Jaq Walker is an aspiring filmmaker whose subject is her hometown of Savannah, Georgia, a “town out of a fable.” Many of Savannah’s denizens agree – the city does resemble a fairy tale, with its lush beauty, storied history, and high society trappings. But Jaq knows that fairy tales and fables are two very different beasts: one has a happy ending, and one has a lesson to teach. As it turns out, she isn’t ready for the lessons Savannah has to teach her, and by the end of The Kingdoms of Savannah, the gripping new mystery by George Dawes Green, what she learns changes her irrevocably.
When a local homeless man (and friend of Jaq’s) is murdered, the accused killer hires Morgana Musgrove, the colorful-yet-cruel matriarch of a society family to clear his name. Morgana loves a puzzle, and while she’d never be so gauche as to admit it, the Musgroves’ dwindling fortunes mean she’s in no position to turn down the hefty retainer. But taking the case puts her at odds with Jaq, her beloved granddaughter, and Ransom, her estranged, homeless-by-choice son.
The job quickly turns complicated. The victim’s best friend, Stony, is also missing – and it is Stony’s talk of a hidden kingdom and its vast treasure that holds the key to the truth. As the body count escalates and the web of corruption and violence spreads further, the entire Musgrove clan finds themselves ensnared, and their own dark history revealed.
While the book primarily focuses on Morgana, Jaq, Ransom, and Stony, the rest of the cast is just as richly drawn. Green has created an assortment of weirdos and matrons and weird matrons; all are flawed but viewed with a compassionate eye. Even Savannah is treated as a character – moody and multilayered, deceitful and beautiful, with a tragic, horrifying backstory of its own.
The Kingdoms of Savannah is indeed a noir mystery – the tension rises along with the body count, corruption runs rampant beneath the genteel facade of the city, and good people are forced to make terrible choices. But it’s also a clear-eyed look at a place whose history has too often been shrouded in romance and nostalgia, and an examination of how the horrors of the past reverberate forward, warping the present. The result is an unsettling, thought-provoking, and stunningly crafted novel that has as much to teach us as any fable.