It isn’t every day that a medical historian and law professor calls you about a cold case you worked on nearly 60 years ago. For professor Michael Meltsner, that call led into the Northeastern archives, and ultimately to a new book.
Meltsner is the George J. and Kathleen Waters Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law at Northeastern University, and his new novel, “Mosaic: Who Paid for the Bullet?” dramatizes the investigation of a murdered doctor in the Jim Crow-era South of the 1960s.
Meltsner’s second novel, “Mosaic” follows Christopher North, a fictional lawyer who traces the killing to the highest centers of power. But the novel’s inciting incident comes from a case Meltsner had a professional investment with in the 1960s.
“While still a green lawyer,” Meltsner says, in the early 1960s he was hired by future Justice of the Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall, working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title VI of that act, institutions that receive federal money cannot discriminate on the basis of race.
“We had to, at the Legal Defense Fund, engage in filing complaints with the government,” Meltsner says. Meltsner and his colleagues’ work “obtained real compliance” from health care institutions, “but there were holdouts.”
One such holdout was a hospital in Mobile, Alabama. “The federal government desperately wanted this facility to be integrated,” Meltsner remembers. “They sent a high official down there… [who] contacted the doctor who was providing information to the feds, basically acting as a mole. And within ten days, she was found dead on her front porch.”
The community’s reaction, Meltsner recalls, was dismissive. Many claimed the doctor’s death was an accident, or the result of a crime of passion, “and the events were forgotten.”
Fast forward nearly 60 years. After Meltsner was contacted by a historian who believed that this was a case of murder, Meltsner worked with Northeastern law professor Margaret Burnham and her Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project to look for more evidence.
“They looked into it, but they didn’t find anything, because there’s nothing there anymore. Everyone is dead. And the documentary trail is meager to say the most,” Meltsner says.
But as time passed, Meltsner realized that the absence of known facts might just make solid ground for a novel. “Two weeks later, I just realized I couldn’t let it go. I knew how to write a novel.”
“Mosaic” is historical fiction, Meltsner says, but “even true crime fiction, which is what this book is, is a way of commenting on the present through the past.”
It’s a present that needs discussion, because, Meltsner says, “the promise of the Civil Rights era is in the process of being disregarded and even canceled on many fronts,” including health care.
Storytelling is “a way of moving people,” he says. And the story in “Mosaic” “is true, if not factual.”
“In other words,” Meltsner continues, “many of the characters in this book emerged from what I know of a decades-long work in the Civil Rights Movement, and my knowledge of this particular context. And so my aim was to produce the same kind of situation and conflicts and mysteries that are real, even though they are products of my imagination.”
And the case hasn’t been given up yet. Meltsner says that the U.S. Department of Justice “acting under the Cold Case Act and the Emmett Till Act, has recently, after the publication of the novel, decided to investigate the killing.”
It may be that “Mosaic” is simply another piece in a puzzle that will one day be solved.
Meltsner and Northeastern law professor Daniel Medwed will be in conversation about their new books at the Cambridge Public Library at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 17. Medwed recently published “Barred: Why the Innocent Can’t Get Out of Prison.”