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Friday, April 26, 2013


Let me fill you in on a little-known fact: I am not - let me repeat that, not - a history buff. Back when I finished the first of what would be three basic history classes in college, in fact, I changed my major simply so I could avoid taking the other two. Honest.

So when I saw the period setting of this book, the fifth in Clive Cussler's series featuring early 1900s detective Isaac Bell, I was more than a little reluctant to start reading. Then I learned that it takes place in and around the coal mines of West Virginia and Pennsylvania not far from my home at a time when labor unions were trying to gain a foothold. Vilified by mine owners, union organizers were targeted, roughed up and even killed as they  attempted to win higher pay and safer working conditions for workers in this extremely hazardous, but exceedingly profitable, industry.

This is the fourth in the Bell series written in collaboration with author Justin Scott, an established writer of several novels under his own name and the pen name Paul Garrison - for whatever that is worth. I've read and enjoyed other books by Cussler, but not any in this series; that, too, gave me pause until I found out it's really a prequel to the other four - the book in which Bell proves his bones as a private investigator. 

Bell, who is relatively fresh out of an apprenticeship at the Van Dorn Detective Agency, is hired to find unionist saboteurs in the coal mines. In the process, he witnesses an accident that he believes wasn't an accident at all - and sets off to get to the truth. Doing so pits him against very ruthless and powerful people who, especially in the days of crooked politicians and coal industry magnates, will stop at nothing to keep the "working man" in his place and keep racking up enormous profits to fund their private yachts, elegant mansions, steamboats and special railroad cars.

I admit reading was a bit of a slogfest for me, but only because the dialogue is in keeping with the times (and yes, a bit of my aversion to history). But it was totally fascinating and expertly crafted; I'm sure a great deal of research went into the writing and many of the happenings are based - though perhaps loosely - on real events. There really was a Henry Clay Frick (a bad guy in this book has a similar name) who was a major American industrialist and financier during the coal-coke-steel industry's early years, for instance - at one time he was considered the most hated man in America.

It was also quite interesting to see names of places very familiar to me: Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle, the Monongehela and Ohio rivers on which barges tote coal to big cities like Cincinnati (perhaps stopping for water in Steubenville, Ohio). 

Heck, I even got a chuckle or two, such as when a powerful judge pronounced, "Nothing becomes Pittsburgh like the leaving of it!"

All in all, it's an excellent read - and for those who love history and whodunits, it's ideal. I know I'll take a break by reading a couple of other books in present-day settings, but this one was interesting enough that I'm actually considering giving the rest of this series a try.

The Striker by Clive Cussler (Putnam Adult, March 2013); 384 pp.

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