The Adamant Sheriff: Nighthawk’s Wing

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Review: Nighthawk’s Wing, by Charles Fergus
Arcade, 2021. 273 pp. $26

Gideon Stoltz, sheriff of (the fictional) Colerain County, Pennsylvania, in 1836, faces long odds in solving his latest case. He suffers headaches and memory loss because he fell off his horse and hit his head. His deputy does his best to cover for him, but Gideon’s boss, an arrogant attorney, openly hopes the voters will turn the young sheriff out of office come autumn. At only twenty-three, Gideon fears for his future, but the present looks pretty dreadful too. His wife, True, locked in grief over their young son’s death from influenza, won’t speak to him or even stir from bed.

But that’s just for starters. A woman said to be a witch has been found dead in Sinking Valley, a farm district more than a day’s ride from Adamant, the town where Gideon lives, and he’s not sure he can manage an extended trip, given his physical ailments. He’s hoping that the rumors of suicide prove true, and that he can investigate briefly and return home.

However, he not only knew the dead woman, Rebecca Kreidler, he has the strongest impression that he visited her on or about the day she died. Could he have killed her? Could he have taken her to bed, even, for, like many men who knew Rebecca, he lusted after her? The notion fills him with shame.

What’s more, when Gideon begins questioning the good folk of Sinking Valley, he uncovers complexities that challenge a verdict of suicide. Rebecca’s beauty aroused desire and envy, and her knowledge of medicinal plants invited both gratitude for her cures and suspicion of witchcraft. Then again, her past preceded her, for a woman who kills her husband — no matter how violent or abusive — has marked herself as an outcast, and her three years in the penitentiary is not considered adequate expiation.

This ingenious framework, and the facets Fergus gives it, make Nighthawk’s Wing compelling reading. Gideon Stoltz is a man first and a detective second, and though the two naturally intertwine, the narrative offers much more than a whodunit — luckily, for reasons I’ll get to. Not only do Gideon’s cognitive difficulties and the various reactions to them provide a touching, unusual background in a mystery, the social atmosphere places the narrative firmly in the central Pennsylvania soil.

This document bound one Henry Mayer as indentured servant to Abraham Hestant of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1738. Many German immigrants to Pennsylvania, erroneously called “Dutch,” bound themselves in this way (courtesy Immigrant Servants Database, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Like many people in Sinking Valley, Gideon’s of German extraction, or, as commonly called, “Dutch,” apparently a corruption of the German word Deitsch, how they describe themselves. Much hated and maligned for being different, they occupy a social position that marks the story. With skillful economy, Fergus deploys the animosity to effect, tracing its roots and consequences, and since Rebecca was Deitsch, Gideon must take that into account.

Another pleasure of Nighthawk’s Wing involves the vivid, very much lived-in picture of early nineteenth-century rural American life. Fergus shows us crafts, like grinding and resetting a millstone, or a blacksmith shoeing a horse, and recounts herbal lore and depicts burial customs. Such authenticity extends to various mounted creatures, for riding a beast requires particular skills or physical heft, and either you have them, or you don’t:

The animal’s long upper lip stated that it grudged being ridden. No saddle. The boy sat on a girthed sheepskin with the fleece side down. He held a loop of rope tied to the bit rings on both sides of the mule’s broad, disgruntled mouth. The boy was small, and his leg stuck out sideways from the mule’s sweat-slick barrel — uncomfortable enough, Gideon thought, even for one so young.

The narrative from Rebecca’s point of view works less well, I think. I believe her portrayal as a psychotic — one of her delusions gives the book its title — but by going back in time to let the now-dead speak feels like a copout, telling us what Gideon couldn’t possibly know. That may not bother other readers; and I may also be alone in my dislike of the supernatural elements that play a strong role, especially toward the end.

But I wonder whether other readers will agree with me that Fergus has tipped his hand concerning the killer’s identity, which I latched onto because of how mystery novels are typically put together. I don’t want to say more, for fear of giving too much away, but despite this drawback, I do believe that Nighthawk’s Wing deserves its audience. I congratulate Fergus for the loving care with which he re-creates the time and place and crafts his characters. If you’re like me, that will justify reading the novel.

