THE BOODLESS BOY by Robert J. lloyd

(17th Century London)

Robert J. Lloyd’s first novel begins on New Year’s Day 1678.  The setting is London, a city still recovering from the Conflagration or Great Fire eleven years previous with the appearance of numerous true historical figures as well as many fictitious ones.  Charles II,  occupies the English throne and rumors abound concerning Catholic plots to assassinate him.  The title of the novel, THE BLOODLESS BOY is very apropos as the drama that hovers over the story surrounds the discovery of the body of a three year old boy near the Fleet River with wounds providing evidence that the boy had all of his blood drained from his body.  What makes matters worse is that as the plot evolves other bodies are found in a similar state.

The two most important protagonists are Robert Hooke and Henry Hunt.  Hooke is the Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, Gresham’s Professor of Geometry, and Surveyor of London.  Hunt, a former protégé of Hooke’s, now on his own is an Observator of the Royal Society of London and both men have been tasked by Charles II and Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, the Justice of the Peace for Westminster to assist in solving the murders.  Hooke is very reluctant fearing it will interfere in what he believes to be his greater work for the Society, and Hunt is more than willing to cooperate as he sees it as an avenue to emerge from under his former mentor’s shadow.

(Charles II, King of England)

Political intrigue and spies abound in the novel with the constant references to Popish plots against the government, assassination plans to remove Charles II, and a series of Ciphers that come into the possession of Hooke, Hunt, and others.  As the plot meanders slowly for a number of chapters Hooke is very concerned that the murders may lead back to the earlier English Civil War and Charles II escape to France.  Further, Lloyd expertly integrates the story of the Earl of Shaftsbury, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Chancellor, and First Lord of Trade who upon writing a pamphlet arguing that the powers of the king should be restricted spends a year in the Tower of London until he expresses contrition for his beliefs.  Despite this expression his life centers around seeking revenge.  Another story that Lloyd weaves into the novel is that of Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge who commits suicide which Hooke and Hunt promise his widow to keep his cause of death a secret.  The question is clear, what do the murders, political machinations, and suicide have to do with one another?

Lloyd possesses an excellent command of British history as is evidenced by his commentary centering on plots against the government, use of the views expressed by the historical figures he incorporates into his plot, and knowledge of natural philosophy and London and its environs.  Lloyd uses Hooke and Hunt who make up an odd couple to solve the murders and their interactions provide a useful guide into scientific, philosophical, and political knowledge of the day.  Lloyd’s descriptions of London as it existed after the devastating fire of 1666 which destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 Parish churches, The Royal Exchange, Guildhall, and St. Paul’s Cathedral are important as he reviews the architectural changes of the city focusing on older buildings that survived the fire, those that did not, and the newest structures that have been built or are under construction.

Source
(Robert Hooke)

Lloyd’s use of late 17th century language and his attention to the smallest detail add authenticity to the dialogue and atmosphere reflected in the story.  Based on the author’s commitment to detail the reader can smell the leather tanneries, the smell of the food served in the taverns, and the snow and rain that was a staple for 17th century London. Lloyd captures the ambiance of the Scientific Revolution and coming Enlightenment with references to the works of Sir Isaac Newton, William Harvey, and the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, among others.

The construction of the plot passes through many layers as Lloyd builds the tension surrounding the many conspiracies, murders, political machinations, religion, and ciphers at the same time the distrust the characters have for each drips in each interaction.  The blend of fact and fiction make for an excellent historical mystery, and I hope to read Lloyd’s sequel which he is working on as soon as it is published.  Let me add one caveat, after reading THE BLOODLESS BOY you are sure to develop a different view of the Scientific Revolution.

Lambeth Palace in the foreground, with the Thames and the City to the north forming the background
(17th Century London)

THE VOLUNTEER by Salvatore Scibona

(Nixon makes the case for a U.S. invasion of Cambodia, April 29, 1970)

It is sometime in 2010 and a five year old boy has been abandoned at the Hamburg-Fuhlsbuttel International Airport.  So begins Salvatore Scibona’s second novel, THE VOLUNTEER a searing story that spans over forty years from the Vietnam War to the post- 9/11 Afghanistan encompassing four generations of fathers and sons that takes the reader from Latvia, Vietnam, Queens, New Mexico among many locations.  Once the boy is introduced wandering the airport as others try to determine his identity and story, Scibona introduces Elroy Heflin, a former convict who resorted to a myriad of lifestyles from stocking a grocery store, slinging heroine, sleeping in shelters and on the street to survive.  He was soon arrested and joined the army to get his life straight.  Later, he is assigned to the Office of Defense Cooperation attached to the American Embassy in Riga, Latvia.

