Category: Historical Fiction

Mischling

Cover image for Mischling by Affinity Konarby Affinity Konar

ISBN 9780316308106

“Because you had no power over the fact that I was born, you took from me what I was born with—the person who was my love, the half that made me entire—and now I am lessened into this dull thing, a divided person who will live forever, wandering in search of some nothing, some nowhere, some no-feeling, to mend my pain.”

Stasha and Pearl Zamorski are twelve-year-old Polish-Jewish twins who arrive at Auschwitz in 1944 with their mother and grandfather, their father already missing and presumed dead at the hands of the Gestapo. Here they are singled out by Dr. Josef Mengele, who would become known to history as the Angel of Death. Inside Mengele’s “Zoo,” he collects genetic oddities, including giants and dwarves, albinos and people with heterochromia iridium, and most especially twins. The inmates of the Zoo receive special privileges including more food, and are allowed to keep their hair and clothes. The price is the terrible experiments carried out upon their bodies, the purpose of which they are never given to understand. How does someone survive the guilt and pain of such an experience, let alone carve out a new existence in the aftermath of liberation?

Structurally, Mischling is divided into two parts, with alternating chapters narrated by Stasha and Pearl. Part one deals with their arrival and internment at Auschwitz, while part two takes place after the camp is liberated by the Russians in January 1945. The first part is perhaps the stronger of the two, and Konar admits to struggling with the second half, throwing out the draft at least three times while trying to get it right. Stasha and Pearl have voices that are at once similar and distinct. Stasha has the more active imagination, and she sinks into it in order to survive, making up stories and creating games that help them carry on, but which also lend her sections a surreal quality. By contrast, Pearl has a quiet but more honestly introspective voice, less distanced from reality. Konar’s prose is lyrical throughout. Although genetically identical, the girls are distinct people, and it seems that Mengele’s experiments can only tear their twinhood further asunder.

Konar’s narrative provides a measure of the horrors of Mengele’s human experiments, and yet does not focus on them. Mischling is more about Stasha and Pearl’s internal lives during their internment, focusing on how they cope and survive under such adverse, inhumane conditions. Yet many passages are undeniably horrific, and are often drawn from the real memories of Auschwitz survivors, particularly the accounts Eva Mozes Kor. Perhaps the most horrifying confession comes from Dr. Miri, a Jewish doctor forced to collaborate with Mengele. She admits to performing abortions on female inmates after discovering that Mengele was using pregnant women for vivisection. Her character is based on Dr. Gisella Perl. Through Stasha and Pearl, we see different ways of coping with the reality of such circumstances, though in Stasha’s case this often means obscuring reality in order to survive. After receiving an injection from Mengele, she becomes convinced that she is now deathless, and is therefore concerned only with how Pearl, who has not been made deathless, will survive.

Mengele himself is a character who is made large by his absence from most of the narrative. Yet he is strikingly horrific when he does appear, not just because of his brutality, but because of the nauseating contrast between his avuncular manner with the children one moment, immediately followed by terrible violations of their bodies and minds. In part two, he disappears from the narrative entirely—in real life he disguised himself as a farmhand before fleeing to South America—and yet continues to cast shadow, as Stasha becomes obsessed with tracking him down and exacting revenge. But the fact that he appears little on the page allows Stasha and Pearl to come into focus, their voices dominating the narrative in an effort to seize back some measure of control.

Mischling is a Holocaust novel that depicts horror couched in beautifully crafted prose. For some, Konar’s careful wordsmithing will distance them from the narrative, and the atrocities it unveils. For others, the juxtaposition will only serve to make the truth that much more poignant as it explores what it means to come of age in the midst of such a tragedy.

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Snow Falling on Cedars

Cover image for Snow Falling on Cedarsby David Guterson

ISBN 0-679-76402-X

“She was of this place and she was not of this place, and though she might desire to be an American, it was clear, as her mother said, that she had the face of America’s enemy and would always have such a face.”

