NOTE: THE CURRENT FEATURED BOOK IS “WAITING FOR WESTMORELAND,” BY JOHN MABERRY. YOU CAN FIND IT BY SCROLLING DOWN BELOW THIS POST.
JUNE 2: Death of a Cabman, by Nina Boyd.
One of the goals of this project was to introduce American readers to international writers, so we might as well get started. Nina Boyd has sunk deep historical roots into Huddersfield, England, and that is reflected in her current novel, “Death of a Cabman.”
For most of her life, Boyd resisted occasional urges to become a writer on the grounds that “other people could do it a lot better than I could.”But she was creative tinder, just waiting for a spark, and that came during a trip to a local law enforcement museum.
“None of the exhibits interested me,” she recalls. “Who knew there were so many different helmets and police whistles? Then I saw her. Behind the bars of a postcard rack was a photograph of a hard-faced woman in police uniform. She had eyes that drew me in. Clearly a woman to be reckoned with! I bought the postcard, and looked up Mary Sophia Allen on the internet. There was very little about her: certainly no biography. So I decided to write my own.”
That first effort found a publisher, and Boyd followed it with another biography, this one of Lizzy Lind, a “famous Edwardian vivisectionist.” These were niche books with a relatively small readership, but they were the perfect setup for Boyd’s subsequent journey into fiction writing
. “Death of a Cabman” is an excellent example. A murder occurs in this novel, and the identity of the perpetrator remains a mystery until the next-to-last page, but this is much more than a simple “murder mystery.” The research skills that Boyd honed in her non-fiction writing have enabled her to create a vivid early-20th century sense of time and place, focusing on the suffragette movement, and her main characters are not only likable but fully drawn.
As for the arc of the murder plot, “Death of a Cabman” is reminiscent of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series — the victim is a rather unpleasant character with a long list of people with reasons to want him dead. But as a reader, you may find yourself more interested in whether police constable Fred Clough will marry amateur detective Ethel than how he finds the killer.
JUNE 5: The River Caught Sunlight, by Katie Andraski.
This gracefully written, multi-layered book is actually a literary hybrid — part memoir, part novel. The elegant prose comes from Katie Andraski’s previous work as a poet, while the story is a fictionalized version of her own. Andraski summarizes: “Sometimes a person has to leave home, even if that home is the most marvelous place she’s ever lived, even if her mother will be diagnosed with terminal cancer, and her beloved farmer, a man she’s loved for years, asks her to marry him. Janice Westfahl feels called to publicize Godspeed Books, a small evangelical publisher outside Chicago, a good thousand miles away from upstate New York. The job fits her, a woman who loves God and books. But Janice finds herself working with Jeremiah Sackfield, a radical right wing activist, who toys with revolution.
“Even though she is a brilliant publicist, Janice feels like she is betraying herself by promoting a cause she doesn’t believe in. Like the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story, her brother has stayed home, furious that his sister has dodged the painful months of his mother’s dying, while earning their father’s favor. When her father dies, they must settle the estate with this jealousy flickering between them.”
There’s a lot going on here, and it’s even more poignant when you realize that it isn’t just made up. Moreover, the conflicts that assail Janet Westfahl about her job mirror those of many committed Christians who worry about how their beliefs are sometimes interpreted and applied in a real world setting by those whose motives are suspect.
Andraski probes this dilemma with the dexterity of a brain surgeon lancing a tumor, and one of the book’s reviews says a lot about how well she succeeds: “Like all good writers, Katie has plucked her story from her life. This book has a piercing insight at its heart as humane as it is damning of religion gone off the rails.”
That quote comes from Frank Schaefer, the real-life evangelist for whom Andraski handled publicity. The flesh-and-blood Jeremiah Sackfield.