Thursday Reviews: Axe By Ed McBain, AC/DC: The Savage Tale Of The First Standards War By Tom McNichol, The Constant Gardener By John LeCarre


Ed McBain

Axe is Ed McBain’s first mid-1960’s offering in the 87th Precinct series, and this time, the bulls are stumped. The super of a tenement is found dead with an axe through his skull. It’s puzzling because the man is an elderly Spanish-American War vet. I found that a little jarring since the last American WWI vet died last year. But it’s 1964, so the Spanish-American War is grandpa’s war back then.

The late George Lasser is a piece of work. He’s always got a scheme to make money in the works, some flakey, some, like selling firewood to his tenants, rather good. His family, however, does not play with a collective full deck. Lasher’s wife is schizophrenic, and his son is a violent agoraphobe. Plus, they live outside Isola, so the city cops have to trek out to the burbs and deal with small town quirks. The Lasher family doctor suspects the city cops want to lock up Mrs. Lasher. The club of fellow Spanish-American War vets – only three left – just want Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes to go home and let them die in peace.

Carella and Hawes also have to deal with the neighborhood. Lasher’s building is one of several slums on the street. Despite Carella’s attempts to reassure tenants, they regard all cops as the enemy. It doesn’t help when Hawes rousts a pair of junkies in the course of questioning witnesses.

Like the previous 87th Precinct novel, Ten Plus One, McBain is coarser than in previous efforts. Mild profanity is creeping into the dialog, and while it does not contain a strip scene like Ten Plus One, there is a blatant sexuality of a different kind on display in Axe. It’s as though the loosening of restrictions on what McBain could write helped pump new life into the series.

AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War

Tom McNichol

I’ve read this tale before doing a college paper on the life of Nikola Tesla. However, brilliant as Tesla was, he ultimately was a bit player in the revolution he started. AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War does tell Edison’s side of the story, but the antagonist is not AC power’s inventor, Tesla. It is, instead, George Westinghouse, Tesla’s benefactor and Edison’s chief rival. But when author McNichol compares Edison and Tesla, it looks very much like the more recent (and rather subversive) rivalry of Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates. Jobs and Gates were quirky geniuses in their own right, but their personalities and mindsets were incompatible. Edison, McNichol says, was a visual person and very stubborn, with a flare for showmanship. Tesla was a borderline autistic savant who could do entire experiments and design complex systems all in his head, but was so obsessive compulsive that he could not be brought to focus on business. For that, he had George Westinghouse, an inventor in his own right, a businessman of Edison’s caliber, but pragmatic and somewhat less egotistical. Edison could not picture the mechanics of alternating current, so he dismissed it outright, eventually making it his mission to convert the world to his dying direct current standard. Westinghouse, on the other hand, saw a way to use alternating current to reduce costs, make power stations more central, and therefore, more affordable to consumers. Westinghouse’s pragmatism and perseverance won out over the sometimes savage attacks of Edison, who was not above letting a surrogate electrocute animals in pseudo-science experiments.

As we all know, AC won out, and Edison was denied a chance to redeem DC when the Texas oil boom during World War I assured the internal combustion engine’s dominance for the next century. However…

The laptop this is written on, your cell phone and tablet, your Kindle or Nook, all run on DC. Furthermore, after the blackout of 2003, power companies discovered that using High-voltage DC (HVDC) was the best way to transmit AC power over vast distances – like across several states – as you don’t have to synch up the cycles between distant power stations. You can just step down the current and turn it back to AC power near where it will be used.

On the downside, Edison was close to a long-range, fast electric car when the 1915 discovery of oil made gasoline an affordable fuel for automobiles. Because of that, we’ve lost a century in electric car research. Range is getting better with the Nissan Leaf and several Ford models getting 100 miles a charge, but you need two hours to recharge, four if you just use standard 110-volt power outlets. Still, the breakthroughs in DC replacing gasoline under your hood are coming out of a very Edisonian startup in California.

Ironically, that company is named Tesla Motors.

The Constant Gardener

By John LeCarre

The master of the espionage tale takes on capitalism’s dark side in this tale of pharmaceutical abuse in the Third World. Tessa Quayle, an English activist and aid worker, is brutally murdered in Kenya. Her husband, Justin, a Foreign Office functionary in Nairobi, leaves for Britain and takes up the cause of learning why his wife and her closest friend was murdered.

In the beginning, the sensationalized story is a lesson in humiliation. Tessa’s companion has disappeared, and everyone assumes he was the killer while Justin was a cuckolded husband. As he digs deeper, however, he learns Tessa and her doctor friend had learned a promising tuberculosis drug, while performing beyond expectations, also has some serious side effects to be worked out. The company making it stands to lose billions if they can’t simply use Africa’s poor as unwitting Guinea pigs. Rather than lose money, they’re perfectly willing to use blackmail, slander, and murder to prevent the British government or anyone else from finding out.

One of the things LeCarre, who can paint a picture of British civil service anywhere in the world better than anyone, does is differentiate his villain from the stereotype. The drug in question is called by those who try to stop it a very good drug that still needs work. Tessa, in records left behind, says that pharmaceutical companies, despite some abuses, do good work. In fact, in the author’s notes, it’s a pharma company who provided the model for the villainous KVH that also suggested LeCarre make the drug a tuberculosis drug (which, LeCarre laments, is nowhere near ready for even the abusive testing depicted in the book). At the same time, LeCarre says, “By comparison with the reality, my story [is] as tame as a holiday postcard.” What this book is about is greed. It’s also about the ineffectiveness of foreign aid programs and apathy of major powers towards corruption abroad when it might rock the political boat at home.