Roy M. Griffis
By the Hands of Men, Book One: The Old World
Roy M. Griffis
By the Hands of Men, Book Two: Into the Flames
I’ve complained a bit lately (“lately,” you say?) about the various horse-puckey mechanisms that encourage Americans to ignore all but the most formulaic and famous of our national fiction. But part of this is perhaps the fault of writer-reviewers; even if we produce novels ourselves, we both avoid and screw up fiction reviews, because they are hard (and also not conducive to clickbait, you barnyard Internet animals).
The more enthused a reviewer is about a piece of fiction, ya see, the less we want to spoil its surprises—be they plot twists, turns of phrase, or a sweet new massage of a time-honored theme. We know the writer worked hard to come up with that left turn, dammit. Thus we overcompensate, giving the reader only the vaguest idea of why he would profit from the story, and the writer’s hard work is all for nought.
So I’m painfully aware of the need to strike a balance with Roy M. Griffis’s By the Hands of Men trilogy, which is the most touching as well as the most enjoyable historical fiction I’ve read in quite some time—though there were some technical flaws which I hope that I, as the second volume’s copyeditor (there’s my full disclosure for you), was able to resolve.
The first book, The Old World, was released to very little fanfare (unless you count me); the second, Into the Flames, came out on December 10, 2015—to what I hope will be a response more commensurate with its merit.
Though you can certainly slot them as genre fiction if that’s your thing, the BTHOM books offer not just the expected plot gymnastics, but more meat on the level of theme and style than any of your Franzenfurter litfic losers. The reservoir of pleasures in this 20th-century epic is deep and wide.
But let’s get specific.
The Old World opens just behind the English line in France during the First World War. Instead of postmodern fuck-ups, Griffis uses believably noble characters to populate this hellish theater; Nurse Charlotte Braninov and Lieutenant Robert Fitzgerald are the admirable leads, but the supporting cast is nearly as interesting. Through their eyes, the reader watches the Old World crumble in the carnage.
We begin with Nurse Braninov, working triage on the disposable male bodies with which we ushered in the modern era. Though Griffis creates plenty of action and suspense—and doesn’t keep all of the main cast improbably alive—he inhabits his characters’ beings at multiple levels; to wit:
Giving a smile to men who might not live through the night, and who knew this to be a fact, was begrudged by none of the nurses. But after long hours of facing down death, with men who had not seen a woman’s smile or felt the gentle touch of a feminine hand in months, the most fervent desire to be of service could transmute into mere stoical endurance under the simple grinding toil, as if turning gold into lead. Know this, and know the depth of the two nurses’ fatigue as they tramped into their temporary canvas-covered home.
At the risk of hearing the male half of the audience shuffle away in anticipatory boredom, might I add: Yes, Nurse Braninov and Lieutenant Fitzgerald do fall in love. Come back! This is worlds apart from romantic comedy, I promise; Jennifer Aniston would be eaten alive in this thing. The leads love each other for their strength and virtue, not for their “charming” flaws. There’s no soft porn, no rolling around on a pile of bandages while groaning soldiers bleed out; if you’re looking for consummation early on, go read some erotica. This is genuine tension.
This is, in fact, the kind of tension that the great novels used to run on. To generate this sort of romantic suspense now, most media resort to either pretending the characters aren’t actually attracted to each other (like Sam and Diane from Cheers) or even making them two different species and sending them to different corners of space-time (like Doctor Who and Rose). Otherwise, if you stop two characters from falling into bed for too long, you risk the audience wondering “Why doesn’t he man up?” or “Why’s she gotta be a bitch?”
Well, Griffis doesn’t seem to care. Unconsummated love is a classic narrative driver, and I guess he didn’t feel like throwing in a time machine. And if you want to call Charlotte Braninov a bitch, good luck; she’s even kind to Alice, the silly young nurse who tries to ruin her life.
Notably, the main wrench in the romantic plot comes due in fact to Alice—a vain, envy-motivated female of the sort who, had she been born in 1990, would probably be throwing toys around in her safe space right now. Nurse Braninov, with her consideration and steady devotion to duty, represents the old order; Alice, with her petty selfishness and screeching lack of courage, is a thoroughly modern Millie.
