Jim Lehrer may be best known as a long-time PBS news anchor, but we know him for his dozen novels, the earlier Oklahoma titles and the later Washington, DC political thrillers. "Thrillers" is used loosely. Generally, his books contain mild but sophisticated intrigue, are always well paced and entertaining, and have occasional humorous or even silly moments. They have all also tiptoed around the perimeter of Uncle Edgar's territory. No Certain Rest (Random House, Sept. $23.95) gets past the pickets, involving as it does murder, deception, carnage on a grand scale, and both forensic and historical investigation.
At a spot overlooking the Burnside Bridge, which crosses the fifty-yard wide Antietam Creek in Maryland, two relic hunters uncover the unknown and unmarked grave of a Union officer --- buried face down. Dr. Don Spaniel (once nicknamed "Icky" due to his resemblance to Ichabod Crane) is an archeologist for the National Parks Service. He's called in to examine the surprisingly intact remains and quickly learns that not only was the officer murdered, but also the brass "dog tag" disc found at the site couldn't possibly belong to him since its owner of record is buried elsewhere. Dr. Spaniel sets out to answer all the questions raised by the discovery.
The story combines past with present, with the focus on what happened on "The Bloodiest Day" in U.S. military history, September 17, 1862. At the Battle of Antietam, the Confederate army of Robert E. Lee met George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac. It was a day of blind courage and sacrifice, vain glory, stupid and tragic command decisions, and extraordinary slaughter --- made all the more terrible by the fact that it truly was brother killing brother. In its own way, the Battle of Antietam was also a tragic turning point in the Civil War. Lehrer deserves praise for taking pains to make the Civil War aspects of his narrative as authentic as possible.
The grave's discovery, the battle, and the hallowed Antietam site itself, all generate angst in varying degrees in all involved with the investigation --- historians, Civil War reinactors, descendants, and Dr. Spaniel himself. Though warned more than once that it may be best to let battlefield ghosts lie, that indeed the sins of the fathers are often visited on the sons, Dr. Spaniel cautiously pursues the truth. (I'm reminded that a spaniel is a bird dog --- a hunter valued for its "soft mouth".) If the truth shall set you free, then establishing historical truth is --- emancipating.
The literary device isn't new --- the moral irony of having a "domestic" murder amid a scene of wholesale death and casualty. Three examples come immediately to mind; J. Robert Janes' series set in WWII Vichy France with his Surete and Gestapo pair of investigators, Ellis Peter's One Corpse Too Many featuring everyone's favorite medieval sleuth Brother Cadfael, and the minor classic The Fifth Woman (1963) by M. Fagyas set during the Hungarian uprising of October 1956. Switched ID tags is also a ploy that's been used before, including the recent Lost Soldiers by James Webb (early Sept., $7.50).
Over the years America's Civil War has of course provided fertile fictional ground for countless historical novelists. But it recently seems to be a setting favored by many mystery authors; Ann McMillan, Mark Kilian, Miriam Monfredo, and (perhaps the best) Owen Parry. The war has also recently been known to haunt contemporary fictional detectives from writers such as K.J. Erickson, Peter Abrahams, and James Lee Burke. For the younger reader, after finishing the required The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, electing to tackle the recommendable No Certain Rest should also prove emotionally eye-opening.
Fans of historical naval adventure, and Patrick O'Brian's twenty-book saga, are waiting to see how actor Russell Crowe is going to handle playing Captain Jack Aubrey on the big screen in Far Side of the World. Due --- Who knows when? Meanwhile, they are encouraged to take a long look at two fresh, exciting and very recommendable novels by newcomer Julian Stockwin: Kydd (Norton trade paperback $12.95), Artemis (Norton $24), with Sea Flower expected next June.
1793 and Britain is at war with France. Thomas Paine Kydd is a handsome young wig-maker who's taken by the press gang and tossed into the crew of the line-of-battle ship Duke William. He has to learn fast if he's to survive the power of the sea, the ferocity of battle, and the ire of officers. Kydd meets the challenge with the help of his shipmates in the lower deck. His soon-to-be best friend is the brooding and lofty-minded Renzi. Another newcomer to the sea, Renzi is philosophical and somewhat mysterious. He's serving a self-imposed five-year exile over a sin of his father's. There are very clear echoes of O'Brian's Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin in the personalities and relationship between Kydd and Renzi.
