This week: an epic whodunit that spans decades, and the true story of the American forgers who nearly broke the Bank of England.
The Thieves of Threadneedle Street: The Incredible True Story of the American Forgers Who Nearly Broke the Bank of England
Booth (Zigzag: The Incredible Wartime Exploits of Double Agent Eddie Chapman) does justice to the incredible true story of a group of audacious swindlers who took advantage of gaping holes in 19th-century British banking but were tripped up by a silly mistake. With a novelist’s flair, Booth opens with that criminal error: in March 1873, the discovery of an omission of a date on an already-paid bill of exchange led Frank May, the deputy chief cashier of the Bank of England, to realize that it was counterfeit. May quickly reviewed other bills of exchange and realized that the crooks might have already converted £1 million worth. He embarked on a desperate race to prevent any more forged bills being honored, and to identify the thieves. With such high stakes established, Booth then flashes back to 1864, introducing Austin Bidwell, a colorful character who was one of the brains behind the scam. Booth also takes a parallel look at the evolution of international finance, noting that the creation of bills of exchange had been viewed as a great innovation. This account, the first to make use of the Bank of England’s archives, is likely to be the definitive narrative of this spectacular (if now obscure) crime.
Twelve-year old Neen Marrey has been raised by her maternal aunt, Ushag, and brought up on stories of merrow (mermaids), selkies, krakens, and changelings. When Neen was a toddler, her fisherman father drowned and her mother disappeared soon after, leaving whispers and speculation in their wake. Neen harbors the secret belief that her mother simply rejoined her true family, the merrow that live below the sea, and that she will soon return for Neen. The discovery of a hidden cave and the arrival of a near-drowned “Northman” lead to unexpected revelations about both the local lore and Neen’s mother. This quiet, introspective novel from Australian writer Braxton-Smith sparkles with lingering imagery and expressive writing. Readers will be easily drawn into Neen’s determined efforts to piece together a true understanding of the mother she barely knew, whose story has been muddied by the unkind stories and rumors shared by locals. Neen’s sense of displacement fades as the wall between herself and Auntie Ushag, created by long-kept secrets, begins to crumble, earning them hard-won contentment and kinship.
The Ground Has Shifted: The Future of the Black Church in Post-Racial America
The black church is “haunted by an old ghost who has shape-shifted into the language of post-racialism,” writes Fluker (Ethical Leadership), professor of ethical leadership at Boston University School of Theology, in this passionate analysis and call for change. Approaching post-racialism as a “postulate that is subject to argument and investigation,” Fluker organizes his discussion around memory, vision, and mission to encourage “a disturbing theology, a disruptive ethics, a prophetic preaching” with a particular focus on the “exilic condition” of young black men. Fluker’s up-to-date appraisal includes discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement and ways the “old ghost” of slavery and racial oppression has haunted Barack Obama’s presidency. This work, aimed specifically at black church leaders and scholars, offers a conceptual path forward rather than a handbook of specific strategies. Fluker’s more poetic, personal sections can be riveting, but his extensive use of academic social science language and close analysis of the work of scholars in his field may make his lines of inquiry difficult for the general reader to follow. Those up for a challenge will find an exuberant, thought-provoking assessment of the dilemmas facing black churches and pointers toward, in Fluker’s words, “new ways to model citizenship in diasporas and exiles.” This book is perhaps best suited for academics, theology schools, and large public libraries.
Under the Midnight Sun
Though Higashino’s previous puzzle mysteries, like 2011’s The Devotion of Suspect X, matched cleverness with well-rounded characters, the Japanese author ups his game with this epic whodunit featuring an intricate plot that spans two decades. In 1973, Osaka homicide detective Sasagaki looks into the fatal stabbing of pawnshop owner Yosuke Kirihara in an abandoned building. From the tidiness of the victim’s clothes and other signs that suggest there was no struggle, Sasagaki concludes that Kirihara knew his killer. Interviews with Kirihara’s widow and a coworker lead nowhere, but Sasagaki refuses to give up on the case. His continuing investigation plays out against the story of Kirihara’s 10-year-old son, Ryo, and Yukiho Nishimoto, the daughter of a customer of the dead man who may have had more than a professional relationship with him. Higashino successfully sustains momentum, despite the book’s considerable length, as he traces Ryo and Yukiho’s different paths to adulthood and plausibly portrays their psychological development. Subtle clues fairly set up the dramatic and surprising resolution.
