Master Sleuths: The Bag of Tricks Affair

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Review: The Bags of Tricks Affair, by Bill Pronzini
Forge, 2018. 254 pp. $26

Grass Valley, Nevada, isn’t the loosest mining town John Quincannon has ever seen, but it has its share of conmen, quick-tempered fortune-hunters, and card sharps, as befits any Western burg of the 1870s. But John and his partner, Sabina Carpenter, of the Professional Detective Services agency of San Francisco, are on hand to thwart the latest con game about to happen, and they plan on a successful conclusion, bringing their firm more business. The key seems to be a high-stakes game of five-card stud:

The Saint Louis Rose cut a slimmer and far gaudier figure. Too gaudy by half, in Quincannon’s judgment. She wore a fancy sateen dress of bright green, fashioned below across the bosom and high at the knee so that a great deal — a great deal, indeed — of creamy skin was exposed. A red wig done in ringlets, a little too much rouge and powder, false eyelashes the size of a daddy longlegs, and mouth painted the same rose color as the wig completed her image. She laughed often and too loud and was shamelessly flirtatious with the kibitzers.

However, before John and Sabina can expose the grifters, a murder takes place, to which Sabina is the only witness in an otherwise crowded room. A third party who has an interest in the upcoming murder trial has all but told her she’d do well to forget about testifying. But no one scares Sabina Carpenter. Very little eludes her, either, which is why she’s a formidable witness. John wishes she took the threat more seriously, and not just because he’s sweet on her. Former Pinkerton and first-rate detective she may be, and more than able to take care of herself in a tight spot, but John knows a ruthless bad guy when he sees one, and that’s who she’s up against.

Eadweard Muybridge’s panorama of San Francisco, taken from the Mark Hopkins mansion, Nob Hill, 1878 (courtesy Collection of the Society of California Pioneers, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Meanwhile, though, duty calls, and once the detectives return to San Francisco, each pursues a separate case. The plot zips along faster than the Southern Pacific Railroad, but much more reliably, subject to no delays. Pronzini didn’t get to be a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America for nothing, and he connects his stories with ingenuity and economy, wasting no words, yet setting the scene so that you see it vividly. He also gives you all the clues and puts you in the role of Dr. Watson, as you try to figure out how things happen (the who is less mysterious, sometimes because the narrative tells you, and once because there’s really no other choice). Yet the how is invariably marvelous and unexpected, and the manner in which our hero and heroine put their puzzles together recalls Holmes at his lightning best — especially Sabina, who’s the better detective. More intriguing yet, these mysteries are of the locked-room variety, so it’s pretty special to find two of those in the same narrative.

Their relationship is my favorite part, though. They work together, but don’t let that fool you; they compete as well, and John pretends to understand Sabina’s conclusions before he actually does. He’s quick to catch on, but she teases him about it afterward. He’s more impetuous than she, quicker to anger, but his sense of honor forbids him to ask for more money in fees when he might get it. She has no scruples about that, which makes her less of a pushover in business dealings, precisely what the male clients don’t expect — and, perhaps, the reader.

As for any hint of romance between the pair, John keeps looking for it, and his occasionally flirtatious banter annoys her, as well it should. Over their years in partnership, she’s grown fonder of him, but she keeps her distance. Not only is she unsure of her feelings for him, she’s holding on to the memory of her husband, dead five years. So during the course of The Bags of Tricks Affair, sexual tension percolates under the surface, increased by the secrets that each withholds from the other, for professional and personal reasons. Consequently, as they set about solving the criminal mysteries before them, they attempt to decipher one another. The mixture makes for an entertaining, fast-paced narrative, and I wish I’d discovered Quincannon and Carpenter before now.

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

Seekers: The Wanderers

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Review: The Wanderers, by Tim Pears
Bloomsbury, 2018. 366 pp. $28

In this beguiling, gorgeous, yet frustrating novel, we first meet Leo Sercombe in 1912. The young teenager is on the run through the Devon countryside, bearing the wounds of a severe beating, and near faint with hunger.

The boy stumbled in the night over dark earth. The land was silver. His steps were heavy. At first light in the waters of a stream he cleaned the charred red mud off his boots, and limped on in a kind of crouch that seemed best to allay the pain that racked many parts of his body. He saw where the sun rose and headed in the opposite direction, hunched over like someone with secrets from the light.

Gypsies take him in, but he receives little kindness, and not only because he’s an outsider, what they call a gentile. They sense his weakness, his ache for friendship, and, with few exceptions, treat him cruelly because they can, even after he shows his usefulness. Leo has a way with horses, a valuable skill, and he’s curious, quick to learn, eager to please. Theirs is a hard existence, however, with little room for sentiment, and Leo’s reminded at every turn that he owes them his life and had better not try to run away.

