Persia Cafe, by Melany Nielson

This is the fifth book that I bought at Once Upon A Crime in Minneapolis.
This is a mystery of sorts, but it features neither a cop nor a PI nor even an amateur investigator. But a crime occurs, what we would now call a hate crime, although in the time and place of the story - Mississippi in the 1960s - such a term did not exist. The principal character is a young white woman, Fannie Leary, who runs the Persia Cafe. At the start of the story, the Persia Cafe is the only place in town to eat out or even have coffee and it is patronised by whites only. The cook, of course, is black, and in the way of white families in the South, because she has worked for Fannie's family all her life, she is in the sort of relationship with them that I will not even try to describe, because you cannot understand it unless you experience it. This is the relationship that my ex-father-in-law and others of his ilk referred to when they said "We care for our nigras," in a tone and context that made it clear that "yankees" and outsiders cared not for their own nigras and were exposing them to harm. But if a black person did something to put himself outside their "protection", well, that is a relationship that it is also hard to understand, except in terms of pure evil, the natural predatory nature of the human beast coming out.
The main arc of this story is what used to happen when a white woman did something to put herself outside the protection of the Southern white men. Fannie does not quite declare herself a race traitor (as I did myself in the 1960s in suburban Atlanta, and if I had done the same in Mississippi, I may not have grown up to tell about it.) But her crime of omission is enough to get the Persia Cafe boycotted by the white community, so in a moment of supreme courage, she invites the black community to dinner at the cafe.
What we get at this point is a great picture of a small southern community on the cusp of change. Having lived through this era and this place, I can attest that the picture is accurate and believable. Oh, and Fannie solves the crime, too, the original crime, which does turn out to be murder. This is a great story, a cut above the genre.

No comments: