Speakers of the Dead is a mystery novel centering around the investigative exploits of a young Walt Whitman, in which the reporter-cum-poet navigates the seedy underbelly of New York City's body-snatching industry in an attempt to exonerate his friend of a wrongful murder charge.
The year is 1843; the place: New York City. Aurora reporter Walt Whitman arrives at the Tombs prison yard where his friend Lena Stowe is scheduled to hang for the murder of her husband, Abraham. Walt intends to present evidence on Lena's behalf, but Sheriff Harris turns him away. Lena drops to her death, and Walt vows to posthumously exonerate her.
Walt's estranged boyfriend, Henry Saunders, returns to New York, and the two men uncover a link between body-snatching and Abraham's murder: a man named Samuel Clement. To get to Clement, Walt and Henry descend into a dangerous underworld where resurrection men steal the bodies of the recently deceased and sell them to medical colleges. With no legal means to acquire cadavers, medical students rely on these criminals, and Abraham's involvement with the Bone Bill—legislation that would put the resurrection men out of business—seems to have led to his and Lena's deaths.
Fast-paced and gripping, Speakers of the Dead is a vibrant reimagining of one of America's most beloved literary figures.
I do not know a lot about Walt Whitman; poet, American, and then my knowledge ends. Sorry Walt, but you might have been mentioned or not. All I remember from that poetry class I took is Rochester, and my lovely WW1 poets. But never mind that! In this fictional story that blends fact with fiction we get to see him when he was a journalist and struggling writer, and not the famous man he will be later on.
New York, the 1840s. A time of immigration, cholera, a police force not always doing police work, a time of lynch mobs (those are so scary). Not a time of justice.
What we then get in this book is a mystery, Walt's friend is hanged for the murder of her husband. He refuses to believe it (and she is obviously framed is my first thought too.) He tries to get to the bottom of this and believes it has to do with the corpse business. Medical school needs corpses, corpses are dug up from graves. A nasty business. But I get it, they need corpses, for science
Then we also have the Women's Medical school where it all happened, and the struggles women went through to be taken seriously. A woman doctor, madness!
It all blends together in a well written interesting historical mystery. A great era. A dangerous era for asking questions. But Walt was never afraid of getting to the truth of things.
Paperback, 320 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Plume