I always say Thomas H. Cook is a mystery writer and he is…but I think he is also so much more than that. Master of the Delta is my 8th outing with Cook and it didn’t disappoint, even though some of the themes were familiar. The novel has the propulsive energy of a mystery, a book with a thread of whodunit twined with a ribbon of ‘is this going to end like I think it’s going to end?’ And of course – nothing is ever quite what it seems. But Cook operates on another level and this is where I think he excels.
Master of the Delta is Jack Branch’s story. Branch is a twenty-three year old teacher who has returned to his hometown to teach at Lakeland High School. Branch has had a priviledged upbringing: he grew up at Great Oaks, one of the town’s massive plantation homes. It is 1954.
As a boy I’d sat with my father on just such a veranda, evenings that despite all that has happened since still hold a storied beauty for me. There was something calm and sure about them, and it would never have occurred to me that anything might shatter the sheer stability of it all, a father much admired, a son who seemed to please him, a family name everywhere revered and to which no act of dishonour had ever been ascribed.
Branch is a fussy young man – no, fussy isn’t the right word. He’s cocky. He believes his own hype. I don’t mean to say that he is without merit, but his youthful arrogance is partly to blame for events that haunt him for the rest of his life.
And that’s one of the cool things about Master of the Delta (and Cook’s novels in general). Cook always manages to weave past and present together seamlessly so Branch’s story is told as it unfolds, but also from the vantage point of Branch as a much older man – someone who is, from this vantage point at least, able to see his own character flaws.
Branch is teaching a course on evil through the ages and he discovers that one of his students, Eddie Miller, is the son of Luke Miller, the Coed Killer – a man who had killed a local girl and subsequently been killed in jail. Branch encourages Eddie to write a paper about his father. He feels it will help Eddie get out from under the weight of his awful heritage. So Eddie starts to research the father he barely remembers, but when this research reaches into his own life, Branch’s age and inexperience begin to show.
Really, Master of the Delta is a book about fathers and sons, about the part luck plays in how our lives turn out, about kindness and cruelty. It is a book that has something to say about teachers and books and as a teacher who loves books, I enjoyed that. I truly believe Cook is a masterful observor of human life – our weaknesses and our strengths. He might wrap it all up in a mystery, but I can’t think of anyone who does it better than he does.