"When Ghosts Come Home" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Updated: Sep 20, 2022
Set during four days in the fall of 1984, this murder mystery examines crime and forgiveness, the relationship of a father and daughter, race and history.
Winston Barnes is the 60-year-old sheriff of coastal Brunswick County, North Carolina. He has been sheriff for decades but now faces land developer Bradley Frye in a highly contested election. At home, he is caring for Marie his wife of 40 years who has been stricken by cancer a second time, and for their 26-year-old daughter Colleen who is grieving a recent miscarriage and contemplating the future of her marriage.
Cash opens the novel in the wee hours of the morning when Barnes hears a large plane flying too low and too late at the small local airport. The sheriff gets out of bed and looks out the back window in the direction of the airport but all he sees is what he usually sees, “the inky black roll of the water, the thin, ghostly silhouettes of pine trees.” He gets dressed and drives to the airport, despite his wife’s objections.
When he arrives at the runway, the headlights of his car shine on a World War II DC-3 cargo plane sitting sideways. No survivors can be found, and the plane has been stripped of its cargo. His flashlight reveals the body of a young local man with a bullet in his chest. He recognizes the deceased as Rodney Bellamy, a local African American with no criminal record and a wife and new baby at home.
Rodney is the son of Ed Bellamy, a history teacher in the local high school, and a former marine sniper in Vietnam. The sheriff knows Ed personally. Word of the tragic event spreads quickly across the county tearing open longstanding racial tensions. Suspense builds as shadowy FBI agent Tom Groom comes to town to assist the sheriff in solving the case.
Barnes’ political opponent Bradley Frye is a Rebel flag-flying bigot, a self-righteous, entitled entrepreneur who is destroying natural areas so he can get rich selling subdivision homes. Cash calls him a “good ol’ boy.” Bradley’s campaign capitalizes on the sensational crime, and he is likely to become the next sheriff unless Winston can solve the murder and the mystery of the empty airplane. A defeat for Sheriff Barnes would mean not only losing his job but also losing the health insurance that is covering his wife's cancer treatment. Cash’s description of the political courage of Winston Barnes as he struggles to defend the law and support his family amid horrifying harassment is especially gripping.
The sordid history and current tensions of the county are disclosed. Clues lead to the gradual revelation of the source of the mysterious disappearance of the cargo and the identity of the murderer.
This is Cash’s fourth novel, and it continues the exploration of race relations, justice, and grief found in his preceding work.
About the Author: Cash is the “New York Times “bestselling author of “A Land More Kind Than Home” and two other novels. He has won the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Book Award and the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for best novel. He is the Alumni-Author-in- Residence at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. William Morrow is the publisher of this 290-page novel.