Shelf Death: The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne

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Review: The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, by Elsa Hart
Minotaur, 2020. 341 pp. $27

Lady Cecily Kay doesn’t quite understand why her husband, consul in Smyrna for His Majesty James II, has dispatched her back to England, where she can cause no further trouble. After all, if Cecily didn’t point out the oddities in her husband’s financial ledgers, who would? And why wouldn’t he want the benefit of her sharp eyes?

But despite her humiliating departure from the conjugal nest, Lady Kay’s about to have more adventure than she ever could in Smyrna, and in much the same fashion, asking questions that men don’t wish to answer. (Since it’s 1699, London men expect women to listen like donkeys waiting to have their hind legs talked off, but the devil with that.) So when Cecily tours the famous, coveted collection of Sir Barnaby Mayne, a cornucopia of the natural and folkloric worlds, and someone knifes the collector to death, it’s incumbent on Lady Kay to act. Not only do curiosity and scientific rigor demand no less; justice must be served.

My favorite collector, Joseph Banks, as painted by Joshua Reynolds, 1773. President of the Royal Society for more than forty years, Banks established Kew Gardens as the leading botanical collection in the world (courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Dinley, Sir Barnaby’s assistant, has confessed to the killing and run away. But anyone with an open mind who’s met him for five minutes would believe he’s innocent. If ever there were a naturalist who cringed and blushed over the red-in-tooth-and-claw aspects of his passion, it would be Dinley—and besides, what motive could he have had? However, since Sir Barnaby was a gentleman of title and property, as are most of the visitors on the tour that day, whereas Dinley’s a nobody, a confession and flight are enough evidence to hang him.

Nobody takes kindly to Lady Kay’s inquiries as to the time of the murder, who was where in the house then, and what may be deduced from such observations. As we’ve seen, though, subtlety’s not her strong point. She does have one ally, however, a childhood friend from a lower social class, who’s temporarily residing in the Mayne manse, working as an illustrator for the collector’s intended catalog. But it takes a while for Cecily to trust Meacan, who, like Cecily, is less than forthcoming—a nice touch, there—and the two never do quite get over their competition to solve the mystery, another nice touch.

They also have different approaches, since Meacan, who’s gone through two husbands, isn’t above using flirtation to surmount an obstacle. I like that too, especially because Hart shows a light hand, not playing that too far. Unfortunately for the two sleuths, however, by the time they decide to let their hair down and join forces, Lady Mayne, the imperious, estranged widow, shows up. The investigation promptly hits a wall, namely, the prohibition to meddle in the constabulary’s business.

Hart constructs her mystery with consummate skill and, as you’ve probably guessed by now, deployed “no—and furthermore” to great advantage. There are many suspects, each with plausible secrets to protect, and the narrative openly reveals all the facts. But unless you’re a better detective than I, you won’t guess the killer’s identity or much else, which keeps the pages turning and offers a satisfying conclusion.

Along the way, Hart casts a keen eye on everything from late-seventeenth-century foppishness to attitudes toward the occult to collecting as blood sport to foodways — imagine, to eat any vegetable raw, especially a radish! Consider this description of Sir Barnaby himself:

Though age had made him frail, thinning his cheeks to translucence and carving furrows around his eyes, the authority projected over the space around him was unambiguous. His shoulders, encased in black velvet, appeared broader than they were, as if they were approaching breadth and volume from the darkness surrounding them. He wore a gray wig that rose high above his brow and fell in luxurious curls down his chest, framing the pristine lace that cascaded from his collar.

Another delight in these pages is the humor. For example, Hart offers us a would-be collector with more money than brains, a sycophant whom everyone quickly learns to avoid. Lady Mayne is a hoot, stiffer alive than her late husband dead, convinced, with barely repressed shudders, that collecting is a godless obsession. But my favorite is a Russian general, whose verbal duels with Lady Kay are hilarious, further evidence in her eyes of what blockheads men can be.

If I have one reservation about this novel, it’s the climactic scene, which invokes more than a couple tropes. But maybe it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, which would fit. The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne is a delight.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.

She Beats the Boys at Their Own Game: Spitfire

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Review: Spitfire, by M. L. Huie
Crooked Lane, 2020. 320 pp. $27

June 1946 marks about a year since Olivia Nash’s war ended, but peace hasn’t reached her yet, and may never. Living in a vodka bottle, behind on her rent for her London flat, Livy’s stuck in a proofreading job at a third-rate newspaper, which she’s unlikely to keep much longer. Wartime memories plague her like the Furies, but she can’t even tell anyone or share her stories, for what she did was very hush-hush: She parachuted into France as a secret agent and fought with the Resistance. The Germans nicknamed her Spitfire.

Most people would find proofreading dull after those exploits, but for Livy, it’s killing her. She’s furious and bereft, and nothing can assuage the pain. However, just when she’s at her lowest, a man with an aristocratic bearing and an air of the skirt-chaser tracks her down, offering a job in “journalism.” Livy suspects it’s an elaborate ploy of seduction, but she has nothing left to lose, so she goes to the address on the man’s business card. And when her would-be employer, Ian Fleming, pushes the Official Secrets Act form across his desk, Livy signs. She won’t be writing or reporting; she’ll be spying.

