The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, by Peter Ackroyd

The author likes to blend fiction and history, and he does it in this 1994 novel quite effectively. Such as when Karl Marx and George Gissing sit alongside his fictional characters in the British Museum. But he also blends other factors, such as the sexes, with females playing males, and such as the contrast between the reality of violent death and the illusion of the theatre.

This novel opens with an execution. Of the Elizabeth Cree of the title. For the murder of her husband. We then backtrack to her early life and her trial in the London of 1881. In her struggle to move out of poverty, she initially found bit roles in the theatre. In fact, the artifice of the theatre becomes a major theme of this novel. An artifice that will be exemplified by her dressing up as a man in order to explore the city of London.

Alternating with Elizabeth’s life are excerpts from a diary kept by a serial killer, a kind of Jack the Ripper but apparently based on a real, historic figure. In the novel, this diary writer is John Cree, Elizabeth’s husband. For whose death she is being tried and executed, although we do not know if she truly killed him and what might have brought her to do so. In his diary, however, Cree goes about viciously murdering innocent victims. These murders are described in brutal detail—indeed, too great a detail for me—which is apparently to convey to the reader the true horror of the crimes.

Also alternating with Elizabeth’s life are the lives of historic figures who, like John Cree, gather regularly in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Karl Marx and George Gissing have in common their interest in the poor people of both London and England, and soon become intellectual friends. But even as they become effective characters, and even suspects in the murders, one wonders why they are present in this novel. The eventual answer seems to be the historic verisimilitude that they offer. Although Gissing’s response when suspected by the police is especially moving.

Meanwhile, further chapters introduce John Cree as a reporter with a minor publication, but who has never fulfilled his ambition to write successful plays. He and Elizabeth take to each other, but when they marry, she informs him that because of her violent upbringing she cannot allow him to make love to her. This is not further explored, but the reader does recall her theatrical past when she used to like to dress as a man.

A secondary theme of the novel is the golem. This monster-like creature of Jewish legend that can be created by people under emotional stress is rumored to be the true serial killer. And prompts considerable fear in the populace. While none of the characters in charge take such a monster seriously, the reader definitely knows that the golem is not the perpetrator of these murders—although its imagined presence extends the novel’s theme of the tension between artifice and reality.

For a while, it is unclear what this novel is all about. Is it about the cruel serial murders? Is it about the historic figures, and how they react to a poor and violent society? Is it about illusion, which begins in the theatre? Or is it simply a murder tale in which Elizabeth and John Cree will play major roles? These questions are continually raised in the first half of the novel, as the reader is exposed to various incidents and varying viewpoints.

But as the second half of the novel begins to concentrate on the Crees, it becomes clear that this is their story, including their increasingly contentious marriage. Whereupon, near the end, the author offers a grand surprise. Some critics apparently think that he has earlier provided clues to that surprise. But I cannot find a valid connection between such clues and the author’s final revelation. And so, I do not buy it. It comes across to me as an arbitrary decision by the author. Not as a sudden revelation of character.

And then he compounds this miscalculation on the final pages with a death that is apparently meant to be a cruel irony. But for me, it is simply stale frosting on a half-baked cake.

Despite these qualms, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The blend of history and illusion, of historic figures and fictional figures, of actual events and fictional events, of a series of murders and detective work, and of insights into the minds of different characters, including the killer—all these factors drew me into this volume. Even when I was not sure where the author was headed.

What also drew me into the novel was the enhanced reality of Ackroyd’s London. Valerie Martin describes it in the New York Times: “all its awful, teeming, endless variety, with the dark alleyways peopled by criminals, beggars, and children, its unbreatheable air, its pea-soup fog, its carriages rattling along streets lined with prostitutes…its warm smoked-filled theaters, its cool, airy, quiet museum library, its actors, its murderers, its writers, its intellectuals.”

On the other hand, the author probes too deeply for me into the idea of illusion. I found the least interesting part of the novel to be the moments early on that capture life in the theatre, both on stage and behind the curtain—especially the emphasis on Dan Leno as a great comedian. At the end, I could see the reason for those scenes, but the detail did not work for me. It seemed to be there for its humor in an otherwise serious novel.

Perhaps this is in part due to my lack of knowledge about the historic world of English entertainment. That, for example, Dan Leno was a major figure in that world in 1880—so much so that he figures in the title of the English version of this novel, along with the Golem. (What a juxtaposition!) Whereas, I related to Karl Marx and George Gissing, both because I know of them and because they are treated here more seriously.

By itself, this novel does not turn me onto other novels by Ackroyd. But if I found an intriguing premise in a novel of his, a unique blend of known fact and unknown fiction, I would be tempted to explore it. For I do like to read the flights of an author’s imagination. Of which the best example for me is Stephen King’s 11/22/63, about an attempt to block the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (July, 2018)

Stardust, by Joseph Kanon

Kanon seems always to feature a strong setting, usually Europe, a complicated plot, and interesting European characters. He does it again here, and it again works. This 2009 book begins as a Hollywood novel, however, including even a 20th Century-type train ride with stars, this time heading westward. On arriving in Los Angeles, the hero, Ben Collier, confronts a mysterious death, that of his brother Danny. Danny has jumped or been thrown over a balcony. Ben and Danny are Jews raised in Europe, and Ben moves among both Hollywood’s German exiles, many Jewish, and Hollywood executives, in order to discover any connection they have with his brother, and why his brother died.

