Damaged Men: Kith and Kin

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Review: Kith and Kin, by Jane A. Adams
Severn, 2018. 218 pp. $29

In December 1928, two bodies wash up in the Kentish marshes, under circumstances anything but clear. But one thing Detective Chief Inspector Henry Johnstone and Detective Sergeant Mickey Hitchens know. They recognize one of the dead as a lieutenant of Josiah Bailey, a London crime boss who inspires such terror that people think twice before uttering his name.

Cliffe Pools, in the North Kent marshes, now cut off from the sea, forms a fleet, a saline waterway (courtesy Clem Rutter, 2007, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Johnstone and Hitchens also know that when Bailey gives an order, failure to comply may bring a death sentence, not only to the disobedient, but to their families. As such, the policemen must consider whether Bailey turned on his own loyalists, and why, or whether a rival gang has retaliated for an offense known only to the participants — in which case a turf war may erupt. What a terror that would be.

But to forestall that bloodbath, Hitchens and Johnstone must uncover the tangled roots of the murders, and since the key witnesses have connections to Bailey, no one will talk. Moreover, what the detectives gradually learn (but what the reader knows from the get-go) is that the case stems from a decade-old conflict that involves members of a Gypsy clan. They too are loath to speak up, because dealing with outsiders, especially officialdom, has always ended badly for them. As you might imagine, obstacles abound, the “no — and furthermore” that drives the story at a good clip.

However, this premise, though well executed, is surely not the first exploration of gang warfare in a mystery, nor is it what makes this novel worth reading. Rather, Adams focuses on her characters, starting with her two detectives, who care deeply about one another without ever saying so. They met during the Great War, so they have a bond that goes back, a tacit language. But it’s not just the shared background that makes them friends. Mickey Hitchens understands how the war still plagues Henry Johnstone, for reasons only alluded to (but which may have been explained in the first two installments of the series).

Touchingly, Mickey tries to make sure that Henry, a bachelor, bothers to eat enough and care for himself. But when his friend does something stupid in the line of duty, Hitchens doesn’t hesitate to say, “Lord, but you can be an awkward bastard when the mood takes you.” I can’t recall when I’ve run across such a pair of sleuths, or even a subordinate detective who never utters the word sir — in Britain, no less. The focus on characterization extends to the minor players, as with Henry’s sister, Cynthia; Mickey’s wife; and several witnesses, especially those who don’t belong to the mob. All receive a dash of inner life.

I also like how Adams creates a world of damaged people, about whom she refuses to moralize, and for whom luck and circumstance play a large role in whether they escape the darkness or succumb. Though Henry and his sister number among the escapees, that wasn’t a given, apparently, so he understands Bailey’s henchmen better than they realize, probably:

Childhood, Henry thought, ended all too swiftly for most children, especially the children of the poor. Henry and his sister, though his family had endured no such acute financial pressures, had also had their own childhood curtailed, in their case by a father who saw no value in creatures who could not contribute to his own wellbeing. Then the father had died and it had just been Henry and Cynthia and, all things considered, they had done well; in their case it was better to be parentless than so badly parented.

Adams’s prose reads like this throughout, clear, direct, and spare. Though I like that, sometimes her descriptions sound like laundry lists of detail, when I want evocations. The whodunit facet of the narrative consists largely of dialogue between the detectives, much of which veers into information dumps. To be fair, the two men must compare notes, yet how the author presents this exchange matters to me, and I prefer an indirect approach.

The back story, though essential and crisply told in itself, feels shoehorned in at times, including the prologue. In its defense, however, said prologue has one of the most compelling first sentences you’ll ever see, so I understand why Adams wanted to lead with it. Finally, though the ending satisfies in its realism, the solution fails to match the buildup, which leaves me wanting more.

Consequently, Kith and Kin is a novel greater than the sum of its parts. The characterizations are what command attention, and if I were to read another installment in the series, I’d do so to learn how the two detectives progress in their lives.

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

Deception’s Toll: An Unlikely Spy

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Review: An Unlikely Spy, by Rebecca Starford
Ecco, 2021. 338 pp. $28

Evelyn Varley has made something of herself, she thinks. It’s late 1939, and the girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Lewes, East Sussex, has come a long way since she won a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school, then Oxford, where she took Firsts in German and literature. Along the way, she befriended Sally Wesley, a girl from a wealthy family that practically adopted Evelyn, showering her with the warmth, hospitality, excursions, gifts, and spirited conversation she never received at home. And when war breaks out, Sally’s father recommends Evelyn to a friend in government, and presto! she gets a job with the War Office.

At first, that means typing and filing, nothing glamorous, and her office is situated in an old prison, to boot. But eventually, MI5 recruits her to infiltrate an organization of British Nazis. Appalled by their views, especially their violent anti-Semitism, Evelyn nevertheless steels herself to the task, unaware that she will have to choose between her conscience, loyalty to country, and her lifelong friends.

The Olympia Exhibition Centre, London, where a British Union of Fascists meeting in 1934 turned violent, costing the movement support. At its height, the BUF boasted more than 50,000 members. (Courtesy Kenneth Allen, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Character-driven thrillers are unusual in themselves, and this one’s terrific. Don’t be put off by the opening, a somewhat confusing section that takes place after the war. I think the author wants you to know that something shocking has happened, to hold your interest, after which the novel goes into Evelyn’s back story. It’s a prologue by another name, and I understand why Starford takes this approach, but it feels clumsy in parts, not at all like the rest of the book. The narrative sorts itself out soon enough, though, and you see how Evelyn unwittingly trains for her future career.

