CANDLEMOTH is R.J. Ellory's fifth novel published in the US, but a decade ago his first of 11 in Europe. Each standalone is epic, cinematic in scope, and spans decades of characters' lives that often involve political corruption. This one is a metaphoric tale of America's consummate glory days and moral decay resulting from racial intolerance, assassinations of the Kennedys and King, and the Vietnam War, when "America felt like a clenched fist, a seized heart."
The publisher's comparisons to THE GREEN MILE relate only to Daniel Ford's prison life, the mechanical aspects. Ford is the symbolic vehicle in this complex, terrifying tapestry of respect and honor. He's on death row, convicted of slaughtering his best friend since 1952. At age six, "I met Nathan Verney at the edge of Lake Marion outside of Greenleaf, South Carolina." That improbable friendship causes racially motivated onslaughts against them throughout their lives.
In 1982, "two floors up from Hell," Ford narrates to prison priest John Rousseau events that led to his conviction for murdering Verney, an uncontested sentence. Ford recalls a host of people who influenced his life. Despite experiencing racial atrocities that only fused their friendship, and knowing he's days away from execution, Ford feels "there is some universal balance present in all things." Verney's father believes his innocence.
Rumored to be a witch, Eve Chantry tells childhood Ford, nocturnal "moths are attracted to light because they wish to be seen." The interracial young friends come to trust Eve and gain valuable insight. They learn what they've been told by prejudiced villagers is false, a lesson not yet appreciated by many in today's society.
Ford tells of early loves, Caroline Lanafeuille, and briefly, Linny Goldbourne, a corrupt congressman's daughter. "Linny possessed sufficient enthusiasm to make even armed robbery sound like a swell idea." Verney dodges the draft when Uncle Sam summons him to Vietnam, Ford in tow because of allegiance. On the lam from military police, they head to Florida instead of Canada. Verney deduces authorities assume two teens would travel the Underground Railroad route of a century before.
Linny comes back into Ford's life, after President Carter grants amnesty for the draft dodgers, and they return to South Carolina. She lives with them in the same house, and in the free love era, samples both components of the Oreo cookie. Despite color TV, their town is still black and white, hues on opposite ends of the spectrum. Predictably, things get dicey. Threats turn into attacks against Verney, "And the fact that [Ford] said nothing was therefore a contributory factor to his death."
En route to his execution, events unfold that bring the metaphor full circle. Is there a reprieve in the offing for America's moral decline, or is the hangman's noose already too tight?
This masterfully written "time capsule" examines through "Hindsight, our cruelest and most astute adviser" political and social issues that, for good or bad, define American culture today. It made me question all I learned growing up in the South in the '50s and '60s.
The recipient of nine literary awards and shortlisted for a dozen international accolades, Ellory took top prize in Holland's Crimezone Hall of Fame. He resides in Birmingham, England. Previous titles available in the US by Overlook Press are A Quiet Belief in Angels: A Novel, A Simple Act of Violence (my favorite), The Anniversary Man, and A Quiet Vendetta.
Candlemoth: A Thriller
Reviewed originally for Bookreporter by L. Dean Murphy