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The Authentic William James (Sebastian Becker) Hardcover – September 30, 2016
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"It's a blinding novel.. Each chapter had me chuckling with joy - if not at the acerbic wit, the brilliant dialogue - the sheer spot-on elegance of the writing: the plot turns, the pin sharp beats. Always authoritative and convincing, never showy. Magnificently realised characters in a living breathing world... Absolutely stunning" --Stephen Volk, author and screenwriter (Ghostwatch, Afterlife, Gothic, Whitstable, The Parts we Play)
"British author Gallagher gives Sebastian Becker another puzzle worthy of his quirky sleuth's acumen in his outstanding third pre-WWI mystery (after 2012's The Bedlam Detective). As the special investigator to the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy, Becker is charged with investigating "the psychology of anyone with a fortune or an income that might be put at risk by their erratic behavior." When a fatal arson at a Sussex theater claims the life of a German prince, Becker's superior is eager for him to demolish any claim that the prime suspect, showman William James, was insane when he set the fire. After meeting James, Becker is prepared to give some credence to the man's claims of innocence. That comes back to haunt him when James manipulates him into facilitating his escape, leading the detective on a search for the fugitive--and the truth--that takes him to Pennsylvania and an apparent dead end. Gallagher makes the most of his unusual concept in the service of a twisty but logical plot line." --Publishers Weekly Starred Review--This text refers to the Paperback edition.
From the Inside Flap
Sebastian Beckers position as Special Investigator for the British Crown requires a subtle touch: gathering evidence that determines whether or not someone is a Chancery Lunaticafflicted with madness making them unfit to manage their fortuneswithout tipping the hand of those whose resources often make them above the law. In the aftermath of a fiery tragedy that leaves dozens dead and Englands leaders maneuvering for an answer to stave off political ramifications, former police detective Becker is called upon to utilize his intimacy with the insane, and familiarity with working in the shadows. Tasked with evaluating the sanity of the confessed arsonistWild West Showman The Authentic William JamesBecker travels from the shores of Sussex to the film studios of Hollywood. Delving into the circus world to unravel the mystery of a man who admits guilt and flees will pit Beckers appointed role to do his countrys bidding against his compassion to do what is right for a family. Stephen Gallagher is the author of "Out of His Mind," the winner of the British Fantasy award. His work has been adapted to many on-screen treatments, and he has written for Doctor Who and Crusoe. In his third Sebastian Becker novel, Gallagher once again shows his ability to create a suspenseful thriller through the wry voice of his protagonist.
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So many things to like - without giving away the plot lines - I had no idea that Wild West shows were so popular in England! And Gallagher - through research and his own personal experience - knows show business really well - it showed in Kingdom of Bones and it's even more on display in this book
Really like how his Becker's sister-in-law, Frances, comes into her own in this book -
Two really great parts of this novel made it for me - a line about what fathers will do for their daughters, and a plot twist that I did not see coming and was exceptional
The book end on a happy note, but in 1914 with clouds of the Great War on the horizon, just months away - and liking Becker and his family so much, my heart ached at the end of this book for the potential tragedy to come
The agency’s motivation for assigning Becker to investigate a suspicious fire in a theater on a seaside pier that killed numerous people seems thin at best (a minor German prince, attending the theater for possibly scandalous personal reasons, was among the dead), but once Becker becomes involved, that aspect is not really of much concern to him or to us. He soon becomes convinced that the man suspected of setting the fire, the former star of a Wild West show (a type of entertainment that the legendary Buffalo Bill Cody had made very popular in Britain) named William James, is innocent. When James escapes from captivity (and threatened lynching) and flees to the United States, Becker follows him; his employers want James brought back to “justice,” but Becker’s own motivation is primarily to learn the true story of the tragic event and James’s role in it.
The mystery is interesting and the pace is steady, but the book’s chief value is in its characters—both those involved in the James story and those in Becker’s own life. In addition to Becker himself, who is complex and well developed, the latter group includes Frances, his late wife’s sister, who has been acting as housekeeper for him and his adult autistic son. He is frustratingly blind to both her devotion and her intelligence, creating a tension that engaged me as much as James’s problems.
Another interesting aspect of the book, although the author does not emphasize it, is the period in which it is set: an uneasy, transitional time in which the old-fashioned comforts of the nineteenth century are just starting to give way to the speeded-up technology of the twentieth. Both automobiles and horses can be seen on the streets, for instance, and silent movies are beginning to be churned out in quantity in California, as Becker learns when his pursuit of James leads him to that environment. “War is in the air,” but the actual devastation of World War I is yet to come: eventually dismissing the matter of the German princeling who died in the theater fire, the author notes with wonderful irony, “The suggestion that a European conflict might be started by the death of a minor royal in a foreign country now seemed, in retrospect, to be somewhat improbable.” Yeah, right….
Fortunately I am a big fan of late Victorian/pre-WWI mysteries because “The Authentic William James” is a wonderful addition to that genre. Like many of the original writers of the time, Gallagher’s story focuses more on the characters and society of the time than on an extremely complex puzzle. Well researched and engaging, the book provides a fascinating look at the time period (Yes, there really was a Chancery of Lunacy). This also has an advantage over the originals in its diverse settings. Spanning London, Philadelphia, Hollywood and point in between, Gallagher manages to avoid the sometimes insular and almost claustrophobic feel of many early 20th century works.
Most enjoyable though were the extremely likeable and relatable main characters. The detective, Sebastian Becker is an intelligent, decent man who was enjoyable company and I particularly liked his sister-in-law, Frances. The story had added depth with the inclusion of her experiences.
“The Authentic William James” is the third book in a series but at no point did I feel that I had missed a step. I will definitely be picking up the previous two though.