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Review: The Wilson Deception, by David O. Stewart
Kensington, 2015. 266 pp. $25

As I mentioned in my review of Robert Goddard’s novel, The Ways of the World (August 30), I’ve always wanted to read a first-rate thriller about the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. So when The Wilson Deception crossed my path, I grabbed it.

That bad news is that this book isn’t what I’m looking for. Melodrama afflicts The Wilson Deception with a high fever, which, in its delirium, spawns a very far-fetched plot, full of talking heads of state repeating commonplace information, and whose French is sometimes less than grammatical. Even the novel’s protagonist, Major James Fraser, an army doctor, feels like a cardboard cutout who’ll topple in the slightest breeze off the Seine. Tending horribly wounded men has left its mark, but the narrative says so more than it shows him feeling it. He’s estranged from his wife and adult daughter, but that too feels handed out rather than enacted, and when the women arrive in Paris, the chance for reconciliation unfolds with little process. It’s not earned.

However, the good news is that the talking heads include the likes of Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau, and David Lloyd George, with Lawrence of Arabia trying unsuccessfully to lobby them. As a historian of that era, I’m a sucker for Clemenceau in particular, and Stewart has a good time letting the French premier unleash his witticisms. For instance, when a would-be assassin wounds him, he tells American visitors to his sickroom:

Yes, it was a shameful episode. A Frenchman stands not ten feet from me and fires seven times. Yet he hits me only once. Who will respect French marksmanship? Our honor is forever stained. It will cause men in Berlin to think about invading France again. . . . Of course, men in Berlin need very little encouragement to think such thoughts.

Stewart also tries to turn Robert Lansing from a footnote into a person, and I like that too, or at least the attempt. Lansing became secretary of state in 1915 when William Jennings Bryan resigned, and he should have been the chief negotiator in Paris. But Wilson, who had never let Lansing do his job–the president even typed his own diplomatic notes–wasn’t about to unchain him now, given Wilson’s oversized ego and the chance to act on the world stage. The novel captures Lansing’s frustration at being pushed aside, which gives the supposedly dry-as-dust lawyer the chance to fire off his own bons mots: “Wilson’s had such a charmed political life that he’s afflicted with the optimism of the consistently fortunate.”

Robert Lansing, Wilson's second secretary of state (Courtesy Library of Congress).

Robert Lansing, Wilson’s second secretary of state (Courtesy Library of Congress).

However, the author hasn’t decided where the story lies. Lansing offers possibilities, but he’s there only because of his nephews, Allen and John Foster Dulles (whose relationship to Lansing was news to me, and piqued my historian’s interest). Since Allen would later direct the CIA, for which he seems to have been practicing, he serves Stewart’s purpose, in a way. But dragging him in requires a connection to the negotiations, which covers acres of ground, the promontory of which seems to be Lawrence’s attempts to create an Arab state in the Middle East. Linking these pieces would be a stretch in any narrative, but that’s only half the trouble.

Remember Fraser, the army-doctor protagonist? He, as an influenza expert, is called in to examine Wilson and winds up trying to clear a young African-American soldier from a trumped-up charge of desertion. So there’s yet another complication or three. The friendship between Fraser and the soldier’s father, who shows up in Paris for a conference on race, is never explained and seems unlikely, though it does lend a counterpoint to Wilson’s bigotry, on full display here.

Consequently, The Wilson Deception fights itself, with too many threads tugging the reader’s attention. I’ve always thought the conference provides plenty of drama, with even minor figures looming larger than life, as with Lawrence. If they’re the story, why shoehorn in a separate, unbelievable plot? Or, if Fraser really is the story, put the leaders in the background, just within the periphery, and devote full attention to the medical man and the young soldier he’s trying to protect.

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