Thursday, November 10, 2011

Nicholas Griffin Plays The Dizzy City

After a German grenade kills his three friends and severely wounded him just a few feet away from a shell hole, Englishman Benedict (Ben) Cramb decides he has had enough of World War I. Mistaken for someone else in the muck where he lay unconscious, he is taken to a palace transformed into a hospital on the Isle of Wight.

Having a reprieve from the trenches for the first time in months, Cramb plays out the hand he is dealt. He assumes the officer's identity, capitalizing on the assumed diagnosis of amnesia and an inability to speak. The dangerous game goes on well enough, until 'his' fiancée arrives for a visit.

Although heartbroken after discovering the patient in the bed is not her would-be husband, she never suspects Cramb might have an intact memory. With a comforting, tear-strained smile, she promises that someone will come for him. She is sure of it. Cramb is too and quickly sneaks out, stowing aboard the first ship he can find.

Welcome To America, New York City, 1916. 

Cramb cannot believe his luck when the ship docks in New York City. The vibrant, noisy city streets suit him, an easy place to find work as a musician or anything else he might want to be. Even better, New York feels like a world away from the war in an America that has yet to formally choose sides.

All he has to do is keep his head down and stay away from British representatives and consulates. He knows as well as anyone that deserters are tried and shot without exception. He would have done exactly that, if he hadn't made his first friend, Julius McAteer.

McAteer, an older gent who makes his living as a professional flim-flam man, is looking for new talent to help him with his elaborate cons. He sees Cramb as the perfect candidate, someone who isn't against using what he learned growing up in the theater to make his mark or money. And, although McAteer doesn't know it, Cramb's own cons are what landed him on the front in the first place.

Dizzy City is the setting of an elaborate sting.

Nicholas Griffin paints Ben Cramb with such a complex brush, creating someone that can easily earn your sympathies as he plays out some of his smallest and creative cons. In fact, Cramb's likability makes it all the more difficult to accept a different point of view one-third into the book.

Griffin has no choice but to do it. The reader needs a bigger view to appreciate the scope of the real game.

The mark that McAteer intends to hustle isn't what he seems to be. On the surface, Midwestern cattleman Henry Jergens is just an affluent man who might be interested in music publishing. But Jergens is a willing participant in the fraud, hoping that it all might help him achieve his own specific agenda.

The first con plays out nicely enough. But the second sting, one set in motion by Jergens, brings Cramb full circle into a con that brushes up against the war he is trying to avoid. And on this side of the Atlantic, it all revolves around the ongoing arms trade.

As if this doesn't make the entertaining cat-and-mouse con interesting enough, Cramb develops a love interest with an actress. Split three ways between him, his unseen nemesis, and his second mark, Katherine Howells is as much a wild card in loyalties as she is in her emotions.

A bit about author Nicholas Griffin.

Part of what makes Cramb so real, especially as he takes in New York City for the first time, is that Griffin can relate. Although he has lived in New York for almost half his life, Griffin was born in London to an English father and American mother. So while New York is as much his playground as it is the setting for historical fiction, Griffin still recalls arriving for the very first time.

His talent for blending modern experience with historical research has always been a strength. His first book, The Requiem Shark, was written after discovering that one of his ancestors was a pirate. So before writing the novel, he spent time aboard an 18th century sailing vessel.

He did the same for his other books too. He traveled to Caucasus and Italy before writing two other novels. And for writing The House of Sight and Shadow, he asked friends to smuggle him into mortuaries and medical schools.

There is no indication be became a con man for Dizzy City, but Griffin has said he tried to structure the book as a game of three-card monte. Authors and writers, he says, have played it for years. They want to trick you into watching one character while you ought to have been watching the other.

Dizzy City By Nicholas Griffin Cons A 7.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

When Griffin changes the point of view for the very first time from Cramb to Jergens, it can be jarring. Cramb is so well drawn that Jergens is dull in comparison. Stick with the change. Howells' point of view plays much better, and eventually the book returns to its complex protagonist and the writing warms up again.

Dizzy City: A Novel By Nicholas Griffin is available on Amazon. You can also find the book at Barnes & Noble or for download on iBooks. Dizzy City was recently released as an audiobook on iTunes. It is read by Peter Bishop, who brings additional warmth to Cramb.
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