Does the Threat Exist, Or Is It Paranoia?: The Vixen


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Review: The Vixen, by Francine Prose
Harper, 2021. 316 pp. $26

In June 1953, the federal government executes Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for giving atomic weapons secrets to the Soviets. Probably few families take the news harder than the Putnams, a Coney Island family, Jewish despite the name. Simon, the only child, worries about his mother, who grew up with Ethel and suffers debilitating migraines, possibly because of the political and cultural atmosphere.

With Joseph McCarthy riding high and roughshod over civil liberties, due process, and common decency, conformity means safety. You never know who will attack you, or why, only that suspicion, fear, and paranoia have gripped country. That’s enough to give any sober citizen headaches.

Young Simon wangles an entry-level job at a Manhattan publisher through a family connection. His assignment is to go through the “slush pile,” unsolicited submissions, and write rejection letters for them. Presumably, he’ll start to learn the business that way.

One manuscript, however, has been marked for greatness, and Simon is to edit it. Titled The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, the novel portrays a thinly disguised Ethel Rosenberg as a sex-crazed Soviet agent who does her best to seduce her all-American nemesis and destroy the nation at the same time. Naturally, Simon’s appalled, doubly so when his boss swears him to secrecy and confides that The Vixen will save the company, known for producing literary masterpieces but now on the brink of financial ruin.

The photograph taken of Ethel Rosenberg on her arrest, August 1950 (courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Prose’s novel, a trenchant satire about power, truth telling, and the 1950s reads like a psychological thriller once it gets going, with obvious yet unstated parallels to the present day. Our hero never knows what’s true or not, or what consequences the lies might have. And his life is based on lies. As a Jew at a white-shoe firm, he’s trying to pass. His boss, Warren Landry, a charismatic, narcissistic, vicious bully and womanizer, repels Simon to the core, yet the younger man envies the elder for his power and sense of command. Warren also offers drama and force, commodities that Simon can only wish he understood:

Standing in my doorway with his arms braced against both sides, Warren was partly backlit by the low-wattage bulbs in the corridor. He had a Scrooge-like obsession keeping our electric bills low. His white hair haloed him like a Renaissance apostle, and the costly wool of his dark gray suit gave off a pale luminescent shimmer. He was a few years older than my parents, but he belonged to another species that defied middle age to stay handsome, vital, irresistible to women. I spent my first paychecks on a new suit and tie, cheaper versions of Warren’s, or what I imagined Warren would wear if the world we knew ended and he no longer had any money.

In that larger-than-life atmosphere of deceit and power plays, Simon knows he’s out of his depth, yet can’t help himself. The author of the book he’s supposed to edit, the beautiful, seductive Anya Partridge, lives in a low-security mental-health facility, which tells him something but not enough. She also seems to wish to do everything except talk about her book.

Consequently, the ground under Simon’s feet constantly shifts, and whenever he tries to find out the truth, his informants talk out of both sides of their mouths. He wants to do the right thing, whatever that is, yet to keep his job, all while trying to look as though he knows what he’s doing. After all, everyone else seems to.

I wish that Simon were less of a nebbish, that brand of ineffectuality that makes you want to shake him. Also, at times, it’s hard to know whether the novel intends parody or realism, particularly concerning his lustful interests, which seem rather easily engaged, even repellent. Warren, however, is all too real and gives me shivers; I used to work for a publisher who shared a few of his character traits and political views. What a horrible time of my life.

Without giving anything away, I can tell you that Prose has re-created an era when the most outlandish theories gained credence, and intelligent, thoughtful people had to wonder who was minding the store, and to what end. I’m sure she intends that as a window on our current mess. Maybe too she’s asking how it is that the Rosenbergs were called traitors and executed, whereas the insurgents who stormed the capital a year ago are somehow judged either garden-variety vandals or heroes exercising their constitutional rights.

The Vixen stretches credibility in a few places but remains a compelling, provocative novel. Take a look.

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

A Not-Quite-Faustian Bargain: The Outcasts of Time


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Review: The Outcasts of Time, by Ian Mortimer
Pegasus, 2018. 386 pp. $26

Devon, 1348. Two brothers, John and William, walk through a plague-ridden country, past rotting corpses and scenes of destruction that presage the Apocalypse. When the sickness overtakes them too, they realize that their lives are forfeit, and they fear that their souls may not be ready for death. However, as they sense their strength wane, a disembodied voice tells them they have six days to live and offers them a choice.

They may struggle home with their remaining strength to see what has happened to their town and loved ones. Or they may spend the six days in time travel, as each day will advance another ninety-nine years, during which brief moment they may redeem themselves. After arguing whether they have listened to the Devil and are being led astray, John and William accept the offer. It’s a twist on Faust, without a contract or sale of a soul.

Harry Clarke’s illustration for the Bayard Taylor translation of Goethe’s Faust, 1870-71 (courtesy Project Gutenberg Open Library System, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

I seldom, as in never, review historical fantasy and rarely read any. But The Outcasts of Time caught my fancy, and maybe it’ll catch yours. As a literary conceit, time travel has grown a long, white beard by now, but I like it that Mortimer has cast his century-spanning mechanism as a matter of conscience rather than a gizmo. Also, no abracadabra changes the scenery or chases away evil people, of whom there are plenty, for our travelers often land hard as the centuries pass.

