The Night Inspector

The Night Inspector

4.0 2
by Frederick Busch

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An immensely powerful story, The Night Inspector follows the extraordinary life of William Bartholomew, a maimed veteran of the Civil War, as he returns from the battlefields to New York City, bent on reversing his fortunes.  See more details below


An immensely powerful story, The Night Inspector follows the extraordinary life of William Bartholomew, a maimed veteran of the Civil War, as he returns from the battlefields to New York City, bent on reversing his fortunes.

Editorial Reviews

John Crowley
The Night Inspector is a marvelously dark-hued story by a master craftsman, and watching mastery at work provides at least a part of the pleasure of reading it. — The New York Times Book Review
Benjamin Anastas
In the excitement of the author's press junket, barely a soul will notice that Mr. Busch, in breaking his pact with literature to obey the first commandment of the marketplace, has damned his loved and labored-over pages to the cruelest fate of all: providing ceap thrills for an indifferent readership.
New York Observer
Jabari Asim
Clearly Busch sees certain parallels between the craft of fiction and the construction of personalities and "false fronts" that people use to get through the day....Busch is a smart and charming writer who's easy to like, and although his protagonist here isn't especially charismatic, he's complicated enough to hold readers' interest all the way...
Hungry Mind Review
Boston Sunday Globe
Flawlessly plotted and philosophically rich...not a merely effective novel, but an essential one.
Washington Post Book World
Sensual and many-layered.
Library Journal
Busch's darkly imaginative historical novel re-creates 1867 New York City, whose seamy underbelly reflects the physical and psychological scars of the Civil War. Among its citizens are a hideously disfigured veteran and customs inspector M--a famous writer down on his luck--who are drawn into a plot to rescue black children from the slave trade. (LJ 2/15/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Out of a rancid stew of vice and misery, Mr. Busch has created a sublimely dark work of almost unbearable beauty. An exploration of evil, hidden identites and the dehumanizing forces of commerce, The Night Inspector has a moral heft and stylistic grace not unlike the work of a certain bearded, brooding, 19th-century customs official.
The Wall Street Journal
Ben Greenman
...[T]he novel is an act of massive imagination, rich with biblical resonance, precise historical re-creation and psychological inquiry.
Time Out New York
Kirkus Reviews
The prolific Busch returns to the genre of historical reconstruction he attempted so successfully in The Mutual Friend (1978), which reimagined the Victorian world of Dickens. This story is set in New York City in 1867, and also in the painfully vivid memories and premonitions experienced by its narrator, Civil War casualty William Bartholomew, a former Northern Army sniper whose destroyed visage is concealed beneath a specially constructed mask. The present action emerges from Bartholomew's relationships with: his old army comrade Samuel Mordechai, an idealistic journalist determined to write the truth about war; "Tackabury's Adam," a freed slave whose condition of actual unfreedom Bartholomew strongly empathizes with; Chun Ho, a widowed laundress herself uneasily assimilated to postbellum America; a beautiful Creole prostitute, Jessie, who authors an ingenious liberationist plot; and a deputy customs-inspector named Herman Melville, whose once promising literary career has stalled. Busch gets a seductive narrative rhythm going almost instantly: Bartholomew's meetings with "M" (whose work he has read), visits to the lavish brothel where Jessie toils, and adventures as an importer-exporter and commercial speculator are juxtaposed against graphic and disturbing flashbacks to wartime ordeals like his assassination of a brave "Rebel whore" and his discovery of a common grave crammed with massacred civilians (both incidents superbly foreshadow more horrors to come). Bartholomew is a brilliantly imagined character, and the book vibrates with beautifully realized (mostly nocturnal) period scenes. A single improbability aside (we're never fully persuaded that this "acid-etchedman of measureless cruelty" would devote himself to combating slavery), Busch offers a gripping story that climaxes unforgettably when a contraband-filled ship reaches port, and concludes with bitter irony when Bartholomew and Mordechai attend Charles Dickens's public reading of his fable of resurrection, A Christmas Carol. Another stunning dramatization of Busch's commanding theme: that the world is a battlefield of chaos and dangers from which the innocent must — and may never — be protected.

From the Publisher
"Compelling . . . A marvelously dark-hued story by a master craftsman."
—The New York Times Book Review

"A SUBLIMELY DARK WORK OF ALMOST UNBEARABLE BEAUTY. An exploration of evil, hidden identities and the dehumanizing forces of commerce, The Night Inspector has a moral heft and stylistic grace not unlike the work of [Herman Melville]."
—The Wall Street Journal

"A STYLISTIC GEM OF A BOOK, FLAWLESSLY PLOTTED AND PHILOSOPHICALLY RICH . . . Busch has followed his remarkable novel, Girls, not with a merely effective novel, but an essential one. . . . Stunning."
—Boston Globe

—Dallas Morning News

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Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.31(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.05(d)

Read an Excerpt

"No mouth," I told him.

"If I'm to craft a special order for you," he said.

"What is that, a special order?" "Why, this." He held up the sketch. I looked away from it. "The mask, Mr. Bartholomew," he said. "I make arms. I make legs. I've never made a face, sir."

Through the smell of resin and shellac, through the balm of pine shavings, came the odor of his perspiration, and I thought of bivouac, and our stench on the wind. His thick, ragged, graying eyebrows were stippled with sawdust, as was his mustache. One of the knuckles of his broad hand was bloody, and the end of the other hand's long finger had been cut away many years before and had raggedly healed.

