1888, Agnes Huntington, book review, Charles Evans Hughes, George Westinghouse, Graham Moore, historical fiction, legal thriller, lightbulb, Manhattan, Nikola Tesla, nineteenth century, patent, Paul Cravath, public stakes, self-justifying stories, Thomas Edison
Review: The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore
Random House, 2016. 357 pp. $17
To Paul Cravath, a twenty-six-year-old attorney from whom great things are expected — demanded — Manhattan in 1888 feels like an oyster he knows contains a priceless pearl. He just doesn’t know how to open it.
On the surface, Paul has what many young men on the make would envy. Despite his age and inexperience, he’s George Westinghouse’s chosen lawyer to defend a lawsuit, which, unfortunately, looks unwinnable. Actually, there are 312 of them, for that’s how many cases Thomas Edison has brought against Westinghouse, his allies, and suppliers, contending that Westinghouse’s light bulbs infringe his patent. A master at manipulating public opinion and as unscrupulous as any robber baron, Edison holds all the cards. Yet when the great inventor summons Paul at a ridiculously late hour to intimidate him, Paul has to wonder: Why did Edison go to such trouble?
Indeed, in this crackerjack legal thriller based on real characters and a true story (though certain events are altered or compressed to fit a dramatic timeline), motives are parsed to a hair’s breadth, and pressures mount from all sides. It’s not just that the damages Edison’s seeking total $1 billion, a sum beyond imagining, especially back then. If it were only money, and very old money at that, nobody reading today would care.
But Edison insists that anything he invented — or says he invented, for the patent filing contains inconsistencies — must occupy a sacrosanct, untouchable position. No one else must improve on them; only he may say how they are to be used; and only he may profit. Moreover, if he has his way, the country will be wired only for direct current, a cumbersome, inefficient, and costly system, as opposed to the alternating current Westinghouse favors. To that end, Edison buys journalists and lawmakers to attack A/C any way he can, twisting the science and engineering involved to sway an ignorant, fearful public.
So we have intellectual and economic freedom, as well as the fate of the world, in a sense, the essence of a thriller, the so-called public stakes of a novel. But there’s more here, a lot more. Paul realizes that his only chance to win his case or make sense of its Byzantine details lies in creating a potent story to compete with Edison’s. Consequently, The Last Days of Night is about the stories people tell themselves and others to justify who they are. For a thriller, this is unusual ground and all the more appealing. At the root lies this observation: “All men get the things they love. The tragedy of some men is not that they are denied, but that they wish they’d loved something else.”
Since Paul is still trying to figure out who he is, that conundrum fits him snugly. Unlike the case in many thrillers, this one’s prime mover makes many mistakes and often feels out of his element. Jealous of his senior partners at his firm (one of whom is Charles Evans Hughes, future presidential candidate, Supreme Court Justice, and secretary of state), Paul tries to maneuver secretly, often to his cost.
But certain games must be played in the open, as with a corporate dinner at Delmonico’s:
Three courses into dinner, and they were still only on the lobster. He had no idea how he was going to get all of this food into his already bloated belly. The buttons of his trousers, newly purchased at R. H. Macy’s, felt ready to rip. His never-worn white shirt was going damp with sweat. His bow tie pressed his wing-tipped shirt collar into his neck as if to pop his head clean off, like a boiled shrimp. Business dinners such as this were pure blood sport: How much meat and wine could a man pour down his gullet while still managing to conduct himself in even a slightly professional manner?
His dinner guest is Nikola Tesla, the brilliant, psychologically unstable, Serbian-born engineer whom Edison used and threw away, and whom Paul believes is the key to victory. Does Tesla harbor vengeful feelings against Edison that Paul can harness? What does the engineer know about Edison’s light bulb? And could he invent another based on a different design?
For a while, I thought Moore had ignored the other half of the gambit necessary in any novel, the private stakes. But I sold him short, for Paul’s other client, Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer with as many different façades as a city block, enters the game as a major player. (She’s a historical figure too.) Younger than Paul by a few years, she nevertheless outclasses him, yet another casting against type.
Credible and gripping as The Last Days of Night is, however, I do wonder about Agnes’s ability to perform various actions necessary to the plot. The growing attraction between Paul and Agnes, though de rigueur, doesn’t always ring true. And I could have done without the earnest effort to redeem Edison and Westinghouse after the narrative has shown them to be neither warm nor fuzzy.
Nevertheless, this is a terrific novel, which I highly recommend.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.