Friday, September 03, 2004

Oh, and I do plan to blog more about Japan. I can just hear the collective groan about that. But first, I'm going to blog about what I read on my summer vacation. Keep in mind that I didn't choose most of these books: I had to read what was on hand.

There's a recent trend of historical mysteries featuring real historical personages. I blame The Alienist. Anyway, I read two of these on my summer vacation. One was pretty good. The other was crap.

The pretty good one was The Dante Club, by Matthew Peal. It's set in Boston immediately after the Civil War, and it involves a bunch of Dante enthusiasts who have to save Dante's reputation by solving a bunch of murders that seem inspired by The Inferno. Good things about it include that it captures the period pretty well, with one reservation, which I will get into below. The historical personages, who include Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, are well-developed characters who come across as actual people. There's real suspense.

But there were some problems. I didn't find the resolution very satisfying, which is a bad thing in a mystery. (This is a mystery with pretentions, but it is still a mystery.) The book is a little gratuitously disgusting, especially if you have issues with maggots. And really, who doesn't? And while Pearl seems to have a pretty good grasp on mid-19th-century New England culture and on the issues that led to the Civil War, he doesn't do a great job conveying the particular historical moment in which his book is set. His characters care a lot about politics, but all of their divisions seem to be holdovers from the pre-Civil War period. I'm thinking that Pearl must have taken a "U.S. history to 1865" class, because he seems to think that the most important political issue to post-Civil War Bostonians was whether reading Dante would corrupt Harvard undergrads. If he's ever heard of Reconstruction or the heated debates about it, there's no evidence of it here.

But that's nothing compared to the crimes against history perpetrated by The Manhattan Island Clubs by Brent Monahan. This one is set in New York elite society in 1906, with Joseph Pulitzer, J.P. Morgan, and Stanford White making guest appearances as famous historical personages. There's a lot wrong with this mystery, but the thing that bugged me most was the absolutely pathetic depiction of the time and place. Monahan was clearly too lazy to do substantial research: in his acknowledgements, the only book on social (as opposed to architectural or institutional) history he mentions is a Time Life book about the gilded age and progressive era. A Time Life book! This thing doesn't even have an author, other than Time and Life. And his characters behave in ways that don't make any sense for the period. Could he not at least have read a couple of Edith Wharton novels to get some sense of New York high society? Hell, he might have benefited from renting the damn movies of Age of Innocence or House of Mirth. His characters act like late-20th century folks who happen not to have cars or microwaves. It's annoying.

Coincidentally, I read two other things that sort of take the form of mysteries, but are clearly more than that. The first is The Rotter's Club by Jonathan Coe. It's set in Birmingham in the 1970s, and since someone disappears and is possibly murdered, it could be a mystery if the mystery were ever solved. But it's never explained, and instead this book is really a sort of politicized coming-of-age story about pre-Thatcher England. It has some problems: some of the characters come alive more than others, I found the ending stylistically annoying, and there's a very long interlude in the middle where someone tells a story that is, I think, somehow supposed to relate to the rest of the book but that just seems tacked on and weird. But I liked the book, I cared about the characters, and I think I'm going to avoid reading the sequel that's just come out, because I don't want to see them turn into pathetic, compromised grown-ups.

The other sort-of mystery was Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. I liked this one, too, although the depiction of Tourette's Syndrome made me a little nervous. It's probably not a great idea to turn a real disability into a metaphor, I don't think. But by giving his detective Tourette's, Lethem creates an opportunity for a lot of verbal hijinks, which are fun. I really liked the narrator. I liked that the book takes the form of a mystery, with a conventional resolution, but leaves some bigger unstated mysteries unresolved.

Next up is The Time Traveller's Wife

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