The year 1447 seems miserable; 1546 brings the brothers to Henry VIII’s time; 1645 places them smack in the Civil War. Consequently, they must choose a face to present without knowing what’s prudent, because so much has changed. What was counted sinful in 1348 may now be virtuous, and what passed for virtue may now be treason. They have a lot of explaining to do.

That’s partly the point, for The Outcasts of Time has much to say about good, evil, and how material wealth or the progress of learning affect them or are used or misused. The novel also explores the human desire for permanence, proof of our passage on this planet that someone else will find after our deaths. John, a stonemason who worked on the Exeter Cathedral and created sculptures he’s proud of, is conscious of this desire in himself and of how futile it is. As he observes more than halfway through his time journey:

It is a salutary thought that something as insubstantial as a name can endure so long.… Tradition, like a centuries-old creeper of ivy, slowly winds its way into the crevices of our conversations and fastens itself onto such words, holding them firmly in place. You’d have thought that it was the private property, kept away from prying eyes and jealous fingers, which would endure. But all the houses from my time have been replaced. As for possessions, fires consume them, thieves steal them, and time erodes them. Common things, like names and roads, last for centuries.

John’s quest to perform a good deed to redeem himself before death takes various turns. That poses several questions, not least whether goodness can be conscious, or whether such acts can serve a redemptive purpose.

Among other pleasures, The Outcasts of Time offers historical detail in a light but authoritative hand. You see through John’s eyes what has changed, what would strike him most strongly, and why, which makes you think. For obvious reasons, Mortimer has updated the brothers’ language, or nobody in later centuries would have understood them. Yet he’s hewed to simplicity of tongue, for the most part, and seldom does the language jump out and stop the reader.

I do wonder, though, how John, who is excellent at ciphering but illiterate, and his brother, who can read, a little — how that happens, I don’t know — dispute the way they do. Free of superstition, seemingly also of common prejudices, they sound sophisticated. They lack any notion that the world is, and has always been, what they know, and appear ready to step outside it enough to judge the future centuries shown them. They sound like relativists ahead of their time, perhaps too tolerant of what they find.

William, the sensualist of the two, comes across less clearly or deeply than John, and though he’s supposed to represent a person who chooses pleasures over an examined life, I still want to see his dreams and desires beyond the next cup of ale or the next woman. Further, though the brothers remark bitterly on the priests’ flight from their plague-ridden land of 1348, they don’t seem perturbed at the likelihood that they’ll die unshriven, their sins unconfessed. I would have expected terror at the prospect.

However, the narrative and the philosophy within it demand a stretch from the characters, and if plausibility suffers to a mild degree, remember that we’re talking about a story with Faustian overtones, a legend to begin with. The Outcast of Time’s an engrossing novel, worth stretching for.

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

Bang, You’re It: Scandal in Babylon


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Review: Scandal in Babylon, by Barbara Hambly
Severn, 2021. 233 pp. $27

Camille de la Rose, screen name of Kitty Flint, is the Hollywood “It” girl (a term just come into vogue) of 1924. She couldn’t act her way out of a wet paper bag, or so thinks her sister-in-law and personal assistant, Emma Blackstone. But that hardly matters. Wherever Kitty goes, whatever she does, her style’s inimitable, and she’s good box office, of course, both on and off the screen.

The 1927 Paramount film that made the phrase “It girl” popular, derived from an Elinor Glyn novel (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

A single glance can render the sexiest men in Hollywood putty in her hands. Burning the candle at both ends, she arrives on set made up to kill, after four hours’ sleep and much alcohol — who cares about Prohibition, anyway? Trouble is, she doesn’t know when to stop, even after snagging the studio head as her lover and a half-dozen other fellows, more than one of whom might suffer from jealousy.

However, Kitty does get down to work, shooting Empress of Babylon, a cast-of-thousands extravaganza, an improbable drama, yet a fine vehicle for her skills. Unfortunately, a man who married her when she was fifteen is found shot dead in her dressing room, carrying a note from her in his pocket.

Emma — remember the sister-in-law? — believes Kitty, who swears she hasn’t seen her ex in years, though it’s just possible he’s technically not her ex, since the divorce may not have been filed. (That lapse might cause problems, considering that Kitty married someone else afterward, though he’s long gone by now.) Nevertheless, Kitty has no convincing explanation for her whereabouts at the time the murder took place, and though it’s ridiculous to accuse her on the face of it, just what she was up to provides yet another mystery.

The police, gossip columnists, and evangelicals looking to sanitize Hollywood seldom agree on anything, but they’d all love to see a star brought low, whether to nurse their resentment or advance their careers. Kitty looks trapped. Even so, a circumstance sticks out. Since the killing appears a clumsy job, almost amateurish — surely, the accusation against her couldn’t stand up in court —Emma suspects that the criminal wishes above all to embarrass Kitty, and that the amateurishness serves a purpose. But what goal could it have? And who would go to all that trouble, and why?

Scandal in Babylon makes a delightful, well-plotted mystery, with enough unexpected edges to keep you turning the pages. Chief among these is sleuth Emma, a widow because of the Great War and an intellectual among the studio Philistines. English to the teeth — several male characters call her “Duchess” — she read classics at Oxford, has a Latin quote for every occasion, and loved participating in digs with her late father, an archaeologist.

