East African Enmities: The Idol of Mombasa

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Review: The Idol of Mombasa, by Annamaria Alfieri
Felony and Mayhem, 2016. 249 pp. $15

When Justin Tolliver and his new bride, Vera, take up residence in Mombasa, British East Africa Protectorate, early in 1912, they have mixed feelings. They have transferred from Nairobi, where Justin, a colonial police officer, enjoyed his position, near where Vera was born, and her beloved father has his mission. But duty calls: Justin has been promoted to assistant district superintendent. Therein lies a source of marital friction, however, for he loves his work, whereas Vera wishes he’d give it up and become a farmer, as so many colonials do.

Justin promises he won’t remain on the force for long — a year at most — but that year promises to be very busy. He’s not even unpacked in Mombasa before a criminal act takes place that has diplomatic implications. The Grand Mufti of Egypt is in town to exhort the faithful of Islam, collect presents from the British, and remind them that their hold on the protectorate is anything but absolute, depending as it does on the Sultan of Zanzibar’s goodwill. And when a slave belonging to a prominent Muslim businessman runs away and is murdered for it, that should prompt soul-searching among the colonials. After all, Britain has outlawed slavery and claims that this “civilizing” influence justifies their empire. Yet political considerations and racism combine to separate the law from justice, at least as it’s practiced on the street.

Mombasa, buying ivory hunted in the East African interior, 1910-1920, Underwood & Underwood (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

This outlook sits poorly with Justin, who believes in the stated moral principle. He also espouses a comparatively liberal outlook concerning the people the British govern. He respects his sergeant, Kwai Libazo, a man half Kikuyu, half Masai, and takes him at his word, an attitude that marks Justin as “soft” among his peers. Back in England, he was a keen sportsman who played games as much for their sense of rules as their competitive aspect. But he’s a newcomer to Mombasa; he must follow orders; and, as an earl’s second son, he faces reverse snobbery, which makes his every move suspect. Other colonials wonder how an English-born aristocrat can even think of being a police officer, while they also turn up their noses at Vera, because he’s married down.

Meanwhile, Vera is fiercely anti-slavery and has far fewer scruples about adopting local customs. She understands that British clothing and manners don’t fit in Africa, and she wants to learn Arabic — imagine! Unlike a proper English wife, she speaks her mind, so Justin hears her views on his moral compromises, another arena of marital conflict. Nevertheless, husband and wife appreciate qualities in the other that they also fear. This setup provides great possibilities.

As befits the British colonial mission, they have their romantic notions about where they are and what they’re doing. For Justin, though Mombasa makes him wrinkle his nose, it also represents an exotic fantasy:

The smell of the salt air called to mind his father’s history books and his own boyhood dreams of adventure. He imagined that this place now smelled much the same as it had to da Gama, aboard the Portuguese carrack São Gabriel when the great explorer entered Mombasa Harbor, the first European to come to this place. This was a reason to be here. This had been a place of adventure for centuries. Whatever else Mombasa was, this was the sort of place that, as a child, he had always longed to be.

If all this seems extraneous to the mystery, rest assured it belongs. Alfieri creates a solid whodunit, with a satisfying ending. Just when you think she’s tipped her hand, she hasn’t. Suspects abound from all cultures and walks of life, including the Reverend Robert Morley and his sister, Katharine. (Is this echo of the actors in The African Queen too cute? Probably.) Still, despite the issues of justice, the marriage subplot, the racial and ethnic hatreds that divide the city, and Mombasa itself, only the mystery kept me reading.

The characters, though they display more than a single trait or two, seem locked into either-or emotional states during conflict, which simplifies them and makes them predictable. Also, Alfieri’s writing style, occasionally repetitive, as in the above example, explains more than it shows and distances me. Sometimes the explanations follow action that’s already clear or restate what’s been narrated before. It’s as though Alfieri or her editor fears that we’ve forgotten the circumstances or motivations and need reminders. Either that, or she doesn’t see how to deepen such moments. It’s too bad, because there’s much on offer, and I applaud the author’s intent and loving portrayal of time, place, and cultural associations. I wish more historical mysteries did that.

Read The Idol of Mombasa, if you will, for the story. But if you’re like me, you’ll wish the rest held up its end as well.

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

Grey. Thomas Grey: Hold Fast

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Review: Hold Fast, by J. H. Gelernter
Norton, 2021. 238 pp. $26

Thomas Grey, late of the Royal Marines and His Majesty’s Secret Service, intends to sail to Boston and take a job with a lumber merchant. The year is 1803, the Napoleonic Wars have reached a respite, and Grey wishes to seize his chance to get out while he can. Having lost his beloved wife to a French raid on the merchantman on which the Greys were traveling, he’ll to the war no more.

Ah, but not so fast. A privateer attacks the ship on which he’s bound across the Atlantic, and news comes that Napoleon has revoked the Treaty of Amiens, resuming the war against Britain. Grey, with much derring-do, helps repel the attack, but the damaged ship must make landfall in neutral Portugal for refitting. While he’s there, circumstances hand him a great opportunity to pretend to switch sides and dupe French intelligence with disinformation. Rest assured that our hero’s game of double agent will lead him into many tight situations, as he must penetrate the inner sanctum of French military power.

