The joy that has enriched my life since early childhood resurged in two successive novels I read in September. Getting lost in a good story serves as a temporary escape from some of the pervasive anxiety, anger and sadness intrinsic to being a news junkie. Both authors were new to me.
“The Hunting Party,” published in early 2019, is the first murder mystery by London-based Lucy Foley, a former fiction editor and author of three historical novels. Nine privileged—mostly unlikeable—30-somethings who were friends as Oxford University students celebrate the New Year together in a remote hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands. Also on the premises are the lodge’s administrator, gamekeeper and odd-jobs man as well as a pair of eccentric Icelandic guests. When a huge snowstorm isolates them completely, the traditional Agatha Christie-like locked-room mystery setting is established.
On page two, we learn that the body of “a missing guest” has been found. Accidental death is quickly ruled out, but neither the sex and identity of the body nor the cause of death are revealed until much later.
Multiple narrators offer their perspectives, telling their own as well as their friends’ backstories and reporting on current events. Each chapter changes in both viewpoint and time—memories of the Oxford days along with observations on the four days pre- and post-murder. We do not know which voices are reliable. Along the way, Foley intersperses the narrative with real clues as well as a few red herrings, and suspense mounts almost to the very end.
All Foley’s characters have public and private faces, including secrets, some quite dark, that could serve as motives for murder. As one character observes, while looking at her friends, “They’re all grinning, but their faces, in the light thrown from the Lodge, look strange, spectral, and their smiles look like snarls.”
Each time I thought I could identify the murderer—and even the victim, the author skillfully threw in another twist. Looking back, the clues were in plain sight. Kudos to the author’s skill!
Pam Jenoff’s “The Orphan’s Tale” (2017) was my second worthy read. I was dubious about the novel’s circus setting as I typically find clowns cringeworthy and deplore the cruelties inflicted upon performing animals. Yet the fact that the story takes place during wartime Germany, a period filled with stories that illustrate the perseverance of the human spirit amid the horrors, I read on—and was captivated by this tale of a traveling circus that also served as a refuge for several Jewish individuals hiding from the Nazis—among them, a baby, the most obvious orphan of the title.
Incidentally, the Philadelphia-based writer has ties to the metropolitan area. She was born in Maryland, graduated from George Washington University—as well as the U.K.’s Cambridge University and the University of Pennsylvania’s law school.
She acquired her expertise on the Holocaust while working for the State Department at the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland. Jenoff said that she based the novel on documented history, including the railcar full of babies en route to a concentration camp and the traveling Circus Althoff that hid Jews during the war.
The novel is alternately narrated by two very different women who bond when their lives intersect at a traveling circus. Noa is a naïve Dutch teen whose parents banished her and forced her to give up her out-of-wedlock baby. While working at a menial job at a train station in Germany, she comes upon a boxcar full of mostly dead Jewish infants and runs off with a live baby boy.
When a clown from the Circus Neuhoff rescues the “sister-brother” pair—as Noa explains the situation to the circus members—Noa and Astrid meet. A professional aerialist from a Jewish circus family who have disappeared, Astrid had been cast out by her German husband and is hiding in the circus. The sympathetic ringmaster tasks Astrid with training Noa as a performer.
The circus makes stops in Germany and occupied France, constantly under financial pressure due to dwindling crowds amid the terror of the war and concomitant Nazi presence. The story is both suspenseful and heartbreaking, while offering an affirmation of life as many of the best Holocaust historical tales do.