A historical mystery novel set in belle epoque New York.
Hayes’ richly imagined debut novel begins with a depiction of devotion: Alan Varden, a young boy who lives in terror of his violent, abusive father, takes refuge with his grandmother, who faultlessly loves him and encourages his intellectual bent (“Such a mind! Such a mind!” she repeatedly tells him). She doesn’t fully understand Alan; she fails to fathom, for instance, why he doesn’t venerate the celebrated War of 1812 veteran Robert George Esmond. However, she loves Alan unconditionally and is distraught when he goes off to serve in the medical corps during the Civil War (out of “intellectual curiosity,” he insists, not “simple-minded patriotism”). His experiences in the war further sharpen his prickly misanthropy; behind his back, his military colleagues make fun of “his air of superiority, his frequently stilted manner of speech…the signs of nervousness he showed during shelling.” He has an insatiable scientific curiosity, however, and after the war, he goes to Columbia and becomes a specialist in the fledgling field of neuropathology. He studies the psychology of the hospital’s patients while they’re alive and their physiology after they’re dead, coming to the conclusion that “the vast majority of mental illnesses had no physical explanation.” He also studies the bodies of homicide victims and becomes skilled in determining causes of death; at the same time, he becomes fascinated by Judith Esmond, the revered war hero’s young wife. Alan’s outspoken impatience with the medical establishment throughout gives him a reputation as a troublemaker. Hayes does a wonderful job of crafting this complex character, making him real without making him sympathetic. Her depictions of his expanding role in the murder investigations of the local police are also very well-paced and controlled. This is a lengthy book, but it seldom feels long; Hayes keeps its dramatic tension going by gradually and effectively showing Alan’s emotions maturing behind his vast intellect.
A pleasingly confident historical adventure story that engagingly shows one man’s emotional journey.