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William Faulkner: Intruder in the Dust
It has been called a detective story and, in many ways, it is. Lucas Beauchamp, whom we have met before in Go Down, Moses is found with a gun in his hand, a bullet having been fired and a dead white man, shot in the back, on the ground in front of him. As a black man shooting a white man in Mississippi he is obviously likely to be lynched, particularly as the victim, Vinson Gowrie, comes from an extended family who, as Faulkner points out, are likely to be more offended by what happens to their kin in death than in life. Gowrie’s father is notoriously tough and is unlikely to take this matter quietly. Initially, the sheriff manages to get Lucas locked up without any trouble but he knows that his guard could be easily outnumbered by the Gowries and all their relatives. We watch many of the whites come into town to watch what will happen while the blacks all hide away.
The story is told in the third person but it is told through the eyes of Chick Mallison, though he is referred to only as he. We have met him before in Go Down, Moses, when he was rescued from a creek by Lucas Beauchamp and still feels some obligation to him. Lucas tells no-one of his innocence till he speaks to Chick, when he tells him that Vinson Gowrie was not shot with his (Lucas’) gun and asks Chick to dig up the body to prove this. Chick, who is sixteen, is naturally reluctant to do so, knowing that his father will not lend him the car to do so (the grave is a good ten miles away). However, an old lady, Eunice Habersham, who had known Lucas’ wife, Millie, agrees to help and the two of them, together with Aleck Sander, a black contemporary of Chick, go to the grave. When they dig it up, they are surprised to find that it does not contain Vinson Gowrie’s body but that of another man. They go and tell Chick’s uncle (an attorney) and the sheriff. When they are finally listened to and they get out to the grave again, they now find it empty. Of course, it all turns out right in the end and the guilty party is apprehended and manages to kill himself in prison.
Once again, Faulkner tells a first-class story but, unlike most of his others, this one has elements of suspense. However, it is also clearly a criticism of the treatment of African-Americans in the South and Faulkner certainly presses this point home. As always, it is sometimes difficult to follow but is still one of his most approachable and was also one of the most commercially successful of his novels.
First published 1948 by Random House