The latest books from Richmond-based writers Ann McMillan and Agymah Kamau 

Local Literati

Viking has released the second in local writer Ann McMillan's series of Civil War mysteries "Angel Trumpet" ($22.95).This time, she constructs a complicated plot line using the same characters we met in the first volume: the widow Narcissa Powers, Judah Daniel the black "healer," the surgeon Dr. Cameron Archer, and English journalist Brit Wallace.

For mystery lovers, McMillan has woven a story of the murder of whites in their plantation homes. And she has placed these murders in a culture that fears, with good reason, the hatred of the slaves who long for freedom. Still, she shows that this mutual distrust between black and white is not the whole story — in each society there is enough sin to go around.

For history buffs, McMillan has obviously done extensive research to give the reader a feel for the way life was in Richmond during the war. She tells us something of the secret ways the blacks used to help their friends and relatives escape to the North, and she shows us also the automatic reaction of the whites to murder: a belief that blacks were surely guilty of almost any crime.

"Angel Trumpet" is a good addition to the genre of historical mysteries which have found a wide audience. We can look forward to a third book about these same characters. McMillan says she is working frantically to have the third ready for publication next fall — Rozanne Epps

In the opening pages of "Pictures of a Dying Man" (Coffee House Press, $23.95), the new novel by Richmonder Agymah Kamau, we learn that Gladstone Augustus "Gabby" Belle, former deputy prime minister of a newly liberated Caribbean island, former "envoy to this and ambassador of that," and former boyhood friend of the narrator, has apparently hanged himself. What follows is a mix of narration (in the narrator's own voice and in the voices of the many who knew Belle) and of Belle's chilling diary entries and image-filled poetry.

It is interesting reading in what it reveals of the post-colonial era in the Caribbean. But in the months before Belle's apparent suicide, the narrator, a village schoolteacher, has been having an affair with Isamina, Belle's wife. Belle himself has been having his own affairs and has been accused of raping his illegitimate daughter. Finally, although Belle resigned his government position months before his apparent suicide, in his political life he was connected with "political gangsters," and talk is that he may have become another of their victims. So "Pictures of a Dying Man" works on one level as a complex, though predictable, study of a culture, but moves to a more satisfying though disturbing meditation on the human condition, a poignant, compelling study of the nature of identity, of estrangement from family and friends, from one's roots, from one's youth. It's told from the perspective of a man haunted by guilt and remorse, trying to find the meaning in his own life even as he searches for meaning in the life of another.

In this satisfying follow-up to his acclaimed "Flickering Shadows," Kamau constructs a worthy addition to Western literature. — Jeff Lodge

Heads-up: In time for your Christmas gift list, the University Press at Virginia and the University Bookstore have published "The University of Virginia: A Pictorial History" by Susan Tyler Hitchcock. It's a coffee-table book with handsome photographs: It begins with a chapter on Jefferson's vision for the university, and in the final chapter a photograph of civil rights leader Julian Bond makes clear a commitment to the education of all Virginians. Perfect for any alum's wish list. — R.G.E.

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