A Calamity of Souls
April 30, 2024

Book Review

A Calamity of Souls

It’s 1968, and it’s been fourteen years since the United States Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools and four years since the Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation in public facilities, like drinking fountains and bathrooms.

This makes no difference in Freeman County, Virginia, where Whites and Blacks live on opposite sides of the McHenry River, and Blacks are expected to know their place.

Black maids and nannies can be seen working on the White side of town, but Black men are considered dangerous and not welcome in any occupation. Thus, it’s unusual for Black army veteran Jerome Washington to be employed by Anne and Leslie Randolph, one of the wealthiest and most prominent White couples in Freeman County. Jerome drives the elderly Randolphs around in their car, works in their yard, and repairs things around the property.

Jerome gets paid every Friday, forty dollars cash, which he needs for his wife and three children. One Friday, Jerome knocks on the Randolphs’ back door several times, and getting no answer, reluctantly ventures into the house.

Shortly afterward, Jerome is on his knees, his hands shackled behind his back, being viciously billy-clubbed by a white policeman, while another cop looks on. Anne and Leslie Randolph are in the dining room, dead and covered with blood. Jerome is arrested for murder, and in Freeman County, that means Jerome’s conviction is almost a certainty.

Even in Freeman County, however, a defendant is entitled to a lawyer, and White criminal defense attorney Jack Lee takes the case. Thirty-three-year-old Jack has always been aware of the unfair treatment of Blacks, vaguely thought it was wrong, but never did anything about it. Jack now has his chance, and he means to mount the best possible defense for Jerome Washington.

This infuriates White racists in Freeman County, and Jack is called names and violently attacked. Things get even more fraught when a female Black lawyer from Chicago, Desiree DuBose, becomes Jack’s co-counsel. Desiree works for the Legal Defense Fund and has spent her life fighting for Black rights.

The government stacks the deck against Jerome from the get-go. Working with representatives of segregationist George Wallace, who’s running for president, the state picks Virginia Attorney General Edmund Battle to prosecute Jerome, and Judge Josiah Ambrose to oversee the trial. This is massive firepower for an out-of-the-way town, and it’s clear the government has an agenda.

Though the odds are against them, Jack and Desiree mount a vigorous defense for Jerome. Along the way, they endure public hostility, threats, and violence.

Jack’s parents, Hilly and Frank, are ambivalent about Jack defending Jerome, and have other concerns as well. Jack’s older sister Lucy has the mind of a child, and Hilly—who had a dental procedure with nitrous oxide while she was pregnant—blames herself. And Jack’s father can barely stand to think about his son Jeff, a decorated soldier who had a crisis of conscience about Vietnam and deserted the army.

The book is a compelling courtroom drama and a realistic depiction of the struggle for Black civil rights. In his foreword, author David Baldacci explains that he grew up in Virginia during the 1960s and 1970s, and has personal knowledge of the racism, offensive language, and right-wing politics of the era.

Baldacci tries to temper the novel’s Jim Crow ugliness with the inclusion of a few touching scenes, but they feel contrived and unrealistic. That said, the book is a page-turner that’s well worth reading, especially since America still struggles with race relations.

Thanks to Netgalley, David Baldacci, and Grand Central Publishing for a copy of the book.

A Calamity of Souls is available at:

More Legal Thrillers


Legal Thriller Features