Cary Grant by Scott Eyman: Film historian Scott Eyman takes a fresh look at a movie legend in the sparkling biography Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise. Drawing upon extensive interviews and archival materials, including the star’s personal papers, Eyman shows that Grant (1904-1986), king of the romantic comedy and the very definition of dashing, was a man of contrasts forever troubled by his working-class past. Born into a poor household in Bristol, England, Grant, whose real name was Archibald Leach, did not have a happy childhood. His father was an alcoholic. His depressed mother spent decades in an institution, while Grant was told that she was dead. At 14, he engineered his own expulsion from school in order to chase a career in show business. From stilt walking, acrobatics and pantomime in English music halls to American vaudeville revues and the Broadway stage, he didn’t stop until he’d landed in Hollywood. In 1932, Grant made his first big film, Blonde Venus, with Marlene Dietrich. By 1939, he was a full-blown star. Absent-minded scientist (Bringing Up Baby), wisecracking socialite (The Philadelphia Story), ice-cold government agent (Notorious)–there was no bill he didn’t fit. During the late 1940s, Eyman writes, “Grant had first crack at nearly every script that didn’t involve a cattle drive or space aliens.” But Grant’s past seems to have left him permanently scarred. Although he maintained a suave public persona and was widely cherished by friends and fellow actors, the truth about him was, of course, more complicated. As the author reveals, Grant has a reputation for stinginess and self-absorption and could be a mean drunk. On set, he was often anxious and tense. Eyman’s consideration of the inner conflicts that drove Grant results in a wonderfully nuanced study of his life. Along with the star’s many marriages and bitter divorces, Eyman explores the rumors surrounding his sexuality and his LSD use, recounting it all in clean, unaffected prose. He mixes Grant’s personal story with several decades’ worth of Hollywood history, and his film analyses are eye-opening. Grant was “a man for all movie seasons.” They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
The Kidnapping Club by Jonathan Daniel Wells: Urbane and bustling, New York City is often considered the epitome of “Northern-ness.” However, in the decades before the Civil War, the city’s interests were very much in line with those of Southern cotton farmers. Through its finance, insurance and shipping industries, New York probably profited from slave labor more than any other city in the country. The city would do almost anything to appease the Southern states, even if it meant sending its own citizens into slavery. The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War by Jonathan Daniel Wells is an eye-opening history of antebellum New York. Wells, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, meticulously details two of New York City’s dirtiest secrets: the city’s illicit backing of the illegal transatlantic slave trade and the Kidnapping Club that helped reinforce it. From the 1830s until the start of the Civil War, and with the support of the city’s judiciary, vigilantes in the Kidnapping Club as well as the police abducted Black New Yorkers on the pretext that they were escaped slaves. With little or no due process, hundreds of men, women and even children were snatched, jailed and then sent south. The broader effects of New York’s illegal slave trade were even more horrific, resulting in the abduction, enslavement and frequently death of hundreds of thousands of West Africans. There are many villains in this thoroughly researched and fascinating history, including police officers Tobias Boudinot and Daniel Nash, Judge Richard Riker and Mayor Fernando Woods. Yet The Kidnapping Club is more than a story of villainy. It’s also a history of heroes, including David Ruggles, a Black abolitionist who put his body between the victims and their snatchers; Elizabeth Jenkins, who fought against segregated transportation over a century before Rosa Parks; and James McCune Smith, an abolitionist and the first African American to hold a medical degree. Most important of all, The Kidnapping Club restores the names of the abducted: Ben, Hester Jane Carr, Isaac Wright, Frances Shields, John Dickerson and countless others whose lives were destroyed and humanity erased–until now.
Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood (e-book available on the Libby or Overdrive apps): Debut author Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favors the Dead introduces us to detective Lillian Pentecost and her right-hand woman/chronicler, Willowjean Parker, a mid-1940s pair that resembles a gender-swapped Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Their investigation into the murder of prominent New York City matriarch Abigail Collins–found with her head bashed in inside her late husband’s locked-from-the-inside study–almost takes a back seat to the intrepid detectives themselves. Willow grew up with a traveling circus, and Lillian suffers from multiple sclerosis, making them as instantly intriguing as any classic detective tandem, whether it be Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson or the aforementioned Wolfe and Goodwin. Written with witty prose, Fortune Favors the Dead is often humorous and fun–nowhere near the stuffy analytical voice of Dr. Watson. Instead, with its cast of suspects (all conveniently listed at the start of the book to help readers keep track), it has the hallmarks of an Agatha Christie mystery, and there’s a delightful dose of noir thrown in for the more hardcore pulp fiction crowd, too. All the tried and true methods of detection are evident here, as Willow follows cagey suspects (including a mysterious medium/spiritualist and a cynical university professor) around the city and interviews everyone from the family of the deceased to the waitstaff. There’s even a local police detective who begrudgingly accepts Lillian’s involvement in the case against his better judgment, a la Inspector Lestrade. Oh, and that case they’re working on? It’s as mysterious and fun a caper as you will ever read, with plenty of misdirection and intrigue to keep you guessing. You don’t need a clairvoyant to realize this duo will be around for years to come.
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Jess Walter’s first novel in eight years arrives with the weight of high expectations. His last, Beautiful Ruins, was a surprising and well-deserved bestseller. His previous fiction–including crime novels, a 9/11 tale and short stories–were rapturously reviewed. In The Cold Millions, Walter tries another mixed genre, the Western historical novel, and shows he is a master at investigating the “hobo” world of 1909. The star of the book is Spokane, Washington, a “boomtown that just kept booming.” It is here, amid skid row poverty and mansions of wealth, that 19-year-old rabble rouser Elizabeth Gurley Flynn intersects with two orphaned young men, Rye and Gig, who are the protagonists of the story. The book is uneven, however, and falls short of the romanticism of Beautiful Ruins. There is fine detail on dark anarchy and dank jail cells, but unlike Walter’s funny version of Richard Burton in Ruins, Flynn is so focused (one might say didactic) as to be wooden. Her leadership of the dismal class struggle becomes repetitive. Rye and Gig are callow, and even though Gig is a book lover and Rye a striver, they don’t fully inhabit their space. Readers may be far more interested in the villain, a robber baron named Brand, and a smart circus performer named Ursula the Great. When these two are cavorting, The Cold Millions shines. Walter has devised some fantastic set pieces, including a riot that leads to a dreadful scene of jail overcrowding. The freedom of the road, the lawlessness of the police, the spectacle of a few cynical power figures making life miserable for the huddled masses–it’s all enlivened by Walter’s vivid writing. A reader can feel the rails rattling under the trains that thunder through the mountains. A new life, the 20th century, is roaring into being. As Rye thinks to himself, “History is like a parade.” Forget the book’s shortcomings; it’s good to have Jess Walter back.