In the summer of 1910 the Charleston police arrested Daniel Cornelius “Nealy” Duncan, a black man, for the murder of a Jewish merchant. In spite of his court-appointed attorney’s Atticus Finch-like efforts, Duncan was found guilty by a kangaroo court and was hanged. By all accounts an upright citizen, Duncan was to be married five days after his alleged crime. He went to his grave calmly declaring his innocence. In Dead Weight, former CBS News producer Batt Humphreys fills the gaps in Duncan’s story. By turns a romance, mystery, courtroom drama and history lesson, Dead Weight is a novel that makes the most of its exhaustive research and Humphreys’ seemingly natural ability to spin a nail-biting yarn.
Here are the facts: Twenty-three-year-old Nealy Duncan was arrested for a vicious attack on Rose Lubelsky, the widow of Jewish tailor Max Lubelsky who had himself been murdered in his King Street shop a fortnight before. Though post-slavery Charleston was a comparatively tolerant place, tension ran high between blacks and whites. A violent rift had also developed among the city’s large Jewish population over whether or not merchants should open on the Sabbath—the tailor and his wife were of the opinion that they should. Duncan, who had stopped by the Lubelskys’ shop to pick up his wedding suit, was almost certainly just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Immediately following his execution, a hurricane, known to this day as the “Duncan Storm,” devastated Charleston and its surrounding area.
From these facts, Humphreys creates a compelling novel. Through the diary-style entries of Hal Hinson, a fictional New York reporter, he conveys the beauty and charm of Charleston as well as its ugly, Jim Crow side. Hinson has been assigned the Duncan trial as punishment for offending an editor, but his interest in the case is piqued by the defendant’s apparent innocence. While trying to expose a corrupt legal system and possibly free Duncan, Hinson navigates Charleston’s long-held prejudices and daunting caste system, for which he is largely unprepared. Assisting him are a street urchin, Mojo, whom he befriends, and Randy Dumas, the powerful local madam with whom he falls in love. Both characters are fictional, though the courtroom testimony, the defending and prosecuting attorneys, and Duncan’s fiancée, Ida Lampkin, are taken from real life.
Good historical fiction has to negotiate the terrain between period accuracy and a tone that contemporary readers will find compelling. Dead Weight occasionally fails in this regard. Though there were certainly strong, progressive women in the post-war South, the madam Randy is particularly prone to feminist asides that strain credulity. On the other hand, Dead Weight‘s portrayal of a South caught between federal control and regional autonomy is as relevant today as it was fifty years after emancipation.
Admirably, Humphreys resists the urge to make too much of a messianic figure out of Duncan, though such a connection is alluded to in the reporter’s final dispatch, which describes the innocent’s death and cataclysmic storm that followed. Humphreys is a masterful storyteller. Throughout Dead Weight, he manages tension and release so as to pull the reader into the action. Combine that narrative control with Humphreys’ vivid descriptions of Charleston life (one of the dining sequences had me running to the pantry in search of grits), and Dead Weight is very hard to put down.
Batt Humphreys signs and discusses Dead Weight at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis on April 6 at 6 p.m. and at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville on April 7 at 7 p.m.