Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom called Book Talk, home to quick previews of books that catch my eye.
You never know when you’re going to hear about a good book to read. Today I traded texts with a friend of mine and she told me about a great book she’s reading right now.
The Last Days of Night is an historical fiction novel about the fight between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison over who invented the light bulb. You may remember that Westinghouse and Edison were fierce rivals back in the 1880s. This rivalry led to what was named The War of Currents, an intense debate between Westinghouse and Edison over which type of electrical current (alternating or direct) should supply New York’s power grid.
The Last Days of Night is about a young lawyer named Paul Cravath, who is hired by Westinghouse. Westinghouse is being sued by Edison over the light bulb debate.
Here is part of the book blurb from Amazon:
The case affords Paul entry to the heady world of high society—the glittering parties in Gramercy Park mansions, and the more insidious dealings done behind closed doors. The task facing him is beyond daunting. Edison is a wily, dangerous opponent with vast resources at his disposal—private spies, newspapers in his pocket, and the backing of J. P. Morgan himself. Yet this unknown lawyer shares with his famous adversary a compulsion to win at all costs. How will he do it?
In obsessive pursuit of victory, Paul crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer on stage and off. As Paul takes greater and greater risks, he’ll find that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem.
The Last Days of Night was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
…and a little about the author, from his website:
Graham Moore is a New York Times bestselling novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter. His screenplay for THE IMITATION GAME won the Academy Award and WGA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2015 and was nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe.
I’m going to have to make time for this one! What great books are waiting for you?
I’ve been thinking about the relationship between readers of historical fiction and the writers of these popular books. How much of their stories should be fact and how much should be fiction? The genre is, after all, historical fiction, which, I think, gives writers the license to use their imaginations. But what happens when readers take issue?
Dictionary.com defines historical fiction as “narratives that take place in the past and are characterized chiefly by an imaginative reconstruction of historical events and personages.”
Goodreads adds to this definition by explaining that:
“In some historical fiction, famous events appear from points of view not recorded in history, showing historical figures dealing with actual events while depicting them in a way that is not recorded in history. Other times, the historical event or time period complements a story’s narrative, forming a framework and background for the characters’ lives. Sometimes, historical fiction can be for the most part true, but the names of people and places have been in some way altered.”
There is also a term called “alternate history” in which writers speculate what could have happened if certain events ended differently.
Are you, as a reader, bothered by a writer’s imagination if the story portrays well-known leaders, heroes or organizations in a not-so-nice way?
Consider The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. How much is fact and how much is fiction? Are there really clues hidden in the works of Leonardo da Vinci and is the Priory of Sion—a secret society whose members included Sir Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and Da Vinci—accurately portrayed? Does the author’s imagination take away from the story, or enhance it?
How about Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier? Not much is known about Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and his relationship with the girl in this famous painting. Is it scandalous to suggest he had an affair with a servant girl from his own household?
I recently re-read the 2015 historical mystery, Second Street Station by Lawrence H. Levy in which there are many American historical figures from the late 1800s, including Thomas Edison. We all think of Edison as the inventor of the electric light bulb and many other important discoveries that have greatly enhanced our lives. In his book, Levy incorporates some lesser-known facts about Edison, including the inventor’s favorite drink, Vin Mariani, a popular cocaine-laced wine that helped him work around the clock. Levy also portrays Edison as a highly competitive and vindictive businessman, who orchestrated the public electrocutions of dogs, calves and an elephant to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current, which was developed by his chief rival, George Westinghouse. (Read all about the War of Currents here.) And Levy also ties Edison to an unsolved murder of film pioneer, Louis Le Prince, who was the first person to record motion on film and received patents on his devices before Edison. Levy isn’t the first to suggest Edison had something to do with Le Prince’s disappearance, but it’s likely new information for the casual reader.
These books are all great choices for a book club discussion because of the questions they raise. Many of the questions can’t be fully answered. I think that’s why they make great stories!
So can fact and fiction get along in the same novel? I think so. What do you think?
BCM: Thank you, Larry for taking the time to answer these questions.
