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.

When Pretty Prose Isn’t Enough: Varina


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Review: Varina, by Charles Frazier
Ecco/HarperCollins, 2018. 341 pp. $28

The title character of this novel observes in 1865, “Civilization balances always on a keen and precarious point, a showman spinning a fine Spode dinner plate on a long dowel slender as a stem of hay. A puff of breath, a moment’s lost attention, and it’s all gone, crashed to ruination, shards in the dirt.”

Varina Howell Davis knows whereof she speaks. Not only has she seen her native South provoke a catastrophic civil war, her husband has led the charge as president of the Confederacy. Even when the cause rides high, she can’t go anywhere without hearing vicious gossip about herself and Jeff, which becomes ever more strident as defeat looms. Personal tragedy dogs her as well; most of their children die very young, leaving her perpetually in mourning, and her marriage has been a disaster from the first. As the barely eighteen-year-old bride to a much older, widower husband, Varina doesn’t reckon on his cold stubbornness, his political ambitions, habit of breaking promises, financial chicanery, or abiding obsession with his late wife. Not all of this is Varina’s naïveté, however. Her father, having lost his fortune to speculation, tosses her into the hands of a relative who browbeats the women who make up his household. Consequently, Jeff Davis offers freedom, she thinks, an irony that underlies the entire narrative.

Studio portrait of Varina Davis, 1860s (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

All this turmoil might provide drama enough for three novels, but the astonishing thing about Varina is that it fails to add up even to one. Frazier has grounded his tale in 1906, when Varina is living in Saratoga, New York, at a hotel-cum-therapy establishment, and a figure from her distant past drops in. This is James Blake, whom Varina adopted off a Richmond street during the war, and who has tracked her down to try to piece together the fragments of his early life. His Sunday visits prompt her recollections, which spin the narrative of her life as well.

I dislike this way of telling stories, which seems unnatural and forced–“let me now recount my life”–yet there’s something here that commands attention. James is black, though light-skinned, whereas Varina is dark-complected, which has opened her to ridicule and prejudice throughout her life in the South. James is therefore the prime mover and Varina’s conscience on racial attitudes, a brilliant thematic setup.

Unfortunately, it falls flat. The retrospective narrative jumps around incessantly, as you would expect an oral memoir to do, and the myriad episodes don’t hang together. Frazier creates several marvelous vignettes, introducing, among others, Franklin Pierce, Zachary Taylor, Oscar Wilde, James McNeill Whistler, and Varina’s good friend and famous diarist, the warm, ebullient Mary Chesnut. But there’s no plot to speak of; no urgent question to answer; no secrets to unravel; and therefore no climax. Sometimes there’s tension, but more often not, for the vignettes, though sometimes interesting, seldom engage you emotionally. Frazier relies on Varina’s moral pronouncements and his ability to set a scene, both of which he expresses in imagery that, at its best, leaps off the page.

But does that equal a novel, or at least, a good novel? I say no, especially because Varina is the only character of any depth. She’s a terrific tragic figure, possessing remarkable strength and heartfelt eloquence (if, at odd moments, she sounds like a psychotherapist). But James remains a vague character, part stage prompter, part Greek chorus. You see Jeff’s flaws out loud, but the rest of him remains abstract; and if there was ever a complicated leader, it was Jefferson Davis — who, in reality, sought a battlefield command rather than political leadership. Frazier notes that he enjoys combat — Davis attended West Point, after all — but doesn’t show why.

Frazier’s historical perspective mystifies me too. He re-creates the Confederacy’s collapse with verve and frightening detail, but the tone and certain aspects of the story rest on a pretense or a misconception, whichever you prefer to call it. The way Frazier tells it, why, practically nobody in the Confederacy except a few hardheads like Jeff thought that warring against the North was a good idea, which they somehow managed to sell to a credulous populace.

What nonsense. Frazier himself makes clear that the South kept fighting, despite taking terrible punishment, and there were many men who did not desert. Moreover, to suggest that a few misguided souls brought on the Civil War idealizes the Confederacy as a place where fire-eating secession was an anomaly, while also selling short the people who suffered for it. It’s as if nobody back then had any convictions of their own, so were easily manipulated. I can’t stand that implication, which invites us to look down on nineteenth-century Americans as less intelligent than we, less capable of moral reasoning. Hindsight comes in handy, doesn’t it?

