LAST GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2016
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave, a field-hand, on a rich cotton plantation in Georgia. Her abject life is made even worse by the fact that she is a stray; her mother Mabel escaped from bondage when Cora was ten years old and has never been seen again – all the other slaves think her run for freedom was admirable, the only problem being that she left Cora behind to fend for herself. She is sent to the Hob, a derelict cabin housing the sick, the maimed and the demented: her life outlook appears to be bleak – and short.
Until Caesar, a newly arrived slave from Virginia, makes her a proposition: he has made contact with those who run the Underground Railroad, a fabled means of escape for blacks organised by abolitionists and people horrified and opposed to the obscenity that is slavery: the notion that one human being may be the property of another wholly in the interests of growing King Cotton and reaping its profits.
Caesar and his parents were promised their freedom by their mistress in Virginia; tragically for them she died without leaving a will and they were all sold down the river as part of her estate. Caesar has been educated. He can read and knows that he cannot live the rest of his life in bondage where animals are treated better than humans; he sees a similar resolution and will to live life in freedom in Cora, and when the time is right they take their giant, perilous step into the unknown.
Their first stop after a nightmare journey in a broken-down boxcar is South Carolina, where life seems unbelievably wonderful and carefree compared to what they left behind: Cora has a new identity and works as a maid in a prosperous household. She gets paid wages! Caesar works in a factory; both live in dormitories created especially for the new coloured population. It is only after some months and the decision made to stay rather than press on, that they realise that South Carolina has other, ulterior designs for its new black population: sterilisation is but one of the many ‘solutions’. The theory of Eugenics could have had its origin in this very place.
Once again, Cora is forced to flee on the Underground Railroad, pursued relentlessly by Ridgeway, a slave catcher of uncommon determination, hired by her original owners in Georgia: he is implacable in his pursuit for her mother Mabel was the only slave he could not return to ‘its’ owners and he has no wish to be thwarted again.
In stark, powerful language Mr Whitehead describes Cora’s many paths to freedom, from her incarceration of several months in a sympathiser’s attic and her horrendous recapture by Ridgeway, to a brief respite in Indiana on a prosperous farm owned by coloureds and visited regularly by abolitionists – until the surrounding farmers decide to mount an attack and get rid of those uppity niggers once and for all.
Cora’s determination to live freely or die trying has many parallels with today’s America: compared to her horrendous treatment and attempts to escape from it, today’s African Americans enjoy a freedom, education and respect unknown to their ancestors, especially after the singular achievement of the election of America’s first African American President - but bigotry and racism still prevail, albeit in a more subtle disguise. Mr Whitehead has written a major work, excoriating the Old South for its Old ways, and gently reminding readers that not everything has changed. FIVE STARS
The Obsidian Chamber, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
The last time we heard of him (see reviews below) it appeared that Aloysius had finally kicked the bucket, cruelly drowned at sea after a ferocious battle with a monster off the New England coast. BUT!!!
We, his millions of devoted fans, know that couldn’t possibly happen, though Constance Green, his ward who wished to be his lover (what a strumpet!) truly believes that he has left this Vale of Tears, so she must too, at least by retiring to mourn alone in the depths of the basement of Pendergast’s bizarre family mansion on New York’s Riverside Drive. There she can lead a life of the mind, studying literature, ikebana (she is so versatile!) and poetry, and let us not forget the harpsichord if she feels like bashing out a bit of Bach. What more could she want?
Except that no-one has bargained for the return of the Devil in Designer Duds, Master of Many Disguises, Murderer of Many and (gasp!) sneering father of Constance’s little son. (who is being educated by Tibetan monks in an Indian monastery. This is a fact!) Diogenes, dreaded, homicidal younger brother of Aloysius, the beast that Constance had thought she had murdered by tipping him into a volcano, pulls off an ingenious plan to send Constance’s guardian and Aloysius’s General Factotum Proctor, off to Namibia on a wild goose chase, believing that Constance has been kidnapped, when all she was doing was banging away down below on the Harpsichord. Oh, foolish Proctor! It takes him just about the whole story to get back to New York, half-eaten by lions. That should larn him not to leave home. With Constance in an unguarded and vulnerable state, Diogenes has the way clear to – plight his troth! It’s true. A more bizarre plot twist could only happen in the next Pendergast novel.
