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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Truth Is Stranger (A Sort of Book Review)

It's sad times indeed when the most entertaining thing a fiction writer can find to read is nonfiction.  This is the situation in which I recently found myself.  Having just finished Nabokov's short stories (which seem to be arranged in chronological order and are like sitting down with an enormous basket of warm sweet plums) I started a highly-praised and very promising title that had been short-listed for the Pulitzer.  I will not name the book - better and wiser readers than I loved it evidently, and what would be the point of advising people not to read something? - but to say I was less than thrilled would understate my disappointment by a wide margin.
So instead I picked up Scoundrels in Law by Cait Murphy and at once found myself in a thoroughly hilarious picaresque of brothels, Broadway, crooked cops, and murder, set in the Gilded Age of Tammany Hall when an enterprising gangster could still break out of Sing-Sing and run away to Mexico and Hearst and Pulitzer were slugging it out for readership in the Yellow Press.  At the center of this maelstrom stood the Mutt-and-Jeff duo of Howe and Hummel, two lawyers who must have been the genesis for every joke about lawyers you ever heard, who would stop at nothing - nothing - to get a client off, and who - as outrageous as they were - you can't help admiring and wishing you had around to represent you.
Written with a lively voice, Scoundrels in Law ultimately has faith in its own material, and lets the stories and the characters speak for themselves.  Though nonfiction, the story is largely farce, but with a sad comeuppance at the end and a little moral for those who care to learn it - he who lives by quasi-legal finagling, dies by quasi-legal finagling.  The book also ends with a brief meditation on the transience of fame - two men who were a byword in New York for decades have sunk to obscurity, a fate which, Murphy notes, would not have saddened Howe and Hummel one bit, glorying as they were in the daily challenge of living by their wits.  And making a very good living indeed.

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