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

Blood and Moonshine: Gods of Howl Mountain


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In the autumn of 1952, with “I Like Ike” signs sprouting in the North Carolina lowlands, up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Maybelline Docherty is her own authority, thank you. Known as Granny May, like most mountain folk thereabouts, she’s had a hard life. Her husband died young in the First World War; their daughter lives in an institution and hasn’t spoken in twenty-odd years; and Granny May’s grandson, Rory, lost part of a leg fighting with the Marines in Korea and has been drifting and moody ever since. But Granny May doesn’t know the meaning of the word surrender, and she intends to continue enjoying life to the fullest. As a former prostitute, she makes polite folk turn away. But they still drive up the mountain for her herbal remedies, which they fear as possibly un-Christian yet wish to believe in, and she’s famous for her cakes.

The Blue Ridge Mountains, as seen from Blowing Rock, North Carolina (courtesy I, Zainubrazvi, via Wikimedia Commons)

Rory troubles her, however. He earns a good living running moonshine to buyers off the mountain, which puts him in the crosshairs of the police, who can sometimes be bribed. But there’s a new Federal revenue agent in town who plays by different rules, and as Rory soon learns, he’s a sadist of the first order. Meanwhile, Rory feuds with Cooley Muldoon, a young buck with more swagger than brains who’s willing to match Rory blow for blow, and whose father owns the largest piece of the moonshine business. Between these two threats and an attraction for a preacher’s daughter who handles venomous snakes as part of the church service, Rory has chosen to live dangerously. But Granny May says, “Christ’s father let him die on that cross.… But Christ never had no Granny like me.”

In my review of Fallen Land, Brown’s previous book, I loved the prose and the pacing but faulted the too-easily resolved conflicts between the main characters and the intellectually sophisticated observations that came from the mouths of unschooled teenagers. Not here. Gods of Howl Mountain is a much better, more complex, more believable novel, and its power propels you through the narrative, much like the engine in Rory’s beloved souped-up muscle car, named (of course) Maybelline. Rory and Granny May are compelling characters, their dialogue credible, and often a hoot besides.

Once or twice, you may come across a reference to something you might not expect, or said in a way that seems out of character, but those instances don’t intrude. If there’s a weak link, it’s Cooley Muldoon, the villain, who’s got nothing to recommend him and is simply villainous. He’s relentless, though, and very inventive, so nothing will be easily resolved, you can bank on that. Granny May’s traumatized daughter, Bonni, seems idealized, as though Rory’s view of her is actually accurate. I also wonder whether Bonni’s silence is too convenient, being essential to the plot. Rory has undertaken to find out exactly what renders her speechless, and who’s responsible. I like that part of the narrative, but I think it might have worked better had the story not turned on that device.

The prose, however, needs no qualifiers, and it’s the first thing that strikes you about Gods of Howl Mountain:

[Granny May] squinted down her nose, eyeing the tree in the yard. This tree, lone survivor of the blight, stood a centerpiece of all she surveyed from her porch. The others of its kind, chestnuts, had once covered these mountains, the bark of their trunks deeply furrowed, age-twisted like the strands of giant steel cables. Their leaves sawtoothed, golden this time of year, when the falling nuts fattened the beasts of the land, sweetening their meat. That army of hardwoods had fallen, victims of death-black cankers that starved and toppled them. Some exotic fungus had slipped in through wounds in their bark, the work of antlers or claws or penknives. This tree stood alone in the meadow, crowned high against the impending light.
A spirit tree.

This is Granny May’s first appearance, and it’s as though she were that tree, unblighted, standing tall, determined to live her way, from the land and part of it.

With Gods of Howl Mountain, Brown has gone a big step further from the promise revealed in Fallen Land, and I recommend it.

