Thursday, March 24, 2011

Friday Fiction: "Real" Characters in Fiction

--by Hanje Richards

Some authors undertake what I would consider either a brave or foolish task. They write novels that include real life characters. Some of these novels are fictional, with the exception of the “real” characters (i.e., The Alienist and The Dante Club). Some are more like biography (i.e., The Executioner’s Song and Blonde), although the author gives us a more fiction-like peek into the minds and hearts of the protagonists. This selection includes both types of fiction or a combination of the two. Where possible I have bolded the “real” characters’ names.

The Alienist (Caleb Carr) - The year is 1896; the place is New York City. On a cold March night, New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore is summoned to the East River by his friend and former Harvard classmate Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist, or "alienist." On the unfinished Williamsburg Bridge, they view the horribly mutilated body of an adolescent boy, a prostitute from one of Manhattan's infamous brothels.

The newly appointed police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, in a highly unorthodox move, enlists the two men in the murder investigation, counting on the reserved Kreizler's intellect and Moore's knowledge of New York's vast criminal underworld. They are joined by Sara Howard, a brave and determined woman who works as a secretary in the police department. Laboring in secret (for alienists, and the emerging discipline of psychology, are viewed by the public with skepticism at best), the unlikely team embarks on what is a revolutionary effort in criminology — amassing a psychological profile of the man they're looking for based on the details of his crimes. Their dangerous quest takes them into the tortured past and twisted mind of a murderer who has killed before and will kill again before the hunt is over. Historical figures such as Lincoln Steffens, Jacob Riis, Anthony Comstock, and J. Pierpont Morgan appear briefly in the novel and interact with the fictional characters.

The Angel of Darkness (Caleb Carr) - Sequel to The Alienist. The place is New York City. The story is narrated by 13-year-old, streetwise Stevie Taggart, who is a member of a team of detecting irregulars. The kidnapping of an 18-month-old child sets the story in motion. The ongoing investigation uncovers a sociopath named Libby Hatch, who is a suspect in the deaths of a frightening number of children, including her own. Using the relatively new fields of forensics and psychoanalysis, and calling on the assistance of some well-known "names" (Teddy Roosevelt, Franz Boaz, Cornelius Vanderbuilt), the team runs Libby Hatch to earth. But where is the child she recently abducted?

Arthur and George (Julian Barnes) - This novel tells the tale of two real men: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and George Edalji, an English lawyer of Indian descent. Their lives crossed when Edalji asked Doyle for help following Edalji's unjust conviction for mutilating horses. The narrative moves toward that point, which is in many ways merely the framework that allows Barnes to develop the interior stories of two unusual figures in Victorian and Edwardian England. His Doyle is a latter-day knight-errant, with all the failings and foibles one might expect; Edalji is the model Englishman with an inherent faith in the legal system, and race is something that he cannot imagine could matter. Barnes has created two fully realized characters, and readers cannot help but sympathize with them.

Blonde (Joyce Carol Oates) - Joyce Carol Oates boldly reimagines the inner, poetic, and spiritual life of Norma Jean Baker — the child, the woman, the fated celebrity and idolized blonde the world came to know as Marilyn Monroe. In a voice startlingly intimate and rich, Norma Jean tells her own story of an emblematic American artist — intensely conflicted and driven — who had lost her way. A powerful portrait of Hollywood's myth and an extraordinary woman's heartbreaking reality, Blonde is a sweeping epic that pays tribute to the elusive magic and devastation behind the creation of the great twentieth-century American star.

Castle in the Forest (Norman Mailer) - Mailer offers what may be his consummate literary endeavor: He has set out to explore the evil of Adolf Hitler. The narrator, a mysterious SS man who is later revealed to be an exceptional presence, gives us young Adolf from birth, as well as Hitler’s father and mother, his sisters and brothers, and the intimate details of his childhood and adolescence.

A tapestry of unforgettable characters, The Castle in the Forest delivers its playful twists and surprises with astonishing insight into the nature of the struggle between good and evil that exists in us all. At its core is a hypothesis that propels this novel and makes it a work of stunning originality.

Cloudsplitter (Russell Banks) - Cloudsplitter is narrated by the enigmatic Owen Brown, last surviving son of America's most famous and still controversial political terrorist and martyr, John Brown. Deeply researched, brilliantly plotted, and peopled with a cast of unforgettable characters both historical and wholly invented, Cloudsplitter is dazzling in its re-creation of the political and social landscape of our history during the years before the Civil War, when slavery was tearing the country apart. But within this broader scope, Russell Banks has given us a riveting, suspenseful, heartbreaking narrative filled with intimate scenes of domestic life, of violence and action in battle, of romance and familial life and death that make the reader feel in astonishing ways what it is like to be alive in that time.

The Dante Club (Matthew Pearl) - Boston, 1865. A series of murders, all of them inspired by scenes in Dante’s Inferno. Only an elite group of America’s first Dante scholars — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J. T. Fields — can solve the mystery. With the police baffled, more lives endangered, and Dante’s literary future at stake, the Dante Club must shed its sheltered literary existence and find the killer.

