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.

Happiness in Siberian Exile: Zuleikha

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Review: Zuleikha, by Guzel Yakhina
Oneworld, 2019. 482 pp. $27

Zuleikha Valieva lives an oppressed existence. It’s not because she lives in a village near Kazan, USSR, 1930, and the Soviet regime crushes her, though it’s about to. Rather, her husband, Murtaza, gives her nothing except hard blows and harder words, using her as beast of burden and sex object and haranguing her every move — that is, when he bothers to notice. Murtaza’s mother is even worse. She promises that the fates will punish Zuleikha, who’s a weakling, good for nothing — hasn’t she given birth only to daughters, all four of whom have died in infancy? — while Murtaza, like Mama, is strong, a born survivor.

But prophecy isn’t her chief talent, for the Soviet administration has decided that kulaks — landowning peasants, like the Valievs — are enemies of the state. And when soldiers come for their grain, livestock, and butter to feed the city populace, Murtaza fights back and dies for it.

Seizure of grain from kulaks, Kuban, Soviet Union, 1933. Photo credited to U. Druzhelubov (courtesy Proletarskoe Foto via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Good riddance, you think. But Zuleikha has believed every harsh word ever spoken to her and figures that Allah has marked her for punishment. Scared to death of what will happen next, she doesn’t understand why she must leave her village to go someplace far away; she, like many other kulaks and other “undesirables,” are being exiled, though no one will say where they’re headed. But what Zuleikha and her companions don’t realize is that they’ve just been handed a ticket to freedom. The rest of the novel shows how that happens, to what degree, and how much happiness, if any, they derive from living at the ends of the earth.

Aside from her ability to work her fingers to the bone, because that’s what life demands, Zuleikha has a fatalistic outlook that will stand her in good stead:

Death is everywhere. Zuleikha grasped that back in her childhood. Tremblingly soft chicks covered in the downiest sunny yellow fluff, curly-haired lambs scented with hay and warm milk, the first spring moths, and rosy apples filled with heavy sugary juice — all of them carried within themselves the germ of future dying. All it took was for something to happen — sometimes this was obvious, though sometimes it was accidental, fleeting, and not at all noticeable to the eye — and then the beating of life would stop within the living, ceding its place to disintegration and decay.… The fate of her own children was confirmation of that, too.

Other notable characters include a demented doctor who’s somehow a capable clinician; the camp lickspittle, a truly despicable sort who always bobs up like a cork, no matter who pushes him down; and a couple members of the intelligentsia, city slickers who’ve seen Paris, not just Leningrad or Moscow. The camp commandant, who killed Murtaza and has a thing for Zuleikha’s green eyes, comes to feel for his charges, though he can’t say so or even let himself think it. For all these, banishment to Siberia spares them from worse punishment, for the camp is a backwater, where purges don’t reach.

You just know that these people, had they remained where they were, would have been swept up by the secret police, even—especially—the commandant. For the longest time, he resents his posting, in his pride mistakenly thinking that the bureaucracy has shunted him aside, after all his many accomplishments. The political message comes through loud and clear, though Yakhina never spells it out: Here’s a cross-section of people who, for better and worse, built the Soviet state, receiving no thanks for their pains and, more often, a whip across the face.

Zuleikha has a touch of the fairytale—witness the demented doctor who remembers a remarkable amount of his training—yet reality takes front and center. In fact, when the pain of what he experiences penetrates his consciousness, he has the persistent fantasy that he’s living inside an eggshell, which shields him from the suffering all around and allows him to exist. So even when Yakhina surrenders to gauzy fantasies, she tries to twist them, make them her own.

You won’t recognize Solzhenitsyn’s gulag in her Siberian camp, though many exiles die from the harsh atmosphere and poor food. She’s more interested in the survivors, who find skills or character traits they didn’t know they had. In this, Zuleikha is Exhibit A. Her acquisition of a spine is a marvelous transformation to behold, and Yakhina’s careful not to let her consummate masochist turn into a different person altogether. Nevertheless, at times I wonder whether our heroine would be able to achieve what her creator intends, even less that Zuleikha feels drawn to the commandant, who killed her husband, after all — though, to be fair, her sense of attraction causes her guilt.