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

The Limit of Good Intentions: Hour Glass


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Review: Hour Glass, by Michelle Rene
Amberjack, 2018. 292 pp. $15

The Black Hills of South Dakota are no place for two children to fend for themselves, especially in August 1876, barely a month after Little Bighorn. But that’s the trouble that twelve-year-old Jimmy Glass, and his six-year-old half-sister, Flower, face when their father, their only parent, catches smallpox. Jimmy doesn’t know what ails his Pa, but it looks serious. It’s up to them to find a doctor, so the two manage to load Pa into a wagon, for which they have no horse, and sweat the contraption into Deadwood, the nearest town.

Deadwood exists because of the gold strike in the Black Hills, and the miners’ presence defies Federal law, which had supposedly kept “settlers” out of Sioux territory. So Deadwood isn’t merely a garden-variety frontier brothel-and-casino town, but one with defiant vengeance in its bones. And, it should be said, Flower is a potential target, as half Lakota Sioux and developmentally different — she doesn’t speak, won’t look people in the eye, and hates to be touched. When asked to say her name, the best she can reply is Ower. That becomes Hour; hence the title.

C. E. Finn’s 1880s photograph of Calamity Jane (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The relationship between the protective older brother and the emotionally inexpressive sister offers a twist on a familiar theme: Innocent children melt hard, greedy hearts. What’s more, who else should take the besieged children under her wing than Calamity Jane, as colorful a figure as you could want? She drinks like ten fish, curses like a sailor, but shoots straight, rides hard, and takes no guff from any man. In fact, on first meeting, Jimmy is convinced she is a man, a whisper of the feminist theme that pervades the novel:

Her skin was tanned and leathery, and she wore the uniform of a pioneer. If she had any bit of femininity about her shape, it was hidden beneath the layers of buckskin. Her hat was a man’s hat, worn from use, ornamented with Indian feathers. Everything about her had read ‘man’ until she pulled away that bandana to show the more delicate features of a woman’s mouth. Her crystal-blue eyes glared down at me as I froze in place.

Through Jane’s good offices, Pa Glass is put in quarantine with other smallpox victims, where she tends him herself. Dora DuFran, the madam of Diddlin’ Dora’s (no lie), takes in the children, who immediately become the pets of the house. But for me, the chief charm of Hour Glass is how Jimmy treats his little sister and does his best to look out for her. We’d all be proud of a son like him, sensitive, empathic, trying his best to play the man’s role he’s been thrust into when he knows he’s still a child. Jimmy also has a preternatural gift for peacemaking, and it’s hard not to like that too.

But it’s equally hard to figure out how he gained such self-knowledge and skills, for, like much else in Hour Glass, they just seem to fall out of the sky. How indeed would a young boy born to tragedy, likely having no playmates and only one parent who is probably too busy to spend much time on him, seem so fully formed in self-concept and so talented socially? To me, this is the sort of novel that works while you’re reading it, because you’re caught up in adventure after adventure. But after you put it down, you think, No.

None of the good guys ever does anything really bad, and there are no villains, only an occasional badass. Disagreements never leave lingering resentments or even change the course of the story. Though each chapter moves well, once the episode is done, it’s on to the next, with very little reflection. For instance, despite the feminism and good-heartedness that inform this novel, Jimmy never reckons with what a brothel is, or what it must be like to work there. His notions of sex are formed enough to make him draw back in horror at the notion that his sister might be condemned to that life one day. Yet he never connects his fear to the women he sees, which allows him to have unalloyed gratitude toward Dora, who’s profiting off them.

I’m glad Jimmy and his sister get taken care of — nobody wants to see kids suffer — yet I also want them to struggle, to face more prejudice and suspicion than they do, to get into fixes that even Calamity Jane can’t rescue them from. I can’t help think that not only does the author try too hard to protect her characters, pulling back from her strong premise, she has superimposed a twenty-first-century sensibility on a nineteenth-century narrative. Unfortunately, her choice of language sometimes suggests as much, as when her characters use words or phrases like backlash, fine with it, or best-case scenario.

Late in the novel, Jane remarks of her own legend spinning that “folks don’t want real stories.” Maybe not, but the lies have to seem like truth.

