Night transfigures a college campus, especially in winter. Especially in northern latitudes.

Charming architecture turns spooky. Gothic towers brood. Footsteps echo under archways. Cold shadows take over dimly lit quadrangles. Bare branches and snow accent the bleakness.

"Campuses can be terribly scary places," says Stephen L. Carter.

That makes them wonderful places to set a thriller, which is what Yale law professor Carter does in his second novel, New England White (Knopf, $26.95).

Carter will read from the book, answer questions and sign copies tonight at 7 at the Free Library's Central Library.

He calls New England White "an entertainment," and, indeed, it is. It's a book to be read with feet propped up, beach fare for the literati.

Dry of wit, ironic of tone, prodding here and poking fun there, New England White is both a murder mystery and an astute reconnaissance through the tangled territory of race and religion, marriage and family, politics and academia.

Reviews have been generally enthusiastic, as they were for Carter's first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, although some reviewers have complained that the plot has a few twists too many.

The tale begins when Lemaster Carlyle, president of a prestigious New England university (which is never identified but bears a strong resemblance to Yale) and his wife, Julia, deputy dean of the divinity school, find an economics professor shot to death on a lonely road one cold, snowy night.

The murdered prof, Kellen Zant, also was the beautiful Julia's former lover.

It turns out that Zant had been working on a mysterious project when he was killed and had left Julia a puzzling series of clues about what it was.

Even more troubling, Julia finds that Zant had been communicating with Vanessa, her troubled teenage daughter.

Julia becomes obsessed with the murder, moving to center stage as she throws herself into amateur sleuthing. Finding inner resources she never thought she had, Julia inches closer and closer to the truth.

The plot is convoluted, no doubt about it, but Carter says that he did not set out to make it so.

He explains that, for him, the key to crafting a story is "to allow the complications to proceed plausibly from the relationships among the characters, instead of inventing new twists."

Complications flow aplenty from Carter's characters.

The Carlyles are African Americans (as is Carter), living in what Lemaster Carlyle likes to call "the heart of whiteness."

That fact alone inevitably makes race, still so sore an issue for America, an unavoidable element in New England White.

Relations between what Carter calls "the darker nation" and "the paler nation" take up a lot of the book's real estate.

Carter doesn't let white America off the hook for its lingering prejudice, but he says he didn't fashion New England White as a sermon on race relations.

Much of the novel is a portrait of the marriage of Lemaster and Julia - perfect on the surface, tense underneath.

Both are members of the African American elite that Carter chronicled so lovingly in The Emperor of Ocean Park and does so again here.

Lemaster has been a federal judge and a presidential counsel. Julia is the daughter of a Dartmouth professor.

"I was trying to design a marriage that would seem perfect to the outside world, and only Julia would understand the tensions," Carter says.

"Lemaster is stern and distant, but he would never hurt her. She knows he would always take care of her. But there's never a point where it seems Julia really loves Lemaster."

But the duty-driven Lemaster provided a devastated Julia with protection after the disastrous end of her long-ago affair with Zant.

Carter is careful to endow his characters with blemishes.

Not for him the thriller hero "who sees everything more clearly than everyone else, and whose motives are pure. To me, that kind of hero went out with classical antiquity.

"My view is all the characters should be complicated. I'm not comfortable if characters seem perfect or larger than life."

Carter gives considerable attention to one aspect of life that thrillers generally ignore: religion.

Lemaster, an immigrant from Barbados, is a conservative Episcopalian, a devotee of the 1928 Anglican Book of Common Prayer: "Lemaster Carlyle ran a traditional Anglican home and took a perverse pride in not caring who knew it."

Julia, despite her divinity school post, struggles with belief.

"It seems to me that in modern literature, very few characters have religious lives unless religion is part of the plot," Carter says. He finds this odd in a nation that professes overwhelmingly a belief in God.

With a third novel on the way next year, another thriller, Carter at age 52 is facing a career choice - one he would dearly like to avoid.

His wife, fellow Yale Law School alum Enola Aird, who Carter says "reads just about everything before I send it to my editor," wants him to choose between being a full-time legal scholar and a full-time novelist.

It's a decision that Carter, who does his writing on nights and weekends, says he is "trying not to face" - one that even the masterful Lemaster might have trouble making.

Contact staff writer Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or mschaffer@phillynews.com.