Good, Evil, and Hope: Deacon King Kong

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Review: Deacon King Kong, by James McBride
Riverhead, 2020. 370 pp. $28

Few people even know his real name, because he never uses it. Even the police confuse him with someone else, because he shares a driver’s license with another man, which makes his official record almost untraceable. But to the residence of the Causeway Housing Projects (the Cause) in south Brooklyn, he’s Sportcoat, because of the colorful assortment he wears of that garment.

His finest moment came umpiring the Cause baseball team, now disbanded. These days, the former deacon of Five Ends Baptist Church spends his time high on King Kong, the popular name for a friend’s moonshine, and talks to his late wife, Hettie. Or thinks he does, and nobody can persuade him otherwise.

Except that in summer 1969, Sportcoat shoots Deems, a teenage kingpin of the Cause drug traffic, and his former baseball protégé, at point-blank range. Sportcoat claims not to have understood what he was doing, but nobody believes that, least of all, the police. But he’s the type of character who doesn’t care what anybody thinks, alternately perplexing, amusing, and horrifying everyone else.

From that shooting springs a complicated, finely woven story, involving Five Ends, cheese deliveries, storytelling as an art form, the racism that warps life in the projects, unlikely romances, what constitutes good in the face of so much evil, and how humans dare to hope.

A portion of the Red Hook Houses project, south Brooklyn, as it appeared in 2012 at Lorraine and Henry Streets (courtesy Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But I’d be doing Deacon King Kong a disservice if I failed to mention what a rollicking good time the novel is. Pick almost any paragraph, and you’ll find sprawling, delicious sentences like these, oozing with spicy flavor:

Meanwhile Sister Bibb, the voluptuous church organist, who at fifty-five years old was thick-bodied, smooth and brown as a chocolate candy bar, arrived in terrible shape. She was coming off her once-a-year sin jamboree, an all-night, two-fisted, booze-guzzling, swig-faced affair of delicious tongue-in-groove licking and love-smacking with her sometimes boyfriend, Hot Sausage, until Sausage withdrew from the festivities for lack of endurance.

And for those who appreciate snappy dialogue, look no further. What in the Sixties we used to call “rank-outs” or “snaps” appear here in a poetic form guaranteed to prompt laughter. For instance: “But that idiot’s so dumb he lights up a room by leaving it.” Or: “Son, you looks like a character witness for a nightmare.” McBride has a superb ear and inventive pen, which makes the narrative a delightful ride.

For the first two chapters, McBride even goes a little too far, I think, unraveling so many stories within stories, and with such far-ranging flights of verbal fancy, that I worried. I thought reading Deacon King Kong would be like eating an entire tub of caramel pecan ice cream in a half-hour, past my limit. But the narrative settles down somewhat, to the extent that it does, and McBride’s storytelling skills come to the fore.

Every spoonful matters, as details you might have glossed over come back to play important roles. Characters cross paths in natural yet unexpected ways, and points of view transition gracefully from one to other. Sportcoat moves through the novel oblivious to the effect he has on others, the ultimate catalyst — and denies it, if anyone should point it out to him.

Two key themes emerge. One involves how white interpretations of Black life rest on lies that Black people need not — must not — accept, even if they can do nothing else to fulfill themselves. Dignity requires insisting on the truth. Within that, a person finds meaning and hope by taking small actions, even though they won’t change the big picture. That’s all anyone can do.

As historical fiction, the novel gets down to neighborhood level, as in how the influx or departure of certain groups changes the Cause, how the police or certain agencies function differently from the past, or how drugs have taken over, and the horrific damage that follows. That’s what 1969 means here, aside from frequent references to the New York Mets. And though I yield to no one in my love for that team, I do wish McBride had gone a little further. In particular, I’d have liked to hear more about the Vietnam War, for instance, because maybe residents of the Cause had strong feelings about fighting the white man’s war in Southeast Asia.

But Deacon King Kong is a terrific book and a testament to the author’s range and vision.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, a bookseller that shares its receipts with independent bookstores.

The Marsh Girl: Where the Crawdads Sing

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Review: Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
Putnam, 2018. 368 pp. $28

Six-year-old Kya doesn’t know her real name is Catherine, nor has she ever been to school. All she knows is the South Carolina marsh where she lives with several siblings, a drunken, violent father, and a much put-upon mother. But in summer 1952, Ma walks out, after which Kya’s brothers and sisters follow. Little Kya has to raise herself, essentially, because her father’s often absent on a bender, which can be a blessing. Her only friends are wild creatures, whose habits she comes to know intimately; her greatest, sole pleasure.

You see the wild creatures she loves, rendered with insight and deep feeling:

A great blue heron is the color of gray mist reflecting in blue water. And like the mist, she can fade into the backdrop, all of her disappearing except the concentric circles of her lock-and-load eyes. She is a patient, solitary hunter, standing alone as long as it takes her to snatch her prey. Or, eyeing her catch, she will stride forward one slow step at a time, like a predacious bridesmaid. And yet, on rare occasions she hunts on the wing, darting and diving sharply, swordlike beak in the lead.

Kya herself might answer to this description, especially that of the “patient, solitary hunter.” The vivid portrait of nature in a place nobody else wants, whose human inhabitants the inlanders consider trash, provides a superb background. And the tale of how this girl grows up by her own wits (and kindness of strangers), terrified of just about everybody and everything except the marsh, makes remarkable reading.

