Sunday, July 13, 2014

Worth the Wait: MURDERED SLEEP, A Dade Wyatt Mystery, R. A. Harold

R. A. (Roberta, a.k.a. Robbie) Harold's first Dade Wyatt mystery, set on Vermont's Lake Champlain, came out to great reviews in 2010 -- and it's been a long wait for the second book (life can get in the way of writing). But I settled in with her new release, MURDERED SLEEP, over the past week, and found a lot to enjoy in this 1906 political and historical mystery in the days of the "first" President Roosevelt ... Teddy Roosevelt, a heroic figure for his leadership in the decisive Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba, when Dade Wyatt followed him.

Now Wyatt's living a quieter life, but performing with a Shakespearean troupe brings him to President Roosevelt's own city, Washington, DC. Harold has deliberately positioned the story in what she says is the decade that best fits the Rayford W. Logan label "the nadir of American race relations." She uses the plight of Black Americans -- their vote taken away from them, lynchings routine, and even unable even to go to the theater in DC where Wyatt performs -- as a backdrop to ramp up the tension among her potential villains. And in true Shakespearean fashion, there are plenty of choices.

Wyatt's past experience in keeping a political disaster from exploding is why his old friend Congressman Dodge summons him to investigate the death of a legislator who's been trying -- without much diplomacy -- to improve living conditions for African Americans in the District. Is it Congressman Nielsen's verbal assault on a colleague that's brought his murder? What other stakes are there? Money? Power? Women??
Judas. Wyatt was struck by the comparison. Usually you thought of him as the betrayer, the false friend, but in that gospel passage Judas was the purist, the zealot offended by money spent on luxury instead of ministry. That sounded like Robert Nielsen. Or was there someone, some cause, that Nielsen had betrayed -- or threatened to betray? His wounds -- some had not bled, made after he was already dead -- suggested some extraordinary eruption of emotion.
Wyatt's in no position to be critical of any peccadilloes he may find as he investigates. He's having a back-stage affair with a married actress. Nor is he immune to American racism, as he discovers to him shame.

Harold's portrait of this little-discussed segment of American history is a pleasure to read, smooth and well paced. Readers won't spend many pages in fear or suspense -- the tale is more mellow, and the stakes for Wyatt are personal and mostly private, not life-and-death. But the clever insertions of bits Shakespearean metaphors, clever details of stage life (Harold has been both performer and playwright), and tidbits from Alice in Wonderland add to the enjoyment of a class historical mystery that provokes fresh insight about American heritage, as well as human honor.

Worth the wait! Thanks, Robbie Harold, for taking another book to press. Catch up with Harold's career through assorted online tracks, but not an author website at this point ... still, there's a hint of book 3 in the wings, with a Civil War widow at center stage. I'll let  you know when the author shares more details. Meanwhile, to check out the first Wyatt book, click here.

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