The Deserter: Murder at Gettysburg

Written by Jane Langton
Review by Lucille Cormier

Like Josephine Tey’s classic The Daughter of Time, Jane Langton’s latest mystery is an intellectual adventure in historical sleuthing. Highly readable, well-paced and not at all stuffy as one might expect where the “detectives,” Homer and Mary Kelly, are Harvard professors.

Ms. Langton takes us from Concord, Massachusetts, to the battlefields of Maryland, the field hospitals of Washington and the demimonde of 19th century theatre as Ida Morgan searches for her husband, who disappeared from the battleground of Gettysburg. Lieutenant Seth Morgan is thought to have deserted, something no one who knew him could or would believe. Mary Kelly is a direct descendant of Seth and Ida Morgan. She and Homer will use the historian’s tools to uncover the true story of Mary’s disgraced ancestor. The story shifts easily between 1863 and 2003 as the Kellys reconstruct the events surrounding Seth’s disappearance. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

In the end, the mystery is solved, but the book does not end. The author adds four short, unusual chapters through which, I believe, she intends to provoke thought about human nature—about the irreparable loss to a nation’s future when its best and bravest are cut down before their time. Shiloh, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor… was it necessary? Was it the only way?