North Devon, near Croyde, 2018

Meanwhile, Charlotte (Lottie) Prideaux has just lost her mother, and she too is rootless, without friends, though in a very different, coddled context. She’s a lord’s daughter, and her father lets her do more or less what she pleases, with one crucial exception. The narrative hints that because Leo and Lottie became too friendly, the boy and most of his family were banished from the estate, which also presumably explains the beating he took. (Since The Wanderers is the second book of a planned trilogy, these events may be more explicit in the first volume, The Horseman.) In protest, for months, Lottie refuses to say anything to her father except, “Yes, Papa,” or, “No, Papa,” and tells him he did wrong to punish the Sercombes.

With great subtlety, Pears shows that Lottie and Leo care deeply about one another, though neither spends much time thinking about it, and both outwardly pretend no connection exists. This understatement makes you want all the more for the two to find one another again. But that’s not how the real world or this novel works, and Lottie and Leo have learning to do.

They’re both empathic, lonely, see beyond surfaces, and love the natural world, about which they have an abiding curiosity. But where Lottie dissects animals to study them and borrows anatomy textbooks from the local veterinarian, Leo helps butcher animals for food and assists a ewe through a breech birth because that’s his job, for which he receives neither thanks nor payment. Pears never underlines the comparison; he doesn’t have to. You only need to watch Leo make his way, suffering physically and emotionally, whereas there’s always someone looking out for the daughter of the manor. Nevertheless, you see Leo gain knowledge that Lottie may never have. I love this juxtaposition, simple and elegant like the prose, which creates a coming-of-age story unlike any other I’ve read.

Yet The Wanderers, though superbly written with brilliant characterizations, lacks a plot to speak of, a climax, or resolution. Having recently torn apart Charles Frazier’s Varina for that failing and others, it’s only fair to ask what Pears does to overcome this deficit, and to what extent he succeeds. He does ask implied, powerful questions, and though nothing happens in the usual way of novels, everything also happens, because it all matters. Partly that’s because Pears offers a view of life on the margins that few writers attempt, but it’s not just the content. Here, the episodic chapters open the characters to the reader, and the small moments establish a constant emotional connection.

Even so, I still feel cheated at the end. I don’t want to wait for the third volume to know what happens, and I’m especially worried that the First World War, to which the novel metaphorically refers as the year 1914 approaches, will deny Leo and Lottie any chance of happiness. Leo in particular is just the type of person to be destroyed in the conflict, and one theme of The Wanderers is how people who embrace violence and dishonesty have a tremendous advantage over everyone else.

So does it matter how many questions Pears leaves hanging? Yes and no. If you’re the type of reader who prefers to have everything wrapped up, then this book may not be for you. If that uncertainty doesn’t faze you, the narrative offers a breathtaking ride.

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

Tidy Mystery, Messy World: The Man upon the Stair

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Review: The Man upon the Stair, by Gary Inbinder
Pegasus, 2018. 252 pp. $26

On the day before he accedes to the chief inspectorship of the Paris Surêté, Achille Lefebvre witnesses the execution of an anarchist assassin. Colleagues warn Lefebvre that the dead man’s friends will seek revenge the first chance they get, so why not have them “taken care of”? No, Lefebvre says; he believes in the rule of law, and stooping to criminal methods would undermine that and reputation he wishes to maintain.

It’s an unusual viewpoint among the Parisian law enforcement of 1890, but, then again, Lefebvre is no ordinary detective. He’s studied the Japanese warrior code, martial arts, pistol marksmanship, the latest methods in criminology that his superiors scoff at (such as fingerprinting), and reads Jules Verne as if the master’s works predicted tomorrow’s news. Lefebvre knows and keeps good relations with Toulouse-Lautrec, cabaret singers, stars of the demimonde, the king of the rag pickers, and every important figure in the judicial and police world, with a few diplomats on the side.

Paris, circa 1890, from A Photographic Trip Around the World, John W. Illiff & Co., Chicago, 1892 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain, expired copyright)

So it is that when Mme. Mathilde de Livet, wife of a nouveau riche baron, approaches the detective’s wife, Adele, at the watering hole of Aix-les-Bains and seems strangely agitated, Mme. Lefebvre’s social antennas quiver. Well they might, for Mme. de Livet is soon telling the police that her husband has disappeared. Questioning the missing man’s valet reveals that the baron was holding hundreds of thousands of francs in a Gladstone bag, said to be gambling winnings that prompted a duel. Before long, the case will involve possible espionage, a poisoned maid, Russian diplomats, and several swindles. A few of these problems may pose serious international implications, it seems.

Inbinder has written a clever mystery that keeps the pages turning; just when you think there can’t be another twist, he gives you three more. Lefebvre is an appealing character, if hard to believe, but his heart’s in the right place, and he earns his subordinates’ loyalty by praising them and giving them chances to succeed. (Everybody deserves a boss like that.) As a family man, Lefebvre wishes he could do better, for some days he hardly comes home. One of my favorite scenes is when he has to beat a quick retreat, leaving Adele to administer her own form of law enforcement to their young daughter.