However, Where the Crawdads Sing doesn’t settle for the unusual coming-of-age story, and therein rests its greatest shortcoming. Jumping ahead to 1969, as many of these short chapters do, there’s a mystery as well. A former high school quarterback, the town Lothario, is found dead in the marsh. You guess right away that the police, utterly incompetent and desperate to find a murderer (they refuse to accept that such a demigod could have died accidentally), will home in on the Marsh Girl, what the locals call her. She’s reputed savage, lustful, and depraved, the townsfolk’s way saying that she’s different from them, therefore expendable.

The All-Star Bowling Alley, Orangeburg, South Carolina, pictured in 2015. In February 1968, police opened fire on Black students protesting the alley’s segregation policy at the time. Three students were killed and dozens injured. (Courtesy Ammodramus, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Granted, the southern-justice narrative provides an instantly recognizable means to raise the stakes. But Owens introduces the death in a prologue and keeps the police procedure front and center, as if the mind-boggling story of a little girl in a marsh weren’t enough. As years pass, there’s also a tender romance with a young man who accepts Kya as she is. I’d have thought all that sufficient and quite lovely, so I ask why we need the mystery. I will say that the murder investigation allows Owens to expound, sometimes cogently, on mating habits and the genetics of survival, linking her protagonist’s story to evolution, a clever conceit.

But much of the novel feels contrived. I never sense that Kya, who undergoes great hardship and takes brutal, yet often predictable, knocks, is ever really in danger. Terrible things happen, but just as the marsh protects her from outsiders who don’t know its waterways or approaches, the narrative cocoons her, in a way.

Start with how a child grows to her twenties in perfect health, without ever having seen a doctor or dentist. But if that sounds like nitpicking, consider the split time frame, which puts you in 1969 right away, undermining the tensions of 1952 and the immediate years afterward. Also, the kind strangers often appear at just the right moment, sometimes bearing a bounty too good to be true. After a while, I get the idea that whatever trouble comes her way, luck will favor her.

Further, Kya’s voice goes all over the map, which jars me and pulls me out of the story. Owens seems eager to get to the age where Kya speaks and thinks like an autodidact biologist offering thoughtful commentary about evolution (itself a stretch), rather than stay with the bewildered, frightened child who doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from, or how to prepare it. Since I want to hear the child and don’t always believe the self-trained scientist, the struggle between the voices is very distracting, especially when one intrudes on the other. The paragraph quoted above, about the heron, supplies an example; Kya wouldn’t know what “concentric circles” means, let alone “bridesmaid” or “lock-and-load.” So who’s watching the heron?

Finally, the year 1969 witnessed turmoil and great events, but I don’t recognize them here, or little about the Sixties, for that matter. The Vietnam War barely makes an appearance, and though Jim Crow seeps around the edges, it’s as if Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement had gone unheard of in South Carolina. Moon landing? Nary a mention, even among the inlanders.

Despite a terrific premise and beautiful prose, Where the Crawdads Sing is one of those novels that would have appealed to me more had the author crammed less in it.

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

No Quarter: Wolves of Eden

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Review: Wolves of Eden, by Kevin McCarthy
Norton, 2019. 350 pp. $26

It’s late 1866 at Fort Phil Kearny, Dakota Territory, in the Black Hills. Custer’s Last Stand is still ten years in the future, but as this story begins, massacre is the order of the day. The Sioux and the U.S. Army show no quarter, and murder and mutilation — sometimes in reverse order — harden hearts.

Into this bloodbath come three soldiers from Nebraska, most particularly Captain Molloy and Corporal (later Sergeant) Daniel Kohn. Their orders: to investigate the killing of a sutler and his wife, who ran a brothel near the fort. With so much bloodshed going on, it’s a wonder the army would take the trouble to send a mission of inquiry, especially when nobody likes a sutler, a camp merchant who charges extortionate prices for necessaries and amusements alike. Moreover, most of the soldiers are native Irish, including many veterans of the barely concluded Civil War, and they distrust all officials, not least investigators.

Since Captain Molloy, native Irish himself, quickly winds up in the fort’s hospital with a broken leg, he leaves the sleuthing to Kohn. How he’ll fare, and what really happened to the sutler and his wife — as opposed to rumor or appearances — forms the plot.

Red Cloud, a gifted Lakota chief, in Charles Milton Bell’s 1880 photograph. In the late 1860s, he conducted a brilliant defense of Native American land in the Dakota Territory against great odds (courtesy South Dakota Historical Society, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

However, the narrative begins with Michael O’Driscoll, one of two key suspects, writing down in his jail cell the truth as he witnessed it, for Captain Molloy’s eyes. Michael’s brother, Tom, is also implicated in the murder. So Wolves of Eden starts with a prologue and a trope, the manuscript that tells all. And this account is written by a man who’s got an eloquent pen and a superb eye for detail, even as he claims he’s hardly lettered.

Despite that, Wolves of Eden works as a tale of hard men in a kill-or-be-killed world. Sometimes you look around in vain for a character with whom to feel sympathy — reader, be advised — but the narrative feels splendidly authentic. I believe this is how the common soldier lived, thought, and fought, and though Michael comes to appreciate his adversaries’ bravery and tenacity, even to toy with the idea that their cause is just, he still hates them, in virulent terms.

