Here in my part of the country, northern Indiana, there once lived a nomadic tribe of ten thousand people. They descended, or so it was thought, from southeastern Native Americans, escaped African slaves, and Irish and Scottish apprentice workers. They came up from Kentucky in the eighteenth century, roamed the Midwest during the nineteenth century, and settled in the Indianapolis area by the beginning of the twentieth. They called themselves the Ben Ishmael Tribe, spoke a strange patois incomprehensible to surrounding Hoosiers, and developed an unsavory reputation among Indiana’s most respected and powerful citizens. The same citizens enacted the “Indiana Plan,” the world’s first compulsory sterilization law, in 1907 (the year Hitler was born). The Ben Ishmael Tribe doesn’t bother anyone anymore.
The “Ishmaelites” were among the thousands of victims of American sterilization programs conceived by reputable scientists from prestigious universities, generously funded by the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation. The programs targeted any reproductive threat to the cultivation of what the eugenicists, invariably powerful, educated, fashionable white men, thought of as superior genetic lines.
The fact that things really haven’t changed much makes Peter Quinn’s intriguing historical novel that much more compelling. In Quinn’s last book, the superb Civil War novel Banished Children of Eve (1994), the distracted New Yorkers of the mid-nineteenth century are engulfed in the national violence they helped generate. Although distracted New Yorkers abound in Hour of the Cat, Quinn here tells a tale of two distracted cities, skillfully alternating between prewar New York and prewar Berlin.
Each is a city pregnant with violence. This is a historical novel of the late 1930s, after all. But like MacKinlay Cantor, Patrick O’Brian, José María Gironella, and other masters of the genre, Quinn admirably refuses to allow historical familiarity to do his narrative work. This enables him to make the past really present, to describe moments as our parents lived them: when blitzkrieg and Auschwitz and Hiroshima could not be imagined; when Nazis were not what we now know them to be; when the Rockefeller Foundation was funding the work of racialist scientists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute; when respectable people were advancing monstrous ideas; when monstrous ideas were respectably taking institutional form.
The eugenics movement is brisk in both of Quinn’s cities. The two principal characters, fictional New York gumshoe Fintan Dunne and the historical hero German Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, unwittingly embark on intricate and entangling paths to the eugenic movement’s mephitic source. The world-weary private eye’s unpuzzling of a murder will take him to an ominously respectable Hermes Sanatorium in the Bronx. The institution’s administrator fondles a paperweight emblazoned with the slogan “Strength Is the Highest Wisdom,” and suggests that even compulsory sterilization is insufficient to stem the growing population of “chronic defectives” who quietly vanish under the institution’s care. The disillusioned Wehrmacht officer Canaris, recently appointed head of German intelligence and repelled by his nation’s pseudoscientific racialist policy, has hesitantly begun to construct the Abwehr spy network whose collapse will result in his being hanged alongside Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Even those readers with no particular love of this genre will admire Quinn’s convincing deployment of his research, which is as detailed here as it was in Banished Children of Eve. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, commander of New York’s 69th Regiment, and Fighting Fr. Duffy, its theologically dissident chaplain, enter his narrative to mix it up with the fictional characters. They are joined by an insufferable John Foster Dulles, a ruthless President Franklin Roosevelt, an ambitious Thomas Dewey, and an unspeakable SS general, Reinhard Heydrich. The Great Hurricane of 1938, which mauled Long Island, has a pivotal role in the plot also, and the 1942 landing of Nazi saboteurs at Montauk is foreshadowed. Great stuff.
Great, at least, for those of us for whom the familiarity of history, like the familiarity of liturgy, can too often have a hypnotically glazing effect. The repeated showing of the videotape of Rodney King’s pulverization soothed a California jury into exonerating uniformed thugs. At noon today, I yawned during the reeanactment of the death and resurrection of the Lord. The occasionally narcotic effect of repetition needs a jolt of imagination now and again, precisely the sort of thing a good novelist can provide. A piercing glimpse of the glare in an L.A. cop’s gaze and the startling resemblance between an enraged roar and a horrified yelp are insufficient, in themselves, for an understanding of what’s wrong between white and black people in America. Whether as citizens or as believers we are obliged to work by whatever light lasts, even the modest insights of a novel if those are the only lights available.
Perhaps this is what makes historical fiction respectable: To read MacKinlay Cantor’s Andersonville (1983) is to learn something more than a historian can tell you about what the American Civil War cost American humanity; to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels is to be astonished by what it may have taken to negotiate a world awash in the violence that accompanied the Enlightenment; and to read Hour of the Cat is to be sobered by how little things have changed in the past three-quarters of a century. What makes historical fiction embarrassing is how enjoyable, how really fun, it makes the learning of such serious things.