Tom Levenson, friend of the blog and MIT Professor of Science Writing, has a new book that fits neatly in a growing but still unnamed literary niche, one that transplants already perfectly famous historical figures into a hyperbolic action-thriller setting. One of my favorites in the genre pits Mark Twain, Nichola Tesla and Bertha von Suttner (you may need to look that last one up) against JP Morgan, Guglielmo Marconi and others trying to open a demonic gateway to hell.
My own entry would go something like this.
The setting: America. While World War II rages across the oceans, another war quietly builds at home. Fueled by prohibition, modern technology and detective work that still has one foot in the nineteenth century, organized crime has exploded from a nuisance to a mortal threat. FDR cannot admit the extent to which mobsters have penetrated his government or the antediluvian state of forensic science. Al Capone has hatched a bold but credible plot to install his own agents at the top of the FBI. Desperate and nearly overwhelmed, the United States turns to the only man who can bring hoods and hooligans back under control: Albert Einstein.
Eager for a break from academia, Einstein maps the American underworld in unprecedented detail. The new sherriff catches less careful gangsters totally by surprise. Gradually the prisons swell with small-time sharks and potential informants. However, major problems remain. For one, the march of technology has provided criminals with tools that law enforcement agencies have not even started to grasp. For another, big fish like Capone understand the danger well enough. Nonetheless, Capone’s ambitions launch him into an epic contest of wits against Einstein himself. To win Einstein must modernize forensic science and bring down history’s greatest mobster. His reputation and the future the United States hang in the balance.
Normally I could admit that no publisher in his right mind would consider a turgid precis like that. But now that I’ve read Tom’s book, I won’t do that. That crazy stuff actually happened. Even the superlatives.
Levenson plays with a series of story elements that each would make a fine topic for one of those OCD books that belabor a single topic (salt, cod, Pi, zero, the low-top beige Converse All-Star). Some of you might know that Isaac Newton (yes, that Isaac Newton) managed the English mint for a while in the late seventeenth century. Some might also know that England faced a currency crisis at the time; something to do with the lopsided value of silver on either side of the Channel. Also relevant: the Bank of England was founded around that time, to support a war, and issued what we now know as the first government-backed paper money. That and the crude medieval coins that still circulated created an epic market for counterfeiters and a number of other currency scams.
When you add these things together with new information about Newton’s detective life that Levenson uncovered with original reporting, you have a bizarre, gripping crime story that is completely true. Counterfeiting and terrible currency management almost brought down the British empire. Isaac Newton in fact crafted what might be the first recognizably modern monetary policy, he modernized the mint and in his spare time he personally jailed much of the English counterfeiting community. A gifted counterfeiter named William Chaloner did make a play for control of the mint itself, and if not for the mint’s Warden he appeared more likely than not to win. In a position like that, with England mired in a war that already wrecked the economy and saddled with terrible monetary policy, Chaloner could have condemned the Empire and made himself almost unimaginably wealthy.
Levenson’s deft writing style makes me feel a little guilty for indirectly linking it with the dross that I wrote above. His chapters, which alternate between top-down perspectives on the initially separate lives of Newton and Chaloner, transition with a verbal and conceptual wit that recalls the spectacular conclusion to Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club. The book is a one-handable read (this is important for people like me who stand on the bus a lot); the pace moves briskly and compacts necessary historical digressions into paragraphs that keep the narrative going far better than footnotes or Melvillian soliloquies would do.
Those who enjoy science biography, crime drama, narrative history, monetary policy or comics where Jack Kerouac and James Watson go back in time and punch robo-Hitler should definitely check out this book.
As with all things in life, a greater sense of satisfaction can be had if you buy it through the Amazon link at top right.
Several commenters have asked about Neal Stephenson’s Baroque cycle, which apparently also covers Newton’s tenure at the Mint. Tom mentions in his book that he scrupulously avoided Stephenson’s work to make sure that Stephenson’s characterizations did not influence his own.
I’m not sure what this means, but I have some ideas.
I wonder if Neal Stephenson had access to this before he wrote the Baroque Cycle?
Thanks for the report/recommendation! I’m at least somewhat interested in that particular subject, because I’ve read about it before.
