Nurses Under Fire: Blame the Dead

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Review: Blame the Dead, by Ed Ruggero
Forge, 2020. 330 pp. $28

When the army assigns military police Lieutenant Eddie Harkins to investigate a surgeon’s murder at a field hospital outside Palermo, Sicily, in August 1943, it’s the last thing he wants. A former beat cop in Philadelphia, Harkins knows next to nothing about detective work, and the internecine warfare at the hospital threatens to overwhelm him — as if fighting the Germans didn’t cause enough trouble.

No one misses the victim, an arrogant lech who sexually abused the nurses, bunked alone and had no friends, but wielded a scalpel like a genius, which, to the hospital commanding officer, was all that mattered. The all-powerful first sergeant, responsible for making the hospital run, resents Harkins on sight and won’t cooperate with the investigation. The CO wonders why a beat cop should lead the inquiry — couldn’t the provost’s office send anyone better? — and Harkins is inclined to agree.

Nevertheless, orders are orders, and Harkins quickly discovers that wherever he probes, something stinks, which leads him further on. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s say that the surgeon’s murder and the sexual abuse are just the beginning. Working on little sleep and facing obdurate officers who seem to have plenty to hide, Harkins finds his moxie. His stubbornness and sense of justice take hold, and he now insists on solving the case. He fears that if he doesn’t, the corruption will spread, and he gets wind that the brass wants to send him packing. Sensing resistance, he digs in and keeps fighting.

Such headaches have compensations, however. Eddie gets to talk to his older brother, Patrick, chaplain to a nearby regiment, their first conversation in more than a year. Also, a childhood friend, Kathleen Donnelly, is a nurse at the field hospital, and Harkins has always had a thing for her. But the way he recalls her from their school days bears no resemblance to her now:

The woman who let her arms fall from his shoulders looked nothing like he remembered. Her dark hair was chopped short and threaded with dust, a few lonely grays wiring out from her temples. Like every other GI in Sicily, she was drawn and sickly-thin, dirt ground into crow’s-feet beside eyes that did not flash, barely looked blue anymore. She wore a man’s fatigue uniform cinched tight at the waist. The legs of her trousers stood clear of her own legs like stovepipes; the uniform was dirty enough to stand up in a corner on its own.

But that scarecrow is an exceptionally competent, confident professional, and the reader will be awed, just as Harkins is. Her story, and those of the other nurses, is one reason to read Blame the Dead. With impressive authority, Ruggero conveys the impossible conditions in which these women work heroically to save horribly mangled men, only to have to dodge unwanted advances (and worse) by men protected from complaint or protest. As you might imagine, the army is the last place where a woman’s word carries weight, and this is 1943, so forget notions of respect, let alone equality. Whatever happens must be their fault, anyway, saith those in charge.

That authorial authenticity extends to the soldiers’ dialogue and interactions. Ruggero graduated West Point and served as an officer, but he’s also researched his ground thoroughly, re-creating the hierarchy, atmosphere, and workings of a World War II field hospital, as well as the city of Palermo, which emerges vividly. As for “no — and furthermore,” rest assured that nothing comes easily for Harkins, who’s continually out of his depth. The pages turn rapidly. As a sidelight, I also appreciate the criticisms the author has his characters make of General George Patton’s callousness toward his soldiers, for which the field hospital picks up the pieces—literally.

Much as I like the story, though, Blame the Dead feels cluttered, with at least a couple too many voices, nonstop everything, and no time or space to reflect on intense, earth-shaking events. Partly that’s the genre, and Harkins is working under tremendous pressure of time, which Ruggero cleverly squeezes. Yet I hope that in future adventures (this novel promises a series), the author shows the confidence to slow down a little, especially when the addition of still more stuff begins to seem contrived.

The villain’s a contrivance too, unraveling toward the end into lunacy, a cop-out I dislike. As for the villainy, that takes such elaborate, baroque turns that I kept wishing that Occam’s razor, to which one character refers, applied here. Those complications further require the resolution to become a sequence of derring-do that evokes more than one cliché.

That said, I find Blame the Dead an arresting, compelling story, and I hope the sequels find a more compatible balance between character and plot.

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

King and Councillor: The Mirror & the Light

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Review: The Mirror & the Light, by Hilary Mantel
Holt, 2020. 754 pp. $30

Following Anne Boleyn’s beheading in May 1536, chief advisor Thomas Cromwell’s star has never shone brighter in his royal master’s eyes. But Henry VIII, as Cromwell knows better than anyone, is nothing if not changeable, usually for the wrong reasons and in disastrous ways. Not that His Majesty lacks intelligence, learning, or shrewdness. Rather, his childish temper and make-the-earth-stand-still behavior when he expresses a desire threaten to undo good governance or prevent it altogether. So though the king has just gotten rid of an unwanted wife and married Jane Seymour, who promises to be more pliable than her predecessor, if not more fertile, other troubles emerge immediately.

