SPEAKERS OF THE DEAD
By J. Aaron Sanders
A Plume Book
Available 1st March
It takes a rare brand of imaginative courage to transform a famous American poet of the 19th century into a bonafide pulp detective and that is something author J. Aaron Sanders has in abundance. As an associate professor at Columbus State University with a PhD in American Literature, it is easy to understand Sanders familiarity with poet Walt Whitman. What is a revelation is his grasp of the times in which the writer lived and honed his skills to claim his cherished position in our cultural history.
The year is 1943 and young Mr. Whitman is working as a journalist for a New York paper called the Aurora. Two of his dearest friends are Abraham and Lena Stowe, doctors operating a medical college for young women. When an unmarried girl is found dead from a botched abortion, the finger of guilt points to Abraham. But before he defend himself in count, he is murdered and his wife Lena found standing over his mutilated corpse. She is quickly arrested, tried and found guilty. Despite the fact she is pregnant with their child, the civil authorities fear a public riot and her death sentence is hastily carried out. Poor Whitman makes a foolhardy attempt to stop her hanging but in the end Lena Stowe is executed in this barbaric fashion before his eyes.
From that point on, Whitman vows to uncover the truth behind the deaths of his friends. Who really killed the poor unwed girl and put the blame on Abraham? Who then butchered the innocent doctor and made it appear his own wife had committed the crime? It is at this point in Sanders tale that mores of the era come into play in regards to common practice of grave robbing to supply medical schools with cadavers on which their students could study. In the early 1800s society was unwilling to accept that only through clinical dissections could medicine advance. Zealot religious leaders saw autopsies as sacrilegious and believed if a body was dismembered after death, then the deceased would be incapable of resurrection as promised in the Christian bible; thus being eternally damned. Thus the body snatching business was a lucrative one for a callous breed of criminals trying to survive in an overcrowded metropolis filled with both disease and political corruption.
Whitman, with the aid of an old editor friend, Henry Saunders, learns that Abraham had been advocating for a new Bone Law that would make it legal for medical schools to purchase cadavers. If enacted, it would end the illegal body snatching trade. He suspects that would have been cause enough to make his friends the targets of the criminal ring unwilling to see their illegal profits come to an end. Then, he and the female students of the Stowe’s school become threatened and the center of undue public scrutiny. Whitman’s inquiries have alerted the killers and they are not about to allow him to discover the truth, even if it means silencing the reporter and hurting those nearest to him.
“Speakers of the Dead,” is a fast paced mystery to rank with the best this reviewer has ever enjoyed. Sanders effortlessly propels his protagonist through the streets of a past New York that comes to life in his prose. His characters are complex, vulnerable and brave Whitman emerges in a whole new light for those of us who struggled with his works long ago in high school. This is a Walt Whitman who is very much the symbol of a country undergoing growing pains and aspiring to be something ever grander than its origins. Pick up this book and get ready to be entertained to max.