It is 1954, and Japanese-American World War II veteran Kabuo Miyamoto has been charged with the murder of fellow fisherman and veteran Carl Heine. His trial begins in the midst of a snow storm that has struck the town of Amity Harbour, on the island of San Piedro off the coast of Washington State. Reporting on the trial is Ishmael Chambers, who inherited the small local paper from his father when he returned from the war. Carl was a solo gill-netter fisherman, and his body was pulled from the ocean, caught in his own nets, after the boat was found drifting off the coast on a foggy September morning. In the grip of the snow storm and the trial, the islanders are forced to face old grudges and deep seated prejudices as the evidence against Kabuo mounts.

Ishmael’s coverage of the trial is complicated by the fact that the accused’s wife, Hatsue, was his first love before the war, and he has never gotten over losing her. Indeed, he still entertains shameful fantasies of winning her back, even as her husband’s life hangs in the balance. Ishmael lost his arm during the war, fighting in the Pacific Theater, and it has bitterly tainted his perception of the island’s Japanese-American residents, even as he clings obsessively to his feelings for Hatsue. However, this is not the only unfinished business being raised by the trial. Before the war, the Miyamoto family had entered into a clandestine arrangement with Carl Heine’s father to purchase seven acres of strawberry land, which would be placed in Kabuo’s name once he came of age, due to the fact that first generation Japanese immigrants could not own land. But they were interned before they could finish their payments, and when Carl Sr. died while his son was away at war, his wife took the opportunity to sell the entire farm.

Snow Falling on Cedars opens on Kabuo’s trial, though it takes some pages for David Guterson to reveal what he is charged with. Indeed, it is in general a novel that peels back in slow layers, as one witness after another takes the stand, and flashbacks are interleaved with the present moment. The pacing is slow and steady. The witnesses give their testimony when their time comes to take the stand, but through the limited omniscient narrator, we are also able to see the things they are thinking about, but not saying. Some are entirely insignificant to the plot—the coroner for example, thinks about how, during the autopsy, he noticed that the deceased’s penis was much larger than his—but other omissions are much more consequential. The coroner does not mention in his testimony that he told the sheriff that the blow to Carl Heine’s head reminded him of wounds he saw delivered by kendo-trained Japanese soldiers during the war, a comment that may have primed the sheriff to suspect Miyamoto.

What fills in the slower pacing of the novel is the ambience of the Pacific Northwest island setting, despite the fact that the story takes place in the midst of an uncharacteristic snow storm. San Piedro is a fictional island that would be part of the San Juans if it existed, but it draws inspiration from Guterson’s home, Bainbridge Island, in the Puget Sound just off Seattle. Guterson pays great attention to detail as he describes both salmon fishing and strawberry farming, the two main industries on the island. The beaches and cedar forests serve as the sites of Ishmael and Hatsue’s budding but forbidden romance. What begins as innocent child’s play on the beaches must take covert shelter among the ancient trees when they become adolescents. Though fewer scenes take place there, the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar, California, feels visceral and immediate. Manzanar is the more literal incarnation of the dark undercurrent that runs beneath the more romantic, pastoral portrayal of Amity Harbour.

An obvious comparison can be made between Snow Falling on Cedars and To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel Guterson regularly taught as a high school English teacher with a budding novel in his desk drawer. But neither Nels Gudmunson, the lawyer, nor Ishmael Chambers, the journalist, is Atticus Finch, at least not as he appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird. They might perhaps be closer to the earlier incarnation of the character recently revealed in Go Set a Watchman. And the narrative is complicated by the fact that Kabuo is not obviously innocent, even though prejudice certainly played a role in his arrest. For most of the story, Kabuo refuses to speak to anyone, even his lawyer, about what really happened that night out on the water, and so the reader, too, is left in the dark, piecing together the clues along with the jury, even as we enjoy a more omniscient perspective, privy to some characters’ internal thoughts.

Snow Falling on Cedars is somewhat of a murder mystery, even though it is more ponderously paced than most pager-turners of that genre. Rather, it is more concerned with how human nature shapes such an investigation and prosecution, subtly or not so subtly dictated by preconceived notions and the weight of the past. The truth is slowly revealed, even while the reader is left with the impression of how easily it could have been buried forever.