Overall, however, Zuleikha is an excellent novel, a first novel, surprisingly, full of rich, evocative prose, sharp political commentary, and a story cast against type. I recommend it.

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

Star-Crossed Love: The Glittering Hour

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Review: The Glittering Hour, by Iona Grey
St. Martins, 2019. 468 pp. $29

It’s January 1936, and nine-year-old Alice Carew misses her mother terribly. Mama’s away in Burma with Papa, who has mining interests there, and the family’s Wiltshire estate, Blackwood, feels like a prison to Alice. An artistically precocious child with no head for or interest in reading or mathematics, Alice has no allies in the house save her beloved nanny, Polly, who can’t protect her from Grandmama, as starchy and cold an aristocrat as ever graced England’s shores.

The old lady has never liked her grandchild, censors the girl’s letters to her parents, and even denies Alice the colored pencils Mama bought for her. Good grief. Yet despite her grandmother’s and father’s opinion that Alice has a second-rate mind, the girl sees plenty, including their lack of love for her — but not the reason for it. Therein hangs a tale.

However, all this is prologue to Mama’s back story. Selina Carew, née Lennox, was a Bright Young Thing in the Twenties who burned the candle at both ends. With a passion for expensive amusements and a horror of boredom, Selina and her blue-blood friends cut a swath through London at breakneck speed, awash in champagne and jewels, tossing out arch bon mots and trying to decide whether this or that costume party or dance will be too unbearable; really, isn’t there anything better to do? To her family’s horror, the scandal sheets eat this up, from which Selina derives some satisfaction.

Selina’s no airhead (though I reserve judgment on her friends), because if she were, The Glittering Hour would have a flat, spoiled-brat heroine and require a seismic change from her that would strain credulity. Rather, she has deep conflicts, from which she’s trying to hide. She represents the upper-class cohort that survived the Great War and who dash from party to party so as to conceal the pain of loss. But Selina feels it, can’t help it; like so many women of all social classes, she lost a beloved brother at Passchendaele. What’s more, much as it hurts, she refuses to believe that all joy must end, though admittedly, she overdoes it. Worse, none of that may be spoken of:

Seven years on from the armistice and the scars of the war were still visible everywhere. One got adept at looking past them, or through them, or pretending they weren’t there at all. One got on with things in the best way one could; there was always someone worse off, like the man selling matches, or Lady Renshaw, who had lost all three of her boys… One could never complain about one’s own loss. Selina understood why her mother had buried hers in the deepest recesses of her heart and hardened her face against the world. It was her way of coping, of Getting On. But it was a sad legacy for a boy whose smile could light up a room.

Selina meets Lawrence Weston, an artist who makes his living painting portraits based on photographs for war-bereaved families, but whose real passion is photography — which few people consider an art form. Little do they know. For extra money, Lawrence takes pictures of the rich and famous making public nuisances of themselves — he knows about Selina Lennox before they meet — but he prefers photographing miners, the men selling matches, whatever social commentary his lens seeks out.

William Monk’s 1920 engraving of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, a memorial to the war dead. The wooden structure was later replaced in stone (courtesy http://www.abbottandholder-thelist.co.uk/ via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

I understand what Grey’s trying to achieve by starting with Alice, but that approach has its flaws. Though Alice’s predicament squeezes my heart, as it’s meant to, that’s not where the richest material lies. I prefer Selina’s inner struggle as a Bright Young Thing and her relationship to Lawrence, which has so many social markers, the pair might even inhale and exhale differently, for all I know. The class barrier to romance is hardly new, but Grey’s rendering takes on particularity, because she grounds it so thoroughly in active physical detail. It’s not just Lawrence’s shabby clothes or Selina’s accent that set them apart, though those matter and are what onlookers see and hear; it’s how the physical details reveal these two characters’ different worldviews.

On the minus side, the story hinges on two secrets, neither of which is particularly hard to discern, and the narrative has its melodramatic moments, especially toward the end. I wish Grey didn’t resort to telling, rather than showing, emotions in certain key moments— what a shame, for such an astute observer — and the resulting shorthand phrases sometimes go thump. Further, though Grandmama’s portrayal will curdle your blood, she’s that real, Alice’s father seems like a shirt stuffed with papier-mâché.

