Saturday, July 07, 2007

Book Review: "The Lost Constitution"

William Martin's latest Peter Fallon mystery is The Lost Constitution, in which the Boston bookdealer and his erstwhile associates attempt to track down a rumored early draft of the Constitution said to bear the annotations of some of New England's delegates to the Philadelphia Convention. Fallon's search (which takes places over less than a week, somehow) is constantly hampered by the common everyday obstacles to life in New England: leather-jacketed hit men, trigger-happy ATV-riding militiamen who kidnap your girlfriend, and a whole slew of people who want to get their hands on a document which may or may not exist and may or may not say anything at all of any importance whatever.

Alternating with the contemporary narrative are scenes from the "Lost Constitution's" past, beginning with its theft from Will Pike (Rufus King's assistant at the Convention) and following it through the intervening centuries as it passed from hand to hand, bank vault to bank vault.

If you are able to refrain from asking the major question of why, if what was written on the draft was so important, it was never revealed before, this isn't a bad book. There are historical anachronisms, to be sure (for example, a 1786 musket ball is described as the size of a Concord grape, when that variety wasn't developed until 1849), Martin's writing style is set firmly on 'potboiler standard' ("She was in her sixties, wore her bleached hair in a beehive that was big in the sixties, and had worked for the Fallon family since the sixties"), and the number of 'surprise' plot jerks (twists is too gentle a word) is rather high. But, for all that, I was entertained and intrigued throughout, and that's what really matters, isn't it?

There are some riotous moments, including Martin's depiction of a pair of Portland bookdealers who fit the New England mold perfectly. Here's one of them, Paul Doherty, interacting with "a couple from Chicago, foliage tourists, commonly called leaf-peepers, who were asking for a catalogue."

"'Are you collectors?' Doherty was asking them.
'Not yet,' said the wife cheerily, 'but we're interested.'
'Do you know what you're looking for?' Doherty snapped.
'Well,' said the husband, more wary than cheerful, 'we're not sure.'
'Catalogues are expensive,' said Doherty. 'I try not to waste them.'
'Waste them?' said the husband. 'Why do you print them then?'
Doherty gestured at the table. 'Take a business card. It has the Web site. Read that.'"

I suppose to people who don't know a few bookdealers like that this wouldn't be very funny, but I laughed.

I feel obligated to add that Martin did much research for his book at the Massachusetts Historical Society (before I started working there) and acknowledges our librarian (my supervisor) warmly in the book. I've held nothing back from this review because of that connection, but did want to mention it. The Lost Constitution is an amusing read as literary mysteries go, and offers some good insight into New England's book culture and historical context.

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