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

Spy Family: Paris Spring


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Review: Paris Spring, by James Naughtie
Overlook, 2016. 320 pp. $27

Will Flemyng, who works undercover for the British Embassy in Paris, is accosted on the métro by an East German agent named Kristof. At first, Will wonders whether Kristof is willing to trade information or change sides, and since it’s April 1968, and talk of democracy in Prague has the Soviet bloc on edge, Kristof’s sudden appearance offers possibilities.

Or does it? A subsequent rendezvous turns testy when Kristof threatens to expose Will’s brother, Abel, who spies for the United States, as a traitor. Will refuses to believe him or be bullied. But he also keeps his own counsel, because this is family, and the Flemyngs are close, matter of state or no. So Will doesn’t tell his boss, Freddy Craven, all he should, and there too lie emotional ties. Freddy’s like a father to Will, an older man in ill health who’s shown him the ropes of tradecraft, and for whom Will would risk anything.

Meanwhile, the student population has fomented rebellion, and the streets are boiling. The embassy is expected to watch these events carefully, and in return, with so much focus on Paris, any diplomatic mistake will quickly become public knowledge. Freddy, like any sensitive soul, realizes something’s up with Will, but he doesn’t know what. A love affair that ended a few months before? The tensions of the job? But before that question can be resolved, Grace Quincy, a world-famous journalist who could pry secrets from a clam without having to open it, blows into Paris. Will, knowing that Grace is trouble and that her flirtatious attentions mean she’s digging for information, nevertheless invites her over. But before that happens, she’s murdered at Père-Lachaise cemetery, of all places, and the police quickly learn that Will’s name is on her dance card. It’s obvious that one side or other had her killed, for reasons of espionage, but who, and why?

Pierre_Mendès_France, the Socialist politician who had helped extricate France from Vietnam, was willing to form a coalition government in May 1968 and listen to the student demands. But the Gaullists increased their power in the next election (courtesy Dutch National Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

Naughtie excels at portraying Paris under siege and the student protests:

. . .the canteen in the student building was filled with a rolling crowd and had the air of a cavernous bar in the early hours, a dance hall with the lights down. There was a group in one corner listening to a guitar, some of them flat out on the floor, and across the room an argument was threatening to turn into a struggle. Somebody ran shouting from the room. At least five people were handing out newspapers and campaign sheets at the door, one of them wearing a Mao cap, the others in black.…Someone was cooking oil. A few on the floor looked as if they’d slept there for days and the place looked like a school gymnasium on a wet afternoon. They’d rigged up an urn to boil water for coffee, and people were pulling stale bread rolls from a cardboard box. Someone had brought in a cat, which sat on top of the jukebox with its tail rigid in the air and its eyes wide.

But good as that is, it’s just the vivid background. The real story involves two families. First, it’s the Flemyngs, and how the brothers balance their feelings and ties against the secrecy demanded by their work, which affects a third, older brother, Mungo. Until reading Paris Spring, I didn’t know I wanted an older brother named Mungo, but it helps that this one is supportive, caring, and paternal, without being pushy or controlling, the family mediator. Mungo comes to know Freddy as well, so there’s plenty of warmth to go around in this coldest of cold-blooded professions.

The other family consists of Will’s allies, foremost among them Freddy, of course, but also others encountered during his travails over Kristof. Rivalries exist, to be sure, but even as temporary friends, they stick together. They know better than anyone else what the power of secrets can do, especially those that may or may not exist, except in rumor. As Freddy tells Mungo, who’s a historian, “You warn your students of the fog of war. Well, I know it to be real. I breathe the fumes.”

Naughtie’s grasp of spydom as a brethren echoes John le Carré, and the same could be said of his focus on characterization. Paris Spring fails to emulate the master in that it resolves with a couple turns that may be too neat; another neatness is how indulgent Freddy is with Will, which strains credulity at times. Nevertheless, Paris Spring is an excellent thriller, elegant in the way le Carré’s are — as few moving narrative parts as possible, a focus on motive instead, and characters who believe in what they’re doing. Bravo.

