THE AMBUSH OF MY NAME
Silver Dagger Mysteries, June 2001
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood
Historical Mystery, Ohio 1865
Rarely has a conquering hero had such an unsatisfying return to his birthplace. General U.S. Grant, savior of the Union and candidate for President, imagines as so many of us would the people of his home town acknowledging that he has made good. He hopes for a parade and speeches; he finds himself isolated, the target of escalating threats. The assassination of Lincoln, the memory of which still causes Grant such distress, may be repeated in the killing of Lincoln’s best general. In the face of the town’s aggressive indifference – with occasional pauses for sycophancy – Grant tries to trace the killer of two guests at the hotel. If there still exists a plot to assassinate all of Lincoln’s advisors, he needs to put a stop to it.
Marks gives us a Grant of stodgy intellect, a weary experience, and one talent. This, one feels, is how the historical man must have been. Grant’s vanity is appealingly vulnerable, his love for his bellicose wife amusing but real. Along the way he connects up with helpers and encounters others who are not so helpful. A cub reporter whose focused ambition is to make it to the big time has useful ideas about the mysteries. An old girlfriend who once considered herself too good for Grant chooses the worst times to repaint their past in brighter colors. The schoolfellow who had expected to get Grant’s appointment to West Point runs the telegraph system, which breaks down in the middle of a most important message. A Pinkerton man with absolutely no credentials or sensitivity appears to nursemaid Grant through the assassination crisis, his presence a piercing insult to the general’s courage.
The reality of THE AMBUSH OF MY NAME isn’t so much a breathing, extra-dimensional experience. It is more in the nature of a cartoon drawing, where the right line in the right place captures the salient characteristics of personality. The author grew up with hometown stories about General Grant. He also has clearly done his research on the time, the locale, and the political events and climate. His solution to the mystery involves a twist that historically might have happened.
The best element of the book is the writing style, which comes from a lively and undisciplined imagination. Choose a few pages at random, and you will find several phrases with wit, bite and originality. Within six pages I found: "...Her brows had arched into claws over her angry eyes." Describing the landlady’s hair, "Perhaps she had been tamped too tight – like gunpowder – and exploded." Grant suffering from a migraine: "The room spun around him, circling faster than buzzards around a corpse," and he "tried to shrug without moving." "I got me tomcats more married than that woman" has the flavor of an old wives’ saying, but if it is Marks’ own, I salute him. A phrase may sometimes be a little off kilter: "...Black slit eyes that burned like cannon barrels" has contradictory visuals, but I seem to hear the author saying, "So what? It works," and he would be right.
Jeffrey Marks’ birth in Grant’s hometown makes Grant an obvious subject for his debut novel. The author has previously published a biography of mystery writer Craig Rice called WHO WAS THAT LADY?, also mystery short stories of his own, and has won the Barnes and Noble Prize. Small potatoes, you might say, but if he chooses the right subjects and leaves no holds barred to his imagination, this author will build a solid base of readers who enjoy a bit of vicarious nose-thumbing at respectability.
Oct 2001 Review Originally Published on the Independent Reviews Site
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