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Germ Warfare?

It's no small feat when an author can successfully create drama within the context of real and accurate history. Usually, tales involving broad historical trends and significant dates are stale when they aren't supplemented by the rich complexities of people's lives and personalities. It's like giving your wife a vacuum cleaner for her birthday: The price tag reflects value, but it's a stale gift.

In "Civil Blood" (Viking, $22.95). Ann McMillan provides a dark but exciting setting in Richmond during the Civil War for an investigation led by Narcissa Powers, a white nurse from the aristocracy, and Judah Daniel, a free black herbalist healer. These women are working at the Medical College when they discover smallpox might be spreading in town due to contaminated money. As they begin to look for information, murders occur, and the nurses suspect someone is deliberately spreading this contagion. The intrigue climaxes when an infected black man flees to the Union Army and the Confederates are accused of germ warfare.

With Richmond under martial law, and the Union threatening to advance over the James, the many suspects are under great stress and capable of any kind of treachery. Narcissa and Judah must distinguish the patriots from the opportunists, while making sure their investigation does not generate harmful gossip in polite society where tarnished reputations may precede a duel.

This is a book Richmonders especially should enjoy because McMillan's scenario parallels real lives and events in the Richmond of 1862, when a small pox epidemic killed many and introduced a second front in an already tragic war. I particularly enjoyed the wide variety of classes and values, where each character struggles with his or her varying levels of freedom to achieve a better place in postwar America. — Jason Wilkins

Editor's note: Ann McMillan, a Richmonder, has hit upon a successful idea for a series. This is the third in her Civil War mystery series, which features the same characters in each book. "Dead March" was the first, "Angel Trumpet" the second. She is now working on a fourth tentatively titled "Chickahominy Fever".

McMillan has a doctorate in English literature. She grew up in Georgia in a family that remembered and discussed the Civil War. This probably delayed her interest in this period, she says, because she rebelled against this pro-Confederacy attitude. When she moved to Richmond, she decided to write a mystery and intended it to emphasize medical history. But because she was setting her mystery here and because there are so many primary sources for Civil War history here, she has set her stories in the Richmond of that time.


Not Happily Ever After

"Honeymoon" is the title for Kevin Canty's second collection of short stories; they have little to do with the marital bliss implied by such a word. In fact, the characters here — though wonderfully varied in gender, age and circumstance — are tied together by their residence in a dark world inhabited by sadnesses: grief, disappointment, loneliness.

"Honeymoon," the most compelling story, follows an ex-boyfriend and a lesbian lamenting the marriage of their ex-girlfriend. As the evening wears, they wonder how far they might go to comfort one another. The lesbian asks the ex-boyfriend whether he thinks she's desperate enough to end up in bed with him: "You think I'm lonely enough?"

In "Aquarium" 38-year-old Olive goes to Seattle to try to talk her 20-year-old nephew into walking the straight and narrow, giving up heroin the way she did cocaine. But when she's with him, she falls back into an old pattern, sleeping with him, getting high with him, wondering all along, "What has gone so wrong in my life that I have ended up here?"

In "Flipper," a boy is sent to fat camp, where, on a solitary hike, he meets a pregnant girl staying at a religious camp nearby. The gifts of candy he shares with the girl awaken in him a different kind of hunger.

Canty's variations on a theme are impressive. Some of the stories, including "Aquarium" and "Honeymoon," strike a perfect chord. Yet others feel stagnant, lack a movement in character and leave the reader, like Flipper, "still hungry." — J.B. Shelleby.

Heads-Up:

From Blair Publisher has come Susan Byrum Rountree's "Nags Headers," a portrait of Nags Head, N.C., a vacation beach that is dear to hearts of many Virginians. Those who have spent time there should be interested in this "blend of oral history and

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