Sunday, December 12, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Plantation Mystery

I think it must have been the mid-80s when I thought of this plot, which research relevant to the lesbian western has brought back to mind. In order to have its full impact, this would have to be done much as I've done the western, with intense research and a ruthless pruning off of modern assumptions about who people were in the past.

The setting is a plantation in the Deep South during the height of the slave culture and economy; no later than the 50s. To do it right, a specific year and area should be selected and all the details should be structured around real conditions at the time - real public issues, real weather, real behavior, real crops, as gleaned from newspapers. Since my husband (who I hadn't married yet) is from Atlanta and we were still sorting out how the rest of our lives should go, I was considering this as a story I could write if we wound up moving back to his old stomping grounds, so call it north Georgia; but really anything from Virginia to northern Florida north-to-south and the Carolinas to Louisiana east-to-west would do. Not East Texas, which didn't start to develop the big plantation culture till it was too late to bring it to full flower.

The economic basis of the plantation is of course agriculture, the labor of which is performed by field hands. The social basis of the plantation is the Big House and its extended family - the Patriarch, the Matriarch, the maiden aunt, the heir, the daughters in need of marrying off, and the house slaves. Everyone knows that most of the house slaves are related one way or another to the white family, but no one talks about it. The Patriarch is respected, level-headed, a bit of an autocrat. The Matriarch is kindly, busy, self-sacrificing, and loved by all. The family is full of little family conflicts, the neighborhood is full of business and romantic complications, the slaves are everywhere - carrying secret love notes, cooking, cleaning, sympathizing, minding the children, seeing all.

At a time when the house harbors an intimate stranger, the Patriarch dies and most of the rest of the household gets sick. The stranger - perhaps a cousin from England, perhaps a governess, NOT a Yankee - realizes that the family has been poisoned. The obvious suspects are the slaves, and it's tempting to blurt out the news; but the country is in an unsettled state. Accusations of poisoning against slaves are likely to spark a slave revolt panic (this happened regularly in antebellum times; newspaper rhetoric seesaws from "our slaves are all happy, loving members of our families and we treat them well" to "our slaves are miserable rebellious miscreants who must be dealt with firmly or they'll kill us all in our beds" without any appearance of irony, sometimes within the same paragraph) and cause undesirable consequences, so the intimate stranger sets about her own investigation.

She discovers plenty of motive against the Patriarch in the slave quarters, dating back decades, but nothing that should trigger a vendetta now; and she has to get most of her information by indirect methods, for the slaves - having decent senses of self-preservation - are all expert liars. This search leads her into dark places in the family, and in her society, that she'd rather not see; and also reveals all the motives the rest of the family had to off the Patriarch. All the physical evidence is also more easily linked to white people than to slaves. In the end, she learns that the Matriarch is the culprit. Her kindly manner is a cultural overlay on a seething mass of repressed anger; her pose of delicate ease is the topmost chore on a life of endless toil babymaking, running a household in which she has no real power, meeting cultural demands, and pretending not to know things she's not supposed to know that happen right in front of her. She hasn't gone mad with the stress; that would be too simple. She's just found all of her choices to be impossible, and murder of her husband to be the least impossible of them.

Don't be fooled by the two Edgar nominations. I'm not really a mystery writer at heart, and probably couldn't have written this even if we'd moved to Atlanta. And it probably wouldn't sell well because the whole point of it would be to portray plantation culture honestly, with neither Southern nostalgia nor easy modern contempt. The accommodations good people made with an evil system and competent adults made with a system that insisted on treating them as incompetent children; the ways in which the powerless turned on each other; the ways in which power relationships poison personal ones without always destroying them - we live with this legacy and we find ourselves daily in parallel positions.

But nobody wants to admit it.

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