Category Archives: Historical

THOMAS H. COOK. Places in the Dark (2000).

Cook specializes in exploring the spaces that exist within one particular kind of “dark”—the darkness of the human heart, a metaphysical region where desire and memory go into hiding, and where dangerous schemes of deliverance are born. Exactly what Dora March may be hiding from is the secret that hangs longest and most provocatively over this novel, an unapologetically gothic affair set in a Maine town called Port Alma during the Great Depression. PlacesDark.jpgComing seemingly out of nowhere and bringing little more than her cryptic beauty, Dora enters and eventually turns upside-down the lives of Cal and Billy Chase, scions of a prominent local family. The contest that Cook shrewdly limns between Cal, a gloomy soul of classical temper, and Billy, a true-blue romantic, provides a powerful narrative substructure. Sibling love and sibling rivalry drive the story, which opens in the aftermath of Billy’s violent death and starts with a quest by Cal (who serves as the tale’s first-person narrator) to find Dora, who fled town immediately after the murder. As usual in a novel of this type, the key to understanding the recent past lies in a more distant past, and Cook puts forth several possible keys that might unlock the mystery that is Dora March. Cook’s failure to make the most of those possibilities is the only flaw in an otherwise elegant plot. In the end, we discover where Dora came from, but not what compelled her to travel across a continent to the storm-battered, love-forsaken world of Port Alma.

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Posted by on April 5, 2013 in American, Historical, Noir, Novel


TOM BRADBY. The Master of Rain (2002).

This Chinese Wall of a novel, which rolls on for 509 pages before laying its last brick, yields something less than the sum of its many, many parts. And Richard Field—or, rather, Bradby’s overweening reliance on the character Richard Field—is to blame. Field, the disgraced son of a suicidal failure and now a Special Branch agent, has come to Shanghai in 1926 in order to find redemption, and Bradby keeps the reader at Field’s side for every step of that quest. We’re with Field as he surveys the luxury apartment where Lena Orlov lies dead, her lingerie-clad body rent with brutal stab wounds. We’re with him as he navigates the phalanx of banks, trading houses, and other institutions of Western power that line the Shanghai Bund. MasterRain.jpg We’re with him as he prowls the squalid streets where wizened old men pull rickshaws by the light of red paper lanterns. The scenery, at every turn, is compelling; it’s the company that starts to wear thin after a while.

Clinging to one man’s feverish point of view works well enough in a taut noir piece, and plainly Bradby is striving for a noir effect: Field’s partner in crime-solving, an American named Caprisi, never says, “Forget it, Dick. It’s Chinatown,” but you keeps expecting him to. Yet this bulky saga—a tale of imperial corruption and sexual predation, of arrogant English businessmen and desperate White Russian exiles, of stern Scottish policemen and cagy Chinese natives—cries out for the use of multiple perspectives. As viewed through Field’s angry, humorless gaze, scenes of potential richness and variety come off as drab, repetitive, and all too similar to scenes from other stories about dashing, alienated Brits in exotic foreign lands. (Influences on Bradby clearly include, along with the American tough-guy tradition, both the British high tradition of Conrad, Maugham, and Greene and the British low tradition of Sax Rohmer and Ian Fleming.) Among his other heroics, Field manages to rescue from seeming doom a tragic Russian beauty named Natasha. But he’s powerless to give life, all on his own, to a thriller of such epic magnitude as this one.

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Posted by on February 28, 2013 in British, Historical, Novel


UMBERTO ECO. The Name of the Rose (1980).

Eco, a renowned literary scholar, brings to this début work of fiction the sensibility of an unapologetic polymath. The result is a novel that brims over with the fruits of his wide-ranging research—and with signs of his brainy, manic ambition. It’s at once a faithful pastiche of the mystery genre and a bravura performance that gleefully transcends the boundaries of genre. NameRose.jpgThere is room here not only for seven violent deaths, all taking place at a secluded abbey located high in the North Italian mountains (the structure is ancient even in 1327, when this chronicle takes place), but also for a discourse on the social and political history of heretical sects, for a psychological and theological examination of the Inquisition, and for a survey of European high politics in a time of two popes and one Holy Roman Emperor, who (as the old witticism goes) was neither holy nor from Rome nor much of an emperor. Two figures stir this bubbling cauldron of ingredients into a coherent narrative. The first is a shadowy murderer who apparently takes his cue from the Book of Revelation. The second is a Franciscan Inquisitor whose forensic methods anticipate scientific criminal-investigation techniques by half a millennium. This proto-sleuth bears the none-too-subtle name William of Baskerville, and he’s accompanied by a Dominican novice whose own cognomen, Adso of Melk, carries a trace echo of the name Watson.

