In the 1980s, a series of vintage WWII aircraft found their way onto small airfields – and, in at least one case, agricultural pasture – in Brunswick and Columbus counties carrying cargoes. drug.
For his fourth novel, Wilmington author Wiley Cash loosely adapts these details for a story of crime, racial prejudice, and family trauma.
“When Ghosts Come Home” opens the night before Halloween 1984, when a large, low-flying plane wakes Brunswick County Sheriff Winston Barnes. Suspecting an accident – the grassy county airfield on Oak Island is obviously too small for a large plane – he sets off to investigate.
What he finds is a crashed DC-3, its cargo doors open, its pilot and crew missing. Lying nearby, shot in the chest, is a young African-American man, the son of a beloved high school teacher and one of the county’s top civil rights leaders.
The cockpit has been carefully cleaned of fingerprints. Everything points to drug trafficking, but the dead man, Rodney Bellamy, had a well-paying job and a clean record, not the type to get involved in the scheme.
Barnes, a grizzled Korean War veteran, wants to solve this case. He’s in the political fight of his life, with the son of the county’s biggest developer running against him and spending a small fortune. He doesn’t care about the FBI costumes, introducing himself and treating him like Barney Fife. Then there is Bellamy’s wife, father and family. He owes it to them.
For Barnes, things are tough at home. His wife, Marie, has cancer. Their only daughter, Colleen, is estranged, though she shows up suddenly, still emotionally suffering from a stillbirth, her marriage on the rocks.
Clues are hard to find. Still, the key to the case could turn out to be the deceased’s brother-in-law, Jay, 14, who was exiled to Brunswick County from Atlanta after attempting to steal a bottle of MD 20/20 from a convenience store. .
Cash (“The Last Ballad”, “A Land More Kind Than Home”) writes a tense tale, and he’s adept at dealing with the darker side of human nature.
Sheriff Barnes reminds us of the southerners in Ron Rash’s books (“Above the Waterfall” or “One Foot in Eden”), men who live by their own moral code in an amoral landscape.
Beyond the detective genre, however, “When Ghosts Come Home” grapples with significant moral issues.
There is a subplot echoing Black Lives Matter. Night horsemen are terrorizing black residents in rural parts of the county, but some of Barnes’ MPs seem only interested in waking up homeowners for gun violations. Barnes must fight racism in his department. Meanwhile, the developer and his boy bulldoze swamps and wetlands to create more golf courses and housing estates, pushing back locals to make way for retirees from the North.
Cash, who has lived in Brunswick County, gives vivid details, although he enjoys playing with local geography. In this book, the county government complex migrates from Bolivia to “Boiling Springs”.
“When Ghosts Come Home” has its uneven moments. Colleen’s story sometimes feels like an intrusion, like notes for another novel entirely. At its best, however, Cash’s latest novel is compulsively readable. Like the hermit of Fort Fisher, he makes us think.
Ben Steelman can be reached at 910-616-1788 or at [email protected]
“WHEN THE GHOSTS COME HOME”
By Wiley Cash
William Morrow, $ 28.99