No Truth Left to Tell
Michael McAuliffe’s No Truth Left to Tell is a spellbinding, suspenseful, and important contemporary novel. He uses complex characters and his own professional experiences to address issues of race, justice, and morality. I suspect his career of public service enabled him to write a novel that so captures reality.
No Truth Left to Tell opens with a flashback to July 1920; a moment in time in Lynwood, Louisiana, when Nettie Wynn, a young black girl, witnesses the lynching of a black man in the town square. This despicable act of hatred robs Nettie of her childhood and reveals the insidious racism infecting her town.
The story moves to 1994. Nettie, now an old woman, still lives in the same house she grew up in. The Ku Klux Klan attacks Lynwood with several cross burnings, including one on Nettie’s lawn. McAuliffe vividly recounts: “[T]he crosses reminded the good folks of Lynwood that a single night of wood, smoke, and fear could pollute the present.” The story’s protagonist, Adrien Rush, is sent to Lynwood to investigate. Rush is a young, eager attorney in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. In Rush, McAuliffe aptly portrays the life of a prosecutor living out of a suitcase. McAuliffe eloquently describes Rush’s interactions with Nettie, her high-powered journalist granddaughter, local law enforcement, the local U.S. attorney, and FBI agent Lee Mercer.
What follows is an intriguing series of events that forces Rush to tackle tough legal and moral questions. What are a prosecutor’s obligations? What happens when an individual’s rights conflict with justice for victims? Does it matter if that individual is both guilty and an evil person? Is it excusable to “cut down laws to get to the Devil”? Should one compromise principle if it preserves justice? As Mercer tells Rush, “Do rights cry? Because victims do.” Rush struggles with these questions while dealing with racists, crooked cops, and unhappy victims.
Rush’s challenges brought me back to my days as a prosecutor, when I received a certificate upon joining the SDNY that required “commitment to absolute integrity and fair play.” I also harken back to the wisdom of the Supreme Court in Berger: The prosecution’s interest is in finding that justice is done, not in winning. These words still have tremendous meaning considering the decisions Rush faces.
McAuliffe’s prose is masterful. In a particularly moving moment, Nettie testifies at trial, “I live by myself, but dear, I’ve got a house full of memories, so I’m never alone.” He also explains important legal concepts in a way that is relatable. McAuliffe gives the best description of a federal grand jury that I have ever read, and he does so in four pages. I really could not put this compelling novel down. I look forward to McAuliffe’s next book.