No matter how deep we think they’re buried, secrets have a way of coming to light.
Secrets drive the plot of Gone Too Long, the electrifying fifth novel by St. Petersburg author Lori Roy. The two-time Edgar Award winner has always been deft at creating suspense, but she hits a new level with this finely crafted thriller.
Roy’s last novel, The Disappearing, was set in the Florida Panhandle and incorporated elements from horrific real-life events at the Florida School for Boys. For Gone Too Long, she has moved a little farther north, to the fictional town of Simmonsville, Ga., but once again she connects her fiction to dark chapters of history.
One of the novel’s three main characters is a young woman named Imogene Coulter. As the book’s present-day story opens, Imogene is about to bury her father, and is glad to do so.
Edison Coulter wasn’t her real father; who was her father is one of those long-buried secrets itching for the light. Edison raised Imogene along with her older sister and brother, but treated her with disdain. That’s not her only reason for hating him, though. Edison was the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, which, like white supremacist groups nationwide, has lately seen a resurgence.
He’s not her only tie to the Klan. Imogene is a fictional character, but Roy gives her a connection to a historical figure. W.J. Simmons “led the climb up Stone Mountain in 1915 to reignite the Ku Klux Klan after the government squelched the original uprising in earlier years.” Imogene’s sweet-natured mother, Lottie, is Simmons’ descendant, the KKK version of royalty.
Lottie rejects her family’s racism, but Edison embraced it, as did his children, Jo Lynne and Eddie. Since Imogene’s childhood, her father and siblings have gathered with other robed and hooded figures on the Simmons family farm to burn crosses on the shore of a lake they believe is “closer to heaven.” Jo Lynne’s husband, Garland Hix, manages the finances of the Klan chapter but keeps his distance in public, to protect the organization from lawsuits. Now that Edison is dead, though, Garland is among those angling for leadership.
When Imogene married a man who didn’t belong to the Klan, she hoped to escape her family’s pernicious history. But five years ago her husband and baby son died in an accident, and she has been reeling ever since. Caught in a cycle of boozing and sleeping with strangers, she struggles to straighten up enough to go to Edison’s funeral.
Also at the funeral is Jean Tillerson, known to all as Tillie, another central character. He has been Imogene’s surrogate father and, along with his wife, called Mrs. Tillie, one of the most positive influences in her life. Decades ago, Tillie too was a Klan member, “but he got out, is likely the only fellow who ever did.”
Now the couple run a thrift shop in town, and Tillie’s past has come back to haunt him. Two of Edison Coulter’s followers are Robert and Tim Robithan, father and son and latest in a long line of “Klan killers,” executioners of dozens of men, never touched by the law. Someone has asked Tillie to buy items not often seen in his little shop: a pair of 1957 white gold Patek Philippe watches, worth about $70,000. Tillie knows they belong to Robert Robithan, and he doesn’t think Robert knows they’re for sale. How to protect himself from the Robithans without putting someone else in danger is a frightening problem.
Interwoven with chapters focused on Imogene and Tillie is a story told by a young girl named Beth. Seven years before the book’s present day, she witnessed a violent crime and was abducted. Her story will collide with Imogene’s in shocking fashion.
Imogene and Beth are strong female characters, and they’re more effective because Roy doesn’t make them into superheroes. Plunged without warning into extreme situations, like Beth’s abduction and Imogene’s discovery of a terrible secret, they don’t behave like they’re in an action movie, they act the way most people do under great duress. They’re confused, they’re disoriented, they’re paralyzed with fear, and that makes their resourcefulness all the more admirable.
Family relationships are key in Gone Too Long, and Roy develops them with believable complexity. As much as she despises her siblings’ Klan involvement, Imogene has deep bonds with them, and their feelings about her are just as complicated — and sometimes surprising. Beth’s family ties, too, are a compelling part of her story.
Roy crafts the book’s triple plots with skillful misdirection and sure timing. She anchors her story in its historical context with brief chapters tracing the history of the KKK, from its violent origins in 1865 to suppress black voters during Reconstruction to its participation in the deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
Gone Too Long is a compelling thriller, and it’s also a story of how hatred and violence toward the other create a legacy that follows those who hate home.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
Gone Too Long
By Lori Roy
352 pages, $28
Meet the author
Lori Roy will launch her new novel in conversation with author Lisa Unger (Under My Skin) at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Tickets $5, applicable to book purchase, at oxfordexchange.com/pages/calendar. Roy will sign her book at 2 p.m. June 29 at Haslam’s Book Store, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. St. Pete Beach Library and Tombolo Books will host a talk and signing by Roy at 6 p.m. July 1 at the library, 365 73rd Ave., St. Pete Beach.