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All the Light We Cannot See

Cover image for All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

ISBN 978-1-4767-4658-6

“Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”

In 1934, at the age of six, Marie-Laure LeBlanc lost her eyesight. Her father, Daniel LeBlanc, is a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. He builds Marie-Laure a scale model of their neighbourhood to help her navigate, and she spends her days with him at the Museum, reading Jules Verne in Braille. But their peaceful life is upset by the German invasion, and they flee the Nazi occupation of Paris, taking refuge in the coastal town of Saint-Malo.  Unbeknownst to Marie-Laure, the Museum has entrusted her father with an item from its collection. What Daniel LeBlanc does not know is if it is the real artefact, or one of the three duplicates that was made to serve as a decoy. Meanwhile, in Germany, Werner Pfennig is orphan who lost his mother to illness and his father to the coal mines of Zollverein. He has a passion for radios and math. When war comes, these skills draw him to the attention of the Reich, and he is selected to attend a special military prep school where talented young Germans are indoctrinated into National Socialism.

Anthony Doerr builds a sense of destiny into his sweeping, interwoven narrative of two children on opposite sides of World War II. Long before Marie-Laure and Werner’s paths finally come together in the siege of Saint-Malo in August 1944, Werner lies in bed at night with his repaired radio, picking up the distant broadcast of a French professor who discusses science. The voice belongs to Marie-Laure’s grandfather, who died in the Great War, but whose voice lives on in the recordings he produced. The book is overwrought with these tiny details that eventually flow together with a sense of inevitability. Doerr employs an extremely intricate time line that weaves back and forth through history at very short intervals—the chapters are usually only a handful of pages long, though sometimes it is only the point of view character and not the time period that changes. This works in the sense that the siege of Saint-Malo—with which the story begins and keeps returning to—is the part of the story that has the most tension, but it also makes the timeline of the story complicated to follow.

Marie-Laure is totally blind for most of the story, and her main form of navigation involves counting storm drains with her cane. Her father builds her two models, first a replica of their Paris neighbourbood, in the time before the war, and then a second when they flee to take refuge with his uncle in Saint-Malo on the Brittany Coast. These scale models are designed to teach Marie-Laure the shape of her neighbourhood, so she can navigate alone. Yet her family is caught between this detailed obsession with granting her independence, and an overwhelming protectiveness that leaves her seeming childlike and strangely innocent for a person caught in the middle of an occupation.

If Marie-Laure’s family attempts to shelter her in a way that is not realistic for the times she lives in, Werner gets the opposite of protection. The military school Schulpforta is a brutal indoctrination, constantly forcing the pupils to goad one another to higher achievement, for fear of being singled out as the weakest. While Werner achieves some measure of protection when he is selected to work on a special project to track the source of radio transmissions with one of the teachers, his best friend Frederick is ill-equipped to conceal his weaknesses and his sensitivity from the other boys. Werner’s conscience is a fragile and battered thing, too often given voice only by his sister, Jutta. When he cannot justify his own actions, nor can he bear to write to his sister, who goes months without word of him. (Spoilers/Trigger Warning: Jutta was a character with interesting potential, but she is neglected for most of the story, only to be brought back on stage in the final pages to be raped by Russian soldiers in a scene that felt perfunctory and unnecessary.)

As the Germans pillage Europe’s art collections, Doerr introduces a third point of view character; Sergeant Von Rumpel is sent to track down the famous Sea of Flames, a near-mythic stone that was reportedly in the collection of the Museum of Natural History. Legend has it that the gem is both blessed and cursed; the bearer of the stone cannot die, but those around him will pay the price. Contrasted with this mythic stone is the power of technology and its pivotal role in the conflict. The radio centers in the novel from the earliest pages, when Werner and Jutta repair an old shortwave, and use it to tune into French broadcasts. As the Reich asserts more and more control over its citizens, foreign frequencies are banned, and only state-sponsored German programming is permissible. Jews are not allowed to own radios at all, and the citizens of occupied France are also required to turn in their devices. Radios are pivotal both to the spread of German propaganda and the efforts of the French Resistance.

