- - Thursday, September 22, 2016



By David O. Stewart

Kensington Books, $25, 261 pages

Washington lawyer-author David O. Stewart is rapidly becoming one of our best new writers of historical mysteries.

In just eight short years he has made the transition from writing well-written, thoroughly researched, biographies of such major figures as James Madison, Aaron Burr, and Andrew Johnson to what might be called his Deception series of gripping mysteries.

Three years ago he made the switch to fiction with “The Lincoln Deception,” set in 1900 and centering on a mystery left over from the assassination of our 14th president. He introduced us to two remarkable protagonists who would be his stock company in future books. One is a white physician Dr. Jamie Fraser, the other Speed Cook, a college educated African-American, sometime baseball player and sometime publisher.

The Fraser-Cook duo returned in 2015 in “The Wilson Deception,” set at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference in Paris at the end of World War I. As with the first volume, Mr. Stewart’s broader list of real characters are scrupulously true-to-life while the suspenseful plot weaves the true story of the conference in with a cliff-hanger ending.

Now Fraser and Cook are back, this time in 1920. The setting is the wide-open Jazz Age capital of New York and the figurehead character that brings them together once more is the dominant figure of that hyperdramatic era — George Herman Ruth. The 1920s saw the rise of American personalities who were the first to become truly universal and defining figures — Charlie Chaplin, Charles Lindbergh, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Rudolf Valentino. Hollywood and sports — college football heroes and particularly baseball — informed a new generation about what was permissible.

But none so symbolized that age of liberation and its excesses than that gargantuan appetite on two legs known as Babe Ruth. Lionized as the Great Bambino and the Sultan of Swat, Ruth’s ability to slam a baseball for heroic distances almost at will transformed the then dominant sports entertainment of baseball into a national obsession. Ruth was a kind of idiot savant of athletics. His greatness lay in his eye-to-hand coordination. It was said he could look at a phonograph record revolving on a turntable at 78 rpm and read the label. He also could have been one of the sport’s great pitchers but in order to hit home runs more often he was consigned to the outfield of the New York Yankees team that ruled the period.

Mr. Stewart portrays Ruth as a genially gluttonous monster who never understood his gift and abused it in his quest for more of everything — food, booze, and especially women. That accurate picture illuminates the complex web of the plot that ensnares Ruth in a blackmail scheme and draws Dr. Fraser and Speed Cook in to rescue him.

The story also is a spot-on portrait of that frenetic time, where the new freedoms from restraint were accompanied by corruption and exploitation on a grand scale. Bootleggers flouted the ill-conceived laws on prohibition of alcohol. Gamblers tainted all sports events with schemes to fix the results. Entrenched racial segregation and a double standard of sexual conduct collided with changes in the broader culture. Violence was an undercurrent in everything from the frenzy of speeding motor cars, and the beat of jazz music, to gangland killings.

And nothing was more corrupted than America’s Pastime — baseball. In 1919, just a year before the story begins, the nation had been shocked to its core with charges that eight players for the Chicago White Sox team had cooperated with gamblers to lose the World Series with the Cincinnati Reds. It would take until 1921 for the team owners to appoint stern Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the sport’s commissioner and ban the eight “Black Sox” from the sport for life. Notwithstanding, the influence of gamblers such as New York’s kingpin Arnold Rothstein to influence outcomes in both major and minor league games remained endemic.

Without spoiling Mr. Stewart’s tale, we find Babe Ruth in 1920 dividing his time between playing for the Yankees, acting in a motion picture and generally gorging himself. The scheme to blackmail him into the clutches of Rothstein, stems from his earlier career with the Boston Red Sox. In 1918 Ruth had pitched a shutout to win the first game of the World Series for the Sox against the Chicago Cubs. A vexing and troublesome figure even then, the Boston owners sold him to the Yankees the next year for the even then paltry sum of 50,000 dollars even though he had hit 29 home runs for them. In 1920, he would go on to hit a record 54 home runs with 154 runs batted in.

There is plenty of other suspense going on elsewhere in the story. Fraser’s daughter and Cook’s bootlegger son Joshua defy insurmountable racial barriers in the name of love. The duo have plenty of fraught challenges, but none more engaging and human than the swaggering, generous, profligate Great Bambino who could be in real trouble.

Tune in to see what happens.

James Srodes’ latest book, “Spies in Palestine: Love, Betrayal, and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn,” will be published in October.

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