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

Cold War Hallucinations: Night Watch

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Review: Night Watch, by David C. Taylor
Severn, 2018. 290 pp. $29

At first glance, or even second or third, the crimes seem to lack any connection; after all, this is Manhattan, 1956, and anything can happen. A couple walking through Central Park come face-to-face with a man who threatens them, kill him, and walk away. A man throws himself out the window of the Hotel Astor, and his colleagues, almost shrugging, say he was depressed.

But Detective Michael Cassidy, who knows his native city and what its residents can do to one another, latches on to the details that don’t add up. He refuses to accept the anodyne explanations dished out by unreliable witnesses or the police bureaucracy, overworked and under political pressure from every point of the compass. Before long, the federal government casts its shadow over the investigations, doors close, and odd things happen.

What’s more, a sophisticated, relentless stalker leaves messages promising that he’ll kill Michael at a time and place of his choosing. Michael can’t figure out which criminal he’s put away who would try to take revenge like that.

Like Night Life and Night Work, the two previous thrillers featuring Michael Cassidy (and which bracket the current installment by a few years), this one offers similar pleasures. From the first lines, you have New York City, portrayed as few authors can, capturing the grit, energy, and quirks of an infinitely surprising metropolis. The story begins with horses waiting to pull tourists through Central Park in hansom cabs:

The horses harnessed to carriages at the curb on Columbus Circle huffed smoke from their nostrils as they stood heads down, their backs covered with plaid blankets, and waited for the night-time romantics who wanted to ride through the park bundled under lap robes in private darkness. The shrill wail of a police car siren rose in the west. The horses watched the car pass on 59th Street headed east toward Fifth Avenue, lights flashing. They dropped their heads again to eat hay strewn in the gutter by their drivers. They had been raised on concrete and were used to sirens. In a city of eight million there was always an emergency — someone trapped in an elevator, a restaurant kitchen fire, a domestic dispute, a liquor store stick-up, a body leaking blood across the sidewalk.

The narrative, chronometer-intricate, conveys the fits and starts of criminal investigation, with all the dead ends and improbabilities that Cassidy and his partner sense are built on lies, but against which they can do nothing, for want of evidence. Since Taylor shows you the bad guys at work, the reader knows more than our heroes do. Consequently, the tension derives not just from the “no — and furthermore,” many instances of which involve close combat, but the desire to see justice done — and the fear that the scoundrels will escape because the government protects them.

Unlike the previous two novels, the scoundrels here aren’t J. Edgar Hoover or the Mafia, but Allen Dulles, CIA director. The plot turns on the covert program, much written about in recent years, to test LSD as a “truth serum,” often without the subjects’ knowledge, in the name of national security.

Undated government photo of Allen Dulles (courtesy Prologue Magazine, spring 2002 (NARA, 306-PS-59-17740; via Wikimedia Commons)

Practically no one in the New York of 1956 has heard of this drug or what it can do, which adds to Michael’s difficulties solving the mystery, but the reader will understand, based on the hallucinations several characters suffer. The outrage that the government could inflict this, and with such righteous, cold-blooded cruelty, turns up the narrative heat. Nor is that all. The scientists behind the experiments include Nazi death-camp doctors recruited for their special knowledge about what abuses the human body can stand.

Accordingly, it’s all the more satisfying when Dulles tries to recruit Michael, who bluntly refuses, then, when prodded to admit that he dislikes Dulles, and why, puts it plainly: Michael can’t stand people who tip the table so that everything on it flows toward them. I’m going to remember that phrase.

I don’t believe all of the physical confrontations, at which Michael excels — a trope of the genre, to be sure, yet still implausible. Michael also rescues his beautiful girlfriend (trope number two), a newspaper reporter, though, to be fair, she rescues herself too and is hardly helpless. (Her clothes, especially high heels, cause trouble in the action scenes, a nice touch that underlines the gender straitjacket she struggles to wear as a journalist consigned to “women’s interest” stories.) Michael has a few convenient resources, like a brother who’s a political TV commentator and an aunt who’s a Washington, DC, powerbroker. Finally, despite the ever-present “no — and furthermore,” loose ends get tied up rather neatly.

But I can’t resist these novels — I’ve reviewed all three — and if you read them, maybe you’ll feel the same way.