Old Admiralty Building, London, where Ian Fleming worked for Naval Intelligence during World War II, as it appeared in 2010 (courtesy Tim Gage, via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons)

Regrets follow. Fleming tells her that the Frenchman who betrayed her and their group leader, whom she loved, belongs to a network very much alive and kicking. The British want the names of agents in the network, as do the Soviets and Americans, and her assignment is to go to Paris and obtain the list. Livy wants nothing to do with the traitor, let alone aid his prospects for employment by His Majesty’s Secret Service. But she accepts the job all the same (otherwise, there wouldn’t be a novel), whereupon Fleming sends her to charm school for two weeks, to file down her sass and her Lancashire manners and accent.

Those scenes are a lot of fun. Rest assured that our heroine will learn how to drink tea properly and mingle with diplomats, but plenty of sass remains. In Paris, she meets an American agent to whom she’s attracted, but that’s a trap, so she turns down his repeated offers to work together. When he complains that they both want the same thing, so why not? Livy retorts, “Really now, me mum raised me right.”

Another pleasure of Spitfire is the story. “No — and furthermore” blooms on almost every page, it seems, and bears lasting fruit. Double-crosses (or, shall we say, shifting alliances) continually force Livy to scramble, and, as a result, she gets in and causes plenty of trouble. She makes mistakes, sometimes bad ones, but her gifts for tradecraft and her extraordinary courage carry her through. The boys may think she’s just a pretty nonentity, but a few of them wind up on their fat behinds, sometimes literally.

Huie spends little ink on scenery, just enough to give a flavor of postwar London and Paris. Sometimes I wanted specific rather than generic descriptions, but dialogue and action do the work, and Livy’s voice is irresistible:

Livy assumed [the door lock] would be of a certain quality — perhaps tougher to spring than one in an average flat. Still, burglary had been on the curriculum at the SOE camp, and she’d picked more than a few locks in her day, though never while wearing a tight satin dress in a hallway in one of the best hotels in the world — but there had to be a first time for everything.

I don’t understand why Livy likes the American agent; then again, she’s shown poor judgment in her life about men. I’m also not convinced by a particular, crucial double-cross, despite the amount of space that the narrative gives to explain it. On a pickier note, I can’t stand the word impact as a verb — it’s business-speak — and I doubt very much whether Englishmen and -women of 1946 would have used it. But pickiness aside, I enjoyed Spitfire, and I think many readers would too.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Saving the Queen from Herself: Lamentation

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Review: Lamentation, by C. J. Sansom
Mulholland/Little, Brown, 2015. 656 pp. $19

In summer 1546, Henry VIII’s much-abused, overindulged body begins to fail, and the London court vultures jostle for a perch from which to become regent for the next king, the boy Prince Edward. Religious conflict will likely determine who triumphs in this struggle, and those deemed heretics pay with their lives, often at the stake. In this combustible atmosphere, Queen Catherine, who’d like to be regent for her stepson, has made a potentially fatal blunder. In secret, without telling Henry, she has written a religious confession, Lamentation of a Sinner, which wouldn’t pass theological muster, and which has been stolen.

Very likely, the thief acted on behalf of a powerful lord who desires her downfall, and there are many of those. Pick your preferred form of treason: disloyalty to the throne, or heresy? Either crime could send Catherine to the block, just like two of her predecessors, whose jewels and clothes she wears. And despite Henry’s ill health, his mind’s still sharp, as are his executioners’ axes.

Queen Catherine Parr (1512-1548), copy of a contemporary portrait after Master John, painted sometime between 1600 and 1770 (courtesy UK National Trust, at Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland, on loan from Lord Hastings; via Wikimedia Commons)

Through her uncle, Lord Parr, she summons Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer who has helped her before with his superior skills at detection and reasoning. A commoner, a hunchback, and more of a free-thinker than he reveals to any but his intimates, Matthew must exercise the greatest caution around ruthless, ambitious courtiers jealous of their prerogatives, who despise him for his looks, birth, and possible heresy.

Accusations of heresy have become an effective, if two-edged, political weapon, often based on such concepts as whether Christ’s blood and flesh appear in fact at communion or symbolically. Given the loose, abstract nature of the argument, any utterance may be (mis)construed according to the hearer’s wishes or prejudices, one way to dispose of an enemy. Further complicating Matthew’s investigation, printers known for or suspected of heretical thinking have been murdered. Did they have the queen’s manuscript? And if so, do the killers possess it now? Do they mean to publish it and destroy the queen that way, or do they have other plans?

Sansom skillfully intertwines these mysteries with the politics of the day. It takes getting used to the notion that anyone would persecute anyone else over such fine distinctions of ritual and believe themselves righteous in doing so. But before long, you understand the mindset that makes this possible, because the social attitudes in this book feel internal to the characters, not merely slipped into their mouths.