There’s a lot of hatred in this novel, which can test a reader’s resolve. But McCarthy performs several valuable services. First and foremost, he exposes the U.S. government’s willingness to exterminate Native Americans for the benefit of gold prospectors or “settlers,” who have entered the territory illegally. Secondly, McCarthy portrays that hatred as the war’s driving force on the ground, and the fighting men feel lonely in their struggle, knowing that only the participants understand what’s going on, certainly not officials at their desks in Washington. Finally, the author gives voice to Irishmen who made up a substantial part of American armies during the 1860s. Throughout, the Civil War lurks in vivid memory, and Michael will never forget it:

It was the wager a boy made when he took on in Uncle Sam’s big show in the South seeking a new start in the world. Never mind the racking fear we felt or the night visions or nerves that snapped like bullwhips or jangled like jailer’s keys. Never mind hands that shook & would not stop shaking so that a tin mug of coffee was hard to sip without slopping down a poor boy’s tunic. Never mind all that because in truth no soldier in this world does ever think he will be one a bullet picks to visit.

Since he’s writing from the fort stockade, the story answers whether he’ll swing for the murders. McCarthy does well keeping the pages turning, though Wolves of Eden isn’t a mystery. He calls it a thriller, but I don’t see that; there are setbacks but few examples of “no — and furthermore,” and the prologue gives away too much, as they always do.

I believe the Irish characters implicitly and all the soldiers, except Daniel Kohn. He’s supposed to be Jewish, but since he has little inner life to speak of, he could be anybody, despite his ability to speak Yiddish and the constant insults he receives. He has only one redeeming trait, his devotion to his alcoholic captain, whose life he’s trying to save. Yet since he’s the driving force behind the investigation — which Molloy seems to wish to restrain —Daniel’s single-minded obduracy, which pays little attention to rules of evidence, tickles my cultural antennae. Is he meant to be a Judas, intent on betraying Christian men? Fie. Does he represent the canard about the harsh Jewish God compared to the forgiving, Christian one? Fie again.

I can’t pretend to know what the author intended. All I do know is that I’m put off from reading his other books.

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

Heresies: The King at the Edge of the World

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Review: The King at the Edge of the World, by Arthur Phillips
Random House, 2020. 265 pp. $27

In 1591, Mahmoud Ezzedine lives a fulfilling life. As court physician to the Sultan Murad in Constantinople, Mahmoud is highly respected, and his general practice gives him a deserved reputation as a skilled, empathic healer. He has a comfortable house, a beautiful, loving wife, and a son whom he dotes on. Truly, Allah has blessed him.

But a diplomatic mission to London, of all places, is setting forth, and Mahmoud, who’d rather not go anywhere, is dragged along. He has little choice, really, for Murad the Great’s command is law. However, the official who gives the Caliph of Caliphs the idea to send the doctor with the diplomats lusts after Mahmoud’s wife. As a kind, honest person who prefers directness to invasion or suggestion, Mahmoud’s no match for that particular courtier, or any other, for that matter. And you just know, even if you haven’t read the jacket flap — don’t — that the good doctor will make an innocent mistake, for which he’ll pay dearly.

If you’re like me and get upset when you read about decent people suffering for their virtues while the evil triumph, The King at the Edge of the World will make you ache. For that reason, short as the novel is, and recounting as riveting a story as you could want, the threats to our hero kept me from plowing through. Do read the book, though — but not, repeat, the jacket flap, about as potent a spoiler as you’ll ever find.

Sultan Murad III (d. 1595) by an unknown Spanish artist (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain). As his first act upon accession to the throne, Murad had his five younger brothers strangled.

Phillips excels at re-creating historical attitudes, prejudices, and ways of reasoning. Mahmoud’s adventures in England also resemble a thriller’s in their ever-increasing intensity; combined, these elements make a strong, thought-provoking narrative. At its center, Phillips puts the England riven by conflict between Protestant and Catholic and imagines how a Muslim would view that. It will be recalled that Elizabethan politics and diplomacy revolved around who prayed where, and in what way, and how many people died, often in hideous fashion, for doing it wrong or attempting to make everyone else do it their way. Hard to imagine that all this idiocy happened during an age blessed with cultural triumph — and Mahmoud, the observant Muslim, remains unimpressed:

He was there, he reminded himself, to be a figure of strength and confidence in the face of endless strangeness, of threats to health and mental stamina. He must fortify the bodies of the embassy’s men (himself included) and fortify their minds against all that was wrong here: the half-naked women, the food, the fog, the filth, the intoxicating drink, the intellectual softness, the islanders’ several varieties of devoted and violent false faith.

The physician, if he weren’t a member of a diplomatic mission, would be called a heretic and a savage to his face (as some English folk manage to imply even as they think they’re being polite). But who’s the person who embodies religious virtue, and who are the real heretics? Who’s the savage, and who’s the civilized, cultured man? This is how Phillips casts the sceptered isle in its glory. To be sure, he also creates an English narrator who insists that Catholic plots against the realm do exist and, if not crushed, would cause widespread bloodshed. Since he’s utterly credible, the question then becomes how to square the civilization and the savagery; and of course, there is no real answer.

