REVIEW OF O. HALL'S
AMBROSE BIERCE AND THE DEATH OF KINGS
By Benjamin Jones
WIT suggests the power to evoke laughter by remarks showing verbal felicity or ingenuity and swift perception, esp. of the incongruous.
IRONY applies to a manner of expression in which the intended meaning is the opposite of what is seemingly expressed. (Merriam Webster Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1989)
Wit and irony are two lonely ghosts at the banquet, of late. Many make the statement that, “Irony is dead.” The implied decedents are recent media phenomena such as Craig Kilborn, Tarantino, and “MadTV,” and of course anything that becomes fashionable can quickly find itself unfashionable. But wit and irony are tools to remind us that the wise men can be very foolish, and that the honest may out-lie us all. Those who have used these tools include Lucian, Chaucer, and Swift.
And Ambrose Bierce. This Ohio born Civil War veteran left his mark in the Devil’s Dictionary, volumes of muckraking journalism, and his always funny, often gruesome short stories. Oakley Hall, an accomplished author who resides in Bierce’s adopted hometown of San Francisco, provides us with another side of Ambrose: Sherlockian detective.
Ambrose Bierce and the Death of Kings is actually the second novel in Hall’s series, one which began two years ago with Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades. It reads like a dream, and a third entry would not be unwelcome.
The narrator is not Bierce himself, but rather Tom Redmond, a reporter at the “respectable” San Francisco Chronicle. (Bierce writes a column for the Examiner, a rag owned by one William Randolph Hearst.) Redmond is a much different storyteller than Bierce would be. His friend is acidic and slightly attached. Redmond, a widower who falls in love with a half-Hawaiian gentlewoman in this book, is much more emotional and direct. They are both do-gooders at heart, and regard each other as equals.
The mystery in this mystery involves the disappearance of a Hawaiian princess. The king, David Kalakaua, is dying. The princess, Leileiha, is in line to succeed him. Any number of persons stateside might wish to influence the succession of this foreign country in the Pacific. The Navy sees Pearl Harbor as a perfect launching pad for Manifest Destiny, American rule of the seas. Sugar producers have their hooks in the islands. One of these men, the fictional Silas Underwood, is nowhere near satisfied with the power he has.
Besides being a tricky murder mystery, this is a fun play on nineteenth century history. Hall has avoided the pitfall of too much historical fiction, characters who seem to be stage-whispering to the contemporary reader. Charles Perry, a Hawaiian nationalist and former lover of Redmond’s lover Haunani, is a believable character who can appear both menacing and pitiable.
But of course, Bierce is the star. Each chapter begins with a quote from his witty Devil’s Dictionary, such as, “DISABUSE, v.t. To present your neighbor with another and better error than the one he has deemed it advantageous to embrace.” As written by Hall, the Devil’s Lexicographer has a reserved and sad wisdom, as when he tells an acerbic dying woman, “Madam, I have seen nothing in our existence that makes me believe that the Lord of heaven recognizes his debts.”
The tone is just right. I could say the same for the entire book.