Tom Stall is thrust into the middle of an investigation by the Florida state legislature’s Johns Committee. As the new acting chairman of the English Department of the University of Florida at Gainesville, Stall is pushed by the university president to feed him information about the committee’s doings. As a man with a past known to a committee henchman, Stall is pushed to further the committee’s objectives.
The Committee recalls the sordid Red and Lavender Scare period and its tool, the Johns Committee, named after its first chairman and acting Florida governor Charley Johns. From 1956 to 1968, the Johns Committee led wide-ranging investigations of suspected communist organizations, civil rights groups, and homosexuals in the state’s schools and colleges. It was responsible for removing more than 100 deans, professors, and teachers and expelling students for homosexual activity.
The narrative presents academic life and academics with authenticity. Watson relies on his own prior experience in the English Department at the University of Florida. Themes contrast the views of the individual versus those focused on the common or collective good. Dialogue is smart, quick, and realistic.
The plot strains and weakens when it falls into standard thriller mode and builds on not wholly believable motivations and actions. Its concentration on Stall shifts attention away from, and neglects to give voice to, the targets of the investigation and the tactics they endured.
The Committee nevertheless is a captivating read and an absorbing tale about the abuses that can arise from intolerance and prejudice. It carries a warning from the past to the siloed, fractured communities of today.