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April 11, 2013

BUSHNELL ON BOOKS: "A Study in Revenge" and "Back From Tobruk"

Bill Bushnell

A STUDY IN REVENGE
By Kieran Shields
Crown, 2013
369 pages, $25
ISBN 978-0-307-98576-7
 
London may have had Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson prowling its foggy streets in 1893, but Portland also had an equally adroit pair of detectives battling arch-villains that year — Perceval Grey and Archie Lean.

“A Study in Revenge” is an excellent historical mystery set in Portland in the summer of 1893, a complex thriller by Bath author Kieran Shields, following “The Truth of All Things” which introduced Lean and Grey in 2012.

This curious tale offers a complex Holmesian-style mystery complete with murder, mayhem, intricate coded messages and mysticism along with some Portland history, gumshoe detective work and fascinating villains and charlatans. Clues obscure and obvious abound, so readers will have to be alert and discerning among multiple plotlines.

Archie Lean is a Portland police detective investigating the discovery of a charred dead body in an abandoned house. The victim is a well-known career criminal, Frankie the Foot. But Lean is puzzled more by the fact that Frankie had been murdered and buried two days earlier. And this crime scene is littered with sooty, cryptic symbols and pictures — all clues, perhaps?

Lean seeks help from his friend Perceval Grey, a clever and respected criminologist (think Holmes), who is also half-Abenaki Indian. The two men make a good investigative team, but even they cannot figure out this latest grisly mystery. Lean is further surprised when Portland’s tough criminals are too scared to talk about Frankie.

Meanwhile, Grey is hired by a wealthy family to recover a stolen family artifact and locate a missing sister, and at first the cases seem unconnected. But as the plots converge, robbery, murder and links to a past case (in the first book) appear, putting Lean and Grey in grave danger. And there is sure to be a sequel.
 

BACK FROM TOBRUK
By Croswell Bowen,
edited by Betsy Conner Bowen
Potomac Books, 2013
264 pages, $29.95
ISBN 978-1-59797-985-6
 
In mid-1941, photojournalist Croswell Bowen volunteered to go to North Africa with the all-volunteer American Field Service as a war correspondent for Colliers magazine, to cover the see-saw Allied-German battles for North Africa during World War II.

Bowen’s memoir of that wartime experience, “Back from Tobruk,” edited by his daughter Betsy Bowen, reveals that this idealistic young man first thought war “is a wonderful adventure to be going on,” but he later admitted “I went to war as one kind of person and came back as another.”

Betsy Bowen is a Maine author herself, penning the excellent novella “Spring Bear” in 2009. Her father wrote this memoir after the war but it was never published, which is surprising considering his respected credentials as a reporter and photographer.

Croswell Bowen (1905-1971) was a pacifist, but felt he needed to experience war and chronicle its effects in words and images. He tells of his unusual journey as a noncombatant from New York to the frontlines in Egypt and Libya, and grim battlefields at Mersa Matruh, Sidi Barrani, El Alamein and the fortress at Tobruk.

His vivid, sensitive narrative (augmented by evocative photographs) describes the harsh realities of desert warfare, enduring air and artillery attacks, the constant threat of landmines and booby traps and the hardships of desert living imposed by thirst, hunger, disease and the terrible suffering of the wounded.

Best, and most revealing, are his poignant descriptions of soldiers, doctors, nurses, prisoners of war, officers and enlisted, civilians and natives and the many different ways they deal with war. Bowen sees firsthand the varying impacts war has on the human body and psyche. He wants to believe in the goodness of man, but worries that man will never learn to avoid war. And his life is forever changed.


— Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell





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