You know that music that plays when the shark is lurking in the waters in Jaws? This book is written in the literary-equivalent of that sound. It's ominous, foreboding, and even downright scary. We're on the edge of our seats the whole time, not only wondering, but worrying, about what is going to happen next.
Even before the trial starts, Ben tells us stuff like, "I will never forget the rest of that evening, not a moment of it. Not a detail has been lost on me" (11.1). We can almost hear the dun-dun-dun now. He's hinting at what's to come without actually telling us what has taken place. It turns out here that he's talking about his wife leaving him, but it doesn't matter whether he's telling us about marital woes or lynching experiences, Ben always gives it to us in a nail-biting, stomach-churning way.
For a bit more on how this tone is pulled off, swing by the "Narrator Point of View" section where we explore Ben's hindsight perspective on the action.
This book might not be what you think of when you hear the word mystery—there are no hidden passages, foreboding lightning strikes, or twisty stairwells—and yet it has the two biggest features of mystery novels, namely crime and the unraveling of secrets. Ben is tasked with finding out what is going on in Eudora, which leads him to a series of contradictory clues: Some newspapers talk about hangings and even describe all the gory details, while others insist they never took place. If that doesn't sound like something Nancy Drew could get behind, we don't know what does.
As for the novel being historical fiction, unfortunately much of what it details is totally true. Ben and Abraham and even Alex Cross might be made-up, but Jim Crow laws, lynch mobs, the KKK, and Teddy Roosevelt are all taken straight from history. So pay attention while you read; you just might learn a thing or two about the United States' past.
At first glance, the title—Alex Cross's Trial—is kind of a no brainer. Alex Cross is the purported author of the book, and the story centers on the trial against the White Raiders. So boom, right? Next question, please.
But not so fast. While much of the plot focuses on the trial in the courtroom, there are multiple trials taking place in this book. Here we can think of trial not in the legal sense, but as a test. Ben certainly goes through a trial, choosing to confront the racism in his hometown head-on, and Abraham and the Black residents of the Quarter are definitely in an ongoing trial as racism does its best to ruin their lives. So the trial referred to in the title isn't restricted to the one Judge Corbett presides over; being tested is a central theme in the book in general.
By the end, Ben has lost the case in Eudora, lost his relationships with Jacob and Elizabeth, and even lost some respect for President Roosevelt. But worry not—he's amply rewarded for heading down South to try to fight racism when his wife, Meg, greets him with open arms. She'd been planning on leaving him, but she changes her tune just in time to welcome him home from his harrowing journey down South.
It's a kind of problematic ending. Ben gets to escape racism, to return to safety while Moody and the rest of the Black people living in the Quarter are left with little to show for his visit. Sure the White Raiders were brought to trial, but they got off. Is there maybe a glimmer of hope anyway for the Black residents of Eudora? Sure—but that pales in comparison to the warmth and safety that greets Ben at the end. To explore this further, check out Ben and Abraham's pages in the "Characters" section.
Alex Cross's Trial takes place in 1906, back when Teddy Roosevelt called the White House home. Most of the story is set in the small town of Eudora, Mississippi, a place governed by Jim Crow laws and severely racist. This is a time and place where lynch mobs uphold white supremacy with incredible acts of violence, making challenging the status quo not only bold, but actually pretty brave. As much as this is the story of Ben, Abraham, and others, it's really the story of an ugly chapter in American history, told through the lens of one small town.
On the one hand, Alex Cross's Trial is very straightforward. The writing style might be suspenseful, but it certainly isn't confusing, and we always know exactly what Ben Corbett is talking about. On the other hand, the book jumps back and forth between timeframes: One minute, we're in the present day in the courthouse, and the next, we're back in Ben's childhood remembering his mom getting sick. All of this time travel isn't tough to follow, per say, but it adds just a bit of incline to the plot, making this book Base Camp material for sure.
You don't have to read very far to get a glimpse of the fast-paced style of the book. After all, every single chapter leaves us with a mini cliffhanger, making us unsure of what's going to happen next and pretty much forcing us to keep reading. The chapters are only a page or two each, and this format keeps the plot moving, hopping from mini cliffhanger to mini cliffhanger until we can't believe how many pages we just read in one sitting.
