A debut novel that imagines that two sets of real-life James brothers, novelist Henry and psychologist William, and desperadoes Frank and Jesse, are related.
Liebmann-Smith (co-creator of the animated TV show The Tick) sets the book mainly in 1876. While Henry James, crossing Missouri after a western lecture tour, is talking to vivacious Elena Hite, their train is ambushed by the James Gang. In the melee, Henry and his younger brother Jesse recognize each other. Henry goes as a quasi-hostage to the gang’s farm redoubt. By summer’s end, he’s dragged into their schemes and plays a minor role in the infamous botched robbery at Northfield, Minn. Meanwhile, Elena, a feminist, devout sensualist and estranged daughter of a railroad magnate, gets entangled in the James boys’ lives. She comes to the farm, where she masquerades as Henry’s wife and embarks on a torrid affair with Jesse. Then she becomes William’s patient, endangering the infatuated scientist’s engagement; he sends her to Paris with sister Alice. If this sounds ridiculous, it is—but charmingly so. The story sometimes gets swamped by bookish apparatus, and one may long for more concentrated attention on the brothers, rather than constant quotations of reference material and celebrity-spotting (at one point in Paris, the detective William Pinkerton, trying to arrest Henry, is pummeled into humiliation by a group of writers including Turgenev, Zola and others—this happens at the salon of Flaubert, with whom well-traveled Elena is having a fling). Yet Liebmann-Smith mostly makes it work, thanks to a playful style and a lively humor. His command of the source material is impressive, and his ingenious plot manipulations illuminate some of the mysteries and gaps in the biographies of William and Henry James.
Not great literature, but great fun.