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Bruce Robb Steinberg

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River Ghosts
by Bruce Robb Steinberg   

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Books by Bruce Robb Steinberg
· My Occasional Torment
· The Widow's Son
                >> View all



Publisher:  Gale / Cengage Learning ISBN-10:  1594146543 Type: 


Copyright:  March 2008 ISBN-13:  9781594146541

Barnes &
Gale / Cengage Learning

A Kirkus Starred Review Mystery! Sixteen years after Richard Hill, as a boy, pointed out in court the man he saw murder his white mother and black father, DNA evidence sets the convicted man free. Now Richard must fight between the so-called perfect science of man and his own imperfect memory of a traumatized eight-year-old boy, to not only stop the advance of a white supremacist group, but also his own assured murder. A mystery in the classic sense that honestly takes on race and religion, without preaching, in substantive and emotional ways that matter. The ending leaves you breathless in its honesty and impact.

Richard Hill's childhood memories begin with the innocent belief that love between his black father and white mother created him, that he is proof of a good and purposeful God. His innocence ends at age eight when Richard's parents hide him at the outset of trouble. A neo-Nazi youth who rapes his mother and murders her and his father. Richard survives, a witness to violence and, he believes, his own cowardice.

     On the strength of Richard's testimony, a white jury convicts Henry Clayton, a teen bearing swastika tattoos, and sentences him to death. But friends and neighbors, who once surrounded Richard with support, shy away from his rage. His future in ruins, Richard soon perceives that the mix of his parents, his green eyes staring through light brown skin, satisfies neither side.

     Sixteen years after the murders, Richard receives a letter in the mail from the prosecutor's office. The language is clear - DNA evidence coupled with the testimony he gave as a boy have exonerated Henry Clayton. Richard is the man who remains imprisoned, alone with his discredited nightmare.

     Henry Clayton arrives, dressed in the clothes of a preacher, claiming rebirth, extending his hand not only to Richard but also to use his faith to find the true killer. Even as Richard begins to take a step in a direction he never thought possible, his youth and voices from the past reach out to oppose Clayton. How, he is reminded, can a traumatized memory from so long ago defeat a perfect science?

     Its frightening insight into the best and worst of men and their institutions, thoughtful intrigue, and superb attack on preconceptions make River Ghosts a mystery devoid of coincidences or tidy endings and will grip readers from the stunning opening to its powerful last page.


Henry Clayton was nineteen at the trial, eighteen when I watched him kill my parents. A white boy with small bones, skin paler than milk, and a black swastika imprinted below his right ear.

I was nine at the trial and couldn’t imagine how to describe what I had seen. In his opening statement to the jury, the prosecutor used words like horrific, tragic, and sickening. He said I was a hero, a victim, a lost child, an orphan. Then the prosecutor aimed his finger at Henry Clayton and called him an animal.

The defense attorney hunched inside his wrinkled suit and appeared more interested in his crossword puzzle than his client. He remained seated for his opening statement, told the jury I was eight at the time of the murders, an emotionally lost boy, and referred to my parents’ murders as the incident, the event, the crime charged. He said I was mistaken.

I took the witness stand and, imitating the prosecutor, pointed at Henry Clayton. The turtleneck he wore in the steaming courtroom couldn’t hide the swastika on his neck from the jury, or from my memory.

“He’s the one I saw,” I said, and trembled at the way Henry Clayton looked back at me. Not in the threatening way I had expected and was warned about by the prosecutor. And not
with hatred contorting his face, as I had witnessed from under the table.

In his defendant’s chair, he presented a tranquility I could not fathom, his eyes wet, showing pity not for himself, but for me. My testimony tripped over his display.

“Richard, I’m sorry,” the prosecutor said. He smiled as if he enjoyed the moment and didn’t sound sorry at all. “You have to tell the jury precisely what you saw.”

I cried so hard my mouth could barely form the words, and the court reporter asked me over and over to slow down, to repeat myself so she could make her record. While the jury deliberated, I overheard the prosecutor tell his assistants how wonderful a show it was, for me to fall apart the way I did in open court.

Henry Clayton never testified. Neither family nor friend appeared on his behalf. A defense psychologist had little to report other than to say that what goes on in Clayton’s mind, and the society he keeps, he keeps to himself. My observations differed somewhat from the psychologist’s. It was as though Henry Clayton didn’t care to be present in any form, that the trial itself was irrelevant, a place to exhibit his pity for me, and mull over other plans.