At her boarding school, as the poor girl, she’s the “charity case,” the butt of vicious hazing. Sally rescues her somewhat, being an outsider too, a connection I find a little hard to believe. But if it’s a false note, it’s the only one. Evelyn succeeds socially on her own where Sally doesn’t, by copying their tormentors and earning their acceptance. The price she pays is steep, however — forgetting who she is, learning her new friends’ contempt for her origins, and hiding behind a dissembling heart. Years later:

Sometimes, as Evelyn lay in her bed upstairs, she was wracked by loneliness. She loved her parents, but now she could see them for their true selves, free from the burnish of childish idolatry or just plain youthful ignorance. She knew her father belittled her because he couldn’t face the idea of her one day looking down on him, and she recognized how meager her mother’s existence had become, counting out her shillings at the bakery and going without new clothes or books or an outing to a restaurant, refusing any activity that she deemed indulgent. Evelyn was embarrassed by this puritan denial of even the smallest forms of pleasure. She didn’t want her life to be a mere transaction; she wanted to feel the workings of experience deep in her bones. She knew her parents sensed this change in her, but since she could never tell them about what really happened at school, she had to live with the knowledge that they believed she had actually become this person and was not merely wearing a disguise.

Consequently, she’s got the makeup of a perfect operative, capable of assuming a necessary guise, belonging nowhere, therefore adaptable. But once again, she pays an extortionate price for the thrill of being useful, the knowledge that she’s standing up for her beliefs, which leads her to deceive people, including herself.

What a brilliant portrayal, the better for Evelyn’s hesitations and insecurities. So often, spies in fiction have ice water for blood and seldom make mistakes, only bad bets because they’ve been misled or have no choice. Evelyn’s a different sort altogether, struggling not to engage emotionally, wondering every second if she’s overplayed her hand, and unsure what she’s accomplished, if anything. Unlike many in her trade, she shies away from damaging anyone, unaware that she’s done it despite herself. Sally’s fiancé, a handsome, thoughtless brute, thinks of pain as an “accolade,” Evelyn believes, “something to be earned, and something to be inflicted.” She despises him but has yet to learn how the manipulations she’s assigned to perform work the same way. The reader senses what she doesn’t.

Starford has a gift for active physical description that evokes feelings — there are some truly lovely passages —and she’s at her best among the British Nazis. Their rallies, riots, harangues, and even their quiet dinner parties curdle the blood. Their belief beyond all persuasion that Jews have destroyed their lives and run the world has never gone out of style, so that the historical feels like now. I can’t help think that the author has intended a tacit comparison to alt-right conspiracy theorists, no matter what human target they favor.

This chilling, moving novel, at once character-driven and a page-turner, deserves attention.

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

Tudor Thriller: The Queen’s Men

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Review: The Queen’s Men, by Oliver Clements
Atria, 2021. 397 pp. $27

One night in 1577, as Elizabeth I’s royal train proceeds through a forest, masked gunmen empty their arquebuses at her carriage and flee to safety. Miraculously, the queen survives, having providentially moved to a different carriage en route. But one of the ladies-in-waiting dies, and the brazen, nearly successful attempt at regicide — which must have been planned with care and intimate knowledge of Her Majesty’s travel plans — exposes the threat to her security and that of the kingdom.

What’s more, her principal private secretary, Francis Walsingham (not yet knighted), spymaster extraordinaire, has no idea who might have executed this bold deed, though he can guess why. It’s no secret that English Catholics, in league with Spanish and Flemish agents, would welcome Elizabeth’s death and the advent of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the English throne.

Much like the Cold War decades ago, Tudor England provides a vein of thriller ore, and Walsingham is the mother lode. He appears, with varying degrees of importance, in The Locksmith’s Daughter and Lamentation, to name only two examples, and the jacket copy for The Queen’s Men invokes MI6, a bit of a stretch. I think the arquebuses are another, but who am I to stand in the way of a good yarn?

To his credit, Clements offers a twist, refusing to hoe the same row that other authors have. The hero of this caper, the alleged first agent for MI6, isn’t Walsingham but John Dee, alchemist, philosopher, spy, and, apparently, a royal favorite. The anti-Bond, if you will, Dee is poor, badly dressed, less than suave, and more passionate about books than women. (Interestingly, he appears as a minor character in The King at the Edge of the World, as an herbalist.) With the help of Jane Frommond, lady-in-waiting and friend to the murdered young woman in the royal carriage, he provides Walsingham with necessary information, or tries to.

John Dee (1527-1608/9), mathematician, bibliophile, astronomer, alchemist, and a lot else (courtesy Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; public domain in the United States)

Frommond’s role is another anti-Bond quality, for she is more than a match for several of the men around her. Naturally, despite Dee’s and Frommond’s efforts to pass on their intelligence, barriers will keep interposing themselves, as “no — and furthermore” rears its dastardly head, in the tradition of all thrillers.

Dee has a commission from the crown to re-create Greek fire, a weapon known to the Byzantines but lost to history since. Fearing the Spanish fleet, Elizabeth’s advisors want Greek fire as the means to achieve naval parity. However, to obtain the necessary naphtha, the government must treat with the Turks, who now rule from Constantinople, and the diplomacy becomes both rather too easy and overly complicated. Throw in a subplot about a beautiful look-alike to Elizabeth, and you have enough implausibility to warrant an offer to purchase Tower Bridge.