In Artemis, Kydd has now been rated able seaman and with Renzi is serving in a crack frigate with the enhanced prospect of action and prize money. But problems at home maroon Kydd on shore, and only the clever intervention of Renzi (though distracted by Kydd's sister) gives him the chance to return to his berth in the Artemis. A long and cruel voyage takes them to exotic China, and then to a savage island in the Great Southern Ocean where they face a crisis and challenge that almost costs them their lives.
Like Patrick O'Brian's saga, the action in both novels is based on actual events. They are fast paced and dramatic, with the fresh approach of focusing on the lower deck --- able-bodied and ordinary seamen --- instead of the invariable attention the officers get in every other naval adventure series. In fact, the officers of the Prince William and Artemis are so seldom seen or heard they cannot rate as secondary characters. There were also touches and details of shipboard life that I had not come across before. Such as: seaman had to stow their ever-present clasp knives when at the helm or near the binnacle so that the iron wouldn't interfere with the compass. Of course.
Time will tell, but I'm convinced Kydd will more than hold his own with the best of his sea-faring brethren --- Hornblower, Aubrey, Bolitho, Ramage, and Drinkwater.
Captain Alan Lewrie can be added to that list. It's noteworthy that after a significant wait three titles in Dewey Lambdin's popular historical naval series come out close to each other. In trade paperback, the substantial and long missing second in the series The French Admiral ($17.95). The ninth, King's Captain in trade paperback (mid-September, $14.95). And a new adventure, Sea of Grey (mid-September, $25.95). Then there's a new author, Jonathan Lunn, who's third novel Killigrew and the Incorrigibles (UK import, $15.95) features a Victorian naval hero (1850) who has "the constitution of Indiana Jones, the ruthlessness of Dirty Harry and the ready wit of James Bond." And I must mention the reissuing of the first four novels in Donald Jack's classic Bandy Papers in Canadian trade paperback ($18.95 ea.). Bandy is a kind of twentieth-century Canadian Flashman --- observer and catalyst to history. The series, a three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Award for humor, begins with Three Cheers for Me and covers 1916-1922.
by Gerri Balter
Have you ever put down a book and wondered what the major publishing houses could be thinking when they published it? I just finished a book where I wondered why the major publishing houses didn't publish it. The name of the book is The Fall of White City ($16.95, signing at Uncle Edgar's Sept. 27) by N.S. Wikarski. The novel takes place in Chicago in the 1890s during the world's fair. Evangeline LeClair, Engie to her friends, is a wealthy young woman who prefers to remain single. She keeps herself busy by volunteering to teach literature at Mast House, a settlement house. One of her students is murdered at one of the richest hotels in the city and the murdered girl's twin brother is jailed as the killer. Engie doesn't believe that. With the help of Freddie, eight years younger and in love with her, she begins her investigation. It doesn't take long before she finds other suspects. The problem is narrowing it down to the guilty party. And even then Engie isn't sure because the person who is tried and convicted of the crime keeps insisting he is innocent. The author will keep you guessing until the last word. She does a wonderful job of involving the reader in a world none of us have ever experienced firsthand. When I finished this book, I was eager to read the next one. I think you will too.
The last thing detective Jake Hines wants is to go out in a frigid Minnesota night. He's playing cards with co_workers as Five Card Stud ($5.99 or $23.95 signed hc) by Elizabeth Gunn begins. When he is notified that a body of a nearly naked man is found frozen at a highway overpass, he goes out to investigate because he has forgotten to leave the duty list and doesn't want to admit it. The man has been murdered but who he is and how he got there is a mystery. Each bit of information leads to another mystery. The murdered man is identified as a trucker. Then the problem is to find his truck and his missing partner. Little by little Jake and his team learn about the dead trucker, his partner and the women in their lives. Only when all the pieces are put together is the mystery is solved.
Although solving the mystery is fun, I also enjoyed learning more about the other members of Jake's squad and Jake's boss.