Even so, The Glittering Hour finds something new to say about the decade after the Great War, and Selina and Lawrence are appealing characters. It’s worth reading for that, if not for more.

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

The Food of Love: The Pasha of Cuisine

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Review: The Pasha of Cuisine, by Saygin Ersin
Translated from the Turkish by Mark David Wyers
Arcade, 2016. 281 pp. $26

Once upon a time in Constantinople, a cook wangles a job at the sultan’s palace so he can spring the woman he loves from the harem. Is he dreaming? Does he really think he can infiltrate that inner sanctum, forbidden to all males save eunuchs, and spirit his lover away, let alone live to tell about it?

Not exactly. And the manner in which the cook — who has no other name — sets about his quest makes for a highly entertaining (and mouth-watering) narrative, recounted in a style reminiscent of the Arabian Nights. As you may imagine, “no — and furthermore” resides here, the penalty for failure is unthinkable, and there is considerable back story.

Turkish food, from central Anatolia (courtesy KayaZaKi, via Wikimedia Commons)

How does the cook, whom many call the Pasha of Cuisine, a title earned through talent and study and testament to his unique powers, come to be where he is? No one knows. What sorcery informs his skill, or, for believers in rational thought, why do his dishes have the effects they do? No one can figure that out either, though they try.

So there are two mysteries here, the man and his plan, and both depend on cooking. I’m all for that. And since it’s a cultural given that a Pasha of Cuisine cooks not only for himself or his patron or employer, but to raise the level of taste and appreciation throughout the land — so much so that harvests become more bountiful — the cook’s gift has a public meaning. Much rests on that, for his ability, his presence, open doors closed to ordinary chefs, let alone the story itself, wouldn’t work without that instant entrée.

That talent cuts two ways, however, for, as with anyone who works at the palace, you take your life in your hands:

Like the other [palace] gate, the Gate of Salutation was a passage, but much longer. The light at the other end seemed to be far, far away, as though symbolizing the plight of those who passed through. Living at the palace was a journey, the end of which was unknown as you walked through the Gate of Salutation. That held true for everyone, from the youngest page to His Highness the Sultan himself. You walked toward the light, yet it seemed that you’d never reach it. Your life spilled onto that infinite road moment by moment, hour by hour, and day by day; you were filled with the fear that you may be plunged into darkness at any time. And in the end, your life would be extinguished either at the hands of an executioner or by a natural death, at best becoming a few lines in a dusty history book.

Like all heroes on a quest, our cook has a tragic past, which influences what he has learned and how he has gone about it. Among his lessons are the six layers of taste; the ineffable names of flavors and aromas; and the spiritual powers of food to influence mood and character, moderated by bodily humors and the signs of the zodiac. It’s complicated but always intriguing.

Just as his education, his outer journey, leads him to the palace, his inner journey involves coming to terms with the pain he would rather forget. I like this psychological and philosophical aspect better than the concoctions themselves or the studies that inform them, not only because they are character-dependent, and character is a flimsy reed here, but also because of the storytelling style.

As in the paragraph quoted above, Ersin adopts a wide, omniscient lens, and though that suits his tale in a way—and is likely traditional–it also distances the reader. The narrative explains more than shows, and even when you see the action, in which people yield to the cook’s wishes, that miraculous quality I referred to earlier, you don’t always feel as if you’re in the scene. That applies particularly in the book’s first half, whereas, during the cook’s psychological quest, he and his surroundings come through more clearly.

Consequently, the narrative hangs mostly on the cook’s clever machinations and Byzantine plot twists (sorry; I couldn’t resist), not always satisfying, as they seem ordained, despite the depth of the struggle.

Yet The Pasha of Cuisine is worth your time as an entertaining tale of romance and intrigue. And if you read it, I suggest having snacks handy — tasty mezes, perhaps.

