Hey all. Gerry Boyle here, lifting my nose out of a a couple of books. That I’m reading, I mean, flipping back and forth like the two works were one.
I don’t know how you read (feel free to fill me in in the comments section below), but I’m in the midst of one of those serendipitous book occasions where I’ve found myself reading, quite by chance, two books that illuminate each other so well that the sum of them is greater than the parts.
Book one: All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship by Kathryn Miles. This is history, a great job of research and anecdote, and a dramatic recreation of a time that fascinates me as an Irish-American.
I was halfway through All Standing, reading about the Jeanie Johnston and how it’s owner, captain, and crew managed to transport hundreds of Irish from the port of Tralee to America and Canada without losing a single passenger. In the age of coffin ships—and the exploration of this tragic period in the mid-19th century is sobering— this was a remarkable feat. As Miles eloquently describes, thousands of Irish escaped starvation only to die at sea of disease or drowning. It was a sad time, one that Nathaniel Hawthorne (who Miles quotes) described this way:
“At every two or three steps, a gin shop; also filthy in clothes and persons, ragged, pale, often afflicted with humors, women, nursing their babies on dirty bosoms; men, haggard, drunken, care-worn, hopeless, but with a kind of patience, as if all this were the rule of their life.
Not for long, at least for some, including Axie Muldoon, the creation of author Kate Manning, who’s written a remarkable historical novel called My Notorious Life, whose acquaintance I made recently. Based on a true story, the book is about an Irish immigrant who girl who is tough and smart and turns an apprenticeship to a doctor to a career as a notorious (in some circles) female physician. This was rare for any woman, never mind a kid from New York’s immigrant ghettos, and Manning gets deep inside Axie’s head. The girl is a remarkable character and kids are hard to do well.
Here’s a moment when 9-year-old Axie is being inspected by a man interested in adopting her:
—Stand, said the b*****d. —Turn around.
The geezer chewed something as he made the tour of me. His lips were stained brown, his teeth dark in the cracks, and his mouth appeared like it was leaking mud.
—You’re a fine young lady, said he. —So’s your sister.
He was squinting, sucking his lips. —I want to see about your teeth. Open your mouth, say ahhh.
Her new daddy? Axie doesn’t think so and takes a chomp out of the guy’s arm. Take that.
I recommend both books if you like history and the people who lived it. Or if you just like to read about remarkable people whose lives aren’t like your own. And while these aren’t works of true crime or crime fiction, there’s plenty of crime in the the worlds they depict. This was a time when life was cheap and people were desperate and crime naturally follows. The slums of American cities in the 19th century were places where you could get your throat slit and your pockets emptied.
Quaint they weren’t.
But the point is—Ah, the point. Could you feel it coming?—that crime novelists don’t just read crime novels. I always feel a little bad when someone at an event asks what I’ve been reading. They expect the latest in mystery fiction. I end up talking about books like, well, these two. I usually ask them about their favorites. Read a good mystery lately? I’m all ears.
In fact, I’d love recommendations for any sort of reading: nonfiction, novels, classics, bestsellers, history, biography. As we all know that there are so many good books—crime or otherwise— and so little time.