Another pleasure of The Man upon the Stair is fin-de-siècle Paris. Inbinder spends few words on it, but they all count:

Achille sat on a slatted wooden bench on the open upper deck of the Rue Caulaincourt tram. The horse-drawn car ran up from the Place de Clichy and over the iron viaduct that crossed the cemetery. He grabbed the brim of his fedora as a gust whipped over the elevated roadway. Wind rustled the reddish-golden-leaved treetops lining each side of the thoroughfare. The breeze carried smoke from dead leaves smoldering in piles gathered around the graves and sarcophagi; the fumes irritated his eyes and nostrils, making them water. He removed a handkerchief from his breast pocket, coughed, and blew his nose.

For all that, I find The Man upon the Stair a contrived, frustrating mystery to read. There’s never any doubt that Lefebvre and his minions will handle whatever obstacles arise, before the tension can stretch its legs or the reader’s nerves. It’s as though the author, through his detective, were saying, “Don’t worry. We’ve got this covered.” For instance, we’re told that the diplomatic complications could provoke a war, but we don’t actually see that in play, so there’s no reason to believe it. No amount of explanation that the French government is courting Russia as an ally raises the stakes. It’s historically accurate but involves no drama, for Lefebvre massages everything behind the scenes and then narrates his success after the fact.

He should at least break a sweat. But, as he says himself, he’s very lucky, and his infinite sources of information never fail. Moreover, that information is most often relayed to him (and the reader) in dialogue that reads like declarations or pronouncements rather than ordinary speech. This stilted feel pervades the novel, in which there are too few surprises. Minor characters have one overriding trait or concern, which the narrative describes or explains, and which the dialogue then reinforces, so you often have the impression that you’ve just read something twice.

So though I enjoyed The Man upon the Stair, largely for its glimpses of a city I love, I could take this novel or let it alone.

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

Occupation Confection: The Baker’s Secret

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Review: The Baker’s Secret, by Stephen P. Kiernan
Morrow, 2017. 308 pp. $27

By June 1944, the German Occupation weighs heavily on the Norman coastal village of Vergers. The Germans confiscate whatever food the villagers grow or catch, deport men of working age to their armaments factories, and delight in summary executions. One person they shoot is Ezra Kuchen, the baker; the villager who takes his death the hardest is his assistant, Emmanuelle, known as Emma.

Emma would never dream of joining the Resistance, whose activity she blames for other losses, and who believes the Allies will never invade, so what’s the point? But willy-nilly, Emma becomes the prime mover in a complicated barter arrangement whose weblike strands encompass the whole village, and which the Germans would certainly call resistance. Her treason centers around baking bread for the occupiers, which she cuts with enough straw to make extra loaves for neighbors in need. In each loaf, she carves a subtle V.

Each morning required every gram of Emma’s skills, all of her artifice, to bake loaves containing straw and have neither the Kommandant nor his officers notice. Yet this was only one of five hundred deceits, all conceived during the long strain of the occupation. She learned to sow a minefield and reap eggs. She could wander the hedgerows pulling a rickety cart, and the result would be maps. She could turn cheese into gasoline, a light bulb into tobacco, fuel into fish. She could catch, butcher, and divide among the villagers a pig that later every person who had tasted it would insist had never existed.

I like this part of the novel the best, and not only because of Emma’s ingenuity. Every fiber of her duplicity exists to satisfy someone else’s wants, which she at first resents, because they leave no room for her own. But over time, she realizes that throwing herself into feeding others gives her a reason to live despite her pessimism, and keeps her from dwelling on her repressed desires, which would drive her mad. When someone tells her to have hope, she snaps, “Can that be eaten? What does it taste like?” But since the novel opens on June 5, 1944, the reader knows what’s coming before she does.

Having written about military occupations and traveled Normandy, I was looking forward to The Baker’s Secret. (My fondest memory of the many French walking trails I’ve followed is of Calvados, where a group of local hikers pressed wine and food on me and told me how grateful they felt to Americans for having liberated them.) I gobbled up this confection of a novel in just about one sitting, which says something about its excellent pacing, but I felt hungry soon afterward. The story pleases, but, except for Emma, the characters have no depth, and the fable-like tone makes it hard to tell whether to take the narrative’s real tragedies seriously.

I took this photo in 2015, near the Norman village of Thury-Harcourt, an area that saw heavy fighting several weeks after the invasion.

One weak link is the German soldiery. Unlike the case with All the Light We Cannot See, to which this book will inevitably (and wrongly) be compared, Kiernan’s occupiers deal out plenty of brutality. But they’re stiff, utterly predictable marionettes who act like no soldiers I’ve ever read of or seen, let alone like the Wehrmacht. They are easily fooled, spout racial and political prejudices like windup toys, seem not to understand their own weaponry, and even invite Emma to a place where she can see their fortifications, which they then boast of to her. They’re not buffoons, exactly; more like a collection of bumbling neurotics with guns.