And so Stardust makes its initial impression as a Hollywood novel. It goes into deep detail as it presents the strategy, the rivalry, the maneuvering, and the technology behind studio life. We meet Sol Lasner, head of Continental Pictures; Bunny, his right hand man; and Liesl, widow of Danny and a budding star; plus, Osterman, Liesl’s father; and other Germans, like Dieter, Liesl’s uncle, and Kaltenbach. There are also Hal, a film cutter; Rosemary, a young star; Dick Marshall, a proven star; and then actual people in bit roles, like Paulette Goddard, Jack Warner, Alma Mahler, Thomas Mann, and Bertolt Brecht.

Ben has been brought in to Continental to direct a documentary on the German concentration camps, but is soon involved emotionally with Liesl as he searches for the truth about his brother. He moves about the studio offices, the sound stages, the cutting rooms, the preview parties, and confrontations with the press. It is a broad Hollywood setting, with gossip columnists like Polly Marks, as well as reporters, policemen, and FBI agents.

It seems the truth about Danny’s death is very complicated, but Ben slowly focuses on Danny’s involvement with Communists in the U.S. Was he still a Communist here, as he was in Europe when he helped émigrés like Liesl escape, or was he, here, a loyal American? And what are Liesl’s convictions? This is the 1940s, and red-baiting is beginning in the movie industry, led by California Representative Ken Minot. Who in the U.S. is deceiving whom in the search for Communists? Ben needs to know if he is to find the truth about Danny’s death. And what was Danny’s role?

The Communist witch-hunting takes over this novel’s second half, and it culminates in a dramatic hearing, led by Minot, in which Kanon pulls out all the stops. Meanwhile, Ben offers himself as a potential target to learn whom among the Communists killed his brother and why. There is one intriguing scene, as Ben hides in a closet in Minot’s office, seeking evidence, and is discovered—but not revealed. Why he is not betrayed involves more of the complicated motives of these people. On the other hand, the climactic scene with the killer on a sound stage is standard, and the identity of the killer is anti-climactic. But the pleasure of the novel has been in getting this far.

Kanon deliberately leaves one loose end, however. It seems to link the death of Danny with a mutual decision of Ben and Liesl. As if Kanon is not going to succumb to a traditional happy Hollywood ending. I went back to reread a number of pages, and still could not decide Kanon’s true intent.

This is a rich reading experience, as are all Kanon’s novels. In this case, it is his detailed portrait of Hollywood that sets this work apart. It is one of the best portraits I have read because of its range of detail. It is also an expose of the Red witch-hunts there, with a dramatic climax in which Lasner powerfully, but unrealistically in actual life, tells off the witch-hunter.

This work is also a political murder mystery that raises moral and ethical issues, which has brought comparisons to Graham Greene and John LeCarre. I would not rank Kanon at that level, but would place him fairly close behind LeCarre. Like LeCarre, he is also prone to complicated plots that are not easy to follow. Such as the morality of those who collaborate with the Communists to undermine them. And the suggestion that those who do so are actually being used by the Communists. And then there is the treatment of the German émigrés, who have fled one persecution and are now threatened by another. Plus, the complexity is enhanced by the novel’s structural variations. Such as the reversals of Ben’s suspicions regarding Bunny, Danny, and Liesl. And the changing role of the FBI.

Some of the complications that confront Ben help enrich his character. He seems to fall in love with his brother’s wife. Should he? And he agrees to collaborate with Congressman Minot in his pursuit to learn what happened to his brother. Again, should he? Plus, in order to learn the truth, is he justified in offering himself as a target? For if he is killed, will the truth ever be known?

But I continue to go back to this portrait of the film industry, through one small company, Continental. Kanon himself had been the president of two major New York publishers, but has no apparent Hollywood background. Thus, one marvels at what must have been tremendous research. But he obviously learned also from writers he published. Such as that reality comes from small touches. Here, one touch is the presence of Paulette Goddard, always portrayed in a positive light. She is witty and direct, as well as beautiful. Kanon seems truly to have fallen in love with her. And why not? She was always one of my favorites as well.

To sum up, this work will survive mostly because of its portrait of Hollywood. And will interest many because of its exploration behind the scenes of the Communist witch-hunts. For mystery lovers, its double-dealing may be too confusing. The personal story of Ben is more intriguing at the start, as he becomes involved with Liesl and the German émigrés, less so later on when he sets himself up step-by-step as a target. And the exposure of Danny’s killer is inconsequential—except, do we really know who it was?

I am on to more Kanon, expecting more European post-war atmosphere, and more complicated intrigue. (October, 2014)