Even so, The Queen’s Men is good fun, and two aspects kept me reading. First, the plot mechanism is so complex, like a Rube Goldberg watch, that you want to see how it manages to keep time. Secondly, Walsingham has his uses, not least the access to the seat of power and the ability to make crucial decisions. He’s also a foil for Dee, who, though an ardent patriot who loves his queen, has much on his mind besides the future of the realm—chiefly, the search for the philosopher’s stone. That eccentricity rounds him out a bit, though character takes second place here.

Walsingham, without that baggage, grounds the story in his political perspective, as with this passage, when the first, false reports reach him that Elizabeth has been assassinated:

He must destroy all trace of the network he has spent ten years creating. He must above all destroy that ledger of names of his secret service: Drake; Raleigh; Marlowe; Frobisher; even John Dee. If those names should fall into the hands of Mary’s agents, or even, God forbid, the Inquisition, then even the most awful days of the first Queen Mary’s reign — when the very air of London bloomed savory with the taste of cooked meat, and Smithfield was spotted black with rings of fatty ash that dogs licked at in the night — that will come to seem like a day in May.

That said, readers looking for historical accuracy or realism on any level will find them only intermittently. And well plotted though the novel is, a few circumstances fall by the wayside, tossed into the gutter as the story barrels along, unwilling to halt even one second for logic or common sense. But Clements is attempting to graft his tale onto a modern-day genre, and he’s willing to let the seams show. For readers who can accept that, The Queen’s Men makes worthy entertainment.

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

An Island of Women: Matrix

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Review: Matrix, by Lauren Groff
Riverhead, 2021. 257 pp. $28

In 1158, Queen Eleanor of England removes seventeen-year-old Marie from her court at Westminster and dispatches her as prioress to a struggling abbey. Having managed a family estate in Maine, a French province bordering Normandy and Brittany, Marie is judged to be just the person to turn the abbey into a moneymaker. Besides, the queen says, with Marie’s deep voice, huge hands, and taste for disputation, she has no feminine charm or art whatsoever, so who’d marry her?

History knows little of Marie de France, as she called herself, aside from her narrative poems set in Brittany with chivalric and fairy-tale themes, and her fables about animals. But Groff, in what must rank among the most original and vivid novels I have ever read, has reimagined Marie’s life as a feminist heroine who turns her painful banishment into unheard-of success. Deploying considerable political and social gifts, Marie attempts not only to put the abbey on sound financial footing, creating a beehive of productive activity, she aims for nothing less than making the place an island unto itself, not just free of men but of male influence altogether.

Marie de France, from an illuminated manuscript attributed to Richard of Verdun (courtesy Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Paris, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Talk about a fairytale! These are the Middle Ages, when women have no say in anything, and even to suggest otherwise invites accusations of witchcraft or heresy. But Groff knows exactly what she’s doing, and she establishes this threat alongside Marie’s campaigns for freedom; as the abbey grows wealthy, enemies gather. I particularly admire how the narrative subtly employs a historical parallel between the real queen and the fictive yet plausible prioress. Eleanor, as duchess of Aquitaine, bride to two kings, mother of two others, and a political force into her dotage makes an excellent foil for Marie, whose aspirations are both greater and lesser.

Marie, who loves Eleanor and aches from her dismissal, hopes to impress her mentor and regain her favor, hence both the poems and the efforts to increase income for the crown. Marie therefore has one eye on the temporal world, the other on matters of the soul, yet carries an intense desire for approval, a depiction allowing for compelling personal and public stakes. The setup also permits Marie to receive Eleanor’s half-admiring warnings about the dangers she’s running in a world controlled by men.

Further, Groff expertly fleshes out Marie’s biography, casting her as an illegitimate child of royal rape, which has repercussions throughout the story. (The text implies that the rapist was Stephen, the Plantagenet king eventually succeeded by Henry II, Eleanor’s future second husband.) As an infant, Marie accompanied her mother on Crusade, which gives her needed cachet at the abbey — you can imagine the nuns wonder how a seventeen-year-old can presume lead them. They don’t wonder long.

But the real genius of Matrix involves the re-creation of medieval thought and belief regarding the use and abuse of power, the difference between human goodness and a leader’s greatness, how civilizations rise and fall, and a woman’s place in making history. Marie has visions, ornate religious dramas whose recounting conveniently allow her to promote schemes otherwise considered heretical. But she also explores the emotional and moral spaces where no one else even thinks to go. For instance, when she comforts a bellowing cow whose calf has been taken from her, her physical bond with the beast makes her wonder if that’s the closest she’s come to seeing God.

From the first line, the prose will spirit you away. Take any passage you like — any — but for argument’s sake, consider this one, when Marie intends to send her poems to Eleanor:

She will send her manuscript as a blazing arrow toward her love, and when it strikes, it will set that cruel heart on fire. Eleanor will relent. Marie will be allowed back to the court, to the place where none ever starve, and there is always music and dogs and birds and life, when at dusk the gardens are full of lovers and flowers and intrigue, where Marie can practice her languages and hear in the halls the fiery tails of new ideas shooting through conversations. Not just the tripartite god of parent and child and ghost who is talked about here, not all this endless work and prayer and hunger.

How Marie surrenders this fantasy to adopt the daily task of tending the women around her so that they realize their true natures and abilities makes stirring fiction. (She struggles hard but subtly against what men have said about women; note that in this narrative, the word god is never capitalized.) The title, a clever play on words, suggests what Groff is after. At the abbey, the healer, for instance, is the infirmatrix, and the scribe, the scriptorix. So it follows that the mother is the matrix, which also means “originator.” You may take that figuratively or literally.

