A formal, measured tempo only heightens the tension in Zimmerman’s second historical fiction–cum-thriller (The Orphanmaster, 2012), this one set in the 1870s and concerning a serial killer whose rampage ranges from a rough mining community in Nevada to upper-class Manhattan.
The novel opens in 1876 with narrator Hugo Delegate, Harvard-educated scion of one of New York’s wealthiest and most socially connected families, locked up for the gruesome murder of another New York dandy. He willingly claims his guilt—though that guilt is far from certain—but his expensive lawyers demand he tell them the true story from the beginning. Hugo starts with his family’s visit to Virginia City, Nev., home of his father Freddy’s silver mine. Soon, Hugo’s parents, eccentric liberals interested in the nurture/nature debate raised by Darwin, are eager to adopt a young girl they have discovered in a Virginia City freak show, the owner of which claims she was raised by wolves. Of unknown origins, she speaks Comanche as well as a smattering of English, and her performance involves a set of mechanical claws and a swimming tank. The girl, whose name turns out to be Bronwyn, travels on the Delegates’ private train to New York, where the Delegates plan to put one over on their friends My Fair Lady–style by having her debut as a fashionable young lady. But one grisly murder after another seems to follow in Bronwyn’s wake, the victim always a man who has shown his attraction to Bronwyn’s considerable charms. Is Bronwyn, with her animallike instincts, the killer? Or is it Hugo, with his past mental problems, his capacity to black out and his love for Bronwyn that borders on jealous insanity? Neither Hugo nor the reader is sure right up to the satisfying if melodramatic end.
Zimmerman’s dark comedy of manners is an obvious homage to Edith Wharton, a rip-roaring murder mystery more Robert Louis Stevenson than Arthur Conan Doyle and a wonderfully detailed portrait of the political, economic and philosophical issues driving post–Civil War America.