“Boldly plotted and compulsively readable, Speakers of the Dead is a welcome discovery for any fan of literary history thrillers. Sanders’s debut pulls off an elusive accomplishment, making us rethink what we know about favorite historical figures and entertaining us at the same time.”
—Matthew Pearl, author of The Last Bookaneer and The Dante Club
“In Speakers of the Dead, the conceit alone is worthy of your attention, Whitman as detective, but Aaron Sanders goes above and beyond in creating a character and a world that feels both entirely authentic and yet deliriously imagined, supported by elegant prose that demands your attention. This is what you want from a good mystery, enough verve and complexity that you cannot focus on anything else, and Sanders does this as well as anyone in the game.”
—Kevin Wilson, author of The Family Fang
“A vivid and engaging adventure, written with a modern freshness and understanding of which the young Whitman himself might have approved.”
—Nicola Upson, author of The Death of Lucy Kyte
“How did reporter Walt Whitman transform himself from an unremarkable New York flaneur into America’s most visionary poet? J. Aaron Sanders pursues this mystery as passionately as he does the murders and body snatchers slipping through the shadows of nineteenth-century New York. A first-rate literary mystery, thrilling and illuminating in equal measure.”
—Sherill Tippins, author of Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel
“In Speakers of the Dead, J. Aaron Sanders gives us Walt Whitman as we’ve never seen him—a young, jaunty, and ambitious reporter, who risks his life for truth. Sanders’ confident prose and deft storytelling come together in a transporting novel that is at once a mystery, a tragedy, and a tale of deep friendship. From its stunning opening of a young woman at the gallows, the novel gallops along, taking us along for the ride, and all the while we see glimmers of the poet Whitman is to become. An old-fashioned novel in the best sense. Riveting and haunting.”
—Rae Meadows, author of Mercy Train
“Not only is Speakers of the Dead an action-packed thriller, it presents a fresh and surprising portrayal of the poet Walt Whitman as a brawling, crusading investigative journalist hot-on-the-heels of a murder mystery through the streets of nineteenth century New York. Quite a feat for a first time novelist and what fun!”
—Michael Knight, author of The Typist
Library Journal Review
In 1843 New York City, Elizabeth Blackwell is under the tutelage of Abraham and Lena Stow, studying to become the first female U.S. medical doctor. When Abraham is murdered, Lena is taken into custody, convicted, and hanged. Vowing to exonerate his late friend, young reporter Walt Whitman investigates and finds a link between Abraham’s killing and the underground world of the body snatchers, or resurrection men, who sell stolen corpses to medical colleges. He also works with Blackwell and the other students of the Women’s Medical College to keep the school open as crowds protest the use of cadavers (and the methods in which they are procured) in their training. VERDICT This elegant literary mystery from Sanders (English, Columbus State Univ.) makes a fine debut, bringing to vivid life one of America’s greatest poets and presenting a fresh perspective on a less-familiar period of U.S. history. An excellent choice for readers who enjoyed Louis Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye, which featured a young Edgar Allan Poe as a sleuth.
Early in Sanders’s gripping first novel, set in New York City in 1843, Walt Whitman, a 23-year-old reporter, tries but fails to rescue a friend of his, Lena Stowe, from the hangman at the Tombs, the city jail. Lena is executed for the murder of her husband, Abraham, with whom she cofounded a women’s medical college. In his subsequent quest to prove Lena’s innocence, Walt tangles with a pair of tough grave diggers and a powerful real-life Tammany Hall boss, Isaiah Rynders. Lending a hand is Edgar Allan Poe, who has recently serialized a story in a magazine that’s a thinly fictionalized account of the Mary Rogers murder case, in which Abraham was involved. Meanwhile, Henry Saunders, Walt’s lover, stakes out a cemetery. The author addresses the then-controversial issue of anatomical dissection and imbues all his characters, even the villains, with humanity. Fans of Daniel Stashower’s account of the Mary Rogers case, The Beautiful Cigar Girl, won’t want to miss this auspicious debut. Agent: Jeff Kleinman, Folio Literary Management. (Mar.)