As Conan Doyle does in the Sherlock Holmes tales, Eco in The Name of the Rose turns the quest for knowledge into an engine of drama. Indeed, the question of knowledge (Is it a matter of reason, or of revelation?) lies at the very core of this opus. In the case of Adso, the knowledge that eludes and addles his mind is carnal, and he devotes much of his time at the abbey to exploring the mysteries of love and lust. But he also finds time to watch William’s quest unfold. (True to his Watsonian model, he narrates this adventure.) The man from Baskerville acts as a hound of truth—truth in its modern form as a quality that is lodged in nature and amenable to human scrutiny. Dead friars pile up at a rate of one per day before William at last finds the pivotal clue deep in the center of the abbey library, a maze-like structure that looms as a veritable labyrinth of turpitude. In the end, a resolutely medieval darkness hangs over the story. Even so, William’s feat of detection offers a narrow sliver of light and, perhaps, the promise of further enlightenment yet to come.


Posted by on January 17, 2013 in Historical, International, Novel, Puzzle


JAMES ELLROY. Clandestine (1982).

In a strong, clean prose style that occasionally borders on being overwrought, Ellroy constructs a fast-moving, complex private-avenger saga that falls just short of being overcooked. The author, in this second of the monumental L.A.-based crime novels on which his fame rests, is plainly forming the contours of a powerful private mythology, and yet his debt to the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald is equally evident.Clandestine.jpg A tough-sensitive hero-narrator who has an uneasy relationship with the forces of official order, and an all-too-easy way with women. A cast of female characters who are lonely, needy, and (ostensibly) doomed. A child of uncertain paternity whose safety and future hang in the balance. A Southern California landscape in which every sunlit vista ends in disillusionment and death. A story line whose trail of blood and tears leads back to a gothically imagined Midwest. Ellroy incorporates those classic elements into a tale set in the early 1950s—the very moment when Chandler and Macdonald were putting the finishing touches on a classic genre. Here, the memory of that golden era has congealed into a mix of nightmare and nostalgia, providing an apt, cartoon-like backdrop for melodramatic action. (Unlike the world of noir fiction, this world includes no shades of gray. That which is dark is solid black; everything else appears in the blinding primary hues of Fifties-era Technicolor.) For Ellroy, a connoisseur of hyperbole, it’s never enough to let well-enough alone. Like his hero, the once-and-future cop Fred Underhill, he is obsessed by “wonder,” by an apprehension of the beauty that lies hidden on the far side of life’s horrific extremes.

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Posted by on December 26, 2012 in American, Hard-Boiled, Historical, Novel


DANIEL STASHOWER. The Dime Museum Murders (1999).

“Need Houdini Urgent Home Branford Wintour Stop Murder Investigation Stop Lt. Murray.” The year is 1897, and when the Great Houdini receives that brisk summons, his period of actual greatness lies far in the distance. Meanwhile, he struggles to hold himself in place on the slippery lower rungs of the entertainment-industry ladder. The note finds Houdini at Huber’s Dime Museum, a low-rent vaudeville outfit near New York’s Union Square, and it sends him thence to the Fifth Avenue mansion of a slain toy magnate. The police want him to provide some insight into an antique magician’s toy that apparently served as the murder weapon. DimeMuseum.jpgBut Houdini insists on offering more than a sampling of his technical knowledge. With his brother Dash Hardeen acting as his Watson (and a shrewd, resourceful Watson at that), the 23-year-old “escapologist” casts himself as a Sherlock Holmes in the flesh, and he sets out to unmask the murderer—much as the real Houdini would later unmask spiritual mediums and other charlatans.

The ensuing tale offers great fun in the form of suavely executed melodrama. Stashower writes with a sure hand and with plenty of wit. He errs, though, in gliding too easily in the ruts inscribed by his genre models (the turn-of-the-century thriller, the boys’-adventure yarn). The book also suffers from the signal weakness of most novels that feature actual historical figures: Those characters end up seeming less real—less plausible, less present—than even moderately well-conceived fictional creations. Finally, there is too much comedy here, and in particular too much cornball byplay on the theme of Jewish mothering and its impact on Jewish sons. Comic intrusions into a suspense tale have their place, but they work best when they are few and sharp, like glints of light that shine through a large, dark canvas.


