Thursday, March 03, 2016

Pierce’s Picks

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

In his first novel, Speakers of the Dead (Plume), Georgia English professor J. Aaron Sanders propels Long Island-born poet-journalist Walt Whitman (he of Leaves of Grass fame) into the role of amateur sleuth, tackling a mystery involving body snatchers, religious zealots, and political corruption. It all begins with the public hanging in 1843 of Lena Stowe, who with her husband, Abraham, founded the Women’s Medical College of Manhattan. She’d been convicted of slaying Abraham in retribution for his serial infidelities, one instance of which was his affair with Mary Rogers, the “beautiful cigar girl” whose real-life but unsolved murder in July 1841 was a public sensation (as well as the impetus for Edgar Allan Poe to pen “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” his sequel to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”). Reeling from the deaths of his two friends, Whitman—a manifestly impassioned reporter in his early 20s, working for the New York Aurora newspaper—sets out to prove that the Stowes’ deaths represent serious miscarriages of justice. In pursuit of this end, he recruits Henry Saunders, a former lover and now his new editor at the paper. However, the vast majority of responsibilities in these pages fall to Whitman himself, who proves quite capable of handling not only protesters fiercely opposed to anatomical dissection of cadavers at the women’s college (for they fear their loved ones will be deprived of “resurrection” if they’re missing body parts), but also short-sighted superiors, obdurate lawmen, and the occasional knife-wielding assailant. (In an interview in The Rumpus, Sanders says that “When I started the book I didn’t really understand Walt’s physicality. He was a strong, athletic man, and he did get into fights.”) The author’s historical research, while not flawless (Crime Fiction Lover notes a mention of “Whitman’s mother whistling “Onward Christian Soldiers” to him 30 years before it was composed”), certainly helped fill Speakers of the Dead with delightful curiosities, including the  existence of 19th-century “dead houses—places where loved ones can leave [the recently deceased] safely until they are no longer good for dissection.” It’s said that this novel is the first installment in a new series. A promising beginning, indeed.

After composing two more lighthearted novels as “Elaine di Rollo,” the writer now styling herself “E.S. Thomson” delivers Beloved Poison (Constable UK), a darker Victorian-era yarn that takes ample advantage of her expertise in the history of medicine. The setting is a ramshackle and slowly collapsing mid-19th-century London infirmary, St. Saviour’s, that’s expected to be demolished in favor of a new railway bridge. There we’re introduced to Jem Flockhart, an androgynous apothecary with a prominent birthmark, who was born a girl but reared as a boy. From her position as an outsider (a favorite kind of figure in mystery fiction), Jem sees clearly the failings of her infirmary associates, from the back-stabbing doctors employing sometimes dubious medical practices to the patients struggling to survive each day amid the hospital’s filth. Everyone in this place, it seems, has secrets—a few of which will inevitably be loosed by the murder of handsome but promiscuous Dr. Bain, whose planned next conquest might’ve been his boss’ winsome daughter. What hand struck Bain down, and how might his murder relate to the discovery, in the graveyard behind St. Saviour’s, of tiny coffins bearing bloodstained remains? Americans who don’t wish to order Beloved Poison from Great Britain should be happy to know that a U.S. edition of Thomson’s enthralling novel is due out this coming September.

Click here to see more of this season’s most-wanted books.

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