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Mysteries, Race Intertwine in 'New England White'

Before he started writing novels, Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter wrote best-selling, nonfiction books about race, religion and politics.

So it wasn't surprising when his first work of fiction — the legal thriller The Emperor of Ocean Park — was packed with sharp and sometimes cutting observations about the same issues.

Carter's second thriller, New England White, also examines a circle of upper-class African Americans. And it, too, focuses on the fictional university town of Elm Harbor.

A strong sense of place is key, Carter tells Michele Norris.

"I think that any novel is more than just a story and characters. A good novel should always bring you somewhere," Carter says.

At the center of New England White is Julia Carlyle, a black woman who is dean at a university divinity school. Her West Indian husband, Lemaster, a successful judge and lawyer, has recently been named president of the university.

As the novel opens, the couple is on their way back from a dinner when they find a body; it turns out to be of an economist at the university who was also Julia Carlyle's former lover. The death of the economist converges with the murder of a girl in the town 30 years earlier, forming the mystery at the heart of the thriller.

Carter talks about the inherent scariness of New England college campuses, the important role of clubs in the social order in what he calls "African America," the difference between thrillers and mysteries, and why he hopes readers consider his book to be both.

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