When she’s not tending Kitty’s three Pekinese or cleaning up after the star’s messes (physical or diplomatic), she’s charming thugs who might have information about the murder, rewriting scenes a day ahead of filming, and bemoaning the anachronisms the studio inflicts on history. No, she sighs to herself, imperial Roman statuary could not have appeared in ancient Babylon.

This is all great fun, as is the portrayal of the California version of Babylon, with its gangsters, private detectives, studio fixers determined to keep their employer’s reputation clean at any cost, extras, seducers and seductresses, and, at its pinnacle, the star. Here’s Kitty on the movie set, dealing with a brazen invasion by gossip columnist Thelma Turnbit:

As the journalist extended an arm to catch Dirk Silver [Kitty’s costar] by the elbow, Kitty rose with the fluid grace of a dancer and intercepted her, purring, ‘Thelma, darling!’ Her natural baby-coo transmuted seamlessly to the smoky purr of a man-eater who had, over the past four years, devoured the hearts of two dozen cinematic fools for breakfast. She slipped an arm through that of Mrs. Turnbit, and turned her radiant smile upon the approaching guard and the prop man’s assistant.… Her gesture of thanks towards the director was a miniature miracle of gratitude and stubbornness…

I’d have liked to know more about Madge, the leather-lunged director of this celluloid epic. It’s clear she’s got a story, as a woman in what was then a man’s job. I also find Zal, wizard cameraman and Emma’s love interest, too good to be true. Unlike just about every other male in Hollywood, he’s warm, open, kind, sensitive, and not even a blood corpuscle’s worth jealous or territorial. But the other characters work well enough, and the novel rests chiefly on the atmosphere, often hilarious, and the well-tuned story, in which Hambly keeps raising the stakes.

Scandal in Babylon is a hoot and a well-crafted mystery, and I enjoyed it.

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

Outcast Goddess: Circe


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Review: Circe, by Madeline Miller
Little, Brown, 2018. 385 pp. $28

From the earliest age, the sun god Helios’ youngest daughter fits nowhere and has no friends, only detractors; and are they vicious. Circe is stupid, ugly, awkward, has no common sense, and speaks like a mortal, they say. Like any child, she yearns for some sign, however faint, of paternal affection, but Helios can’t bear the sight of her, and her mother jokes at her expense like everyone else in the sun god’s great hall.

In divine eyes, Circe’s flaw is possessing empathy, for which they have no use and regard as weakness. They weigh every moment, every interaction, as a barometer of who’s got more power, more adoration, and more of whatever admirable trait under discussion, whether physical strength, beauty, or cleverness.

What an exhausting, empty way to live, except that gods don’t live, exactly; they simply exist. And Circe sticks out because she’s dissatisfied with that, and the whole narcissistic one-upmanship game that defines the divine presence. In fact, her first act of rebellion is to offer succor to the suffering Prometheus, an outcast.

When she turns to witchcraft, Helios considers her too dangerous to keep on hand, so he banishes her to an island called Aiaia. In case that’s not in your atlas, just sail north from Scylla and Charybdis, fabled pitfalls from the Odyssey. But Odysseus won’t show up for a while. And before he does, Circe will have her hands full with her older sister, Pasiphaë, who births the Minotaur; Daedalus; and Medea, among others. So the novel offers plenty of action, while portraying its protagonist’s growth from unwanted waif to a power that even Helios and Athena must reckon with.

The measure of this novel is not that Circe comes into her own because she concocts the right potions, though she’s skilled at that. Rather, she grows into herself. I’ve never read a coming-of-age novel that unfolds over centuries, but that’s what Circe is. You can see why teenage girls have embraced this book the way they have; the feminist themes, simple, direct language, and absolute clarity of action and intention may be found in good young adult novels. But I don’t mean to limit Circe’s readership, for Miller has invested her narrative with adult themes and conflicts as well.

Circe and Odysseus, circa 490-480 BCE, National Archaeological Museum, Athens (courtesy Marsyas, via Wikimedia Commons)

For one thing, she grapples with the meaning of life, contrasting it with the immortality that, while attractive, remains unfulfilling precisely because it’s predictable and unchanging. The uncertainty that troubles human dealings is also life’s greatest attribute. Further, Miller delves into issues involving marriage and childrearing — only a parent could have written certain passages — weighing what price each exacts and what benefits each confers. Finally, the author considers the thirst for glory and fame, as exemplified by Odysseus, a brilliantly conceived character:

Moment by moment, his vitality had returned. His eyes were bright now, storm-lit. When he talked, he was lawyer and bard and crossroads charlatan at once, arguing his case, entertaining, pulling back the veil to show you the secrets of the world. It was not just his words, though they were clever enough. It was everything together: his face, his gestures, the sliding tones of his voice. I would say it was like a spell he cast, but there was no spell I knew that could equal it. The gift was his alone.

I confess, I avoided reading Circe because I struggled to get through fifty pages of Miller’s previous novel, The Song of Achilles. But Circe feels like a more confident, deeper, more fully fleshed creation, avoiding the pitfalls that plague lesser retellings of Greek myths that I mentioned last week. Miller knows the myths and culture inside and out, has parsed out every detail of thought, action, and physical setting, and invites you to share that intimacy.