Financial and religious grievances spark a popular rebellion in the northern shires. France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Emperor trade phrases of amity; even a temporary truce among these rivals could leave one or more free to invade England. Henry’s daughter Mary, fiercely loyal to her late Spanish mother, is a rallying point for foreign and domestic enemies seeking to destroy Henry’s recently instituted control over the English church and return primacy to Rome. And though the king is happy with his new bride, she has always been sickly.

But The Mirror & the Light, the third, triumphant volume in the Cromwell trilogy, involves far more than a throne in peril. The history, politics, and backstabbing would provide a feast for any historical novelist, and indeed, many have written about these events. Mantel’s sense of which details matter or her gift for dramatic portrayal set her apart, but there’s more. Cromwell is what a later generation would have called a master psychologist and deep thinker who understands how to protect Henry from himself, and so the councillor’s maneuverings make a fascinating, tension-filled narrative. Cromwell institutes reforms, keeps the king from imploding, and protects the royal reputation at home and abroad, all while convincing Henry that His Majesty has done everything himself.

Cromwell’s singular success derives partly from a concept extraordinary for the time: Offer a rival a reward to do what you want, and you need not hit him or her over the head to show who’s in charge. Fancy that. Cromwell also has a far-sighted vision in which a wise, forbearing monarch, aided by experts chosen for their ability rather than lineage, will govern the nation without having to depend on an uneasy coalition of noblemen who itch to occupy the throne. You can see why the king’s councillor collects enemies.

You can also see how Mantel has thought deeply about power, its use and abuse, and cast the king-councillor relationship as a matter of preserving England. As my favorite novel-writing guru likes to say, your protagonist must have private stakes at risk (what happens to him or her) and, even more importantly, public stakes affecting the world at large (which is why we care). Here, Henry’s and Cromwell’s lives and interests are the private stakes, whereas the public stakes involve a philosophy of life and government essential to the modern age—and, if you will, progress from medieval mayhem.

You can hardly get more compelling than that. Yet Mantel doesn’t play favorites or grant Cromwell the earnestness that mars so many novels about progressive figures. He remains a man of his time, perfectly willing to deploy the executioner’s ax or the power to seize assets, and if he can’t influence Henry’s more odious whims, he bows to expediency and fulfills them to the letter.

Further, this erstwhile blacksmith’s son from Putney lives up to his age (or any other) by allowing ever-increasing power to seduce him, much as he tries to keep himself in check. In a brilliant stroke, Mantel shows how helpless Cromwell felt as a boy, abused by his violent father, learning early to live by his wits. Now, the higher he rises, the more he thinks and speaks about his origins. In a sense, he’s still that struggling, mistrustful, hard-edged boy.

Then, of course, there’s the justifiably famous Mantel prose, which creates authority, mood, and feeling as well as descriptive beauty, as in this passage about Cromwell’s late wife’s possessions:

Her jet rosary beads are curled inside her old velvet purse. There is a cushion cover on which she was working a design, a deer running through foliage. Whether death interrupted her or just dislike of the work, she had left her needle in the cloth.… He has had the small Flanders chest moved in here from next door, and her furred russet gown is laid up in spices, along with her sleeves, her gold coif, her kirtles and bonnets, her amethyst ring, and a ring set with a diamond rose. She could stroll in and get dressed. But you cannot make a wife out of bonnets and sleeves; hold all her rings together, and you are not holding her hand.

When a servant, observing him at this moment, asks whether he’s sad, Cromwell replies—typically—that he can’t be. He’s not allowed; he’s too busy.

Readers of the previous two volumes may be pleased to hear that the author has taken greater care to identify the ubiquitous he that refers throughout to her protagonist. Occasionally, you hit bumps, most notably when Cromwell reminisces to himself, but you can’t stay lost for long. If you count pages, The Mirror & the Light is a long book, but the only trouble I had was making it last. This is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

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

The Maid Knows: Death of a New American

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Review: Death of a New American, by Mariah Fredericks
Minotaur, 2020. 289 pp. $18

Louise Benchley would be too polite and constrained to say so, but she believes her forthcoming marriage to William Tyler, the social event of the season, will be a disaster. Not in the sense of the Titanic, which has just sunk — this is 1912, the New York of the Four Hundred — but the confidence of everyone around her that the match is unsinkable has her especially worried.

And why not? Louise knows nothing about marriage, certainly nothing about sex, for her mother has made sure not to tell her. Consequently, the young fiancée turns to her maid, Jane Prescott, who’s rubbed elbows with life in very close quarters. Yet there’s a limit to what the anxious, self-effacing bride-to-be can absorb, and Jane hesitates to enlighten when her employer won’t.