Just as the Germans are unreal enemies, the villagers are improbable, idealized good guys. They’re more like a foreigner’s idea of what French people must be like, with generic, styled modes of expression, attitudes, and descriptions. Further, I don’t believe that Vergers has a Jewish baker, that Ezra Kuchen is Jewish, or that the villagers would honor him in death so fervently. He’s a cliché, a blatant device, and, incidentally, the only villager to possess a last name, whose meaning (“cake”) is no subtler than anything else in this story. Kiernan tries hard to evoke Emma’s fear that someone in Vergers will betray her, but you know they won’t; they’re too righteous. Over time, a candidate presents himself, but he’s so roundly detested that you expect his duplicity rather than fear it.

I appreciate Kiernan’s attempt to show the cruelties perpetrated during the Occupation, and to portray the violence of the invasion as a decidedly mixed blessing for the people of Normandy. But The Baker’s Secret, though it has its poignant moments, teeters between cartoonish fable and skewed reality, and leaves me unsatisfied.

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

The Sussex Ghost: Lost Among the Living

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Review: Lost Among the Living, by Simone St. James
NAL, 2016. 318 pp. $15

For three years, Jo Manders has struggled with the loss of her husband, Alex, who flew for the RAF, and whose airplane crashed in German territory in 1918. The verdict of missing, presumed dead leaves her in limbo, which is painful enough. It also leaves her without a widow’s pension, which poses financial hardship, especially since she pays for the institution where her psychotic mother resides. (Her father, she never knew.) So when Alex’s aunt, Dottie Forsyth, offers Jo a position as a companion, the distraught young woman gets rid of nearly all Alex’s belongings and accepts.

Airco D.H. 9A, part of the infant RAF, ca. 1918 (courtesy WIkimedia Commons, public domain)

What she hasn’t reckoned on is how difficult Dottie is and how impossible to talk to. She calls Jo “Manders,” as if she were a servant rather than a relative by marriage, and denies any emotion, as if it were the influenza pandemic revisited. There’s also the matter of Alex’s late, mentally disturbed cousin, Frances, who died plunging off the roof of the Forsyth manse in Sussex, at age fifteen, during the war. As happens with such tragedies among the gentry, rumors fly in town about the dead girl. To wit: She’s still alive, kept in chains, goes one story. No; she’s dead, and her ghost haunts the woods, scaring children who play there. Or it’s Frances’s dog that does the haunting, a monster more like, that can tear a human into pieces — and did so, once.

Lost Among the Living therefore sounds like Jane Eyre meets The Hound of the Baskervilles. If you like, you can throw in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, because of Jo’s employment as a companion, and because her married name resembles Manderley, the mansion in that story. So the novel under discussion here evokes famous literary bloodlines, which implies a responsibility. In large measure, St. James meets it.

Normally, I avoid Gothic fiction because so much of it relies on melodrama. I also have no patience for the supernatural or paranormal or whatever euphemism you want to use for ghosts playing field hockey in the attic. So how did Lost Among the Living rope me in and keep me reading?

Easy. St. James is a very skilled novelist, and her psychological insights, gift for characterization, and descriptive pen need no doors slamming by themselves to create suspense. She’s not afraid to linger on emotional transitions, and because she keeps the reader engaged, the narrative still moves at an enviable clip. From the first, she draws you in, creating Jo as a sympathetic character. Consider this early passage, when the young widow thinks about what returning to England will mean after she has spent a dreadful three-month tour of the continent with Dottie:

I tried to picture primroses, hedgerows, and soft, chilled rain. No more hotels, smoke-filled dining cars, resentful waiters, or searches through unfamiliar cities for just the right tonic water or stomach remedy. No more sweltering days at the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower, watching tourists blithely lead their children and snap photographs as if we’d never had a war. No more seeing the names of battlefields on train departure boards and wondering if that one — or that one, or that one — held Alex’s body forgotten somewhere beneath its newly grown grass.

We get grief, hoping for the relief she senses she won’t have, and the endless drudgery she’s suffered the past three months and fears will recur–all of it subtly rendered.

As a first-person narrator, Jo is naturally the deepest character, but her memories of Alex bring him alive, and Dottie comes through in all her hideous glory without being a cartoon. I’m particularly impressed that when Jo receives a terrible shock, she doesn’t immediately do a one-eighty to accommodate the change but fights it, internally and externally, creating tension. So many suspense novelists, or those of any stripe, devote a paragraph, a summation, to “explain” why and how the protagonist must “face facts” and do what they’d never wanted to do. Not here. Call this novel Gothic or whatever you like, but these characters have inner lives. That’s the reason it doesn’t even matter that I guessed what changes were coming; the real surprise is how Jo deals with it, which feels real.

This is why I could swallow Frances’s spectral presence in the story. I would have preferred otherwise, and I believe it was unnecessary — indeed, the mystery element she adds could have come from perfectly uncontrived, utterly earthbound sources. But that’s the author’s style, and she has a wide readership, so she knows better than to listen to me.

However, I do think she overreaches in the last fifty pages, setting up a final confrontation that again is no surprise and whose mechanics are hokey, completely unlike the rest of the novel. To repeat myself, I think St. James could have written the ending another way, so the choice seems more like holding up a banner for her genre than to achieve the desired conclusion. Still, I’m glad I read Lost Among the Living. Maybe you’d like it too.

