Wednesday, September 12, 2012

murderers and philosophers

My cold keeps me abed.  That means no personal insights on Michoacán.

But it gives me an opportunity to tell you about two books I have read recently.  One that has been released just this week.  Surprisingly, both books turned out to be similar.  At least, in their literary conceits.

The first is Matthew Pearl's most recent release -- The Technologists.  Pearl has made a name for himself for his murder mysteries based on literary classics (The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, The Last Dickens).

The Technologists breaks that pattern.  Slightly.  There is no central literary construct.  Instead, Pearl writes in the style of a mid-nineteenth century novel.  Think Twain or Thackeray.

What is not missing is Pearl's classic clash of philosophies.

Even though the setting is 1868 Boston, and the early days of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the events are as familiar as 9-11.  Massive ship wrecks occur in Boston harbor due to a systematic breakdown of navigation devices.  Followed by a meltdown of all glass in Boston's financial district.

Novels of this sort cannot rely on the police.  We need amateur detectives.  In this case, four MIT students -- including the school's sole woman student.

Pearl works his philosophical tensions with the expertise of a Hegelian novelist.  Old science and technology.  Faith and science.  Privilege and egalitarianism.  Unions and progress.

But the driving tension is between progress (represented by MIT's new technology) and caution (represented by Harvard and Boston's old order).  The type of progress that would serve as a handmaiden for political Progressives whose optimism would die with the sinking of Titanic and in the trenches of the Western Front.  To be replaced with its current postmodern, cynical shell.

But the book is not a philosophical tome.  It is a murder mystery.

And it is good. 

The nineteenth century writing style can be a little off-putting, but the story is well-conceived, the characters are complex and empathetic (with the exception of a few of the old order characters who tend to be a bit cartoonish), and the denouement is concurrently a surprise and inevitable.

It may not soar like The Dante Club, but The Technologists is a solid work.

Christopher Lord's first novel (The Christmas Carol Murders) utilizes some of the same literary devices -- to good effect.

The Christmas Carol Murders is based in the fictional Oregon village of Dickens Junction.  A community founded on the charitable principles of Charles Dickens.

Just as the community is preparing for its annual Christmas celebration of Dickens's tale of Christian charity, a stranger shows up causing tension in the village.  Within hours, he is the first victim of a serial killer.

The stranger turns out to be the agent of a corporation based on Objectivism -- the philosophy propounded by novelist Ayn Rand.  And, of course, there will be no room for Charles Dickens in the world if Objectivism -- where charity is considered to be a vice.

Local bookstore owner
Simon Alastair sets out to solve the murders while trying to discover why Objectivists have targeted his quaint village.  Pitted against him is Dagny Clack, the CEO of a corporation based on Objectivism.

Setting up a slap down between Charles Dickens and Ayn Rand is a natural choice.  Their life philosophies are poles apart.  Even though I suspect there are as many people who admire Rand's paean to individualism, but reject her atheistic self-centered philosophy as there are people who admire Dickens's sentimentality, but reject the Christian foundation of his philosophy.

But, like The Technologists, this is a murder mystery.  And, even though, the Dickens-Rand philosophical spat is extremely one-sided, the future of Dickens Junction drives a tale that keeps the reader's attention chapter after chapter.  And with just enough misdirection to make the novel's climax interesting.

Lord has an interesting layered writing style.  The story line is obviously designed to be a story unfolding in the world we inhabit.  But, it easily could be a Cartesian construct taking place only in Simon Alastair's mind.

Either way, it is a good read.

The novel is now available on Amazon.  A Kindle version will soon be available.


John Calypso said...

Both books look like good reads. I love the idea of contrasting Dickens and Ayn Rand philosophies. Will wait until they both fit in a Kindle however. ;-)

Steve Cotton said...

The author of the Dickens novel tells me the Kindle version should be on line quite soon.