A sequel delivers a flight through American history and a detective story full of jokes and red herrings.
Giesser’s (A Cheese of Some Importance, 2015) tale is alternately narrated by Cassius Lightner, a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office, and his fiancee, Amanda Crofton, a British expatriate. It’s the summer of 1816, and months after the conclusion of the last mystery the two solved—that of a missing ceremonial cheese—the couple are unwittingly drawn into another whodunit while at a Baltimore museum exhibition of the titular nude. Rembrandt Peale, a rich artist who also happens to have the contract to light Baltimore with gaslight technology, presents the show, at which there is a suspicious gas-leak explosion. Lightner is deputized by his boss, Dr. Thornton (a family friend of the Peales), to investigate the cause of the blast. Lightner and Crofton are joined in their sleuthing by former sailor Charlie Dunn, a free person of color working at the patent office. At one point, Lightner observes about Dunn: “He could cross the color line by altering his manner. A lot of people who met him weren’t quite sure whether he was black or not, and Charlie’s speech generally tipped the calculation one way or another. Why he chose to play which race, and with whom, I couldn’t always fathom.” Lightner, Crofton, and Dunn are drawn deeper and deeper into the web surrounding the explosion, and the case takes on international proportions—French, Russian, and English agents all enter the probe’s orbit. The novel ends somewhat abruptly, though not unsatisfactorily, with the loose ends tied up but not totally resolved, perhaps setting up for another sequel. The camaraderie between Lightner, Dunn, and Crofton shines through their dialogue, and their conversations allow the author to hit his comedic stride. Not every joke throughout lands, but the story quickly moves on to the next one, making for a zippy read. Most impressively, Giesser inserts intelligent observations about race and early American industrialism alongside his jokes; one such trenchant moment sees Dunn playing with the performative aspect of race to aid in his detective work.
The author weaves the narrative thread between serious and funny ably and offers a compelling 19th-century mystery plot as well.