To back off this extraordinary novel a second, I’m irritated when I tell people I write historical fiction, and all they focus on is the research I must have to do, as if that were the hard, original part. What about the supreme difficulties of crafting a credible, compelling narrative, in words nobody else has used in exactly that way, and which must pull the reader in on every page? So when I hear such remarks, I’m tempted to reply that anyone can go to the library.

Well, Sansom is the library. He knows every building in sixteenth-century London: which ones stood next to it, what it looked like, who built it, with what materials, who owned it, and how they came by it. That’s just for starters; you see the lords strut, the hangers-on fawn, the supplicants grovel for a sinecure with the great. Among the common folk, you see beggars, lawyers, peddlers, merchants, artisans — you name it. Consider this paragraph describing Matthew’s visit to part of the palace at Whitehall:

He led me to a group of half a dozen richly dressed ladies playing cards at a table in a large window-bay, and we bowed to them. All were expensively made-up, their faces white with ceruse, red spots on their cheeks. All wore silken farthingales, the fronts open to show the brightly embroidered foreparts and huge detachable sleeves, richly embroidered in contrasting colors. . . . A spaniel wandered around, hoping for scraps. . . .

Such knowledge of detail, almost always wielded with impressive dexterity, conveys a dazzlingly rich portrait of Tudor London. To be sure, Sansom occasionally resorts to information dumps, and he sometimes repeats phrases or facts. But in a narrative as long as this one, with as many instances of “no — and furthermore” as I can count, all revolving around Byzantine power struggles, a reminder of who’s in whose camp doing what can be helpful. And talk about pulling the reader in on every page; Lamentation is a mesmerizing story.

The characters appeal to me less. Matthew, aside from his penchant for setting the record straight, which invariably costs his friends, has no great flaw that I can see. Most characters, though rendered in physical vividness, seem ruled by a single trait, or at most, two. But the excellent storytelling and the never-flagging sense of the physical involve you, and you’ll keep guessing the outcome until the end.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Dislocated Souls: Exile Music

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Review: Exile Music, by Jennifer Steil
Viking, 2020. 432 pp. $27

As the 1930s progress, Orly Zingel’s family watches the Austria of their birth turn into an unrecognizable monster, hostile to Jews like them. As a ten-year-old, Orly can’t readily understand how people she’s known all her life, who’ve smiled at her and been friendly, can turn away, call her hateful names, or threaten to have her arrested. Her parents, accomplished professional musicians, are banned from performing.

Anneliese, her closest — only — friend, who lives in the same Vienna apartment building, swears that she’ll stick by Orly, always. That’s a given, for the two are like sisters, absorbed in and devoted to one another. But Anneliese’s parents, who’ve always treated Orly as a favorite niece or even a daughter, now call her filth.

Booted out of the building they own, the Zingels are pushed into a ghetto, and they try to leave Austria. Orly’s older brother, Willi, flees Vienna, hoping to reach Switzerland, and the rest of the family lives in uncertainty about his fate. Her father attempts to obtain exit visas, but the only open doors lead to Shanghai, Dominican Republic, or Bolivia. Father joins the long line snaking from the Bolivian consulate and struggles not to lose hope, especially when the SS sends its thugs to beat and intimidate the would-be emigrants. That’s yet another brutality that Orly can’t understand; if the government wants Jews to leave the country, why put so many obstacles in the way?

La Paz, Bolivia, in winter 2008, with Mt. Illimani in the background (courtesy Mark Goble, via Wikimedia Commons)

From the title and cover illustration, you’ll know that the Zingels eventually reach Bolivia; they settle in La Paz. But in this patient, discursive narrative, there’s plenty of “no — and furthermore” to go around. If you’re wondering how these sophisticated refugees will cope with life in the Andes, their humiliation, emotional losses, and dislocation, Exile Music has plenty to offer.

But besides the expected themes of trauma, culture shock, loss, and chances for regrowth, which the author does a beautiful job exploring in a well-delineated context, she delves into much else. You’ll get such issues as what religion and identity mean; what constitutes “home”; how music and poetry, purveyors of metaphor, may offer hope through connection; and whether revenge and justice coincide.

That’s a lot to put in one novel, but everything belongs. Where the story pushes briefly into the spirit realm, I get impatient, because I don’t believe in that. But Steil ties that theme to Orly’s identity — this is a coming-of-age novel, after all — so it makes sense, and what the author includes about local customs provides a fascinating window on a culture I’ve never read about before.

Throughout, the narrative grounds itself in physical detail, so, for example, you see Austrian anti-Semitism and nationalist fervor merge with ever-increasing strength before your eyes. Orly’s experience, though specific and individual, conveys a general atmosphere with terrifying power. The occasional crowd scene packs a wallop too, as with Kristallnacht or here, the Anschluss, the day German troops took over Austria in March 1938:

A tram swept by, its roof displaying a massive swastika. Across the street I could see a curly-haired girl who used to be in my class; my former math teacher; the waiter from the coffeehaus at the end of the block, their arms all flying upward. They threw flowers at the soldiers, blew kisses as they marched past, cheering the death of our country.