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

Coping with a Tyrant: A Room Made of Leaves

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Review: A Room Made of Leaves, by Kate Grenville
Text, 2020. 317 pp. $33AU

During Sydney’s colonial infancy in the late eighteenth century, there lived John Macarthur, a man credited with introducing the sheep breed that would make Australian wool famous, and himself, a fortune. But what if he wasn’t the innovator he claimed to be, nor a gifted leader and businessman, but merely a bully on the make who got lucky? Indeed, let’s suppose that his luckiest break, though he wouldn’t have called it that, was to marry Elizabeth Veale, who left behind a diary telling what may or may not be the real story?

Portrait of Elizabeth Macarthur, artist unknown, 1794-1796, State Library of New South Wales, presented by Sir William Dixson, 1935 (via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Such is the premise Grenville spins, and what a compelling story she derives from this tight space between truth and fiction. There was no such diary, but turning Elizabeth’s letters to England on their head, Grenville imagines the meaning between the lines as opposite to their literal sense, for, after all, husband John reads them before they cross the ocean — yes, he’s that controlling, and worse.

Through the Macarthurs’ marriage, Grenville retells the story of English colonialism in Sydney, because John is a schemer, and Elizabeth, the often appalled onlooker. The author could have overplayed this and made her protagonist a progressive thinker who rails, in her head, against the maltreatment of the indigenous populations. Rather, as a feeling person, Elizabeth has the capacity to put herself in someone else’s viewpoint, but she has few illusions that she’s any more compassionate than her countrymen, because she takes no action. That criticism may exaggerate, but it’s not far-fetched, for Elizabeth, as a victim of brutality, can surely recognize that in others.

However, relations between husband and wife drive the story. Elizabeth has wit, spirit, and excellent diplomatic survival skills, but she’s had to learn them, on the fly. Her girlhood is a series of abandonments and disappointments, leavened by her beloved grandfather, who, though inflexible in his religious and moral code, encourages his granddaughter to have an inner life and to love nature. Unbeknownst to her, these are two essential weapons in her war of self-defense against her future brute of a husband.

I won’t reveal how she becomes shackled to such a blight on the human race, but I will tell you that the key pleasure in A Room Made of Leaves comes from Elizabeth’s slow but steady education. Catering to his view of her, and of women in general, she pretends to be incapable of serious thought, by which she learns to placate, flatter, outwit, and soothe John, who’s half as smart as he thinks he is. His greatest talent consists of hatching conspiracies to ruin men who haven’t treated him like “a gentleman.” As is often the case with malicious snobs, he knows he has no real claim to that status, and he takes pleasure in his successful cabals, the more vicious, the better.

He’s just as dangerous at home, where he expects complete fealty. Elizabeth takes steps not to change him — heavens, no — but to protect herself as best she can, enough to create a place in her mind where she views herself as worthy, capable, and by no means powerless. That the power largely exists in thought and outlook may not seem like much, at first glance. But Elizabeth’s triumph is that no matter how Macarthur imprisons her in his iron fist, she’s free to think what she likes. And, once in a while, to do more than that.

That’s the inner life her grandfather fostered in her. As for the nature, that’s Australia itself. Interestingly, among the few English residents of Sydney who aren’t convicts, such as the Macarthurs (he’s a military officer), practically no one besides Elizabeth even seems to notice how beautiful the land is. In one of her favorite spots, the room named in the title, she realizes how the scenery can help her spirit:

Each step [down] revealed a new marvel: a view through the bushes of a slice of harbour rough and blue like lapis, a tree with bark of such a smooth pink fleshiness that you could expect it to be warm, an overhang of rock with a fraying underside, soft as cake, that glowed yellow. The wind brought with it the salt of the ocean and the strange spicy astringency given off by the shrubs and flowers. There was an almost frightening breadth and depth and height to the place, alive with openness and the wild energy of breeze and trees and the crying gulls and the brilliant water. Alone, a speck of human in a place big enough to swallow me, I looked about with eyes that seemed open for the first time.

Since A Room Made of Leaves purports to be a diary, the chapters are very short, sometimes only a page. I’ve never liked that style of narrative, which can easily become fragmented, offering undeveloped, shallow bits. But here, Grenville creates a cohesive whole, and though the individual scenes may feel cut short, the ensemble achieves a profound depth. I recommend this novel.