It's a fitting style for a book that features such high stakes. With violence just around the corner and corruption and racism running the show, this quick and suspenseful styles mirrors and uncertainty of life in Eudora for Ben and his pals. For instance, consider when Ben and his friends are stealing Scooter's photos:
What a record of guilt! What amazing evidence! I couldn't take the pictures down fast enough.
"Just put 'em all in the box," I said. "We need to get out of here."
"No, y'all can stay," I heard. (116.19-21)
Huh? We're not sure who's talking or why, but since Ben is on a stealth mission to steal Scooter's photos, we're pretty sure that voice isn't a good sign. We can tell that Ben and his pals are in danger, but the chapter just stops right there, leaving all of our questions unanswered and us on the edge of our seats to find out how this interaction unfolds. Throughout the book Patterson uses short, quick sentences (and chapters) to keep us on our toes and heighten the suspense. We're not sure what's happening, but we know we want to find out, so we keep turning the pages.
Ben knows a lynching tree when he sees one. Or he does once Abraham shows him one anyway, because prior to meeting up with Abraham, all Ben actually notices is segregation. Oops. But then Abraham comes along and shows Ben what racism actually looks like in Eudora:
A cool grotto tucked back in the woods away from the road. Big branches interlaced overhead to form a ceiling. The dirt was packed hard as a stone floor from the feet of all the people who had stood there watching the terrible spectacle […] Even without his guidance, I would have recognized it as a lynching tree. There was a thick, strong branch barely a dozen feet from the ground. The low dip in the middle of the branch was rubbed free of its bark by the friction of ropes. (34.4)
Okay, so Ben has seen a lynching tree before. And because of this, while he needs Abraham to show him where one is, he doesn't need Abraham to explain what he's looking at. As he describes the tree here, we see evidence of human intervention in nature—the "branch […] rubbed free of its bark by the friction of ropes," and the "dirt packed hard as a stone floor from the feet of all the people who had stood there watching." These sort of scars left by humans remind us that lynching is a human intervention in nature, too; it's humans choosing when other humans die instead of nature running its course.
As much as this passage makes it clear that lynching isn't natural, though, it also makes it clear that the people of Eudora are big fans. A tree doesn't lose its bark because just one rope's strung around it, nor does the earth get tamped down so much by a single gathering. This tree shows wear, making it clear that lynching is an oft-repeated and socially-supported event around these parts. Yikes.
Judge Corbett's gavel might technically belong to him, but since he largely represents the justice system as a whole in this book—he's the only judge we meet, after all, in a book that features a pretty major trial—we can think of his gavel as representing the justice system, too. After all, it's the tool judges use to maintain control over the court:
He lifted the heavy mahogany gavel. I was surprised to see him using the gavel I had sent him on his sixtieth birthday, since I had never received a thank-you note. He brought the gavel down with a thunderous bang. (97.22)
That the gavel is representative of the justice system is made clear by the fact that Judge Corbett's connection to it isn't personal—he doesn't use it for sentimental reasons, as evidenced by the fact that he didn't even bother sending Ben a note when he gave it to him. And check out the use of "thunderous"—the justice system is as powerful as a storm, and the participants in the trial are helpless in the face of such might. They ultimately have limited sway over the ruling, and instead are at the whim of Judge Corbett and the justice system in general.
And in this case, that's one corrupt justice system to be at the mercy of.
When Moody needs some medicine for Abraham, Doc Conover won't sell it to her because she's Black. Ben can't get his hands on any either because he's friends with her, and yet when men storm the Quarter with guns and pitchforks hunting Ben down, Aunt Henry is the first to patch up their wounds up. As Ben considers, "Aunt Henry would take care of anyone, I reflected, regardless of race, creed, or degree of idiocy" (136.7). You know, like any decent human being would.
Because we see medicine denied to Moody and Ben for racist reasons, and then we see Aunt Henry refusing to participate in racism by treating even the racists with medicine, ointments and oils and such come to represent what people believe. Aunt Henry, for instance, willingly helps anybody who needs it, nursing Ben, Abraham, and the White Raiders back to health. On the other hand, there are many white citizens in town who will only help white people.
