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Panama ()

    I think men are by nature either Mont-Saint Michelians [the Cathedral] or, if you will, Virginians
    [the Virgin Mary].  ... Either they see the protection of the collectivity as absolutely crucial or they
    see the collectivity as being justified only because it serves the development of individual moral
    excellence.  So you have the basic question: What is one's social duty?  The survival of the group or
    individual moral integrity?  Reason of state or personal honor?
        -Henry Adams, Panama

I suppose you have to admire Eric Zencey's courage in making Henry Adams the hero of a thriller.  Adams was, after all, an intellectual, best known for not becoming President of the United States--as his grandfather and great-grandfather had--and for his autobiography, which mainly dwells on the lack of great truths for his generation to believe in.  These elements and the fact that the story occurs while Adams is still recovering from the suicide of his wife, Clover, combine to make him a most unlikely protagonist for a mystery.

The story places Adams in Paris in 1892, the period during which he was working on his great Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres A Study of Thirteenth Century Unity.  On a visit to Chartres he meets and is captivated by Miriam Talbott, a young American painter.  When her body purportedly washes up near the quai de Valmy, Adams is called on to identify the corpse, but it is not the woman that he met.  He subsequently becomes involved in the scandal surrounding the failure of the French Panama Canal Company, which threatens to destroy the reputations of men like Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, and Gustave Eiffel, and even to bring down the French government.  Meanwhile, Adams's friend John Hay may or may not be mixed up in the whole mess, though it is certain that he wants the United States to take over the building of the canal.

Zencey does a fine job of evoking the time and the place of the mystery.  The blend of fiction and history does not seem forced, and some other interesting historical characters crop up, including Georges Clemenceau and Alphonse Bertillon, who helped popularize the use of fingerprints, which play a key role in the story.  But the very ambivalence--about himself, his times, the truth, etc.--for which Adams is famous, finally makes him an unsatisfactory hero.  Even the most psychically damaged detectives in fiction have typically been driven either, like Sherlock Holmes, by a certainty that mystery will yield to reason, or, like Sam Spade, by a personal code of honor, or, like Batman, by a burning desire to see justice done.  Adams does not have sufficient faith in reason, honor, or justice to be motivated by any of them, he just seems to want to know what happened to the girl with whom he has become irrationally infatuated.  Because we do not share this emotional attachment, the mystery is not as involving as it should be.

Instead, the pleasures of the book lie mostly in Zencey's development of Adams's ideas and the portrait of his character.

    Adams knew.  But how could he answer?  To a mind as evenly divided as his--a mind, his brother
    Brooks had warned him, that would never find a place in politics, where simplicity of vision was
    required; a mind to which evil never seemed unmixed with good, nor good unalloyed with evil; one
    to which no object appeared important enough to call our strength of action, nor absolutely
    necessary enough not to allow that its absence just might be possible to accommodate--to such a mind,
    the only accurate answer to bluntness was contradiction: yes and no.

This description of Adams's mind is similar to that offered by Louis Menand of some of the other key figures from that generation--Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr; William James, etc.--in his book The Metaphysical Club (see Orrin's review).  One can't help but be saddened that this scion of the family that led the fight for American Independence (John Adams) and against Slavery (John Quincy Adams) succumbed to this kind of banal moral relativism.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -North American Review (contributing editor)
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Panama
    -REVIEW : of Linnaeus: Nature and Nation By Lisbet Koerner (Eric Zencey, Lingua Franca)
    -ARCHIVES : "eric zencey" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "eric zencey" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of PANAMA By Eric Zencey (Hilary Mantel, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Panama (John Skow, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of Panama (George Grant, World)
    -REVIEW : of Panama (David Walton, Detroit News)
    -REVIEW : of Panama (Phoebe-Lou Adams, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of Panama (Cathy Hainer, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW : of Virgin Forest: Meditations on History, Ecology, and Culture, by Eric Zencey (Hal Espen, Outside)

Recommended books by Henry Adams :
    -Democracy : An American Novel (1880) (read Orrin's review, Grade: B)
    -The Education of Henry Adams : An Autobiography (1918) (read Orrin's review, Grade: B+)