Saturday, December 17, 2016
Last Days of Night
by Graham Moore
Random House 2016
384 pages Historical Fiction
Greenfield Village is an historic village recreation in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. Among its many exhibits are those specific to the industrial revolution and the era of invention. Greenfield Village was designed and created by Henry Ford, one of the scions of both eras. Among the exhibits is a replica of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory. Thomas Edison is revered as one of the greats of American initiative and invention. In the book Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, however, he is a villain as he attempts to drive his rival George Westinghouse out of business. Edison has invented DC current and the light bulb, and Westinghouse is electrifying entire towns with a more useable AC current and a different light bulb.
A very young, inexperienced lawyer, Paul Cravath, is hired in 1888 by Westinghouse to deal with the myriad lawsuits Edison filed against him—lawsuits worth about $1 billion. It was Cravath's first case, and also the case upon which Cravath built a successful law firm in New York City that still bears his name.
AC current was invented by Nikola Tesla and its advantage over DC current was that it could extend electric current a much further distance than DC and was also safer. Tesla's AC current was revolutionizing electricity, which made Edison furious and afraid for his company, Edison General Electric. In an attempt to stop Tesla, Edison has his lower Manhattan laboratory burned. Tesla escapes and Cravath helps hide him for several months for his safety but also to protect the court case he is developing for Westinghouse.
Here is where a fascinating character named Agnes Huntington enters the narrative. Agnes is a young Metropolitan Opera singer, who meets Cravath and Tesla and helps hide Tesla. She is extremely beautiful, smart and inventive, and Cravath falls in love with her, but he is just a young lawyer from Tennessee and she is a New York celebrity, highly involved in Manhattan society. Turns out she is just a girl from Kalamazoo, attempting to make a new life for herself in New York. The love story is a small but significant part of the story.
Nikola Tesla comes off as the most interesting of the characters. His mind was so creative that he wanted nothing more than to do his experiments and eat soda crackers. Several of his creations—his inventions—were so ahead of their time, like the wireless phone, that they have just recently come to fruition. Because he had to be way on the autism spectrum in today's parlance, all his actions were construed to be extremely strange, and he became a curiosity in New York society.
Moore deftly melds historical fact with historical fiction to create a marvelous look at invention, ingenuity, and business in the late 1800s. Names we know from history, like J.P. Morgan, are bandied about, and my husband and I, as we read Last Days of Night aloud, had a marvelous time looking up the events trying to decide which were fact and which were fiction. This is historical fiction at its absolute best.
Review in the Washington Post.
Moore is the author of the well regarded The Sherlockian and won an Academy Award for the screenplay to The Imitation Game. Here is his website.