Michelle de Bonneuil (1748-1829), rendered here in pastel by Rosalie Filleul, ca. 1778, was celebrated for her beauty, charm, and artistic ability–and acted as a spy for the French Revolutionary government and Napoleon (unknown provenance, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

If you’re thinking that Hold Fast sounds like Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels of the Napoleonic era meeting Ian Fleming’s James Bond, you’ve nailed it, and the author intends as much. In his afterword, Gelernter confirms himself an admirer of both. For reasons I’ll get to a little later, I wish he’d hewn more to O’Brian than Fleming, but as a fast-paced adventure story, Hold Fast has its charms.

First and foremost, the narrative moves like lightning, with “no—and furthermore” lurking in every nook and cranny, to say nothing of dark alleys and rooms in which two’s company and three’s a crowd—especially when the uninvited third holds a weapon. Secondly, Gelernter has a lot of fun turning Grey into a nineteenth-century Bond, equally at home at a gaming table, vineyard tasting room, or hand-to-hand combat. The in-joke will raise a chuckle, here and there; Hold Fast can be pleasingly clever, that way.

The narrative also shows a grasp of physical detail, lightly handled:

It was only the sound of seamen holystoning the Ruby’s deck that pulled him back to the present, reminded him where he was—it was that scrape-scrape, scrape-scrape of men on their knees scouring the ship with sandstone chunks the size and shape of Bibles. Grey couldn’t help but notice that the pace of the scraping was considerably slower than it was, invariably, in the navy. On this ship there was no bosun to start the men with a kick in the pants. Nevertheless, the ship was impeccably clean. Perhaps there was a lesson in that.

As this passage implies, Grey, though a naval intelligence man through and through, rejects the brutal Royal Navy discipline, so a wisp of democrat exists beneath the surface of a warrior for king and country. It’s a wrinkle, unfortunately one of few, and the others don’t appeal me—he’s a prig, vengeful, cold, with a moral code stereotypical of the stuffed-shirt Englishman. Which raises the question: Is this meant to be funny?

There’s a scene in which a young woman points a pistol at him. Since she’s neglected to cock it (it’s a flintlock, naturally), Grey has no trouble subduing her. He cracks her on the side of the head—gently, mind you—deftly grasps her body before it falls, and deposits her in a chair. Should we laugh?

Such humor, if that’s what it is, sits oddly, though, and not just because a lot of bodies fall. Lacking the tongue-in-cheek bravura of the George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, Hold Fast conversely fails to treat the serious subject matter with depth or empathy. Grey’s flatness, though it may provoke a smile, as in the above scene, renders him an automaton, and priggishness never did much for anyone, especially without a sidekick with whom to contrast. As a shallow, even dislikable character, then, Grey offers little to bond with, if you will. This is where the narrative misses anything remotely akin to the O’Brian gift for character and relationships.

I read Hold Fast mildly curious to know how Grey would foil the threats against him. But if I’d stopped reading halfway through, I wouldn’t have felt cheated, because I didn’t find him compelling. Moreover, you can guess how he’ll proceed, relying on his preternatural aptitude for close-quarters combat, which no one else ever seems to match.

Consequently, the character in the novel lacks depth, and the character of the novel comes down mostly to cleverness. That has its points occasionally; my favorite bits concern intriguing sidelights on gambling or the making of champagne. But if these are the most interesting aspects of Hold Fast, I can’t say I’m held.

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

Cult Following: The Prophet

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Review: The Prophet, by Martine Bailey
Severn, 2021. 241 pp. $30

It’s May 1753, and Tabitha De Vallory (née Hart) has every reason to rejoice. A former prostitute turned lady of the manor, Tabitha has found married happiness with Nat, onetime rake and scribbler of scurrilous, lurid tales, now declared heir to a Cheshire estate and the baronetcy that goes with it. Come summer, Tabitha will give birth to their first child.

But when the body of a pregnant seventeen-year-old girl, likely a prostitute, is found beneath the Mandrem Oak, an ancient tree on Nat’s land said to have magical powers, Tabitha sets out to find the killer. Her pregnancy hampers her, not least because Dr. Caldwell insists she remain in bed and refrain from any thought or activity upsetting to her weak feminine constitution. Tabitha wishes she could tell him to stuff it, but despite her natural boldness, she must placate Nat, who fears for her; the servants dedicated to treating her like a human wheelbarrow; and—a nice touch—her own fears and folk beliefs.

Further complicating matters, a charismatic preacher, Baptist Gunn, has gathered a band of believers near the Mondrem Oak. He prophesies a savior to be born that summer and a kingdom free of such annoyances as private property, privileges of birth, or the confines of marriage, all to be found in His Majesty’s colony of Pennsylvania. His followers put their faith in Gunn and the New World he describes, largely turning a blind eye to his habit of lifting every skirt he can get his hands on.

William Hogarth’s painting, An Election Entertainment, 1754-55, helped fuel a legend that riots greeted Britain’s change of calendar in 1753, when it was merely an election issue (courtesy Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The Prophet is the sequel to The Almanack, and readers of that mystery will find welcome parallels here. As characters with disreputable pasts, Tabitha and Nat must tend their reputations, and the course of their true love travels a bumpy road. I like the hurdles Bailey places in their way, particularly important because Nat, as acting lord of the manor and responsible for catching the murderer, has the physical and moral freedom Tabitha lacks, whereas what secrets he chooses to share (or not) affect domestic bliss.