Since by this time, Orly is not allowed to attend school or go to a coffeehaus, you implicitly understand her horror, fear, and deep-seated loneliness.

Steil also portrays the friendship between Orly and Anneliese with tenderness and even passion; it’s more than a little erotic. The girls create, and tell each other stories about, a mythic kingdom where predators have no place and enemies can gain no entry. It’s a lovely touch, and their fantasy won’t change life in the street, but it does give them hope.

Orly’s parents need to come through more clearly; too often, they seem more like attitudes and behaviors than fully fledged characters. But overall, I highly recommend Exile Music, which conveys both the Jewish and émigré experience with a sure hand — and worlds else besides.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Our Natures, and That of Love: To Calais, in Ordinary Time

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Review: To Calais, in Ordinary Time, by James Meek
Canongate, 2019. 400 pp. $27

The summer of 1348, the quiet Cotswold village of Outen Green simmers with unexpected happenings. Lady Bernadine (Berna) Corbet, daughter of the manor, is due to wed a much older man she detests, while the groom’s own daughter will wed Sir Guy Corbet, Berna’s father. A loathsome arrangement, to be sure, but Sir Guy’s word is law. Berna hoped that her preferred suitor, Laurence Haket, would spirit her away — according to the chivalric Romance of the Rose, which she adores, he should have — but Laurence seems to love his dignity more than he does Berna.

Will Quate, a plowman and archer bonded to Sir Guy, has been recruited to join a troop of bowmen raised by Laurence to accompany him to Calais, where Laurence has a fiefdom. Will’s betrothed pleads with Will to stay and doesn’t understand why he refuses. She assumes that it’s because she had a stillborn child by another man, but that’s not why. Sir Guy has promised to release Will from his bond if he serves one year, and Will, no fool, has dared demand that promise in writing, even though he can’t read.

Unlettered though he is, however, he can imagine what freedom means, and not just in the sense that leaving Sir Guy’s lands without permission is a hanging offense. An unusual, fascinating character in historical fiction of the medieval era, Will dares hope for an as-yet undefined future, what his neighbors would never dream of—though when he hears the word possibility, he has to ask what it means, which is telling.

You sense that Will and Berna will drive parallel narratives, and that the nature of love will be a significant theme. As one wise character says, “Love is whatever remains once one has made an accommodation with fate.” Since the description of the plague rumored to have afflicted France (what the characters call “the qualm”) recalls the Black Death, which also fits the timing, you can guess that how people behave during a pandemic will matter here too. The novel, published last year, isn’t prescient, though it may seem so; rather, it’s that pandemics share certain qualities. But the similarities are striking and instructive, nonetheless.

The Battle of Calais, 1350, as it appeared in Jean Froissart’s chronicles, 1410 (courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France, via Wikimedia Commons)

With that as background, Meek’s folk hash out good and evil; the nature of gender; sin and redemption; the fear of, and violence toward, women; desire and obstacles to satisfaction; what knowledge and truth mean. Throw in sidelines like anti-Semitism and whether the English archers who destroyed the French nobility at the Battle of Crécy betrayed the social order, and you begin to see how rich and complex this novel is.

I love Meek’s characters; major or minor, they come through in full. One favorite is Thomas, a scholar who joins the expedition to Calais nominally as a churchman, though he has no power to perform the sacraments, which becomes an issue. But he serves admirably as a mediator amid the constant squabbles and moral dilemmas that arise, and he unsettles his companions — especially the archers, a rough lot — by defining and clarifying issues rather than offering solutions or justifying the behavior he’s been asked to judge. He’s a moral relativist, in other words, frightening to fourteenth-century minds. A later generation might think of him also as a therapist.

Except for the educated characters’ narration, Meek tells his story in archaic English, which he apparently culled from the OED, and which appears in unfamiliar rhythms. That takes getting used to, until the usages begin to make sense: for example, neb for nose, steven for voice, lolled for hanged. Consequently, Meek creates a language barrier between high-born and low, part of his exploration of social class. But it’s also beautiful prose poetry:

The priest said man’s lot wasn’t to choose his dreams, nor win of them, and dreams fell upon us, like wild deer in darkness, while we slept. Yet there were some folk who warded their dreams, as shepherds warded sheep, and kept them as easy by day as by night, and won of them, as of their herd shepherds won wool. These folk, he said were called writers, and they were close to the Fiend.

The cheeky humor typifies To Calais, which has its uproarious, bawdy moments. But if you’re thinking Chaucer, as I did at first, this narrative only partly resembles “The Miller’s Tale.” A great deal of casual violence occurs, and the circumstances of a gang-rape, which happened in the past, figure heavily in the narrative.

At times, I find Thomas the scholar’s moral reasoning too modern, satisfying though it is. There’s also a deathbed epiphany that strikes me as implausible. But To Calais, in Ordinary Time offers so many pleasures that flaws like these don’t get in the way. I highly recommend this novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book to the public library.