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

Murder Jambalaya: King Zeno

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Review: King Zeno, by Nathaniel Rich
FSG, 2018. 386 pp. $28

During the final year of the First World War, three narratives and a hell of a lot of dead bodies converge in New Orleans. The main story line belongs to Isidore (Izzy) Zeno, the best young cornet player no one’s ever heard of, who believes he has a new style of jass, as it’s then called, but can’t get gigs. To make ends meet, he aids a friend who’s a stickup artist, but the risks are far greater than the rewards, and that sort of sideline is destined to cause trouble.

Then there’s Bill Bastrop, a police detective assigned to deal with the stickups but switches to homicide detail when a friend and mentor on the force is killed one night in a setup. That, in turn, leads Bill to probe the rash of ax murders that the dead detective was investigating. However, Bill can barely hold it together, suffering from what would today be called post-traumatic stress from his wartime service. He received a hero’s acclaim, but he knows he’s a coward, and he lives with it every second. How Bill managed to be released from the army with the war still going on is a mystery itself. But suffice to say that he’s miserable, obsessed with breaking a case that will redeem him in his own eyes, for which he neglects the wife he loves.

Finally, there’s Beatrice Vizzini, a widow from an underworld family who wants to leave the “shadow business” and go straight. To that end, she’s managing the effort to build a canal that will split New Orleans in two and, the city fathers hope, restore the port to its erstwhile glory. Her sociopathic son and heir, Giorgio, may have other ideas about her business strategy, and to say he’s a loose cannon is an understatement.

New Orleans shantytown during the war years (courtesy National Library of Medicine via University of Michigan)

Meanwhile, with all that, influenza ravages the city, so plenty happens in King Zeno. Too much, in fact, and it burdens the novel. The three narratives coincide only toward the end, when it takes a fair amount of contrivance to make that junction. The mystery hardly qualifies as a puzzle, for the solution is pretty clear early on, though the bodies keep piling up, in the streets and at the canal excavation site. The Vizzini narrative, easily the weakest of the three because the characters are neither engaging nor sympathetic, could drop out entirely. That would also remove the tendentious, thematic passages in which Rich tries to convince you that the canal is a metaphor that links this narrative to the other two. I don’t see it.

What King Zeno does have going for it is the atmosphere of New Orleans. You get the mosquitoes, the heat, the wealth alongside poverty, the racism, sainted past that was never glorious. The vigorous prose lets you hear the music, too:

Isidore pressed the cornet to his lips and the old chemical combustion — oxygen plus metal times flesh — blew everything else out of his head. He’d heard other players describe performing as a jubilant mindlessness, a physical sensation as ecstatic as sexual euphoria, but that wasn’t quite right. He used his mind too, running through scales the way Mr. Davis at the Waifs’ Home had taught him, calculating fourths and fifths; adding crooks, slurs, and drags; scanning ahead four bars in anticipation; posing and, within milliseconds, resolving questions of harmonic density, chordal patterning, and understructure…

More importantly, the narrative conveys implicitly the crime and corruption that pervade every human interaction, the fear with which African-Americans cope constantly, and the subterfuges they must embrace. For instance, Izzy may not visit his wife, Orleania, except in secret, for she’s a live-in nanny in a white home. Even to try is dangerous, for security guards patrol the streets, looking to abuse people they consider interlopers.

Izzy’s story therefore makes gripping reading, as does Bill’s, often, but only as separate entities. As a whole, King Zeno doesn’t feel like a satisfying literary dish as much as a jambalaya of varied flavors. Some stand out, some I can do without, but they don’t go together.

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

Who Killed the Duke?: Blood Royal

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Review: Blood Royal, by Eric Jager
Little, Brown, 2014. 316 pp. $29

One cold night in 1407, assassins attack Louis, Duke of Orléans, on a Parisian street and leave his dead, mutilated body in the mud. The news shocks Paris to the core, and no wonder. Louis was not only brother to King Charles VI and one of four richest, most powerful peers of the realm. He was also the de facto king whenever Charles slipped into “fits of madness,” what today would be called schizophrenia. Since those fits happened often and could last months or years, Louis was the king’s right hand as well as his nearest blood relative, which makes his murder an attack on the throne itself. Is this an isolated crime, people wonder, or a prelude to more violence, even civil war?

Blood Royal proves the old adage about truth being stranger than fiction. The killers know their man, for they set upon Louis after he makes a regular nocturnal visit to his sister-in-law’s palace. Was he actually sleeping with Queen Isabeau? Could King Charles, in a lucid moment, have decided to kill him in revenge? If so, Charles was one of many cuckolded husbands in Louis’s wake, and though he often got away with it because of the rich gifts he lavished on these men, he was also known to delight in shaming them. A knight from Picardy named Albert de Chauny, for example, swore undying enmity because of an incident that became so infamous that the great nineteenth-century painter Eugène Delacroix memorialized it on canvas.

