New Historical Fiction: Witch Hunts, Wartime and Mysterious Murders

The island of Berggrund is only an hour’s sail from the mainland, but in 1825 its superstitious inhabitants are as detached from the larger currents of Swedish life as they were 150 years earlier, when the community’s priest ordered most of its women put to death for witchcraft. Anna Noyes’s haunting first novel, THE BLUE MAIDEN (Grove, 240 pp., $26), explores the sinister effects of this legacy on the two daughters of Silas, the island’s current pastor, a descendant of one of the few women to be spared.

Ulrika has only faint memories of her mother, who died giving birth to Bea. And both girls feel the chill of Silas’s strangely resentful grief: “Bea’s father has never told her he loves her, and she does not know how to make him smile.” Left to their own devices, they explore Berggrund’s fields and coves, learning nature’s lore from a neighbor and from a red leather book that’s been passed down through generations of local women. As they grow older, these activities inflame their father’s paranoia. Convinced that the Devil has returned, he wonders if “all along I’ve had two snakes, curled in the beds in my very house.”

The Blue Maiden of the novel’s title is a nearby island — “a parallel realm, a hidden world” — uninhabited except by the myths surrounding the long-gone witches’ sacrifices in “Satan’s midnight meadow.” Because she was a mainlander, the girls’ mother is linked to that past, but it isn’t until Bea marries and becomes a mother that her family’s secrets will be fully revealed. By then, of course, the damage has already been done.

The damage at the heart of Graham Moore’s historical thriller THE WEALTH OF SHADOWS (Random House, 384 pp., $30) is global in scale. It’s 1939, with the United States still on the sidelines of World War II, and Ansel Luxford, a Minneapolis tax attorney, has been recruited to join the research division at the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. Unofficially, he’s to be part of a deeply clandestine effort “to knock the legs out from underneath the German economy without giving the appearance that we’re picking sides.” If he and his colleagues succeed, the Nazi military will be crippled.

Hard as it may be to imagine, a tense plot emerges from the world of double-entry bookkeeping, government bonds and price controls. There’s even an evil genius — the head of the Reichsbank, Hjalmar Schacht, “the Dark Wizard of Global Finance,” who has managed to build a huge war operation “out of … nothing.” The aristocratic genius on the British side, John Maynard Keynes, proves problematic in a different way. And then there’s the pro-Fascist group within the State Department, quietly working to sabotage Treasury’s anti-German efforts. Also troubling are rumors of a Soviet spy embedded within the research department itself.

In his author’s notes, Moore introduces the real people who inspired his novel as well as the source material, buried in the files of the Treasury Department, that came to him via 700 cellphone photographs. Luxford, it appears, was a Zelig-like figure in this bout of economic warfare. “He was not famous,” Moore writes. “He was not even well-known.” But that’s what made him irresistible as a subject, allowing his story “to slip back and forth between factual reportage and novelistic portraiture.”

The central characters in THE MURDER OF MR. MA (Soho Crime, 312 pp., $25.95) have also been resurrected from the history books — although they lived 1200 years apart. SJ Rozan and John Shen Yen Nee have taken the 7th-century magistrate Di Ren Jie (known as the Sherlock Holmes of China) and the Manchu intellectual Lao She (known as the Charles Dickens of China) and reimagined them as a team of sleuths confronting a string of killings in 1920s London. As it happens, the victims were Chinese contract laborers in France during World War I. And the murder weapon was a stolen butterfly sword, invented by the Shaolin Temple monks.

The investigation that follows is a glorious mash up of fan fiction (with tips of the hat to Robert van Gulik and Arthur Conan Doyle), kung fu prowess (Dee could easily star in a martial arts movie) and droll social commentary (“The British,” Dee remarks early on, “are oddly vulnerable to charm”). Ezra Pound makes appearances, as does Bertrand Russell, who’s responsible for bringing these two gentlemen together — in a jail cell crammed with political agitators.

Lao She, an aspiring novelist who teaches Chinese at a British university, is the sometimes clueless Dr. Watson to Judge Dee’s erudite, opium-smoking version of Holmes. Dee, who’s associated with the Chinese mission in Geneva, hates British food and pretensions. Yet he delights in a scheme to nudge the Metropolitan Police into action by co-opting a villain from the British crime scene — posing as Spring’eel Jack, the Terror of London, complete with a sweeping cape, a terrifying mask and a convincing Cockney accent: “The coppers don’t think their deaths worth the paper to write home about them. No Chinese is about to convince ’em otherwise. But I’ll wager they’ll listen to Spring’eel Jack!”

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