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

Exposing a Hoax: The Wonder

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Review: The Wonder, by Emma Donaghue
Little, Brown, 2016. 320 pp. $16

It’s summer 1859, and Elizabeth (Lib) Wright, a nurse who worked under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, arrives at an impoverished Irish village tasked with observing a medical phenomenon. An eleven-year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell, has reportedly taken no food for four months.

A committee that includes the local physician has hired Lib and another nurse to watch the girl, day and night, to be absolutely certain that no one’s feeding her in secret. It is generally assumed, even by the good doctor, that they’re witnessing a miracle. Why, young Anna, who claims to exist on manna from heaven, might even be a modern-day saint! Wouldn’t that put the village on the map? And so it would seem, for pilgrims are already beating a path to the O’Donnells’ door and leaving donations—strictly for charity, it’s said.

But Lib, an atheist who believes in what she can observe, thinks she’s observing a hoax, one perhaps encouraged by the local priest. Or maybe the girl herself has taken odd notions into her head. Either way, however, the committee has ordered the nurses to play sentinel but derive no inferences from what they see, a remit that grates on Lib. And as she comes to know Anna a little, she believes the girl is following her faith, yet fears for her and wishes she could learn what’s driving her exactly, or the adults who might be pushing her.

I like this premise, and how Donoghue uses it to plumb Irish folkways, religious beliefs, and moral standards as well as English disdain and misunderstanding. The O’Donnells represent an archaic, dying Ireland, amid still-fresh evidence of the Great Famine of 1845-49, while Lib stands in for the English modernists who would take a carbolic-soaked sponge to the island and scrub out superstition, if only they could.

James Mahoney’s drawing for the Illustrated London News, February 1847, of two starving Irish children near Skibbereen, west Cork (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Unlike her countrymen and -women who twiddled their thumbs while Ireland starved, Lib refuses to let Anna do the same. You have to admire the layers here, of historical resonance, cultural clash, and the personal stakes of a child at risk. Further, as befits her protagonist, Donoghue’s storytelling voice is spare and direct, and she turns small moments into large instances of “no — and furthermore.”

Yet The Wonder almost founders halfway through, I think because of an authorial decision made all too often these days: to imbue a protagonist with such strident singularity, setting up the greatest obstacles possible. I don’t mean to single out Donoghue; she really is a fine writer. But this novel typifies the narrative risks in manipulating the reader’s perceptions to serve a story.

By giving Lib every conceivable English prejudice against the Irish, the novel skews against her. “What a rabble, the Irish,” she thinks. “Shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, helpless, always brooding over past wrongs.” Having studied the Great Famine and written about it, I recognize that many English people held these views around that time, which contributed greatly to the catastrophe. But by withholding key facts about Lib’s past, therefore failing to develop her inner life, Donoghue lets her protagonist remain shallow and keeps me at a distance. Portraying her in broad, overdetermined strokes may or may not give her a steeper mountain to climb, but at a price—halfway through, I almost gave up reading.

Once you learn Lib’s secrets, though, she wins you over, so completely that I feel manipulated and have to wonder whether the secrets have been withheld because of their shock value. If so, why write character-driven fiction, which this is, and allow your plot to shackle the protagonist to a false impression? The shock doesn’t even accomplish much.

Also, Lib’s an odd mix of sophistication and ignorance. The narrative never says why she’s an atheist or how she came to that, but has she really never heard the phrase manna from heaven? At first, I figured that Donoghue (or her editors) feared that some readers might not have heard of the Exodus story—odd, but you never know. However, how Lib learns about the manna, told at length, suggests otherwise.

She also has to have the Great Famine explained to her. Apparently, during the famine years, her own concerns absorbed her so much that she didn’t even read a newspaper. But the blight that killed Ireland’s potatoes destroyed those in England and on the Continent as well; those losses, and a succession of failed grain harvests, gave the era a singular nickname, the Hungry Forties. Rife with revolution, hardship, famine, and protest, the decade’s upheavals were absolutely deafening. If Lib slept through that, I wonder how she didn’t sleep through the Crimean War.

Consequently, for a long stretch, she comes across as a straw protagonist, made of intentionally weak stuff. That causes unfortunate ripples, because, by the time she brings her inner resources to bear, the narrative has to rush through a couple crucial emotional transitions, less plausible for that, and which muddle an otherwise satisfying ending.