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

Waif, Reinvented: Vera

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Review: Vera, by Carol Edgarian
Scribner, 2021. 313 pp. $27

Fifteen-year-old Vera Johnson has two mothers, not just one, but neither will truly own her, and the word love doesn’t exist. Arrangement, yes; pawn in a power game, yes. But not love. The inconvenient child to Rose, a flamboyant, wildly successful brothel madam, Vera is farmed out as part of a business deal to Morie, a Swedish immigrant who lives in an aquavit bottle. Though not destitute, by any means—Rose, from a distance, sees to that–the Johnson household is impoverished in other, more important ways.

One is that Morie’s older daughter, Piper, called Pie, is everything Vera’s not: pretty, pliable, too weak to stand up for herself or anyone else, and retreats from tough decisions. Both girls suffer Morie’s whims, self-pity, and attacks with a hairbrush, but these injuries hurt Vera more. And with Pie around, who’ll pay any attention to mousy, cranky Vera?

However, circumstances are about to change—oh, are they ever—for this is San Francisco, and the year is 1906. One night, Enrico Caruso is in town to sing Carmen, and Rose springs for tickets for the Johnsons, though she stipulates that her guests aren’t allowed anywhere near her. That allows Vera the chance to roam, which she enjoys. Not only does she wander backstage (improbably) and catches sight of the great tenor before he goes on stage, she runs into Mayor Eugene Schmitz, an old acquaintance, who rightfully fears he’ll be indicted for graft the following day. San Francisco, corrupt to the core, is the sewer in which he swims.

But later that night, an earthquake devastates the city, and the world literally turns upside-down. Vera and Pie must flee their home and take refuge in Rose’s former brothel, which has largely escaped the disaster, though the madam herself is nowhere to be found. That the very idea of living there revolts Pie on moral grounds, despite the absence of any choice, tells you what you need to know about her. Vera, more adept and flexible, takes charge, with Tan, Rose’s Chinese cook, and his unpleasant, scheming daughter, Lifang, as occasional allies, more often enemies. Within weeks, Vera becomes someone well worth watching, indeed.

San Francisco City Hall after the 1906 earthquake (courtesy Steinbrugge Collection of the UC Berkeley Earthquake Engineering Research Center, via US Geodetic Survey)

The transformation, realistically halting and well earned, makes Vera such a pleasure, and our heroine’s road is steeper than Nob Hill. Her relationship to Rose, as fraught and entrapping as any mother-daughter duo, takes front and center, appropriately so. But San Francisco is a significant character too, and how the city reacts to its tragedy—and who hopes to profit—forms an essential part of the narrative and Vera’s education. Of necessity, she grows up quickly on the outside, but within, retains her teenage longings, and, as such, represents the city’s coming of age as well, an impressive literary feat.

As Vera observes early on about her hometown, “To know her was to hold in your heart the up-downness of things. Her curves and hollows, her extremes. Her windy peaks and mini-climates. Her beauty, her trembling. Her greed.” That passage might apply to Rose as well, though Vera doesn’t know that yet.

So it is that Edgarian establishes Vera’s extraordinary, compelling voice, another pleasure of the novel. With a clear-sightedness that asks no pity yet takes up residence in your heart, this young girl freely acknowledges who she is, an unloved “special bastard,” belonging nowhere:

And though that fact pained me in my early youth, I came to see my place as unique. I was never trapped by pretty frocks and expectations of home and hearth that plagued the other girls I knew; I was a secret, bound by a secret, and if all that binding kept me apart, it also allowed me a certain freedom. My mind was my sole company, and when the old world ended and the new world began, my mind would have to see us through.

You can see the feminism, here—if Vera is about anything, it’s about women and power—but Edgarian doesn’t stop there. As her protagonist learns, aches, and explores the boundaries of a world that suddenly poses fewer restraints on her, the narrative repeatedly returns to what a woman can hope for. Love? Maybe, but not for sale—Vera, though no prude, has firm objections to prostitution as a reflection of unequal power. Security? Maybe that too, but again, the price the woman pays matters, and Vera’s uncompromising, sometimes to her cost, as she realizes only in retrospect.

The novel seems so sure-footed, it’s hard to signal missteps, and none strike me as serious. The narrative glides over a couple difficulties, giving you the impression that they simply faded away. But these rare instances of unearned progression in no way mar a brilliant, evocative portrayal of a young woman looking for a place to stand she can call her own. I highly recommend Vera.