Heflin will develop a relationship with a woman named Evija who upon becoming pregnant refuses Heflin’s offer to marry.  Five years later while serving in Afghanistan, paying one- third of his pay in child support he learns that Evija has abandoned their son Janis who he sees twice a year and wants him to take custody. Heflin will take Janis to the airport to catch a flight to London but decides to leave him in a toilet cubicle at the Hamburg airport before continuing on his way home.

Scibona is a master of shifting scenes from one character to the next.  In the first major instance he moves on from Heflin for about half the book and focuses on Mr. Tilly or Vollie Frade who was Heflin’s guardian until he had reached the age of eighteen.  In telling Vollie’s life story we learn that he too was an unwanted son, born to aging cattle ranchers outside of Davenport, IA and at the age of seventeen forged his parent’s signature and joined the Marines winding up in Vietnam.  Vollie is a complex character who is preoccupied with erasing his identity.  Throughout the novel there are scenes where he seems to be taking himself away.  For example, when he is a small boy his parents burn his clothes to prevent an outbreak of meningitis, for Vollie they are burning him.  During his tenure in the Marines, he finds himself captured in Cambodia, a mission the government says does not exist – then does he?  Later, during bouts of PTSD he again questions his existence.

(US soldiers burn a wooden structure in a village in eastern Cambodia in May 1970)

Scibona’s description of the war in Southeast Asia is reminiscent of the works of Dennis Johnson, Karl Marlantes, Michael Herr, and Tim O’Brien.  It is raw in conception digging deeply into the stupidity of the American role in Vietnam.  The scenes described as Vollie acts as a “Santa Claus” type of character driving in a convoy distributing mail, supplies, and anything else needed to the front lines reflects the absurdity of war.  The discussion surrounding the US invasion of Cambodia and what occurs has a “Apocalypse Now” type of reality as do other scenes in the novel, particularly after he returns from Vietnam and Vollie finds himself ensconced in Queens, NY conducting a spy mission on a Social Security swindler who may turn out to be a Nazi fugitive.

Intergenerational misery dominates the plot as we move from place to place.  A priest trying to crack the mysteries of Janis’ birth in Germany, a commune in Nevada and on and on.  This is a very difficult novel to follow.  At times it feels as if you are reading a Kurt Vonnegut novel taking place in Cloud Cuckoo Land.  Despite a number of difficulties there are a number of portrayals of America that are priceless.  The 1973 description of Queens, NY is priceless from the stoops, woman in house dresses, pickup basketball, church fellowship etc. Scibona has captured the neighborhood perfectly and this goes along with  his striking social commentary.

(Salvatore Scibona)

The characters are lost in their own worlds especially Vollie whose view of life is one who is disappointed in himself and life in general as moving from one lie to another no matter how honest some appeared to be.  Lorch, the spy handler’s quoting of scripture really plays no purpose, but he seems to do so each time he appears.  Louisa, like Vollie is saddled with the burdens of the past as she cares for a baby out of a commune that practiced free love.  Elroy, as he matures, like Vollie he replays scenes of a boyhood of abandonment.

The phrase that captures the essence of the novel is Vollie thinking about how “am I nobody from nowhere” as he and other characters try to maneuver in lives that do not turn out the way they want.  The concept of identity appears repeatedly – for Vollie does he have one since he tries to cut himself off from everyone and everything. 

To Scibona‘s credit his descriptions are often entertaining, but also sarcastic and draining.  He has a keen eye for detail and many of his scenes seem similar to other works of literature and film.  Overall, it was a difficult book to read, and I would only recommend it for someone who has a great deal of time to devote to understanding what the author is trying to say and enjoys a dark story that can be very painful.

(President Nixon announces the entry of US troops into Cambodia)