Social and political turbulence in the 1930s sets the stage for murder in this debut historical thriller.
In a small New York town, society heiress Lana Whitlow remains stuck at home, caring for her ailing father while pondering her sister Sarah’s insanity and subsequent committal to an asylum. Of equal concern to Lana is her father, who is espousing support for Hitler’s hostile actions in Europe, and her social circle, which is also embracing the racist and nativist platform of the eugenics movement. Sarah, who is locked up on Blackwell’s Island, is being treated with questionable techniques while family friend and psychoanalyst Alan Sherrod pushes for a more humane and effective medical approach. Intersecting their lives is Sean Kane, a railroad detective on the trail of a murderer who dismembers his victims and leaves them on the tracks. Kane is certain the victims aren’t just hobos, and his instinct is correct. The killings are a link to a larger story involving societal scandals, political machinations, and the inhumane treatment of the poor and unwell. With America in the throes of the Depression and worried about a world war, Lana and Sean play witness to a society that turns toward science and the occult for solutions to death and misfortune. Odin’s narrative is disturbing in its portrayal of a history that is not so far behind readers. He paints a particularly bleak picture of mental health care in the ’30s, bringing to light treatments and experiments that are the stuff of nightmares. He populates his narrative with characters that are unhappy and often unlikable yet compelling all the same. Kane in particular shines as an antihero who ultimately fails to save the day in a rather dark conclusion for some characters. The author deftly weaves the seemingly unrelated threads of witchcraft, politics, racism, war, and insanity into one cohesive tale. Though the murders are unsettling, more frightening yet is the pervasive willingness to sterilize “degenerates” by those who would “welcome a world government as long as it excluded Jews, coloreds, mental defectives, and gypsies.”
A chilling, and unfortunately timely, commentary on the dangers of demonizing the other.