Even so, she never persuades me, even for an instant, that her characters will diverge from the path ordained from them, an illusion I look for and treasure in these retellings, as I also wrote last week. Circe appears to hew pretty closely to the myths I know, though I don’t pretend to be an expert. Also, as I said, the narrative is simple and direct, so, though I see artistry here, I wouldn’t call it subtle. Moreover, it’s an episodic tale rather than a unified story building to a climax, and though the episodes hold my interest and are often tense, as with many biographical novels, I want more cohesion and force.

Nevertheless, Circe is a wonderful book, and I recommend it.

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

Homeric Vignettes: A Thousand Ships


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Review: A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes
Harper, 2021. 340 pp. $28

Rereading Homer with fresh eyes is like rereading Genesis or Exodus; keep your mind open, and you’ll see something you never considered before. How satisfying that is, even exciting.

But so many publishers these days issue retellings of Greek myths, the trend du jour that everyone’s rushing to capitalize on, that I approached A Thousand Ships with wariness. I’ve tried a few trend-followers du jour, only to put them aside, because the twenty-first-century tone or perspective seems inauthentic, or the writing falls short. If a historical novel attempts to superimpose a modern viewpoint, it’s not a historical novel; and if the narrative employs tropes to express feelings in generic prose, I don’t care what kind of novel it is. I’m not interested.

Even had the famous poet been sighted, he wouldn’t have seen his female characters as heroic (courtesy British Missing via Wikimedia Commons)

I prefer retellings that delve deeply enough into the characters’ inner lives so that I can imagine, however briefly, that the foreordained tragedy will not take place. For instance, in Songs of the Kings, Barry Unsworth somehow lets you hope that Agamemnon won’t sacrifice his daughter. In The War at Troy (unfortunately out of print), for a few pages, Lindsey Clarke encourages you to believe that Paris will give the golden apple to Athena and accept the wisdom he desperately needs, rather than bestow the gift on Aphrodite and carry off Helen as his prize. I like how these novelists let their characters, not a political or moral agenda, call the tune.

A Thousand Ships, though a valiant attempt to avoid these pitfalls, doesn’t always succeed, perhaps because the premise overshadows the execution. Granted, it’s an intriguing concept, retelling the Trojan War and its aftermath through women’s voices only, and a story whose time has come. Further, Haynes forthrightly argues that the women are heroic too, not just the men. No argument from me; I’m enrolled.

The first voice we hear belongs to Calliope, muse of epic poetry, presumably being invoked by Homer to sing the same old, same old story about men, as though she has nothing better to do. What a hoot. Following, among others, in no particular order, come Hecabe, Briseis, Chryseis, Cassandra, Penelope, Thetis, Clytemnestra, and several I hadn’t heard of. Many scenes grip me, despite their familiarity. I particularly like the ones involving Briseis and Chryseis, and the part where Clytemnestra welcomes home Agamemnon, the latter a brilliant take on a woman plotting revenge.

I admire Haynes’s knowledge of and grasp of the original texts, and it’s clear that she loves them for themselves, not merely as a stepping-stone for a theme. And when she rethinks the characters in psychological depth, with vivid physical detail, the narrative sings, as with this scene involving Cassandra:

She spoke of one terrible thing after another, one disaster to befall them and then one more and one more.… But soon the slaves would not wait on her, not even under threat of being flogged. Cassandra would tell them of their own impending deaths, and those of their parents or children. And even though it was nonsense — no one believed a word the deranged girl said — it disquieted them. One day, Cassandra was screaming and crying… The details scarcely mattered — and Hecabe had reached across and slapped her hard, across the face. Cassandra had grabbed her hand and held it, shrieking. And Hecabe had slapped her with her left hand until there were bright red finger marks on both of her daughter’s cheeks, with deeper indentations on the right side, from Hecabe’s thick gold rings.

I also love the back story to the Apple of Discord myth, entirely new to me, which involves not only the goddesses’ rivalry, but Zeus’ desire to thin the world’s population with a long war. Why? Because Gaia’s weary of the ever-increasing human despoliation of the planet — an environmental warning that reaches across the centuries, yet fits entirely within its ancient context. All of this feels fresh and compelling.

But A Thousand Ships lacks a coherent narrative, being a collection of vignettes. Whether that makes a novel is open to debate, but, either way, the voices must be distinct. Sometimes, I hear the author rather than individual characters; or the voices fluctuate, as with Penelope’s, at times a woman struggling to remain patient and loving in Odysseus’s absence, and at times, a chorus, a literary device.

In emphasizing female characters in an authentic light, A Thousand Ships has its points. But I hope Haynes’s next effort focuses on a single episode or tale in depth, and that she concentrates more on the presentation than the literary premise. Her afterword suggests that she worries readers won’t accept women as heroes; I say that’s their problem. Let her storytelling carry the day.

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

Heavy Trip: A Thousand Steps


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Review: A Thousand Steps, by T. Jefferson Parker
Forge, 2022. 368 pp. $28

If you’re into the peace-love-tie-dye scene, with or without the accompanying sex and drugs, Laguna Beach, California, is the place to be in summer 1968. Timothy Leary preaches the beauty of LSD to adoring crowds, and every other person, it seems, has a different mantra of self-enlightenment.

