Written by J Aaron Sanders — Writers as varied as Dashiell Hammett and Oscar Wilde have been called into action by crime fiction authors. J Aaron Sanders recruits America’s greatest poet Walt Whitman for his debut crime novel, Speakers of the Dead. The author is well suited to his subject, with a PhD in American Literature, he teaches English at Columbus State University.
The setting is New York, and it’s winter, 1843. Whitman is a young journalist from Long Island who becomes involved with the case of Lena Stowe, a woman accused of poisoning her husband as payback for his infidelity. The idealistic writer campaigns for her life, but Lena Stowe is hanged and with her dies an unborn daughter.
Whitman is determined to prove that there has been a miscarriage of justice and comes into contact with a group of women who, against the mores of the day, are learning to become doctors. Given the widespread belief that tampering with a corpse will impede the soul’s journey to Heaven, the women must rely on grave robbers to provide the raw materials for their studies.
When a sheriff is shot dead by one of the body snatchers, Whitman has another mercy mission to accomplish. He knows that the man languishing in jail – and due to hang – was not the killer, though he did work for the culprit. As Whitman picks his way through the complex maze of political, medical and legal corruption prevalent in the city, he learns the hard way that black is not always black, and that white is seldom white.
Some have argued that Walt Whitman was gay, while academic opinion seems more circumspect on the matter. Sanders nails his colours to the mast by giving the author a male lover, though the young Walt does seem to hedge his bets when he has an encounter with one of the young female medical students. I mention this because what happens to Henry Saunders, Walt’s boyfriend, underpins the way the plot develops.
Apart from Whitman’s mother whistling Onward Christian Soldiers to him 30 years before it was composed, the historical scenery is convincing. There are guest appearances by Edgar Allan Poe, and the corrupt Tammany Hall boss Isaiah Rynders. Whitman’s former boss Samuel E Clements, the Quaker who edited The Long Island Patriot and taught Whitman how to composite type, is cast as a murderous schemer. We also meet, albeit briefly, the celebrated editor of The New York Tribune, Horace “Go west, young man” Greeley.
Does the book succeed as a crime novel? In parts, it certainly does. Whitman’s quest to find the truth behind the deaths of Abraham and Lena Stowe drives the narrative forward, although we learn early on who the culprits are, and it is just a matter of Whitman staying out of trouble long enough to bring them to justice. As an interesting aside, the author Sanders has the Stowes accused of involvement in a celebrated real life mystery – the death of Mary Rogers. Edgar Allan Poe wrote his version of the story, entitled The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, which he intended as a sequel to the more celebrated The Murders in the Rue Morgue, once again featuring the investigator the Chevalier Auguste Dupin.
The weakness of the book is that there is very little light and shade. Perhaps we should expect the man who was to become America’s greatest poet to be driven and passionate, but this Walt Whitman is constantly behaving like a man with a serious fever, either beating his breast in frustration, careering about the snowy streets of New York on his latest life or death mission, or frequenting frozen graveyards to beat the body snatchers at their own game. Despite the high melodrama and constant diet of carved up corpses, Speakers of the Dead is an entertaining read. Should the fictional Whitman take time out from his writing to solve another crime, I shall look forward to reading how he gets on.
If you like the sound of this, another 19th century New World detective thriller you might enjoy is The Salem Witch Society by KN Shields. Read our feature When writers turn detective here.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars