"Rebels of Babylon"
(reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 7, 2005)
"The truth hurts everyone. Always. That is the law of the earth. Only sometimes the truth does not hurt so bad as the lie. The lie is like the young lover, I think, and the truth is like a husband. The lover is good for the short time, but the husband is best for the long time."
When Magdalena, a Creole who speaks no English, utters these words through a translator, she reflects the dark truths about her life in New Orleans in 1863. The Civil War is raging, controversial Union General Benjamin Butler has just turned over his post to his successor, blacks are disappearing from their neighborhoods, horrific murders are occurring, voodoo ceremonies are taking place in the countryside, and terror is everywhere. Some white "philanthropists" have established a program for sending blacks back to Africa, where they will, supposedly, be happier, but many former slaves who wish to stay in New Orleans often seek out their former employers because they are unsuited and untrained for any other employment or they engage in illegal activities. Both blacks and whites are terrified at what the future may hold for them.
Into this milieu comes Abel Jones, a major in the Union army who came to the US from Wales, by way of India, and whose rigorous moral code and strict adherence to the best values of the army has brought him to the attention of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln has given him a letter of introduction so he can bypass any roadblocks the army might put in his way as he investigates the death of Miss Susan Peabody, the abolitionist daughter of a wealthy northerner. Susan came to New Orleans to stay with a distant relative, Mrs. Aubrey, a pillar of southern society who also runs a successful shipping company. When Susan Peabody's body washes ashore, Abel believes that she has been murdered, though no one has any idea why.
Jones, the often dour hero of five previous Parry mysteries, is a fascinating character, and in this novel he continues to grow, showing far more emotion than he has in the past and far more flexibility in his interpretation of his religious duties as a devout Methodist. Abel's wife Mary Myfanwy, who has featured in previous novels, and his young son have stayed behind in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, where she awaits the birth of their second child, and Abel is anxious to finish his duties so that he can resign his commission and return home to take care of family business.
Author Parry has obviously spent considerable time researching the New Orleans setting of 1863, gracefully incorporating a great deal of historical information and making the city come alive in all the tumult of its mid-Civil War upheavals. His greatest skill, however, is in creating a fast pace in which one dramatic event succeeds another in such rapid fashion that the reader can scarcely catch his/her breath. In the first twenty-five pages alone, Abel Jones chases a snake-bearing Negress through a convent, gets trapped in a dead-end courtyard with no way out, gets caught up in a huge net and winched to the roof of a building by people who want to anesthetize him with ether, has a fight in which he stabs several people, escapes a fire on the roof when the ether explodes, is sealed alive inside a recently used mausoleum, is shot at by a weirdly tattooed man, and has a poisonous snake dropped into his bath. And the pace never slackens as the mystery continues.
Much of the mystery is connected to the Creoles' voodoo beliefs and voodoo ceremonies, which Parry describes in gory and gruesome detail, while Abel tries to track down missing Negroes and figure out exactly what it was that Susan Peabody was trying to do and who, specifically, wanted her dead. The social levels throughout the city and the citizens' different values and religious beliefs (or non-belief), well described, all play a part in the developing action and its complications. In the process of his investigations, Abel runs afoul of some of the army officers who are supposed to be maintaining public order and helping him in his investigations, and when he uncovers the theft of a huge sum of money entrusted to the army, his life is further endangered. His insights into the jockeying for power among army officers during war are as dramatic as his contacts with the mysterious voodoo underworld.
Those who are already fans of the Abel Jones series will celebrate this new novel, the best one yet, and those new to the series will find themselves quickly caught up in Jones's story and in the carefully depicted Civil War milieu. Parry seems to subscribe to the theory that "more is more" in terms of exciting plot twists, and there is nothing subtle about his descriptions or his story lines. Filling the novel with details and events guaranteed to excite the reader, including grotesque deaths and tortures which are not for the faint of heart, he plays on the reader's emotions in the most melodramatic fashion, sometimes creating scenes that are almost cartoonish in their exaggeration. An entertainment that does not pretend to be "serious literature," this novel, like the others in the Abel Jones series, is carefully researched and written with narrative brio, a story to keep readers on the edges of their chairs.
- Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Rebels of Babylon at HarperCollins.com(back to top)
"Bold Sons of Erin"
(reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 22, 2004)
"I know I am a flawed and sorry man. I wear my morality like a suit of armor, instead of keeping mercy in my heart. Perhaps it is my long years as a soldier, but I yearn for rules, for order, and for clarity. I condemn others unfairly. I do it out of fear that chaos lurks. Sometimes, it seems to me I live in terror."