Shame: Paris Never Leaves You

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Review: Paris Never Leaves You, by Ellen Feldman
St. Martin’s, 2020. 347 pp. $18

Ten years after Paris was liberated, Charlotte Foret lives in New York but is still in chains. No one’s threatening her anymore; she has her beloved daughter, Vivi, now fourteen; and a career as an editor at a prestigious publishing house, Gibbon & Field. Her boss, Horace Field, is also her landlord, for the Forets live in his East Side brownstone.

Further, Horace and his wife, Hannah, sponsored Charlotte and Vivi to come to the United States after their internment at Drancy, the camp in the Paris suburbs that was a way-station to Auschwitz. Charlotte loves her job and is grateful for the apartment and the sponsorship, but the arrangement feels more than a little awkward, especially since Hannah, a psychoanalyst, has plenty of parenting advice to give, though she herself is childless.

As the novel opens, these threads threaten to unravel, first via a letter from Bogotá that she can’t bear to read. (Melodramatic, but okay, I’ll bite.) More plausibly, Vivi asks about her heritage, specifically about her father, killed in the war, and what it means to be Jewish.

But Charlotte has always said that it took Hitler to make her a Jew, and she wants no part of such explorations. Charlotte’s so adamant, so resolutely opposed to reflection on or discussion of her past — their past, for Vivi lived through the war too — that you have to wonder whether psychoanalyst Hannah has a point. Charlotte’s not only too tightly wrapped, she’s a lousy mother, forbidding her child to discover her identity. To all and sundry, however, Charlotte says, with truth, You weren’t there, so you don’t know.

Even now, in her dreams, she heard Vivi crying, not the childish whimpers and sobs of temporary discomfort but a shrieking rage born of an empty belly, and chilled-through bones, and the agony of rashes and bites and festering sores. Sometimes the crying in the dream was so loud that it wrenched her awake, and she sprang out of bed before she realized the sound was only in her head.

But Charlotte’s memory of Vivi’s sufferings is by no means the whole truth. Paris Never Leaves You excels as a moral tale, for Charlotte’s secret feels so shameful to her that she believes — with reason — that to confess it would make her a pariah. Specifics here would spoil the suspense; once more, I advise against reading the jacket flap, clever and subtle though it is.

Feldman brings alive Paris under the Occupation, as she does New York publishing, some scenes of which are positively delicious. In Charlotte and Horace, she’s created two memorable characters, and the dialogue between them crackles like a moral duel, full of challenge and riposte. Horace wants, nay, demands that Charlotte think and reflect on who she is and what she believes, and as a result, the novel pushes the reader to do the same. That’s what Paris Never Leaves You has to offer.

But, if you’re like me, you’ll have to overlook several flaws, starting with the bland title, which sounds like the compromise offspring of a deadlocked editorial meeting, and the cover, which says nothing except, “See, here’s the Eiffel Tower, so guess where this story takes place?”

More seriously, a key aspect of Charlotte’s secret seems historically implausible, despite what the author maintains in an afterword. I don’t believe the circumstances permitting the premise could have existed for so long, if at all. And even if you take Feldman at her word, there’s Vivi, who’s too sweet, calm, and reasonable for fourteen, and who bears nary a psychological scratch from her wartime early childhood. No nightmares, no tics, no fears, just perfectly adjusted.

As for psychological thinking, I’m tired of reading about dictatorial, heartless psychoanalysts, especially those who sleep with their analysands. It’s also unnecessary, here. Feldman didn’t have to make Hannah an expert—it takes no letters after your name to know that teenagers are trying to figure out who they are–and Hannah’s involvement in Charlotte’s life, particularly her friendship with Vivi, give her standing to sound off.

It’s also odd that nobody, not even Horace, asks Charlotte how she can feel so intensely about literature, an art that lives within reflection and self-examination, yet refuse to look at herself. To do so, of course, would reveal the exact cause of her shame, and though Feldman derives tension from that secret, Charlotte can’t even think about what she has to hide, or the reader will know. That contrivance makes me ask whether Charlotte could have spelled out the secret in interior narrative early on, which would invite the reader deeper into her dilemma, a more generous approach, and perhaps a more genuine characterization.

Still, I think the moral framework stands out, and Paris Never Leaves You may be worth your time because of it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher, through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.

Rough Work: The Molten City

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Review: The Molten City, by Chris Nickson
Severn, 2020. 224 pp. $29

When we last met Detective Inspector Tom Harper in these pages, in Gods of Gold, it was 1890. The young man from the Leeds slums worked a grim job in his gritty native city, splitting his energies between keeping watch over the impending violence from a gasworks strike and scrambling to search for a missing child. Harper sympathized with the strikers, but the law was the law and favored gentlemen of property, against which he was helpless; more immediately, he feared that if he didn’t find the child soon, she’d die. Not all was pain and suffering in his life, however. He worked with a devoted sergeant, Billy Reed, who became a friend. And Tom was about to marry a widow, Annabelle, of independent mind and income.

