Periodically I like to look back into the canon of a writer I admire and usually find gems lurking in their past, as well as a glimpse into the accomplished writer they’ve become. In this case, the great E. L. Doctorow, who sadly passed away recently, and Colum McCann, perhaps E.L.’s successor, as both write powerfully compelling fiction within historical context. As it turns out, both novels had at their core a mystery – a mystery of disappearance, a mystery of identities, as well as the greater mysteries of the universe – and both begin in NYC more than a hundred years ago. Add to this mix a first-time, self-published novelist weaving a thriller set in the months after 9/11, which might be said to be fictional history in the making.
“Waterworks” by Doctorow takes place in the years following the Civil War in NYC. Narrated by a newspaper editor, a man with a nose for a story and an abundance of compassion, he goes in search of a missing freelancer with a complicated family history, who seems to have disappeared in search of his father, previously deceased. Or was he? And why are orphans and children on city streets suddenly disappearing? Told in Doctorow’s signature exquisite prose, and profound insights, this mystery is as old as the human race: what does it mean to be human and how do we defeat death? At the core of the mystery, an enigmatic physician who reminds me a little of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Moriarty. Add an unusually sensitive policeman, a clergyman with his own secrets, and the women and children who become collateral damage.
Literary mystery at its best, with many insights into the early days of journalism and the darker side of politics and society in late 19th century NYC.
“Our high-speed rotaries had come along around 1845, and from that moment the amount of news a paper could print, and the number of papers competing, suggested the need for a self-history of sorts, a memory file of our work. So that we needn’t always spin our words out of nothing. At the Telegram this enterprise was first put in charge of an old man down in the basement, whose genius it was to lay one day’s edition on top of another, flat, in wide oak cabinet drawers, which he kept immaculately polished. Only when the war came, and it became apparent to the publisher that salable books could be made of collections of war pieces from the paper, did cross-reference filing begin in earnest. Now we had three or four young men sitting down there with scissors and paste pots who were never more than a month or two behind – fifteen New York dailies a day were dropped on their tables, after all. …”
“This Side of Brightness” by Column McCann takes place in NYC at the turn of the century when subway tunnels were first burrowed by what became known as the Sandhogs – Irish and Italian immigrants, free black men, who spent their days, and many years, below concrete digging for a living and hoping to stay alive. Three generations later, a subset of the homeless community – their descendants – dwell in the remnants of those digging stations, above and beside the trains. The contrapuntal nature of their tales, and lives, is a signature style of storytelling for McMann, best known for the extraordinary “Let the Great World Spin” and more recently “Transatlantic.” Of Irish descent, his prose has the lilt of a poet and the descriptive clarity of Doctorow. From the optimism and hope of the building of a great city to the despair of those trapped in the rubble, this novel is spellbinding. And the mystery? Well, who is who and how did they get there? Most interesting to me was the title: McCann chose to focus on the light, where he might have called the book, The Cartography of Darkness.
“He opens his eyes, looks at the graph paper, the rows of dots and the squiggled lines. He draws a quick ordnance survey profile of where he has walked. This is his most important ritual he cannot start his day without it. He exaggerates the features to ten times their map size, so that, on the paper, the next looks like a rumple of huge valleys and mountains and plains. Even the tiniest nicks in the wall become craters. Later he will transfer them to a larger map he has been working on for the past four years, a map of where he lives, hand-drawn, intricate, secretive, with hills, rivers, ox-bow lakes, curved creeks, shadows: the cartography of darkness.“
“Consequence” by Steve Masover, takes place in the shadow of 9/11, a techno-thriller with a focus on the northern California Bay area counterculture and general global instabilities. Not so much mystery or history as socio-political fiction in which a group of idealistic and disenchanted environmental activists struggle to maintain integrity and personal relationships as they drift into the more dangerous territory of techno/eco-terrorism. What begins as concerns about genetically modified organisms [GMO] in our plant life, their battle takes on more ominous tones. Although Masover peppers the early narrative with a heavy dose of techno-speak more suitable to hackers, the narrative takes off as the community of self-anointed Knights takes center stage. He also weaves in romance, artistic metaphor, parental conflicts and the essence of communal living, all timely and relevant. The mystery? Who will prevail and at what cost? The writing is neither Doctorow nor McCann, he needs a few more books under his belt for that honor, but sufficiently skilled to have found a good publisher. Nevertheless, thanks to self-publishing technology, you can order a print copy online or e-read.