LHL: You’re welcome, Barb. I’m glad to do it!
BCM: I like how you combined historical fiction with a mystery format. I imagine you did a lot of research for the historical side. How did you manage the merge? Are you a mystery reader? A history buff?
LHL: I guess the short answer would be a lot and a little bit of everything. What I mean by that (ah, the long answer) is yes, I did a ton of research. There is research on every page of Second Street Station. Besides just the historical facts that I have woven into the story, there is language. Every time a character speaks I had to make sure people uttered those words in the late 19th century. Thank God there is Merriam Webster online which tells you when a word was first used. As far as the other questions are concerned, I have been a storyteller for over thirty-five years. It’s my job and my passion. True, I have mostly written for television, and this is my first novel. The point is though that I love good stories whether they are mysteries, historical fiction or contemporary, and I was totally taken with this one. As far as managing the merge, I’ll tell you a secret. Shush, don’t tell anyone. A fictional part of the book is making Goodrich, who was a real person, Edison’s bookkeeper. That was how I felt I could seamlessly merge the murder with the dubious and immoral tactics of moguls.
BCM: It’s fun reading about a time period in which there is no technology. Was that a freeing experience? Were there challenges to constructing a plot without your characters using computers and smart phones?
LHL: It’s funny that you bring that up. For years, I have been critical of television shows or movies where a person finds out that the person they are looking for is at a certain place and they rush to that place. I keep asking, “Why don’t they just call them?” In 1888 when most of Second Street Station takes place, there were definitely no cell phones and not everyone had telephones, especially not the poor. So, there were times when I had a situation where it would be so much easier to make a phone call, but Mary couldn’t. In some ways, it was helpful because I had to be more creative in my storytelling. In my next book, Brooklyn On Fire, Mary has to tell her parents some important news. She calls a neighbor a block away who has a phone, and that neighbor tells her parents.
BCM: Related to the absence of technology in the 1880s, I would guess that crime scenes were very different back then, too. Did you have to do specific research related to these scenes and references, or was it easy to write a crime scene without modern CSI procedures getting in the way?
LHL: Yes, I had to do specific research about crime scenes at that time. For instance, fingerprinting wasn’t used yet and blood typing was not yet a reality. I also had the advantage of having access to the newspaper articles of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which was around back then and had articles about the actual crime scene.
BCM: Over the years, I’ve read a lot of the books my kids have read in school, especially during the middle school years. Many of them are historical fiction and not all of them are interesting. It seems to me that an adapted version of Mary Handley’s character would fit well into the young adult genre and make history interesting to kids. Would you ever consider writing young adult books?
LHL: Yes definitely, if the right idea came to me. To me, it’s all about the story and my passion for it. I love it, but writing is hard work, and I have found that if I’m not obsessed with the story, it’s even harder. Having been a television writer, I have certainly at times taken jobs to write stories that didn’t grab me. I have found those to be just that – jobs. Maybe that is why my career has been unusual in the area of media writing. I’ve written half hour TV, hour TV, TV movies, animation, and features. In a business that tries to pigeon-hole you in one area, I’ve done them all. It’s made it more interesting to me. But as far as a YA novel or any novel, the important thing is my interest in the story. Writing a novel is a lot more work than a TV show or even a movie, and I’d have to really like the story.
BCM: I think Mary’s character is great. She’s not exactly a women’s libber, joining the other suffragettes on the streets. She just does what she wants to do and is modern in her thinking. I read that you could find some information about the real Mary Handley, but you needed to develop her character for your story. What was that process like? Did you have an early idea of what Mary would be like?
LHL: I had an early idea of what Mary would be like, but like in any writing process, I developed her more as I continued to plot my story. You’re absolutely right in that I wanted her to be modern in her thinking and have to deal with the problems it caused at that time. I also wanted to make her an independent thinker who didn’t join groups, because they followed the lowest common denominator theory – simplifying and lowering their goals to appeal to the most people. To be honest, there’s a good deal of my daughter in Mary along with qualities of other women I admire. I wanted her to be brilliant and witty, yet also vulnerable and fallible. Because of the time, she also had to be headstrong in order to dare to pursue what she wanted in life. To me, it’s easy to love Mary.