However, sixteen-year-old Matt Anthony watches most of this from the sidelines. He’s too busy trying to put food on the table, because his mother, hooked on opium-laced hashish, can’t. His older brother, Kyle, fighting in Vietnam, worries he won’t make it out alive, and Matt worries too. Their father? He’s a deadbeat, a former cop who mouths off about discipline and keeps promising to visit one day from whatever state he’s just fled to, a lie Matt has heard for seven years.

A Pageant of the Masters tableau vivant of a chess game evoking the battle of Waterloo, 2012. Laguna Beach holds the pageant every summer, and the 1968 edition figures in the novel (courtesy, via Wikimedia Commons)

But just when life could not get worse, Matt’s older sister, Jasmine, has disappeared. At first, he thinks Jazz has merely let loose after graduating high school, but he comes to believe she’s been kidnapped. And since the police assume that Jazz is simply another drug-addled hippie on a bender, it’s up to Matt to rescue her.

How he goes about it makes for a tense, plot-driven thriller, where the ambience feels pitch-perfect. Parker captures Matt’s hand-to-mouth existence, in which he delivers newspapers practically for pennies, fishes off the rocks to get protein, and cadges meals of leftovers from friends who work in restaurant kitchens. He tries to avoid the war between cops and hippies, views anyone over thirty as “old,” and sympathizes with the antiwar protesters who chant, “Hell, no, we won’t go!”

Parker’s careful about social and cultural markers, and Matt immediately sizes up everyone he sees according to the pecking order that places him at or near the bottom, a clever touch. The only glaring false note in this otherwise exacting portrayal is how brother Kyle enlists despite drawing a safe draft lottery number, when the first lottery actually took place in late 1969. To me, overlooking that easily researchable fact suggests a characterization overreach, which I’ll get to in a moment. Otherwise, this novel has a recognizable Sixties vibe:

The store is crowded with shoppers, most young and well-haired, wearing loose clothes and smothered in bags — bags with straps over their backs or shoulders or around their waists, bags in their hands, bags on their arms and at their elbows — sewn bags, knit bags, woven bags, bags featuring feathers and seashells, wooden amulets, ceramic zodiacal symbols, and beads, beads, beads. Matt’s young instincts tell him that this world of mystic arts is funny and crazy and maybe a little dangerous. He feels an undertow of arousal every time he walks in.

Parker throws obstacles in Matt’s path every step of the way. The boy has his mother’s drug habit and fecklessness to contend with, a cop who wants to break him, bad guys of all stripes (including those masquerading as good guys), and vicious types all too willing to prey on a young, defenseless kid down on his luck. “No — and furthermore” thrives here.

Where A Thousand Steps falters is the characterization, often two-dimensional, as with Kyle’s allegedly superfluous self-sacrifice. I believe the portrayals of Matt’s mother and a cop — not the one who wants to take Matt down — and a few other “oldsters,” but not those of the kids. Matt’s about the most upstanding person in Laguna Beach, and though you want him to carry a certain moral weight, he’s too upright, respectful, and open. Given such a selfish, neglectful, dishonest parents, I don’t understand why he isn’t more like them, or at least struggling not to be. It’s as though, in this coming-of-age novel, the protagonist has already figured out this youth thing and gotten good at it.

Most obviously, he’s got no adolescent anger or rebelliousness, though he has more right to them than many people making noise in Laguna Beach. He’s also much too trusting, to the point that when his father (an over-the-top superpatriot) interrogates him about his sex life, he answers, without a qualm. No qualms, either, about opposing the Vietnam War, though Kyle’s in it; the narrative pays lip service to that moral complexity and zips onward. As for the two girls attracted to Matt, they’re types, with good looks and social and cultural markers, but little in the way of inner life.

Finally, the end disappointed me; after such careful plotting, I didn’t expect the hackneyed, predictable confrontations. The romance subplot also takes an odd twist, with little afterthought. Consequently, A Thousand Steps is a strange amalgam, a novel with an intensely strong physical presence yet flimsy characters, a highly inventive narrative that somehow loses its sure-handedness at the climax. Take that for what you will.

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

Muck and Murder: Absence of Mercy


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Review: Absence of Mercy, by S. M. Goodwin
Crooked Lane, 2020. 305 pp. $27

In April 1857, Jasper Lightner, star detective of the London police force and keen student of scientific methods, faces a crisis that threatens his career. His obdurate father, a duke who’s found fault with his second son forever, believes that Jasper’s chosen profession stains the family escutcheon. But since His Lordship can’t deter his wayward progeny by cutting off his allowance — an aunt has conveniently left Jasper a sizable legacy — he applies political pressure instead. The duke gives Jasper an ultimatum: leave the police force or go to (ugh!) New York and teach the colonial upstarts how to sleuth properly, if he likes.

Jasper doesn’t particularly like — his imperious valet, Paisley, likes it even less — but our hero accepts the journey as an adventure. What he doesn’t know and couldn’t possibly anticipate, no sooner has he landed than he realizes he’s walked into a snake pit. Not only does every copper in the city resent him on sight, whether for his nationality (they’re Irish), reverse snobbery about his class, or because they believe that the interloper will expose the incredible corruption they take as their right.