Matrix is a finalist for the National Book Award. Next week, we’ll find out whether it’s the winner, but either way, read this novel.

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

A Father’s Long Shadow: The Dickens Boy

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Review: The Dickens Boy, by Thomas Keneally
Atria, 2021. 399 pp. $28

In 1868, Edward Dickens, the tenth child of the famous author, emigrates to Australia to learn the sheep business. Just shy of his seventeenth birthday, he arrives with far more psychological baggage than physical possessions. Besides the name he can’t possibly live up to, which prompts everyone he meets to draw faulty conclusions about him, he has failed to apply himself at everything he’s ever attempted, save cricket. As he is all too aware, he doesn’t appear promising material. He also bears the cultural, social, and religious prejudices you’d expect of a righteous Victorian, some of which may work against him in the outback.

Edward Dickens, in an 1868 portrait, photographer unknown (courtesy
http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/distant-paradise-dickens, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But young Plorn, as the family calls him — an abbreviation of an immense nickname — has two advantages. He desires to learn and will take instruction from anyone; and he has his older brother, Alfred, who has preceded him to Australia. That Alfred is named for Tennyson, and Plorn, for Edward Bulwer Lytton (who wrote, “It was a dark and stormy night”), hints at the burden they carry. But for Plorn, it’s even worse, because the entire continent seems composed of people who have memorized his father’s works and suppose he has done the same, when, in fact, he has never read a word of them.

From this ingenious premise, Keneally spins a delightful, often hilarious, wide-ranging coming-of-age novel. You have the usual themes, such as sexual awakening, learning to adjust abstract moral sense to real-life circumstances, and how to judge another person in his or her fullness, allowing for their imperfections. To that, add what it means to be a family outcast in a country colonized by outcasts. Plorn is convinced that Father sent him away out of love, but Alfred is less sure, and their differing points of view about that, and their father’s character, cause conflict. This issue occupies Plorn throughout the novel.

Plorn may adapt rather rapidly, perhaps conveniently, but you have to admire how he lets his insistence that he has none of his father’s gifts stand for the wish to be taken as his own man. Inwardly, he has doubts about who that man is, but he derives warmth and satisfaction from people saluting his individuality — welcome to the democracy of the outback. He also has enough sense to avoid employers to whom he has an introduction and seek someone more to his liking, at which he succeeds admirably.

Fred Bonney, who manages a sheep station with intelligent tolerance, teaches young Plorn all he needs to know about sheep ranching and encourages his rise. A better mentor would be hard to find, and if Fred happens to be the one rancher who tries to understand and befriend the Indigenous people (though unapologetic about having taken their land), consider that a lucky Dickensian coincidence. But Keneally makes the most of it, and even when the story turns harsh, even murderous, kindness isn’t far away. That too is a theme, whether humans are innately evil with occasional good impulses, or good with occasional evil ones.

Keneally wishes to celebrate the frontier ethic, in which a person’s deeds and capabilities often, but not always, matter more than his or her birth. As such, you can pretty much tell the good guys from the bad guys without a scorecard, and they seldom do anything to challenge the judgment; perhaps that’s Dickensian too. However, laughter levels that broad-brush approach, with a theatrical tone that Dickens himself might have admired.

Naturally, a girl figures in the story, and though I wish the adjective pretty did not introduce her every appearance, I like how Keneally portrays Plorn’s sexual confusion:

All apart from the native women were males in this enormous acreage, and that suited me fairly well at nearly seventeen, when the idea of a future beloved, a woman of vapor, had certainly arisen in me but with no urgency to see her in the flesh. I had decided that women in the flesh were a challenge to the callow, whether they represented an uncomplaining wistfulness like Mama, a sturdy and overriding competence like Aunt Georgie, or a jovial irreverence like my clever sister Kate. Papa had nicknamed Katie ‘Lucifer Box’ for her capacity to flare, but she had married Wilkie Collins’s sickly brother, Charlie, a fellow who seemed to have no fire at all.

You can sort of see why Plorn has never read his father’s novels, given that so many literary icons populated his youth.

The Dickens Boy is a thoroughly enjoyable novel. I would have wanted more variation within some of the characters to match the way the author poses moral problems, as shades of gray. But it’s a wonderful book nonetheless.

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

Lucky Seven: Another Blog Birthday

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As I do every year at this time, I recap my favorite reviews from the last twelve months of Novelhistorian. This year’s crop includes several that will stay with me a long while.

Start with Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell’s extraordinarily intimate, subtle portrait of: a courtship and marriage; the gossamer boundary between life and death; the longing for love and connection, despite that; and daily life in Elizabethan England with Shakespeare at the center, though his last name never appears, and most of the narrative belongs to Agnes, his wife. (Yes; Agnes, not Anne.)

Ben Hopkins’s Cathedral tells of thirteenth-century serfs in Alsace buying their freedom and moving to a city where a cathedral is being built. From that singular occurrence emerges a beautifully imagined tale of greed, politics, skullduggery, sex, bigotry, and piety, while the coming Renaissance lurks in the distance. This narrative has zest and fire; a masterpiece.

A coming-of-age novel for both a young girl and her native city, the San Francisco of 1906, Carol Edgarian’s Vera casts an outwardly unsentimental eye on fraught mother-daughter relationships and the all-consuming question of how women can wield power. At the same time, the girl never loses her deep yearnings, possessing a rich inner life at odds with her circumstances. A remarkable duality, there, that few authors can portray so convincingly.

