Hail and farewell

The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Monteifiore WN 692pp Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops 450 baht

Contemporary historians are predictable — penning book after book about Atlantis, ancient Rome, the Templars, World War II. But then a few looked at the calendar and the penny dropped. 2017. Isn’t this the anniversary of something? Indeed. The Russian Revolution a century ago.

OK. And what was it all about anyhow? So they did their homework. One way was to focus on the revolution itself, noting that there were two, months apart. After the first one, the tsar abdicated. After the second, the Bolsheviks took power.

The other approach was to research the rise and fall of the last Russian dynasty. Both variations are well documented with bibliographies, indexes, footnotes, photos, paintings, casts of living characters. However, don’t try to remember all the names. There are much too many of them.

A Brit, Dr Simon Sebag Montefiore, asks the reader to bear with him in his nearly 700-page tome The Romanovs. This reviewer did with pleasure. Though the dynasty belongs to the ages, it’s well worth your time and effort. Beginning with Rurik the Viking in 1613, it covers three centuries until Nicholas II and his family were murdered in 1918.

How the author knows every last thing about the succession of tsars and tsarinas is like a chinchook on the wall observing and listening to them in their privacy. Not to mention the lovers, mistresses, courtiers. A lot of it was about proper marriages.

Then there was Catherine the Great, a nymphomaniac who had her husband killed. Prussia’s Frederick the Great had the annoying habit of invading countries. Peter the Great used Swedish POWs to build Petersburg, then moved the capital there. Lenin moved it back to Moscow.

While Nicholas II was at the front during World War I losing battle after battle to the Germans, Tsarina Alexandra latched onto a monk from Siberia whose touch stopped the bleeding of the haemophiliac crown prince. Powerful and corrupt nobles cut him down.

The police shooting down hunger strikers was too much for the Cossacks, who changed sides. Troops forced the royal family to abdicate. Entering late in the game,the Bolsheviks carried it a step further. Seventy-five years later, they too bowed out.


The Gangster by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott Penguin 308pp Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops 325 baht

The Black Hand

Four American presidents have been assassinated: Abraham Lincoln, John Garfield, William McKinley, John F. Kennedy. Franklin D. Roosevelt was shot at and missed. Ronald Reagan was hit and survived. From George Washington’s time, guarding the Chief Executive was the responsibility of the US Army.

When the powers that be decided that personal security was required, the Pinkerton Agency was contacted. Like unofficial Texas Rangers, with branches throughout the country, they were hired to combat criminals, one way or another, preferably dead than alive. It faded when the agent protecting Lincoln was found in a bar when John Wilkes Booth murdered him.

In his late-19th-early-20th-set series of thriller stories, current Yank author Clive Cussler features his literary re-creation of the Pinkertons. Isaac Bell is his chief detective. It wouldn’t be too much to compare Bell to Sherlock Holmes, set apart in New York and London.

The year is 1906 and the Black Hand Italians, mainly Sicilians, are vying with the longer-established Irish for control of the city’s underworld. More bloodthirsty, the Black Hand, led by Antonio Branca, are clearly winning. Cussler’s The Gangster takes us back to those days.

It was a time when labour wanted the rich to loosen their purses, only to be resisted by strikes led by Black Hand toughs. For siding with the underpaid workers President Theodore Roosevelt, who called himself the Cartel Buster, was a marked man. Magnate J.B. Culp finances the dirty work.

The story’s thrills and spills come from Bell’s efforts to prevent the assassination and apprehend the nogoodniks. The penultimate chapter climax occurs during an ice yacht chase on the Hudson River.

On his own and with co-authors, Clive Cussler has penned scores of adventure stories featuring a number of literary creations, Dirk Pitt his most popular character. New York born and bred, this reviewer favours Isaac Bell. For a while E.L. Doctorow focused on the same period, then quit.

Credit the French with fingerprinting, yet before DNA and computers it’s a wonder that crime detection was called a science.