But that problem soon fades in light of another: A nanny hired by the groom’s uncle has been found dead, her throat cut. Since said uncle has earned notoriety for arresting members of the Black Hand, an underworld group of Italian origin — and since the murder victim was Italian — the family immediately assumes it’s a gang revenge killing, and so does the press.

However, Jane’s not convinced, and as a lady’s maid, she has access to information, domestic conflicts, and secrets that the family wishes to cover up, and which the newspapers can’t penetrate. Jane also has several motivations to pursue the case. She’s determined to do justice by the victim, whom she liked, and whose only crime, she thinks, was loving the children she cared for. The prejudice against immigrants in general, Italians in particular, offends Jane to the core, as does most of the gentry’s refusal to grant the crime any importance, especially compared with the anticipated nuptials.

Conversely, she’s convinced that Louise’s desire to call off the wedding, perhaps using the tragedy as an excuse, would deny the young woman her first and best chance at happiness. Note the character-driven aspects to our sleuth’s quest, which informs the novel throughout, not just when it’s convenient, and perhaps run deeper than those of your average mystery.

Moreover, Fredericks handles these motivations with subtlety. Jane cares passionately, but the author knows better than to let her protagonist lecture or indulge in earnestness; rather, she’s quietly persuasive, mostly for the reader’s eyes alone. Jane’s outlook has been forged by life and takes a practical, rather than a crusader’s, view, so she has no need to trumpet anything—which fits her discretion as lady’s maid. That’s one reason Death of a New American stands out, but there are others.

With gentle humor, Fredericks pokes fun at the mores and beliefs of the upper crust, whether their fears that the new tunnel from Manhattan to Queens under the East River will collapse — what a horror, since they can’t swim. I love the scene where William’s younger sister, a sophomore at Vassar, enjoys shocking her elders with the outlandish ideas of the sociologist Emile Durkheim, and how the conversation evolves into discussion of “unpleasant emotions.” A true lady, say the matriarchs, simply refuses to feel anything like envy or resentment. Jane, who knows better, also knows to keep her mouth firmly shut.

Everywhere, Fredericks folds the time and place deftly into the characters’ lives and the story, so that the era feels inhabited. She clearly loves and knows her native city, whether to describe the evolution of Herald Square, its rival (and successor) Times Square, or the streets of Little Italy:

Finding any one man on Mulberry Street was not going to be easy. Doing anything on Mulberry Street was not easy, as it was not so much a street as a throng of humanity, horses, and wagons. To make your way through, you were often obliged to step from pavement to cobblestone and back again when the path was blocked by café dwellers, vegetable stalls, barrels of wine, or a fistfight. Some might have called it Little Italy, but they would have been wrong. Mulberry Street was Neapolitans. Sicilians resided on Elizabeth Street, Calabrians and Puglians on Mott.

With admirable touch and generosity, Fredericks lets you think along with her sleuth, hiding nothing, resorting to no tricks or sudden revelations. Death of a New American is an utterly satisfying mystery.

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

Missing, Presumed: The Poppy Wife

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Review: The Poppy Wife, by Caroline Scott
Morrow, 2019. 423 pp. $17

It’s spring 1921, two and a half years since the Great War ended, yet for many, painful uncertainty continues. Edie Blythe of Manchester is one who lives with that burden. Coping with her husband Francis’s presumed death in October 1917 has hurt her enough; the absence of definitive proof is excruciating. But as the story opens, Edie receives a photograph of Francis, undated, unaccompanied by any letter or identification, and the French postmark is only half-legible.

Nevertheless, she’s convinced that in the photo, Francis appears significantly older than she remembers him from his final home leave in September 1917, which means he may still be alive. Naturally, she can’t account for the photograph, though she invents wild theories. In any case, she sets out for France to try to track him down.

The Menin Gate at Ieper (Ypres), Belgium, holds thousands of names of British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in action, but with no known grave. It’s one of the most moving memorials I’ve ever seen. (My photo, September 2019)

Meanwhile, Francis’s younger brother, Harry, is trying to trace him too. Since the war, he’s become a photographer-as his missing elder brother was, curiously enough. Normally employed to take studio portraits, Harry has been sent to the war cemeteries of France and Belgium — still very much under reorganization and construction — to photograph gravesites or places mentioned in soldiers’ letters home. The bereaved parents or spouses paying for these photographs want tangible images to hold onto, perhaps proof of their loss, and they can’t afford to visit the ground themselves.

A worthy task, preserving memories, yet Harry aches. He’s the only Blythe brother of three to return from the war, which already causes him survivors’ guilt; witnessing so many graves lashes him to a pulp. Equally painful, he’s always loved Edie. But he’s never acted on his feelings, and he believes he did nothing wrong by harboring a yearning. However, he’s pretty sure Francis figured it out and held it against him — and maybe Edie does too.