I read this book mixed media, going through part of it in audiobook form, and then finishing it in hard copy when my download expired before I got through the book. All the Light We Cannot See is long with detailed writing, and the plot, while tense at some points, moves languidly at others. The narration of the audiobook was generally good, but would have benefited from a reader who could better pronounce the many French words. Overall, I felt the book itself worked better, as the short chapters with frequent time changes were easy to lose track of when listening to the audio version.

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Outrun the Moon

9780399175411_OutrunTheMoon_BOM.inddby Stacey Lee

ISBN 978-0-399-17541-1

“The closer I am to someone’s grief, the closer I feel to my own. And that is a place with no doors and no windows. No escape at all.”

Mercy Wong is the ambitious daughter of a hard-working Chinese-American launderer and a famous fortune teller, trapped in San Francisco’s Chinatown with little hope of advancement now that she has finished all the available grades at the Oriental Public School. Never one to back down easily, Mercy contrives a plan to get herself a scholarship to St. Clare’s School for Girls, one of the best private institutions in the city. But getting into the school is only half the battle, and when a historic earthquake strikes San Francisco in April 1906, all of Mercy’s plans are thrown aside, as she and her classmates struggle to survive in a city that is torn apart and burning.

In order to get into St. Clare’s, Mercy agrees to help the chocolatier Mr. du Lac get permission from the Chinese Benevolent Association for him to open a store in Chinatown. After striking this bargain, Mercy is forced to pose as a wealthy Chinese heiress, to help mute potential objections to her presence at the school. Having never been to China, Mercy must put on an act, drawing on what she can remember of her father’s stories of his childhood. Normally the novel would centre on the discovery of her deception, but lurking behind the threat of discovery is the reader’s knowledge that the great earthquake is imminent.

Outrun the Moon is full of juicy tidbits about the history of San Francisco, and Chinatown in particular. I ended up down a Google rabbit-hole only twelve pages into the book, after Stacey Lee referenced the forced inoculation of Chinatown residents following the bubonic plague outbreak that struck San Francisco in the early 1900s. Chinatown was particularly targeted, including a quarantine, and the eventual requirement that all residents of the neighbourhood be vaccinated. Many of these details are worked into the opening pages of the novel, and so it took me a while to really settle into the story, because I was constantly being caught up by the fascinating rabbit trails Lee only hints at in the text. Lee also includes quite a bit of information about Chinese rituals and superstitions, including Mercy’s aversion to the number four.

While it is primarily about Mercy’s ambitions, there is a slight romantic subplot to Outrun the Moon, as Mercy hopes to marry Tom, a doctor’s son from Chinatown. But Tom is absent for a large part of the book, pursuing his own dream of flying, rather than his father’s insistence that he follow him as a doctor. Once Mercy is at St. Clare’s, the novel focuses on the relationships she is developing with the other girls at the school, particularly Francesca, an Italian-American girl who faces her own teasing about her heritage. When Mr. du Lac proves to be a flaky business partner in their Chinatown venture, Mercy reluctantly allies with his prickly daughter Elodie in order to hold up her end of the bargain. The two girls are never precisely friends, but the evolution of their relationship over the course of the novel is a pleasure to watch. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the students must come together to try to shelter and feed everyone while the city is under martial law, awaiting relief assistance. This opens the second act, in which the girls really come into their own. Like Lee’s first novel, Under a Painted Sky, Outrun the Moon is most notable for the attention given the relationships between the diverse girls.

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Boxers & Saints

Cover images for Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yangby Gene Luen Yang

Color by Lark Pien

ISBN 978-1-59643-359-5

ISBN 978-1-59643-689-3

“What is China but a people and their stories?”

 

As the youngest son, Little Bao never expected fame or glory. But when he learns how to harness ancient powers, and transforms into a mythical warrior, he rises to become a leader in the Boxer rebellion. This nationalist movement seeks to oppose foreign imperialism and the spread of Christianity within China. Little Bao believes he is fighting for his country, but so many of the people who are dying are his countrymen, both his allies within the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, and those Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity. Meanwhile, in a village not far from Little Bao’s home, Four-Girl grows up without a proper name, cursed and rejected by her grandfather for being born on a day of ill-luck. Unable to find acceptance within her family, she embraces their belief in her devilry, and gives herself over to the new foreign faith that is sweeping the land. Though she finds acceptance among the Christians, and finally receives a proper name, her lack of true faith is driven home by her visions of Joan of Arc, who sacrificed so much for her country and her religion. But do these visions mean Vibiana should become a religious martyr like Joan, or renounce her foreign faith in the name of patriotism?

