Although this is ostensibly the story of Christian Prince, a 19-year-old Yale University student shot to death as he was returning to his off-campus New Haven apartment on a Saturday night in 1991, and of the high school dropout once accused—but not convicted—of killing him, it is actually something far more ambitious. For Geoffrey Douglas, a New Hampshire newspaperman, the murder and its aftermath are a jumping-off point for the author's troubled ruminations on the subject of race and class in America.
Neither the family of the victim, the product of a comfortable white home in the Washington suburbs, nor of his alleged assailant, a feckless black teenager with a lengthening arrest record, are likely to appreciate being chosen as paradigms, yet Douglas is hardly dismissive of the feelings of either. Rather, he is more interested in the collision of Prince and James "Dune" Fleming—if, in fact, there was one—as symptomatic of an appalling social cancer.
Though Prince's murder remains officially unsolved—the accused was convicted only of conspiracy to commit robbery—Douglas's position seems to be that if Fleming didn't do it, someone like him probably did. His position, put briefly, is that poor inner-city blacks, beaten down by poverty and joblessness and bereft of any realistic faith in the future, are no longer an underclass but rather no class at all. He sees them, not un-sympathetically, as morally exhausted nonbelievers in the civic values that make democracy work, with disastrous consequences both for them and for the larger society. Impassioned and polemical, Douglas's slim book lacks the depth and breadth of Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas's Pulitizer Prize-winning 1985 study of race relations in Boston, but it raises important questions at a time when our bankrupt answer to crime is more prisons. (Holt, $22.50)