Now, it’s 1908, and Detective Superintendent Harper is the number-two man in the Leeds constabulary. Annabelle and he have a sixteen-year-old daughter, Mary, active in the woman’s suffrage movement, as is her mother. Billy Reed has died. Harper no longer hears as well as he used to, and his reflexes have slowed. But little else in his landscape has changed. Having arranged security for a royal visit — receiving a signed appreciation from His Majesty, Edward VII, no less — his reward is to protect Prime Minister Asquith when he gives a speech in Leeds.

Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith (date unknown), whose face, the historian George Dangerfield later wrote, was “bland and weary . . . in which frankness and reserve had long fought themselves to a stand-still.” (The Strange Death of Liberal England, p. 4; photo courtesy George Grantham Bain collection, Library of Congress; via Wikimedia Commons)

Where few Britons would dare shout insults or complaints at their king and queen, many would jump at the chance to throw brickbats at Mr. Asquith for his broken promises. Poor workingmen and suffragists are the most likely to riot—including Mary, perhaps, or so her parents fear. Meanwhile, Harper has stumbled over evidence that, fifteen years ago, two children were snatched from their parents, perhaps “purchased” to live in a wealthy home where the mistress of the house has been unable to bear her own.

Had I read the intervening volumes since City of Gold, The Molten City might seem like yet another entry in a familiar formula, what some series can devolve into after a while. (Incidentally, all the volumes bear titles with metallic metaphors.) Yet this novel, like its progenitor, has so much going for it that you have to give it, and the author, their due.

First, there’s the atmosphere — political, social, physical, familial, you name it — which, to me, does far more than set the scene. Tom Harper, as the incorruptible, hard-working utterly dedicated police officer, with nary a social prejudice to his name and a firm belief in feminism, at times seems a little too good to be true. However, his feelings for and about Leeds, conveyed through these descriptions, show me that he loves his city and its people, and that his desire to serve is completely genuine. He stands for something.

That makes his perfection easier to swallow, and Nickson takes care not to let Harper’s halo shine among the populace, who wouldn’t see it, anyway. The rich treat him like a hireling, whom they’ll indulge with an audience if it suits them, not acknowledging that a criminal inquiry compels them to; the poor hate him on sight, because coppers are coppers. They’re none of ’em trustworthy.

Nickson uses simple language to set his scenes, with sparing economy:

The smoke and stink from the tanneries and factories rose up the hillside. Identical, anonymous streets of back-to-back houses. Away from the moor, there wasn’t a tree or a splash of colour to be seen. Someone’s washing hung from a line high across the cobbles, already turning grey from the soot in the air.

Attention to the character of Harper’s environment achieves one other storytelling goal of note. Since this is a mystery, which must live on “no — and furthermore,” many such narratives rely on plot points to deliver the obstacles, sometimes smoothly, otherwise seeming contrived. Nickson’s focus on Harper and his city means that the tension need not result from exterior forces, and that what’s within may raise the stakes. For instance, child snatching means more than a morally repugnant crime to Harper’s corps of detectives, several of whom suffered childhoods full of fear and violence that the authorities did nothing to assuage. Finding the missing children therefore becomes a personal quest, not just part of their job.

I also like how Nickson fuses the political and social issues of the day with the crime, his protagonist, and the Harper family. On every page, you see some aspect of how privilege influences or defines justice, and how each Harper works to change that, even as they remain pessimistic, to varying degrees, about the long-term outcome. And while they agree in sum about the importance of social change, the details get in the way, so that though they love one another, they don’t always get along.

As a consequence, The Molten City, despite its heroic paragon, delivers a satisfying mystery and a vivid portrait of a socially fragmented England.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Music in the Silence: The Yellow Bird Sings

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Review: The Yellow Bird Sings, by Jennifer Rosner
Flatiron, 2020. 294 pp. $26

During the summer of 1941, fortune chews up and spits out the Chodorów family, Jews living in a rural Polish town. The Germans arrest most of Róża’s relatives and shoot her husband, Natan. Barely escaping with her five-year-old daughter, Shira, she throws herself on the mercies of Henryk and Krystyna Wiśniewski, Christian neighbors who are very frightened themselves. But their reluctance is just half the problem. The only hiding place they can offer is the barn, unfortunately sited near a busy road, and the Wiśniewskis have their own children, naturally curious, liable to blurt out the secret to the wrong people, as young children are.

But very young children, like Shira, don’t keep quiet at all, and Róża’s at her wits’ end to entertain her daughter in complete silence. She spins a tale about a girl forbidden to make a sound, and how a yellow bird sings for her, all that’s in her head. Since Róża’s a musician — her whole family was musical — she’s not surprised that Shira has notes weaving through her mind like a constant, melodic tapestry. Soon she realizes that Shira may even be a prodigy. What a powerful image: This innocent child, who loves music and has a rare talent for it, can’t understand that if she opens her mouth to sing, there are evil men who will kill her or betray her to the killers.
What’s more, even to have hidden safely that long has resulted from pure happenstance — and lust. At first, Henryk told Róża that mother and child could hide for one night only. But his decision changes, because Krystyna takes a shine to little Shira, and Henryk takes Róża nightly, climbing up the ladder to the loft and using her. Though the Wiśniewskis are risking their lives to shelter two Jews, what they’re giving and what they’re taking become blurry. I like that moral ambiguity, one hallmark of The Yellow Bird Sings.