Washington Black, Esi Edugyan’s story of a slave in nineteenth-century Barbados who dares dream of a life he wasn’t born to have, is that rare novel about a victim who expresses no self-pity or bravado, and which conveys every character, even the villains, in their fullness. No earnestness, here, only a protagonist who never stops striving and loving, no matter how many blows he takes.

Unlike any other novel I’ve ever read about the 1960s, Eleanor Morse’s Margreete’s Harbor captures the essence of the decade, that ineffable vibe. The narrative rests on small moments writ large, depicted in gorgeous prose, and which show you characters as deep as the Maine harbor on which they live—contradictory, sometimes cranky, secretive, and altogether real.

The Cold Millions, by Jess Walter, reads like a thriller about labor strife in Spokane, Washington, 1909, enacted by larger-than-life characters. Life’s a fight to the finish, and so much wrong blankets the landscape, you seldom know where right is hiding itself, let alone how to act accordingly. The political and social divisions portrayed here parallel those of the present.

The First World War is my historical specialty, and I’m always on the lookout for authentic novels about the era. Consider, then, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, P.S. Duffy’s moving portrayal of a Canadian infantry officer’s war and the home front he leaves behind. She effortlessly captures the camaraderie of men at war, the search for meaning amid the violence, the tension and release of battle. Even readers who avoid such stories may find much to keep them glued to this one—a debut novel, no less.

The Revolution of Marina M, by Janet Fitch, realizes the Russian atmosphere, be it Petrograd or rural peasantry, with bold, lush strokes and complete authority. Like the Russian novels the author admires, hers goes deeper than a sweeping lens and epic events. You understand what motivates these characters, all of whom have inner lives for the reader to navigate, and the weight of events never feels like a burden, even at 800 pages.

In The White Feather Killer, R. N. Morris excels at characterization, the atmosphere of 1914 London, and the craft of whodunit. So many scenes in his novel start out one way and shoot off unexpectedly in another, the essence of tension, because something touches a nerve in his legion of fragile people. Some readers may find these tortured souls off-putting, but the rewards here are many, not least a soul-searching detective, an unvarnished portrayal of police work, and a similar, gritty depiction of a great metropolis straining at its bounds.

The Great Unknown, Peg Kingman’s philosophical novel about the origins of life, set in 1845 Edinburgh, evokes a country on the brink of moral upending through scientific discovery. It’s also a thought-provoking daily drama playing out chance and consequences, fortunate or tragic, and people trying to figure out whether these outcomes mean anything or merely display the benign indifference of the universe. The usually droll tone delights.

With The Abstainer, Ian McGuire puts a capable, compassionate Irish detective in Manchester, England, in 1867, whose job is to keep tabs on Irish revolutionaries. When our man, who faces bigotry and obstruction from his superiors, hears that a cold assassin has arrived from America to settle scores with the highest and mightiest, staying one step ahead of the killer proves more than merely difficult. The tension in this fine thriller never relents.

A driven narrative of sibling rivalry, Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See, describes that city in 1935, the eve of personal disaster for two sisters, and a greater catastrophe for their country. See writes with the force of gravity, and when the worlds she creates collide, the shock waves are enormous, playing out themes of duty and tradition versus modernity and independence.

A south Brooklyn housing project in 1969 provides a whole world for James McBride in Deacon King Kong. What begins with a shooting turns into a complicated, finely woven story, involving a church, cheese deliveries, storytelling as an art form, racism, unlikely romances, what constitutes good in the face of so much evil, and how humans dare to hope. It’s also a rollicking good time, full of sprawling, delicious sentences with spicy flavor.

Rivka Galchen depicts an eccentric busybody who happens to be Johannes Kepler’s mother in Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, a tale set in the Duchy of Württemberg in 1618. Frau Kepler’s neighbors twist her admittedly cranky behavior into proof she consorts with the devil, which doesn’t stop them from pestering her to get her astronomer son to cast their horoscopes. A brilliant narrative, this, at once chilling and hilarious, as absurdity vies with truth to explain how conspiracy theories take root.

As my regular readers will note, I’ve recapped more books than usual this anniversary. I think that’s because I’ve gotten more selective in what I review or even finish reading. If I start a book and anticipate criticizing flat characters or a contrived narrative, I put the book aside. As a consequence, I wind up praising more books wholeheartedly.

Whether that’s an entirely good thing, I’m not sure. It’s no fun ripping a book apart (and besides, negative reviews take a lot of time to write). But I also don’t want to ignore promising novelists who haven’t found their feet, or stories that deserve a hearing despite their flaws.

It’s a balancing act, and if you have thoughts about it, I’d like to hear them.

Wheels Within Wheels: Gallows Court

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Review: Gallows Court, by Martin Edwards
Sourcebooks/Poisoned Pen, 2018. 349 pp. $16

Jacob Flint, a young man on the make in 1930 London, has a way of winding up at murder scenes before the police do. For an ambitious journalist, such luck can be a gold mine, the source of scoops that rock the city and make his name. However, that particular happenstance also rouses suspicions from the police, who, though unimaginative — aren’t they always? — assume it’s no coincidence at all. Further, the perpetrators of these crimes, whoever they are, seem methodical, persistent, and absolutely ruthless, so that witnesses have a way of disappearing. Consequently, Jacob’s good fortune could be hazardous to his health.

Further, as he tries to piece together the killings, which seem to multiply before his eyes in the most unlikely circumstances, he keeps crossing paths with the mysterious Rachel Savernake — or almost does. The wealthy, reclusive Miss Savernake shows her lovely face only when she wishes, for as long as she wishes, and to select few. Jacob tries frequently to get in touch with her, but he succeeds only when she grants permission, and only on her terms.

