RSS

Category Archives: Historical

JEB RUBENFELD. An Interpretation of Murder (2006).

The idea of casting Sigmund Freud as the sleuth in a murder story, or at any rate as a walk-on sleuthing consultant, has an “overdetermined” quality, as Freud himself might put it. Like a detective, a psychoanalyst excels at finding the thread of significance that lurks within a jumbled skein of reported events. Both figures dedicate themselves to teasing out truths that others seek to hide. And for both, the saga of Oedipus serves as a model for the unraveling of life’s most profound mysteries. Rubenfeld wrests this analogy from its inert obviousness and yokes it to a real historical puzzle: Why did Freud, following his lone visit to the United States, develop a lifelong antipathy to that country—an antipathy so extreme that he once labeled the American experiment in civilization “a great mistake”? The fictional answer, Rubenfeld suggests, is that during his 1909 excursion to the New World the good Dr. Freud witnessed goings-on that would make even the most jaded Old World gentleman cough up his cigar in amazed revulsion.

InterpretationMurder.jpg In that year, Freud traveled to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, to deliver a series of lectures; on his way to New England, he stayed for a week in New York, accompanied by an entourage that included Carl Jung. On the basis of those historical facts, the author erects a complex and adroitly managed plot that hinges on transporting Freud’s famous “Dora” case from fin-de-siècle Vienna to ragtime Manhattan. That case involved a dark love quadrangle in which, behind a façade of bourgeois probity, a man prostituted his daughter (“Dora”) to another man in exchange for conjugal rights to the latter man’s wife. Here, Dora assumes the form of one Nora Acton, a nubile “new woman” who lives with her family in a Gramercy Park townhouse. After a strange incident in which Nora reports molestation as well as memory loss, a young psychiatrist named Chatham Younger subjects her to a course of Freud’s newfangled talk therapy. Younger, an authorial creation who narrates bits and pieces of the novel, conducts his psychoanalytic investigation under Freud’s supervision. Alas, he fares about as well with Nora as Freud did with Dora—that is, not very well at all. Proper sleuthing work remains the province of Jimmy Littlemore, a police detective whose blandly stolid heroism adds (um) “little more” to Rubenfeld’s teeming cast of characters.

Younger, for his part, has much better luck with efforts to interpret the mysteries of Hamlet (What did the melancholy Dane really mean when he asked his “To be or not to be” question?) and of the Oedipus complex (Do children truly harbor feelings of homicidal jealousy toward their parents?). Those moments are among the choicest slices of Rubenfeld’s dense literary layer cake. Also worthy of praise are a series of ably evoked period locations, ranging from the exalted heights of a luxury apartment house (based on the fabled Ansonia, on the Upper West Side) all the way down to the pressurized depths of an underwater “caisson,” used in the construction of the Manhattan Bridge. Down there, as in the airless bottom of the human unconscious, a man might lose not only his breath but also his very self.

Advertisements
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on March 26, 2017 in American, Historical, Novel

 

HAROLD ADAMS. The Man Who Was Taller Than God (1992).

ManTallerGOd.jpgCarl Wilcox, an itinerant man-of-all-work and an occasional sleuth, is not so much hard-boiled as he is parched and withered. He’s been worn down by the elements—sun and wind, lust and greed—that dominate the Depression-era South Dakota landscape in which he operates. To be sure, he retains a modicum of spirit, and it’s most evident when he’s flirting with the many lonely and attractive women who cross his path. Yet over everything that he does or says (Wilcox narrates his own adventures), there hangs an air of rueful impoverishment. Like his urban private-eye counterparts, like Spade and Marlowe and the rest, he has turned detached alienation into both an ethic and a style; unlike them, he can’t draw on the frenzied energies of a big-city environment to compensate for the bleakness in his soul. Called upon to solve the murder of a womanizing insurance salesman, Wilcox undertakes the task with little sense of urgency, and indeed with little sense of interest. It’s just another job to him, like the sign-painting gig that brought him to town in the first place. He works the case in the way of private investigators everywhere, by knocking on doors and riling people up, and in time the truth spills out. That revelation seems overly complex, given the rather minimalist quality of the narrative that precedes it, and Adams does too little too prepare readers for it. Still, it’s a conclusion that well suits the all-embracing drought of Wilcox’s time and place—a drought that was, according to Adams, spiritual as well as meteorological.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 31, 2014 in American, Historical, Novel

 

DAVID FULMER. Chasing the Devil’s Tail (2001).