Delacroix’s painting, The Duke of Orléans Showing His Mistress, 1825 (courtesy Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

But whoever plotted to kill Louis could have had any number of motives. The duke of Orléans was power-hungry and flamboyant in displaying his wealth through absurdly lavish entertainments and vanity building projects. To pay for his excesses, he helped himself to the royal treasury, like as not inflicting new taxes that made him extremely unpopular. So if there was one logical suspect in his murder, there were dozens.

The man tasked with unraveling this intricate, politically volatile mystery is the provost of Paris, Guillaume de Tignonville. This is the part of Blood Royal that I like best, the process of investigation that reveals as much about the time and place as it does about the crime. The witnesses include a cross-section of the populace — a cobbler’s wife, water carriers, barbers, an architect’s wife and daughter, a baker, and so on. By examining their testimony, recorded on a parchment lost for more than two centuries, Jager reconstructs the crime as it unfolds; relates fascinating, relevant sidelights about the witnesses’ professions; decides who answers forthrightly and who are trying too hard to save their skins; and why, with so many onlookers, Guillaume has such trouble identifying the assassins. (Hint: Ordinances regarding the nightly curfew and fire prevention are partly to blame.) Most remarkable, perhaps, is that Guillaume prefers to sweat the details of investigation and rely on logic and observation rather than torture the witnesses, which he could easily have done instead.

Throughout the narrative, Jager shows a vivid grasp of everyday life in fifteenth-century Paris, a city of one hundred thousand people. I particularly like this passage describing the Châtelet, where Guillaume conducts his inquiry:

… legal documents lay piled up throughout the old fortress, stacked on wooden tables and writing desks, sorted onto shelves, cubbyholed in armoires, and stuffed into storerooms, along with the various tools used to make them — goose quills widened and hardened by heat, silver penknives, black-stained ink pots, pumice for smoothing parchment, and polished wooden rulers and shiny metal styli for scoring straight lines across freshly cut sheets of white, virgin calfskin. Whole herds of cows and hillsides full of sheep had been slaughtered and skinned to make these records of human misdeeds, entire flocks of geese had been plucked, and huge numbers of oak galls had been laboriously collected and boiled down to produce barrels of ink.

The unmasking of the murderers comes as a slight anticlimax – history is unkind to dramatic convention, here — but Jager more than makes up for it by recounting what happens afterward. The civil war that ensues offers Henry V of England the chance he’s been waiting for to invade, and the reader quickly learns how gross a propaganda job Shakespeare did to glorify “warlike Harry.” Likewise, the powerful duke of Burgundy, whom history knows as Jean sans Peur (John the Fearless) could as well have been nicknamed Jean sans Scrupules.

I could have done without the “must have felt” that intrudes on the narrative. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m with Barbara Tuchman on this one. If the historical record doesn’t say how someone felt, the historian has no business inventing it; let the reader draw the inference.

But Blood Royal is a fabulous book. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

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

Talking Heads: Impossible Saints

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Review: Impossible Saints, by Clarissa Harwood
Pegasus, 2018. 344 pp. $26

The year is 1907; the place, London. Picture a romance between Lilia Brooke, anticlerical, militant suffragist who believes in “free union” rather than marriage, and Paul Harris, an Anglican canon, and you have the premise of Impossible Saints. What’s more, Paul hates even the idea of a “free union,” because his mother left his father to live with another man. Finally, as a young cleric on a rapid rise, he’d do well to steer clear of Lilia for the sake of his career prospects.

More than four decades ago, I first read George Dangerfield’s classic history of the Edwardian era, The Strange Death of Liberal England, which I highly recommend. I can still recall the hair-raising chapters about Emmeline Pankhurst, arguably the most famous (if not the most influential) suffragist in the English-speaking world, and her daughter, Christabel, both of whom took a great deal of physical and verbal abuse for the cause. (Another daughter, Sylvia, was also involved in the movement.) Lilia Brooke, though fictional, is cut from their cloth, a woman who feels that eloquent speeches and pamphlets aren’t enough, though she excels at both. Rather, she must take her cause to the streets in ways that can’t be ignored, and, like any honest militant, she leads from out front. Consequently, Paul and Lilia have decisions to make.

Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913 (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

I was delighted to find Harwood’s novel and surprised that it’s the first I’ve ever heard of to portray the suffrage movement in that time and place. I like honest political romances, by which I mean those where both partners are committed, body and soul, to their beliefs, rather than stories in which philosophical differences provide a handy device to keep the lovers apart for a while. I further applaud Harwood’s passion for the era and her understanding and love for the ideas that shaped it. In our politically fractious age, it’s thought-provoking to read about lovers whose undeniable attraction risks foundering on divergent beliefs about morality and justice.

But I wish that Impossible Saints offered a more vivid, nuanced, less predictable narrative. Told almost entirely through dialogue, a choice that demands authorial skill and the reader’s patience, the novel feels like a tract or a running debate.

