John Foster

If, as Virginia Woolf said, the novel is an art form essentially about character, this one sure meets the quantity test. Kneale tells his story from the standpoint of 20 or so Victorian narrators: a Manx sea captain, a half-breed Tasmanian aborigine, his homicidal mother, a proto-Nazi physician, several demented evangelical clergymen, hardened convicts and their guards.

The tale begins near the Isle of Man during a smuggling run that goes enough awry and sends the Manx sailors on a charter to Tasmania. Accompanying them on the voyage is a barmy parson looking for the Garden of Eden and his surgeon fellow explorer who is doing his unwitting best to anticipate the philosophy of Mein Kampf. Meanwhile, the aborigines of Tasmania are chased by murderous rapist convicts across their homeland, setting the two plot strands of the novel to coincide in the mountains of Tasmania.

There is a lot to like about this novel. Kneale shows his erudition in a number of fields like Tasmanian history, the Manx dialect, aboriginal psychology, and the crackpot racist theories of a mid-19th century physician. His handling of tone, too, is deft. The unrelenting tragedy of the aboriginal genocide is considerably lightened by the perfect absurdity of the Englishmen seeking the Garden of Eden in Tasmania. Think Patrick O'Brian meets A Confederacy of Dunces.

The book is so colorful and sweeping, it is easy to overlook some of its deeper underpinnings. The English colonizers, including the convicts, are without exception cruel and arrogant (at least until they lose their sanity). So here, at the high tide of the British empire, are the despised conquerors. But look deeper: Dr. Potter is on the expedition because he is interested in the racial determination of history, an alternative view to the economic determination theories Marx was propounding about the same time. These two views, of course, have been the miserable standards under which so much blood has been shed in the 20th century. The irony of the novel is that Kneale tells his tale, too, with a historical determination. Just about everything that can happen does happen, but none of it seems outlandish or unlikely. This is the mark of a skilled writer who knows his stuff. Tell us more.

John Foster is an attorney in Columbia, South Carolina.

If, as Virginia Woolf said, the novel is an art form essentially about character, this one sure meets the quantity test. Kneale tells his story from the standpoint of 20 or so Victorian narrators: a Manx sea captain, a half-breed Tasmanian aborigine, his homicidal mother, a proto-Nazi physician, several demented evangelical clergymen, hardened convicts and […]

Archy McNally, Lawrence Sanders's sleuth in McNally's Dilemma, takes the call one minute before he turns off his machine at midnight. It is his old friend Melva, with some bad news. Geoff Williams, erstwhile tennis pro, four-flusher cad, and husband to Melva, has met an untimely end a bullet through his chest. Melva has called Archy to report the murder and to confess that she did it. Of course, Archy and we have been around murder mysteries long enough to know that the murderer is never, never, the one who claims she did it at the beginning of the book. But unraveling the plot takes us through Sanders's special domain, the Palm Beach cafe society set, and the parasites who live off of it.

Archy's first job is to find Melva's daughter and fetch her back to the murder scene. She turns out, of course, to be the requisite gorgeous twentysomething. And, of course, she finds Archy irresistible, even though he is older. In the end Archy finds the real murderer, returns to his long-term girlfriend, and enjoys his gibson at the Pelican Club, ready for the next adventure.

It may be a formula, but this book is packed with charm. There is, for one thing, Archy himself: sardonic, sartorially challenged, the son of the best society lawyer in Palm Beach, booted out of Yale Law, and now a private eye. Think Travis McGee in an ascot. He is fond enough of unusual hats that he has berets custom made in Connecticut in puce, among other colors. He also has enough quirky wise cracks to rival a Groucho Marx movie: The music was pure disco, the beat of which has always reminded me of how the ogre's heart must have sounded when he chased Jack around the beanstalk. Even the minor characters especially the minor characters are loaded with the eccentricity and texture that make you think Sanders just can't be making this up.

Americans, I'm told, love to read about rich people. If that is true, then Sanders has hit his market, but with a delightful band of villains and friends in this picaresque, charming whodunit. ¦ John Foster is an attorney in Columbia, South Carolina.

Archy McNally, Lawrence Sanders's sleuth in McNally's Dilemma, takes the call one minute before he turns off his machine at midnight. It is his old friend Melva, with some bad news. Geoff Williams, erstwhile tennis pro, four-flusher cad, and husband to Melva, has met an untimely end a bullet through his chest. Melva has called […]

The holy grail of historical fiction is to recreate a real moment in history so that we, secure in our reading chair, surrounded by 20th century comforts, can taste it. Like all searches for a holy grail, it never works perfectly, and usually doesn't work at all, producing second-rate genre fiction that is neither real history nor a well written novel. We can be thankful for exceptions, however, and this is one.

Mallinson is an active duty colonel with the Royal Hussars, and knows whereof he speaks. This is his first published novel, but none of it has a freshman feel. He tells the story through the eyes of Matthew Hervey, cornet and later lieutenant of a cavalry regiment in the Napoleonic wars. We first meet Hervey at the end of the Peninsular Campaign, when the British and their allies have Napoleon on the ropes and he is about to take his short vacation to Elba. The novel takes us from the Peninsula to Ireland, where Hervey is an officer of an army of occupation, and finally, as Napoleon breaks out of exile, to Belgium.

Mallinson presents his hero as competent and brave, but also a real person and something of an antihero. In the novel's opening scene our man takes a French battery and gets arrested on the field of battle for this act of valor.

Mallinson is careful to maintain a sensitivity which some might find unusual in a professional soldier. There is very little blood-and-guts until the battle itself. Hervey finds himself in relationships with young women with whom the usual consummation is impossible. He has a mystical interlude with a French nun, and a flirtatious friendship with an Irish peasant girl. When he finally gets his chance with Miss Right, his diffidence almost sinks his chances. But only almost. For this is a novel where the hero gets the girl and lives through the carnage of the bloodiest European battle of the century, and the British win the day if only by the skin of their teeth. Wellington set the casual, graceful tone of this work when he used a term from the race track to describe what was, after all, perhaps the most important battle in European history: It was a close run thing. John Foster is a reviewer in Columbia, South Carolina.

The holy grail of historical fiction is to recreate a real moment in history so that we, secure in our reading chair, surrounded by 20th century comforts, can taste it. Like all searches for a holy grail, it never works perfectly, and usually doesn't work at all, producing second-rate genre fiction that is neither real […]

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