The following reviews originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Historical Novels Review, published by the Historical Novel Society.
LILLI DE JONG, Janet Benton, Doubleday/Nan A. Talese
In her debut novel, Janet Benton believably imagines the speed with which a young woman’s life can change from safe, happy, and privileged to miserable and outcast. The titular character, Lilli de Jong, lives with her Quaker parents and younger brother in late 19th-century Philadelphia. But then her mother dies, a relative sweeps in to usurp her mother’s place beside her weak-willed father, and a young man staying with the family seduces Lilli before leaving to seek his fortune in Pittsburgh, taking Lilli’s brother with him. When Lilli’s black-hearted stepmother discovers her burgeoning pregnancy, Lilli finds herself homeless.
Benton has Lilli relate her story by writing in a series of notebooks, a technique that allows the main character to reflect on ideas and events in ways that would have been difficult in a straight narrative. On the other hand, as Lilli’s circumstances become increasingly fraught, it’s hard to imagine her having the time or inclination to scribble out pages and pages of observations and events—with dialogue—as she attempts to find food, fend off villains, and care for her infant daughter.
To Benton’s credit, she doesn’t render caricatures of either good or evil. The headmistress of the Haven for Women and Infants is severe and exacting, but she is also dedicated to giving the young women in her charge the second chance that society is unwilling to grant. Lilli’s aloof employer, Clementina, is a talented musician who has been forced by convention into matrimony and motherhood; her disappointment makes her bitter and even cruel, but not inhuman. The same cannot be said for the rigid culture that dismisses the human dignity of those at its fringes.
MISS TREADWAY AND THE FIELD OF STARS, Miranda Emmerson, Harper/4th Estate
In 1965 London, successful American actress Iolanthe (Lanny) Green walks out of the theatre where she had been starring and disappears. Lanny’s dresser, Anna Treadway—unemployed when the starless show shuts down—feels compelled to search for the woman she soon realizes she doesn’t know very well.
Anna ignores repeated warnings to stay out of the investigation by the detective assigned to the case, Barnaby Hayes, a tightly disciplined Irishman whose real name is Brennan. She finds a lead through Aloysius, a Jamaican accountant, who joins Anna in the pursuit.
Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars is a consideration of identity: of the intentional and unintentional reinvention of identity, of the identity we project out to the world compared to the one we live with inside ourselves, and of how the world perceives us compared to how we imagine we’re perceived. This point is underlined when Aloysius suffers a beating by police and is coldly leveraged into becoming an informant, despite having committed no crime. “He realized now that the man he had become inside his head was far whiter and more handsome than the outer Aloysius… would never have been beaten… would never have had the experience of handcuffs.”
It also explores how often we disappoint ourselves and those around us for not being who we—or they—thought we were or ought to be. The most poignant example is Brennan’s relationship with his wife Orla, which is so filled with mutual disappointment they are incapable of speaking to each other.
In some ways, Lanny is too unevenly drawn to be entirely believable, and Anna’s past remains unsatisfyingly oblique, but Emmerson’s debut is a touching, thought-provoking read.
THE CUTTHROAT: AN ISSAC BELL ADVENTURE, Clive Cussler and Justin Scott, Putnam
Pity poor Justin Scott, who’s listed as the co-author of nine of the ten books in Clive Cussler’s Isaac Bell Adventures series. One imagines Clive checking in every so often from his beach chair in St. Tropez to see how Justin is getting along with the latest installment. On the other hand, not everyone gets to be the marquee name.
However the work was portioned out, The Cutthroat represents a rollicking if scarcely believable turn-of-the-20th-century whodunit—or, more precisely, “who keeps doing it?” When the object of his missing person search turns up dead, Isaac Bell—principal investigator at the Van Dorn Detective Agency—promises the wealthy, distraught father that he will find the killer. Since the agency has offices nationwide as well as internationally, and is far better resourced than the police, Bell’s team is able to pursue an emerging pattern of grisly murders across time and geography that point inexorably back to—wait for it—Jack the Ripper. Bell focuses in on a set of suspects in a touring company of the play “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” giving us ample opportunity to ponder the good-versus-evil struggle inside all of us.
The story steams across the county and over the ocean, and squeezes the most out of every bit of technology available to the modern age of 1911. For those of us not familiar with Books 1-9, there’s a handy “Who’s Who” at the front that dispenses with backstory. Though it strains credulity that the perpetrator—given his “day job”—could have pulled off 20-plus years of carnage, it’s a fun, page-turning romp.