Friday, November 05, 2010

The Book You Have to Read: “Rose,”
by Martin Cruz Smith

(Editor’s note: This is the 107th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from San Francisco Bay Area science writer and novelist Ann Parker, author of the Silver Rush Mystery Series, the most recent installment of which is Leaden Skies.)

I’ll begin by saying I’m not certain that Martin Cruz Smith’s Rose is a “forgotten book.” But if you, like me, somehow missed it when it originally came out in 1996, and you love historical mysteries, well-defined unusual settings, and/or complex and well-drawn characters, then put it on your to-be-read list.

I was first alerted to Rose about 10 years ago, when I was thrashing through early drafts of the first book of my series set in the 1880s silver-mining town of Leadville, Colorado. A friend commented, “Your setting is a 19th-century mining town? So you’ve read Rose, of course.”

Well, no, I hadn’t. Which was a little odd because I was (and still am) a major fan of Smith’s books, beginning (as probably many others did) with Gorky Park and gobbling up every Arkady Renko book from there on out. Yet, I hadn’t heard of, much less read, Rose. I corrected that error in short order, and, in the process, discovered what a gem Rose is.

In that novel, Smith turned for inspiration to 1872 Wigan, an English coal-mining town. Smith’s sense of time and place is always “spot on” and his writing reinforces the setting, resonating in ways that few can equal. As a 1996 Time magazine book review of Rose said, “[T]he setting drives the plot and makes the crime.”

Every description and turn of the plot pulls the reader into the world Smith has created. For instance, there’s this passage, which takes the reader on a queasy ride down a mining shaft with protagonist Jonathan Blair and a cage full of miners:
The cage started slowly, down through the round, brick-lined upper mouth of the shaft, past round garlands of Yorkshire iron, good as steel, into a crosshatched well of stone and timber, and then simply down. Down into an unlit abyss. Down at twenty, thirty, forty miles per hour. Down faster than any men anywhere else on earth could travel. So fast that breath flew from the lungs and pressed against the ears. So fast that nothing could be seen at the open end of the cage except a blur that could whip away an inattentive hand or leg. Down seemingly forever.

… At its fastest, the cage dropped so smoothly that the men almost floated. In a shaft it was always the moment of greatest danger and greatest bliss. Blair thought that with their massed lamps they might resemble a meteor to a spectator, to a dazzled worm.
It’s no surprise to read in a 1996 Salon interview with Smith that while doing research for Rose, he actually went to Wigan and journeyed down into a mine: He captures it all--sight, touch, sound, and that drop-down feeling right there in the pit of the stomach.

Smith brings the same richness in writing to his plot and characters. The protagonist, down-on-his-luck American mining engineer Jonathan Blair, has been “conned” (emotionally, financially) into a single-handed search for Wigan’s missing curate, John Maypole. Bishop Hannay, who owns the town and its mines, is the one who makes the initial proposition and dangles the reward: uncover Maypole’s whereabouts and earn a one-way trip back to Blair’s beloved Africa, all expenses paid. To solve the mystery, Blair must steer through the various social strata of Wigan, from the lowest to the highest, and navigate Wigan’s crooked ancient alleys and vast underground tunnels and drifts, as well as the posh ancestral Hannay estate. He is, like the dazzled worm in the passage above, an outsider to this complex world, but of it as well. (To say more than that would give some of the mystery away).

As Blair ferrets about, trying to unravel what happened to the missing cleric, the people who he assumes would be the most eager to help him seem instead to ignore or actively work against his efforts. Those folks include Charlotte Hannay, Maypole’s fiancée and Bishop Hannay’s daughter; Reverend Chubb, Maypole’s superior; and the miners and “pit girls”--including the mysterious Rose of the title--that Maypole longed to convert. Through it all, Smith weaves in details about 19th-century mining life, the status of women, African exploration, and more (including some of the nasty concoctions for alleviating symptoms of malaria—arsenic and quinine, anyone?). Smith wraps a whacking good mystery and a surprising romance into this world he’s built, using prose that reads like poetry, in description and dialogue alike.

In the Salon interview, Smith says, “We all love the rhythm of English speech, probably for the same reason we love the King James version of the Bible, the up and downness of it.” Throughout Rose, Smith’s voice is pitch perfect, and the end result is a perfect jewel of a book.

1 comment:

Todd Mason said...

Thanks for the pointer. GORKY PARK is a permanent member (so far) of my TBR pile, and while I hear little but good of Smith's work, good intentions haven't quite panned out yet.

As Patti Abbott's on vacation here in Philadelphia this week, I've set up the links to this week's entries in FFB on my blog.