By Ken Tucker
Updated June 25, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Stephen L. Carter’s 2002 best-selling fiction debut, The Emperor of Ocean Park, introduced many readers not only to a fresh voice for big-canvas suspense but also to an insider’s look into what the author frequently calls ”the darker nation”: the black upper middle class of America. Carter’s new novel plucks two minor characters from his first tale, husband-and-wife academics Lemaster and Julia Carlyle, and makes them the protagonists — the refined action heroes, as it were — of New England White.

Lemaster, the president of a prestigious university (hint: Carter is a law professor at Yale), and Julia, deputy dean of the university’s divinity school, are ”the most celebrated couple in African America’s lonely Harbor County outpost.” Driving home from an academic function one snowy night, they come upon the body of a dead man: professor Kellen Zant, an esteemed economist and, we soon discover, a former lover of Julia’s before her marriage. Julia suspects foul play, in part because she had seen Zant three days before his death and he’d spoken cryptically of needing ”her help.”

To solve the mystery of Kellen Zant’s death, Julia becomes an amateur sleuth — she reminded me of a younger version of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, polite yet persistent. But she’s a Miss Marple with four children, including daughter Vanessa, a high-strung, troubled girl who has her own connection to Zant, which may or may not be a product of her vivid fantasy life. If Carter’s first novel drew apt comparisons to Scott Turow’s legal thrillers, New England White reads more like a Ross Macdonald mystery, steeped in intergenerational conflicts that draw both the characters and the reader into a swirl of complex, charged emotions.

I was glad when Julia began taking control of both the mystery and the book, because frankly, her husband is often a pompous bore. And the fact that, for comic effect, the author has Julia regularly puncture this well-dressed gasbag doesn’t entirely prevent Lemaster from dragging down the book’s pace. There are only so many times one wants to hear variations on the notion that, for Lemaster, ”nothing is more important than our honor.”

What one does want to hear about are the specific details of black social life on this rarefied level, a subject rarely broached in contemporary fiction. Carter describes the intricacies of the social clubs of ”the upper reaches of the darker nation,” whose ”memberships mattered in a way [Julia’s] white friends never quite understood” — as repositories of social histories, as refuges from racism. If the solution to the murder isn’t quite the shocker this book needs, Carter’s novel of manners within this thriller is satisfying indeed.