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

What Makes a Conspiracy Theory: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

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Review: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, by Rivka Galchen
FSG, 2021. 271 pp. $27

Life feels fragile in the German Duchy of Württemberg, for it’s 1618, and not only does plague stalk the land, the Thirty Years War brings the passage of armies and their attendant depredations. But in the village of Leonberg, these afflictions only lap around the edges. What really matters is that Katharina Kepler is accused of witchcraft.

Katharina is an old woman, a grandmother who puts more faith in her beloved cow, Chamomile, than in people, young children excepted. Known for herbal remedies and her strange way of talking — she seldom answers a question directly, and asks in turn those that nobody else would dream of — she’s a busybody. She thinks nothing of bursting into someone’s house, whether to bring a gift or tell them how they should be living. The Yiddish word nudnik comes to mind.

She’s the sort who has an opinion about everything, and if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to hear it. She has a way of summing people up in insulting terms: “The crowd of them looked like a pack of dull troubadours who, come morning, have made off with all the butter.” Finally, her son, Johannes, is Imperial Mathematician, and Katharina’s neighbors are always asking her if he’ll cast their horoscopes. Apparently, he knows things about the heavens and writes books. These are suspicious activities, especially if the desired horoscope isn’t forthcoming.

Johannes Kepler, who framed the laws of planetary motion, in 1620, portrait artist unknown (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

From this eccentric yet harmless profile emerges the most incredible folklore. The good citizens of Leonberg believe, or come to believe, that Katharina has the power to poison, make people lame, pass through locked doors, cause livestock to sicken and die, and consort with the devil. How they arrive at these fancies — and why — makes a brilliant narrative, at once chilling and hilarious, absurd, yet with the ring of absolute truth.

In a novel like this, especially in the first-person narratives Galchen deploys, voice matters greatly. Here’s Katharina’s, on one of her favorite subjects, the failings of the local authorities:

I know you’ll think it’s not wise… but I’d like to say something about Ducal Governor Einhorn, whom I prefer to call the False Unicorn. He’s not from this area. He was brought in by the marvelous Duchess Sybille, may she rest in peace. The False Unicorn was to defer to Sybille’s judgment in all matters. Then Sybille died so suddenly. The Duke was distracted — with counting soldiers, signing treaties, commissioning lace shirt cuffs.… and so the False Unicorn usurped powers that should have reverted to the Duke. He began to puff up, Einhorn did. He wore his hair longer. He had a new collar made.… I will say that the False Unicorn looks like an unwell river otter in a doublet.

You might suppose, as I did at first, that Galchen owes a debt to Kafka. Not quite. In Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmares, the hand that wields power remains obscure, sometimes invisible. Here, you see the workings, or many of them; more importantly, you see their paranoid, angry underpinnings. Kafka is said to have read his work out loud to friends, causing general laughter. I’ve never laughed at Kafka — maybe that says something about me — but I did at Galchen. Until, that is, the accusations gather steam.

Everyone Knows is a feminist statement, for we have a free-thinking woman blamed for heresies, mostly by other women, interestingly. It’s as though they resent her for doing what they’ve never let themselves even think of. But though misogyny, including the self-inflicted variety, has historically fed attempts to suppress witchcraft, there’s much more here. Galchen has delved into the paranoia that produces conspiracy theories, and her reconstruction of their origins is spot on. Life has disappointed them, hasn’t granted what the conspiracy theorist assumes he or she deserves and, by God, someone will pay. If that’s not a diagnosis of a sickness that threatens this country’s social, cultural, and political fabric, I don’t know what is.

Some readers will find that this novel ends abruptly, and maybe it does. But that doesn’t trouble me. Galchen’s less concerned with what happens than its origins and legacy; she’s not so focused on the plot, and I accept that. More bothersome is the language, entirely brilliant, yet with occasional lapses in diction. Images like troubadours stealing butter or an otter in a doublet strike my ear perfectly, so I’m not prepared for modern idioms like okay, open up, be fine with, or share your story. If Galchen, a careful writer, is trying to suggest that these seventeenth-century Germans are just like us, she’s proven that in other, deeper ways.

And it is precisely those ways that make Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch required reading.