Panel from p317 of Boxers

Gene Luen Yang draws on Chinese history and mythology in these two companion volumes. This intriguing time period (1894-1900) provides ample scope for the story, and it is mythology and the costuming of Chinese opera that give Yang room for artistic flair rather than pure visual realism. Lark Pien uses bright colours to bring the Chinese warriors to life, while Vibiana’s visions of Joan of Arc are defined by the use of light, and a warm, golden glow. The difficulty of communication between the two sides is driven home by a clever lettering technique on Yang’s part; dialogue that would have taken place in Chinese is conveyed in English, while Western languages are represented by an invented, Chinesesque script that is only rarely subtitled.

Panel from Saints p86

Vibiana, known to her family as Four-Girl, appears only twice, and briefly, within the pages of Boxers. In Saints, she takes center stage, showing one of the many ways in which Chinese converts might have been drawn to Christianity. Together, the two volumes tell the story of a brutal resistance that rose up in response to a brutal foreign power. Neither side comes away clean. It is the barest glimpse of the complexity and tragedy of the Boxer rebellion, and in acknowledgement of this fact, Yang provides a suggested list of Further Reading on the subject.

The decision to split Boxers & Saints into two volumes is an interesting one, because the two timelines are braided together. However, actually intermixing them would result in long asides from one story to the other, and the tones are very different. Boxers focuses on an outward battle, while most of Saints is about an inward struggle. Yet either one without the other does not give the full scope of how each side was wronged, and suffered. Though Saints is the shorter volume, and clearly better read after Boxers, they are both better read in short order so that they can complement one another.

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Circling the Sun

Cover image for Circling the Sun by Paula McLainby Paula McLain

ISBN 978-0-8129-9932-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2015.

“Everywhere I looked, complex pairings came together and slid apart again, like characters in a melodrama. Lives tumbled. They changed in an instant…that’s how quickly something could be newly begun, or finished forever. Every now and then, those things didn’t look so very different, on the surface. They both cost a great deal, too.”

Before she became the pioneering aviator holding the record for being the first woman to make the east to west solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1936, Beryl Markham (nee Clutterbuck) had already led a unique and varied life. Abandoned by her mother at the age of four, she was raised by a single father in the British colony of Kenya, where she became the first woman to hold an English horse trainer’s license. Though she enjoyed some remarkable professional success, her turbulent personal life, and the stifling social atmosphere of the colony would lead her to reinvent herself again and again in pursuit of the seemingly exclusive dreams of freedom and love. In Circling the Sun, Paula McLain—who previously fictionalized the life of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley in The Paris Wife—turns her attention to Markham, a complicated figure whose legacy remains plagued with scandal.

Markham sought independence, and focused on her career at a time when both she and the men she loved struggled to reconcile her ambition and insistence on freedom with her need for love. McLain depicts Markham’s string of marriages and entanglements that bogged down her career, including a long and complicated attachment to the famous big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, who was also the long-time paramour of Baroness Blixen (better known by her pen name Isak Dinesen). McLain’s work cover’s Markham’s early life, and first two marriages, all of which is framed by her famous trans-Atlantic flight. Given the period that it covers, the book is much more about horses than planes, and more about the complicated social relationships that characterized the colony than anything else. Circling the Sun might be considered the prequel to Markham’s better-known accomplishments.