BCM: I was very interested to learn about the Edison-Tesla rivalry and particularly about Edison’s personality. Both figures were certainly creative and had all sorts of human flaws. I guess there was a lot of information about these men. In addition, I think most people know about the early ingredients in Coca-Cola, but I did not know about cocaine-laced wine, Vin Mariani, or about Edison’s use of this drink to keep him going. Was this an easy fact to discover in your research?
LHL: Easy is a relative term. I can’t even remember how long it took me to find that information. It all melds together now in one huge effort. However, during my research, I discovered that cocaine was considered the wonder drug at that time. Vin Mariani was the most popular wine in the United States. Queen Victoria, the Pope, Robert Louis Stevenson. Thomas Edison and others all endorsed cocaine. I found a quote from Edison, who was renowned for working long hours, saying how it cleared up the cobwebs after working all night. The dangers obviously weren’t clearly defined yet.
BCM: Tell me about the cover for Second Street Station. I really like it. It reminds me of an etching and seems true to the time period. How did you come to decide on the design and colors?
LHL: I wish I could take credit for the cover. The wonderful artists at Random House/Crown/Broadway Books came up with it and sent it to me. All I did was say, “Wow!”
BCM: Regarding the cover, it’s always fun to return to it after reading the book, and understand what the picture is depicting. Seeing what The Bowler Hat looked like was a bonus to me. Was it difficult choosing what to include on the cover?
LHL: It’s interesting you say that because my line of thinking was different and I was obviously proved wrong. I didn’t want to see the faces of my characters on the cover. I figured that everyone would have a different impression of what they thought Mary or the Bowler Hat looked like and I didn’t want to destroy their images by showing them a picture. However, everyone loves the cover, as do I, so there. I was wrong.
BCM: I like how you include some exciting action scenes in which Mary escapes by the skin of her teeth. I especially liked the trolley scene in which Mary shoves the trolley driver off and takes the whip and reins. It reminded me of an Indiana Jones movie, funny and entertaining and a nice addition to the historical part of the book. Do you think your experience as a comedy writer influenced these scenes? Did your experience make these scenes easier to write?
LHL: Again, easy is a relative word. However, I firmly believe that there is humor in anything you write because humor is part of life. If the action or story is heavily dramatic with no light moments, I find that somewhat boring and unrealistic. Do I have a tendency to see the comedy in situations? I probably do, but I try very hard to make that comedy real and not take over a dramatic story, ruining the serious moments.
BCM: Your next book is entitled Brooklyn On Fire will be released on January 19, 2016. What is it about?
LHL: In Brooklyn On Fire, Mary is asked to investigate the possible murder of a woman’s uncle. It blossoms into a triple murder case involving political and personal scandal, taking her to Richmond, Virginia and back again. Many of New York’s elite families are involved (the Huntingtons, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Rockefellers), and it all revolves around the annexation of Brooklyn by New York City (Brooklyn was its own city back then). It was a lot of fun writing, and I hope everyone enjoys it.
BCM: Will we see more of Mary’s family in Brooklyn On Fire? Will the officers at the station become more developed regulars?
LHL: Definitely. Elizabeth, Sean, and Jeffrey Handley are back and their relationships continue to evolve. Sean has been promoted at Second Street Station. Chief Campbell also has a new job and is intricately involved. Billy O’Brien, the older police sergeant who has known Mary and Sean since they were born, also returns.
BCM: What else is in the works? A TV or movie version?
LHL: I have been fortunate to have had a lot of interest in that area. Warner Brothers and several other companies have inquired. However, I am taking it slowly in that area. I want to do justice to Mary and not just turn her into some cartoonish, kick-ass 19th century woman.
BCM: Thank you, Larry. Looking forward to Mary’s next mystery!
Lawrence H. Levy is an American film and TV writer. He is a Writers Guild Award winner and two-time Emmy nominee. He has written for many hit TV shows, including Roseanne, Family Ties, Saved by the Bell and Seinfeld. Second Street Station is his first novel.
