In Chicago during the late nineteenth century, when the ashes from the Civil and American Indian wars still drifted through the air, tensions simmered just below boiling point. Soldiers transitioned into civilian work wherever they could, into trades, police forces, militias, and politics. Some ran food stands on the streets, and some collected coins in cans from the absentminded passersby. Army ranks faded, alliances formed between immigrants, and these groups developed heritage neighborhoods. With aimless men flooding into the city seeking refuge and work, two things rose from the dusty postwar streets along Lake Michigan: crime and buildings. J. Bard-Collins writes of both in her first novel, Honor Above All, a work labeled historical fiction, but perhaps with a case of mistaken identity.
Garret Lyons joined the army at the age of fifteen. Serving under General Stannard as an apprentice, he rises quickly in ranks due to his aptitude for planning, a bit of courage, and an overabundance of confidence. Yet when the devastation of the battle of Powder River clears, Lyons seems the only man left standing, putting a target on his back and discharge papers on his bunk. Now in his mid-twenties, Lyons looks for a way to get by using the only skills he has: those of a soldier. Luckily, the United States remains a lawless country, and he finds sanctuary in the services of Allan Pinkerton, founder of what would become the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
Lyons leads a life of turmoil, carrying grief from years of soldiering and mourning the loss of his home with General Stannard. His service with the Pinkertons allows him to forget, for a time, that the war has ended for him. Yet, when an unknown assailant guns down his partner, Lyons returns to Chicago to hunt his killer and reunites with the General in an unexpected turn of events. These events begin the novel, leaving the reader feeling that much of the action happened before he was invited along.
Familiar names from history appear throughout Honor Above All,* giving the mystery a historical-fiction slant. Lyons finds a coconspirator and partner in Louis Sullivan. He mingles with the likes of Burnham and Root while the plot spins out around Montauk Block. Bard-Collins begins each chapter with a bit of Chicago history, lending to the atmosphere and setting of her world. She finds her stride in setting, detailing quick-moving clouds over a rising city that eventually touches the sky.
Yet, with a history lesson beginning each chapter, the plot slows to a forgetful pace. The characters become faded photographs of distant people from a long-ago time instead of a living community of entrepreneurs, artists, and tradesmen. With most of the novel told in a retrospective narrative, the past stifles the present. Each time the author ventures into the historical realm, the plot weakens and another genre takes lead: biography.
Bard-Collins gives her readers vivid, interesting vignettes of 1880s Chicago, so engrossing that they distract from the make-believe story at hand. While many novels cross genres successfully, few survive an author at cross purposes. As a biographical work of Chicago’s architects, its politicians, and its people, the novel shines. As a work of mystery, the suspense hangs stale in the wake of the more interesting, historical nonfiction.
November 2014, Allium Press
312 pages, Paperback, $17.99
—Reviewed by Mindy M. Jones
*Silver Award winner for the IBPA Ben Franklin Award in the Mystery/Suspense category and Silver Award winner for the ForeWord Reviews IndieFab Awards in the Mystery category