Despair, peerage, science, Maine

Novels of July

July 21, 2002|By Michael Shelden | By Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

For the sheer elegance of his prose, Louis Auchincloss deserves a large and enthusiastic following. But he is a modest man of the old school who has neither courted publicity nor used his novels to address sensational themes. It is not surprising that his work is often overlooked, though he has been writing for half a century and has produced three dozen novels.

He has the temperament of a modern-day Henry James, with a keen eye for the subtle failures that undermine lives of wealth and privilege. His new book, Manhattan Monologues (Houghton Mifflin, 226 pages, $25), is a collection of 10 first-person narratives that explores the manners and mysteries of rich families in America's richest city. These are stories of quiet desperation suffered behind a thin veneer of success.

The narrators include both men and women, and their tales unfold at various points throughout the century, beginning with World War I. The best story is "The Heiress," a little masterpiece about the wealthy wife of an American diplomat.

For calculating reasons, the heiress of the title marries a dull but worthy fellow and spends the rest of her life regretting that she never played Juliet to any man's Romeo. With tragic dignity, she learns to accept the part of dignified "Consort" to a husband who wants little from her besides money.

Barbara Vine is another author who merits more attention. The Blood Doctor (Shaye Areheart / Crown, 369 pages, $25) is her 11th novel, yet her name is not widely known. Part of the problem is that Vine is only a pseudonym. Under her own name, Ruth Rendell has enjoyed great success over the last thirty years with her Inspector Wexford novels, which are avidly read on both sides of the Atlantic. These straightforward works of detective fiction in the grand British tradition have always overshadowed the neo-Gothic mysteries of Barbara Vine.

Which is a shame, since this latest book is her best and is far more ambitious than any of the Wexford tales.

Narrated by an aristocrat who is also a respected biographer, The Blood Doctor is both suspenseful and intellectually engaging. The narrator's career in the House of Lords and his literary work connect when he decides to write a biography of an ancestor who was raised to the peerage by Queen Victoria. What he discovers in his research casts a pall over his family title and forces him to reconsider the integrity of his "blue blood" as well as the nature of biographical truth.

The most interesting parts of the novel deal with the arcane workings of the House of Lords. Because Dame Ruth Rendell is now herself an active member of that body, she is able to describe it from an insider's perspective and makes its complicated business come to life in a way that few others have done. For readers who love British mysteries and British politics, this novel is an absolute must.

Crime fiction of a much different sort can be found in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza's The Silence of the Rain (Holt, 272 pages, $24), a vividly brutal story of a murder investigation in modern Brazil. This novel is the first in a series featuring the unconventional Inspector Espinosa, who struggles to protect his romantic notions of life while he unravels mysteries in seamy districts of Rio de Janeiro.

Espinosa is an extraordinary character with a love of philosophy and a hearty appetite for life. Whenever he is overwhelmed by his work, he retreats to a small park filled with misfits and meditates on a bench, trying to reconcile the depressing realities of his professional life with the pleasures of living in a great, exotic city that is full of romance and a touch of the supernatural. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote crime fiction, he might create a detective like Inspector Espinosa.

Jorge Volpi is a Mexican living in Paris who has written a fascinating novel that has nothing to do with either Mexico or France. Relying on his imagination and historical records, Volpi looks beyond his own background and tries to understand the twisted actions of an invented character whose career is based on that of several prominent Nazi scientists. In Search of Klingsor (Scribner, 414 pages, $26) describes a young American physicist's hunt for an elusive German who acted as Hitler's chief scientific advisor.

This is a brilliant work of historical speculation.

The atomic specialist, who goes by the name of Klingsor, is reported to have escaped Germany after Hitler's fall, and the young American protagonist is given the job of finding him. His mission becomes personal, however, when he realizes that he shares Klingsor's passion for pure knowledge and wants to know how anyone of such promising intellect could be seduced by Hitler. At the heart of this book is the crucial issue of how science can progress without providing new tools of destruction and control to corrupt officials.

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