Someone is murdering the “sporting women” who make the Storyville section of New Orleans what it is. Or, rather, what it was—for the year is 1907. Storyville, a 14-block area that became a district of legally sanctioned vice in 1897, is a thriving hub of morally dubious activity. The fabled “oldest profession in the world” flourishes there, and so does the world’s newest art form, a style of music known as “jass” or “jazz.” (The heyday of the District, as it was known, lasted until 1917. That year, the U.S. Navy deemed it to be a threat to wartime discipline and shut it down.) This tale opens with the killing of one prostitute. Then comes another. And another. And so on. Each homicide takes place in a different Storyville brothel, and the method of murder differs each time as well. The only element that unites these crimes, other than the victim’s mode of employment, is the placement (by the killer, presumably) of a black rose on or near the corpse.

ChasingDevilsTail.jpg

For writers today, especially those who deal in tales of historical crime, the serial murder of fallen women is an evergreen trope. A string of dead whores calls forth the cultural memory of Jack the Ripper, and it makes for a powerful, readymade theme. Yet it’s a theme that, all too often, allows writers and their readers to keep a certain distance from the dark material at hand: The poor “unfortunates” who become murder victims loom as faceless emblems of a benighted time gone by. Fulmer, to his credit, deploys this trope in a nuanced and credible way. Shrewdly, he abandons the common genre practice of using first-person narration, and thus he’s able to offer a sympathetic, God’s-eye view of the women who plied their trade in the mansions of Basin Street and vicinity. He observes, for instance, that they frequently (and understandably) sought comfort and intimacy not from men, but from each other. More generally, Fulmer excels at delivering incisive pen sketches of lived experience. In his authorial care, we come to know—or believe that we know—what it felt like, and sounded like, and smelled like, to stroll the banquettes of the Vieux Carré in the early years of a new century.

Writerly flair also gives Fulmer an edge when it comes to populating the tale with actual personages of that time and place. That standard technique of historical fiction can result in awkward efforts to blend historical truth with fictional truth. (It can be especially problematic in a detective story: Readers know that such “real” characters aren’t plausible murder suspects.) But Fulmer has a deft way of bringing into his narrative such people as Tom Anderson, the so-called King of Storyville; E.J. Bellocq, a photographer whose portraits of Storyville prostitutes form a powerful, haunting record of those women and their milieu; the fabled whorehouse madams Lulu White and “French” Emma Johnson; and, most centrally, the cornet player Buddy Bolden—a titanic presence in the early history of jazz and also, in Fulmer’s telling, a tragic figure who was essentially driven insane by his own talent.

Another emissary from the history of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, jazzman Jelly Roll Morton, offers the bit of aphoristic wisdom that provides a title for the book: “You best be careful if you go chasin’ the devil’s tail, ’cause you just might catch it.” Fulmer has Morton spout that line to Valentin St. Cyr, the fictional sleuth who has star billing here. BellocqPhoto.jpgSt. Cyr, half African and half Italian by descent, functions ably in the half-lit, half-legal world of the District. Employed as an enforcer and problem solver by Anderson, and by some of the savvier Storyville madams, he is just the right fellow to launch a hunt for the “devil” who’s terrorizing the Crescent City.

