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An elite black family is torn by murder, scandal and loyalties.

Although cast as a mystery-thriller, this intricate novel is about racial tension, as a prosperous family from "the darker nation" moves into "the heart of whiteness." Drawing the Carlyle family's drama, Stephen L. Carter gives the old term "black power" a sophisticated flip.

President of a university the author insists is "not Yale," Lemaster Carlyle lives in a mansion in a shore town populated by busybodies, from the gabby owner of the local fudge shop to the proprietor of an antiques store.

Carlyle's car runs off the road in a blizzard. He and his wife, Julia, discover the body of Kellen Zant nearby. A professor who was once Julia's lover, Zant has been shot.

He was uncovering a scandal hot enough to blow the coming presidential election sky-high. The candidates? Lemaster's two college roommates, one the conservative incumbent and the other a liberal senator.

Threatened, Zant was too crafty to give his ex-lover the dirt on an old murder in a straightforward letter, phone call or e-mail. He leaves an intricate trail of mysterious hints for Julia and her troubled daughter Vanessa to follow. Some are so obscure that it's a wonder they ever figure it out. Never mind, Julia has allies, including Bruce Vallely, an ex-cop who runs security at the university. People die. Complications abound.

But mystery is only one of Carter's concerns. He has created an amazing demonstration of the art of assimilation, drawing such strata of black society as the Harlem elite Julia is descended from and the Empyreals, an exclusive African-American men's club with only 400 members.

It is here that Carter addresses assimilation and power in all their ambiguity. The Empyreals triumph, but in a world of black and white, this demands a kind of accommodation that comes at a cost. The issue, then, is whether Julia is willing to pay the price.

The trade paperback edition of Kit Reed's new novel, The Baby Merchant, is due out in September.

New England White

By Stephen L. Carter

Knopf, 576 pages, $26.95