Readers of the previous tale will also recognize the feminist slant. Nobody understands the sexual double standard better than Tabitha, but, in a further twist, she has to train herself to reach Nat emotionally rather than rely on physical attraction alone. Meanwhile, she suffers the neighbors’ snobbery, endures passes from any man who thinks he can get away with it, and hates being on public display as a child-bearing member of the gentry, rather like a monument about which everyone offers an opinion. The sawbones, whom she heartily dislikes yet also fears, just in case his medical opinions are correct, represents only part of her trials:

Doctor Caldwell was a shambling man of five and thirty; unkempt in his person, with a greasy old cauliflower wig, and the protruding eyes of an overbred pug dog. According to Nat he was an excellent physician, but his manner left Tabitha feeling like a brood mare being assessed for market. First, he inspected her urine in a glass, holding it to the light, then sniffing it, and—rather disgustingly—tasting a few drops on the ends of his fingers. . . . Close up, she was forced to turn her nose from great wafts of his onion breath.

Finally, The Prophet enacts the fascination with folklore that drove The Almanack, and I find that the most appealing part of the current tale. Through Baptist Gunn and his cult followers, and the mysteries and folklore of childbearing and fortune telling, Bailey offers a fine glimpse of everyday Cheshire life. I like how she captures the outlook of people who pretend to be modern but aren’t, nor do they know what modern means, except that it scares them. Nowhere is that more evident than in time keeping, in which a society largely without clocks or authoritative calendars can’t be sure what day it is—especially because the country has just changed systems. That uncertainty affects the story.

However, I find the storytelling and writing less compelling than those of the previous installment. Here, the villains are 100 percent villainous, Gunn’s 100 percent corrupt, and the mystery, 95 percent predictable, the remaining 5 percent accounting for minor detail. As for narrative style, I prefer stories in which authors show rather than tell, particularly when it comes to their characters’ emotions. The Prophet, for all its welcome marital complications between Nat and Tabitha, often resolves them through explanation, or so it seems. I notice many physical descriptions that feel static rather than active, a surefire measure of tell versus show.

I wish I could recommend The Prophet more highly. I hope that future installments reclaim the pleasures of its predecessor.

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

Dante and Derring-Do: The Master of Verona

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Review: The Master of Verona, by David Blixt
St. Martin’s, 2007. 561 pp. $28

In 1314, Verona’s master, Cangrande della Scala, extends patronage to Dante Alighieri, who has been banished from Florence, and his two surviving sons, Pietro, seventeen, and Jacopo, fourteen. The poet has recently published Inferno, to great renown and no little fear of heresy or impiety. But della Scala quickly realizes that Dante’s not the only gifted member of the family, nor the most useful.

Rather, he fixes on Pietro, who longs to escape his father’s shadow (while hoping pater will actually notice him one day and approve). And when Pietro falls in with two other youths — one noble, one from a merchant family pretending nobility — military adventure offers. Della Scala, a twenty-three-year-old wunderkind, dreams of uniting Italy under his banner. His approach to war, diplomacy, and familial politics has much to do with an ancient prophecy that says a figure called the Greyhound will realize that far-fetched scheme. He’s magnetic, generous, and apparently scrupulous, a rare combination. Pietro’s enthralled, and his passion takes him places, often alongside his new friends, the first he’s ever had in his life.

Equestrian statue, no date, of Cangrande della Scala, Museo di Castelvecchio,
Verona (courtesy Eggbread, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Between the derring-do, battle scenes, court intrigue, and the question of occupying many thinkers on the cusp of the Renaissance — do the stars foretell fate, or does free will have influence? — The Master of Verona makes for epic adventure. The thrumming plot, larger-than-life characters and perilous twists and turns evoke an approach like that of Dumas. The pages turn rapidly, numerous though they are. Astrology, poetry, chivalry, prophecy, and love figure here, all entertaining subjects, and I enjoy many of the characters, who take them seriously.

Besides Pietro and della Scala’s sister, Katerina, I particularly like Dante himself, who unfortunately drops out of the narrative. Blixt portrays him as a self-absorbed narcissist conscious of his genius who has little time for his children, except when they disappoint him. The exception? His daughter, Antonia, who, at thirteen, keeps the booksellers in line and acts as self-appointed caretaker of her father’s career. In letters, he calls her Beatrice, which she treasures. Katerina and Antonia are women ahead of their time, seeking power and influence denied them because of their gender.

Otherwise, the novel has wars, a horse race through the streets, trysts, duels, and every action conceivable. Not all are credible, and Pietro’s powers can test belief, especially as he’s received little schooling in the martial arts; but never mind. As an added conceit, Shakespearean characters and situations waft through the narrative, whether the plays belong to Vienna (Romeo and Juliet), or not (Othello, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing). Note that Blixt is an actor and director, and you can tell: His approach is theatrical, to say the least.

As a storyteller, he offers brio, panache, and a command of historical detail:

Inside the city walls, the streets were all but impassable. Spectators, gamblers, merchants, peasants, petitioners — all had traveled for days to vie for what lodging they could find. The decent rooms were already rented out to triple or quadruple capacity.… Many visitors, even noble ones, were forced to sleep on dirty floors, or in stables, where the beds were somewhat more comfortable. But fully half the people in the city were not sleeping. Other attractions called — treats and spectacles and mythical beasts, lights and sounds and smells.

