The Circle

Written by M.J. Trow
Review by Tom Vallar

In his second post-Civil War mystery (after The Blue and the Grey, HNR May 2015), Trow, a Welsh-born writer, again places his enquiry agents (private detectives) in harm’s way, this time in the US. Former US Army Major Matthew Grand and former London newspaper reporter James Batchelor have a blank check from Matthew’s cousin Luther to investigate the suspicious death of Lafayette Baker, Head of the US National Detective Police, with whom they had tangled in the pursuit of Lincoln’s assassin and his cronies. Since Baker was still one of the most hated men in both the North and the South, they have no shortage of suspects, starting with Luther’s leading contender, Edwin Stanton, the former Secretary of War whom conspiracy theorists have long linked to Lincoln’s demise.

The pair uncovers clear evidence of foul play by opening Baker’s Pennsylvania grave under the cover of darkness. They ride railroad cars, paddlewheel steamers, and horse-drawn cabs as they criss-cross the eastern states following clues they receive from Baker’s nurse, a political reporter, and a notorious Washington, DC brothel kingpin. They wisecrack with historical personages like the Southern spy Belle Boyd, Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, and abolitionist Sojourner Truth, and each man finds a kindred spirit with a different woman along the way. And once again they often find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Trow doesn’t show sufficient appreciation for the searing hatreds that persisted during Reconstruction in America. The sterile environment that results, and the haphazard nature of the red herrings that lead his detectives no closer to the truth, make this mystery one that is saved only by the charm of his heroes.