My only objections to this novel — have I mentioned the too-revealing jacket flap? — concern Mahmoud’s role as a political actor. How could such a guileless innocent occupy any court position, let alone that of a physician, with the power to kill as well as heal? After all, history records how Ottoman crown princes, on attaining the throne, might have their brothers strangled with a silken cord, as Murad did. Only the politically adept would survive such an atmosphere, or even be invited into it.

Similarly, as the narrative progresses, Mahmoud learns a thing or two about survival — not easily, mind you, and requiring excruciating mental gymnastics, which Phillips ably portrays. For that reason I don’t entirely accept the end, which the author fudges somewhat, unwelcome in itself.

Nevertheless, I invite you to read The King at the Edge of the World and be amazed at Mahmoud’s ingenuity — and his creator’s.

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

Orwell’s Vision: The Last Man in Europe

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Review: The Last Man in Europe, by Dennis Glover
Overlook, 2017. 240 pp. $27

By April 1947, Eric Blair, whom the world knows as George Orwell, conceives what he believes will be the book that will fix his reputation for all time. However, at age forty-three, he’s fighting the tuberculosis that keeps him bed-ridden, so writing becomes nigh impossible. But even if you didn’t know Orwell from Adam—and didn’t read the jacket flap—you’d still know what happens. He’ll finish Nineteen Eighty-Four, which will indeed cement his reputation, but the effort will kill him.

This framework, not quite a premise, sounds almost Greek in its tragic outline, yet The Last Man in Europe, though interesting, never rises anywhere close to that level. I can’t blame Glover; he’s writing a novel with an ending too famous to be a surprise, about an author whose thinking is as relevant now as then, if not more. “Big Brother” and “doublethink” have entered the language; saying, “What they’re doing is like 1984!” evokes a police state. As a novelist, then, how do you create tension in a foregone conclusion? Answer: The journey, which could involve several questions. How does Orwell manage, despite his illness? How do his ambition and political passion lead him to ignore his doctors’ advice? What life experiences have brought him to his dystopian vision?

Glover gets partway there. He excels at the essential, dwelling on the politics, as Orwell himself would have preferred. You understand how he thinks, how he’s always trying to observe, the political atmosphere that shapes him, and how he reacts to whatever he finds false or hypocritical. Glover’s prose, like Orwell’s, is absolutely lucid, sharp, and direct, as in this passage about a premonition, in July 1938, of coming war:

. . . it was like a physical presence in his life already, pressing down on his chest, with its bombing planes and air-raid sirens, its cratered streets and smashed windows, and its loudspeakers bellowing that our troops had taken a hundred thousand prisoners on some front that no one had ever heard of. And after that? Dictatorship, just like there would be in Spain, when the fascist noose was finally pulled tight. Yes, it was all going to go—all those things they were now taking for granted: the England of Dickens and Swift, the bum-kissers with their frivolous novels, strong tea and heavy scones, thrushes singing in the woods and dace swimming in their pools.

What an adventurer Orwell is, and not just as a writer intent on verbal and intellectual provocation. He descends into a coal mine, en route to writing The Road to Wigan Pier, his description of depression-era, working-class struggles, and feels self-conscious as a decidedly middle-class person. He enlists in the war against Franco and is nearly killed twice, once by his own side, events that inform Homage to Catalonia.

What Orwell conveyed about the Spanish Civil War in words, photographers like Gerda Taro did in pictures, as with this 1936 image of militiawomen in training. Unlike Orwell, however, Taro did not survive the war (courtesy https://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2007/09/21/arts/20070922_TARO_SLIDESHOW_11.html, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the U.S.)

Along the way, Glover tells you how his protagonist has gathered the bits and pieces that wind up in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Buying black-market razor blades, submitting to excruciating medical treatments, staying in a farmhouse overrun by rats—all those scenes, and more, find expression in the masterpiece, literally or in essence. Though Glover handles many of these clues in subtle fashion, sometimes the treasure hunt feels like wink-wink, nudge-nudge, inside jokes. Even so, I still like the dinner with an aging, cantankerous H. G. Wells, or a school classroom where the adolescent Eric Blair has a back-and-forth with his teacher, Aldous Huxley, about what the most crushing type of dictatorship would look like. (From the earliest age, Orwell seems to come in contact with everybody in British literary circles.)

But I still want to know who Eric Blair is when he’s not thinking or writing politics, and Glover doesn’t show me. Since we know that Orwell can’t die in Spain, for instance, the plot, if there is one, consists of episodes that exist to provide political subject matter. Much as I admire Nineteen Eighty-Four and many of his other works, I want to see the man behind them, not just the political man. How does he really feel in his “open marriage” when his wife sleeps with someone else? It zips by in one sentence, as does guilt over his own love affairs. Glover gives us mostly surfaces, and maybe Orwell didn’t want anyone to probe him any deeper. But if so, why? And if you probed anyway, what would you find? That’s what’s missing, here.

The mask does slip toward the end, as Orwell races against his mortality, physical limitations, and his publisher’s prodding. I glimpse the yearning for fame and money that has largely eluded him (Animal Farm excepted), and the frustration that so little time remains, leaving no room for error or hesitation.