Whenever I read historical fiction, I want to know more about the characters and the time period. After reading Second Street Station, I found some interesting things!
Here’s a great Forbes article, “Nikola Tesla Wasn’t a God and Thomas Edison Wasn’t the Devil” about Edison and Tesla and their bitter competition over what was called the “war of currents.” Edison developed the Direct Current (DC) and Tesla, the Alternating Current (AC) and each thought theirs was better. Turns out each current is good for certain things. If I’m getting this right, Alternating Current is better to send electricity over long distances and DC is for shorter distances. Most of our appliances run on Direct Current.
Edison didn’t sleep much. Instead he spent a lot of time in his laboratory. But it turns out he also loved the popular wine of the time, called Vin Mariani, which was laced with cocaine and undoubtedly kept him going. This article from The Atlantic talks about Edison and other sleepless creative and driven people (now and then): “Thomas Edison and the Cult of Sleep Deprivation”.
I also found this terrific PDF file from The New York Times detailing the trial of the Goodrich murder. The article includes this fun description of Mary Handley:
Miss Handley is a handsome brunette, about twenty-one years of age, and in appearance very unlike a detective.
Lawrence Levy is an American film and TV writer. He is a Writers Guild Award winner and two-time Emmy nominee. He has written for many hit TV shows, including Roseanne, Family Ties, Saved by the Bell and Seinfeld. Second Street Station is the first book in his new Mary Handley Mystery series. His next book, Brooklyn on Fire, will be available in Spring 2016.
For more information about Levy, be sure to check out his author website where you will find this great map of Mary Handley’s Brooklyn.
Click here to visit my review of Second Street Station.
The future looks bleak when Mary Handley is fired from her sweatshop job in Brooklyn. She’d held her tongue long enough at the Lowry Hat Factory and finally gave her boss, the Widow Lowry, a piece of her mind. “After all, if you didn’t call a pig a pig, it might never know it was one,” she tells the widow. Now both poor and jobless, she shows up at her police officer brother’s Second Street Station, hoping for a meal.
It’s 1888 and a lot is going on in New York. Women are starting to demand their rights. Powerful entrepreneurs like J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and Jay Gould are wielding their influence and the genius inventors, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla are in the middle of a war of currents.
In Brooklyn, Mary is not about to listen to her mother’s advice to find a husband. She has a sharp mind and an independent streak and isn’t ready to settle down. “Have you no interest in betterin’ yourself?” her mother asks.
Mary gets her chance at a new career when Charles Goodrich, Thomas Edison’s bookkeeper, is murdered. In a public relations move, Police Chief Patrick Campbell offers Mary a job as a detective, the first female officer in New York. Mary doesn’t have to think twice before she says yes.
What follows is a very entertaining historical fiction mystery with lots of action and twists and turns. Second Street Station is based on the actual Goodrich murder case in which the real Mary Handley was a key part of the investigation. A large cast of historical figures, including Morgan, Edison and Tesla, figure in the story. Lesser-known characters also cast doubt, leaving almost no one beyond suspicion.
In Levy’s story, Mary’s knack for figuring things out carries her far into the investigation, but she lands in many dangerous situations. It’s great fun to imagine Mary in these scenes and to cheer for her as she goes up against mysterious assassins who are determined to take her down. Levy offers just enough clues along the way to engage the reader. There’s a promise of a resolution, but plenty of surprises wait at the finish.
I very much enjoyed reading Second Street Station, which is the first in Levy’s new series of mysteries and I think the historical element greatly enhances an already winning story. In particular, Levy portrays Thomas Edison in a very different way from what is taught in schoolbooks, making me want to know more about his driven and creative personality and about his fierce competition with Tesla. Levy has a fun writing style and gives the story an authentic feel by adding great details unique to the time period.
Click here to read more about about Levy and the historical characters in this book including some interesting links about the case and life during the 1880s.
Want more? Check out these other Mary Handley Mysteries: