BLOOD ON THE LEAVES

By Jeff Stetson

Warner. 390 pp. $24

Someone is killing aging white men in and around Jackson, Miss. The victims had 40 years earlier been accused of lynching, burning or beating to death black men, and had sometimes boasted of their crimes, but were acquitted by all-white juries. Meanwhile, at the local university, a charismatic black professor named Martin Matheson is teaching a black history course in which he displays gruesome photographs of the murdered men as well as pictures of their "unpunished murderers," along with their current addresses. He insists he only wants his students to be aware of the horrors of the past, but local police unsurprisingly begin to suspect that Matheson or his students are carrying out the serial killings. After one such murder, when Matheson's fountain pen is found at the scene, he is arrested and put on trial for his life.

The prosecutor is an idealistic young black man named James Reynolds. The defense lawyer is a burned-out civil rights lawyer named Todd Miller, whose defiant silver ponytail cannot hide his disillusion with civil rights leaders who have rejected white liberals like himself. The white judge comes equipped with hemorrhoids and a wise mouth. The trial suggests how far Mississippi has come since the 1960s: Not only is the prosecutor black and the defense lawyer white, but the jury is mostly black. Other characters include Matheson's father, a celebrated minister and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The case against Matheson is circumstantial and may rely on doctored evidence, but Reynolds is convinced of the professor's guilt and his duty to convict him. The professor, however, proclaims his innocence and is supported by worshipful students. As the community is polarized by the case, Reynolds is shunned by fellow blacks for prosecuting the outspoken black professor, and defense attorney Miller's girlfriend spurns him for representing the black defendant.

The climax of the novel is Matheson's trial, portrayed as America's biggest courtroom spectacular since the O.J. Simpson case. The story generates a good deal of suspense as to whether the defiant Matheson is the innocent truth-seeker he purports to be or the apostle of revenge that Reynolds insists he is. So confident -- or arrogant -- is Matheson that he insists on testifying on his own behalf, over his lawyer's objections, and proceeds to perform brilliantly.

"Blood on the Leaves" is uneven and more distinguished by passion than subtlety. By and large, black folk are noble, and whites are ignorant rednecks. When we meet Reynolds's mother, "Her silver hair [glows] majestically in the moonlight." Reynolds's boss, the potbellied, racist district attorney, is named Vanzant but could be named Snopes. People snarl and giggle and hiss and tease and sigh too much. The plot, while dramatic, is not always persuasive, and a subplot involving Reynolds's racial trauma as a child only confuses the story. Yet there is power in this narrative. Jeff Stetson is determined to remind us that the horrors that began with slavery continued well into the 1960s. He forces us to confront Matheson's terrible photographs of black victims: "He caressed each frozen image: someone's child, somebody's father, a wedding ring on a charred finger, a face without eyes, an infant savagely separated from its mother's protective womb with one merciless swing of an ax." The photos include a white lynch mob posing with their victim: "Their frenzied white faces blended into one lurid and psychotic smile, which transformed a scene of debauchery into a tragic rendering that made forgiveness impossible and the future unworthy of hope." "Blood on the Leaves" works best as a meditation on love and hate, nonviolence and revenge, evil and justice. It asks whether blacks should look back at the outrages of the past or forward to the possibilities of the future. It asks how we should regard the unpunished criminals in our society and around the world. It debates the temptations of revenge against the ideal of justice. It questions whether the murder of the old white racists avenges or betrays their black victims. Matheson, the angry professor, tells his father, the minister, "Your pleas for nonviolent resistance made it easier for us to accept our own destruction." He adds, "Dad, can't you see that once you betray the dead, you've no choice but to condemn the living?"

This first novel by Stetson, an African American teacher and playwright, is, in short, an anguished, agonizing debate over right and wrong. It will satisfy some readers as a legal thriller, Deep South division, but its ideal audience is those people, black or white, who are willing to contemplate the realities and implications of our nation's long, often ignored holocaust against black people.