The Last Shift: Poems
In this posthumous collection of new poems, Levine (News of the World) extends the content of his American working-class poetics both to look back at his past and to push himself to reckon with the future. Hirsch, who organized and titled the book, writes in his foreword that Levine (1928–2015) “was a poet of the night shift, a late, ironic Whitman of our industrial heartland, and his life’s work is a long assault on isolation, an ongoing struggle against the enclosures of suffering.” Hardships, joys, and stories of old friends and the assembly floor make up the bulk of this book: “8 a.m. and we punch out/ and leave the place to our betters,/ the day shift jokers who think/ they’re in for fun,” but throughout, Levine takes moments to recenter before projecting forward: “The wind kept prodding/ at my back as though determined/ to push me away from where I was/ fearful, perhaps, I would come to rest.” It’s clear that Levine knew these wonderful poems would be among his last, and he seems to come to terms with his impending nonbeing: “These places where I had lived/ all the days of my life were giving up/ their hold on me and not a moment too soon.”
An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy
In the 1970s the global economy went to hell and stayed there because of overt shocks and deep transformations, argues former Economist editor Levinson (The Box) in this probing history. He pinpoints 1973 as the turning point when the Arab oil embargo, the collapse of the Bretton Woods exchange-rate mechanism, and stagflation ushered in slow growth, instability, economic insecurity, and debt crises after the strong economic growth and soaring living standards of the preceding post-war years. He tours three decades of responses to the permanent slump, including Keynesian stimulus and price controls on the liberal side as well as the conservative agenda of free markets, deregulation, privatization, and government austerity. He argues that neither program succeeded because of a permanent and intractable slowing of productivity growth, grimly concluding that economic torpor is the new normal and that the dynamic post-war prosperity will never return. Levinson’s account of this vexed era is lucid, well-paced, and entwined with vivid sketches of economists, central bankers, and politicians who failed to restore the pre-1973 good times. He also succeeds at translating complex economic issues into understandable terms for lay readers. Levinson’s admirably evenhanded treatment of recent economic history steers clear of dogmas on both left and right to explore knottier truths.
The Man Who Wanted to Know Everything
Mishani artfully alternates perspectives to ratchet up the tension in his excellent third procedural featuring introspective Israeli police superintendent Avraham Avraham (after 2014’s A Possibility of Violence). Mali Bengtson, a young mother in a troubled marriage, suspects her husband is hiding something significant from her. Bengtson crosses paths with Avraham, who chose his career because he believed the detectives in the fiction he loved growing up accused the wrong people, after widow Leah Yeger is strangled in her Holon apartment. Since this is Avraham’s first homicide after becoming district commander of the investigations and intelligence branches, he struggles to adapt to his changed role, even as the initial inquiry reveals the disturbing facts that Yeger was the victim of a rape years earlier and that a neighbor claims to have seen a cop leaving the scene of the crime. Fans of Ruth Rendell and P.D. James will be pleased by the nuanced view of human nature.
Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse
Best recognized for her work during the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) receives full credit for her most far-reaching accomplishment in this lucid, handsomely designed volume: transforming nursing from an unsavory profession for women into a respectable one. Veteran biographer Reef (Noah Webster: Man of Many Words) provides abundant background on Nightingale’s family and the Victorian era, making vividly clear how revolutionary her work was. (Prior to Nightingale’s insistence that dirty bandages, putrid water, and foul food had no place in a hospital, eight of nine British soldier deaths were due to disease, rather than wounds.) Drawing extensively on primary sources, Reef reveals Nightingale’s complex character—highly intelligent and inquisitive, demanding, irascible, and driven by her belief in God’s work—and does not minimize the impact of her ambitions and expectations on her family and colleagues. Reef sharply delineates Nightingale’s enormous suffering for her refusal to follow convention while celebrating her lesser-known achievements: founding the first secular nurse-training school, advising government leaders on topics of health and social welfare, and applying statistics to medical analysis. Archival photos and illustrations further contextualize Nightingale’s life, work, and era.
These Are the Names
Bestselling Dutch writer Wieringa’s (Joe Speedboat) novel offers two searing portrayals of transformation on the unforgiving Eurasian Steppe. Pontus Beg is a policeman in Michailopol, a once-thriving small town whose “demise had been as turbulent as its rise.” At 53, “still too young to really be considered old, but he could see the writing on the wall,” Beg reexamines his life’s work: not a failure, but perhaps not the path of wisdom he might have imagined as a child. When Yehuda Herz, one of the town’s two remaining Jews, is murdered, Beg investigates, and with the guidance of Rabbi Zalman Eder, he has a revelation that both haunts and rejuvenates him. In a parallel story, seven desperate refugees—five men, a woman, and a child—suffer betrayal and extraordinary hardship to make new lives in an elusive promised land. One of their number, a man imbued by the others with talismanic powers, brings Beg and the nomads together, irrevocably changing everyone. Biblical symbolism and themes of wandering, suffering, and redemption pervade the novel. There are echoes of John Steinbeck’s intrepid dust bowl survivors, the voyeuristic allure of Franz Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” and the quiet nihilism and documentary detail of British novelist Jim Crace. Wieringa, whose longtime collaboration with translator Sam Garrett pays off again with deft, muscular prose perfectly suited to the author’s harrowing vision, strips lives bare and drills to their essence.