From this elegant, emotionally rich premise comes a novel of great power and psychological complexity. Both Edie and Harry are lost, even as survivors, as they try to find a way to continue living. You can’t help feeling drawn to them, Harry especially, as they struggle to do the right thing, whatever that is, not knowing whether they dare to hope for a happy future.

As an aficionado of First World War fiction and historian of that era, I applaud Scott’s portrayal of the time and place, which feels utterly lived in, testament to her scholarship and authorial skill. Besides her lost souls, she has the battlefield, the soldiers’ banter, the trenches, the mud, the postwar French towns trying to rebuild; all of it, rendered in breathtaking simplicity. Tens of thousands of soldiers died without a known grave, a mind-boggling tragedy which Scott has conveyed from many angles. Every note rings true, with the exception of the Blythe brothers’ company officers, who seem too lenient concerning certain lapses of discipline, on which the plot more or less depends. I think that’s forgivable, but I dislike the author’s occasional misdirection to give the reader false assumptions, while the characters, you find out later, knew the truth. That creates tension, but it’s an ungenerous trick.

Those are quibbles, however, when the narrative and the writing style take wings. I could cite many passages, but active description carries the day. Here’s one from Edie’s hotel in Arras, one place she’s gone on her search:

There are prints of Madonnas and saints all around the walls of this rented room and a black wooden crucifix is suspended above the headboard. It is wound around with a string of rosary beads and crumbling sprigs of heather. When she wakes in the night she can see the beads slowly rotating above. It looks like a bed in which an elderly relative has slowly died. She has spent enough nights lying awake in this awful bed trying to match the photograph silhouette of a broken-down town to the streets through which she has spent the day walking.

With words strung together like these, a thorough sense of place, and a story so deep and moving that it won’t let you go, The Poppy Wife is a superb novel. Warning: If the title and cover strike you as awkward, clichéd, or dumbed down (as they do me), don’t be put off. For the record, the British edition is titled The Photographer of the Lost, which makes more sense, as does the UK cover. I can think of several reasons Morrow repackaged the book, not least that they’re trying to position The Poppy Wife as women’s fiction. Is it Edie’s story or Harry’s? I don’t think it matters.

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

Distanced Vision: A Shadowed Fate

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Review: A Shadowed Fate, by Marty Ambrose
Severn, 2020. 180 pp. $29

In 1873, Claire Clairmont, the last surviving member of the Byron/Shelley literary circle from 1816, is scraping by in more ways than one. Living in genteel poverty in Florence with her niece and grandniece, Claire has little in her life besides them and treasured memories of Lord Byron, by whom she bore illegitimate daughter, Allegra. However, Allegra’s dead, having succumbed to typhus as a young child—or so Claire believes. But when Edward Trelawny, who married Mary Shelley after her poet husband died, tells Claire that her daughter may be alive after all, the news galvanizes her to action. Claire must find Allegra.

However, matters aren’t so simple. For one thing, Claire is furious that her old friend Trelawny has kept the secret for a half-century. Indeed, that is rather hard to explain, and both he and the narrative strain to do so. For another, Trelawny and Claire were lovers once, briefly, and he claims to still love her; though again, she’s dubious, considering that Mary Shelley was her half-sister, and he racked up two other wives besides.

Nevertheless, I like this premise as a potential romantic intrigue, and A Shadowed Fate might have grabbed me had the narrative focused on that as a counterpoint to the search for Allegra. We might have had the aging romantic figures conflict over past and present, with a window on what their lives have become, what they might have been, and truth versus perception. Instead, the narrative avoids the conflict between Claire and Trelawny while trying to make a mystery out of Allegra. I think that’s pretty thin material, and bringing in Byron doesn’t liven it up enough.

Claire Clairmont, portrait by Amelia Curran, 1819 (courtesy Newstead Abbey via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Partly, that’s because the story hinges too much on what happened fifty years or more before the novel begins, yet we never see this drama enacted. Rather, Claire reads about it in Byron’s memoirs of his attempt to aid Italian revolutionaries around the time of Allegra’s supposed death. Just as awkwardly, Allegra herself has a few paragraphs to narrate, here and there; how did that happen? Consequently, though Byron becomes the center of the story, no one interacts with him except for the people he’s writing about, only one whom still lives—and it’s not Claire. So he remains an offstage presence, and the crucial story feels distant.

Equally curious, Claire or Ambrose or both seem to have given him a pass for his despicable behavior, startling given that Byron had to be one of the most selfish, egotistical, and vindictive geniuses ever to draw breath. That wouldn’t matter if you understood why Claire still holds a candle for him; but he holds a candle for nobody, intent on burning it at both ends. Maybe that’s the trouble, evoking through a telescope a man who’s long dead, but I think there’s more to it. Compare, for instance, the portrayal here with that in The Enchantress of Numbers, Jennifer Chiaverini’s novel about his only legitimate child, the mathematician Ada Lovelace. Even though Byron appears briefly in that narrative, you see his attraction—and the horrific damage he causes.