Fleet Street, London’s traditional home of the print and newspaper industries, as it appeared in 1953, decorated for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation (courtesy Anthony Harrison, geograph.org.uk, via Wikimedia Commons)

Jacob believes she’s the thread that connects the murders; she even presented the solution to one of them to the police. Her ability, intelligence, and boldness make her an object of fear, admiration, and bafflement. Rumor says that as a teenager, she had her half-sister’s parents disposed of, on a whim. So what game is she playing? And why does she take an interest in Jacob, leading him — he thinks — to the scene of the next crime?

This is the elaborate premise for one of the most ingenious, Byzantine mysteries I’ve ever read. Normally I dislike mystery narratives in which bodies fall like overripe apples from a tree, especially if I sense that the story needs another corpse to keep the tension thrumming. Not so, here. Everything fits, and Jacob’s emotional reactions matter, not just how he plans his next move. Edwards doesn’t rush through those emotional transitions, and the novel benefits greatly.

I wouldn’t call Gallows Court character-driven or deeply thoughtful, yet Jacob has an inner life, with ambition warring against a sense of morality and fair play. He has an appealing urge to connect with other humans, even if he doesn’t always know how, and his shock when people in whom he’s placed his trust wind up betraying him feels genuine. When people he knows wind up dead, some of whom he called friend, he takes stock — not for long, necessarily, but so that you see his impulses. He also struggles to put forth his better nature when self-preservation or convenience pulls in another direction, as in this passage, when he visits a dying friend and colleague:

The stench of disinfectant and the coarse noise from the bed made Jacob’s flesh crawl. Not for the first time, he felt pangs of self-disgust. A man who had, in his no-nonsense way, been generous to him was close to death. Yet here he was, averting his eyes, holding his nose, struggling in vain to overcome revulsion. He uttered a silent, selfish prayer that Betts would not die while he sat by his bedside. How could he console the widow if the worst happened? It would seem like his fault.

Rachel’s much harder to figure, and though that follows logically from the author’s need to keep certain secrets, I could better understand Jacob’s fascination with her if her character came across more clearly. As it is, Rachel risks being a trope, the beautiful mastermind whom no one can get around, let alone fathom. She has a mission, it seems — which the reader divines before Jacob does — and which explains the profusion of deaths. That the mission attempts to strike a blow for justice helps some.

More importantly, Rachel provides the overriding sense of the novel, the confusion, uncertainty, and danger infusing the very air of the story. Just when Jacob believes that he sees how the wheels turn, he realizes that there are wheels within wheels. At best, he’s a minor cog, one that may intersect with a larger, more significant mechanism, but only as long as he’s useful. When pursuing a lead based on information given him, he never knows whether his informant has hidden motives or means him ill. This atmosphere of fear and uncertainty feels pervasive, as in Hitchcock, and the ever-present “no — and furthermore” applies the framework. But the workings are entirely psychological.

The last two turns of the wheel feel a little contrived, the only ones that do. Nevertheless, Gallows Court delivers a tense, wild ride, and if the ending seems a bit contrived, it’s also satisfying.

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

Matchmaking and Mayhem: A Rogue’s Company

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Review: A Rogue’s Company, by Allison Montclair
Minotaur, 2021. 337 pp. $27

London in 1946 is a city struggling to get on its feet again, amid perennial food shortages, all-too-slow postwar reconstruction, and grief over losses. What a perfect time and place for the Right Sort Marriage Bureau, a fledgling business devoted to repopulating a bloodied world.

Iris Sparks, one of its two principals, accustomed to tight spaces and violent men, persuades her partner, (Mrs.) Gwendolyn Bainbridge, war widow, to receive martial arts training. London has mean streets, after all; men are men; and Sparks and Bainbridge have paired up on more than one amateur criminal investigation, so you never know when a well-placed karate chop may come in handy.

Royal Artillery searchlights form part of the Victory Parade, London, June 1946 (courtesy Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

No one could provide a more deserving target than Lord Bainbridge, Gwen’s bully of a father-in law, who has just returned from Africa, where he has mining interests. Technically, Gwen’s a member of the board of directors, or should be, having inherited her late husband’s shares. But Lord Bainbridge has taken custody of that inheritance, because his son’s death sent Gwen into a psychological tailspin, and, by court order, a psychiatrist must declare her competent before she may assert control over her assets. That ruling also applies to her seven-year-old son, whom her father-in-law intends to pack off to the same brutal boarding school inflicted on the boy’s father — and Gwen can do nothing to stop this.

A Rogue’s Company takes a minute to percolate the mystery, but no worries, there. Iris and Gwen are characters you’ll enjoy, with wit and verve to spare, and present a contrast in their origins and social views. Both must negotiate their class differences, not only with each other, but their respective friends, and though I would have liked to see more uncertainty in them, questioning whether their connection will last, they’re an interesting mix. Their bond feels genuine. Ironically, neither of them is married, though they have admirers. Gwen still mourns her husband, but you get the idea that she’s in no hurry to become intimate with anybody again.

They do diverge in their toleration for danger. (Hint: Iris, who seems to have been an intelligence operative, craves it.) However, neither fears to upset convention, as when an importunate board member of Bainbridge, Limited, tries to pry into Gwen’s “absence,” the time during which she received psychological treatment. To ward him off, she replies that she went to prison. Why? he asks, astonished. She killed a man, she says. Why? “For asking too many personal questions.” To his credit, the board member laughs; so did I.