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

The Elephant in the Seraglio: The Architect’s Apprentice


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Review: The Architect’s Apprentice, by Elif Shafak
Viking, 2014. 424 pp. $28

Jahan, a twelve-year-old Indian boy, arrives in sixteenth-century Istanbul escorting a white elephant, Chota, as a gift for Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Since Jahan owes his arrival and new job of elephant trainer to subterfuge and the intercession of a greedy, vicious Christian corsair, the boy’s path won’t be smooth. Nevertheless, as a mixture of ambition, reckless curiosity, and blind naïveté, Jahan carves out a remarkable career in the sultan’s menagerie. He knows little about elephants per se but has a bond with Chota, having grown up with him, and parlays that into a recognized position at the palace. Chota is widely considered the most astonishing beast in the menagerie, so his trainer comes to notice. He even attracts Princess Mihrimar, the sultan’s only daughter, and the two teenagers have a flirtation, mild in itself but serious enough to get him killed — slowly — were the wrong people to find out.

That might be enough adventure for a dirt-poor lad from nowhere special, but there’s more. Jahan receives a palace education and comes to the notice of Mimar Sinan, the Chief Royal Architect, who takes him on as an apprentice, one of four he employs. Between the corsair, who expects Jahan to steal jewels for him; the princess; the rivalry among the apprentices; and the chance to design and construct beautiful buildings with Sinan, The Architect’s Apprentice has plenty of story to keep the narrative moving. Throw in court intrigue, which includes the quaint Ottoman custom in which the newly crowned sultan has his brothers strangled to secure his throne, and there’s a lot going on.

Princova_mešita, or Prince’s mosque, Istanbul, designed by Mimar Sinan (courtesy Ondřej Žváček, via Wikimedia Commons)

This narrative bounty, not to say superabundance, naturally cuts two ways. You get an amazingly broad picture of sixteenth-century Istanbul and an appreciation of how precarious life can be, even — especially — for the very fortunate. Shafak covers theme after theme: religious intolerance, the warfare state, architecture as a philosophy, jealousy, the meaning of love, where true happiness lies, the purpose of genius, and what humans value most. That last notion prompts me to assume that putting a white elephant at the novel’s center is intentional symbolism. Nobody sees Chota’s soul as Jahan does; in fact, they don’t know or care that the beast has one. And if you like, Jahan may even be Melville’s Captain Ahab in reverse, since Chota, his talisman, is purer than any of the greedy, back-stabbing schemers who populate the palace.

But because there’s so much narrative in The Architect’s Apprentice, it’s necessarily episodic. At times, this sweeps you away, like a magic carpet through an exotic world that no longer exists. At others, I want Jahan to grapple more deeply with his black-and-white attitudes. For him, the elephant in the room is how he idealizes those he loves and can’t or won’t see their flaws or the dangers they present to others, himself included. His loyalty is touching, but it can be stubborn too, and he seldom allows others to challenge his code.

Consequently, toward the end, when he comes to realize a few truths he’s been hiding from himself, it feels sudden, dragged in, perhaps. However, Shafak does an excellent job of pulling the disparate pieces together. The episodes lead somewhere, after all, to a conclusion worth waiting for.

The scope and subject demand rich, effortless prose, without artifice or self-consciousness, and Shafak delivers, as with this paragraph describing Jahan’s first look at Istanbul:

Jahan glimpsed partly hidden female faces behind latticed windows, ornamented birdhouses on the walls, domes that caught the last rays of sun and lots of trees — chestnut, linden, quince. Wherever he turned he saw seagulls and cats, the two animals that were given free rein. Perky and pert, the seagulls soared in circles, diving to peck at the bait in a fisherman’s bucket, or the fried liver on a street vendor’s tray, or the pie left to cool on a windowsill. Nobody seemed to mind.

The Architect’s Apprentice offers a look — rare to this reader, at least — of an unfamiliar time and place. Shafak writes with authority and conviction, and the result is a lovely novel.