However, as this passage suggests, Blixt sometimes trowels on the detail, drawing back the authorial focus and distancing the reader. This narrative technique, which can seem static, undermines the drive he achieves with the storyline and makes you work to stay connected. The author also indulges in information dumps, swelling the dialogue with facts and background, at which the reader’s eye grows impatient. Or this reader’s does. If these facts matter to the story, and I’m not sure they always do, better to show them through action, rather than have people explain them to each other.

I doubt fourteenth-century people, or those anytime, would speak the way Blixt has it, unless they’re all pedants. Then again, these folk often think like moderns, however intently they hew to the philosophical framework of their era. Present-day vocabulary dots the dialogue, and when characters discourse on various subjects, they occasionally refer to knowledge that lies in the future. They also speak incorrect French, admittedly a minor quibble, though indicative of carelessness of writer or editor that emerges elsewhere.

But it’s the discursive, lecturing quality that hampers the novel most. The final chapters are particularly striking for that, as the narrative struggles to wrap up convolutions and contradictions through speechmaking. It’s an unsatisfying, melodramatic conclusion.

For a wild, evocative ride, in which action carries the day, The Master of Verona makes for entertaining reading. Less would have achieved more.

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

Love and Murder: Death of a Showman

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Review: Death of a Showman, by Mariah Fredericks
Minotaur, 2021. 276 pp. $27

Jane Prescott, lady’s maid to wealthy socialite Mrs. Louise Tyler, has just returned from an exhausting trip to Europe in June 1914, during which they attended a wedding. Much to Jane’s dismay, the pros and cons of marriage are on her mind, considering that Leo Hirschfeld, a musician who might or might not have been courting her the previous summer, has married, after insisting he wouldn’t. Then too, the Tylers seem, well, maybe not unhappy with each other, but out of sorts. Bored, maybe.

No boredom allowed when Leo invites Mrs. Tyler to a rehearsal of a ragtime musical for which he’s written the score, and whose cast so happens to include his new bride. Mrs. Tyler has no idea she’s being cultivated as a potential investor in the show. But Jane, who wasn’t born yesterday, realizes that the flirtatious Leo, who can’t abide the idea that someone might resent him, especially if she has every reason to, hopes to get back into her good graces.

Naturally, she has no intention of joining Mrs. Tyler at the theater; just as obviously, she must, because her employer needs a chaperone, and Louise relies on her. Further, you know that one visit won’t be enough, so Mrs. Tyler begins regularly attending rehearsals, while Jane works backstage. She also has to sit through watching Leo’s better half, a voluptuous airhead whose only talent seems to be walking downstairs in a suggestive way. Mrs. Tyler really has no idea how much Jane puts up with for her sake.

Readers familiar with the Jane Prescott mystery series know that someone will soon wind up dead, and Jane will solve the crime. You don’t need a crystal ball (or the jacket flap) to guess that the victim will be Sidney Warburton, the show’s producer. A ruthless, exploitive tyrant who takes pride in seducing other men’s wives, Warburton gets shot in a bathroom stall at Rector’s restaurant during a cast party.

This backdrop may sound familiar for a mystery, but Fredericks makes it her own. Warburton’s not a pure monster; he’s helped many people, given them a chance in a cutthroat theatrical world. Not only does his generosity, however self-interested, flesh him out, it complicates the question of motive. Though just about every member of cast and crew has suffered his vitriol and humiliating behavior, he’s also their bread and butter; even, in cases, their rescuer.

For decades, David Belasco was the high priest of the American theater, complete with clerical collar, his trademark. (1909, unattributed; courtesy J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs, University of Washington, Seattle, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Moreover, Fredericks knows her historical and theatrical ground, whether we’re talking about what the theater district looked like in 1914, or what went on there. To this theater historian and lifelong devotee, she’s conjured up what makes actors tick, the glamour and what lies behind it, and an unsophisticated public’s fear (and admiration) of the theater as institution and lifestyle. Several characters’ names or reputations evoke stars from the era. For those readers familiar with that theatrical age, see if you recognize a hint of David Belasco, a hack producer/director and playwright but technological innovator, in this description of Warburton’s theater:

Only seven years old, the Sidney Theater was equipped with the most modern advances — hydraulics, a lighting board, and set workshops on the lower floors with an elevator to carry the results up to the stage — as well as the most lavish of interior design. Its creator had said he wanted the audience to feel as if they were in someone’s home, and so they might, if that someone were a Vanderbilt. Glossy oak paneling shone as red-brown as a setter’s coat, alongside Tiffany stained glass and murals of the more titillating Greek myths.

I like Fredericks’s re-creation of Rector’s (a real place) and the cast-party murder scene, in which the killer must be present, yet plausibly escapes notice. It’s a clever blend of two mystery traditions, the locked room and the clue in plain sight. For further depth, always welcome, the author explores whether love is what it looks like, and whether you can separate it from physical passion. Along the way, the dialogue crackles with wit — I don’t recall laughing as much reading the other Jane Prescott mysteries — as you might expect from theater folk.