Another hallmark is the constant tension over small events — soldiers passing on the road, the Wiśniewski boys’ attempt to explore the barn, Shira’s difficulty remaining quiet. But the real test comes when the Germans tell Henryk that they’re requisitioning the barn; Róża and Shira must now flee, immediately. Do they try to go together through the forest? Or does Róża give Shira up to the nuns at the local orphanage, who’ve agreed to take her? Much follows from that decision, of course.

Rosner’s vivid prose conveys the physical claustrophobia, life lived inside the head:

Does Shira truly remember her father, gray speckled and musky, his embrace warm and soft but not like her mama’s, or is she making him up, mixing him up with her visions and dreams? A star-backed violin at his bearded chin, notes undulating like a tuning fork come to pierce her mother’s heart. The dancing stopped short, the violin boxed and buried after he didn’t return. Upon waking, she thought that if she could just lie with an ear to the ground, she might hear her father’s notes floating up through the rooted earth.

I also like how the narrative resists earnestness and gives nearly all the characters recognizable flaws as well as virtues. If anyone’s idealized, it’s Shira — I wish she had faults not explicable by her ordeal or forgivable for her age. Throughout, she remains a victim, so you feel sympathy for that; but victimhood wears thin, skating close to pity, less compelling than Róża’s portrayal, for instance. In the main, however, The Yellow Bird Sings protects nobody, least of all the Germans and their many fellow anti-Semites among the Poles; no whitewash, here.

Holocaust stories about children are legion, but this one stands out, all the more as a debut novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.

Stick-Figure Holocaust: While the Music Played

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Review: While the Music Played, by Nathaniel Lande
Blackstone, 2020. 437 pp. $30

About halfway through this novel, sometime in 1940, the protagonist’s best friend asks him, “Max, exactly how stupid are you?” Since I’d been wondering the same thing for a couple hundred pages, I had to laugh.

Lande aims to tell how the Holocaust unfolded in Czechoslovakia, especially in Terezín (Theresienstadt), but Max Mueller is a rickety vehicle for that story. What fourteen-year-old growing up in Prague during those catastrophic years would not know what the Gestapo did for a living? How can Max, who counts Jews as his closest friends, not know what a rabbi is?

Further, when he asks these pat questions, an adult tells him he’s getting good at conducting interviews. (Max makes his inquiries as a would-be reporter; the power of a free press is a theme that Lande swings at the reader like a two-by-four.) Throw in that pianist Max, before he volunteers to live in Terezín, was somehow, at age twelve, the best piano tuner in Prague; that this job led him to befriend Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi intelligence officer; and that Max’s father, Viktor, a famous orchestra conductor, befriends Heydrich too, gets attached to his staff, and uses his alleged influence to mitigate the Holocaust when he can. I don’t think so.

Heydrich, as he appeared around 1940 (courtesy Bundesarchiv, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lande relies heavily on figures like Heydrich, Winston Churchill, Hitler, the rabbi and thinker Leo Baeck, and Raoul Wallenberg. But the narrative embracing them proceeds without tension or conflict to speak of, in which the villains pull punches right and left, and the characters are opinions, placards without inner lives. Instead of natural dialogue, While the Music Played offers lectures, which is how Max’s cluelessness comes in handy. People are always informing him, and he’s remarkably slow to learn.

It’s not just that the lectures include state secrets, propping up the conceit that places a young boy at the epicenter of history. These information dumps do no service to the themes involved, which include politics, history, the nature of Judaism, and philosophy; the most breathtakingly glib treatment concerns Heydrich. Heydrich’s father was a composer, and Lande invokes that lineage to portray the son as a music lover too, which allows Max to wonder how the man whose passion he shares can also appear to sanction objectionable policies.

The power of music despite degradation and suffering and the disconnect between a cultured Germany and its murderous activities are worthy themes. But Lande could have written them by, say, giving Max a beloved piano teacher who turns out to be a rabid racist and ultranationalist. Rather, the author has chosen to illustrate his themes with historical “stars,” who make up such an improbable constellation, you have the feeling that the novel takes place in an alternate universe.

To return to Heydrich, known as “Hangman Heydrich” by the people he oppressed, Nazi contemporaries described him as “diabolical” and “icy.” Just what you’d expect from one of the two or three most ruthless figures in the Third Reich: the head of the SD, or Sicherheitsdienst, a rival security service to the SS, Heinrich Himmler’s organization, with whom Heydrich had a famous power struggle. Heydrich framed top generals to destroy their careers, masterminded Kristallnacht, devised the Einsatzgruppen (the death squads sent east), and convened the top-secret Wannsee Conference, which codified the until-then haphazard policy of the Final Solution and organized its further implementation, a fact that only emerged after the war.

