of extra-legal enforcers of racist norms ready to leap into action at his say-so. But a single bad apple wouldn't have been enough to railroad Jesse Daniels, and King doesn't let his gaze tunnel down on Sheriff McCall, as fascinating as that unapologetically white supremacist psyche could be. There are doctors and lawyers, deputies and lawmakers, and most importantly a system of laws, all working together to impose injustice. And that system of injustice, while racist as hell, doesn't benefit all white folks, or even all white men, equally. Many of the biggest losers in this particular case were white: Mrs. Knowles, who was deliberately denied any chance at actual justice for the crime done against her because it would have embarrassed her powerful husband, and Jesse Daniels, whose disability and economic class made him nearly as disposable as a black man.

The book gives a lot of background, from the economics of citrus growing to Florida's rough history of desegregation. King makes the delightful choice of tying everything together by following the career of a local white woman journalist, Mabel Norris Reese, who at one point is targeted by the KKK and forced to move out of the small town where the book's central crime was committed because of death threats and crosses burned on her lawn. Mabel's take-no-shit attitude makes up for the main disappointment of the book, which is that, in spite of the subtitle's promise, justice is never actually found.

This is a demanding book, with a ton of information in it. But it's well-written, and pairs well with other books on American justice, such as JUST MERCY by Bryan Stevenson, or Ava DuVernay's documentary "13th."


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