Abel Jones, a Welshman who served with the British army during the Sepoy Rebellion in India, is now living in the United States, where he is a soldier for the Union Army. Seriously wounded during the early campaigns of the Civil War, Abel has been sent home to Pennsylvania to recuperate and rejoin his family, but he is soon called back to service, this time in an investigative capacity. His high moral standards and his trustworthiness have brought him to the attention of President Lincoln, who has asked him to investigate the murder of General Carl Stone so that Lincoln and the country can avoid an international incident: The Germans and Russians are clamoring to know who killed Gen. Stone in Heckschersville, a community of Irish miners, and why.
Born in Russia of the purest Baltic German lineage, Gen. Stone has a mysterious, "international" background. He is believed to have killed a Russian colonel, traveled to France, robbed a bank in Geneva, conspired in Italy, and "harbored members of Young Ireland who were in flight after their little cabbage-patch rebellion," before emigrating to the U.S. Here he has been recruiting Irish miners in Pennsylvania to the Union cause. An Irishman named Daniel Patrick Boland, son of a famous Irish rebel, has claimed credit for killing Gen. Stone, but within 24 hours he is declared dead from cholera. A young woman is murdered, a child disappears, and a priest tells bold lies when Abel tries to investigate these strange events.
Numerous story threads unwind simultaneously as Abel Jones, with his commission from President Lincoln, tries to gain information from the Irish miners, avoid an international incident during a "chance meeting" with an envoy from Russia, and keep his home life on an even keel. The Civil War is raging, and local boys are dying. Tensions are high among workers in the mines and on the railroads. The wealthy owners of these enterprises are building personal empires on the backs of their poor employees, and the Irish are in the early stages of forming a labor movement in protest against their inadequate wages and abominable working conditions. These labor activists, known as the "Mollie Maguires," later become famous for murdering the private police which mine owners have hired to maintain control.
Parry cleverly incorporates all of this historical background into Abel Jones's murder investigation of the Union general, but the political and military complications and the difficulties faced by President Lincoln are also interwoven with the sociological and religious tensions of the day, leading to a fully developed picture of a particularly tumultuous time. Revolutionaries and republicans are vying for influence, churches and parishioners are trying to reconcile Darwin's Origin of the Species with their traditional beliefs, the upper classes are paying lip service to vows of fidelity but sneaking in the back doors of houses of ill repute, and women who have been the sole support of their families during wartime are being forced into subordinate roles when their men return from war. All these issues play a part in the drama and make the novel feel realistic and well researched. Vivid personal glimpses of Lincoln, Sec. of State Seward, and other historical personages, combined with personal observations by Abel Jones, also develop a sense that these are real people engaged in real problems, subject to real, personal limitations.
This is not strictly a historical mystery, however. A strong sense of Gothic melodrama infuses the action, and a number of scenes are positively macabre. A gruesomely described exhumation and the consequent examination of a badly decomposed body, a visit to a madhouse, a case of necrophilia, the discovery of incest, an instance of cannibalism, a masochistic and bloody self-torture, the appearance of a leprous witch, and storms, wind and portents play as much of a role in the novel as the accurate historical detail. These bizarre details understandably distract the reader from the complex history, some of which, such as the role of the Mollie Maguires, is hinted at but never fully developed, making the author's focus feel a bit fuzzy.
Parry is a fascinating writer, however, with many strong gifts, which suggest that this series will continue to develop in fascinating directions. He creates vibrant characters and dialogue, and several of his women characters--Abel's wife Mary and Dolly Walker, a madam--are drawn with particular sensitivity and understanding. The story's twists and turns are unpredictable, and the plot is a page-turner. His first-person narrative of the Battle of Fredericksburg is breath-taking, full of action told at break-neck speed, and he seems to be developing a strong, continuing cast characters who will reappear in future novels. One hopes he will find the balance he seems to be seeking here between the excitement of real historical events and the sometimes disturbing melodrama he often creates to accompany them.
- Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Bold Sons of Erin at MostlyFiction.com
(back to top)
Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Faded Coat of Blue (1999)
- Shadows of Glory (2000)
- Call Each River Jordan (2001)
- Honor's Kingdom (July 2002)
- Bold Sons of Erin (August 2003)
- Rebels of Babylon (March 2005)
- Our Simple Gifts: Civil War Christmas Tales (October 2002)
- Strike the Harp!: American Christmas Stories (November 2004)
(back to top)
- Wikipedia on Owen Parry
- Post Gazette review of Faded Coat of Blue
- The Civil War news review of Bold Sons of Erin
(back to top)
About the Author:
Owen Parry is a pen name for Ralph Peters who is a former career soldier. He retired from the U.S. Army shortly after his promotion to lieutenant colonel so that he could write and speak freely. He is a novelist, commentator, essayist and an adventurer in the 19th-century sense. His military career and personal interests have taken him to almost sixty countries, from the Andean Ridge to Southeast Asia, and from Kremlin negotiations to refugee camps in the Caucasus and the frontline in Kashmir. Most recently, he has studied India, Indonesia and southern Africa. Born in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania Parry/Peters now lives and writes in northern Virginia.