The discussions have their moments, as when Lilia gently skewers a wealthy businessman and professed Darwinist by asking whether he should hire more women just to see whether they are better fitted to the work than men. More usually, however, speech and thought seem too intellectual, even for the main characters, whose scholarly pursuits led to their initial attraction. Take this passage, for example, where Paul visits a “penitentiary,” a place that purportedly exists to rehabilitate “fallen women”:

Paul had entertained two incompatible expectations of these women — the romantic, sorrowful, lovely unfortunates of Pre-Raphaelite paintings on the one hand, and the gaudy, brash, painted courtesans of legend on the other. Neither expectation was realized. What surprised Paul most was how ordinary and young Mary looked. She couldn’t have been older than seventeen, yet her face was sober and intelligent, reminding him of his father’s upper servants. Was this one of the wicked, abandoned creatures that many of his colleagues spoke out against from the pulpit?

I have no doubt that Harwood’s observations here are dead on, and I believe implicitly that Paul has never considered a woman like this for who she is. But I don’t think he’s really seeing her now, either, for the description feels pigeonholed, generic, even academic, and since it’s a key moment, his reaction should be visceral. I get that he doesn’t reveal his feelings to others, though they run deep, but aside from described internal states, they’re hard to find. As such, I feel sympathy and interest in viewpoints and where those will lead, but am less compelled by the characters who hold them.

There’s little or no external vividness, either. Emmeline Pankhurst, who surely deserves at least a line of physical description, receives none (and neither Christabel nor Sylvia is even mentioned). Impossible Saints has little grounding in any particular place, and neither London nor the early twentieth century comes alive in its pages.

Artless is the word that comes to mind about this novel, in its simplicity, which can be charming, but also in its lack of subtlety or surprise. With apologies to Paul’s profession, so much of this book feels ordained; when anything appears the least out of the ordinary, you can bet it will work its effects in the next chapter or so, and you can guess what they’ll be. Conversations feel direct, to the point, and resolved, and though occasional misunderstandings arise, people seldom, if ever, interrupt or talk past each other.

Impossible Saints is a novel about ideas, less so the people who hold them. And though those ideas are powerful and timely, the narrative never quite takes flight.

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

Cynical Kingdom: Chicago

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Review: Chicago, by David Mamet
HarperCollins, 2018. 338 pp. $27

“A romantic is just a cynic for whom, as yet, the nickel hasn’t dropped,” says one character to another. Both are newsmen from Chicago’s leading paper, philosophical drunks, and they may be excused their pessimism, for it’s 1925, when underworld gangs struggle for control of the city, and life seems cheap. But these facts are incidental, for this is Mamet land, where corruption pervades every interaction like poison, and the only question is who will succumb next.

The more interesting drunk in this peripatetic, loosely connected novel is Mike Hodge, decorated war veteran, who falls in love, hard, with Annie Walsh. But a thug kills her at Mike’s apartment, for no reason he can figure, and when he’s drunk enough of his visceral grief away, he sets out to find the killer.

Before that happens, however, a lot of hooch flows under the bridge. Though I salute Mamet for letting his protagonist mourn, when so many mysteries take bereavement for granted and have the sleuth pounding the pavement right away, Chicago errs in the other direction. So many conversations take place between Mike and his cynical friends, chiefly his newsroom buddy, Parlow, and an African-American whorehouse madam, Peekaboo, that when they tell him they’ve heard enough about “the Irish girl,” you want to agree. The sleuthing doesn’t start until around page 150, and doesn’t really get going until much later. On their own, many of these scenes work beautifully, especially with Peekaboo, whose take on life and manner of expressing it make her a compelling character. Why, she asks rhetorically, do you think girls fall in love? Her answer is that the man can (choose one or more): “bring me off; buy me shit; protect me and my children; leave me a lot of money.” On hearing this, Mike chuckles dismissively.

But if you didn’t know that Mamet is a playwright, you’d quickly wonder why there’s so much talk, and why every sentence seems to have at least one word in italics, as if the author were giving his players line readings. The staginess doesn’t end there, either, because the narrative has plenty of closeted two- or -threesomes and very few panoramas. Surprisingly, Annie herself appears very little and has no dialogue, except reported as indirect discourse, and even her name seldom occurs: She’s the “Irish girl.” Is she meant to be merely an abstraction? A sex object? It’s a little strange. And do reporters of the city beat really use words like etiolated or debate whether a certain aphorism comes from Tacitus? Maybe these reporters do, since they seem preternaturally attuned and can intuit that someone they’ve just set eyes on carries a shameful secret, and what it must be.