Devil’s Dream (Madison Smartt Bell) - A novel about Nathan Bedford Forrest, the most reviled, celebrated, and legendary of Civil War generals. With the same eloquence, dramatic energy, and grasp of history that marked his award-winning fictional trilogy of the Haitian Revolution, Madison Smartt Bell now turns his gaze to America’s Civil War. We see Forrest on and off the battlefield, in less familiar but no less revealing moments of his life; we see him treating his slaves humanely even as he fights to ensure their continued enslavement; we see his knack for keeping his enemy unsettled, his instinct for the unexpected, and his relentless stamina. As Devil's Dream moves back and forth in time, a vivid portrait comes into focus: a rough, fierce man with a life full of contradictions.

Drood (Dan Simmons) - On June 9, 1865, while traveling by train to London with his secret mistress, 53-year-old Charles Dickens — at the height of his powers and popularity, the most famous and successful novelist in the world (and perhaps in the history of the world) — hurtled into a disaster that changed his life forever. Did Dickens begin living a dark double life after the accident? Were his nightly forays into the worst slums of London and his deepening obsession with corpses, crypts, murder, opium dens, the use of lime pits to dissolve bodies, and a hidden subterranean London mere research... or something more terrifying?

Dan Simmons draws impeccably from history to create a gloriously engaging and terrifying narrative. Based on the historical details of Charles Dickens' life and narrated by Wilkie Collins (Dickens' friend, frequent collaborator, and Salieri-style secret rival), Drood explores the still-unsolved mysteries of the famous author's last years and may provide the key to Dickens' final, unfinished work: The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The Executioner’s Song (Norman Mailer) - Mailer follows the short, blighted career of Gary Gilmore, an intractably violent product of America's prisons who became notorious for two reasons: first, for robbing two men in 1976, then killing them in cold blood; and, second, after being tried and convicted, for insisting on dying for his crime. To do so, he had to fight a system that seemed paradoxically intent on keeping him alive long after it had sentenced him to death.

Mailer tells Gilmore's story — and those of the men and women caught up in his procession toward the firing squad — with implacable authority, steely compassion, and a restraint that evokes the parched landscapes and stern theology of Gilmore's Utah. The Executioner's Song is a trip down the wrong side of the tracks to the deepest sources of American loneliness and violence.

The Indian Clerk (David Leavitt) - Based on the remarkable true story of the strange and ultimately tragic relationship between an esteemed British mathematician and an unknown — and unschooled — mathematical genius, and populated with such luminaries such as D. H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Indian Clerk takes this extraordinary slice of history and transforms it into an emotional and spell-binding story about the fragility of human connection and our need to find order in the world.

On a January morning in 1913, G. H. Hardy — eccentric, charismatic and, at thirty-seven, already considered the greatest British mathematician of his age — receives in the mail a mysterious envelope covered with Indian stamps. Inside, he finds a rambling letter from a self-professed mathematical genius who claims to be on the brink of solving the most important unsolved mathematical problem of all time. Some of his Cambridge colleagues dismiss the letter as a hoax, but Hardy becomes convinced that the Indian clerk who has written it — Srinivasa Ramanujan — deserves to be taken seriously. Aided by his collaborator, Littlewood, and a young don named Neville who is about to depart for Madras with his wife, Alice, he determines to learn more about the mysterious Ramanujan and, if possible, persuade him to come to Cambridge. It is a decision that will profoundly affect not only his own life, and that of his friends, but the entire history of mathematics.

Loving Frank (Nancy Horan) - In the early 1900s, married architect Frank Lloyd Wright eloped to Europe with the wife of one of his clients. The scandal rocked the suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. Years later, Mamah Cheney, the other half of the scandalous couple, was brutally murdered at Wright's Taliesen retreat. Horan blends fact and fiction to try to make the century-old scandal relevant to modern readers. Today, Cheney and Wright would have little trouble obtaining divorces and would probably not be pursued by the press. However, their feelings of confusion and doubt about leaving their spouses and children would most likely remain the same. The novel has something for everyone — a romance, a history of architecture, and a philosophical and political debate on the role of women.

The Poe Shadow (Matthew Pearl) - Baltimore, 1849. The body of Edgar Allan Poe has been buried in an unmarked grave. The public, the press, and even Poe’s own family and friends accept the conclusion that Poe was a second-rate writer who met a disgraceful end as a drunkard. Everyone, in fact, seems to believe this except a young Baltimore lawyer named Quentin Clark, an ardent admirer who puts his own career and reputation at risk in a passionate crusade to salvage Poe’s.

As Quentin explores the puzzling circumstances of Poe’s demise, he discovers that the writer’s last days are riddled with unanswered questions the police are possibly willfully ignoring. Just when Poe’s death seems destined to remain a mystery, forever sealing his ignominy, inspiration strikes Quentin — in the form of Poe’s own stories. The young attorney realizes that he must find the one person who can solve the strange case of Poe’s death: the real-life model for Poe’s brilliant fictional detective character, C. Auguste Dupin, the hero of ingenious tales of crime and detection.

In short order, Quentin finds himself enmeshed in sinister machinations involving political agents, a female assassin, the corrupt Baltimore slave trade, and the lost secrets of Poe’s final hours. With his own future hanging in the balance, Quentin Clark must turn master investigator himself to unchain his now imperiled fate from that of Poe’s.