The Brothers Boswell

The Brothers Boswell

4.0 3
by Philip Baruth

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History's famous literary duo Johnson and Boswell are stalked by Boswell's mad younger brother.


History's famous literary duo Johnson and Boswell are stalked by Boswell's mad younger brother.

Editorial Reviews

Patrick Anderson
Make no mistake, this is a thriller, however literary. When John finally has his brother and Johnson in his grasp…the reader, even if he strongly suspects that both men lived well past 1763, is caught up in the passion and terror of the moment. One of the novel's several wonders is that the mad brother is just as compelling a character as his soon-to-be-immortal sibling. If you're interested in Boswell and Johnson, or in 18th-century England, or in brilliant storytelling, The Brothers Boswell is not to be missed. And if you enjoy it, you might want to seek out The X President, because it's great fun, too.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Baruth (The X-President) shows his versatility with this chilling literary thriller. In 1763 London, John Boswell, the resentful younger brother of Samuel Johnson's future biographer, is stalking Boswell and Johnson, who have recently become friends. John bribes the boatmen who ferry his quarry on the Thames for the smallest details of their conversations. As he remembers the past, John reveals a personal link with the great lexicographer, with whom he once shared a brief, close relationship. Despite the inherent lack of suspense about the outcome of John's murderous quest, the subtle way the author examines his character's twisted mind draws the reader in, as does the evocative prose, as illustrated, for example, in a passage describing St. James's Park at night ("the vast empty dirt-packed space... takes on a dull luminosity, picks up the leavings of the moon and gives back a quarter-light, just enough to perceive the outline of figures moving at one slowly from the trees"). (May)

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Library Journal

In this literary thriller, Baruth (English, Univ. of Vermont; The X President) uses the relationship between diarist James Boswell and his brother John as a lens to examine the complex and often troubled bond between the eldest son and a younger brother. The plot revolves around a boat trip Boswell took to Greenwich in 1763 with his famous literary patron, Samuel Johnson. John, recently released from a lunatic asylum and bearing two pistols, follows them there to force a violent confrontation-a sign not simply of his madness but of his lifelong ambivalence about James and his envy of James's burgeoning relationship with Johnson. The suspense is somewhat blunted by the reader's knowing that Johnson and James Boswell obviously weren't killed in 1763. Nevertheless, the book has a strong narrative thread and builds to a dramatic confrontation between the characters. Baruth grounds his narrative firmly in the extensive source material produced by Johnson and Boswell, and his depiction of Johnson is particularly convincing. For fans of historical fiction. [See Prepub Mystery, LJ1/09.]
—Douglas Southard

Kirkus Reviews
Samuel Johnson and his biographer find themselves at the mercy of Boswell's mad younger brother in a literary conceit from Baruth (The X President, 2003). They're an odd couple, the London literary lion and the Scottish acolyte more than 30 years his junior, yet they're already fast friends just two months after their first meeting. On a summer day in 1763, they have planned an excursion down the Thames, unaware they are being shadowed by James Boswell's 19-year-old brother John. He has been tracking his brother since dawn; he watched James flirting with two whores in the park, then followed him to a house where James made love to Peggy, a Scottish skivvy. When John bursts in on Peggy after his brother's departure, brandishing pistols and vowing to kill her if she sees James again, we realize he is, as he tells Peggy, "genuinely mad." Indeed, he had been confined in an asylum only months earlier. Arriving in London, he has discovered James's journal. The realization that his brother has been excluding him from his social circle enrages John; he has planned this July 30 as a day of reckoning when, armed and dangerous, he will confront and expose James and Johnson simultaneously. (John has an animus against Johnson too, because he's persuaded himself that the writer is his clandestine platonic lover.) Baruth interrupts his story of the big day with flashbacks to the Boswells' Edinburgh childhood and James' social climbing in London, combining John's unreliable first-person narration with James' point-of-view. The story only works if we find John as worthy of interest as his famous targets; sadly, we don't. Madness is not inherently fascinating, and John's asylum experience is barely touchedon. Baruth does manage to whip up suspense around the eventual showdown at a coffeehouse; elsewhere our enjoyment derives from the story of James Boswell's ascent, buttressed by delightful period detail. Elegant prose and an occasional frisson mask, for a while, the ultimate pointlessness of this tall tale.
From the Publisher
“An exciting, suspenseful story. . . . Not to be missed.”—The Washington Post

“[An] accurate, original, and entertaining fictional reconstruction.”—The Boston Globe

“Remarkable.”—David Liss, author of The Devil’s Company

“It is a beautifully written novel, with the flavor of a literary work.”—Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Product Details

Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

Philip Baruth is a novelist and an award-winning commentator for Vermont Public Radio. His previous novel, The X President, was a New York Times Notable Book. He teaches at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

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Brothers Boswell 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1763 London, John Boswell hates his older brother James who has become friends with renowned lexicographer Samuel Johnson; by default John also loathes Johnson due to the company he keeps. Obsessed with his sibling, John stalks both men and pays Thames River boatmen for information on what the pair discussed when they ferry them.------------- John recalls when Johnson was his friend before his sibling usurped his relationship. Increasingly he considers fratricide as a means to right the wrong he believes James has done to him. He ponders whether to kill both men to ease the rage vibrating in his gut that seems to grow with every thought about the pair.------------ THE BROTHERS BOSWELL is an intriguing biographical suspense thriller that stars real Georgian Era writers. The triangle comes to life as each of the key three players seem genuine especially their interrelationships. Though the ending is obvious for anyone familiar with the classic biography Life of Johnson;, fans will feel the tension throughout as increasingly John is losing control of his mind fogged by his hatred, envy, and deep conviction that he has been wronged by his sibling and his former friend.------------ Harriet Klausner