Accordingly, Fredericks has loosened Jane’s corset a notch, and though that makes sense for the story, I stumbled over that, remembering her from previous episodes as a more cautious, demure woman of her time. Another significant character reveals a different sort of shift, which feels contrived — a rare slip for the author. The unnecessary, perhaps deliberately misleading, prologue is at least short enough not to annoy too much. And though the narrative includes the approach of the European war, which makes sense, the mixture doesn’t always flow smoothly, nor are the details always historically accurate.

But Death of a Showman remains a delicious, poignant treat, and I highly recommend it.

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

A Woman’s Place: Girl in Disguise

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Review: Girl in Disguise, by Greer Macallister
Sourcebooks, 2017. 301 pp. $26

Kate Warne’s up against it. Chicago in 1856 is a rough town for a young widow with no money, no job prospects, and no desire to remarry. Mistreated by parents who never loved her, exploited her, and taught her never to love or trust anyone, Kate has learned to lie and dissemble, as circumstances seem to require. That skill, at least, she picked up from her father, a down-on-his-luck actor who, when not putting on stage makeup to perform, tried his hand at con games.

Alexander Gardner’s photo at Antietam, September 1862, of Allan Pinkerton (seated, right) and a woman believed to be Kate Warne, standing behind him. (courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Which explains why, when Kate reads a want ad run by Allan Pinkerton looking for an operative to join his agency, she applies. After all, doesn’t she have the natural talent? Pinkerton nearly throws her out of his office; his profession is no place for a woman, he says. But Kate perseveres, of course, and Pinkerton reluctantly gives her a trial run — which doesn’t work out too well.

How that happens, and what she does about it, I’ll leave for you to find out, for Girl in Disguise is well worth your exploration. Be warned, however: Readers expecting a whodunit or thriller or even a unified plot will be disappointed, but, I expect, not for long. Such is the brio with which Macallister tells her story, and the loving attention she pays her protagonist, that it hardly matters.

Girl in Disguise is a coming-into-her-own novel, as Kate settles into her profession and masters it. Sometimes that process feels too easy, but rest assured, “no — and furthermore” resides here. The chapters represent cases, some of which are connected, especially in the narrative’s latter stages. But most stand alone, showing Kate’s progression, the professional and personal obstacles she faces, and, above all, how she handles a line of work that excites and fascinates her, yet leaves little or no room for a private life, let alone intimacy.

That, in turn, leads her toward self-discovery, because she must ask herself what she wants, and whether she’s lied so well to the world, she has fooled herself as well. As such, her character drives the narrative, an essential, given that the plot is episodic and fragmented. It’s an unusual way to approach a suspense novel, but here, it works.

Kate Warne was a real person, but little is known about her. Macallister does an impressive job re-creating her in plausible fashion. I particularly like the family history, which both brings out her character and influences the story line. Better yet, she lets Kate remain emotionally scarred. No miraculous transformations mar this book, for the author is too psychologically astute for that. The most exciting parts involve what few traces the real Kate Warne left in the historical record, and what tantalizing bits they are. She helped spirit Lincoln safely through Baltimore just before his first inauguration, foiling an assassination attempt. Later, during the Civil War, she performed surveillance on Rose Greenhow, a Washington socialite and clever Confederate spy.

Greenhow not only makes a worthy opponent, she comes across with particular vividness:

Artfully, she flirted, and I watched how she flirted. Her hands were deployed like soldiers to any front where they were needed: stroking a man’s sleeve to create intimacy, resting on the piano to reinforce her wealth, trailing along the side of her neck to draw attention to her body. She was not a young woman, but she was a beautiful one, no mistake. Her beauty alone was not all she had to offer. She gave off some kind of energy that drew men to her. Her gift, I saw, was attention. There was nothing more intoxicating to these men.

I wish Pinkerton’s characterization reached this level, but I don’t see his inner life or motivations as clearly as Kate’s or Greenhow’s. I wanted more from this major character. Lincoln’s cameo appearance provides just enough detail, I suppose, though I could have used a little more with him too, and George B. McClellan gets even shorter shrift, which I understand, yet which sets off my historian’s itch. During the war, McClellan would later command the Army of the Potomac and employ Pinkerton to run informants, who invariably offered inflated estimates of Confederate strength. McClellan swallowed them whole and used them as an excuse not to fight, driving Lincoln crazy. Maybe some other novelist will tackle that triangle.

The relative shallowness of the male characters is the most serious weakness of Girl in Disguise. With one exception, a suave, dapper colleague at Pinkerton’s agency who has a secret to protect, the men don’t measure up to Kate, Greenhow, or two women whom Kate trains as operatives.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed Girl in Disguise, which richly imagines a complex tale based on a sketchy historical record.

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

A Fairy Tale Made Real: While Beauty Slept

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Review: While Beauty Slept, by Elizabeth Blackwell
Putnam, 2014. 416 pp. $16

When fourteen-year-old Elise Dalriss loses her mother and almost all her siblings to the plague that nearly kills her too, she must make a desperate choice. She sees that she has no future on her father’s farm, which has been failing for years, and he’s a cruel, bitter, hard man, whom she fears. He’s also not her real father—Elise was born out of wedlock—and she doesn’t know who is, so she has that shame to bear as well.

