By Mark Ethridge
NewSouth Books, 2006
Reviewed by Julia Oliver
Probably not at all surprisingly to those who know him, North Carolina writer Mark Ethridge has made the crossover from award-winning, third-generation newspaperman to first-time novelist with grace and aplomb. Credited as having directed the Charlotte Observer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations of the textile industry and the PTL/Jim Bakker scandal, Ethridge studied as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and has written for many publications.
His protagonist, rookie reporter Matt Harper of the Charlotte Times (which presumably is the fictional counterpart of the Charlotte Observer), is invited by Brad Hall of Hirtsboro, a fictional town in South Carolina, to come there to investigate a racially motivated, long covered-up murder of a young boy. That part seems sadly familiar, but the defiant, segregation-forever mindset of Brad Hall’s wealthy, landowning father does not seem in sync with this day and age. The most convincing scenes occur inside the Charlotte newspaper building, described by Harper, the narrator, as “a place of fascinating people—writers, a few of them tortured; photographers, many of them off-the-wall; graphic designers, including the artistically temperamental; and copy editors, stern custodians of the purity of the Mother Tongue, many of them zealots.”
The fledgling journalist must first convince Editor Walker Burns to permit him to work on the Hirtsboro story, and then to let him write it in his own way. During this time, Harper also struggles with personal issues—the love he can’t quite commit to, and the fact that his soul-mate father is dying. Overall here, Ethridge appears to have found a comfortable sweet spot somewhere between the breakneck urgency of big city journalism and the more measured craft of tension-filled fiction writing.
The press material for this book includes impressive endorsements. John Katzenbach calls it “a thriller of the top order”; Pat Conroy says it’s as “evocative as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and...as riveting as the best Grisham courtroom thriller.” Doug Marlette notes, “Mark Ethridge’s Grievances captures the romance, intrigue, and sheer fun of good old-fashioned journalistic detective work.” Cassandra King advises the reader: “Do not pick up this book before bedtime or you’re liable to be up all night...” Heed those words. I finished the last page, 278, at 3:00 a.m.
Julia Oliver is a fiction writer and journalist in Montgomery.