Out From Silence, A Thornton Mystery by C.L. Tolbert-Book Review (Part I: Mystery Writers)
After graduating with my MFA last year, I was looking for a workshop group and ended up joining Atlanta Writers Club. One of the member perks is access to writing workshop groups. I was super lucky to find a wonderfully diverse group of women writers on the first round and this is where I met Cynthia Tolbert, author of Out From Silence. The group is currently reading her second novel in a series of three Thornton Mysteries she is under contract to write. One per year, ya’ll! I admit, I typically do not read mysteries, other than the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle type, but Tolbert has turned me into a fan of the genre. I am proud to be part of her process for the second novel, The Redemption, and am proud to count her in my group of fellow writers as well as a friend. Look for an interview with Tolbert next week, followed by a guest post from Tolbert on mystery writing the week after.
Out From Silence is a fast-paced, plot driven, mystery novel that you keeps you turning pages into the late hours. I stayed up until 4:00 a.m. to finish it last Saturday. It opens with a brutal murder, throwing the reader right into the action. The main character, Emma Thornton, is a single mother of twin boys. She juggles going to law school and working as a law clerk. Tolbert portrays the anxieties of motherhood very well, making the reader instantly relate to Emma. With a full plate, Emma doesn’t really have time for romance, but she’s definitely interested in Deputy Ren Taylor. This is a big no-no, too. Emma is working for Silas Steele, III, the attorney hired to defend Adam Gannon on murder charges and Ren is the working the homicide. Although they make a good team, Emma is absolutely running the show.
The setting is small town Jonesburg, Georgia described as a “college town…as charming as a Eudora Welty novel…where daffodils sprouted by the thousands…and drunken writers, poets, and musicians gathered in its watering holes…idyllic…Perfect, almost.” I couldn’t do a better job of summing up this town than Tolbert. Perfect, almost? Everyone knows everyone, and even some of the more famous family feuds. There’s a fifty year old secret that reveals itself in the murder of Jennifer Patrick and Emma is smack in the middle of it, going way beyond her job duties, and taking extreme personal risks to discover the truth.
Adam Gannon, the ex-boyfriend of the victim, Jennifer Patrick, makes for an easy suspect. If you watch enough true crime, it’s always the disgruntled husband, fiancé, or significant other who is the killer. Unfortunately for Adam, what makes him an easy conviction is his disability; Adam is deaf. He also has anger issues, appears uncooperative, and his disability puts him at a great disadvantage, especially when law enforcement comes knocking on his door and he signs off on a search without fully understanding what he is approving or what his rights are. Although this is a mystery with all the elements of the genre, Tolbert’s novel does much more by advocating for people with disabilities. It was eye-opening for me. I never considered the world through the eyes of Adam. This is an quote from early on when the reader is getting to know Adam: “Deaf from infancy, Adam was a lip reader, and although he only understood a fraction of what others said, he’d learned to observe body language and facial expressions. From that, he developed a better understanding of speech, and people’s idiosyncrasies. An expert mimic, he was also an artist, and a quick study in most sports. His skills convinced others that he understood what was being said when he often didn’t. By the time Adam had figured out the context of the conversation, most people had already moved on. He missed subtleties. This disconnect made Adam feel isolated and alone and his parents had little patience with him. He felt as if he was living underwater and everyone else was on top” (21-22). People with disabilities are underrepresented in literature, film, and art in general, so it was refreshing to read a book with a central character who faced these particular challenges. I applaud Tolbert for this. Plus, as you can see she knows her stuff. Before Tolbert became an attorney, she got a Masters in Special Education and worked with disabled children.
Tolbert has an innate ability to capture a character in one paragraph. Any writer, but especially short story writers, would do well to study Tolbert’s method of introducing a character in such a brief and precise manner. It fits perfectly with Emma’s personality as well. Emma is intuitive, curious, intelligent and much like some of her favorite sleuths with mad powers of observation, she makes rapid-fire assessments about the other characters. I could provide endless examples here. Typically, these summations are done when a new character is introduced, which makes sense, but Emma uses her ability throughout. Her desire to get to the bottom of things leads Emma down some dangerous paths, but the story wouldn’t have that thrill factor if Emma was some shrinking violet. Emma is a strong female protagonist with a mission.
Continuing on characterization, I love this particular description of Darcy Gannon, Adam’s mother: “She was as impeccably dressed as before, this time in well-fitted linen pants and shirt tailored to fit her lean body to perfection. She wore the same pearls at her neck and her lustrous hair was worn loosely about her shoulders. But she looked thinner. Even though her creamy-soft skin was unblemished, the hollows under her eyes were lavender-tinged and deeper. Darcy welcomed Emma graciously, but Emma questioned the sincerity of her hospitality. Darcy reminded Emma of the women from the First Baptist Church back home. Her smile seemed strained and insincere, like a beauty pageant contestant who’d been on the stage fifteen minutes too long. Her face twitched with the sheer effort it took to be pleasant. Detached, despite her sunny façade. Darcy didn’t maintain eye contact, and her handshake was a cold and clammy grasp (49).” That’s just good writing right there. Strap yourself in for more of it, because Emma Thornton is coming back in the second novel, The Redemption. I am certainly looking forward to it.
To purchase a copy: OUT FROM SILENCE (via Amazon)
About C.L. Tolbert:
In 2010, Cynthia Tolbert won the Georgia Bar Journal’s fiction contest for the short story version of OUT FROM SILENCE. That story is now the first full-length novel of the Thornton Mystery Series, which was published by Level Best Books in December of 2019. OUT FROM SILENCE is Tolbert’s first novel and was nominated for Georgia Author of the Year under the first novel category. She is currently writing her second novel in this same series entitled THE REDEMPTION, which is set in New Orleans. This book is scheduled to be published in December of 2020.
Ms. Tolbert has a Master’s in Special Education and taught children with learning disabilities before moving on to law school. She spent most of her legal career working as defense counsel to large corporations and traveled throughout the country as regional and national counsel. She also had the unique opportunity of teaching third-year law students in a clinical program at a law school in New Orleans where she ran the Homelessness Law Clinic and learned, firsthand, about poverty in that city. The experiences and impressions she has collected from the past forty years contribute to the stories she writes today.
She has four children, and three grandchildren, and lives in Atlanta with her husband and schnauzer. To learn even more about C.L. Tolbert, visit her author website at: www.cltolbert.com
To contact C.L. Tolbert: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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