McLain’s fictional version of Markham demonstrates a deep love for Africa as a place, lavishly painting the landscape that repeatedly draws Markham back home. However, Circling the Sun has very little to say about the African people, or the problems and complications of colonialism. This is in spite of the prominence of Markham’s employer and surrogate father-figure, Baron Delamere, a significant political figure who strongly opposed the Devonshire White Paper, which declared the primacy of African interests over those of the colony’s white settlers. McLain provides a few political passages, but these are references which the fictional Markham brushes off as “some recent political nonsense.” It is difficult to say whether this reflects Markham’s own lack of interest in colonial politics, or a narrative choice on McLain’s part. Certainly it would have been more than enough for Markham to try to make her way in a man’s career, without also trying to interfere with politics. Black Africans feature very little in the story, with the exception of Markham’s childhood friend Kibii Ruta, who comes back to work for her as an adult. This intriguing relationship is portrayed as a grounding force in Markham’s life, and left me powerfully curious about Ruta.

McLain has definitely painted a sympathetic portrait of Markham, trying to inhabit her complicated times and questionable personal choices with understanding rather than judgement. In her author’s note, she quotes some effusive praise by Ernest Hemingway—no saint himself and something of misogynist—of Markham’s memoir West with the Night, but chooses to elide the fact that Hemingway goes on to call her a “high-grade bitch.” After her famous trans-Atlantic flight, Markham is perhaps best known for an affair with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, which McLain chooses to write out as entirely baseless.  It’s hard to say how much of the scandal was tittle-tattle of the sort that made the small colonial community so stifling, but Markham doesn’t need to be likeable in order to be fascinating or noteworthy. McLain’s Markham isn’t uncomplicated, but she isn’t fully rounded, either. However, McLain has certainly succeeded in sparking empathy and curiosity, and perhaps that is enough for a fictional biography.

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Songs of Willow Frost

 Cover image for Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Fordby Jamie Ford

ISBN 978-0-345-52203-0

“You can’t expect children to sew their own gaping wounds without leaving a terrible scar.”

Five years ago, at the beginning of the Great Depression, twelve-year-old William Eng found his mother bleeding out in the bathtub of their apartment in the Bush Hotel in Seattle’s Chinatown. Since then, he has lived at Sacred Heart Orphanage under the watchful eye of Sister Briganti. Sometimes children are retrieved by their parents or adopted, but Chinese William, and his friends, Native American Sunny and blind Charlotte, have little hope of finding a new home. On a joint birthday outing for all the boys at the orphanage, William spots an Asian actress on screen who is a dead ringer for his mother, Liu Song. When he discovers that the actress, Willow Frost, will be coming through Seattle on tour, he sets out to meet her, determined to get the answers the nuns have so long denied him. Running away with Charlotte in tow, William learns the tragic and complicated story of how he came to live at Sacred Heart. The history he uncovers lays bare the plight of Chinese-Americans and Chinese immigrants in Depression-era Seattle.

Social injustice and oppression are rife in this story that begins in Seattle at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and continues through the Great Depression. Even before the Depression, it was difficult for women to obtain legitimate employment, and the pay from the jobs that were available was meager. Non-white theatre-goers had to sit in a separate section, and coloured performers were relegated to the servants’ dining room of the venues that warmly receive their white counterparts. An American-born Chinese woman could not marry a white American, but risked losing her citizenship if she wed a man born in China. Poor women and members of minorities were subjected to involuntary sterilization at the hands of the state under the cover of medical aid. The list of atrocities is long, and historical remove turns the perpetrators of these injustices into flat, villainous caricatures.

With so many misfortunes in a single book, it is no surprise that most of the characters have more than one tragedy in their backstory. A tragic past is not the same thing as character development, but unfortunately Jamie Ford often treats it as such. While this certainly conveys the bleakness of the Depression, people who are little more than catalogues of tragedies make for unrealistic characters. William’s friend, and fellow runaway, Charlotte, is dealt with particularly unjustly. One of William’s few friends at Sacred Heart, she is the stereotype of a blind character, with acute hearing, and the ability to tell who has approached her without seeing them. Ford disposes of her quite callously when she is no longer useful to the story.

The main strengths of Songs of Willow Frost are historical colour and local interest strongly supported by Ford’s research (see the Author’s Note and Acknowledgements, particularly if you are local to Puget Sound and want to visit some of the museums and libraries that supported this project). William affects his escape from Sacred Heart in the back of the King County Library bookmobile, and the story stops at many recognizable Seattle landmarks, including Smith Tower’s Chinese Room. Ford neatly slips the developments in the film and music industries of the period, and other technological advances into the fabric of the story. Only occasionally does he get a little carried away, letting history overwhelm the narrative. Unfortunately, these real elements are frequently more interesting that the fiction that surrounds them.