Given courage by her mother’s last words and finding a few precious coins sewn into the dead woman’s skirt hem, Elise seizes her chance. She flees home and throws herself on the mercy of her mother’s sister. Receiving more kindness there than expected, Elise prepares to ask for employment as a chambermaid at the castle, where her mother once worked, and where King Ranolf and Queen Lenore hold court. It’s a terrifying proposition, especially for a girl of humble birth who knows nothing of court etiquette and little of the work for which she claims to be qualified. Symbolic of Elise’s anxieties, the castle itself threatens her:

I expected it to be large and well fortified. But . . . I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of the fortress that sprawled defiantly atop the hill before me. Thick walls of rugged stone seemed to have burst forth from the earth to encircle the towers within. Behind the battlements, turrets stabbed the sky, with a few narrow windows giving the only indication that people lived within. For a moment, the weight of it chilled my spirits, and I was seized by a sudden reluctance to enter. Raised in the open air, with land extending in every direction, I had never considered what it would mean to live enclosed within walls.

This is the premise for an ingenious retelling of Sleeping Beauty, stripped of its romance and all the more captivating for it. Gone are the homage to chivalry, the rarefied sensibility, the obsession with instant physical attraction (though it does occur), or a royal perspective. Elise’s narration, though emphasizing the king, queen, and, later, their daughter—those fixtures of the legend remain—delves deeply into unpleasant realities no fairy tale ever concerned itself with. And I don’t mean the evil witch, though here she is.

Henry Meynell Rheam’s 1899 pencil-and-watercolor rendition of Sleeping Beauty (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Rather, Blackwell tells her story through the power imbalance between men and women, the snobbery of social rank (reveled in by those who have none), and the harshness of everyday life in an era that approximates the Middle Ages without too-specific detail. Typical of that time and any seat of power, the politics of court and realm take center stage, which believably grounds the narrative and offers credible, deeper motivations than the original. When Ranolf and Lenore bemoan the lack of a child, they’re not just parents but rulers seeking an heir; foreign enemies menace the kingdom. Consequently, though Blackwell derives suspense from changing what we think we know, providing that contrast to expectations that draws us in, she’s also showing us a more plausible, harder-edged version than the original.

While Beauty Slept delivers a strong feminist message, but the novel revolves around the power of love—again, not courtly love or the powdered, happily-ever-after variety (in which you just add water and stir). She means abiding love, one that weathers years and trials without recompense asked or offered, that between parents and children, or between clear-eyed adults who’ve had enough time in life to rack up regrets.

Elise rises within the servant pecking order with perhaps too much ease—the story requires her to—though the author does her best to portray the fallout from her rivals, witness social snubs, jealousy, and backbiting. I don’t mind that so much, though I do question how a girl battered by life and a violent father could bloom so, once given the chance. That’s the downside to psychological realism versus fairy tale—once you throw down that gauntlet, you have to fulfill the challenge—and I’d have expected Elise’s losses to deduct a higher toll from her emotional resources.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t bother me as much as the moments when she announces that trouble’s a-coming, and, in retrospect (she’s retelling the story to her great-granddaughter), she wishes she’d done things differently. Such heavy-handed portents accomplish nothing except to pull the reader out of the story.

But I highly recommend While Beauty Slept, which adds realistic flesh to legendary bones in a thought-provoking way that speaks to the modern reader without compromising the time and place.

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

Sister, Friend, Rival: Shanghai Girls

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Review: Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See
Random House, 2009. 336 pp. $17

Pearl and her sister, May, live the good life in Shanghai, in 1935. They earn money posing for an artist friend, who puts their faces on commercial calendars, so they are known as “beautiful girls.” They get good tables at clubs and restaurants and party at all hours, hardly noticing the vast ocean of poor surrounding them. Pearl, elder by three years, feels herself the less favored sister, though she’s gone to college, and May won’t ever. Their parents, traditional and strict, dote on the younger, prettier, daughter, to the point that Pearl doubts they even notice her, except to criticize, which her father does constantly. May’s not above using her favored position to twist him around her finger.

However, all that’s about to become irrelevant. To the sisters’ shock, their father says he’s had severe financial reversals. Not only does that mean the party’s over, he’s arranged marriages for them, to sons of his most important creditor, who lives in Los Angeles. After the wedding, a ceremony that pleases nobody, May and Pearl are to sail to Hong Kong, after which they’ll rejoin their new husbands in the United States. That’s it; no argument.

Needless to say, the sisters hate every part of this, and they tell each other they’ll do what no Chinese daughter ever does, disobey their father. They have no intention of leaving Shanghai. Their husbands are ridiculous matches for them, especially May’s groom, who’s only fourteen and seems not all there. But their father hasn’t told them the hardest truth, which is that he’s flat broke and in debt to loan sharks, who’ll throw the family onto the street in a couple days. As if that weren’t enough, May and Pearl don’t even have time to plead, because the Japanese attack. Leaving Shanghai now becomes a necessity as well as a chore.

The bombing of Shanghai, August 1937. This image captures the scene outside the Palace Hotel (courtesy Institut d’Asie Orientale, Lyon, France, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

You may wonder, as I did, how traditional Chinese parents—the mother binds her feet—have raised two daughters most people of that time and place would have called libertine (and only if they were being polite). But never mind. See writes with the force of gravity, and when the worlds she creates collide, the shock waves are enormous. Not only that, duty and tradition versus modernity and independence poses a crucial conflict, embodied in the sisters, so if their relative freedom seems a trifle convenient, See keeps returning to that struggle. Pearl feels that May is impetuous, selfish, self-centered, and brazen; May believes that Pearl is staid, masochistic, and too accepting by half. They’re jealous as hell of each other, and they’re both right.