If we take a step back, something bigger emerges: The white people who deny Black people medicine are preventing healing, and they're part of the disease of racism plaguing Eudora. The Black people who help anyone in need, however, are like medicine in their own right, prioritizing healing over hatred time and again.
You might be wondering why the book is called Alex Cross's Trial when Alex never shows up. He shows up in plenty of other books by Patterson, but he's never around in this one. Except for in the preface, that is, where he sorts this confusion out for us:
A few months after I hunted a vicious killer named the Tiger halfway around the world, I began to think seriously about a book I had been wanting to write for years. (Pre.1)
Okay, so forget Patterson—Alex Cross is the "author" of this book. And he's going to tell us a story that he's not a part of. Why? The characters are related to him. Abraham is his great uncle and Moody is his cousin. Patterson provides this backdrop for the story, wherein Alex is the author, so we get the sense that it was written by a close relative of the people in the book. It's a personal story instead of just a political one, written by someone who truly cares.
But once we leave the preface, Cross's voice no longer appears. Instead the story is told by Ben Corbett—he's the main guy and he tells us everything that does down. Check out his description of the courtroom in this scene:
As I walked all the way home from the courthouse on that hot June day, I still had no idea what life-changing things were in store for me and my family. Not a hint, not a clue. (7.1)
Notice how he's telling us what he's experiencing ("I walked") but it's after the fact ("I still had no idea"). This means he's writing about what happened after the fact. The result is a story that is both intimately told and that benefits from hindsight. Ben—like Alex Cross and Patterson—knows how it will end before he begins, and the storytelling benefits from this knowledge.
Ben Corbett is used to the courtroom, but he's in for a trial of a different kind. When President Roosevelt sends Ben on a mission to his hometown of Eudora, he's intrigued and a little nervous. Ben knows that it's going to be hard to figure out the truth about lynching and equal rights in his old neighborhood, but he's going to try to get to the bottom of this situation, once and for all—because the President asked, yes, but also because helping the helpless is kind of Ben's thing. Armed with a mission from the oval office, Ben (and our story) are officially on the move.
Ben knew his mission wasn't going to be fun, but he never expected to uncover so much terribleness. Not only does he find evidence in Eudora of Black men and boys being lynched for no reason at all, he learns that many white folks in the town enjoy this practice and think of it as entertainment. Yikes.
When Ben starts fighting this ideology, he gets caught in the crosshairs, and it's not long before Ben is lynched and almost dies. Everyone in Eudora is onto Ben and the fact that he's really in town for a mission other than the one he reports to people (ahem, interviewing judges). This is when things start getting really complicated for our dear Ben—like, life and death complicated.
Once Ben's physical wounds heal, he's back out on the streets, trying to fight injustice. After he learns that his friend Abraham's family is in trouble, he enlists the help of his old pal L.J., and together they set up a perimeter around Abraham's house to protect him from the White Raiders (a.k.a. the KKK). Sure enough, they show up before long, and two people die in the ensuing fight; L.J. and Ben demand that the White Raiders are arrested for murder. This is a turning point for Ben, but also for the town itself. Finally some white men have to go to trial for killing Black men.
Things are looking up for Ben when the White Raiders are put on trial. Well, until his dad is the judge assigned to the case. Ben knows the other lawyer (a guy by the name of Loophole Lewis) and his dad will cook up a scheme to get the white men off the hook, and he's right. Between the fake search warrant and the judge overruling every one of their claims, there's no fair trail. This leads Ben to decide that his work is done in Eudora. Things aren't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but he's done all he can for the cause and is ready to go back home to Washington.
Back home, Ben meets up with Roosevelt to review his mission. He expects the President to be disappointed at the outcome of the trial, but instead he's over the moon and thanks Ben for all his hard work. Ben feels a little sick about the whole thing: Men died over this battle, and here the President is…celebrating? He rushes home to his family and promises never to leave them again. Ben realizes that he needs to stick around more for his wife and daughters, so while he'll continue his work for the cause, he'll also be there for them, too.