The nonstop political turf war, with gangs, Tammany Hall, and rivalries within the force, may turn violent any second; woe betide the newcomer, who can’t know whose toes he’s just stepped on. And oh, by the way, someone’s cutting through the ranks of the city’s wealthiest men, killing them in copycat fashion, with garrotte and knife. The mayor wants these murders solved yesterday.

Absence of Mercy, the first of a promised series, wades into this donnybrook with gusto. If you like complicated mysteries in which bodies fall by the day, perceptions change by the hour, and the gritty atmosphere could be packed into a ball and used to scrape rust, you’ll find your pleasures here.

A woodcut from 1870 shows the Criminal Court in lower Manhattan. The complex included an infamous prison known as The Tombs, built in 1835. The author of this novel portrays what it was like inside (courtesy Corporation of the City of New York via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But clever as the plot is — at times, too clever for me to follow — the most winning aspect of this novel is its protagonist. I’ve never encountered a detective like Jasper Lightner, and maybe you haven’t, either. You might suppose that a thumbnail sketch of his past reminds you of a cross-genre James Bond. Handsome? Check. Suave? You got it. Throw in his impeccable manners, refusal to rise to the insults that his legion of enemies hurls at him, and magnetism for women, and you’ve just about spelled trope. Do I need to mention that he’s a veteran of the Crimea, a survivor of the charge of the Light Brigade, and trained to become a doctor, only to abandon his studies shortly before completing them?

But hold on. This paragon stutters, badly, except in the rare moments when he allows himself anger. Paisley, his valet, scares him. Jasper’s former fiancée married his brother. He suffers nightmares because of that infamous charge, and he hates that Tennyson wrote a poem about it. He still carries shrapnel from the battle, and to dull his pains, physical and emotional, he favors madak, tobacco laced with opium. Most importantly, despite his social gifts, sensitivity, and kindness, he can’t abide intimacy:

Surviving childhood with the duke had been very much like protecting a castle from invaders. Over the years Jasper had become an expert at repelling attacks, repairing breaches, and strengthening defenses while he waited his father’s next offensive. Now, in his thirties, his castle walls were impregnable. Thanks to the duke, nothing — and nobody — could ever get close enough to hurt him.

Consequently, Jasper pulls you in thoroughly, and you’ll need that connection as your compass, because Absence of Mercy visits the most degraded locales in a filthy metropolis. Goodwin lovingly portrays the muck, stench, and horror of New York life for the teeming underclass less than a mile from Fifth Avenue, but who might as well inhabit another planet. Life’s hard, and a man like Jasper, who believes in justice, has his work cut out for him.

Aside from occasionally losing the threads tying motive to crime and the timing of who said or did what, when, I find this novel absolutely engrossing. Every once in a while, the diction slips, as Jasper speaks like an American, whereas his American assistant, a detective improbably named Hieronymus (Hy) Law, talks like an Englishman. But despite that, Goodwin’s a careful writer with a gift for creating vivid scenes and a sense of history, for the narrative takes place during the years of the Fugitive Slave Act, which figures in the story and puzzles our English protagonist.

If you go along for the ride, don’t be alarmed if the odd detail puzzles you. Let yourself be swept along, and you’ll be rewarded.

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

Industrial Murder: The German Heiress


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Review: The German Heiress, by Anika Scott
Morrow, 2020. 357 pp. $17

Two years after World War II has ended, Clara Falkenberg is on the run. Living under an assumed name, on unconvincing fake papers, and with no visible means of support, Clara might be no different from many other Germans who’ve got something to hide. Except she’s the heiress to the Falkenberg mines and ironworks in Essen (a fictive rival to Krupp), and for her wartime activities helping to manage the firm, a British intelligence captain named Fenshaw is on her tail.

Like every other industrial concern, Falkenberg used up and spat out slave laborers by the thousands, which makes Clara an accessory to war crimes, if not a perpetrator. And when she dares attempt to return to bombed-out Essen, hoping to take refuge with a childhood friend, Fenshaw’s thinking right along with her. No matter where she goes, or what she does, he’s never far behind, and there are plenty of people willing to betray anyone for the right price.


U.S. military intelligence photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau, June 1944, which shows the I. G. Farben installation, lower center (courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

I salute Scott’s authorial bravery in attempting to cast a heroine from a war-criminal mold. I’m not sure she succeeds entirely — or, to be precise, whether she tells her tale with enough moral consciousness, having decided, for obvious reasons, to avoid certain enormities. But The German Heiress nevertheless has a few things going for it, and Scott tries to finesse the moral questions, grounding them in family relationships whose participants may or may not have deluded themselves.

To an extent, that works, though the strategy leaves two unmentioned, outsized elephants in the room — the slave labor program in its conception and practice, and the Holocaust. The Third Reich as a systematically murderous, exploitive regime never quite makes it to these pages, in part because the only visible inhuman act occurs on a relatively small scale and appears, in retrospect, only toward the end.

But approach the novel on its given terms, and you have a vigorous narrative peopled by unusual characters. Clara herself, if perhaps too lightly dealt with from a moral standpoint, has a passion to know the truth about her family, especially her beloved father, now interned as a war criminal. Does he deserve that? she wonders. What did he really think when he saw what was happening, because surely, he must have known? Where does that put her?