But there’s a cultural context to every action or feeling, whether having to do with being female in a society that worships sons and despises daughters; having to obey a male authority, no matter who or how weak; and what money means. See spares no detail, sanitizing nothing, excusing nothing, and the cruelties of life are ever-present:

The Whangpoo River slinks past us to our left like an indolent snake, its grimy skin writhing, pulsing, slithering. . . .Sampans—hung with ropes, laundry, and nets—cluster together like insects on a carcass. Nightsoil boats jostle for right-of-way through ocean liner tenders and bamboo rafts. Sweating coolies stripped to the waist clutter the wharves, unloading opium and tobacco from merchant ships, rice and grain from junks that have come upriver, and soy sauce, baskets of chickens, and great rolls of rattan matting from flat-bottomed riverboats.

Many horrors happen to the sister, involving violence, heartache, bigotry, and degradation, whether as women, as Chinese, or as the newly unfortunate. Throughout, See dwells on the sister bond in which love, jealousy, protectiveness, and resentment reside as uneasy partners. As such, the author explores, again with unflinching focus, what it means to be Chinese, and how Pearl and May struggle to reconcile what they want for themselves with what their culture demands, which in turn must be regulated because of public pressure and the threat of censure or disclosure. What a bold, searing depiction.

I have doubts about Pearl, particularly some of her doormat moments, which I’d think her experience might have led her to rise above, at least on occasion. That question arises most particularly because she’s astute enough to recognize how Chinese women know how to endure without falling apart, whereas men seem more fragile, having to spend so much energy shoring up their stoic facades. Why, then, doesn’t Pearl try to move beyond the role she’s accepted, at least outwardly?

But if that’s a weakness in Shanghai Girls, a necessity to maintain the sibling conflict throughout this narrative and the next—there’s a sequel—it’s a small price to pay. Shanghai Girls is a terrific novel, one that will stay with you.

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

For Whose Glory?: Cathedral

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Review: Cathedral, by Ben Hopkins
Europa, 2021. 618 pp. $28

In 1229, nineteen-year-old Reichard Schäffer’s father dies, leaving him the head of the family in a quiet, out-of-the-way sheep herding village. Deciding that serfdom and sheep no longer suit him, the boy, known as Rettich, leaves his village with his younger brother, Emmerich, for Hagenburg, the (fictional) Alsatian town that gleams like a marvel in their eyes. It’s anything but, of course, but both boys will understand its depths and complexities in time, though from very different perspectives.

Right off, Rettich seeks to buy their freedom so that they may remain city-dwellers, a reminder that in thirteenth-century Europe, birth determines not only who you are and what profession you may follow, but where you may live. What Rettich desires is nothing less than revolutionary, and people who hear his plan shake their heads. But one person who listens is Meir Rosenheim, the Jewish moneylender, to whom the Schäffers appeal for the ready coin they need. Serfs normally wouldn’t prove worthy debtors, but Meir perceives something in them that decides him to take a chance, and besides, Emmerich’s remarkable capacity to calculate intrigues him. Rettich gets his money; the boys buy their freedom; and Emmerich has a job with the house of Rosenheim.

Théophile Schuler’s reimagining, in 1850, of the construction of the western wall of the Strasbourg cathedral, late thirteenth century (courtesy Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg, Cabinet des Estampes et des Dessins, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

From such small beginnings great things emerge. Rettich, a gifted woodcarver, earns an apprenticeship to the stonecutters working on the Hagenburg Cathedral, very much in its infancy. Emmerich learns how to handle money and proves himself an astute businessman. From them, and the many characters that come in contact with them, spins a beautifully imagined tale of greed, politics, skullduggery, sex, bigotry, and piety, often in mystical terms. As this order of importance implies, for most of Hagenburg, building a cathedral is a religious enterprise in name only. Rettich is an exception.

But he can’t say so, at least not in the way he would like, because nobody would listen. As an artist, he believes in reproducing figures from nature, a heretical notion, especially when it comes to cathedral artwork. He does find an outlet for discussion with an architect, a true visionary, whose views are equally controversial. But change is in the air. Witness Emmerich, who learns banking—though it’s not called that—and the power that money wields in politics, when noblemen are perennially short of cash. They fear and despise him but know he’s absolutely necessary.

Both brothers embody a strain of the coming Renaissance that no one foresees—and so does their sister, Grete. She marries up, to a struggling merchant in town, of whom she quickly proves the equal. Naturally, that makes him uncomfortable, but the results speak for themselves. And Grete thinks large. She works toward the day when money will allow people of her social class—her new, acquired social class–to have a say in how things get done, elbowing her way among the aristocracy. This avant-garde feminist attempts to break several barriers, and the manner in which she goes about it makes all three siblings’ stories compelling.

