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THE NIGHT INSPECTOR by Frederick Busch


by Frederick Busch

Pub Date: May 12th, 1999
ISBN: 0-609-60235-7
Publisher: Harmony

The prolific Busch returns to the genre of historical reconstruction he attempted so successfully in The Mutual Friend (1978), which reimagined the Victorian world of Dickens. This story is set in New York City in 1867, and also in the painfully vivid memories and premonitions experienced by its narrator, Civil War casualty William Bartholomew, a former Northern Army sniper whose destroyed visage is concealed beneath a specially constructed mask. The present action emerges from Bartholomew’s relationships with: his old army comrade Samuel Mordechai, an idealistic journalist determined to write the truth about war; “Tackabury’s Adam,” a freed slave whose condition of actual unfreedom Bartholomew strongly empathizes with; Chun Ho, a widowed laundress herself uneasily assimilated to postbellum America; a beautiful Creole prostitute, Jessie, who authors an ingenious liberationist plot; and a deputy customs-inspector named Herman Melville, whose once promising literary career has stalled. Busch gets a seductive narrative rhythm going almost instantly: Bartholomew’s meetings with “M” (whose work he has read), visits to the lavish brothel where Jessie toils, and adventures as an importer-exporter and commercial speculator are juxtaposed against graphic and disturbing flashbacks to wartime ordeals like his assassination of a brave “Rebel whore” and his discovery of a common grave crammed with massacred civilians (both incidents superbly foreshadow more horrors to come). Bartholomew is a brilliantly imagined character, and the book vibrates with beautifully realized (mostly nocturnal) period scenes. A single improbability aside (we’re never fully persuaded that this “acid-etched man of measureless cruelty” would devote himself to combating slavery), Busch offers a gripping story that climaxes unforgettably when a contraband-filled ship reaches port, and concludes with bitter irony when Bartholomew and Mordechai attend Charles Dickens’s public reading of his fable of resurrection, A Christmas Carol. Another stunning dramatization of Busch’s commanding theme: that the world is a battlefield of chaos and dangers from which the innocent must—and may never—be protected.