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

Lock Her Up!: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions


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Review: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, by Amy Stewart
Houghton Mifflin, 2017. 365 pp. $26

What profession would someone named Constance Kopp follow besides that of a loyal, hard-working officer of the law? Indeed, Constance is a deputy sheriff in Bergen County, New Jersey, the first woman in the nation to hold such an office, for this is early 1916, when even the notion of a woman wearing a badge and a weapon causes anxious mirth. Her exploits have earned her much attention in the press, which Constance would hate even if the stories recounted the truth or treated her as a serious professional instead of an object of condescending admiration. Worse, she receives marriage proposals by mail from men who write as if they’re doing her a favor. But Constance has no wish to marry and lives with her two sisters, Norma and Fleurette.

As deputy sheriff, Constance is the matron of the Hackensack female jail, a few of whose inmates have swindled, thieved, or attempted murder. But most are young women whose only crime is running away from home to lead an independent life. As the novel opens, there are two such cases, followed quickly by a third. Constance will do her best to protect these women, exceeding her authority if necessary, but the system is rigged. The law will almost certainly bear down on the runaways, accusing them of immorality, mental illness, depraved character, or anything else that sells newspapers and wins votes. Imprisonment without trial in a reformatory is the typical punishment until age twenty-one, after which the woman becomes a ward of the state, which can then decide whether she’s fit to marry, and whom. Sterilization remains a possibility.

Constance has many reasons to struggle against this persecution and the mindset that drives it, some of whose loudest proponents are women. The impulse to lock up independent-minded women has hardly faded since 1916, so Stewart need invent nothing–and in fact, she hasn’t, for the Kopp sisters are real, and so is just about everything that happens in this novel.

The Bergen County Jail, Hackensack, New Jersey, as it exists today (courtesy northjersey.com)

Writing faithfully to history carries several demands, not least to make adherence to fact seem spontaneous rather than inevitable. Stewart succeeds, but the novel’s greatest strength is the sisters’ unusual ménage. They live together in more or less close disharmony, and their battles mirror their conflicts elsewhere. Constance continually squares off against priggish, bossy, unpleasant Norma but most often gives in because Constance is dependent, and Norma manages the household. What? you ask. A deputy sheriff who champions independent women is herself dependent? But out of uniform, Constance is lazy about chores, not terribly disciplined, and a coward — she would rather face down a vicious, prejudiced district attorney than stand up to her own sisters. This is a brilliant stroke, true to the split between the public and private selves that applies to many people, but there’s more. The two elder sisters argue most often about Fleurette, a pretty, spoiled eighteen-year-old who dreams of going on the stage — not one day, but now, a potential runaway right at home.

An image came to mind of Fleurette at the age of nine or ten, when she kept an album of pictures of fashionable people in pretty places. There was a newspaper drawing she particularly liked of debutantes strolling down the Catskill boardwalk under their parasols. She had a little paint set and she colored in all the dresses, making them as bright as peacocks while the world around them was newsprint gray and drab.

Consequently, Constance gives in to Fleurette more easily than Norma does, because she recognizes the spirit to escape expectations, as she did. But another, more important reason is that Fleurette is Constance’s illegitimate daughter, a tightly guarded secret that the girl herself doesn’t know. Without having to say so, Stewart shows that Constance could have been an inmate at the Hackensack jail. So everywhere the deputy looks, she sees her reflection, which gives her a personal stake in everything.

There’s no mystery in Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, nor much detection, yet the tension remains constant. You care about these people’s struggles against inequality, though it must be said that their situations, rather than their characters, compel attention. I understand what Constance and Norma don’t want, and what they’re trying to protect, but not what they dream of in unguarded moments. That lack of yearning keeps the novel from being stronger, more immediate than it is.

Nowhere is that deficit more obvious than Constance’s maternal feelings for Fleurette, which should be more visceral. Her empathy, though powerful and fully earned, is all very well, but however indifferent a mother Constance is, she has that undeniable bond. Doesn’t she wish things were different, or at least, imagine how life would be like if she didn’t have to resort to subterfuge? Perhaps this is why the ending, though satisfying, feels a little tame. Nevertheless, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions is witty, entertaining, and thought-provoking, a pretty good combination, in 1916 or now.

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