RARA-AVIS: 19th Century Washington

From: William Hagen ( billha47@hotmail.com)
Date: 19 Dec 2001

I've recently come across a first rate suspense writer, Owen Parry, who centers his series (2 so far) on a special agent employed by the Lincoln Administration to ferret out crimes and plots among abolitionists (Faded Coat of Blue) and the Irish in upstate New York (Shadows of Glory). The first novel centers on Washington, D.C. and contains what seem to be accurate descriptions of the slum areas (Swampoodle), as well as the disorder of official Washington.

Here, from the second novel, is a sample of his style, which seems carefully shaped to fit the sensibility of a 19th century Welsh soldier (of sober Methodist persuasion):

"I knew the streets that led to Swampoodle. But no outsider knew the alleys within. The provost marshal's men went there only by daylight, and the Washington police did naught but collect the bodies floating in Tiber Creek.
  Irish, the place was, in the lowest sense. I'd taken a beating there once....
...We wound past shanties too poor for kerosene, lit by wicks afloat in bowls of fat, then trudged by hovels with out lights at all. Yet, you felt the life in them. Cradled babes cried out that life goes on. We were troubled by no more than a scattering of curses and surprises of filth beneath our feet."

This may not be hard-boiled, but ladies and gentlemen the man can write!

At one point, the protagonist is told he is a regular detective, leading to the following thoughts on what the term apparently meant to upstanding citizens in mid-19th century:

"Detective? My mouth must have hung wide. For I hadn't considered matters in such a light. I was a military officer, doing my country's duty, and temporarily, a confidential agent. Detectives were characters in the lowest of the weeklies, intemperate of garment, with little black cigars stuffed in their mouths. The wicked pursuing the wickeder..."

Bill Hagen

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