Some Orwell enthusiasts will be delighted with an (almost) purely political depiction and enjoy the revelation of sources for his magnum opus. But from this polished treatment of one of the most polished writers of the twentieth century, I come away unsatisfied.

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

What Will It Take?: The Last Thing You Surrender

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Review: The Last Thing You Surrender, by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Bolden, 2019. 500 pp. $17

When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, George Simon, a nineteen-year-old marine badly injured from a fall in a wounded warship, survives only because a Black messman, Eric Gordy, makes a superhuman effort to save his life. Though they’ve probably seen each other daily, George doesn’t know Eric’s name or anything else about the “messboy.” Growing up in a well-to-do Mobile, Alabama, home, George recognizes only two Black faces, both household servants. All others are invisible to him. Moreover, in the hours before a rescue team saves the small group of survivors in the sinking warship, Eric slips, falls, hits his head, and drops into the oily water, drowning before anyone can reach him.

Wracked by survivor’s guilt and determined to honor Eric Gordy’s heroism, George tells everyone who will listen about his savior’s courage and strength. But no good deed goes unpunished, for when George recovers enough from his injuries to walk on crutches, he’s sent home to Mobile with a mission. He’s to ask Eric’s widow, Thelma, who also lives there, to travel around the country, telling their story to raise war spirit among “the colored.”

To his credit, George balks. (The narrative never quite explains how he gets away with disobeying a direct order.) More importantly, when he visits Thelma, he sees at once the depth and intelligence missing in his fiancée, Sylvia, a beautiful airhead who uses racial slurs as casually as “hello” or “goodbye.” George’s attraction for Thelma remains largely unconscious. But her moral authority prompts him to entertain an idea he’s never encountered, that his race prejudice makes him less than the man he wants to be. And when he learns that Thelma’s parents were lynched and burned alive, which explains the unveiled hostility George meets in her older brother, Luther, the young marine begins to see how little he knows of life.

Dutifully, he tries to explain his confusion to Sylvia, who laughs in his face. Her reaction makes him think of how Alice and Benjamin, the two Black servants, must feel in the Simon home:

How many times, in the nearly 30 years that Benjy had been part of their household, had he been passing in a hallway or lingering invisibly in a corner and heard one of them—Sylvia, Mother, Father, even George himself—say that word? Say it laughingly. Say it matter-of-factly. Say it with less thought than you’d give to waving at a fly.

A more potent, timely premise would be hard to find, and, for the most part, the various narratives retain power until the end. The reader follows George as he returns to combat, first on Guadalcanal; Thelma, as she goes to work in a Navy yard, spray-painting warships; and Luther, after a draft notice requires him to fight for a country he detests.

A tank from Company D, 761st Tank Battalion, in Coburg, Germany, late April 1945. The 761st, among the finest armored units in the U.S. Army, was almost entirely Black (courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

In this novel depicting wartime, I like the Stateside narratives the best. The racial conflicts at the shipyard and at Luther’s army camp call out on every page, Just what the hell is wrong with our country? Pitts takes no prisoners, nor should he, and though many plot points seem predictable, what he does with them lends a dash of the unexpected. In the main, the story works.

The battlefield sequences ring true, yet the military narratives surrounding them feel truncated, as though the author doesn’t want to linger. He’s got places to go and people to see. You can understand, considering that at five hundred pages, The Last Thing You Surrender is plenty long as it is. Nevertheless, about halfway through, the novel loses some immediacy. It’s as though the story must pick up pace, or . . . . Or what?

I suspect that the search for redemption is at fault here, and the book has to get going so that it can happen. You can tell which characters will see the light, though I’m not sure they all earn their epiphanies, which come about through witnessing or experiencing degradation so powerful it shakes them to their roots. Maybe Pitts is saying that’s what it takes to change; you have to see just how vicious people can be before you can give up hatred.

Not everyone here does, and the violent racists in this novel are duly unrepentant. But Pitts immerses those willing to open their eyes in events that are so well known they’re practically tropes, sort of like ticking boxes off a list of meaningful historical incidents that everyone has heard of.

That’s my major objection to The Last Thing You Surrender, how the narrative grunts and strains to give characters famous external circumstances by which they can reach internal change. Is that how it happens? And if it does, why rely on such events, when everyday observation, if written vividly, might work as well—and, because it’s unexpected, carry more tension?

That said, the novel asks that all-important question—what will it take before we treat each other respectfully, righteously?—and Pitts offers a thought-provoking answer. Read it.

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

Who Killed Marilyn Sheppard?: Do No Harm

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Review: Do No Harm, by Max Allan Collins
Forge, 2020. 297 pp. $28

This much is history: During the early morning hours of July 4, 1957, someone bludgeons Marilyn Sheppard to death in her suburban Cleveland bedroom after a possible attempted rape, which she seems to have violently resisted. Suspicion immediately falls on her doctor husband, who nevertheless claims he was asleep on a daybed one floor below. He insists he rushed to her aid when he heard her screams and suffered a physical assault from the killer that damaged a vertebra in his neck.

