- The Washington Times - Friday, January 8, 2010

THE UNNAMED

By Joshua Ferris

Little Brown, $24.99, 320 pages

THE FLEET STREET MURDERS

By Charles Finch

Minotaur, $24.99, 320 pages

He is a brilliant young lawyer possessed by a mysterious disease that forces him to walk without knowing why he is walking or where he is going. Doctors are unable to either diagnose or cure what will ultimately destroy him and those around him.Mr. Ferris has eloquently documented the sheer terror of an illness with no name in this gripping and sometimes frightening pyschological study in which the words “It’s back” have a doomsday ring.

In “The Unnamed,” Tim Farnsworth is a man with everything, from a successful law career and a lavish home to a loving and patient wife and a daughter who comes reluctantly and sadly to realize how much her father needs her help. Nobody knows what “it” is. Farnsworth has traveled the world for medical advice and found none that can prevent that grim moment when he simply gets up and walks for untold miles in any direction.

He telephones his wife when he opens his eyes to find himself once again somewhere he doesnt know and where he is often in dangerous circumstances. And Jane always drives out to rescue him, and bring him home, hoping that his period of recovery during which he acts normally, will last. But “it” always comes back, and Farnsworth becomes a nightmare shadow of himself, struggling to maintain a stressful job while increasingly aware that he is in the power of “it.”

His wife becomes ill with cancer, then becomes an alcoholic under the fierce pressure of the invisible monster that haunts her and her husband. She handcuffs him to a bed to prevent his walking, then buys a hospital bed with retractable sides and Velcro restraints. As the author describes Farnsworth’s plight “He was in one long nightmare of walking now. Walk, sleep, wake up and wait for the next walk, and his feet convulsed rhythmically against restraints … He could fall asleep even as his body continued walking.”

One doctor calls the problem “Benign idiopathic perambulation” and another says gloomily there is no laboratory examination to confirm the presence or absence of the condition “so there is no reason to believe it has a defined physical cause.

A doctor recommends shaving his head and wearing a prototype made to order bicycle helmet that would take snapshots of what was happening in his brain while he is walking.

The doctor is sympathetic to what he calls Farnsworth’s determination to have his condiction regarded as a “legitimate physical malfunction that members of the medical establishment take seriously.”

When Farnsworth wears the helmet before a judge while he is about to argue a case he gets thrown out of court. His condition never improves, and his wife slowly but steadily deteriorates. His daughter offers help while realizing it is hopeless. That is the terrible message of the book. Farnsworth’s case is hopeless, defying all medical technology, and he plunges deeper into a mental darkness that consumes his life.

Mr. Ferris has written a book that is as fascinating as it is depressing because it poses the awful possibility that this could happen to anyone.

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Charles Finch’s “The Fleet Street Murders” is a mannered account of murder and politics in the newspaper world of Victorian London.

Its plot combines the political ambitions of the charming Charles Lenox with his enthusiasm for solving the lurid case of the murders of two journalists, one shot and one strangled. Lenox’s determination to disentangle the connection between the strange cases that absorb Fleet Street in 1866 clashes with his campaign for a Parliamentary by-election in a small coastal town outside London, as well as with his courtship of the lovely Lady Jane Grey.

But violent death stalks Lenox even in his budding political career, when the political agent guiding his campaign is found with a knife in his back and a strange combination of a box of human hair and a large sum of money nearby.

Mr. Finch paints a vivid picture of the political shenanigans that were lurking in the campaigns of more than a century ago, a reminder that the power of ambition hasn’t changed. Some political aspirants will do anything to get what they want, including faking votes, which has a familiar ring to it in the 21st century. The manners and mores of Lenox’s time are carefully drawn, especially the remarkably circumspect behavor of Lenox and Lady Jane, that most proper of fiancees.

Living next-door to each other, they exchange the most chaste of kisses on the doorstep as he goes home to his own bed. It is not until they discuss uniting the adjoining houses and making “one very large bedroom” that the reader is reassured that they will be sharing such premises.

c Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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