Sunday, May 20, 2018

Forensics and Detection, 1768 Style, in SAVAGE LIBERTY from Eliot Pattison

Available this week, the newest "Mystery of Revolutionary America" is the fifth in Eliot Pattison's series that was originally called the Bone Rattler books, after the first title in it. An international attorney (still practicing) and master of three vastly different series with three entirely separate cultures -- the other two are Chinese-occupied Tibet, and a post-apocalyptic version of a nuclear frontier -- Pattison crafts an immersion experience of hardships, crime, investigation, and dramatic changes. And SAVAGE LIBERTY perches at a fierce point in history, as colonists with diverse background and motives began to realize that rejecting the British king's power over them could be possible.

Most compelling in Pattison's books are his wounded heroes: here, the Scottish medically trained Duncan McCallum, bound under a punitive indenture contract that prevents him from committing to the love of his life, Sarah Ramsey. Ramsey is herself an outrageous figure for the time, trying to craft a peaceable community of Judeo-Christians, frontier folk, and Native Americans at the edge of the East Coast's strip of "civilization." But by binding McCallum for long-ago "criminality" and a few recent misjudgments, Ramsey's father effectively prevents the couple from a balanced and equal relationship.

This is part of McCallum's motive for taking off into the wilderness in search of a rogue collaboration of British and Abenaki warmongers -- they've pushed his bonding further and put a bounty on his head. But as always in Pattison's books, the emotional depth comes with McCallum's identification with members of a threatened culture: in this case, the Native Americans being brutally evicted from their lands. One of the most moving scenes in the book involves McCallum witnessing a heartbreaking farewell to the trees and forest, by his Nipmuc friend and ally, Conawago. Pattison's strongly drawn parallel of the outlawed Scottish Highland clans and the Native American tribes provides McCallum with some of his passion for the Nipmuc and his allies. Yet, as in Pattison's Tibet series, it's the underlying spiritual commitment that most deeply connects these men.

McCallum's usual care in decision making goes off track in SAVAGE LIBERTY. With the unsettling of his belief in the king's right to rule the colonies also comes an unsettling of some of his loyalties and convictions. And his beloved isn't pleased, telling him, "Stealing muskets from the king! Bribing army guards. This is how you will prove yourself innocent of treason! I beg you, Duncan, leave this behind before it is too late."

But Duncan McCallum is forming a new commitment, to the Sons of Liberty, a group that's clearly fomenting revolution. It's troubling him:
He lay on a comforter beside Sarah's bed, listening to the slow, quiet breathing of Sarah and Will, recalling prior conversations in Boston. The arguments with the king would never come to violence, Hancock and Sam Adams always insisted. King George would soon recognize that the inhabitants of his most valuable colonies had to be given the same respect as Englishmen in the home country, and all would then rally around the monarch. But the terrible visions of the innkeeper's dying wife now visited him, vivid images of ill-trained colonists being massacred by British regulars, the massed bullets of their. Brown Besses mowing down farmers and shopkeepers like the blade of a bloody scythe. Whenever a colonist fell, an Abenaki materialized to rip away his scalp.
Pattison's choice of Abenaki for the most dangerous criminal in this book (in a revenge motif based on the massacre of the St. Francis group of the tribe) disturbed me, as it seemed a choice that could tar an entire group of people with a label of irrational and uncontained violence. I kept pausing to check details, finding that small parts that rubbed me wrong -- scalping, displays of scalps -- had ample historical backup, but still ill at ease. I also missed the more deliberate investigative direction of earlier titles in the series.

That said, Pattison does a masterful job of keeping his red herrings afloat and his competing rationales for crime and violence well sorted out. Most vitally, he illustrates the slow and irreversible turn from an angry but heartfelt loyalty to the monarch, toward the possibility of independence. I look forward to how he'll carry Duncan McCallum into the very forces of liberty in the next book of the series. And, of course, to how this deep-probing author will illustrate the ongoing death of tribal occupation of the new America. "Savage" liberty, indeed.

Publication is by Counterpoint, and the book's release date is May 22.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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