He would never have befriended Max, “bargained” with his father, or even hired him. More likely, he’d have had the Muellers killed, if he sensed free-thinking or disloyalty (and they’re none too swift at dissembling). In any event, he certainly wouldn’t have told Max in summer 1939 that Germany was about to invade Poland, or conveniently dropped the news that the Final Solution was coming, leaving Max, ever breathlessly inquisitive, to wonder what that meant.

While reading, I went back and forth as to whether the narrative intends this innocence, taking a childlike worldview. You have to wonder about a fictional atmosphere in which nobody even thinks about sex, let alone has any; nobody swears; and where nineteen people in twenty have only good intentions. Lande’s characters love (or hate) on sight, escape fist-shaking villains with regularity, succeed at whatever they turn their hands to, and receive much-needed medical supplies and food by pulling invisible strings. Toward the teenage characters, adults are remarkably pliant and encouraging, acceding to all demands, enlisting them in the fight against Nazism without hesitation, and offering fulsome praise for all they say or do, as with the question about rabbis. But teenagers don’t act the way Lande portrays them and probably wouldn’t recognize themselves in this narrative, whose unreality feels neither whimsical nor compelling.

I think that historical novelists have a duty to history, to grasp what the record means even as they reinterpret it or blur its actuality. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy or alternate history, but this novel fits neither category; and its careless, superficial approach trivializes its subject.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher, in return for an honest review.

If Music Be the Food of Love: Simon the Fiddler

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Review: Simon the Fiddler, by Paulette Jiles
Morrow, 2020. 337 pp. $28

Simon Boudin, though a Southerner by birth, doesn’t care about the Civil War, nearing its bloody end in March 1865. An itinerant fiddler who lives by and for music, he plays at weddings, garden parties, and, when he has to, saloons, staying one step ahead of the Confederate conscription men. But a bar brawl makes him a captive, and he’s quickly hustled into a ragged butternut uniform and sent to Texas. Nominally part of a regimental band, he’s nevertheless involved in a firefight in May — a month after Appomattox — because of a vainglorious Union colonel named Webb. But afterwards, Colonel Webb gives a party, and who should the hired musicians be but Simon and his friends?

It’s a dangerous assignment, because these men have no discharge papers, and the martial law that obtains in these parts treats such wanderers unkindly. Not only that, Colonel Webb treats everyone unkindly and seems to enjoy it. Nevertheless, he has also engaged an Irish governess for his daughter named Doris Dillon, for whom Simon falls, hard. Based on the limited communication that passes between them, he believes — hopes — that she feels similarly. That does it: From that moment, he resolves to woo her. However, he’s conscious of who he is and what he has to offer. Without land or a promising future, he believes he has no chance with her, so he sets out to make himself respectable.

The obstacles are enormous, and setbacks, even tragedy, befall the group of musicians. But Simon is nothing if not resourceful in his single-mindedness, and he expects the path to true love to be bumpy. “No — and furthermore” lives here, and the story sails along; but no matter how rough the water, Simon keep swimming. His hard-working character and determination are part of his charm, but without music, he’d be lost:

Music is clean, clear, its rules are forever, another country for the mind to go to, and so this search for employment among the drinking places of Galveston did not bother him. To Simon, the world of musical structures was far more real than the shoddy saloons in which he had to play. Nothing could match it, nothing in this day-to-day world could ever come up to it. It existed outside him. It was better than he was. He was always on foot in that world, an explorer in busted shoes.

Music and such prose are two pleasures of Simon the Fiddler. Jiles knows folk music the way she knows Texas of that era, which is to say, inside out. Many songs that Simon plays have faded from popularity or current memory, but the author builds scenes around a couple I love, like “Shenandoah” and “Red River Valley,” so that the music itself becomes a character.

I wish I could say that Simon the Fiddler equals Jiles’s previous novel, News of the World. I’m reminded of the old baseball joke about the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who insisted he didn’t want to win twenty games in a single season, the mark of excellence, because then everybody would expect him to do it again. So I don’t mean to carp when I say that to me, Simon never achieves the breadth or depth that Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, the protagonist of News of the World, does. (Interestingly, Kidd appears here too, in a cameo.) Where Kidd has flaws and edges, born of experience, observation, and crotchets, Simon just has a bad temper, the only blemish to his otherwise sterling character — and, as it happens, a plot device.

As for Doris, she’s perfect — beautiful, sweet-natured, strong, witty, passionate, a young man’s dream. She may be a bit vain, hating to wear the eyeglasses she can’t see without, but that’s hardly a serious complaint against such a paragon.

Meanwhile, Colonel Webb has no redeeming features, and to craft her villain, Jiles has ticked every box. He’s a lech who makes known his intent to have Doris; a ranting alcoholic; a vicious, controlling husband and father; a liar; and, it’s suggested, involved in graft. Webb’s villainy increases the pressure on Doris, and therefore on her white knight. But it also feels melodramatic, weakening the novel, even as it motivates Simon to move faster. What price page turning?

News of the World is a more fulfilling, memorable book. But Simon the Fiddler makes a good yarn; and, after all, the world loves a lover. Take it for that, and you’ll enjoy it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher; this post previously appeared in Historical Novels Review in different, shorter form.