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Likely Stories

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Sunday, September 10, 2006 9:00 pm
Antiqued Prose
Posted by: Keir Graff

I’ve had Night Falls on Damascus, by Frederick Highland, in my book pile for a long time now. The galley arrived in early summer, before I started my family leave, but because the publication date is listed as December 18, I kept pushing it farther down in the stack as more urgently dated books came in.

In a weird way, I didn’t mind putting it off, because I was thinking I’d really like it, and it’s always nice to have something to look forward to. As I’ve written before, I try to avoid reading anything about the book except the book, but a glance at the cover and the first few pages led me to hope that this would be something right up my alley.

Set in Syria, in 1933, it’s about the attempt of Nikolai Faroun, chief of the Damascus civil police force, to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of Vera Tamiri, a feminist activist who lived a complicated life. Faroun, a Maronite from Lebanon, has some intrigue in his own past as well, and the idea of setting a murder investigation against a politically chaotic background had me hoping I’d be reading something a bit like the work of Alan Furst or Eric Ambler, two of my favorite espionage authors.

Highland has clearly done his homework–his Damascus is chockablock with specific detail–but so far I’m a little disappointed. The exposition is a little clumsy (“Maronites are not popular in Syria, as I’m sure you know,” Faroun tells someone), the dialog can be a little cliched (“When I find the animals that did this to her, I will kill them with my bare hands,” declares Tamiri’s former lover), and most frustrating, the prose feels curiously antique.

Ambler wrote the bulk of his novels from the 1930s to the 1960s, so we can forgive him if his prose sounds dated now. Furst’s novels are scrupulously researched and full of perfect period detail, but he writes in prose that feels modern, or at least timeless. Highland’s prose feels like something that might have been written in 1933. A barman is a “diffident fellow”; the wife of a French official is “a handsome woman from an old Norman line”; a wintry rain is “playing the fool with spring.” This may, of course, be exactly the effect Highland intends, but I find that it interferes with the story.

On the other hand, I’m still reading. The language really bugged me for the first few chapters, but now I’m halfway through the book rather little worse for the wear. (See, that’s the sort of phrasing…never mind.) The plot moves quite slowly, but it’s interesting enough that those who like their historical recreations to extend all the way to the narrative prose may find Night Falls on Damascus to be their cup of…tea.

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