Book Review from Neal Furguson on “Bookin’ With Sunny”

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Neal FergusonWhen I was a boy in school, the tor­pe­doing of the Lusi­tania figured promi­nently in American history classes about the entry of the United States into World War I. Now, in 2015, a hundred years after its sinking, I wonder if the fate of the Lusi­tania is still deemed to be con­se­quential. Is World War I even still taught in 8th grade American history classes?

No matter, the sinking of the Lusi­tania is intrin­si­cally more inter­esting than that of the equally famous Titanic three years earlier. The Titanic hit an iceberg whereas the Lusi­tania was caught up in the Great War and her sinking became a) another example of Hunnish atroc­ities, b) a reason for the U.S. to enter the war (but not till 1917), or c) jus­ti­fiable because she was car­rying war goods: bullets, cordite, artillery shells, and the like. If the latter, then the German U-boat U-20 had reason to sink her and the British (and U.S. ?) gov­ern­ments bore some respon­si­bility for the loss by putting the ship and her 1900 pas­sengers and crew in harm’s way. More to the point, if the U.S. had been unable to take and defend the moral high ground afforded by the Lusi­tania, might its official 1915 policy of neu­trality have con­tinued? Might U.S. sol­diers never have gone “over there”? Who would have won the war then?

Ivan Light, in Deadly Secret of the Lusi­tania, uses this his­torical backdrop to deftly propel his mystery and espi­onage thriller. The pro­tag­onist is an unlikely but likeable insurance adjuster. Trevor Howell’s day job is to help his insurance company avoid paying legit­imate claims by finding loop­holes in the fine print. He rou­tinely saves his company $100,000 or more per year. He has a real future in that heartless business if he can keep his con­science under control.

But two beau­tiful women com­plicate his life, his career, and his moral compass.  One of them is Italian; the other is German. The Italian has just lost her husband in a manner that the coroner declares to have been a suicide, voiding his insurance policy with Howell’s company. The widow thinks oth­erwise and has con­vincing if cir­cum­stantial evi­dence.  The other, a German-American orig­i­nally from St. Louis (home of Bud­weiser beer), is Howell’s fiancée and lover. More impor­tantly her sense of justice and fair play con­tin­ually serve to prop up his ten­dency to take the low road. Together the two women throw him into a web of danger and sus­pense that doesn’t release him or the reader until the dénouement.

The char­acters in this his­torical novel are extremely enter­taining. There are the steve­dores who load the Lusi­tania for its last heart­breaking voyage, its 202nd trans-Atlantic crossing. In addition, Light adds FBI agents, socialists, Wob­blies, a Red Scare police detective, regular detec­tives, Mafioso, cab drivers, a sus­pected spy German uncle, a brave New York pros­e­cutor, and (drum roll!) a fiendish, posh-accented British agent who has and will neu­tralize anyone whom he deems to be a threat to the His Majesty’s war effort. Light manages to make the motives and pur­poses of all these char­acters clear and com­pelling in a nearly mad-cap way.

If you are caught up in the 100th anniversary of World War I and the sinking of the Lusi­tania, or if you would like to get caught up in these exciting events, I rec­ommend Light’s his­torical novel Deadly Secret. He immerses the fic­tional story in facts but con­cocts them into fic­tional what-ifs in a delightful way.   — Neal Ferguson

Categories: Book Reviews.
About Ivan Light

Professor Emeritus of Sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Over a long career, he has published many books and articles dealing with immigration to the United States, immigrant entrepreneurs, organized crime, big cities, and American social history.

His academic publication record and many downloads are available on his university webpage (click here).

Deadly Secret of the Lusitania is his first book of fiction.