Still, you know that the menace circling the Right Sort Marriage Bureau will erupt into action. And when a man’s found dead near the Livingstone Club, where colonials go to drink and disport themselves, the game’s afoot. Before they’re done, financial shenanigans, a kidnapping, and much listening-in on conversations will take place.

The narrative doesn’t take itself too seriously — one of its charms — yet there’s content alongside the entertainment. The story delves a little into race prejudice, gender roles and expectations, and the intersection of pride and violence, treading lightly, to be sure. Sparks and Bainbridge have something to them, in other words, and aren’t merely the framework for a mystery. Montclair’s not in too much of a hurry, and I like that.

I also like the writing, willing to linger on emotional moments and offer physical description with psychological resonance. Here’s one example, as when Iris is driven past Kensington High Street, Kensington Gore, and onto Kensington Road:

Streets are like spies, she thought. They passed through where you live, changing identities according to local customs, and disappear without notice. She tried to remember what a gore was. Something topographical, vaguely triangular, but she couldn’t help imagining the neighborhood steeped in blood every time she traveled through it. She wondered if anyone else made that connection, or if it had just become another name without meaning over time.

The novel (and I) could have done without the prologue — what else is new? — and a couple loose ends affix themselves with perhaps too much ease. One or two of the nastier characters soften a tad, maybe in ways they shouldn’t. I’m also skeptical that Sparks, despite her background, can be so blasé about crime scenes; I think even the hardest-boiled detective (which she isn’t) would at least wince. But A Rogue’s Company, the third installment in the Sparks and Bainbridge series, is an engrossing, delightful book, well worth your time.

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

Seeing the Light: The Last Days of Night

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Review: The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore
Random House, 2016. 357 pp. $17

To Paul Cravath, a twenty-six-year-old attorney from whom great things are expected — demanded — Manhattan in 1888 feels like an oyster he knows contains a priceless pearl. He just doesn’t know how to open it.

On the surface, Paul has what many young men on the make would envy. Despite his age and inexperience, he’s George Westinghouse’s chosen lawyer to defend a lawsuit, which, unfortunately, looks unwinnable. Actually, there are 312 of them, for that’s how many cases Thomas Edison has brought against Westinghouse, his allies, and suppliers, contending that Westinghouse’s light bulbs infringe his patent. A master at manipulating public opinion and as unscrupulous as any robber baron, Edison holds all the cards. Yet when the great inventor summons Paul at a ridiculously late hour to intimidate him, Paul has to wonder: Why did Edison go to such trouble?

Paul D. Cravath, here shown in a 1904 portrait by an unknown photographer, established organizational principles still in use at many prestigious law firms (courtesy Harrison, Mitchell C., ed., Prominent and Progressive Americans, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Indeed, in this crackerjack legal thriller based on real characters and a true story (though certain events are altered or compressed to fit a dramatic timeline), motives are parsed to a hair’s breadth, and pressures mount from all sides. It’s not just that the damages Edison’s seeking total $1 billion, a sum beyond imagining, especially back then. If it were only money, and very old money at that, nobody reading today would care.

But Edison insists that anything he invented — or says he invented, for the patent filing contains inconsistencies — must occupy a sacrosanct, untouchable position. No one else must improve on them; only he may say how they are to be used; and only he may profit. Moreover, if he has his way, the country will be wired only for direct current, a cumbersome, inefficient, and costly system, as opposed to the alternating current Westinghouse favors. To that end, Edison buys journalists and lawmakers to attack A/C any way he can, twisting the science and engineering involved to sway an ignorant, fearful public.

So we have intellectual and economic freedom, as well as the fate of the world, in a sense, the essence of a thriller, the so-called public stakes of a novel. But there’s more here, a lot more. Paul realizes that his only chance to win his case or make sense of its Byzantine details lies in creating a potent story to compete with Edison’s. Consequently, The Last Days of Night is about the stories people tell themselves and others to justify who they are. For a thriller, this is unusual ground and all the more appealing. At the root lies this observation: “All men get the things they love. The tragedy of some men is not that they are denied, but that they wish they’d loved something else.”

Since Paul is still trying to figure out who he is, that conundrum fits him snugly. Unlike the case in many thrillers, this one’s prime mover makes many mistakes and often feels out of his element. Jealous of his senior partners at his firm (one of whom is Charles Evans Hughes, future presidential candidate, Supreme Court Justice, and secretary of state), Paul tries to maneuver secretly, often to his cost.

But certain games must be played in the open, as with a corporate dinner at Delmonico’s:

Three courses into dinner, and they were still only on the lobster. He had no idea how he was going to get all of this food into his already bloated belly. The buttons of his trousers, newly purchased at R. H. Macy’s, felt ready to rip. His never-worn white shirt was going damp with sweat. His bow tie pressed his wing-tipped shirt collar into his neck as if to pop his head clean off, like a boiled shrimp. Business dinners such as this were pure blood sport: How much meat and wine could a man pour down his gullet while still managing to conduct himself in even a slightly professional manner?

His dinner guest is Nikola Tesla, the brilliant, psychologically unstable, Serbian-born engineer whom Edison used and threw away, and whom Paul believes is the key to victory. Does Tesla harbor vengeful feelings against Edison that Paul can harness? What does the engineer know about Edison’s light bulb? And could he invent another based on a different design?

