Raleigh Harmon, F.B.I. agent, has just survived a disciplinary transfer to the Bureau’s Seattle, Washington field office. Happily back home in Richmond, Virginia, she is willing to suffer the humiliation of being assigned a dilapidated K car, assigned to monitoring phone calls between suspecting gang members dealing drugs and arms, and regular briefings with her supervisor in order to remain in her native Richmond.
Rap mogul R.P.M. has taken up residence just outside Richmond on a historic plantation, where he has made renovations that had greatly disturbed some of the native residents, especially Flynn Harrington. Flynn is equally as upset about the rap music that seems to emanate from the plantation R.P.M. has re-christened “Rapland” and the parties he throws for his celebrity friends, replete with a red carpet for their entrances and plenty of media attention.
When someone sets an extremely large cross ablaze near Rapland’s main house, Raleigh is assigned to investigate the hate crime. She soon learns that two highly unusual and toxic accelerants were used to carry out the crime while R.P.M. was at home, along with his wife, children, extended family members, and security squad. Raleigh also sadly learns that the Ku Klux Klan is not extinct in the Richmond area. In fact, a new generation of clan members are keeping the organization alive, and the identity of some of the group’s members comes as quite a shock to Raleigh.
But is the Ku Klux Klan behind the attacks upon R.P.M. and his beloved Rapland? And if not, who is trying to drive him and his family out of Richmond — and why? And can Raleigh stay in her supervisor’s good graces long enough to solve the case? After all, Christmas is fast approaching and she has been given strict orders to come up with answers before the New Year, or she might just find herself working out of the agency’s Bismark, North Dakota office!
The Clouds Roll Away is the third book in the Raleigh Harmon series by Sibella Giorello. But like the first two volumes, The Stones Cry Out and The Rivers Run Dry, it can be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone selection.
Giorello’s supporting cast, including her widowed mother, Nadine, with whom she resides in the carriage house adjacent to her mother’s residence, as well as Nadine’s boarder, Wally, a photographer who is working for R.P.M., and an eclectic assortment of gangsters and law enforcement officers help keep the story interesting and the action moving along. Of course, from the outset, the premise was intriguing: An African-American superstar rapper and entertainment mogul living on a southern plantation suddenly becomes the target of a series of increasingly bold, violent, and deadly hate crimes. The F.B.I. needs to solve the crime before anyone else is harmed, but also make sure that the perpetrators are captured quickly in order to minimize damage to the agency’s reputation amid accusations that its agents are not exactly scrambling to solve the case, considering the identity and status of the victim, and the locale.
The story lives up to its promise. Raleigh’s time is split between working on the R.P.M. matter and listening in on telephone conversations between local gang members who are manufacturing and marketing crystal meth. When another agent is too sick to assist a confidential informant’s scheduled buy, Raleigh agrees to work his shift for him and ensure that Sully gets the drugs and delivers the information the Bureau is looking for. But when the buy goes terribly wrong, Raleigh has only split seconds to find a way to save herself — and Sully. Her methods are hardly “by the book,” leading to more time spent sitting across the desk from her supervisor, wondering if she is going to find herself again banished to a remote field office far away from her beloved Richmond. That’s assuming, of course, that she still has a career at all by that point.
The various incidents to which Raleigh attends appear to be isolated . . . or are they? Giorello cleverly places Raleigh in the thick of several seemingly unrelated events before providing clues to her readers that all is not as it appears on the surface. Could the initials found at the scene of the hate crimes, “KKK,” have more than one meaning? Is there a connection between the gang members from whom Sully has purchased drugs for the Bureau and R.P.M. and his associates? And how can two obsolete chemical compounds figure into each of the hate crimes when U.S. government records indicate that the supply of each was either destroyed years ago or remains under tight security with no portion of the supply unaccounted for?
I wanted to read a mystery with a “normal” Christian, going about her difficult work in a gritty city. I wanted readers to see her Christian struggle, how a life of faith does not mean everything is sunshine and light. . . . Those are the valleys we all walk through. We’re not perfect. But we are forgiven through grace.~ Author Sibella Giorello
After laying an intricate foundation comprised of data, incidents, and characters, Giorello then expertly sets about explaining the ways in which they all intersect and connect. At that point, the story unfolds at warp speed with each previous clue taking on new meaning and leading to the deftly timed revelation of how it fits neatly into the overarching storyline. There is no putting the book down, at that point, because it becomes a rush to see if you guessed correctly.
The Clouds Roll Away is not without some heart-tuggingly poignant moments. Raleigh deeply misses her father, a judge whose murder several years ago remains unsolved. She reveals that his clothes remain in his closet, as she has been unable to bring herself to clear it out. And her mother, Nadine, seems to be trying to cope with widowhood by cooking — badly — the family’s favorite dishes and resuming church attendance in outfits that Raleigh finds shockingly conservative and out of character. Raleigh is dismayed by the fact that telling lies to her mother, who believes Raleigh is a mineralogist rather than agent, is becoming increasingly easy, but struggles with the idea of finally telling her mother the truth. But Giorello cleverly and humorously lightens the mood periodically with her insertion of Christmas carol lyrics into the narration. As Raleigh experiences the sounds of the season while traveling and working in and about Richmond, she observes, for instance, that her mother is playing old Christmas records and “Rosemary Clooney is telling us all of our troubles are out of sight.”
Raleigh is a Christian and at a couple of points in the story, she offers up prayers for her mother, Wally, and others. There are also some important references to the role her faith plays in her life and work, such as this description of the meaning of the book’s title:
Outside, the circling column of light bumped against the clouds, striking again and again like a laser trying to carve through a gray ceiling. Watching the futility, I suddenly recalled something from a book that belonged to my father. It contained the writings of a medieval monk who called faith a “cloud o unknowing.” The monk believed God was always with us, but we couldn’t see him because of the thick veil separating us. Only during the briefest moments, mere slivers of time, did the clouds roll away, revealing for us the bright blue of eternity. And then, just as quickly, the clouds returned, leaving us to walk by faith, not by sight.
However, Raleigh’s spirituality is neither the focus nor impetus of the story. It is, rather, simply an aspect of the character that assists the reader in understanding her motivations, fears, and frustrations, “without the need to beat [readers] over the head with her Christianity,” Giorello explains. Giorello’s minimalist approach to the religious facts of her main character may stem from her own philosophy. She describes herself as a believer “above all. . . And because I know who saves, not what, I tend to break out in hives around religious people.”
Of course there is a little bit of romance. Raleigh’s on-again, off-again relationship with DeMott Fielding is woven into the plot, as well. DeMott wants to be with Raleigh . . . but does she return his feelings and can she make a lifetime commitment to him, especially after all that has happened with his family?
There is some violence and a couple of disturbing scenes in The Clouds Roll Away, an inventive, contemporary, and expertly paced tale. “I try to make my writing gritty and realistic without being over the top,” Giorello notes. In Raleigh, she has created an empathetic and likable protagonist, “a tough heroine that has a backbone.”