Friday, February 07, 2020

The Gone Dead - Chanelle Benz

Chanelle Benz makes her debut with The Gone Dead, a novel set deep in the Mississippi Delta near the turn of the twenty-first century (2002, to be exact). The novel begins with an interesting hook in which its main character Billie James, a young black woman, returns to the Delta to take possession of the shack of a home that once belonged to her father. Billie was only four years old when her father died, and she remembers almost nothing about that chaotic day. Now thirty-four years old, and returning to the South for the first time in thirty years, Billie is dangerously na├»ve about what to expect when she comes “home” to claim her property.   

All Billie knows is that her father died in some kind of bizarre accident near the old house – and that nobody, including her uncle and other family members, wants to talk about it. Although she had planned to stay in Mississippi for only a couple of weeks – a family reunion/ vacation kind of thing – Billie becomes so intrigued with the reluctance of anyone to tell her anything helpful about her father that she changes her plans. That’s when she makes a big mistake: she starts asking the kind of questions that make a whole lot of people so nervous that they want her to shut up and go away. And they are willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

Chanelle Benz
The Gone Dead is about race relations in the South during the Jim Crow era - a period that lasted well into the 1960s. The number one priority of Jim Crow laws was  segregation of the races, a policy that was enforced by threats of violence that often became reality for those blacks who dared try to change things for the better. Billie’s father, a poet, was one of those people who dreamed of better days, and Billie suspects that his accident may not have been exactly accidental. And now that she’s stirred up a hornet’s nest from the past, Billie may end up being a little accident-prone herself if she’s not careful.

Bottom Line: The Gone Dead is a good enough debut novel, but it really doesn’t break any new ground and the story starts to feel like one you’ve heard too many times already. Benz, though, has created some interesting characters here, Billie James among them, and it’s easy to root for them as they finally begin to realize just how deeply they gotten themselves into a situation that could cost them their lives. Really, this is a pretty good mystery – even if it has the kind of open-ended finale that will probably not please readers who like their mysteries to be wrapped up a little more tightly at the end.


  1. I remember going in to a cafe in McComb, Mississippi in the late sixties and seeing a donation jar on the counter (like for March of Dimes) for the KKK!

  2. Wow. That's the kind of thing that always shocked me about the South, even as a kid I wondered how people could be that full of hate.

    There's a little town near Beaumont called Vidor that has that kind of reputation to this day. It's all terribly sad.