Posted by on November 29, 2012 in American, Historical, Novel, Puzzle


KATE ROSS. Cut to the Quick (1994).

Of charm and wit and narrative polish, there is no shortage here. Although it’s the first detective novel written by Ross and the first book to feature amateur sleuth Julian Kestrel, Cut to the Quick cuts a fine literary figure. In that respect, the book takes its cue from its protagonist. Modeled on Regency dandies such as Beau Brummell, Kestrel appears to fit that type to a jauntily crossed T. On first glimpse, he’s a vain and aimless toff who lives only for fashion—the sort of man whose radius of concern extends no further than the hem of his waistcoat or the break in his trousers. He sleeps late and then spends his entire day choosing what to wear for a night on the town. And, as Ross eagerly notes, he wears it very well indeed. Yet Kestrel demonstrates before long that he contains (as does this novel) a deep reserve of intellectual and moral substance: CutQuick.jpgWhen his valet gets arrested on suspicion of murder, he abandons his peacock pose and acts the part of a true English bloodhound.

The transformation occurs at Bellegarde, the country estate of the ancient and illustrious Fontclair family. It’s 1822, and young Hugh Fontclair has invited Kestrel to attend a house party there. On the first full day of the gathering, Kestrel returns from a ride across the grounds of Bellegarde, goes to his guestroom, and finds an unknown young woman lying under the cover of his bed. She’s dead. There’s a stab wound in her back, and there are bloodstains on a wood-paneled wall nearby. Circumstances conspire to paint Kestrel’s man—a reformed pickpocket named Dipper, whom Kestrel rescued from the foul streets of London—as a likely culprit. To exonerate Dipper, Kestrel must figure out not only who the actual killer is, but also who the slain damsel was. Other matters complicate the investigation. For one thing, Kestrel’s room was locked on the afternoon of the killing. How, then, did the victim and her assailant enter it? For another thing, Hugh has agreed to wed a woman who lies conspicuously outside his social circle, and he won’t explain why. Does that secret have anything to do with the sordid business at hand? Examining the moves and motives of the Fontclairs and their guests is, to be sure, not a gentlemanly pursuit. But Kestrel takes up that charge with his usual aplomb.

Some aspects of the mystery at Bellegarde—the locked-room quandary, in particular—are less clever than they should be. Clearly, Ross has other goals in mind besides engineering a trick plot. She infuses this country-house whodunit with tropes from the fictional world of Jane Austen, and the muses of comedy and romance make their presence strongly felt from the first chapter to the last: At no point do we forget that there’s more to life than solving a murder. Ross also devotes a lot attention to fondly describing the aristocratic milieu of the Fontclairs. (In that way, she’s perfectly typical of other Americans who write about dear old Albion.) Much to her credit, though, she colors her tale with a streak of gothic menace. Before it’s all over, there is ample evidence to show that nobility doesn’t always ennoble those who are born to it.

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Posted by on October 19, 2012 in British, Historical, Novel, Puzzle


ED GORMAN. Relentless (2003).

Relentless.jpgMarshal Lane Morgan, keeper of the peace in the Colorado community of Skylar during the final decade of the 19th century, embodies the taming of the West. Not only is he an agent of the law, charged with pacifying that onetime wide-open mining town, but his demeanor and his voice—he narrates this western-mystery hybrid—reflect the softer, more civilization-friendly impulses within the American spirit. That’s not to say that he lacks the capacity for rip-roaring action. In one scene, he leaps from the window of a saloon-hotel and onto a buckboard. In another, he heads off to rescue his kidnapped wife, Callie, only to find himself bound and gagged, and staring into the barrel of a gun. Yet the story that he tells, pivoting as it does around a formal murder investigation, belongs to the world of settled society. It starts when Callie’s former husband, one David Stanton of Chicago, comes to Skylar and pursues a scheme to blackmail Morgan and Callie. Stanton soon turns up dead, and Morgan sets out to interview people who might have had reason to kill the interloper. Suspects include a farmer woman who had slept with the victim; the husband of that woman; the town potentate, who believes that he’s above the law; and, of course, Callie. To conduct his sleuthing rounds, Morgan uses a horse rather than a beaten-down roadster, but otherwise he operates essentially in the same mode as Philip Marlowe. The frontier way of life, and the fabled passions that it arouses, have all but vanished. Even Morgan’s effort to clear his wife of suspicion comes across as controlled and stately; by the standards of modern pulp entertainment, it’s hardly “relentless.” Similarly, Gorman’s prose is stolid and whip-smart, but largely devoid of raw emotion. The emphasis here is on the rule of law, not the law of revenge, and the marshal’s tin star, battered though it may be, stays firmly in place on his chest.


