In Bolivar Manchenil, a black man of gargantuan size, a figure of high cunning yet sentimental temper who leads the forces of law on one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Douglass has created both an engaging hero and an agreeable narrator. As Manchenil describes how he solved the murder of Fordyce Wales, an empire-building mainlander whom many on the island had wished to see dead, he incidentally evokes the easy-going yet somewhat off-kilter spirit of his not quite post-colonial homeland—its mix of sun-drenched openheartedness and dark savagery, of egalitarian laws and hierarchical habits, of lazy equanimity and simmering resentment. Douglass, for a white man writing in the mid-1950s, demonstrates admirable skill and sensitivity in fashioning his tale around a detective of color who’s as acutely perceptive and as variously capable as Manchenil.
If only the same were true of the author’s outlook on women, which is nothing less than shocking. The worst display of this benighted attitude comes in the book’s final paragraph, but it retrospectively taints the entire story. Estralita, the Cuban-born wife of a Dutch planter, has a history of cuckolding him. According to the implicit logic of the novel, it was her scandalous behavior that let loose much of the evil that has afflicted Manchenil’s island. Now, as the narrator observes (and as the novel’s first paperback edition luridly shows), she receives what is supposedly her due: “Willem had beaten her, with a bull whip, and rubbed salt in her wounds. She walked beside him, not painfully, for the wounds had healed as well as they ever would, leaning on his arm as a wife should. But he had done a careful, scientific job. She would never tempt again.” On it goes for several sentences, adding nothing to the main narrative and undermining the authorial implication that all has been set right in the end.
Something else is left out of joint when the novel ends: Douglass alludes to a major clue that would tie together at least two strands of the murder plot, but he never fully explains that clue. Even as pure detection, therefore, Rebecca’s Pride falls short of its promise and ill serves the sharp, likable sleuth who stars in it.
[ADDENDUM: There appears to be nary a trace of substantive online commentary about this book—notwithstanding its status as a winner of the Edgar award for best first novel. If you Google the book title, you’ll find plenty of listings that pertain to the cover image featured here. The cover depicts the ugly scene that I cited in my review, and of course it’s a very arresting image. Information on Douglass is also hard to come by. Curiously, though, the German edition of Wikipedia has an entry on him.]