This week, how modern crime became modern, David Gilbert's stellar & Sons, and Ben Stroud's stellar Byzantium. Plus: Mr. Darcy's guide to courtship.
Mr. Darcy’s Guide to Courtship: The Secrets of Seduction from Jane Austen’s Most Eligible Bachelor by Emily Brand (Osprey/Old House) - An English historian invites readers into the byzantine and hilarious world of early-19th-century English romance in this faux courtship guide from the protagonist of Pride & Prejudice himself, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Though he offers very little in the way of advice that will be useful in today’s dating world, Darcy, “dictating” to Brand, reveals attitudes typical of his particular time and place through discussions on English stoicism, remarks about the “weaker feminine intellect,” and recommendations to pursue your cousins and eschew “dandyism.”
Light of the World: A Dave Robicheaux Novel by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster) - Bestseller Burke’s 20th Dave Robicheaux novel (after 2012’s Creole Belle), a powerful meditation on the nature—and smell—of evil, finds the Louisiana sheriff’s detective on vacation in Montana with family and friends. There they are hounded and haunted by a psychopathic serial killer, Asa Surrette, believed to have been killed in a prison van accident. Surrette has a fate worse than death in mind for Robicheaux’s journalist daughter, who interviewed him in prison.
The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury) - Written in verse, in the voice of a Polish girl forced to move to England with her mother, this is a wrenching but hopeful story of displacement, loneliness, and survival. In their one-room rental, Kasienka, nearly 13, watches helplessly as her mother unravels, determined to track down the husband who abandoned them.
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan (Random/Hogarth) - After an altercation with authorities leaves an officer in a coma, 15-year-old Anais Hendricks finds herself shuttled off to the Panopticon, a care center for young, chronic offenders modeled after the prison designs of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Amid the institution’s crescent-shaped buildings and all-seeing watchtower, Anais befriends a group of ragtag ruffians and delves into her past, endlessly stoned and concerned she’s being watched by an entity she calls “the experiment.”
The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders (St. Martin’s/Dunne) - Social historian Flanders does a superb job of demonstrating the role that the press and fiction writers played in shaping the British public’s attitudes toward crime during the 19th century. She captures perfectly the appeal of bloody fiction and macabre news stories. The public’s perception of random lethal violence changed with the horrific 1811 Ratcliffe Highway killings, brutal mass murders in London’s East End that coincided with technological advances that enabled swifter and cheaper production of broadsheets describing the crimes. A book that will appeal to devotees of true crime and detective fiction alike.
& Sons by David Gilbert (Random) - The opening scene of Gilbert’s finely textured new novel (after The Normals http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-58234-456-0) isn’t supposed to be a puffed-up affair, but it might as well be: A.N. Dyer, one of New York’s hermetic literary giants, is scheduled to deliver the eulogy for his childhood friend Charlie Topping. What follows in this grandiose novel full of dissatisfied men and erudite posturing is a vivid and often amusing portrait of the New York’s Upper East Side literary scene, as relayed by the dearly departed’s son, Philip.
Starglass by Phoebe North (Simon & Schuster) - In this gripping dystopian/generation-ship hybrid, the Asherah, centuries into its journey with less than a thousand souls on board, is mere months from making landfall. Its destination is the planet Zehava, where the largely Jewish crew hopes to survive long after the Earth was destroyed by an asteroid strike (one of the starship’s express goals is “the survival of Jewish traditions and culture even in the diaspora of space”). This richly textured first novel deserves to be widely read.
The Age of Ice by J.M. Sidorova (Scribner) - Sidorova’s sprawling debut opens in 1740 on the frozen Russian tundra, where twins Prince Andrei and narrator Prince Alexander Velitzyn are conceived under unusual circumstances. For her amusement, Empress Anna Ioanovna demands a wedding for the twins’ court-jester parents, whose nuptial bed is made of ice. In this novel, Sidorova’s lyrical prose complements her protagonist’s fantastical tale of isolation on his mythic journey.
Byzantium by Ben Stroud (Graywolf) - In the title story in this remarkable debut collection, the crippled son of a prominent general living in the eponymous ancient Greek city is called upon by the emperor for a harrowing and bloody task. “The Moor” features an academic who attempts to unravel the final years of a 19-century detective’s life. In “The Traitor of Zion,” an impressionable American cult member, also living in the 19th century, discovers the dark side of his leader and himself. Every story is its own success, leaving the impression that Stroud can, indeed, do anything.