The Wonder has an original premise and perspective, and I had hoped to find more artistry in its execution.

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

Royal Assassin: M, King’s Bodyguard

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Review: M, King’s Bodyguard, by Niall Leonard
Pantheon, 2021. 260 pp. $27

It’s January 1901, and Queen Victoria lies dying. Her German grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, has come to pay his last respects, a fact well known to anarchists, the more violent of whom would use the queen’s upcoming funeral to take one or more royal heads. Chief Superintendent William Melville of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, already tasked with security at the funeral, now has even greater responsibility.

William Melville, head of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, 1894, from a scan of an engraving in The Graphic, an illustrated weekly (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Further, the most likely assassin quickly demonstrates a ruthlessness and tactical skill not usually associated with long-haired bomb-throwers. And since the funeral will take place in a week, a national event of utmost importance, Melville has very little time to hunt his quarry. Every move he makes risks exposure in the press, which could cause a disaster with international complications.

This elegant premise drives an utterly satisfying thriller of high-stakes police work and cold-blooded politics. First among its several pleasures ranks the story, in which absolutely nothing goes as planned, and in which Melville, a thorough professional of excellent instincts, nevertheless makes costly mistakes. He’s human, in other words, but it’s more than that. As with all good thrillers, this one sets a brief timeframe and then shortens it, so that each red herring he chases costs him precious hours, as does every occasion in which the villain outwits him.

Consequently, the narrative reads as if Leonard invented “no — and furthermore”; even better, all the obstacles and adaptations to them feel plausible. In another twist, Melville’s chief ally on the ground is Gustav Steinhauer, a member of the kaiser’s retinue, capable in a tight spot, yet a liar about his role on the emperor’s staff, his past, and perhaps even his origins.

So it’s a classic setup, in which our hero doesn’t know whether the people whom circumstance forces him to trust are actually working against him. Likewise, Melville’s boss, an incompetent who owes his position to lineage and political connections, would love to send his subordinate packing. Both men are Irish, but Melville is lower-class and Catholic, therefore an embarrassment to his superior’s pretensions. He’s waiting for Melville to fail.

Another pleasure of M, King’s Bodyguard is its voice, for Melville’s a good example of a narrator who bows to convention outwardly, only to have subversive thoughts. At times, he seems a wee too progressive for a man of his time and position, perhaps more suited to our present age than Edwardian Britain. Even so, you have to like his sardonic commentary, as with his observations about anarchists, one of whom, a nonviolent believer, supplies him with information. “Mother of God, but these idealists make it so hard on themselves. They may sneer at those of us who have faith, but at least we Catholics can get absolution for our mistakes; they flog themselves daily with scourges of their own making.”

In similar fashion, Melville lets fly to himself about the visiting emperor, corrupt members of the ruling class, or, as in the following passage, a hospital, an emblem of moral self-righteousness:

Grey winter light seeped through the high windows of Whitechapel Union Infirmary, illuminating the neat rows of iron beds arranged on either side of this long room. Its whitewashed brick walls were bare except for a plain wooden cross high up at one end, big enough for a fresh crucifixion should the need arise. The place was clean, at least, if the eye-watering reek of carbolic was anything to go by.

I also enjoy the political intrigue, which involves the diplomacy leading up to the alliances that later form the background for the First World War, my favorite historical era. That lends the novel a genuine air, as does the very real fear of anarchists, who’ve killed various heads of state in the preceding years. One criticism: I’m not sure the anarchist characters here would have taken time out to soapbox in otherwise violent scenes. Still, I appreciate Leonard’s attempt to integrate anarchism into the narrative, rather than simply deploy it as a convenient device. He’s done his homework, and overall, the narrative wears it well.

I wasn’t entirely startled to learn, from the author’s afterword, that William Melville is a historical figure. But it did surprise me that Steinhauer is too — and that his writings, thirty years after the fact, provide the story.

At the end, you get the idea that Melville, having realized the extent of the espionage threat to Britain, will take action, which will no doubt require further adventures. Count me in.

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

Antebellum Guerrilla War: The Water Dancer

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Review: The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Random House/OneWorld, 2019. 403 pp. $28

Hiram Walker, born a slave in Virginia in some indeterminate year, barely remembers his mother, torn from him and sold west when he was little. Brought up by Thena, a hard woman who has suffered similar losses and who wastes no words in expressing feelings, Hiram thinks he’s lucky but isn’t sure.

