This week: famous fraternal sagas, a brilliantly constructed whodunit, and why 1776 is overrated.
Brothers by George Howe Colt (Scribner) - The brotherly counterpoint between fierce rivalry and stalwart affection is teased out in this absorbing meditation on family dynamics. New York Times notable author Colt (The Big House) presents vivid accounts of famous fraternal sagas, including the tragic path of Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, the mutual martyrdoms of the tormented Vincent Van Gogh and his tenderly supportive brother Theo, and the endless, anarchic scrimmage among the Marx Brothers. Colt is a superb biographical sketch artist who incorporates a wealth of vibrant, entertaining detail and subtle analysis into these illuminating portraits; as his subjects squabble over parental attention, dinner-table scraps, women, and status, their relationships are a maelstrom of tyrannizing, thwarting, nagging, and suing mixed with admiring, teaching, sustaining, and protecting.
The Black Box by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown) - Connelly’s excellent 18th Harry Bosch novel (after 2011’s The Drop) opens in 1992, a few days after the acquittal of the cops who beat up Rodney King incited an eruption of violence in Los Angeles (“Flames from a thousand fires reflected like the devil dancing in the dark sky”). In a South-Central alley, Bosch and his partner, Jerry Edgar, briefly examine the body of a Danish photojournalist, Anneke Jespersen, who’s been shot dead. There’s not enough time or police will power to enable Bosch to pursue the case—though he does retrieve a single spent 9mm brass shell casing. Twenty years later, while working cold cases in the LAPD’s Open-Unsolved Unit, Bosch gets a second chance to answer for Jespersen.
Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens by Robert Gottlieb (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) - Just in time for fireside reading season, Gottlieb (Lives and Letters; Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhard) offers this intimate look into the family life of Charles Dickens, the World’s Best Worst Father. Gottlieb profiles each of the 10 Dickens children—seven sons and three daughters, one who died in infancy—and includes a chapter on the scandalous possible existence of an 11th child, a son born to Ellen Ternan, Dickens’s probable mistress. The book is divided into two separate, chronological sections delineated by Dickens’s death in 1870, a structural choice that re-enacts the way in which Dickens held ultimate control over the life narratives of his children, and demonstrates just how large his shadow loomed as both an excellence-demanding father and a disappointment-doling ghost.
Mandarin Gate by Eliot Pattison (Minotaur) - Edgar-winner Pattison dramatically portrays the bitter oppression suffered by the Tibetan people under Communist China in his excellent seventh novel featuring Chinese investigator Shan Tao Yun (after 2009’s The Lord of Death). Exiled to Tibet for having pursued the truth too zealously in an investigation that implicated high government officials, Shan now labors as an official ditch inspector. Even as his closest friend, Lokesh, believes that humanity’s failure to be humane heralds the “end of time,” Shan strives to protect the gentle Tibetan natives from victimization by their occupiers. His efforts to save Jamyang, an unregistered (i.e., “outlaw”) monk he befriended, from a bounty hunter, land Shan smack in the middle of a murder inquiry after the mutilated bodies of two unidentified men and one Tibetan nun turn up near an old convent. Pattison movingly delineates the difficulties of seeking justice under a police state in this brilliantly constructed and passionate whodunit.
1775: A Good Year for Revolution by Kevin Phillips (Viking) The year 1776 is overrated, writes political commentator-turned-historian Phillips (The Cousins’ Wars), who makes a convincing case in this long, detailed, but entirely enthralling account. The July 4, 1776, Declaration of Independence, he states, was merely the last of a series of “practical” declarations—opening ports to non-British ships, the formation of the Continental Congress, a “de facto government”—and was immediately followed by months of discouraging military defeats. Luckily, says Phillips, the die had been cast in 1775, when exasperation over Britain’s clumsy attempts to re-exert control over its quasi-independent colonies culminated in a widespread “rage militaire.” Militias organized and drilled, royal governors were forced into exile. Besides the 1775 New England battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, dozens of lesser-known clashes and naval skirmishes occurred that year.