For a while, I thought Moore had ignored the other half of the gambit necessary in any novel, the private stakes. But I sold him short, for Paul’s other client, Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer with as many different façades as a city block, enters the game as a major player. (She’s a historical figure too.) Younger than Paul by a few years, she nevertheless outclasses him, yet another casting against type.

Credible and gripping as The Last Days of Night is, however, I do wonder about Agnes’s ability to perform various actions necessary to the plot. The growing attraction between Paul and Agnes, though de rigueur, doesn’t always ring true. And I could have done without the earnest effort to redeem Edison and Westinghouse after the narrative has shown them to be neither warm nor fuzzy.

Nevertheless, this is a terrific novel, which I highly recommend.

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

Oh, Kay!: Rhapsody

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Review: Rhapsody, by Mitchell James Kaplan
Gallery, 2021. 342 pp. $27

In 1924 Paul Whiteman, legendary impresario and consummate schmoozer, attempts to persuade Katherine Warburg to attend a musical extravaganza at which George Gershwin has “consented” to play his latest composition. Katherine resists. After all, she’s a remarkably gifted, classically trained pianist and knows little of jazz or Gershwin besides his penchant for popular songs, about which the less said, the better. It’s not her type of music, thank you.

But as James Warburg’s wife — the banking Warburgs, known for generous hospitality to literary and musical celebrities — she’s an important target in Whiteman’s publicity campaign, and he’s a difficult man to refuse. Besides, Jascha (Heifetz), Igor (Stravinsky), and Sergei (Rachmaninoff) will be there. So Katherine attends and gets an earful:

George Gershwin strolled out, a tall man with pomaded black hair and a prominent nose. Attractive, certainly, but it was not about his features. It was the way he held himself; his bemused, blasé expression barely masking an underlying restlessness; his dark, soft eyes. All in all a coolness tinged with vulnerability and warmth. He wore his tuxedo like a shroud of sobriety. The finest evening attire, however, could not transmute a Tin Pan Alley tunemeister into a classical pianist.… Whiteman raised his baton and that klezmer clarinet embarked upon its crazy discourse, complaining, wheedling, sulking.

Hearing “Rhapsody in Blue” turns Katherine’s world upside down. A deep friendship forms with Gershwin, later an affair, and a musical collaboration as well. For “Kay,” as Gershwin nicknames her, knows lessons about orchestration and harmony he’s never learned, while his restless, roving musical imagination jolts her from preconceived notions, and he encourages her efforts to compose. Not only does she feel that Gershwin understands her in ways that Jimmy Warburg doesn’t, the lovers enjoy the physical passion missing in her marriage. With a brashness typical of the man, he publicizes their liaison. He writes a musical using her name in 1926: Oh, Kay!, whose hit song, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” remains a standard.

Unfortunately for Kay, Gershwin’s roving imagination takes him into other women’s arms. Warburg, who’s never been faithful to Kay and often disappears for months on end to Europe, has little to complain about. Their daughters sympathize with him, however, a reflection of the sexual double standard and the relative discretion he maintains by conducting his affairs in other countries. They’re both indifferent parents, at best, but Kay bears the brunt. Meanwhile, her composing career takes off — she becomes the first woman to write a complete Broadway score — but she pays a terrible price. And Gershwin will never marry her, she realizes.

I wish I could say that Rhapsody does this story full justice, especially because I’ve loved Gershwin’s music all my life. (To insert a personal note, my wife and I walked down the aisle to strains of “An American in Paris,” because that city is where we got engaged.) I also love the theater, that of the 1920s and 1930s above all; and Kay Warburg (née Swift) makes an excellent protagonist with whom to explore the musical and theatrical happenings of the time. At its best, Rhapsody shows why and how music evokes feeling, and Kaplan astutely analyzes Gershwin’s in particular.

Yet I find the novel a cluttered hodgepodge, stuffed with anything and everything. Instead of beginning at the musical premier of “Rhapsody in Blue,” or even Kay’s life before she met Warburg, the story starts with a needless prologue and hops about like a grasshopper, seldom remaining long in one place. Further, if I listed every famous name that floats through the narrative, from Fred Astaire to Duke Ellington to Dorothy Parker, I’d have no room to review the book. In a way, the name-dropping has a point, because Kay knows nobody before she marries Warburg and barely has two pennies to rub together. Money buys glamor, and she soaks it up. But the People magazine approach wears thin, and the army of famous, or soon-to-be famous walk-ons distracts attention from the key players and the issues they face.

First performed in 1924, this piece, which Gershwin said he’d begun composing on a train to the rhythm of the wheels, captured Katherine Warburg’s imagination. She’s not alone. (courtesy http://riverwalkjazz.
stanford.edu/#bonus-content/george-gershwin-20s via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Rhapsody poses several cogent questions, not least about the influence of money on art and the artist, whether genius excuses bad behavior (especially negligent parenting), and what shapes or creates popular taste. But other themes and ideas bury these under a blizzard of famous names, scenes that seem to exist only to reach a certain biographical plot point, and sound bites about current events. There’s a cartoon psychiatrist I could have done without, even though he was a historical figure, and the pastiche of scenes from New York life never amounts to a lived-in atmosphere. By contrast, Gershwin seems much more likable than his legend would suggest, and though that interpretation may be justifiable, in the composer’s latter years, we see nothing of the nightmare he visited on his intimates, misbehavior resulting from an undiagnosed brain tumor.

Passionate Gershwin fans will find pieces here and there in Rhapsody to enlighten and perhaps delight them, and Kay Swift’s story deserves a hearing. But this novel is one of those in which a lot less would have yielded a lot more.

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