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

East African Enmities: The Idol of Mombasa

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Review: The Idol of Mombasa, by Annamaria Alfieri
Felony and Mayhem, 2016. 249 pp. $15

When Justin Tolliver and his new bride, Vera, take up residence in Mombasa, British East Africa Protectorate, early in 1912, they have mixed feelings. They have transferred from Nairobi, where Justin, a colonial police officer, enjoyed his position, near where Vera was born, and her beloved father has his mission. But duty calls: Justin has been promoted to assistant district superintendent. Therein lies a source of marital friction, however, for he loves his work, whereas Vera wishes he’d give it up and become a farmer, as so many colonials do.

Justin promises he won’t remain on the force for long — a year at most — but that year promises to be very busy. He’s not even unpacked in Mombasa before a criminal act takes place that has diplomatic implications. The Grand Mufti of Egypt is in town to exhort the faithful of Islam, collect presents from the British, and remind them that their hold on the protectorate is anything but absolute, depending as it does on the Sultan of Zanzibar’s goodwill. And when a slave belonging to a prominent Muslim businessman runs away and is murdered for it, that should prompt soul-searching among the colonials. After all, Britain has outlawed slavery and claims that this “civilizing” influence justifies their empire. Yet political considerations and racism combine to separate the law from justice, at least as it’s practiced on the street.

Mombasa, buying ivory hunted in the East African interior, 1910-1920, Underwood & Underwood (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

This outlook sits poorly with Justin, who believes in the stated moral principle. He also espouses a comparatively liberal outlook concerning the people the British govern. He respects his sergeant, Kwai Libazo, a man half Kikuyu, half Masai, and takes him at his word, an attitude that marks Justin as “soft” among his peers. Back in England, he was a keen sportsman who played games as much for their sense of rules as their competitive aspect. But he’s a newcomer to Mombasa; he must follow orders; and, as an earl’s second son, he faces reverse snobbery, which makes his every move suspect. Other colonials wonder how an English-born aristocrat can even think of being a police officer, while they also turn up their noses at Vera, because he’s married down.

Meanwhile, Vera is fiercely anti-slavery and has far fewer scruples about adopting local customs. She understands that British clothing and manners don’t fit in Africa, and she wants to learn Arabic — imagine! Unlike a proper English wife, she speaks her mind, so Justin hears her views on his moral compromises, another arena of marital conflict. Nevertheless, husband and wife appreciate qualities in the other that they also fear. This setup provides great possibilities.

As befits the British colonial mission, they have their romantic notions about where they are and what they’re doing. For Justin, though Mombasa makes him wrinkle his nose, it also represents an exotic fantasy:

The smell of the salt air called to mind his father’s history books and his own boyhood dreams of adventure. He imagined that this place now smelled much the same as it had to da Gama, aboard the Portuguese carrack São Gabriel when the great explorer entered Mombasa Harbor, the first European to come to this place. This was a reason to be here. This had been a place of adventure for centuries. Whatever else Mombasa was, this was the sort of place that, as a child, he had always longed to be.

If all this seems extraneous to the mystery, rest assured it belongs. Alfieri creates a solid whodunit, with a satisfying ending. Just when you think she’s tipped her hand, she hasn’t. Suspects abound from all cultures and walks of life, including the Reverend Robert Morley and his sister, Katharine. (Is this echo of the actors in The African Queen too cute? Probably.) Still, despite the issues of justice, the marriage subplot, the racial and ethnic hatreds that divide the city, and Mombasa itself, only the mystery kept me reading.

The characters, though they display more than a single trait or two, seem locked into either-or emotional states during conflict, which simplifies them and makes them predictable. Also, Alfieri’s writing style, occasionally repetitive, as in the above example, explains more than it shows and distances me. Sometimes the explanations follow action that’s already clear or restate what’s been narrated before. It’s as though Alfieri or her editor fears that we’ve forgotten the circumstances or motivations and need reminders. Either that, or she doesn’t see how to deepen such moments. It’s too bad, because there’s much on offer, and I applaud the author’s intent and loving portrayal of time, place, and cultural associations. I wish more historical mysteries did that.

Read The Idol of Mombasa, if you will, for the story. But if you’re like me, you’ll wish the rest held up its end as well.

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