As for the mystery in A Shadowed Fate, no plot twist ever reaches the level of “no — and furthermore.” Rather, it’s more like “maybe something will go wrong, but we don’t know.” That’s not enough to sustain any narrative, mystery or no, and when the major, climactic reversal arrives, a clichéd tableau results.

What you do get in A Shadowed Fate is a loving sketch of Italy, which Ambrose clearly knows and revels in. There are moments when you can soak in these places and wish you could see them as they were a hundred fifty years ago. But the characters intrude, and I find less to draw me, there. Much as the first fifty or so pages consist of dialogue dumping information, the characterization progresses through telling rather than showing. One significant example: I don’t see why Trelawny says that Claire was magnetic in her youth, or that he still cares for her.

I wish this novel stirred or beguiled me; unfortunately, it doesn’t.

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

Intriguing Developments: The Last Passenger

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Review: The Last Passenger, by Charles Finch
Minotaur, 2020. 292 pp. $28

London, 1855. When a plodding, dissolute Scotland Yard inspector asks Charles Lenox for help solving a murder at Paddington Station, that request puts Lenox in a difficult position with most of the force. First of all, Charles is an amateur; secondly, unlike any police inspector, he’s of gentle birth (the second son of a baronet); and thirdly, he has a way of turning up evidence and making deductions that arouses envy. But this particular case offers no clues to be envious about. The dead man carries no means of identification — no wallet, papers, or belongings — and the murderer removed all the labels in the victim’s clothes.

What’s more, the investigation reaches frequent impasses, because “no — and furthermore” has taken up residence here. You never have the feeling that justice is inexorable, which adds to the tension, and what strikes you most isn’t Lenox’s skill but his eagerness to learn. That quality separates him from some (though not all) duly sanctioned officers of the law.

Since The Last Passenger is the thirteenth entry in the Charles Lenox series, the third of a prequel trilogy portraying how he began his career, I didn’t know I’d wind up reviewing it until I realized, within the first few chapters, how it stood out for me from its siblings. The mystery is extremely clever, and the prose graceful, but with Finch, those are givens. Rather, what appeals to me most about The Last Passenger is how the narrative probes more deeply into Charles’s character and moral and political beliefs than any other installment I’ve read.

To many men of his social station, he’s betrayed his class, and they cut him accordingly, which hurts. That has happened before, but here, he aches more from it. Further, he fears his mother disapproves as well, which carries extra weight, and she’s his sole surviving parent. Nor does his loneliness end there. Still a bachelor at age twenty-seven, and having extinguished his torch for his childhood friend and next-door neighbor, Lady Jane Grey (now, there’s a name from Tudor history!), he finds that Lady Jane and his mother keep putting eligible young women in his way. At first, he wishes they didn’t, but when one young woman in particular smiles upon him, he wonders about that thing called love.

I don’t remember another Lenox novel in which our hero pays so much attention to the disparity of wealth that the metropolis displays, and of which he’s an example. Nor has he before now recognized racial prejudice, in himself or anyone else, or considered deeply the institution of American slavery that has aroused protest in England as the story opens. (Echoes of current issues, perhaps?) Finally, as regular readers of Finch’s series know, the author delights in peppering his narratives with arcane facts, of which this one offers a more than usual portion. Among other bits, you learn what the British railway had in common with ancient Roman chariot tracks; why, in prior centuries to the nineteenth, no respectable lady wore green; the derivation of the word nickname; and how the phrases mind your P’s and Q’s and cold turkey entered the language.

As always, Finch gives you the Victorian Age, in large and small, as with this brief description of the era’s inimitable decorating style, which Charles can’t stand:

. . . a sort of prodigious clutter, walls and tables crowded past elegance, every piece of cloth in the room double-or triple-embroidered, remnants of statuary, wretchedly heavy silver platters and ewers, big dark clocks, etchings of colossal ruins. The spare black-and-ivory elegance of Lenox’s childhood was gone now — submerged beneath a rockslide of things, objects.

Also noteworthy is how Finch takes care to show his detective’s mistakes, and not only because Lenox is learning his craft. Unlike Holmes, say, Lenox never carries the whiff of infallibility, so he’s that much more human. And in The Last Passenger, you see his maturation in more than one way, which is very satisfying. This is not just another mystery, or even just another Lenox mystery, and I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review, though I did not review it there.

Small Moments, Big As Life: This Is Happiness

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Review: This Is Happiness, by Niall Williams
Bloomsbury, 2019. 380 pp. $28

Just before Easter, in Faha, a small town in county Clare, two events take place, momentous for rural Ireland in 1957: It stops raining, and Father Coffey announces that electricity is coming. Equally important to seventeen-year-old Noel Crowe, who’s visiting his grandparents from Dublin — fleeing his decision to leave the seminary —Christy McMahon arrives to stay as a boarder. That draws keen interest in Faha, as newcomers do. However, Christy’s a wise, kind-hearted man in his sixties who looks as if he’s been around the world, which impresses Noel even more and offers precisely what he needs, a mentor who has plenty to teach but a diffident manner in imparting it. From this premise comes an unusual coming-of-age novel.

