Book Review: Chiefs by Stuart Woods

First published in 1981, Chiefs follows the town of Delano, Georgia over the course of five decades.

Delano starts out as a small, rural town, one that sit uneasily on the dividing line between the old and the new South.  Under the leadership of forward-thinking civic leaders like Hugh Holmes, the town starts to grow.  And, like any growing town, it needs a chief of police to maintain the peace.  In 1919, a simple but honest farmer named Will Henry Lee is selected as the town’s first chief of police.  Not selected is the wealthy Foxy Funderburke.  That’s probably for the best because Will Lee is determined to do a good job and fairly treat all of the town’s citizens, regardless of their race or their economic class.  Foxy, meanwhile, is a serial killer who has been killing young men and dumping their bodies all over the county.

Chiefs tells the story of three men who serve as Chief of Police while Delano grows and Foxy continues to murder anyone that he can get his hands on.  Will Henry Lee is followed by Sonny Butts, a war hero who soon turns out to be a corrupt and racist psychopath.  Sonny is eventually followed by Tucker Watts.  As the town’s first black police chief, Tucker has to deal with both racism and Foxy Funderburke’s murders.  However, Tucker himself has a secret of his own, one that links him back to the very first chief of police.

Chiefs is kind of all over the place.  Not only does the novel follow the growth of Delano and the decades-long investigation into all of Foxy Funderburke’s murders but it also finds time for appearances from Franklin D. Roosevelt and a subplot about Billy Lee, Will Henry Lee’s son, running for governor of Georgia and potentially replacing LBJ as Kennedy’s running mate in 1964.  (The President, of course, explains that he’ll make his decision after returning from Dallas.)  At times, it gets to be a bit too much.  The mystery of the Delano murders too often gets pushed aside for the far less interesting political stuff.  Chiefs was Stuart Woods’s first novel and he makes the common first-timers mistake of trying to cram too much into his story.

The book is at its best when it just sticks to Delano.  Foxy Funderburke is not just a murderer but also a symbol of the times when there law was only arbitrarily enforced in the former Confederacy and wealthy, white landowners could pretty much do whatever they wanted without having to worry about the consequences.  Foxy represents the old ways and each chief, even the evil Sonny Butts, represents just a little bit of progress towards the new way.  Though his prose is rarely memorable, Stuart Woods was a good storyteller and Foxy Funderburke is a memorable villain.  (And, to be honest, Foxy Funderburke is a brilliant name.)  Even if their characterizations aren’t particularly deep (Will Lee is honest, Sonny is narcissistic, Tucker is determined to prove himself), the three men who oppose him are all worthy adversaries and it’s interesting see how, over several decades, the three of them each finds a different piece of the puzzle until Foxy’s true nature is finally exposed.  Will Henry Lee may not have known Sonny Butts and Sonny certainly would never have even spoken to Tucker Watts but, in a way, the three of them work together to solve the town’s greatest mystery.

In the end, the book appealed to the side of me that loves a mystery and it also appealed to my dedicated history nerd side.  Chiefs is flawed but compelling.

One response to “Book Review: Chiefs by Stuart Woods

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 9/26/22 — 10/2/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

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