For a mystery, Eric Zencey’s “Panama” begins slowly. Its stately pace is belied by his introducing each chapter with a time as specific as 4:41 p.m.; still, this is a novel that depends heavily on its settings and Zencey sets each up with leisurely care. A full cast of ruthlessly greedy businessmen, ruthlessly ambitious politicians, beautiful women of honor, beautiful women of ill repute, honest detectives and corrupt policemen, and a plot that includes murder, dismemberment, bribery, abduction, seduction and mistaken identities guarantees that “Panama” amply fulfills the requirements of suspense. Yet one finishes the book feeling as if the mystery were (happily) just Zencey’s excuse for dispatching his hero borrowed from American history, Henry Adams, to Paris, 100 years ago.
A prologue set in Ancon, Panama, shows us the ruin of greed and exploitation and begins to explain the Panama Canal scandal that destroyed the French government in 1892. A big engineering company has tried to build a canal where climate and geography conspire to ruin both man and machine; its inevitable collapse has been forestalled by graft implicating half of France’s legislature. Adams’ wry and melancholy observation of the place where “optimism had met a force larger than itself” is followed by his more picturesque trip to Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, France, where romantic complications unfold and where the fictional Adams’ pursuits are anchored into the real man’s biography. (Adams’ study of Gothic architecture, “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres,” was published in 1904.)
Zencey has done his homework. While there’s no evidence that Adams was an incidental sleuth, “Panama” is solidly grounded in fin de siecle France and, as a Parisian policeman observes to Adams, “History often requires detection,” a remark that succinctly captures him in his new, fictional role. A historian does make a good detective, and the need to make events into narrative, to impose the logic of cause and effect on what we fear may be meaningless chaos, is essential to the hero of Zencey’s novel.
The Adams we meet in “Panama” is lonely, grieving. His beloved wife, Clover, committed suicide in 1885, a loss that prompted the feverish completion of his “History of the United States” and the subsequent travels that take him, we are to understand, to the cities in which we find him. The novel’s point of view is Adams’ and it is a vision tragedy has made desperate to process experience into meaning, as well as one searching for redemption. When Adams meets a lovely young woman in Chartres who subsequently disappears in Paris, Adams pursues her because the chase offers him a chance to save a woman as he could not Clover.
The elusive Miriam Talbot’s mechanical role in the novel--to lead Adams to the scandal and the murders committed in an attempt to squelch it--is less original than her function as muse to the hero’s mourning. As Adams searches for Miriam he finds his way into his own heart and past, and it is this that allows Zencey to push his book beyond the confines of genre fiction. That Miriam turns out to be other than Adams had fantasized--both in identity and with respect to her desires--provides an elegant metaphor for grief, which, like a mirror, reflects fixations of the bereaved more readily than it allows a glimpse of the dead.
Adams as helpless, restless cogitator and analyst of his surrounding is useful to solving a mystery, but his commentary occasionally bogs down in pedantry. Adams is, as Zencey describes him, “perfectly willing to carry the conversation himself,” and we get tutorials on stained glass, histories of landmarks such as the Paris Opera House and pronouncements on technological progress and media and their effects on the incipient mass culture. Until the disappearance of Miriam, the narrative drive depends on our voyeuristic appetite for the sparing references to Clover’s suicide.
Of course, pileups of detail always threaten novels set in the past--the author’s need to establish himself as qualified to guide the reader through a period that is not his own tempts him to include too much of his research. Thankfully, in the case of “Panama” the clutter recedes after the first murder demands a plot acceleration. Zencey’s writing is accomplished and sometimes even inspired, as when Adams describes a smell of ammonia tainting the atmosphere of perfume in a whorehouse “like the dictates of moral truth transcending mere sentiment.” In this line and others, the historian’s agenda to force meaning from details is used to advantage.
The novel’s Adams is not the real Adams, of course, any more than historical fiction is history. “Panama” isn’t a story retrieved from the past but one projected onto the usable screen of the past. “What had become of Paris?” worries Henry Adams, “Bombings, random shootings, a sullen and wary populace, the police under assault and the government about to fall. . . . " This could be a litany of current urban woes, and from Adams’s fin de siecle question we can infer Zencey’s millennium anxieties.
If Adams’ famously lively mind makes him an obvious choice for a tony detective, resurrecting him also makes sense in terms of our nostalgic desire for an honorable politicians. Fear of the future is frequently accompanied by a mythologized past populated by the kind of decent men we no longer see. “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr, to which “Panama” will inevitably be compared, featured Theodore Roosevelt and was also a forensic novel set 100 years ago. Perhaps the similarity between the two novels is a coincidence of Zeitgeist . As we draw close to the end of a century marked by ever more casual murder, both books carry an implicit wish for the future--that in the next 100 years our methods of pursuing evil will evolve as much as they have since the 1890s, perhaps even to the point at which we may corner it. Such a wish looks more attainable in sepia tint, of course, and that these stories are set in the dimming past is part of an implicit confession that the hope is quixotic--both as necessary and as doomed as Adams’ pursuing the love he lost when Clover died.
An abridged version of “Panama” is available on four cassettes from Simon & Schuster; $23.