For the first thirty pages, you may think that there’s no story here, even granting Williams his extraordinary prose (pick a page; you’ll find something quotable), so that This Is Happiness promises to be a slog. And I’ll admit, for a while, every time I put the book down, I kept asking myself why I continued reading. Prose alone can’t carry me through a narrative; I don’t care who’s writing it. But every time I picked the book up again, I got lost in the storytelling, and now I feel foolish for having doubted. Plenty happens in this novel, only in small moments. But as our narrator, now grown old, observes of Faha and what he learned there, “Here’s the thing life teaches you: sometimes the truth can only be reached by exaggeration.”

So it is that the uncommon sunshine affects Faha in baroque ways; the erection of poles to string electrical wires creates outlandish drama; and Christy’s arrival to work for the electric company has another, secret motive behind it. Even Father Coffey’s position as the new, young priest in town alters the path of life, though the difference between him and his elder predecessor may seem small, at first. Legions of stories crop up to explain all these mysteries; everyone in town has a different opinion, and therefore a different version to share. Life’s fuller that way.

Poulnabrone dolmen, the Burren, county Clare, Ireland, 2005 (courtesy Steve Ford Elliott, via Wikimedia Commons)

Consequently, This Is Happiness explores the power of storytelling and how a boy receives life lessons from it; in the process, the narrative sings an elegy to life gone by, without making judgments. The advent of the new, as with electricity and a younger man in the pulpit, will change Faha forever. But the alteration isn’t evil, it’s just life.

Noel will change too. He goes by Noe, a nice descriptive touch for a young man who’s not fully formed and well aware of it; he’s also a terrific narrator. He knows everyone’s flaws, including his own — the latter perhaps too much to expect from a seventeen-year-old, even in the confusion of retrospect — but he sees with clear eye, warm heart, and empathy for all. Here, he describes his grandparents’ house during the rainy season, which is to say, most of the time:

It was the smell of bread always baking, the smell of turf-smoke, the smell of onions, of boiling, the green tongue of boiled cabbage, the pink one of bacon with grey scum like sins rising, the smell of rhubarb that grew monstrous at the edge of the dung-heap, the smell of rain in all its iterations, the smell of distant rain, of being about to rain, of recent rain, of long-ago rain, the insipid smell of drizzle, the sweet one of downpour, the living smell of wool, the dead smell of stone, the metallic ghost stench of mackerel that disobeyed the laws of matter and like Jesus outlived itself by three days.

But don’t assume the unhurried pace or repetition of phrases implies that nothing moves in Faha. Things travel great distances, in fact, but in minds and hopes, the thwarting of desires and dreams, the accommodation to that, and in music (another important presence), and laughter, the necessary curative.

To be sure, This Is Happiness follows a rhythm unusual in modern life, partly because Faha isn’t modern, as we’d define it. But if you can accept that rhythm for what it is, you’ll be richly rewarded.

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

Insight: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

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Review: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller
Europa, 2019. 410 pp. $19

One rainy night in 1809, a coach pulls up to a vacant country house in Somerset, discharging a badly injured man. Nell, the housekeeper, can’t tell whether it’s John Lacroix, master of the house, for he possesses few recognizable clothes or belongings, and facial hair and wounds obscure his features. However, Nell tends him; and yes, it’s John, an officer of hussars returned from a disastrous campaign in Corunna, Spain, against Napoleon. John slowly recovers from his physical wounds, pleasing Nell and his beloved sister, Lucy, but he’s emotionally out of sorts and refuses to speak of his war. And when a comrade visits to urge him to heal quickly and return to his regiment, John decides to travel instead and settles on Scotland as a destination. He’ll look for an island where he may find solitude and solace, though how he envisions those qualities remains vague, even to himself.

Meanwhile, two men have been sent, unofficially yet on high authority, to hunt him. Why they’ve targeted John is unclear, at first. All you know is that one of his seekers, Calley, is as vicious a brute as any who’s ever drawn breath. On sighting a man he’s never met, for example, he measures up the newcomer to guess whether he’d be his equal in a brawl. It’s Calley against the world, and he’ll come out swinging.

This brilliant, delicately written thriller has to do with a manhunt, obviously, but offers a significant twist. John’s hunting himself too, though he doesn’t know that yet, trying to figure out who he is. His entire life, he’s accepted a given version of himself and can’t see its constraints. Instinctively, he turns away from questions, especially the existential kind. But on his travels, he meets Emily, a freethinking woman who’s going blind, yet sees what he can’t (a lovely touch). As he learns to trust her, he opens himself up to insight and reflection — which is all very well, but two men are trailing him.