Actor David Janssen playing Dr. Richard Kimble in the final episode of The Fugitive, 1967, a much-acclaimed ABC television series loosely based on the Marilyn Sheppard murder case. My high school classmates often talked about the show (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States, as the image first appeared without a copyright tag)

The crime becomes notorious, largely because a Cleveland newspaper beats the drum for Dr. Sam Sheppard’s conviction even before his trial begins. Other irregularities mark the prosecution, not least the judge’s refusal to grant a change of venue; a lackadaisical approach to forensic evidence that suggests prejudice against the defendant; and testimony that borders on hearsay. Even so, Dr. Sam, as he’s known, behaved strangely right after the murder, and his two brothers, also physicians, tried to shield him in ways that arouse suspicion. Just before Christmas, a court convicts Dr. Sam and sentences him to prison.

Enter Nathan Heller, Chicago private investigator (and Collins’s creation, unlike many characters in this true-crime novel). Having visited the crime scene hours after the killing in the company of his friend Eliot Ness, Nate has glimpsed physical evidence as well as what the police and coroner do or fail to do. Not only that, he’s a hotshot with a national reputation. Consequently, in subsequent years, when the mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner (creator of Perry Mason) takes an interest in the case and hopes to discover whether a retrial is warranted, he calls on his friend Nate.

Naturally, the Ohio authorities take a dim view, so Nate must be slicker than Brylcreem if he’s to interview the key players. All fear exposure, in one way or another. But as our hero sifts through the conflicting stories, he faces setbacks, and the trail goes cold over the years. Even so, the narrative that results, the search for new evidence and the real killer—if it’s not Dr. Sam—won’t let you go.

This is where Collins excels. He knows everything there is to know about the case but uses only the most relevant details. The reader follows Nate as he probes one possible suspect, then another, yet the more he learns, the murkier things get. Just when you think he’s nailed down the truth, you find he hasn’t, and not until the very end do you discover the most likely solution.

Collins’s style has been compared to Raymond Chandler’s, and though I won’t go that far, Do No Harm offers its verbal pleasures. A Dictaphone machine “hugged the desk like a frightened time traveler”; “You could have sliced the smoke in here and sold it for bacon”; and “peeling brown paint, like the ugliest suntan in history” decorates one scene of operations. Consider the previous paragraph describing that locale:

To some, the Cleveland Flats, situated on the bottomland of the river’s floodplain, was an industrial wonder — shipyards, foundries, oil refineries, chemical plants, lumber yards, flour mills. To me, the Flats would always be a hellish collection of gin joints and warehouses, where sailors and workingmen wandered in a dank, dark world lit by flickering neon and open flames from gas runoff, the silence broken by honky-tonk music and the fingernails-on-blackboard screeches of factories across the river. Some of these dives dated back to the turn of the century, piles of brick held together by sweat, sawdust and swill.

I recommend reading Do No Harm, but I’m unlikely to try another Nathan Heller novel. When I said the PI had to be slick, that he is. He never makes a mistake, and setbacks don’t throw him. Powerbrokers tell him no or move to block him, but he doesn’t care. You know he’ll work around them if he can’t go through them. Cornered by three punks who’ve gotten the drop on him? Pity them. Attractive women, and there are many, all flirt with him, and he has a way of viewing women as sex objects first and anything else second. Maybe that’s the hard-boiled genre, and it was probably unremarkable in the 1950s, if not the later decade, as the story progresses. But it’s nevertheless distasteful, especially since Nate never has an inconvenient feeling, if any at all, so he seems like a robot wired for high-voltage sex drive.

Given all that, if you read Do No Harm, you know what you’re getting: a throwback, for better and worse, and a ripping good story.

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

Tormented Souls: The White Feather Killer

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Review: The White Feather Killer, by R. N. Morris
Severn, 2019. 284 pp. $29

Like many young men in London in summer 1914, Felix Simpkins feels the tug to serve king and country by enlisting in the crusade against the Germans. It would be the only individual act Felix can think of, the sole rebellious gesture against his emasculating mother (and typically self-defeating), but he can’t quite bring himself to, which flattens his self-esteem even further and risks public shame. For in these mad days when the populace has become intoxicated by jingoism and xenophobia, women of patriotic temperament press white feathers, a sign of cowardice, into the hands of physically fit men not in uniform.

Edgar J. Kealey’s 1915 recruiting poster contrasts the feminine softness within the window and the hard masculinity outside–and manipulates men and women both (courtesy British Library)

Meanwhile, Detective Chief Inspector Silas Quinn of Scotland Yard feels unsettled too, for other reasons. He’s just returned from psychological sick leave, which has further damaged his reputation among police officers of all ranks, many of whom resent him for his brilliance as a detective, his independent methods, and his insistence on truth rather than convenience. Apparently, the resentment goes right to the top, for Quinn has been relieved from command of a special crimes unit and been relegated to a pen-pushing job in which no one need pay attention to him, except to note his lapses.

Military security now requires keen focus on enemies within. Guilt no longer matters. If a crime takes place, arrest someone of German lineage, connections, or alleged sympathies. Justice will be served, and the public, placated. Naturally, this directive rubs Quinn the wrong way. And when he hears that a minister’s daughter has been killed shortly after a patriotic meeting at her father’s church — at which women collected white feathers to hand out — he itches to solve the case. But he’s forbidden to; and the men who’ve supplanted him are watching, waiting for him to step out of line.