Posted by on September 6, 2012 in American, Hard-Boiled, Historical, Novel


KATE SUMMERSCALE. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008).

It was the crime of the century, perpetrated during a century that witnessed the transformation of crime into “sensation”—into the raw material of public spectacle. It was a domestic murder that unfolded in an era when the cult of domesticity was at its zenith. It was a not-quite-solved case, with a dossier full of provocative clues, and it burst open at a moment when professional detection and popular detective fever were beginning to take root as fixtures of modern society. The phrase “detective fever” comes from The Moonstone, the classic early detective novel by Wilkie Collins, and Summerscale not only cites that term but also explores its meaning and implications at considerable length. WhicherCover.jpgWhy do the cold forensic details that make up a criminal investigation arouse such heated fascination among so many people? Why does a violent and mysterious death, especially one that occurs within the intimate setting of a bourgeois home, incite such avid interest among those who have nothing to do with it? The murder of Saville Kent, a three-year-old boy, put those questions into high relief. It shocked people from every class and county in England, and it fueled the imagination of writers like Collins, who drew inspiration for The Moonstone from the exploits of Jonathan Whicher, a Scotland Yard detective who became famous (and infamous) for his feverish quest to name Saville’s killer.

One morning in the summer of 1860, young Saville was found missing from his crib. A short while later, during a search of the grounds at Road Hill House, the home in Wiltshire where the large and prosperous Kent family resided, a local townsman discovered the boy’s dead body under the seat of an outdoor privy. A member of the Kent household—it soon became apparent that no outsider could have done this deed—had stolen away with the toddler in the small hours of the night, had quietly taken him to a dank and forbidding “earth closet,” and had slit his throat, leaving him to bleed to death like a sacrificial lamb. Official suspicion fell at first on Elizabeth Gough, Saville’s nursemaid. She had slept in the same room as the boy, and on the fateful morning she told conflicting stories about the whereabouts of his blanket. Among the public, meanwhile, suspicion fell on Samuel Kent, the family patriarch. The most common speculation was that Saville had awoken to see his father and the nursemaid in a lustful embrace, whereupon the elder Kent acted violently to ensure the boy’s silence. (Samuel Kent had already taken one governess to bed: Several years earlier, he had hired a woman named Mary Pratt to look after the offspring of his first marriage; subsequently, she became his second wife and bore him three children, including Saville.) Clues that could establish the guilt of any party were insubstantial and few in number, however, and the local constabulary turned to Scotland Yard for help. So up from London came Whicher, an original member of the Yard’s detective force (founded in 1842), and his suspicions converged on another possible culprit: Constance Kent, Samuel’s sixteen-year-old daughter.

Whicher, at the time of the Road Hill affair, was already a man of some renown. Charles Dickens had publicized his career as an all-seeing scourge of the London underworld. Other writers, too, had chronicled Whicher’s rise as an exemplar of a new type of urban hero. But the matter of Constance Kent led to a downfall of sorts. The gap between suspicion and proof, between what Whicher theorized and what the men on a Victorian jury were ready to believe about a well-bred maiden, was too wide for the master detective to overcome. Summerscale catches a rich and exciting range of material in the dragnet of her narrative. She explores every documented fact about the murder, and she powerfully evokes the spell that it cast in its time. She even manages to include a surprise twist or two as she brings the story of that killing to a close. Her central focus, however, is on the amazing yet representative life of Jack Whicher, a figure who embodied both the ecstasy and the agony that a bout of detective fever can cause in its victims.

A masterpiece of its under-appreciated genre, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher delivers every variety of emotional pang and intellectual thrill that a true-crime story is capable of providing. It also stands as a prime example of that much rarer thing, a true-detective story.


Posted by on July 12, 2012 in British, Historical, Puzzle, True Crime


PETER LOVESEY. Wobble to Death (1970).

A “wobble,” in the London sporting world of 1879, is a several-day-long test of endurance in which several “pedestrians” (the word, as used here, connotes a brotherhood of noble Olympians) travel around an indoor track, accumulating lap after lap while paying spectators toss out cheers, jeers, and the occasional piece of rotting produce. Contestants run, walk, or gallop, according to their talents and their whims, and either they fall by the wayside at some point or they manage to stumble along until a predetermined stop time. By modern standards, it doesn’t seem like much of a race; such thrills as it offers are few and far between. But Victorian Englishmen take their entertainment where they can find it—and, in the case of this fictional wobble, there are a couple of murders to liven things up.

