This book is indeed a 'Homer Kelly' mystery (the seventeenth in the series), but Langton's serial detective has very little to do in "The Deserter." In another of her mysteries, Langton has a character refer to the 'deep well of the past.' In "The Deserter," we are IN that well, glancing occasionally upward at dimly gesticulating characters from the present. The author could very well have left Homer and Mary out of this book, and still have told an interesting story about the Battle of Gettysburg and its aftermath.
Normally I avoid books about the American Civil War like the plague. Even Langton's patented touches of light humor, e.g. the dance hall babe in beribboned knickers, failed to brighten up this book with its piles of sawed-off limbs, frightened young soldiers, and putrid corpses.
The plot overlay involves Mary's effort to clear the name of her great-great-grandfather, who was accused of deserting his regiment during the Battle of Gettysburg. We slip backward a hundred and fifty years and learn that Lieutenant Seth Morgan was actually killed by one of his own soldiers, who then swapped uniforms and identities with him and hightailed it for Baltimore. Seth's pregnant wife Ida searches the temporary hospitals and morgues for her husband's body and is finally told that Seth deserted.
Ida is the real heroine of this book, although she never learns the actual fate of her husband (that has to wait for Homer and Mary). She is one of Langton's typical heroines: slightly shabby and made bulky by her growing baby, but upright, determined, and very likeable. Her sixteen-year-old brother is sent to bring her back home to Massachusetts and enlists in the Union Army, instead.
Ida stumbles across her brother dying of typhoid fever in Washington D.C.'s Patent Office, which has been converted into a temporary hospital (the author admits that she knew the Patent Office was no longer used as a hospital by the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, but she was so charmed by the location that she fudged just a bit in her otherwise historically accurate account). Ida herself is about to give birth, and the man she thinks is her husband, Seth has pranced off to music hall stages unknown with his bubbly mistress.
Actually, this is one of the more cheerful passages in "The Deserter."
This will never be my favorite Langton, but it is still worth reading if you are a fan of this mystery/history author. "The Deserter" is illustrated with drawings and nineteenth-century photographs of the real places where her fictional characters played out their very serious lives. The portrait-photographs that Langton 'borrowed' for her protagonists are especially haunting--all of those young lives despoiled by a dark, desperate civil war.
A sequel to "The Deserter," called "Steeplechase" will be published by St. Martin's Press in November, 2005.
Of all the subtexts of the Civil War, the involvement of wealthy sons of New England is one of minor but enduring interest. The granite Calvinist abolitionism and noblesse oblige that their privileged positions as Ivy League graduates gave them expectation of their right to assume leadership of a war fought on distant fields. Was it their war? Joshua Chamberlain's stand at Gettysburg, and his return to New England academia is the stuff of legend. They made it their war, … more
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Civil War buffs will especially appreciate Langton's 17th Homer Kelly mystery (after 2002's The Escher Twist), in which the Harvard professor/sleuth and his wife, Mary, plunge into research in an effort to exonerate Seth Morgan, Mary's great-great-grandfather, a Harvard man suspected of desertion at Gettysburg. In 1863, in the battle's aftermath, Seth's pregnant wife, Ida, an independent and hardy New Englander, desperately seeks her missing husband as far as Baltimore and Washington. Meanwhile, Seth's comrade-in-arms Otis Pike, "the witty darling of his class at Harvard," provides some comic relief with his tendency to skedaddle and his scandalous involvement with actress Lily LeBeau. Homer realizes that the key to the mystery of Mary's ancestor's seemingly shameful action lies in ascertaining the particulars of Seth's relationship to Otis. The suspense builds as the author adroitly shifts between past and present. Period photos, an 1860 playbill for the Hasty Pudding show, quotations from Walt Whitman and loads of Harvard lore add historical weight. Fans of this generally lighthearted series, though, should be prepared for some graphic description of the horrors of war. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.