Death of Sir John Moore, British commander at Corunna, Spain, from an 1815 aquatint by William Heath, engraved by Thomas Sutherland (courtesy The Martial Achievements of Great Britain and her Allies from 1799-1815, by James Jenkins, via Wikimedia Commons)

To call a thriller “delicate” may sound strange, especially considering that this one, like many, portrays its share of violence. Yet the adjective fits. Miller’s is a subtle hand; he shows just about everything, letting you infer from his beautiful, lucid prose all you need to know while keeping John and Emily less open to themselves than to the reader. That’s extraordinary storytelling. Like a house assembled by artisans who take pride in details that few visitors or even residents would ever notice, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free reflects the author’s dedication to moments small and large, characters major or minor. Nell, the housekeeper, has an inner life, as does John’s sister, Lucy, though neither plays a lengthy role. Such loving attention extends even to characters with whom our protagonist never even interacts:

He would stroll while he was still free to do so, and he set off, walking away from the water and turning into a narrow street of gabled buildings, part of the city’s medieval guts. Through cellar windows he saw backs bent over benches, cutting, sewing. He saw through two windows — the whole body of a house — a garden where men were twisting rope. At the gates of a yard he saw three giants stripped to the waist, their skin blushed blue from some process they were resting from. They watched him as he passed. They looked like men made almost mad by what they did.

Note that this prose, which carries you through what might otherwise seem like a digression, puts you — and John — in the scene actively, conveys a notion of his character and an image of early nineteenth-century English life.

Also impressive, and what few authors succeed at, the villain has his due. Calley’s thoroughly repugnant, yet you glimpse the kind of life he’s had, and why he might have surrendered to his crueler instincts — all of it suggested, never announced.

Andrew Miller has written a splendid story that’s at once a page-turning novel of suspense and an inquiry into what defines freedom. I highly recommend Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, one of the finest novels I’ve read in several years.

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

The Survivor: The Good Cop

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Review: The Good Cop, by Peter Steiner
Severn, 2019. 185 pp. $29

As a cop, Detective Willi Geismeier has a steady job, something many people envy in the Munich of 1920. The collapse after the Great War has left Bavaria a wreck, like every German province. Munich is a city of desperation, destitution, theft, political gang violence, and hopelessness. The central government in Berlin struggles to keep the nation afloat, while there are many who wish to drag it down and seize power; Munich possesses more than its share of revolutionaries.

This is where Willi’s job becomes difficult, if not impossible, for so many crimes have political motivations, and ultranationalists have Munich’s judiciary in their pockets. Hard as it is for most people to credit, the most threatening movement, really a ragtag mob of thugs, hangers-on, and a few ultranationalist businessmen, calls itself the National Socialists. Its leader, who seems utterly disreputable and incompetent, is Adolf Hitler.

Marienplatz, Munich, after the failed beer-hall putsch of November 9, 1923. The lone figure standing above crowd level is Julius Streicher, later convicted at the Nuremberg trials and hanged (courtesy German Federal Archive, Bild 119-1486 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Willi’s involvement in these deadly currents begins when unidentified assailants throw a grenade into a newspaper office, killing or wounding some journalists working there. You might think that such a crime could not have taken place without multiple witnesses; yet somehow, the leads quickly grow cold. But Willi, recognized as Munich’s best detective, doesn’t give up, because he’s a thinker first, before he’s a civil servant, and he’s studied his Shakespeare:

Willi had learned from the English bard that lawful human behavior followed well-mapped social patterns. Every crime was a unique moment in human history, where human psychology and behavior ran off the rails in a very particular way. When you looked into crime thoroughly and deeply, as Willi had, it revealed dark, as yet uncharted corners of the human soul. Criminal activity oozed through civilization’s unmapped dark alleys in ways that were surprising, illuminating, and, for Willi, irresistible.

No one trusts Willi, because he follows his own nose rather than instructions, which scares everybody in times like those. What’s more, when enemies try to trap him, he never lets himself be pinned down. He’s a survivor, in other words, and you sense that no matter how relentlessly his superiors try to push him under, he’ll bob up somewhere else. Indeed, while the most ambitious members of the police sign on with the National Socialists, Willi keeps his own counsel (and a private cache of incriminating documents). For starters, he interviews Sophie Auerbach, a reporter badly injured in the newspaper bombing, and Maximilian Wolf, an artist with a remarkable facility for drawing quick portraits. From then on, the case never goes cold.

The Good Cop is an absolutely terrific, stunning book, but not a classic thriller. There’s no condensed time frame that circumstances shorten even further; the narrative covers more than twenty years. Consequently, the “no — and furthermore,” instead of getting in the characters’ (and, therefore, the reader’s) faces, haunts the background in ever-increasing ominousness, mirroring the Nazis’ rise to power. As such, Willi’s investigation progresses in fits and starts over time, fulfilling the proverb about the wheels of justice grinding slowly, and is all the more believable for it.