"Yes," I said. "Special. I thought at first you meant order of being. Race. A species of man, perhaps. A special order of nature. I cannot abide such speculation. We have collectively demonstrated, and not that many months before, the folly of such thinking."

He smiled at the drawing, but not at me, and he shook his head. "No, sir," he said. "You are enough like the rest of my custom. Only your face is maimed, Mr. Bartholomew. You have your limbs, God forgive us."

"I suggest that I am proof of His unreadiness to do so," I said. We examined his sketch again, and he spoke to me of materials and money. It was to be of pasteboard, he decided, so that my head would not be weighed down. He would build many thin layers, each molded to the one beneath, and would protect them with paint, the better to keep away the deleterious effects of rain and snow. Withal, my head would not be burdened, on account of the lightness of construction. "Like a little craft on the sea," he suggested. I had tosmile. He had, it was clear, to look away.

And in the end, he prevailed, and he shaped me a mouth.

I did hear of several who used a buffalo gun, and at first I thought it a lie. How could you haul such a heavy piece of metal and wood up a tree? Not to mention aim with accuracy, or reload with speed? From a hilltop redoubt: yes. With a tripod under the front of that immense, octagonal barrel. But never in a tree, I thought, and of course I was wrong. It was one of my lessons in this long education I received about and from my native country. Never consider a feat undone if the reward is of a size. We move what we must, whether barrels of meat or kegs of dead flesh, when at the farther end of the transaction there lies a crate of dollars. That is how we fare westward, in spite of reversals, anguish, and death.

That is why some very few of us served with the volunteers of New York as what we called marksmen. Snipers, the men of infantry or horse called us, and, behind our backs, assassins. An Englishman I met said thugs. In the woods around Paynes Corners, where I was born, the hamlet lying two hundred miles and more from Manhattan, a small crossroads and then a church and a fur-trading shop for victuals, I learned my forest craftiness. I could hide, and I could seek. I was a solitary child, and powerful of limb. And I was reckless, and born with great vision, though not, alas, of the interior, spiritual sort. But I saw in the dark if there was a hint of a sliver of moon in the sky. How natural, then, with my youth and young manhood passed in patrolling a trapline and hunting for my meals, that I would make a marksman when called to the War.

It was a Sharps that I carried into the trees. I wore a pannier of sixty rounds, and always a pistol in a holster at my back. The knife I wore at my left side, and I drew with my right. It was good for game, and bad for men, I once told the sergeant who saw me out and up and hunting Rebels.

"Kindly do not boast of the assassinations, Mr. Bartholomew. You fire your weapon, but in this chain of command, you are my weapon. And I think we owe it to the dead to never boast about our work."

"It is the brigadier's wish and your command that I take to the trees and shoot men down."

"Truly said, Mr. Bartholomew. I wonder if I rebuke myself while addressing you." He looked away as he spoke, though I was whole of face, and had smooth enough skin, and all of my nose and lips and jaw. I watched a fly hover at his ear. I thought to seize it, and I could have. He turned, and he read my expression, I suppose, and drew back a pace. "This triumph of ours," he said, "our killing them off, is no pleasure to me. Those are men like us."

"No, Sergeant," I said, "with all respect. They are dead, and we are not, and that's the nature of our transaction."

Smoke from the cooks' wagons blew in on us. He tried not to smile, I think. He said, "As you were, Mr. Bartholomew."

I drew myself taut. He said, "I hope you return safe and well."


"And I wonder how you sleep, bless you."

"Fitfully," I said.

He nodded. He caressed his ginger beard, which did not give him the appearance of age I believe he sought. He covered his lips an instant with his fingers, and I saw his fatigue, and his fear, of course. He was from a village up on the Hudson and had been raised in wealth. He was a powerful leader in battle, and in sum a man of strength. Many months later, when the hunters took me down, I tried to ask him to kill me, but I could not work my jaw. He only wrapped my head in what I later learned was his shirt, and he carried me across his saddle, propped against his breast, to a Southern farrier, who thought to cauterize some of the area of wound.

When I had stopped screaming, I heard the sergeant tell the farrier, "You enjoyed that." I heard him cock his piece, and I waited for him to fire. Someone, I remember thinking, should be shot. Then I remembered that I had already filled the bill.

From the eBook edition.

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What People are saying about this

Betsy Burton
A man so wounded by war that he wears a mask to cover the part of his face that isn't there prowls post-Civil-War New York City. His Companion is none other than Herman Melville, fallen into obscurity and now a night inspector on the Hudson. What happens on the river is the stuff of darkest nightmares.
—Betsy Burton, The King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, UT

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Night Inspector 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a librarian, I try to read a wide variety of books. I took The Night Inspector home because of its reveiws and the authors many literary nominations. Although I found the first 100 pages or so to be tedious to get through, it was well worth the effort. His characters were so well developed and unusual. I found myself drawn into the masked man's world, until the surprising end which unmasked him to be a man like many other men. The plot and setting were also extremely well developed. A throughly interesting and educational read, recommended for anyone who has an interest in history, the military, or just good literature. I will be sure to read Busch's Girls next.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book to have great insight into the human condition.