That presentiment grows even stronger when Howell Walker, their master and tobacco planter, owns Hiram as his son — sort of. Hiram become servant to his half-brother, Maynard, and receives some education from a tutor. As Hiram’s father relies on him more and more, the young slave fantasizes that he’ll be allowed one day to run the plantation, as if he were white. The other slaves, though proud of his gifts and accomplishments, which include a prodigious memory and eloquent storytelling, warn him to keep his head on straight.

It’s excellent advice but impossible to follow. One night, a drunken Maynard drives his carriage into the river. The white man drowns, and the Black man emerges, though he doesn’t know how, except that strange visions seem to have steered him to safety. That event changes Hiram’s life forever.

Portrait, 1852, of William Wells Brown, who escaped slavery in Missouri in 1834 and became a noted abolitionist author. His novel, Clotel, 1853, was the first published by a Black American (courtesy Project Gutenberg, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

From this complex, multilayered premise emerges a compelling though uneven novel that examines in minute detail the roots and branches of race prejudice. The narrative needs no timetable, save the implied pre-Civil War era, for though the laws have changed greatly, racial attitudes haven’t. As such, The Water Dancer feels almost like an allegory, with a dash of magic thrown in.

Normally, I avoid mixing magic and realism, but Coates provides a brilliant rationale for anything not strictly true. Hiram’s memory and storytelling make him a superb candidate to learn and practice a mysterious power capable of setting him or others free. This potential interests the Underground, a resistance organization pledged to destroy slavery from within. That effort will have its costs.

So there’s much tension from the get-go, and Coates’s prose style reaches lyrical heights. Many passages illustrate Hiram’s state of mind while elucidating a theme, as with this one, in which he discovers the pride in being Black that slavery and subservience have denied him:

I looked over and watched as the other colored men along the fence shouted and laughed with still others working the stables. And watching this silently, as was my way, I marveled at the bonds between us — the way we shortened our words, or spoke, sometimes, with no words at all, the shared memories of corn-shuckings, of hurricanes, of heroes who did not live in books, but in our talk; an entire world of our own, hidden away from them, and to be part of that world, I felt even then, was to be in on a secret, a secret that was in you.

The Water Dancer is a vital, important book, and I urge you to read it, though I have reservations. The first half takes off like a rocket, borne aloft through passion that rises off the pages, a sharp sense of the physical, and that gorgeous prose. But then the narrative seems to go into orbit—a holding pattern, if you will—and the story loses momentum. Events that Hiram believes accidental or from his doing will turn out to have been ordained. Not only does that wear thin with repetition and challenge the narrative’s credibility, you get the impression that Coates is manipulating his characters.

To be fair, I like how memory and bearing witness shape the path to freedom, if not define it altogether; in that way, Hiram’s examination of his past makes total sense. I also like how each revelation resets Hiram’s wishes and strategies for living, which pairs his internal journey with his external one. All good novelists aim for that. Yet at times Hiram’s reflections seem forced, too incremental to matter, even abstract, like tiny essays Coates hides within his narrative, but which stick out anyway. The storytelling in these scenes exacerbates the tendentious, contrived approach, because some unfold with characters narrating to others or lecturing—and I, as reader, feel lectured too.

That said, Coates asks crucial questions. The Underground, though sworn to a single cause, attracts people with different goals, which means Hiram and his colleagues must constantly balance the needs of the movement with those of the slaves they mean to serve. Naturally, circumstances keep changing. Every political and social movement has to weather that difficulty, so this is true to life.

But Coates goes one better, splitting his dilemma into even finer parts, exploring where freedom lies exactly, and what actions lead to it. Does escape from the “coffin” of slavery suffice (an image that appears frequently), or does traveling into free territory accomplish nothing by itself? What about the family that remains behind, the love without which the absence of chains is only partially fulfilling?

The Water Dancer is a profound book whose story rises above the flaws in its execution.