That said, Chicago has its pleasures beyond the rich, colloquial dialogue. Mike’s detective work, once he throws himself into it, is clever, persistent, and courageous. The mystery offers plenty of twists despite having few moving parts. Mamet has a keen sense of the underworld, its codes, gestures, and ways of operation. And though he doesn’t reveal the Tribune newsroom in full — it seems a fairly quiet place, with little furniture, population, or obstacles to private, uninterrupted conversation — he knows old-time newsmen:

Crouch was the city editor, and, like most men dedicated to a cause, he took seriously the signs and trappings of his devotion. These, in his case, were an ancient rumpled suit, a green eyeshade while at work, a Fatima cigarette perennially held between his lips, his eyes screwed up against the smoke, nicotine-stained fingers and teeth, a dirty shirt, and frayed and inkstained cuffs. He was small, usually unshaven, and had looked every day of his fifty-eight years since his accession to the desk in 1913.

But, in the end, Chicago doesn’t hang together as a novel, and I don’t think it would make much of a play, either. I’d hoped for better from a writer I admire.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this post was published in shorter, different form.

Rough Injustice: Only Killers and Thieves

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Review: Only Killers and Thieves, by Paul Howarth
HarperCollins, 2018. 319 pp. $27

It’s 1885, and Billy and Tommy McBride, Australian teenagers in a drought-ridden wilderness, have grown up within the confines of their family’s failing cattle ranch. They’ve met few people other than their parents, younger sister, and hired hands, and they’ve felt themselves secure within that society. So when the boys return home one afternoon following a rare moment of leisure, an excursion to a swimming hole, they see that they are bereft beyond their imagining. Someone has murdered their parents, gravely wounded their sister, and even killed the dogs.

Suspicion immediately falls on a former Aboriginal hired hand who’d left the McBrides’ employ under a cloud, and whose distinctive pistol is found at the scene. At least, sixteen-year-old Billy’s convinced of the man’s guilt, precisely what the McBrides’ wealthy neighbor, John Sullivan, wants to hear. He’s a rancher who seems to own everything and everyone, hates anyone who’s not white, and anyone of any race who doesn’t pledge him fealty, which he calls “respect.” Sullivan hires a police officer and his Aboriginal troops to hunt down the killer, and he insists that both boys come along. But Tommy, almost fifteen and forever in his older brother’s shadow, isn’t so sure. He mistrusts Sullivan, with whom his father never got along, and, unlike his older brother, wants to know the how and why of things.

I like this facet of the novel very much, how the interplay between the brothers sets so much into motion. Billy, pigheaded and more terrified than he’s willing to admit, accepts all he’s told as the only choice and refuses to ask questions — sometimes the obvious ones. After all, the McBride boys are orphans, and as minors, they have no rights to hold their deceased parents’ property. Tommy acquiesces because he can’t exist on his own, idealizes Billy, and wants just as much to be accepted. Yet he keeps a skeptical mind about what doesn’t make sense, including details of the murder that don’t add up. And he tries to ask questions, only to be shouted down or threatened.

But Howarth is after bigger game than sibling rivalry, however deadly it may turn. He aims to explore how murder — what today would be called genocide — can happen, and how decent people can subscribe to it. So far, so good, but I wish the author hadn’t stacked the deck. Sullivan speaks and acts the way I imagine such a man might, yet his villainy and lust for power seem too grand and without nuance. (There’s also a Freudian cliché employed to explain why he throws his weight around, but it’s too cheap by half.) Far more interesting, and complex, is Noone, the police officer Sullivan hires.

At first, Noone cultivates Tommy, whom he senses has an astute, roving intelligence like his own. To Tommy’s surprise, Noone even answers questions about Sullivan’s questionable activities, the boy having assumed that the two men trust one another, if they’re not actually friends. But Tommy soon learns that Noone trusts no one and has no human feeling as the boy (and just about anyone) would define it. Noone’s a thinker, a theoretical follower of Darwin who’s twisted “survival of the fittest” to his murderous agenda. His kind is timeless; call him proto-fascist, white supremacist, sociopath, or all three.

One of the pleasures of Only Killers and Thieves is the way Howarth’s prose brings out the struggle for survival, the isolation, the loneliness of this hardscrabble patch of earth. Consider this passage, when Tommy and his mother drive to the nearest town:

The dray rattled along, Mother holding her hat against the wind, Tommy squinting into the glare, both of them grimacing at the ride. There was no give in the axle. Every rock and divot jarred through the bench. Before them the road stretched straight and narrow, little more than a horse track beaten through the bush, but the only road Bewley had. It ran through the center of town and continued east for hundreds of miles, supposedly to the mountains then the coast and an ocean so big it covered half the earth. Tommy could hardly imagine it. But then the same could be said of the interior, which no man had ever crossed; must have been the size of an ocean at least. The thought made him woozy: the scale of it all, what lay out there, the world.

Only Killers and Thieves lives up to its title, a grisly, powerful, unflinching book, the type you don’t want to put down but fear to pick up once you have because of what might happen next. After a taut, laconic narrative, however, the climax gets talky, with Noone spewing stuff that seems pulled out of Nietzsche, irrelevant and redundant. The entire dénouement, in fact, feels stilted and arranged.

But Only Killers and Thieves is a brilliant novel, more remarkable for being Howarth’s first. I think he’s an author to watch.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this post was published in shorter, different form.