“Last Days of Night”
Author: Graham Moore
Publisher: Random House
Price: $28.00 (Hardcover)
Last week I reviewed “Gone Again,” the first of the three finalists for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. This is the second; next week I will talk about the third.
Anyone interested may read all three novels and cast a vote for the winner at www.abajournal.com. The deadline is June 30th.
“The Last Days of Night,” set in 1888, mostly in New York City, is a little different from what one might expect from a Harper Lee finalist. It’s both historical novel and a deep dive into the intricacies of corporate law, the organization of law firms, and the financing of innovations but not explicitly focused on issues of social or racial justice, as one might expect in a Harper Lee Legal Fiction Award nominee.
Paul Cravath is very young, 26 years old, high-minded (in fact his father founded Fisk College, a “Negro” school in Nashville), bright, but inexperienced, fresh out of Columbia Law. He finds himself representing George Westinghouse in a colossal lawsuit between Westinghouse and Thomas Edison.
The reader will learn a good deal about American patent law as the two titans fight ferociously over rights to the light bulb.
For decades, inventors in huge laboratories and tinkerers in their basements had been working to invent an incandescent bulb that would burn bright and last a while. There were experiments over the shape of the glass, the filaments used, what gases might be inside the bulb.
Edison, not Westinghouse, basically has the patent. Does he deserve it? Did he lie on some of his applications? Is he truly a creative genius?
In any case Edison is the genius of organized corporate research, creating “an empire of invention,” and is a wizard at marketing and self-promotion.
Edison is depicted here as nearly amoral, willing to stretch the truth, bribe the press to influence public opinion, plant spies in the enemy camp, and go to any lengths. Even arson and assault?
George Westinghouse, rich from having invented the airbrakes for trains, seems to be a nicer fellow.
He has a competing lightbulb, but more importantly, Westinghouse, a manufacturer of generators, believes in alternating current, AC, invented perhaps by Nicola Tesla, not the DC which is favored by Edison.
The novel indeed opens with Paul watching an electrician, up on a pole in New York City, being electrocuted to death. The many lawsuits drag on and the central issue morphs from lightbulb design to the establishment of competing power grids, AC or DC. Edison wages an unscrupulous public relations campaign asserting that alternating current is deadly dangerous.
To laymen who, then as now, don’t understand what electricity is and use, wrongly, the metaphor of flowing water, the idea of the molecules switching direction hundreds of times per second does seem incredible, even sinister.
At one point George Westinghouse states, accurately: “electricity lends itself poorly to metaphor.”
Surprisingly, the death penalty plays a part in all this. In a truly shocking scene the first electric chair is constructed and used in Auburn, NY, on August 6, 1889.
The generator used is AC and the results are horrific. It takes five long blasts, and Mr. William Kemmler is not just killed. He is tortured, incinerated, cooked. Electrocution by alternating current was extraordinarily cruel and unusual. AC is in fact too safe to use to kill people.
Besides Westinghouse and Edison and his thugs and minions—it’s a rough world those geniuses live in—we also meet Alexander Graham Bell, a benign genius who is NOT a cutthroat competitor, and Nicola Tesla, the eccentric inventor/genius from Yugoslavia, a singular character, who it seems lives only on saltine crackers and water. Tesla seems to be inventing the x-ray and he tells Paul he also has invented a wireless telephone. Part of the fun of historical novels is predicting the future and making fun of the past. Paul thinks: “Even if by some miracle Tesla managed to make [it]…function, who in the world would have any use for [it]?”
Like most novels, “Last Days of Night” also contains a love story as Paul meets and understandably falls for the beautiful, bold and witty opera singer Agnes Huntington. We cheer him on, but there are, of course, many big obstacles to be overcome. It makes a nice counterpoint to the science and law discussions.
Moore recreates late nineteenth-century New York beautifully and draws characters with clarity, each distinct and memorable. He can really script a scene, but then he did win the Academy Award for the screenplay for “The Imitation Game.”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.