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Hour of the Cat is a chilling history lesson wrapped in a murder mystery.
Set in New York and Berlin in 1938, Peter Quinn's novel deals with eugenics, the once-respectable science that linked heredity with achievement. Not just the Nazi version, but its American cousin.
It is the best kind of historical novel, driven by memorable characters, a suspenseful plot and real-life questions.
The story builds on a little-known and shameful slice of history that Quinn recounted in the February/March 2003 issue of American Heritage. His article, "Race Cleansing in America," notes that in 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 8-1 to uphold a state's right to practice forced sterilizations of epileptics, "the feeble-minded" and other supposed threats to "good breeding." Fear of immigrants and "racial degeneracy" helped fuel the movement.
Carnegie and Rockefeller money supported research on eugenics. A professor at Cornell Medical College espoused the idea that retarded children, "nature's mistakes," be put to death. Public exhibits warned of the genetic toxicity of the unfit.
As one character in Quinn's novel, a Jewish refugee, says: The "German eugenicists are by no means alone. ... They belong to an international movement that insists there are millions upon millions whose very existence endangers the healthy and fit."
Fintan Dunne, a hard-boiled private eye, stumbles upon this world when he's hired to help a Cuban immigrant who is headed for the electric chair. Like the heroes of most thrillers, Dunne is a decent man. He's quick to use his fists, but as a cop he told the truth when that was rare and meant trouble.
The murder case he investigates eventually connects to the novel's other major character, a German admiral who is revolted by Hitler and torn between his duties and his principles.
Quinn covers some of the same terrain Philip Roth did so masterfully last year in The Plot Against America. Both describe the German-American Bund's rallies to support Hitler and to keep the United States out of "Europe's troubles."
One rally, Quinn writes, offers "two hours of Jew-baiting and race mongering, the milk of human meanness."
Several characters warn of the coming war. A British spy and writer says, "There's no greater barrier to ordinary human happiness than exposure to too much history. That's why you Americans are so optimistic. Europe has so much history crammed into so small a space, and you have so little in so large."
Readers who are used to linear plots could grow impatient with the novel's two threads, unfolding on parallel tracks in New York and Berlin. To bring the two stories together, Quinn resorts to an improbable coincidence, set dramatically during the disastrous hurricane that struck the northeastern USA in September 1938. It killed hundreds and left many more injured, a portent of the man-made disasters to come in a few years.
Despite an ending that seems too convenient, the novel packs good writing and riveting history. If you're looking for a smart end-of-the-summer beach read, consider Hour of the Cat.
*For more about the American eugenics movement, visit eugenicsarchive.org
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