Reviews by Leah A. Zeldes

The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet

by Burton E. Stevenson

Another in Burton E. Stevenson's excellent Godfrey and Lester series, which begins with "The Holladay Case" — possibly the best yet. Godfrey, ex-cop-turned-newspaperman, and his Watson, Lester, puzzle over several mysterious murders involving an unknown poison, a priceless piece of furniture and a daring Frenchman. Godfrey is at his most active and brilliant here (although the reader may well see things he doesn't), but he does require some suspension of disbelief.

Stevenson, once a reporter and newspaper editor himself, surely knew that journalists don't behave like Godfrey — unless something has changed dramatically since the 1890s — but possibly his subsequent career as director of the Chillicothe, Ohio, public library was so dull that he felt a need to imbue his earlier trade with more thrills.

Reviewed on 2015.05.16

From Whose Bourne

by Robert Barr

From the afterlife, the shade of a poisoned Cincinnati man tries to identify his murderer with the aid of a couple of Chicago newspapermen, — one dead, one living — and a famous, but fictional detective. It's all pretty silly.

Reviewed on 2015.05.16

The Bomb

by Frank Harris

A stirring, fictionalized account of the Haymarket Affair in 1886: In the wake of a deadly strikebreaking incident when Chicago police fired into a crowd of unarmed workers, labor leaders organized a meeting on May 4 near Chicago's Haymarket Square. Denouncing the police attack, speakers urged workers to increase efforts toward an eight-hour workday and an end to child labor. Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison, who attended the rally, told police not to disturb the peaceful protest, already beginning to disperse due to rain. Nevertheless, once the mayor left, armed police threateningly ordered the remainder to disperse, using clubs for emphasis. In the mêlée, somebody threw a bomb, which resulted in the death of one policeman. Six others were killed by subsequent gunfire, mostly proved to be from police pistols.

Afterward, capitalist-controlled, fearmongering newspapers whipped up public terror with unsubstantiated stories of anarchist conspiracies and bomb making, attacked immigrants and called for revenge. Police arrested hundreds of people, but never determined who threw the bomb.

Finally, in what was afterward considered one of the worst miscarriages of justice in American history, eight men, prominent socialist and anarchist speakers and writers — Louis Lingg, August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe and Michael Schwab —were tried for murder. Prosecutors presented no credible evidence that any the defendants threw the bomb or knew of it, and several weren't even there. The judge showed evident bias and the 12 jurors had all acknowledged prejudice against the defendants, and all eight were convicted and seven sentenced to death.

The trial was thought so iniquitous that the next governor of Illinois pardoned the three defendants still living. Four of the men had already been hung, and Lingg had defiantly blown his head apart in jail.

Harris's novel clearly sides with the labor and anarchist cause, but follows pretty closely the facts as they emerged after the trial. The story is narrated by Rudolph Schnaubelt, an anarchist who escaped arrest and disappeared but was thought at the time to be the probable bomber. He makes Lingg, the youngest and most dramatic of the anarchists, the central figure of the story.

The novel starts with Schnaubelt recounting his boyhood and education in Germany, his emigration to the U.S. the subsequent hardships and struggles to find work at a living wage that drew him to the radicals' cause. He talks of his own and others' maltreatment by employers — people maimed for life or killed by unsafe working conditions without recompense. Interspersed with his stories of what led up to the fatal day and its aftermath, he also describes his love affair with a young woman whose views of the world seem at odds with his own.

The biggest defect is that Harris makes the anarchists seem a little too good to be true, but that's nothing given the essential truths he covers. Everyone who looks at America today will find recurring echoes of the class struggles of the 19th century.

Reviewed on 2015.05.02

That Affair at Elizabeth

by Burton E. Stevenson

Another Godfrey and Lester novel, following "The Holladay Case," and "The Marathon Mystery." The newsman and the lawyer team up to look for a runaway bride, and find a body. Loads of red herrings keep you guessing; there's plenty of sensationalism, but the solution isn't obvious.

Reviewed on 2015.04.25

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