Her soul-searching redeems her somewhat, and I appreciate the author’s difficulty here, attempting to make a sympathetic character out of a slave overseer. Clara does have a certain appealing warmth and vivacity, and I like how Scott handles a nascent romance with Jakob, a disabled veteran turned black marketeer. The connection grows slowly, incrementally, with back-tracking and deal-cutting involved.

The storytelling keeps a rapid pace, and the pages turn. The plot revolves around Fenshaw’s pursuit and, more importantly, Clara’s uncovering of ugly family secrets that force her to reexamine her moral position and what she’s responsible for. Whether you can accept Clara’s insulation from stark wartime realities may depend on your point of view, but at least the family loyalty comes through, as does her disillusionment when she learns the truth. As for the narrative as a whole, Jakob’s voice enters abruptly, as does that of a young, disturbed boy who doesn’t believe the war has ended. But these bumps even out as the novel progresses, and Jakob steals many of the scenes he’s in. With him, as with Clara, Scott deploys detail with aplomb:

The stranger caught him, gasped at his weight, buckled and then stabilized. His smell hurtled Jakob back to days he didn’t want to remember. It was the smell of the front, of damp wool and oiled leather, of bergamot and citrus eau de cologne that didn’t quite cover the stink of a soldier’s fear. Whoever it was, he was thin, and he was shaking, and for the few moments Jakob had his arms around him, he felt the stranger’s wildly beating heart.

Two weak links mar the novel. I don’t believe Fenshaw for one second, whether it’s his fanatical pursuit of Clara, his broad-brush character, his fascination with her (which even dates from before the war), or his astonishing security lapses that further the plot. Given all these, the end, the second weak link, seems not only melodramatic but highly improbable.

That said, The German Heiress, a debut novel, is a provocative story, and I like those. And since I’m the type who can’t look at a Bayer aspirin bottle without thinking of the company’s infamous, erstwhile parent, I. G. Farben (disbanded after the war), that I sat still for this book instead of throwing it across the room testifies to the author’s talent for diverting me.

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

The Adamant Sheriff: Nighthawk’s Wing


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Review: Nighthawk’s Wing, by Charles Fergus
Arcade, 2021. 273 pp. $26

Gideon Stoltz, sheriff of (the fictional) Colerain County, Pennsylvania, in 1836, faces long odds in solving his latest case. He suffers headaches and memory loss because he fell off his horse and hit his head. His deputy does his best to cover for him, but Gideon’s boss, an arrogant attorney, openly hopes the voters will turn the young sheriff out of office come autumn. At only twenty-three, Gideon fears for his future, but the present looks pretty dreadful too. His wife, True, locked in grief over their young son’s death from influenza, won’t speak to him or even stir from bed.

But that’s just for starters. A woman said to be a witch has been found dead in Sinking Valley, a farm district more than a day’s ride from Adamant, the town where Gideon lives, and he’s not sure he can manage an extended trip, given his physical ailments. He’s hoping that the rumors of suicide prove true, and that he can investigate briefly and return home.

However, he not only knew the dead woman, Rebecca Kreidler, he has the strongest impression that he visited her on or about the day she died. Could he have killed her? Could he have taken her to bed, even, for, like many men who knew Rebecca, he lusted after her? The notion fills him with shame.

What’s more, when Gideon begins questioning the good folk of Sinking Valley, he uncovers complexities that challenge a verdict of suicide. Rebecca’s beauty aroused desire and envy, and her knowledge of medicinal plants invited both gratitude for her cures and suspicion of witchcraft. Then again, her past preceded her, for a woman who kills her husband — no matter how violent or abusive — has marked herself as an outcast, and her three years in the penitentiary is not considered adequate expiation.

This ingenious framework, and the facets Fergus gives it, make Nighthawk’s Wing compelling reading. Gideon Stoltz is a man first and a detective second, and though the two naturally intertwine, the narrative offers much more than a whodunit — luckily, for reasons I’ll get to. Not only do Gideon’s cognitive difficulties and the various reactions to them provide a touching, unusual background in a mystery, the social atmosphere places the narrative firmly in the central Pennsylvania soil.

This document bound one Henry Mayer as indentured servant to Abraham Hestant of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1738. Many German immigrants to Pennsylvania, erroneously called “Dutch,” bound themselves in this way (courtesy Immigrant Servants Database, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Like many people in Sinking Valley, Gideon’s of German extraction, or, as commonly called, “Dutch,” apparently a corruption of the German word Deitsch, how they describe themselves. Much hated and maligned for being different, they occupy a social position that marks the story. With skillful economy, Fergus deploys the animosity to effect, tracing its roots and consequences, and since Rebecca was Deitsch, Gideon must take that into account.

Another pleasure of Nighthawk’s Wing involves the vivid, very much lived-in picture of early nineteenth-century rural American life. Fergus shows us crafts, like grinding and resetting a millstone, or a blacksmith shoeing a horse, and recounts herbal lore and depicts burial customs. Such authenticity extends to various mounted creatures, for riding a beast requires particular skills or physical heft, and either you have them, or you don’t:

The animal’s long upper lip stated that it grudged being ridden. No saddle. The boy sat on a girthed sheepskin with the fleece side down. He held a loop of rope tied to the bit rings on both sides of the mule’s broad, disgruntled mouth. The boy was small, and his leg stuck out sideways from the mule’s sweat-slick barrel — uncomfortable enough, Gideon thought, even for one so young.