Anyway. Surprise, surprise! Aloysius has been plucked from a watery grave by a boat full of drug smugglers, who find out who he is and decide to ransom him, hoping the FBI will cough up; in the meantime, they treat their prisoner badly, earning dreadful retribution when Our Hero breaks free from his bonds: he too returns home much the worse for wear; a new set of cuts, bumps and bruises, and yet another designer suit in tatters – there to find that Constance has flown the coop with Diogenes, of all people.
There is nothing for it but to pursue that Dastard, and by superior deduction, tracking skills and plain old Southern common sense, Aloysius and his millions of readers reach the end of the tale in one piece – but what of Diogenes and Constance? Constance, once again, has declared her great love for prissy Aloysius, only to be rejected: will she go over to The Dark Side? Revenge is a dish that people of taste prefer to eat cold, as the saying goes, and we are all set up to wait for the next episode. I have my theories as to What Will Happen Next, but really, the plot is so mad that Preston and Child, those masters of the absurd, can – and will – take us anywhere they like! FOUR STARS
Crimson Shore, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
‘When the doorbell chimed, Constance Green stopped playing the Flemish virginal and the library fell silent and tense.’
Well. Who else would start off a novel with such deliciously florid and torrid prose but Messrs Preston and Child – and do it so successfully? This is the latest in a long line of adventures starring Special FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast and his mysterious ward, Constance, proficient virginal player. The plots of each book have become progressively more outlandish, unbelievable – and HEAPS of fun, not to mention faster paced than a speeding bullet. And let us not forget the addictive factor: Agent Pendergast, with his silvery eyes, inexhaustible supply of funereal bespoke suits, seeming invincibility against everything that villains most dastardly can throw at him, and superlative deductive powers (he has more PhDs than you can shake a stick at) is a protagonist who has gathered devoted fans (including me) from all over the world – he has his own website, for goodness’ sake!
We last met him in ‘Blue Labyrinth’ (see review below); now, he and Constance are persuaded by a noted sculptor to do a little moonlighting: someone has stolen the sculptor’s priceless wine collection from his home in a converted lighthouse on the wild and stormy New England coast. Would Pendergast (whose stellar reputation at solving difficult crimes has even penetrated artistic circles) care to investigate? There would be considerable financial reward – but our hero, after learning that a single case of wine had survived the theft, requests just one glorious item from that case: a bottle of Chateau Haut-Braquilanges. The Nectar of the Gods. (Needless to say, for mere mortals such as I, its virtues would be entirely wasted. It’s just as well Aloysius knows his stuff. I’ll take his word for it.)
Quelle horreur! After careful examination of the wine racks, Pendergast is able to deduce – from a tiny finger bone (!) - that behind the empty shelves is a niche which had contained a body – a man who was bricked-up in said niche and left to starve to death: the wine theft was a clumsy cover-up by people who wanted to remove the body and surrounding evidence. There is a lot more villainy afoot in this storm swept little village than the theft of wine, distressing though that may be to its owner and wine connoisseur Pendergast.
Naturally, the intrepid team of Pendergast and Green are soon following clues scattered everywhere like confetti; Constance is dispatched to the local historical society, there to uncover evidence of the remains of a coven of Salem witches who fled from the trials and deaths of their sisters, and our Super FBI agent uncovers dreadful evidence in the wild salt marshes of a heinous 19th century crime – but wait: there’s more!