That hunt, unfortunately, isn’t as compelling as it might be. Readers have scant opportunity to follow St. Cyr in working through a set of clues, because real clues are thin on the ground. (That black-rose motif? It never amounts to much.) There’s a big, stinky red herring: Each of the slain women had a clear connection to Bolden, and Bolden conspicuously lacks an alibi for each murder. There’s a long, anguished, but essentially empty quest by St. Cyr to find an alternative explanation for the killings. (St. Cyr, a boyhood friend of cornet player, never harbors any doubt as to Bolden’s innocence.) Finally, there’s a flash of insight that leads the detective to discern the unlikely suspect who is, in fact, the culprit. Fulmer, though, does little to set the stage for that epiphany. Some readers will be able to guess at least part of the solution, but only because there are only a few directions in which the story can go. Chasing the Devil’s Tail, in short, is a tale in which the chase has far greater resonance than the moment of capture.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 25, 2014 in American, Historical, Novel

 

BARBARA CLEVERLY. The Last Kashmiri Rose (2001).

A serial killer of great subtlety and near-infinite patience stalks Panikhat Station, an outpost of the British Raj located in the hinterland of Bengal. It’s March 1922, and Peggy Somersham, wife of a British officer, lies dead. Her assailant had gagged her, held her down as she lolled in a tub, and then slit her wrists. Called in to investigate is Joe Sandilands, a Scotland Yard detective who has come to Calcutta to deliver lectures on modern police procedure. LastKashmiri.jpg He and his sleuthing cohorts—including the wife of the district Collector, a pert, smart flapper named Nancy Drummond, and Naurung, a native Indian deputy who offers his white masters the standard combination of wiliness, ambition, and loyalty—quickly discern that this murder is the fifth in a series that began in 1910. In each case, a memsahib (meaning, in this instance, a white woman) had suffered a horrible but seemingly nonhomicidal death during the month of March: One had fallen from a cliff while on horseback, one had succumbed to a cobra’s bite, one had drowned during a river crossing. Who could want all of these women to die, and who could want to eliminate them in such a methodical and long-range fashion?

Suspects in this adventure are few, and clues to a possible motive are even fewer. Cleverly, although she borrows many a prop from the Golden Age novel of detection, has little interest in setting forth a puzzle. Instead, she models her tale on those late-20th-century thrillers that pit a cunning psychopath against a hero or heroine who is adept at criminal profiling. (In one of the book’s many borderline anachronisms, she has Sandilands draw insight from his reading of Freud and Jung. Those titans of psychoanalysis had achieved some notoriety by the 1920s, to be sure, but how plausible is it that a British copper of that era would be conversant in their ideas?) The identity of the likely villain emerges early and becomes steadily more evident. And yet, just when it seems that Cleverly has no surprises in store, she delivers one that arrives with a decisive snap. Despite that welcome twist, the closing sequence of the novel drags on longer than it should, and a too-cute-by-half romantic subplot weighs down the story as a whole. Beyond that story, what remains in memory is the author’s evocation of a timeless India as it intersects with a British Empire whose time is now running out.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on November 19, 2013 in British, Historical, Novel

 

CALEB CARR. The Alienist (1994).

A mutilated body, barely recognizable as that of a boy, is found atop a bridge tower in the Manhattan of 1896. Further obscuring the sexual identity of the victim are the dress and face-paint that had, in life, rendered him a cartoonish facsimile of a girl. The poor soul had been among the countless immigrant children who are compelled by a Darwinian struggle for survival to sell their flesh, and to sell it to a clientele with specialized tastes in how such tender merchandise is packaged.Alienist.jpg It’s not the sort of crime that would typically spur much official interest in locating the perpetrator. But the killing follows a series of earlier, similar atrocities, and New York City police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt worries over the threat posed to the social order by a fiend who targets the immigrant poor. Fearful of mob violence, Roosevelt creates an unofficial committee to investigate the murders and places at its head Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, the tale’s eponymous hero. (“Alienist” was a then-common term for what we now call a psychiatrist.) In this man, every major trend in the burgeoning field of psychology seems to converge, from William James’s work on the early formation of habit to the theories of Freud and Breuer concerning the effects of childhood trauma—and Kreizler brings all of that insight to bear on the search for the killer’s motive and whereabouts. He also brings to the case a tumultuous background of his own that figures decisively in the manhunt. Carr overloads the novel with historical digressions, moral and psychological theorizing that occasionally flirts with anachronism, and bouts of old-fashioned high adventure. At its weakest, his writing suggests a combination of Jonathan Kellerman (whose own shrink hero, Alex Delaware, flourished in fiction a century later) and the Hardy Boys. Yet at his best, which is on display frequently enough, Carr maintains a firm hold on a smart, sprawling narrative.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 27, 2013 in American, Historical, Novel