At every step, Steiner creates an atmosphere so chilling, you have a ringside seat at the prizefight between lunatic thuggery and civilization — and many who subscribe to the latter don’t even recognize they’re about to be pummeled. You see how the Party attracts sadists, ideologues, petty nationalists who blame their own troubles on others, the not-terribly-bright ordinary Joes, all of them on the make. Meanwhile you also have the Munich of prostitutes, legless veterans, picket lines, storm troopers, and businessmen in fancy cars.

Steiner’s narrative can sound didactic, and you can tell he’s written the book with a cause. Even so, he knows his history, and you never doubt that what you’re reading either could have happened or actually did. He further understands how that history resonates. Not for nothing does he have the Nazis say, “Make Germany great again,” or refer to “fake news” and its purveyors, while the crowd chants, “Lock them up!”

The Good Cop tells a gripping tale, a thriller that makes you think. I highly recommend it.

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

Killer Jewels: Cartier’s Hope

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Review: Cartier’s Hope, by M.J. Rose
Atria, 2020. 322 pp. $27

Vera Garland would be the envy of most New York women in 1910. Born to a socialite mother and a merchant father whose retail emporium is a household word, Vera has never wanted for any material possession. Nor would she lack the leisure to enjoy them, should she choose. But she doesn’t; she dreams of making her mark in journalism.

To that end, she writes a society gossip column in her gilded-set voice, while, as Vee Swann, she reports on back-alley abortions, tenement life, and corporate malfeasance. She’s got no time or interest in her mother’s plans for her, to wit, a wealthy husband and a career in society. The conflict splits the family, but Vera gets to do what she wants.

Maintaining Vera’s two different personae takes a great deal of sweat (and a little credulity on her friends’ parts, not to mention the reader’s). But it makes a great story, and getting trapped in one identity while needing to be in the other, though an old device, offers excellent possibilities, which Rose ably exploits. Vera wants revenge against the extortionist who brought about her uncle’s and father’s deaths within a week of each other. And the key to her scheme lies within Cartier’s, the world-class jewelers whose premises she may visit with ceremony and complimentary champagne as Vera Garland, but where, as Vee Swann, she’d never expect an audience.

The Hope Diamond, on display at the National Museum of Natural History, New York (courtesy David Bjorgen via Wikimedia Commons)

Her plan has to do with the Hope Diamond, whose lore of danger and ill fortune to its succession of owners furnishes grist for Pierre Cartier’s publicity mill. How that dovetails with bringing down an extortionist, I leave for you to discover.

Plot is by far the strongest aspect of Cartier’s Hope and just about the only reason to read the novel. It’s a good reason, though. In the interest of full disclosure, my taste runs toward character-driven narratives — as though you might not have guessed — because some plot-driven novels pay little or no attention to subtlety. So too here, in ways I’ll discuss further down. Yet I have to admire how Rose strings out the story, layering twist after twist, making her protagonist work, so that nothing comes easily, and the “no — and furthermore” feels genuine. Rose also keeps you guessing without tricking you. She’s a generous writer that way; if anyone falls for a misperception or misdirection, it’s Vera/Vee.

The plain prose never draws attention to itself, and Rose limits her descriptions largely to interiors, with sparse, thoughtful detail. The author loves New York, and it shows in the locales portrayed as they were, whether tenements, newsrooms, or the Plaza Hotel. I trust her research in general, though I did find one anachronism: Traffic lights didn’t exist back then.

More troublesome are the language and the characters, who speak and think like latter twentieth-century folk, or even those of the present day. I don’t just mean words or phrases like accessorize or reach out to, but the manner in which people discuss their ideas. Vee and her journalist friends, passionate about women’s rights, seem like retro creations, modern sensibilities and worldviews dropped into 1910. It doesn’t help that some of these scenes feel like information dumps.

But it’s not just the political or social milieu that strikes me wrong. Vera’s father sounds like a gifted psychotherapist as well as a brilliant retailer, a wonderfully thoughtful, considerate man. He’s made one mistake, a whopper, but seems perfect otherwise. Ditto Vera’s love interest, who could be a midcentury intellectual. He’s done one bad thing too, but there are mitigating circumstances, to be sure. These people are too good to be true.

Rose often explains what a character’s trying to do or has just done when it’s obvious. That authorial hand not only feels condescending, as if the reader can’t be trusted to get the idea, but prompts you to wonder what other manipulations are taking place. A skeptical reader (guilty, Your Honor) might suspect sleight-of-hand in the storytelling.

Still, Cartier’s Hope offers that intriguing plot, with legends about jewels thrown in. If that’s your style, you could do a lot worse.

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