Constance, despite her penchant for prowling in dark basements and stubborn preference for retro garb (long cardies and longer tweed skirts), still harbours what can only be regarded as lustful thoughts towards her Guardian: she lays her hand on his knee as they partake of the delights of Pendergast’s hard won bottle of Chateau whatsit. A passionate embrace cannot be avoided, but Aloysius Pendergast is a man of superhuman self-control, and he thrusts her from him, crying ‘you are my ward!’
Much to Constance’s fury. (What a hussy!) In fact she is so irate that she stalks out into the wild and stormy night clad only in her robe and nightie, filled with vengeful thoughts: she will show that prissy paleface that she can solve the remaining mystery BY HERSELF. Who needs Aloysius the Virginal (and we are not talking about the musical instrument): just you wait, she is the ultimate Weapon of Darkness – until someone even darker makes his big move.
Oh, oh, OH! Constance is in the crapola, and can only be rescued by her funereal guardian, who realises too late that an arch enemy whom he thought dead (didn’t Constance push him into a bubbling volcanic crater?) has almost certainly returned. Which just goes to show that Messrs Preston and Child can be as absurd as they like; despite the presumed death of Aloysius, the disappearance of Constance (she has returned to the reassuring darkness of the basement) and the resurrection of Diogenes, Pendergast’s diabolical bro, we are still hanging onto every word and furious because this episode of epic silliness is finished. Well, buggeration is all I can say. Preston and Child had better be writing the next adventure at the speed of light. What fun -can’t wait. FOUR STARS
Blue Labyrinth, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Special FBI Agent extraordinaire Aloysius Pendergast returns yet again to do battle against the forces of evil – and not before time, I say! His myriad fans have been languishing without him, and it’s all very well for Messrs Preston and Child to throw them a bone from time to time with various solo novels and the combined authorship of a series featuring a new hero, Gideon Crew, BUT.
All that secondary activity is a mere distraction until the Master resurfaces, this time to fight a mysterious new villain, one who has hidden his identity so well that more than half the book is (greedily) consumed before his identity is revealed.
In common with all the other evil ones that Pendergast has dispatched to the hereafter, Mystery Man is festering with hatred towards our pale hero - but he is no ordinary Dastard, for he is motivated by revenge: thanks to an awful genetic curse wrought upon his family by one of Pendergast’s ancestors, Mystery Man contrives through absolutely genius planning, to infect Pendergast with the same fatal malady - but not before leaving the dead body of Pendergast’s twin son on the Agent’s front doorstep as a calling card and to start the ball rolling. Pendergast’s days are numbered!
Now. Because Pendergast knows something about absolutely everything he is able to self-medicate for a while as he searches for his killer, but as the horrid disease starts to have its wicked way, raising his temperature uncomfortably in his black wool suits, he realises that the cavalry will have to be summoned – and who better to ride to his rescue than Margo Green, anthropologist and ethnopharmacologist, doughty companion on many previous bloody adventures at the New York Museum of Natural History. It will be her job to manufacture ASAP an antidote from rare ingredients pinched by none other than Constance Green, Pendergast’s mysterious ward – well, she’s certainly mysterious to ME, as I haven’t yet found the book (and I thought I had read them all) where she makes her first appearance.
By any reader’s calculation she must be about 150 years old, but is as young and glowing as the dawn; the only clue to her advanced years is her curiously formal way of speech, and her retro fashion sense, but – but the woman is an Amazon! And she knows HEAPS about various acids, and how to administer them to nasty men who should know better than to try to stop her at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden from stealing a super-rare plant to save Pendergast’s failing life. Constance Green is a warrior, and she accomplishes grand larceny and mass murder in minimum time and maximum efficiency (he’s definitely worth it!) clad only in a silk Teddy. Sorry, Constance: chemise.
Does Our Hero survive? Well, what a silly question: of course he does, returning to his healthy pallor in no time at all, and enjoying a fresh supply of Armani funeral garb. And he and Constance are closer than ever, which is only right: she rubbed out half an army of mercenaries that he might live! Do you suppose she fancies him? Watch this space. FOUR STARS