Mary Roberts Rinehart, noted for her mysteries, hit the bestseller list in 1921 with a romantic thriller. A Poor Wise Man is an exciting read that still leaves readers with plenty to think about.
Lily Cardew, heir to the Cardew steel fortune, is home after a year of war work in Ohio. Labor trouble is brewing at the Cardew mill.
Trouble is also brewing at home, where years of resentments between Lily’s parents and her grandfather are heating up.
And Lily is impatient with the old social barriers, having made friends with the lower classes, represented by Willy Cameron, whose limp had kept him from World War I. Willy is one of the “plain men” who love their country, but fight for their homes.
When Lily decides to visit her Aunt Elinor, who is married to an anarchist, she draws the disapproval of her household.
At the Doyle’s, Lily meets Louis Akers, an attorney and Red agent, running for city mayor. Akers “hated the rich because they had more than he had, but he scorned the poor because they had less.”
Willy Cameron is allied with the other major mayoral candidate, who is likely to lose to the nefarious Akers if Lily’s father stays in the race and splits the vote.
Rinehart applies all her plotting skills to weaving a complicated story embellished with fist fights, gun fights, street riots, and midnight chases on back roads.
The hero and heroine are a bit too pat, the romance a tad too predictable, but several minor characters are vividly real.
And the Rinehart’s picture of economic conditions after the first World War, based on historical facts, have an uncanny similarity to contemporary events, as these selected passages show:
A Poor Wise Man
“The miners wanted to work a minimum day for a maximum wage, but the country must have coal. Shorter hours meant more men for the mines, and they would have to be imported. But labor resented the importation of foreign workers.”
“The cry of the revolutionists, to all enough and to none too much, found a response not only in the anxious minds of honest workmen, but among an underpaid intelligentsia. . .Neither political party offered any relief; the old lines no longer held, and new lines of cleavage had come. Progressive Republicans and Democrats had united against reactionary members of both parties. There were no great leaders, no men of the hour.”
Howard Cardew’s musings on the labor union movement:
“It was like representative government. It did not always represent. It, too, was founded on representation in good faith; but there was not always good faith. The union system was wrong. It was like politics. The few handled the many. The union, with its all-powerful leaders, was only another form of autocracy. It was Prussian. Yet the ideal behind the union was sound enough.”
By Mary Roberts Rinehart
Project Gutenberg E-Book #1970 My grade: B+