Ronald Wright, Henderson’s Spear (Henry Holt, 2002)
[originally posted 8Mar2002]
Liv Wyvern has a problem (well, aside from that of having been beaten up every day after school for having a name like Liv Wyvern). She’s in jail in Tahiti on suspicion of murder, having gone down to track down her father, who’s been MIA since the Korean War. She’s recently been tracked down by her twenty-two-year-old daughter, whom she gave up for adoption shortly after her birth, and is now attempting to write a letter to that daughter explaining the life that is Liv and, in no small part, her extended family. Coincidentally, a few years back, she also found in the basement of her ancestral home a number of notebooks penned by a man with some connection to the family (no one really knows what)—Frank Henderson, who journeyed the Pacific himself with Princes George and Eddy back in the 1880s. There has always been a good bit of scandal attached to Eddy (aside from that supposed Ripper business), and a lot of it centered on a possible side trip Eddy and George made to certain Pacific islands…
It all does sound intriguing, doesn’t it? And to some extent it is. Once the book gets off the ground, the two mysteries therein take on lives of their own. However, it’s the getting off the ground part that requires a bit of doing. The book’s pace never gets above slow, so saying that the pace increases tremendously two hundred or so pages in should tell you all you need to know about the first two hundred pages of this.
The most intriguing piece of the puzzle is left for the very last page (and never answered, probably because Wright doesn’t know the answer himself): Wright gives us a one-page afterword telling us that he is, in fact, related to Frank Henderson, and while large stretches of Henderson’s journals are works of utter fabrication, some aspects therein are true. This should have been a foreword. Two hundred pages of glacially-paced writing are far better served when one is busy trying to figure out how much of the stuff about Henderson being captured by the Sofas in the 1870s and then running off to the South Pacific with two grandsons of Queen Vic is true. (More, Wright intimates, than the Tahiti expedition. But, as Dick Francis recently reminded us in Wild Horses, sometimes the maker of fiction basing his materials on real life stumbles upon the truth of it quite by accident.) Oh, one other thing that would have been helped by having that as a foreword: realizing that the Sofas are an actual existing African tribe would have stopped me fifty pages of snickering about naming a tribe of African warriors after living room furniture. But I digress.
At a guess, the book’s enjoyability hinges upon both one’s tolerance for leisurely-paced writing and one’s ability to find a character to identify with relatively early on. Thus, this is going to find a limited market in a world where Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel outsell the Bible year after year. Still, for all that, it’s not a bad little book. ** ½