The Scent of Death

Cover image for The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylorby Andrew Taylor

ISBN 978-0-007213511

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“The point is, sir, however loyal an American may be, he is not a Englishman any more. He is become quite a different animal.”

Mr. Edward Savill of the British government’s American Department arrives in New York in the summer of 1778, in the midst of the American Revolution. New York is held by the British, and Mr. Savill is charged with documenting the claims of Loyalists who have been turned out of their homes by American rebels. Manhattan is under military rule, and overflowing with refugees from the war, obliging Mr. Savill to billet with the Wintour family, including Judge Wintour, his wife, and their daughter-in-law, Mrs. Arabella. Immediately upon his arrival, Mr. Savill is drawn into the investigation of the murder of Mr. Roger Pickett, an American of questionable loyalties whose body is found in the slums of Canvas Town. What at first seems a simple case of robbery comes back to haunt Mr. Savill’s tenure in New York when Mr. Pickett’s influential brother-in-law demands that the investigation be reopened.

Veteran mystery writer Andrew Taylor first published The Scent of Death in Britain in 2013. The historical thriller earned Taylor his third Crime Writer’s Association Ellis Peters Historical Award, and is now being published in the United States by Harper Collins. Taylor has a beautiful command of the language and culture of the period, and a rich knowledge of history that brings Revolutionary-era New York to life in vivid detail, although his British perspective will undoubtedly feel alien to many American readers, who will be seeing the War of Independence from the other side.

If you don’t enjoy gathering up clues or basking in period detail, the first two hundred pages of The Scent of Death are rather tedious. Taylor abides by the rules of fair play, so those who like puzzling out whodunit before the protagonist will find plenty to keep them thinking and theorizing. However it takes a great deal of patience to get through the opening acts, in part because Mr. Savill is not a particularly good or eager detective. He is reluctant to get involved in affairs beyond the scope of his post, and concerned by Mr. Pickett’s connection, however slight, to the Wintour family, whose members he has become attached to during his stay. If you are good at solving murder mysteries, you may be impatient for Mr. Savill to catch up to you.

In addition to a slow start, The Scent of Death is hard going at first due to Taylor’s stereotypical characterizations. His Englishmen come across as stuffy, pretentious, insufferable bores, and his Americans seem to be uncultured, racist boors. On meeting Mrs. Arabella Wintour, a noted American beauty, Mr, Savill has the ungenerous thought that the Americans “perhaps judged a lady’s personal attractions by lower standards than we did.” These kinds of priggish judgements make Mr. Savill unpleasant company. What is interesting about this characterization is the way Taylor is able to use it to illicit the sympathies of the modern reader; we are brought to like Mr. Savill in spite of his priggishness because he treats the black characters and slaves much better than his American counterparts. His sympathy for the runaway slave Virgil isn’t much, and it doesn’t save the slave from hanging, but it is difficult not to like Mr. Savill when he prevents a man from selling his wife’s maid to pay a gambling debt. He may be a reluctant hero, but he eventually finds his feet. Similarly, despite their racism, we are drawn to the American characters precisely because they are so much more friendly and accessible than the English ones. Ultimately, Taylor seems to be playing with the stereotypes rather than leaning on them, and using the contradictions to confound our ability to judge characters and assess their guilt.

The plot arc of The Scent of Death deals in extremes, starting with a ponderous introduction, and coming to a frenetic and luridly sensational ending in the last seventy pages. The satisfaction of piecing together the many clues is somewhat diminished by the melodramatic final reveal, which has none of the delicate balance Taylor pulls off in playing the British and American interests against one another. The Scarface plot comes neatly together, but Taylor’s need to add one final twist puts the ending a little over the top. The Scent of Death has Taylor’s strong command of the language and vivid historical setting to recommend it, but the slow pacing and unsatisfactory conclusion weigh heavily against those considerations.