Ninety-Eight Reasons for Being
By Clare Dudman
Viking, 342 pp., illustrated, $25.95
Hour of the Cat
By Peter Quinn
Overlook, 400 pp., $25.95
The Season of Open Water
By Dawn Clifton Tripp
Random House, 304 pp., $24.95
Science is under siege again, the latest attack having been mounted by a new army of creationists chanting that old battle cry: ''It's just a theory." Before we trade in evolution for ''intelligent design," however, and replace clunky old reason with self-propelling faith, we should survey the long road of inquiry and experimentation that has led to our current state of comparative enlightenment. Because science, unlike faith, must learn from its mistakes, that road is strewn with accidents, failures, and horrors.
Consider the treatment of mental illness. In 1798, ''the eminent alienist Esquirol" reported that ''epilepsy is most often caused by onanism." He found it beneficial ''to amputate some small tumours, to fire a gun near by, to violently pull back an arm or head." Elsewhere in Clare Dudman's disturbing but overwhelmingly compassionate novel ''Ninety-Eight Reasons for Being," a doctor practicing in 1852 attaches leeches to a patient's genitals and later electrodes to her skull. The electrodes are an experiment, the leeches old friends. Then there is the asylum bathtub: ''Along the top of one side . . . there is a coat of green slime. On the other side . . . is a scattering of orange nodules, small scraps of fungus. . . . At one end there is a permanent puddle."
In her previous novel, ''One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead," Dudman imagined the life of the German scientist Alfred Wegener, who posited the theory of continental drift. In ''Ninety-Eight Reasons for Being" she enters the mind of the revolutionary 19th-century physician Heinrich Hoffmann, who became famous for his book of children's rhymes, ''Struwwelpeter," but whose lifework was the new asylum outside Frankfurt, opened in 1861, where patients worked in the fields and gardens and where Hoffmann and his family lived. The novel shows him forming that idea.
Overseeing the patients and staff in Frankfurt's old asylum in 1852, Hoffmann becomes intrigued by the case of Hannah Meyer, a young Jewish woman who seems to be catatonic. Attempting to draw Hannah out by talking, Hoffmann reveals more about his childhood, his marriage, his troubled son, and his own revolutionary politics than he intends. Hannah's story, by contrast, arrives in fragments, first in random recollections and later in conversations with Hoffmann that become increasingly intimate.
Love, betrayal, shame, desperation; all are present and not just in Hannah's life. The asylum's other patients and their minders also cling to their individual memories and dwindling hopes. ''There will be no chance encounters on the street, no offers of love and happiness," Angelika, a young employee, realizes. ''She has been incarcerated too, and everyone outside seems to have forgotten about her."
The novel's bleakness is relieved by Hoffmann's humane vision and by the complexity of his patients' lives. ''I don't know about madness, sir," Hannah tells Hoffmann, ''but I am sure there are people who are so sad that they cannot bear it." Dudman creates them. Her style is cool and measured, her language invariably plain and pared down, creating a sense of emotional intimacy with characters that, nevertheless, remain aloof, rooted in a distant era. Like Andrea Barrett, she exposes the human, often irrational impulse behind scientific exploration without romanticizing it.
The year may be 1938 and the place New York City, but the mental hospital visited briefly in Peter Quinn's new novel, ''Hour of the Cat," is more horrifying than any 19th-century asylum. The Hermes Sanatorium in the Bronx has a hidden operating theater and a paperweight on the administrator's desk proclaiming ''Strength Is the Highest Wisdom."
Sounds like eugenics, Nazi doctors, vile experiments. But in the USA? Sure. Not that private investigator Fintan Dunne sets out to nip Nazism in the Bund (sorry). Hired by a young beauty to exonerate her brother, who is about to be executed for murder, Dunne simply follows clues that lead to crooked cops, corrupt politicians, demented scientists, and eventually to Germany itself, where, in a parallel plot, Admiral Canaris and some like-minded officers are beginning to wonder about Adolf Hitler.
Quinn holds it all together until the end, when he cannot resist calling in the 1938 hurricane. The pacing is tight, the descriptions of New York in the 1930s rich, the characters engaging, and the dialogue pitch perfect. Only a churl could resist.
The hero of Dawn Clifton Tripp's novel ''The Season of Open Water" is a physician who, like Heinrich Hoffmann, gropes his way toward feeling and enlightenment. There, sadly, the resemblance ends. Henry Vonniker, World War I veteran, mill owner, and retired doctor, is restored to life when he falls in love with Bridge Weld, a young free spirit. Tripp's economical descriptions of life in South Westport in the 1920s are superb, but once romance enters, so does language that would be more at home in Madison County (see ''Bridges of") than it would in taciturn New England. Rigor, as Clare Dudman proves, is as essential for writers as it is for scientists.
Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached at email@example.com.