Morris excels at characterization, historical atmosphere, the requisite “no — and furthermore,” and the craft of whodunit, with which he keeps you guessing until the end. So many scenes in his novel start out one way and shoot off unexpectedly in another, the essence of tension, because something touches a nerve in his legion of fragile people. Some readers may find these tortured souls off-putting, and I admit, the near-universal willingness to abuse others creates a bleak mood. But the rewards here are many, not least an unvarnished portrayal of police work in 1914, and a similar depiction of a great metropolis straining at its bounds. The famous English credo of decency and fair play seldom applies; that’s an ideal, existing mostly in Quinn’s mind and nowhere else. But with one notable exception, Morris lets his flawed people strive for connection, which shows their fullness and lets you feel for them.

Exhibit A here is Quinn, who’s difficult in his way, though not cruel. He’d like to unburden himself if he could, and his impulses are decent and generous, but he can’t always express them. A psychologically minded detective among colleagues for whom perception and deduction are blunt instruments, he comes across to them as cocksure, even arrogant, yet inside, he’s anything but. Whether it’s his halting overtures to a pretty police secretary or his reluctance to return to the house of a former landlady who realizes he needs care, Quinn makes an unusual male detective, vulnerable and cerebral at once.

The White Feather Killer also conveys London in war fever, whether it’s spy mania or naked anxiety about the adventure that has just begun:

The world had suddenly become a dangerous and uncertain place. A drastic shift in perspective had brought Death into the foreground; the dim figure on the horizon, drifting in and out of sight, had become an insistent, looming presence, so close its stinking, clammy breath could be felt on the back of the neck. Sons and brothers, husbands and fathers, in answering the call to the colours, had brought this dark stranger into the family.

Morris allows himself deeper, more rounded descriptions and motivations than many mystery writers, yet you never feel disconnected or impatient with the narrative. Quite the contrary; I wish more mystery writers trusted themselves (and their readers) to write like this. My only complaint centers on Coddington, Quinn’s nemesis within the police; he’s the notable exception to the generosity granted the other characters. The psychological portrait remains blurry, so I don’t know much about Coddington, except that he’s unreasonably jealous and pigheaded.

The White Feather Killer delivers a terrific story with fully realized characters and an authentic historical background, depicted with precise care. Bravo.

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

Who Are We, and Where Do We Come From?: The Great Unknown

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Review: The Great Unknown, by Peg Kingman
Norton, 2020. 324 pp. $27

In 1845, Constantia MacAdam, just delivered of twins (one of whom died), serves as wet nurse to the large, ever-growing Chambers family, temporarily residing outside Edinburgh while their city home undergoes renovation. Constantia, unable to be with her beloved husband, makes the best of her grief over her lost son and her struggle to make ends meet, but she has lucked out. Not only has she landed among the kindest people in Scotland, who treat her like a family member rather than a servant, she’s never found such intellectual stimulation in her life, and she thrives on it.

Mr. Chambers, a newspaper publisher, takes a keen interest in the natural world and urges his immense brood to do likewise, even (if not especially) the girls. He impresses Constantia, who also loves natural science, because of the breadth of his knowledge and the liberality of his mind. A sensational book has appeared, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, and its unorthodox views receive a warm welcome in the Chambers household. The reader will guess that Vestiges anticipates Darwin’s influential book almost fifteen years later.

Figures such as David Hume and Adam Smith, depicted here at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, were part of the Edinburgh Enlightenment, often presumed to be an eighteenth-century phenomenon. But their nineteenth-century counterparts included such scientific and cultural luminaries as Thomas Carlyle, Mary Somerville, Charles Lyell, and James Clerk Maxwell (courtesy Kim Traynor, via Wikimedia Commons)

While this is happening, the Chambers’ gardener, who has been at this residence all his life, has derived similar revolutionary ideas from observing the randomness of life and death, thriving and deformity, among his beloved plants. And on a Scottish island reasonably near in mileage yet isolated and hard to reach by even the fastest transport, a quarryman seeks to split apart a limestone ledge, in which, he believes, important fossils lie.

To say, therefore, that The Great Unknown is a philosophical novel about the origins of life restates the obvious. The story, at first glance, may seem thin. Constantia longs to rejoin her husband. She also strives to learn who her father was, which the Chambers family, being the soul of tact, infer is a troublesome matter, a secret best left unprobed. Her good character is plain; what more need anyone know?

That doesn’t satisfy Lady Janet, a distant relative of theirs who possesses neither tact nor sensitivity, though she does express much righteous superiority. (When Constantia finally gets the courage to talk back to Lady Janet, it’s delicious.) Lady Janet is the foil for the good-hearted spirit of inquiry that reigns chez Chambers, and a reminder of how different they are from most Britons.

But there’s much more besides the evocation of a country on the brink of a moral upending through scientific discovery, or the excellent, personal portrayal of the conflict between religion and science. We have a thought-provoking daily drama playing out chance and consequences, fortunate or tragic, and people trying to figure out whether these outcomes mean anything or merely display the benign indifference of the universe. (Note the name Constantia in this regard.) Add to that what makes a person human, and how we differ (or don’t) from other species; or is it just our vanity that we do?