Neal Stephenson’s magnum enormous, “The Baroque Cycle”, featured a subplot about this very thing: someone trying to counterfeit the gold in the Mint. IIRC, the plot was equal parts “steal the gold” and “let Newton take the blame.” A climactic scene involved royal examiners showing up without warning to assay the gold while Newton was present. There were about a dozen other things going on at the same time, including a resurrection (yes, right there in the Mint, during the assay) – the scene is simultaneously suspenseful and wildly funny.
ETA – Actually, canuckistani, I wonder if Levenson had read Stephenson :)
@DougJ: I agree! My first thought was of teenagers and Pauline Réage :-)
It was under Newton’s tenure that counterfeiting and “coining” became capital offenses under British law, no? It might have been earlier. Still, it is amazing — and offensive to my modern sensibilities — the kinds of minor crimes that led to the gallows in the 18th century.
At the end of the century one judge was horrified to find that the law prescribed burning at the stake for a woman just found guilty of counterfeiting in his court. His solution was to arrange for her to be hanged, then burned.
First heard about this on Scalzi’s site, so good to see it getting more press…
Bernie Madoff is one person who never wishes he lived 200 years ago, I’ll bet.
A Mom Anon
Oh Cool! Another one for the list. I want to thank all of you who came up with new book ideas in the open thread earlier today,I now have a great list to take to the bookstore with me.
I don’t comment here much,but I read everything here every day,such smart people,but no one is really an ass about it. Plus,Lily and Tunch,yay!
blew this comment. Will try again.
I can’t find a good link to it that’s even plausibly legal (though there are a lot of torrent options, apparently, and a lot of his radio and television programs are on YouTube, but not this one), but the Mark Steel Lecture on Isaac Newton (at least the radio version, I’ve never seen the television version) is a lot of fun.
@CaseyL: I can’t do much more than gasp, open mouthed at Tim’s extraorinarily kind words — but I can handle the inevitable Stephenson question.
Neal Stephenson is one of my absolute favorite writers. I’ve reread most of what he’s written several times; I’m in my n-th go at Cryptonomicon now. I’ve even read (and sort-of-but-not-quite disagreed with) In the Beginning … was the Command Line.
But I haven’t read the Baroque Cycle barring the first fifty pages or so of Vol. 1 — Quicksilver
I realized as I was going — right about the scene where Newton dodges a plague victim at the Shrewsbury fair, I think — that Neal’s Newton was too strong a character, too distinct a voice to have whispering in my ear as I tried to craft my Newton. So I put the book down (this was about four years ago, give or take) and promised myself that I’d get to read the whole trilogy after my book came out. So that’s my pleasure for this summer. I did get to admire the several-thousand-sheet high manuscript, actually handwritten, of the entire work that Neal donated to the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle. That the Metaverse’s Adam composes by hand still tickles me.
I actually met Neal around the time I left off reading vol. 1 of the trilogy. He was giving a deliberately unpublicized public talk at Harvard; I twigged it and went along. I told him that I’d been forced to stop reading him and why — and he gave me his dispensation. He has since read my version, and was kind enough to say nice things about it, as you will see should you follow Tim’s advice and click through to the Amazon link….;)
Other than that: Once again, my thanks, Tim. This kind of read-and-response fulfills any writer’s dream. Next time you’re through Boston, (or should I make it down your way), I’m buying.
Damn you, Tim and congratulations, Thomas Levenson. That sounds like catnip to me. I loved Stephenson’s works, so this is a must read for me.
This looks really interesting, and I’ll have to find a copy.
Another single-topic book not mentioned above that I’d recommend is Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, about the origins of the OED.
Einstein was no Newton (but still very smart.) Newton was, still to this day and may remain, the greatest intellect to every walk this world. Leonardo Da Vinci was a close second.
Newton didn’t just invent all modern calculus (if just that, he would still be the smartest person), most of physics as we understand it on a nonquantum level and many key parts of optics and of course, the math insight that derieved all the gravity theory that is still used to land people on the moon. For a man who never slept with a woman (no, he was not gay, just too damn busy) he was incredible and brilliant beyond mere mortal levels.
Philip Kerr, the author of the Berlin Noir / Bernie Gunther series has also written a mystery based on Newton’s service as Warden of the Royal Mint.
On the theme of historical characters in novels, I’ve just finished Garden of Evil by David Hewson.
The book is set in current day Rome (as is the rest of the series) and weaves in the life and career of the artist Caravaggio. I’ve read several of the series and have enjoyed every one.
