Book Review: When Cicadas Cry

07 May 2024

Charleston lawyer debuts first novel, a Southern legal thriller

By Jenny Peterson

Caroline Cleveland grew up in the town of Walterboro, SC, about 50 miles from downtown Charleston. It’s a small town dotted with churches, long, ragged dirt roads and is the setting for her debut Southern legal thriller When Cicads Cry.

The book starts off with a grisly murder scene in a church after-hours with a suspect, a young black man named Sam Jenkins, found by authorities standing over a young white woman’s body, with literal blood on his hands.

Sam declares his innocence and his grandfather, Eli Jenkins, hires Zach Strander, a young white bootstrapping lawyer from Charleston to take on the high-profile case in the small town. Eli met Zach at a free legal clinic for small criminal matters and happened to keep his business card. Zach warily decides to take the case and we learn he has his own redemption story.

Tension builds as readers toggle between narrators Zach and the real murderer—seemingly a bystander in the courtroom watching it all unfold—which adds to the tension and intrigue.

The fast-paced courtroom drama delves into racial issues with many familiar references to the real-life Lowcountry—mentions of the Post and Courier newspaper, Mother Emmanual AME church, Pluff Mud beer and of course, cicadas, whose nighttime rhythmic buzzing represents the distinct sound of the summer for many in the South. The insects are mentioned throughout the novel, from the street name where the church is located to their buzzing being noted by main characters during moments of reflection.

Woven into Sam’s court proceedings are colorful small-town local characters, including judges, police officers and investigators. Eli is also a lovable grandfather—a man who has been around the block long enough to know the odds are stacked against his grandson, yet puts his faith in the young lawyer.

Eli’s friend, Colleton Burns, a fellow old-timer and retired criminal lawyer, is enlisted to help assist with the case, offering comic relief and a trained hand at dealing with the local law enforcement. Zach’s whip-smart love interest, Addie, also proves to be a valuable asset.

It turns out, the murder case isn’t as cut-and-dry as it appears. A chilling separate cold case unfolds during the trial that’s bigger than anyone could have imagined.

This Southern legal thriller is Cleveland’s love letter to her days growing up in Walterboro reading books and eventually attending law school. Now living in Charleston, she practices employment law at the firm she founded, Cleveland & Conley, LLC, representing public employers, including members of law enforcement. It’s clear in the novel that Cleveland has a grasp on the court’s due process with a knack for dialogue.

“I think fiction, at its best, imitates real life,” Cleveland said. “Sometimes when I’m reading John Grisham’s books, I wonder if he’s stumbled across my high school yearbook.”

The idea for When Cicadas Cry had been in her mind for years, but she began writing it in earnest in 2017 and already has plans to write more books—even possibly a sequel.

Cleveland says it’s kismet that When Cicadas Cry officially comes out on May 7, there will be an an expected record-breaking emergence of billions of cicadas throughout the South.

“As I worked to weave a sense of place into the story, cicadas followed naturally since their whirring dominates our skies here in the late spring and early summer,” Cleveland said. “I had no way of knowing that this year, a large 17-year brood and a large 13-year brood would emerge simultaneously. I am choosing to see that as a good omen!”


Check out Caroline Cleveland’s press events for the release of When Cicadas Cry to meet the author and pick up a copy.

Buxton Books

160 King St., Charleston

Monday, May 6

6 p.m.

Main Street Reads

115 S Main S.t, Summerville

Tuesday, May 7

6:30 p.m.

Second Sunday

King St., Charleston

Sunday, May 12

1 p.m.

Itinerant Literate Books

4824 Chateau Ave., North Charleston

Thursday, June 27

7 p.m.

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