In sentences that have a Victorian ring, Kingman has crafted a plot that often turns on Dickensian coincidences, perhaps too fortuitously, at times. But she’s also created a family as a perfect test case for her themes, and not just because of their scientific curiosity. The male species of Chambers are born with a sixth finger on each hand and a sixth toe on each foot. Random chance, indeed, as with the success of surgeries necessary for these digits’ removal. As for Mr. Chambers, imagine a Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice as a witty, urbane man of science who’s more immediately concerned with his daughters’ grasp of Linnaean nomenclature than how to attract a husband—though, rest assured, they have dancing and music lessons too.

Further, when anyone in the household has a musical idea that grabs them at any time, they are encouraged to try it out immediately:

It was understood by all that musical ideas were so fragile, so evanescent, and so precious that they were to be snatched from the thin air upon the very moment of their wafting into existence; they might otherwise as evaporate as quickly as they had precipitated, never again to be recovered. No chances could be taken with them; it was a duty to bring them into the world. Constantia became accustomed to seeing an inward distracted stillness fall over the faces of the girls; any of them might, even in the midst of nursery-supper noise, fall silent for a moment; then spring from her chair, to run to the pianoforte—the harp—the violin.

Not everyone will gravitate toward a quiet, reflective story like this, a daguerreotype of the moment when brave thinkers began to ask the most earthshaking questions without fear of divine retribution. But readers who take The Great Unknown for what it is will be greatly rewarded.

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

Looking for Meaning: The Cartographer of No Man’s Land

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Review: The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, by P. S. Duffy
Liveright, 2013. 366 pp. $26

There’s no real reason for Angus MacGrath, a Nova Scotia coastal shipping captain, to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1916. Canada has no conscription; Angus, a onetime seminarian, has a wife and teenage boy; he’s an artist, so the natural beauty of his home matters to him; and there’s no pressure to join up. In fact, his father, Duncan, is a pacifist, so Angus should be primed to sit out the war.

Yet Angus’s brother-in-law, his closest friend, has been missing in action in France, and Angus wishes to search for him. An officer Angus knows assures him that his mapmaking skills will secure him a desk job in London, from which he figures to make inquiries. Nobody’s happy. Duncan’s furious, and Hettie Ellen, Angus’s withdrawn wife, gives merely tacit approval, hardly a rousing endorsement. Their son, Simon, who craves closeness from his father, tries to keep a stiff upper lip.

Turns out there’s no room in the cartography department—who could have guessed?—and Angus is made a lieutenant of infantry, a job for which he’s unprepared. However, to his surprise, he becomes a capable field leader, befriends his brother officers despite his natural aloofness, and gains the respect of his men. Gradually, his search for his brother-in-law takes on epic proportions.

Richard Jack’s painting, ca. 1918, The Taking of Vimy Ridge, Easter Monday 1917, suggests a stylized version of a nineteenth-century battlefield, too clean and romantic to represent war accurately in any era (courtesy Canadian War Museum via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States and Canada)

Meanwhile, back in Nova Scotia, Simon tries to assert his independence, especially from his tyrannical grandfather, Duncan. Simon keeps a scrapbook of newspaper articles on the war and casts his father as a hero. He also befriends his favorite teacher, a German-born polymath, testament to the tolerance he’s learned at home and his ability to think for himself. Ominously, Simon’s friends and neighbors show neither quality.

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land is a lovely novel, the more remarkable for being Duffy’s first; and as a historian of the First World War and its fiction, I can attest to its authenticity. Duffy has researched her ground meticulously, but, as I’ve said before, spending years in libraries and archives doesn’t guarantee a gripping narrative. Still, I defy anyone to find a dull, wasted page in this extraordinary tale. And much as I salute the author’s impressive grasp of detail, it’s how she deploys her knowledge that counts. Moreover, her seductive prose takes you by the hand and shows you what she wants you to see, as in this scene at a French estaminet:

Sweat, damp wool and liquor suffused the air as talk turned to the wonder of nurses, spotted that morning in their blue capes, managing to look wholesome, healthy and entirely unapproachable. Having stayed far longer than he’d intended, Angus headed for the latrine. Jostled in line, he thought back to the upper room in London — a sanctuary of measures, grids, coordinates and intersecting lines of longitude and latitude — where the cartographers he’d hoped to join bent over their stereoscopes, transforming aerial photographs into maps. There was something elemental and pristine about it, the careful, dispassionate execution, that called up the calming effect of drawing his birds — a tamping down of emotions too deeply felt. Sorry as he’d been not to join them, he was glad now not to have been part of their remote, sterile world.

Duffy effortlessly captures the camaraderie of men at war, the search for meaning amid the violence, the tension and release of battle. Even readers who shy away from such stories may find much to keep them glued to this one. For those interested, Duffy has re-created the Battle of Vimy Ridge in Arras, a source of such national pride in Canada that she feared to tackle it, she writes. However, her authorial bravery pays off, and the novel must rank among the best from recent years about the First World War.

Oddly, though, her home-front narrative feels somewhat less compelling. It belongs, because Duffy links the parallel journeys of father and son, as each strives to understand who he is. But Duffy’s soldiers steal the show, hands down. Hettie Ellen’s inner life never comes through (perhaps Angus might agree), and none of the women leave an echo behind them, except one in a cameo role. They’re not stick figures, by any means, just less full than the fighters. The home-front men do better than the women, but few have much scope, and though the Canada story has its moments, it doesn’t reach as high.

Nevertheless, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land is a very fine novel and an excellent addition to First World War literature.

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