Sixteen years after the murders, I think about what happened that night, how I hid beneath the dining room table, the tablecloth draped low to the floor. Momma put me there when the trouble began at the front door, before Henry Clayton could notice me. Clayton forced Poppa inside and tied his wrists behind his back to a radiator, put a rag in his mouth and secured it with rope. Then he went after Momma, tore her dress off and whipped her face twice with a gun.

Standing over Momma’s white body, he said, “Now, missy.Why’d you have to go on and marry a colored boy?”

Henry Clayton undressed. He did things to Momma so Poppa could see, to humiliate her and emasculate him at the
same time. I saw the swastika on Henry Clayton’s neck, below his right ear, another between his shoulder blades, and a third on the narrow curve of his long back at his hips. If Poppa had dared to open his eyes at them, and I don’t know whether he did, he would have seen the swastikas on the back of the man who entered Momma.

Poppa kept his face turned toward me, his eyes red and tearing. He shook his head when I began to lift the tablecloth and lean out. So I sat there, quiet as dust inside my make-believe fortress, and listened to the sounds of rape and murder, my muscles squeezing in on themselves and my bones to make my body disappear. Then the stillness but for Clayton’s breathing while he lingered to absorb what he had done. He clapped his hands once, emitted a muted howl of euphoria, and was gone.

The moment I crawled from under the table, I found parts of them separated from their bodies, their blood spilled like paint, staining my hands and knees while I reached for the phone to dial 911.

Two policemen caught Henry Clayton running through the streets in my neighborhood with his shirt off and the
swastikas showing on his body. A gun without bullets stuffed in his back pocket.

The police questioning, six weeks in a foster home away from school, the trial continuances, the testimony making my parents into an anatomy lesson. Nobody asked me about Momma’s and Poppa’s kisses, their touch, their laughter. Momma’s love of classic books; Poppa’s love of black and white movies, especially Hitchcock movies, and for Momma. Their adoration of me, their only child, showered on me with their time.

Then came the guilty verdicts: rape and multiple homicide in the first degree. Two months later, the jury decided on death by lethal injection.

At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor must have thought I was a prop, hardly caring I was around. His reaction to his assistants, with me in his office, was like a cheer after winning a ball game. “Didn’t think the jury would give death without Clayton’s fingerprints found in the house, especially with my victims being a mixed family and a mulatto boy.”

As for Henry Clayton, though heavily shackled and escorted by guards, he moved through the courtroom with his feet quiet over the floor. His eyes searched for no one; he didn’t seem to breathe or know his need to take a breath. He convinced me he had already fled to his future, and what he left behind in the courtroom was no more than his molted shell.

All those days and months, stretching into a year, ended in the verdict I knew was true, and the revenge I had hoped for.

But that year has never gone away. It’s one big yesterday, and never a moment away before I’m thinking about all of it again. I remember no matter what else I do, no matter what else I dream, yesterday is with me.

The mail arrives this afternoon. In the stack, an envelope bears the seal of our county court’s prosecutor’s office. I tear it open, thinking of Henry Clayton and his swastikas and his eyes looking at me with tears in them the moment I pointed him out in court as the one.

What I see next couldn’t be expected, but it’s clear enough on the paper. Two years ago, the initial letter arrived. More came every few months afterwards. In each letter, below the official state seal, the typed words expressed full assurance. Although there had been no official news yet, I shouldn’t worry about the last gasps of a doomed man.

The initial letter marked the first time I sensed Momma and Poppa’s presence. A chill through my skin, their image staring back at me from my own face in the bathroom and bedroom mirrors. I took the sensation as a show of their confidence, to let me know there was nothing to worry about; yet the frequency of the chill, its increased intensity throughout the day, frightened me.

Although my nightmare of being under the table comes nearly every night, and has since the first night, the prosecutor’s letter and my parents’ presence not only heightened the pace, but also brought the nightmare to my days.

I wrote back to the prosecutor’s office, insisted I didn’t want to receive these letters, and went to the Victim Assistance Division after the next one showed up anyway. The assigned assistant prosecutor claimed she understood, and agreed it was hard enough for me without reminders of the past. Her promise to tell the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, and put an end to the letters, came true. They stopped coming for over a year. And my fantasy about sensing the presence of Momma and Poppa came to an abrupt end too.

Until this letter.

Four months ago, DNA testing exonerated Henry Clayton. His governor’s pardon unopposed because of my own demands to be left alone and uninformed.

The chill through my bones again, Momma’s and Poppa’s voices more clear, and profoundly sad. They realize how unusual their initial presence must have felt to me, how unaccustomed I would be to their language.What I had interpreted as confidence was meant as a warning.

