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PostPerfect Summer Read: Tim Ashby's *Devil's Den* (John Eipper, USA, 06/11/11 10:14 am)
I nominate WAISer Timothy Ashby's new novel, Devil's Den, as the perfect summer read, not in any pejorative sense, but because it takes place during the steamy dog days of late June and early July. You can feel the heat waves wafting through the scenes of 1920s Washington, DC, as well as the torrid cauldron that was Gettysburg in July 1863. Also, in the best summer-reading sense, Tim's novel is one of those few books you literally cannot put down; this Civil War buff devoured the whole book in 3 days.
The historical novel is a challenging literary genre, as nitpickers will always come along to question one inaccuracy or another. Tim fearlessly takes on two different eras: the 1860s and 1923, during the sordid administration of Warren G. Harding. The details are exhaustively researched and the plot well constructed: in the days leading up to the 60th anniversary of Gettysburg, one of the last battlefield reunions of the superannuated combatants, a number of doddering Union veterans are murdered. It is up to Seth Armitage, an agent for the US Bureau of Investigation (BI; it wasn't yet the FBI), to crack the case. Armitage, a Virginian whose grandfather was killed in Pickett's charge, uncovers a conspiracy that goes to the highest levels of government. Tim crafts a tight and readable story, which mixes the right amounts of suspense, mystery, romance and political intrigue into a real page-turner.
Good historical novels satisfy in two ways: they suspend disbelief by immersing the reader in a different era and culture, but they also take advantage of the reader's knowledge of subsequent history to provide those "ah hah!" moments, the significance of which could not be known to the characters themselves. Thus we meet the twentysomething J. Edgar Hoover as he schemes and blackmails his way to the top of Federal law enforcement, and an unknown barnstorming pilot known as Slim, who later introduces himself as Charles Lindbergh. All in great fun, but we are also witnesses to the absurdity of Prohibition, the violence and racial injustice of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and the unparalleled corruption that pervaded the Harding government. As such, the "Devil's Den" of the title works on two levels, referring both to the rocky corner of the Gettysburg killing fields and Washington of the Roarin' Twenties.
I'll not reveal the details of the conspiracy Armitage unravels with the help of his girlfriend Peggy, a brave and resourceful archivist at the Library of Congress, but suffice to say it hints at one of history's great "what ifs." Significantly, the relationship of Armitage and Peggy, whose father is one of the Union veterans killed during the murder spree, symbolizes the reconciliation of North and South in the postwar period: love as national allegory.
As I read Tim's book, it occurred to me that this is the historical novel I wish I'd written. US Civil War? Check. WWI? Check--but I would have welcomed a few more vignettes of Armitage's experience as a Great War officer. Early automotive culture? Check again; the intrepid Peggy pilots a Scripps-Booth, an obscure Detroit marque later absorbed into GM. Tim even included in his novel some of the places that have figured tangentially in my own life. Christiana, Delaware? Home to the state's largest mall; I shop there (tax free!) every time I visit Mom. Vandalia, Missouri? It's about 15 miles from my childhood home in Louisiana, MO--as teenagers we used to go to the movies in Vandalia. (How did you find that tiny town, Tim?) Dartmouth College, alma mater of one of the novel's secondary characters? Been there, graduated from that. Many an "ah hah!" moment.
Devil's Den: a tour de force of historical fiction. Make sure you read it this summer. (Tim Ashby's novel is available at all the usual on-line booksellers. An electronic version is also available for download to your e-reader.)
(Timothy Ashby, Spain
06/13/11 5:10 AM)
I humbly doff both my kepi and boater to John Eipper (12 June) for the marvelous review of my novel Devil's Den! I enjoyed researching the book, and was able to weave some family stories into it. For example, two of my Ashby relatives took part in Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 (their unit, the 8th Virginia Regiment, suffered an 89% casualty rate, and 19-year-old Jim Ashby was MIA, presumed KIA--his body was never found). Another relative--my grandfather's first cousin--served as an Army officer in World War I and personally told me about the Southern boys who learned the Rebel Yell from their grandpas and would roar it in chorus before charging the Hun.
JE comments: It was my pleasure to write up the review. I wish Tim the best of success with his novel.