Briarpatch by Ross Thomas is a great novel about corruption, bigotry and racism in small town America. The following few paragraphs set the tone of the book and illuminate the seedy side of America in a wonderfully subtle way.
In 1915, two years before America’s entry into the First World War, a prosperous dentist who went by the name of Dr Mortimer Cherry bought seven sections of scrub land 6.7 miles north of the city limits and proceeded to lay out what eventually would become the state’s most exclusive suburb. He called it Cherry Hills.
There would be, Dr Cherry decided, no straight streets – only gently curving drives, twisting lanes and perhaps two or three sweeping boulevards. Furthermore, all street names would have a pronounced English lilt: Drury Lane, Sloane Way, Chelsea Drive, and so on. The minimum lot – for the merely affluent – would be 100 feet wide and 150 feet deep. The rich would build on parcels as large as ten, or even fifteen acres.
By 1917, the lots were plotted, the streets surveyed, and grading was about to start when the country entered the war. Dr Cherry wisely decided to postpone further development until after the war’s end.
In early February 1919, the Tribune ran a front-page story revealing that Dr Cherry had been born into what it called the Hebrew faith as Mordecai Cherowski in either Poland or the Ukraine. The Tribune never did pinpoint the exact location. But it managed to convince nearly everyone that Dr Cherry was no real dentist. True, the Tribune admitted, he had pulled a lot of teeth down in Texas, but that had been when he was a medical-orderly trusty in the Huntsville State Prison, serving two years for fraud. Released in 1909, Dr Cherry had changed his name and moved to the city where he set up practice. His credentials consisted of a diploma from Wichita Falls dental college that hung proudly in his reception room. His practice thrived and almost everybody agreed he was an awfully good dentist. The Tribune revealed that the diploma was a fake. On March 1, 1919, Dr Cherry drove home from his now nonexistent practice, locked the bathroom door, and shot himself in the head. He was forty-nice years old.
In the late summer of 1919, the development known as Cherry Hills was acquired for next to nothing by the oil millionaire Philip K ‘Ace’ Dawson, an ex-bootlegger and card sharp from Beaumont who had once done a six month stretch in Huntsville himself. Ace Dawson held a two-thirds interest of the development. The remaining third was owned by his silent partner, James B. Hartsthorne, the twenty nine year old editor and publisher of the Tribune.