 

MATTHEW PEARL. The Dante Club (2003).

Boston, at the tail end of 1865, is intent on putting the horrors of the Civil War behind it. Who, then, is equally intent on bringing to that fabled City on a Hill a new series of horrors—those envisioned by the 13th-century Florentine poet Dante in The Inferno? The answer, this earnestly crafted thriller suggests, comes in two parts. First, a group of literary luminaries plans to introduce Dante’s masterpiece to the New World by releasing a fresh English translation. DanteClub.jpg Second, a deranged soul has begun, in a brutally literal fashion, to enact the poet’s medieval punishments upon select members of the Boston Brahmin caste. The two parts converge when the illustrious men of letters, led by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (who is joined by the poet and teacher James Russell Lowell, the doctor-essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the publisher James T. Fields), take notice of the killer’s grisly approach to literary criticism. Then, filling a gap left by the slightly corrupt and scholastically hopeless Boston police force, they remake their self-proclaimed Dante Club into a squad of sleuths. Pearl smoothly mixes dark historical fact and the darker fancy of his 21st-century mind, yielding a big, boxy narrative that contains more riches than it truly needs: entomological curiosities, sidelights on American publishing history, the psychological effects of mass carnage upon Union veterans, the sorrows of Longfellow in widowerhood, race relations in the seat of abolitionism, the tensions wrought upon proudly modern Boston by its Calvinist past, and on and on. The members of the Dante Club track down the poetry-mad perpetrator, with a zeal that they would otherwise devote to hunting down le mot juste, but the heroic climax is too long in coming. Like many writers who set their pick against the quarry of history, Pearl ends up weighing his book down with great slabs of research. The result, though smartly told in solid prose, justifies his hard work more than it serves the strict needs of his tale.

 
5 Comments

Posted by on June 19, 2013 in American, Historical, Novel, Puzzle

 

MICHAEL DIBDIN. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978).

The word “last” in the title is no mere marketing flourish; it’s an omen of genuine terminality. Something truly ends in this first novel by Dibdin, who later made a mark with his series about Italian police commissioner Aurelio Zen. At the least, what ends here is the aura of boyish innocence that lay draped like a warm, woolly Inverness cape across the imagined world of the original Holmes tales. LastSherlock.png The cozy structures of Victorian life, which had long kept evil within boundaries that the great detective could negotiate with masterly flair, are now crumbling underfoot. Inciting this affront to order are the exploits of Jack the Ripper: In the fall of 1888, an assailant slices a half-dozen prostitutes to death on the dank, narrow streets of Whitechapel, in east London. For Holmes, whose career was on the ascent at that very moment, the Ripper killings present the ultimate crime-fighting challenge. Add in the involvement of Professor Moriarty (this book’s title also plays on “The Final Problem,” the title of the adventure in which Holmes confronts that fabled nemesis), along with the motif of Holmes’s cocaine addiction, and Dibdin has the makings of a tour de force. Sherlockian purists might deem the novel to be a tour de farce, a pastiche that begins competently but then veers perversely from homage to horror. They would not be wrong. But others will appreciate Dibdin’s clever plotting, which recalls Ruth Rendell at her most ingenious and most psychologically acute. Non-purists might also see that this work is finally about Dr. Watson, who of course acts as narrator, and about the good doctor’s abiding affection for Holmes—the Holmes whom posterity knows, and whom Watson knew and loved.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on May 31, 2013 in British, Historical, Novel, Puzzle