If you’re really nerdy (guilty as charged) you can view the locations in Google’s StreetView which helps bring the book to life.
Thomas – Thanks so much for dropping in and responding to my comment! I hope you didn’t take it as criticism, since I didn’t mean anything shady; only wondered if The Baroque Cycle inspired you to your own explorations.
I’m very interested in another take on Newton, esp. one that goes into the trials and tribulations of currency policy (I got interested in that after reading about Genghis Khan’s feat of standardizing currency and credit throughout his empire) AND has a detective story to boot! So I definitely look forward to reading your book.
Oh, that’s hysterical. I live in Seattle; I’ll have to check that out.
a fine topic for one of those OCD books that belabor a single topic (salt, cod, Pi, zero, the low-top beige Converse All-Star)
I never thought of myself as having OCD, but I have all of those except for the last, which I now feel a need — a compulsion, if you will — to find. (I also have The Professor and the Madman, as recommended by Linkmeister.)
“growing but still unnamed literary niche”
Um, the subgenre of alternative history (sometimes called “alternate history,” although logically that would require chapters that went back and forth) has been named for well over sixty years. (Also occasionally called uchronia.)
I mean, here’s a mere 3000 such alternate history novels.
Using famous people as characters, including famous scientists, is SOP. I mean, Lest Darkness Fall was a famous genre novel in 1939, for goodness sakes.
“that transplants already perfectly famous historical figures into a hyperbolic action-thriller setting”
There are well over a thousand such novels in this “growing but still unnamed literary niche,” Tim.
baroque cycle was the most fun I’ve ever had reading. Definitely recommended
I never thought of myself as having OCD, either, but obsessed to get the whole story, I felt compelled to acquired two different books about zero:
•Charles Seife’s “Zero:The Biography of a Dangerous Idea;” and
•Robert Kaplan’s “The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero.”
Brit nitpicker here. I hope Levenson doesn’t refer to ‘the Empire’ as we didn’t have one then. Officially there was no British Empire as such till the late 19th century. End of boring interjection.
Wish it had a Kindle edition.
So I think to myself, “sounds like a cool read!”, and jump onto the Berkeley Public Library online catalog…Rats! they don’t have it. But then, I see this button called “Search Link+”. I vaguely remember something my wife said while ago about how the regional libraries lend books to each other, so I click on it. Next thing I know, my book is on it’s way from a university library in Las Vegas, NV. That’s some region.
@17: Casey — no offense taken at all. It’s the logical thought. I did enjoy the SciFi museum in general, despite the fact that it is housed in, imho, Gehry’s worst building.
@23: Mike — I too wish it had a Kindle edition. It’s been cleared, my publisher has sent the file to Amazon (a few weeks ago…) but Amazon is notoriously slow in processing such stuff — a fact I’ve learned as I’ve been bugging everyone in sight to get the Kindle version up. Soon, they tell me.
@24: LarryB — I’m glad you’re anxious to read the book, but do a struggling author a favor and ask BPL (my old home town — I was born in Alta Bates) to buy their own damn copy.
best to all –t.
By 1939, when Capone was let out of prison, he was suffering from neurosyphilis and was not able to resume control of his life, much less the world. He did hang on till 1947 but by then was demented. Neurosyphilis literally destroys the brain and while Capone probably had the advantage of penicillin, it was too late to save his brain.
I doubt that he would be the logical person to be the evil foil of Einstein. (Maybe Joe Kennedy.)
Hey! We love our giant inflamed carbuncle!
…er, not really. The EMP/SF museum is one of those architectural adventures that turned out to be a lot better in theory than execution (IIRC, it’s “supposed” to be a psychedelic pile of melted electric guitars). I enjoy adventurous architecture very much*, and I wanted to like the building, but I’ve never been able to. In fact, I wince every time I look at it.
* It’s not considered cutting edge anymore, but my sentimental favorite Seattle building is the Rainier Tower, a skyscraper-on-a-pedestal, on 5th and University downtown.
OK, that’s weird – I didn’t intent to bold that last paragraph, and I’m not getting the after-post edit option to fix it.
WordPress must not’ve had its morning coffee :)
I second Natasha October in praising Philip Kerr’s Dark Matter which is just wonderful and covers some of the same ground here as well.