WobbleDeath.jpgThe first of those killings claims the life of Charles Darrell, an up-and-coming pedestrian from the striving class. Going into the second day of a weekling race at Agricultural Hall, in London’s East End, Darrell had proven to be a worthy rival to Captain Erskine Chadwick, a gentry-class fellow who had been the early favorite in the contest. But then Darrell succumbs to strychnine poisoning. To keep himself alert and on track, he had routinely ingested a beverage laced with strychnine, and apparently someone had slipped an extra-high dose of that stuff into his regular concoction. Suspects in the case include Darrell’s wife, Cora, who was wont to invite other men into her parlor once she know that her husband was at work and on the run, so to speak; his trainer, Sam Monk, who was among Cora’s paramours; and various men in or around the contest who might have bet money that Chadwick, rather than Darrell, would wobble his way to triumph. A follow-up murder, evidently committed in order to silence a possible witness, complicates the matter for Sergeant Cribb, the investigating officer whom Scotland Yard has put on the case.

Lovesey, in this maiden effort both for himself and for Cribb, takes the spatially and temporally limited setting of a wobble and turns it into a richly decorated panorama of class, culture, and crime. Period details, rather than plotting, are what supply the novel’s chief source of interest. There are a few decent clues, and Cribb (together with his long-suffering sidekick, Constable Thackeray) does a bit of decent work with them. But the puzzle to be solved is, well, somewhat pedestrian.


Posted by on June 14, 2012 in British, Historical, Novel


PHILIP KERR. March Violets (1989).

And Philip Marlowe thought that he lived in a corrupt civilization! He should have traveled to the Berlin of 1936. There, his fellow private eye Bernhard Gunther could have shown him what it’s like to go down streets that are really mean. MarchViolets2.jpg In capital of Hitler’s Reich, the would-be knight-errant faces challenges that make Marlowe’s tribulations in greater Los Angeles seem about as vexing as a day at Santa Monica Beach. Up to a point, the imaginary realms in which these two imaginary sleuths ply their trade do have much in common. Each world is morally septic at its core. In Gunther’s Germany as in Marlowe’s Southern California, a cadre of image makers beguile the masses by offering visions of personal power and physical perfection—visions that, effect, provide cover for a class of goons who run the place down at the mean-street level. In both settings, the goons find cohorts and victims among ethically rudderless rich folk, and among a surprisingly large population of women who are emotionally lost, dangerously beautiful, and usually blonde. The goons in Nazi Germany, though, are more Teutonically efficient than their L.A. counterparts, and their brutal sway over the land gives the Bernie Gunthers in their midst very little room to operate. Gunther, the grizzled antihero of this first tale in a trilogy by Kerr (which has since grown to encompass seven volumes, and counting), fits the classic mold of a fictional private eye. He’s an ex-cop whose reasons for going it alone lie in a gray zone between ignominy and integrity. Sure, he hates the Nazis, but he’s no saint-in-a-trenchcoat; when he takes a case, his goal is not to save a soul but to earn a fair Pfennig.

In its beginnings, at least, the case here is one that Marlowe would recognize. Hired by a steel magnate to investigate the murder of his daughter and son-in-law, and also to recover a stolen necklace,Gunther starts out by rattling the cages of the criminal underclass, seeking clues from those who traffick in stolen goods, discounted lives, or both. In short order, though, his efforts rile the criminal overclass that runs the country. MarchViolets.jpgMembers of the SS, the SA, and the Gestapo, and even Prime Minister Hermann Goering, take an unsettling interest in his work. Finally, after undergoing a host of beatings, a pair of seductions (one manipulative, one not), and a painful and painstakingly described stay at the Dachau concentration camp, Gunther succeeds about as well as an honest shamus in the Third Reich could ever hope to do. He finds the necklace, identifies a perpetrator for each of the many homicides that clutter his trail, and uncovers more information than he wants to have about the inner workings of the Nazi system. Still, one mystery of great personal importance to him remains open. What begins and mostly unfolds as an artful pastiche of the American detective story ends on a dark note that has a distinctly European ring to it: An echo from the world as envisioned by Kafka resounds in the distance. The detective has mastered one series of crimes, but he and the reader both sense that something unfathomably worse lies in the offing.

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Posted by on June 10, 2011 in British, Hard-Boiled, Historical, Novel