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The Bulletin
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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Black Duck

by Janet T. Lisle

From the time we first cheer Jack's larcenous adventures atop the beanstalk until, older but no wiser, we cozily settle in for an episode of “The Sopranos,” outlaws command our fascination. The more clever their capers and the more touching their clannish loyalties, the more willingly we romanticize their depredations. Lisle revisits an unsolved mystery from her own Rhode Island town—the gunning down of unarmed Prohibition rumrunners, possibly without warning, aboard their speedboat Black Duc k by the Coast Guard—and, in a compelling exercise in “What if?”, she leads readers through the Robin Hood-styled antics of local lads dodging an unpopular law into a fog of deceits that obscures ethics and truth like a coastal peasouper.

Ruben Hart and his friend Jeddy McKenzie, both fourteen years old in 1929, “followed gangland murders the same way we read the comics.” Finding a well-dressed corpse floating near the beach is at least as much a thrill as a shock, and after a quick pocket check reveals no identification, the boys make a call to the police station to alert Jeddy's dad, the police chief. Deputy Charlie Pope warns the boys to stay off the beach and arrives on the scene to investigate some three hours later. The body is gone, Chief McKenzie and Pope refuse to discuss the matter further, and so the boys pay a call on local recluse Tom Morrison to see if he knows anything about the missing body. He does: too much, in fact, and soon out-of-town thugs have ransacked Morrison's shack and crooked cop Pope is closely questioning Ruben about a “ticket” that might have been left on the corpse. Ruben has it, but he doesn't realize that the torn fifty-dollar bill is a rumrunner's proof of claim to an incoming shipment of hooch.

That Ruben holds a ticket coveted by criminals is more than enough to spur and sustain the tense action that ensues, and Lisle's carefully crafted telling, in which the now-elderly Ruben cagily reels out memories of his perilous adventures to David Peterson, a freshman with journalist aspirations, heightens suspense. There's more depth here than in an average middle-school chiller, though, and it lies in Lisle's portrayal of a community of everyday Joes that, having once flirted with the bootleg trade, becomes increasingly trapped in the escalating scope of operations. Many locals are initially proud of the small town rumrunners who crew the Black Duc k and happily assist in off-loading liquor in exchange for a few bucks and an evening's excitement. But small-time successes like the Black Duck attract bigger players from Boston, and then from the New York mob, and now even the hesitant are tempted, cajoled, or threatened into collusion. Ruben's father, respected manager of the general store, is forced by his boss and his “bosses” to ignore transport and storage of contraband; Jeddy's father is on the take; and the culture of corruption is so entrenched that a potential whistle-blower has nowhere safe to turn.

Who is ultimately responsible for the violence and ethical upheaval? Gangsters, certainly. And average citizens who, pressured by a pinched economy and inclined to obey only the laws they like, keep the bootlegging machinery well lubricated. But it's Jeddy's stiff-necked adherence to the letter of the law that, ironically, does the most harm; he tips the Coast Guard off to the Black Duck 's run, and an overzealous (vindictive? corrupt?) CG officer machine guns the pilot house. Finally, Ruben's decades of silence keep truth from reaching the light of day. At novel's end the body count stands at four, but collateral damage is strewn over the chapters in the form of abandoned standards and betrayed trusts. With the clarity of hindsight, Ruben cautions David, “People look back now and think those days were romantic, all high jinks and derring-do. They're mistaken.” Indeed they are. (Imprint information appears on p. 460.)

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer


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Cover image by Tony Sahara from Black Duck © 2006. Used by permission of Sleuth/Philomel Books.

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This page was last updated on June 1, 2006.