Now Henry Clayton is free, a completely free man. I remain imprisoned in yesterday.

Professional Reviews

Kirkus Starred Review!
Author: Robb, B.R. (Pseudonym used by Bruce R. Steinberg)
Category: FICTION
Classification: MYSTERY - A star is assigned to books of unusual merit, determined by the editors of Kirkus Reviews.
Which is right: the eyewitness testimony of an eight-year-old boy or exculpatory DNA evidence?

Sixteen years after Richard Hill testified in court that he crouched under the kitchen tablecloth and saw Henry Clayton rape his white momma and murder her and his black poppa, a DNA swab earns the prisoner a pardon and his freedom. Returning to Red River Falls, Clayton claims that he has been reborn and offers to help Hill, now a patrol officer, identify who really killed his parents. Hill, who relives the family horrors every day, doesn't believe him. But how can he prove DNA evidence wrong? An ingrained distrust of everyone except Doria, the aunt who raised him, has led Hill to distance himself from his squad-car partner Jack Harter, and his mixed parentage has alienated him from members of both races. When he leans on radio reporter Sydney Brey for help, the search for truth puts Sydney on the railroad tracks as a train heads for her, leaves Auntie Doria bleeding on her bedroom floor and makes Hill the target of bands of good old boys with swastika tattoos. Ultimately, his childhood memories hold true but bring the disturbing possibility that the perfect science can be corrupted while racial enmity festers undercover.
The pseudonymous Robb, an attorney, writes with the chilling clarity of Alice Sebold. Read it and weep.

Publisher's Weekly
This thought-provoking mystery from the pseudonymous Robb, whose first novel, The Widow’s Son, was published under his real name, Bruce Steinberg, examines a racially motivated hate crime with a terrifying twist. Hidden under a table, eight-year-old Richard Hill witnesses 18-year-old Henry Clayton, who sports a swastika tattoo, rape Richard’s white mother, then murder her and his black father at his parents’ home in Red River Falls (evidently located near Chicago). Sixteen years after Henry is convicted, new DNA evidence gains him a governor’s pardon and release from prison. Now a Red River Falls police patrol officer, Richard suspects the new evidence is bogus. When the murder of an elderly gay man points to an old white power buddy of Henry’s as the culprit, Richard and his white squad partner suspect Henry’s connected. Proving that connection is another matter and a testimony to friendship and faith under fire. Robb depicts Henry’s terror campaign and Richard’s hunger for justice with steely eloquence. Publishers Weekly

ForeWord Magazine
Adult nightmares are often the echoes of childhood recollections, horrors left behind to grow and fester in the fertile earth of imagination. The visions of Richard Hill are no different; the memories of what he witnessed—his mother’s rape and his parents’ murders—resonate through his life like a scream through a never-ending cave.
In B. R. Robb’s River Ghosts, the specters of the past are agitated to life by the release of their convicted murderer. Henry Clayton is freed from prison, exonerated by new DNA testing. Richard Hill, now a hometown police officer, is torn between serving justice and service to his own memories. He explains, “It’s as though a beast I’ve made an uncomfortable truce with has escaped and paces inside me.”
Clayton, whose evil is only matched by his hatred, is part of a fanatical supremacist group and his thirst for revenge puts Richard and his few remaining family and friends in jeopardy. Richard and Clayton run a parallel yet divergent course, two trains hell-bent on reaching their destinations first. While Richard searches for proof of his recollections and Clayton’s guilt, Clayton rushes to erase any that may exist.
The story’s supportive supporting characters add another dimension to this multi-layered tale. Richard’s unattractive, unmarried Auntie Doria is burdened with her deceased brother’s masculine features and excess weight, but her heart is free to give all it can to her troubled nephew. Jack Harter, Richard’s partner, who, in his outward struggle to appear unprejudiced, comes to see Richard as nothing more than a man, and becomes a friend.
Author B. R. Robb’s first novel, The Widow’s Son, won Grand Prize at FirstNovelFest 2000. A graduate of the Loyola School of Law, Robb has skillfully used his experience as a prosecutor, public defender, and guardian ad litem for abused and neglected children to depict the many faces of despair at their most disturbing.
Gifted with a precision for language and a keen eye for detail, Robb writes with the canny ability to choose, with economy, the most appropriate image-provoking words. Written in first person, present tense, River Ghosts is both more immediate and less intimate. The fulsomeness of fragments and staccato sentences, normally reserved for action sequences, lends the entire work an urgency that matches the main character’s need for truth; a need that impels the work along like a gale wind against the back. (ForeWord Magazine)

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