Inwardly, outwardly, and sometimes both, these characters and others act with great daring. Those among the large cast who can afford to—and a few who shouldn’t—speak their minds freely, which lends the narrative zest and fire. The novel’s resident cynic is Eugenius von Zabern, a church canon and the bishop’s secretary, who has the unenviable task of finding money to build the cathedral:

The world needs clerks and lawyers in the same way as it needs leprosy, plagues, earthquakes. Without them, life would be a colourless stroll toward death. But here they are, proliferating and multiplying over the face of our earth, and taking ever more prominent positions in the chambers of power. In the olden days, virtuous rulers would surround their thrones with the flower of chivalry, but today the leaders of our world are ringed by advisers, counsellors, clerks and Jews.
I should know. I am one of this new cursèd class of quill-scratching, shadow-skulking literati. . .

Reading such prose is one delight of Cathedral, and though there’s a lot of it, I find nothing extraneous. Scenes move smartly, and the dialogue clips along, perhaps testament to Hopkins’s career as a screenwriter and director. I also admire his grasp of historical detail. Whether describing Hagenburg (a character in itself), the glimmers of change and how people react to it, or endemic belief in conspiracy theories, especially about heretics or Jews, Hopkins renders time and place with complete authority. I defy anyone to start this book and put it down.

Cathedral is a masterpiece.

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

Class Warfare in Spokane: The Cold Millions

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Review: The Cold Millions, by Jess Walter
Harper, 2020. 337 pp. $29

Spokane, Washington, in 1909 makes a volatile mixture. Some townspeople get by, a few live in luxury, while a vast army of loggers, miners, prostitutes, and hobos struggles to exist. Into that cauldron leaps the I.W.W., the International Workers of the World, known as Wobblies, whose stated goal is to organize workers into a union that capital must recognize, and to do so without violence. For that, they are called anarchists, revolutionaries, subversives, and agitators, chiefly at the behest of Spokane’s wealthiest citizens, who own the mines, logging companies, real estate, flophouses, saloons, and brothels. But the Wobblies won’t back down and have planned a Free Speech demonstration; the local constabulary, corrupt to the core, will be ready.

Before that happens, however, a policeman is killed, and suspicion immediately falls on the migrant workers, tramps, and other “undesirables” who’ve floated into town. But the newcomers, among whom are sixteen-year-old Ryan (Rye) Dolan and his older brother Gregory (Gig), don’t know this yet. In fact, they know very little of what’s in store:

They woke on a ball field — bums, tramps, hobos, stiffs. Two dozen of them spread out on bedrolls and blankets in a narrow floodplain just below the skid, past taverns, tanners, and tents, shotgun shacks hung like hounds’ tongues over the Spokane River. Seasonal work over, they floated in from mines and farms and log camps, filled every flop and boardinghouse, slept in parks and alleys in the pavilions of traveling preachers and, on the night just past, this abandoned ball field, its infield littered with itinerants, vagrants, floaters, Americans.

Gig’s a Wobbly (and a drunk), while Rye devotes himself to one cause, trying to keep his older brother out of trouble. Pigs will fly before he succeeds. And even after a violent confrontation with vigilantes who offer them the choice between getting flung in the river or a broken head, the brothers have seen nothing yet. After all, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn will come to lead the Free Speech demonstration.

Joe Hill wrote this song about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, 1915 (courtesy NYU Library via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Perhaps the most famous labor organizer in America at that time, Flynn, as Walter portrays her, is about the best stump speaker this side of Teddy Roosevelt and more than a match for any man foolish enough to debate her. But even the Wobblies’ labor allies wonder what a pretty, pregnant, nineteen-year-old “girl” is doing (a) away from her husband, and (b) speaking to workingmen, often in terms no modest wife would ever utter, even in private. The Dolan boys are smitten, especially Rye. I don’t blame him one bit.

With exceptional economy, prose, and storytelling punch, Walter justifies his considerable reputation with The Cold Millions. The narrative reads like a thriller about labor strife, with “no — and furthermore” thriving everywhere. Life’s a fight to the finish, and so much wrong blankets the landscape, you seldom know where right is hiding itself, let alone how to act accordingly. In other words, the novel captures the divisions and desperation of a bygone era that seem remarkably like the present.

Flynn is pure electricity, and you can see the sparks; the novel crackles whenever she appears. The Dolan brothers represent Everyman, men who’ve had hard luck and want only a fair chance to improve it. But as Ryan observes, “Hell, it took only your first day in a Montana flop or standing over your mother’s unmarked grave to know that equal was the one thing all men were not. A few lived like kings, and the rest hugged the dirt until it cracked open and took them home.”

What powerful stuff, and Walter deals it straight. There’s no sugarcoating, only an occasional kindness or flash of decency. Sometimes, you can tell the good guys and bad guys apart too easily, yet in the author’s defense, the stakes are such that there’s no straddling allowed. I do wish that Rye had more flaws; he makes mistakes, but usually out of naïveté, which he does his best to address. You pull for him, but I want to do so not just because he’s a trusting innocent. I want him to struggle more with evil instead of skirting it by instinct. I also get impatient with digressions into the backgrounds of minor characters, a few of whom wind up dead shortly thereafter, which feels unfair to the reader. Yet I’ll give Walter credit for insisting on fleshing everybody out, even if the back story becomes intrusive.

There’s also no arguing with the overall effect, which is breathtaking. Walter captures a time, place, and mindset with such brilliance, he makes it look easy. And as a fellow Washingtonian, I salute his effort to portray the Wobblies, who left their mark on the Pacific Northwest a century ago and more.

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