The narrative from Rebecca’s point of view works less well, I think. I believe her portrayal as a psychotic — one of her delusions gives the book its title — but by going back in time to let the now-dead speak feels like a copout, telling us what Gideon couldn’t possibly know. That may not bother other readers; and I may also be alone in my dislike of the supernatural elements that play a strong role, especially toward the end.

But I wonder whether other readers will agree with me that Fergus has tipped his hand concerning the killer’s identity, which I latched onto because of how mystery novels are typically put together. I don’t want to say more, for fear of giving too much away, but despite this drawback, I do believe that Nighthawk’s Wing deserves its audience. I congratulate Fergus for the loving care with which he re-creates the time and place and crafts his characters. If you’re like me, that will justify reading the novel.

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

Cold War Hallucinations: Night Watch


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Review: Night Watch, by David C. Taylor
Severn, 2018. 290 pp. $29

At first glance, or even second or third, the crimes seem to lack any connection; after all, this is Manhattan, 1956, and anything can happen. A couple walking through Central Park come face-to-face with a man who threatens them, kill him, and walk away. A man throws himself out the window of the Hotel Astor, and his colleagues, almost shrugging, say he was depressed.

But Detective Michael Cassidy, who knows his native city and what its residents can do to one another, latches on to the details that don’t add up. He refuses to accept the anodyne explanations dished out by unreliable witnesses or the police bureaucracy, overworked and under political pressure from every point of the compass. Before long, the federal government casts its shadow over the investigations, doors close, and odd things happen.

What’s more, a sophisticated, relentless stalker leaves messages promising that he’ll kill Michael at a time and place of his choosing. Michael can’t figure out which criminal he’s put away who would try to take revenge like that.

Like Night Life and Night Work, the two previous thrillers featuring Michael Cassidy (and which bracket the current installment by a few years), this one offers similar pleasures. From the first lines, you have New York City, portrayed as few authors can, capturing the grit, energy, and quirks of an infinitely surprising metropolis. The story begins with horses waiting to pull tourists through Central Park in hansom cabs:

The horses harnessed to carriages at the curb on Columbus Circle huffed smoke from their nostrils as they stood heads down, their backs covered with plaid blankets, and waited for the night-time romantics who wanted to ride through the park bundled under lap robes in private darkness. The shrill wail of a police car siren rose in the west. The horses watched the car pass on 59th Street headed east toward Fifth Avenue, lights flashing. They dropped their heads again to eat hay strewn in the gutter by their drivers. They had been raised on concrete and were used to sirens. In a city of eight million there was always an emergency — someone trapped in an elevator, a restaurant kitchen fire, a domestic dispute, a liquor store stick-up, a body leaking blood across the sidewalk.

The narrative, chronometer-intricate, conveys the fits and starts of criminal investigation, with all the dead ends and improbabilities that Cassidy and his partner sense are built on lies, but against which they can do nothing, for want of evidence. Since Taylor shows you the bad guys at work, the reader knows more than our heroes do. Consequently, the tension derives not just from the “no — and furthermore,” many instances of which involve close combat, but the desire to see justice done — and the fear that the scoundrels will escape because the government protects them.

Unlike the previous two novels, the scoundrels here aren’t J. Edgar Hoover or the Mafia, but Allen Dulles, CIA director. The plot turns on the covert program, much written about in recent years, to test LSD as a “truth serum,” often without the subjects’ knowledge, in the name of national security.

Undated government photo of Allen Dulles (courtesy Prologue Magazine, spring 2002 (NARA, 306-PS-59-17740; via Wikimedia Commons)

Practically no one in the New York of 1956 has heard of this drug or what it can do, which adds to Michael’s difficulties solving the mystery, but the reader will understand, based on the hallucinations several characters suffer. The outrage that the government could inflict this, and with such righteous, cold-blooded cruelty, turns up the narrative heat. Nor is that all. The scientists behind the experiments include Nazi death-camp doctors recruited for their special knowledge about what abuses the human body can stand.

Accordingly, it’s all the more satisfying when Dulles tries to recruit Michael, who bluntly refuses, then, when prodded to admit that he dislikes Dulles, and why, puts it plainly: Michael can’t stand people who tip the table so that everything on it flows toward them. I’m going to remember that phrase.

I don’t believe all of the physical confrontations, at which Michael excels — a trope of the genre, to be sure, yet still implausible. Michael also rescues his beautiful girlfriend (trope number two), a newspaper reporter, though, to be fair, she rescues herself too and is hardly helpless. (Her clothes, especially high heels, cause trouble in the action scenes, a nice touch that underlines the gender straitjacket she struggles to wear as a journalist consigned to “women’s interest” stories.) Michael has a few convenient resources, like a brother who’s a political TV commentator and an aunt who’s a Washington, DC, powerbroker. Finally, despite the ever-present “no — and furthermore,” loose ends get tied up rather neatly.

But I can’t resist these novels — I’ve reviewed all three — and if you read them, maybe you’ll feel the same way.

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