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

Many Identities, One Extraordinary Woman: Code Name Hélène

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Review: Code Name Hélène, by Ariel Lawhon
Doubleday, 2020. 437 pp. $28

When we first meet Nancy Wake in late February 1944, she’s parachuting out of an airplane over France, assigned to finance, arm, and train Resistance groups in the Auvergne. An Australian-born journalist by training and adventurer by temperament, Nancy goes by several other names, depending on what role she’s playing. Safe to say, though, that if her biography resembles this novel in the slightest — and the author assures us it does — few people could claim to have had a more hair-raising or active role in clandestine World War II operations. Her constant struggle against men who dismiss or try to exploit her adds a superb, extra layer to the story.

Studio portrait of Nancy Wake, 1945, in a nursing uniform, photographer unknown (courtesy Australian War Memorial on line catalogue ID Number: P00885.001, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Imagine someone talking her way into a job as a stringer for Hearst, with no reporting experience, and turning that into several scoops, including an interview with Hitler, another with a much sought-after Austrian Jewish refugee, and a visit to Vienna to confirm his account of brutality. None of those feats rates a byline, because Hearst won’t give her one — sexism, again. Oh, and by the way, she has one of the richest, most charming men in France wrapped around her finger.

From start to finish, Code Name Hélène will grab you and refuse to let go. It’s got to be one of the most compelling World War II stories I’ve ever read. What’s more, we have several narratives, not just the romance and the clandestine activity but further divisions within each, yet Lawhon stitches them seamlessly, from prewar to the war’s darkest days and back. Rest assured that “no — and furthermore” comes thick and fast. As a narrative of action, heartbreak, and sheer brass, Code Name Hélène is hard to beat.

Like any good novelist, Lawhon puts the reader in every scene with physical, active detail evoking emotion, and that’s what hooks you. You could pick any page for an example, but consider this description of Janos Lieberman, the escaped Jewish refugee, whom Nancy meets in Paris in 1936:

He’s pleasant-looking but not remarkable. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Dark stubble across his solemn face. It’s the jagged pink scar cutting its way from earlobe to eyeball that makes him instantly recognizable. The whip split him clean to the bone and nearly took out his left eye in the process. Even from this distance the stitch marks are still evident, little pocked craters at even intervals along his cheekbone. The scar looks like a broken zipper, and he will be forever marked by its ferocity. You cannot help but stare when you see him.

Such technique should apply in any novel, but it’s absolutely essential to portray a character like Nancy, who’s not just larger than life; she’s larger than any three lives put together. If the author did not show each moment in its fullness, portraying its intricacies, mysteries, and, often its physical demands on Nancy, which can be excruciating, you might not believe a word. But because you’re inside her skin constantly, you accept what happens.

That said, you might not accept other aspects of the novel, starting with the portrayal of France and the apparent play to a stereotype, the so-called French obsession with sex. I have no idea whether Lawhon intends this, but as a longtime student of French culture and history, I sense it, and it feels like pandering. Where the French take sex as a natural function, Anglo-Saxons find decadence, fit for squirms, shock, and sorry pilgrimages to the Moulin Rouge.

Speaking of men and women, Nancy’s French lover seems to have no inner life, except as it relates to her. He’s a Marseille businessman, a man-about-town, and politically committed, so why doesn’t he have dreams and desires other than Nancy? Many male authors have been rightly criticized for creating female characters who exist solely for the men around them. The fault also applies in reverse.

As for Nancy’s characterization, I kept wanting to find a flaw and couldn’t. Oh, she insists on her perks, sleeping on a mattress in a nightgown, while the Resistance fighters she commands are lucky to have a blanket. But that’s part of her charm, and everyone understands that nobody is tougher than she is or has her physical endurance. I wish that Lawhon had stopped there, however, and eliminated the Hollywood confrontation scenes, complete with righteous speechmaking.

By contrast, Nancy’s antagonists are all bad, including her male rivals within the Resistance. No one, other than they and the Germans, betrays sadism, sexism, anti-Semitism, or xenophobia. The flimsiest prototype is Marceline, Nancy’s rival for her lover’s affections and another instance of Hollywood—the Other Woman with six-inch fangs.

So Code Name Hélène is a curious mix, an absolutely riveting story that sweeps you away and conquers disbelief, yet peopled by figures who seem too cut-and-dried to be real. Treat yourself and read this novel, by all means. But if you’re like me, you’ll keep the salt shaker handy.

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

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.