As you may have guessed from her patronymic, Nurse Braninov is Russian, and she’s also a noble by birth; her family had sent her to England to be educated and safe. The best laid plans . . .
So the opening of the second volume sees Charlotte wandering back to Russia after the armistice, in an ill-fated attempt to rejoin her family. She believes them to be all she has left on Earth: her beloved mentor (also a great character, by the way) and her dream of love are both dead. She’s in a foolish daze, or so it seems to us in hindsight; it would have been hard to predict the sheer brutality of the Russian Revolution, as Griffis depicts it in a long series of gripping and heart-wrenching chapters. As I copyedited this section of the book, it occurred to me that I had never cried so much at work in my life, not even while chopping onions. I have never seen a heroine take so much abuse; Charlotte is not an idealized character, and she nearly flips to the dark side.
Meanwhile, Robert Fitzgerald, broken-hearted, volunteers to work for the SIS (a precursor to the now famous MI-6), a shadowy intelligence agency linked to the British crown; he finds himself on a mission to China, just as the country’s move toward modernization begins to turn red. It may seem sacrilegious on several counts to compare this to The Empire Strikes Back, but in the tradition of second acts there’s a good deal of ominousness in the book; while Charlotte wades through rivers of gore in Communist Russia, Robert gets to see China gear up for the same tragedy. His conversations with the Chinese version of a champagne socialist are as frustrating as they are frightening.
Neither the Russian Revolution that we see through Charlotte’s eyes nor the beginnings of Red China that Robert experiences are created from whole cloth or Hollywood; though the specific instances are fabricated, the historical setting is backed up by Griffis’ reading on the history of the interwar period. He tells me:
For Book Two, I made my way through the big guns on the subject, like Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy, a 1000-page behemoth on the Russian Revolution. That, in turn, sent me down other paths, from breathless pamphlets written in 1919 by starry-eyed British socialists all aflutter at actually being in Moscow to support the Worker’s Revolution to other, more seriously written and soberly observed works like Farewell to the Don, a memoir by a British military advisor to the Whites during the Russian Civil War. And who knew there was an entire school of historical writing on Shanghai?
Most often, for me, it was the experiences of the average person, whether it was hapless nobles on the run in Russia or a crooked police detective in the French Settlement in Shanghai, that made life in those times seem so real.
As a clever counterpoint to Communist class analysis, Griffis inserts a nicely crafted subplot involving the relationship between Fitzgerald and Orlando, his highly esteemed batman. This plotline serves as an illustrations of how merit among the humbly born might be rewarded without cutting everybody’s heads off—yet it’s too touching to be dismissed as didactic. The contrast between the historical sweep of the tale and the finely detailed work the author does in developing the relationships between the characters is striking:
“I’m a lord without lands or rents. I have a title, and nothing else. I’m as useless as one of Bismarck’s counts.”
“I would not say that, sir.” Orlando had seen Master Robert pursue a fear-maddened nurse out into a night lit by falling bombs and bring her back to safety. Such a man would never be useless, not to those who knew the value of a man.
“But I cannot pay you, Orlando. I am near to penniless and it would not be proper of me to abuse your good nature by continuing a pretense of employing you.” [. . .]
“Sir, my people have been freemen since the time of King Richard . . . We give our service to whom we will, and we will not be compelled. I have given my service . . . my word and my honor to you, sir.”
Perhaps such speeches will seem stiff and fine at first to the modern reader. But Griffis remains more worried about his mission than fashion; probably to his own detriment, but it’s lovely for the reader. He tells me: “One of the challenges I set for myself was to write a compelling story that reflected—in tone and description and even word choice—the standards and mores of the day . . . Reading a novel, in a way, is being a willing participant in the creation of art. I think of words as tiles in a mosaic. The tiles are laid down in the reader’s mind and over time create a larger experience, the emotional journey of the entire book.”
And once you’re caught up in the Old-World culture and fictional logic of this series it becomes physically painful to stop to check your Twitter feed. For such a long work, the pages are relentlessly pithy; no thought or emotion or effort seems to have been spared, and none of the writing rings cheap. If you would like your holiday reading to ennoble your spirit, these books are a treacle-free pleasure.