In 1843, New York journalist Walt Whitman, yet to pen Leaves of Grass, investigates the murder of his friend and teaching-hospital founder, Dr. Abraham Stowe. Stowe’s wife, Lena, is sentenced to hang for allegedly killing her husband. What really happened is a mystery wrapped in layers of deceit, ulterior motives, shady politics, and grave robbing. Walt has stumbled into a hornet’s nest of citizens and city leaders in vociferous disagreement over abortion, cadaver procurement and dissection, and, above all, women doctors, some of whom are using creative, even violent methods to skirt the law. Stowe’s murder is just one death of many, and Walt risks his life to speak of the inconvenient dead. Readers must make a quick mental adjustment to Whitman-as-sleuth, but Sanders mesmerizes with details both gruesome and descriptively captivating, while characters take on lives of their own—and not the ones you might expect. This is both the author’s first novel and the first of a series that brings Whitman to vibrant life, in a fashion similar to what Stephanie Barron has done for Jane Austen and Gyles Brandreth for Oscar Wilde.
— Jen Baker
Speakers of the Dead” is a mystery and examination of the obtaining and use of cadavers for medical study. The story takes the reader on an illuminating ride through history and conflict.
— Sharon Haddock
In the first half of the 19th century, many Americans, propelled by revulsion and religion, opposed the dissection of cadavers for medical research.
Enter J. Aaron Sanders, an associate professor of literature at Columbus State University in Georgia, and his debut historical mystery, “Speakers of the Dead”(320 pages, Plume, $16), the first in a projected series featuring the great American poet Walt Whitman.
Woven through this complex and fast-paced tale is a romance: Whitman and his estranged boyfriend Henry Saunders rekindle their relationship as they become more involved in uncovering the truth behind the murders. This tender, if a bit tame, relationship adds an important, humanizing layer to Whitman’s character, particularly as a young man beginning to understand his sexuality.
— John Copenhaver
J. Aaron Sanders’s debut novel Speakers of the Dead imagines how Whitman’s transformation might have happened. Set in 1840s New York, the book looks in on the young writer as he works the beat as a reporter for the New York Aurora. Investigating a murder, Whitman uncovers a bodysnatching conspiracy that leads him into the highest echelons of the city’s power structure and through a tableau of characters that includes legendary politicians, newsmen, and a very drunk Edgar Allen Poe. Five years in the making, Sanders’s novel brings this fascinating time and place in American history to vivid life and spins a gripping and gruesome narrative of how a close encounter with death transformed a young man into a towering artist.
— Joe Miller
Library of America
Both a mystery and a work of alternate history, Speakers of the Dead stars none other than Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman in the unlikely role of crime-solving duo. Below, Sanders recounts how a gruesome real-life nineteenth-century homicide provided the inspiration for his novel.
Walt Whitman left home in 1831 when he was 12-years-old to work as a printer’s devil for the Long Island Patriot. There he worked for a man called Samuel Clement, “a tall, hawk-nosed Quaker of Southern antecedents who walked village lanes in a long-tailed blue coat with gilt buttons and a leghorn hat” (*Kaplan 75). It is easy to imagine how Whitman might have viewed Clement as a father figure—his own relationship with his father was strained, and he was living away from home for the first time.
The Big Thrill
Before he wrote Leaves of Grass or became a famous poet, and long before he had a rest stop named after him on the New Jersey Turnpike, Walt Whitman was a newspaper reporter eager for a good story. In Speakers of the Dead, debut author J. Aaron Sanders has imagined Whitman as a young man caught up in a story of life—and death—as he reports on the sordid world of body snatching while trying to exonerate a friend accused of murder.
— David Healey
Walt Whitman is the central character in this thrilling historical mystery from first time author Sanders. New York City, 1843. Just over a decade before he would find his voice as a poet, Whitman is working as a reporter for the Aurora. A close friend, Lena Stowe, is about to hang for the murder of her husband. It is hoped she would be granted a stay because she is pregnant. But that is denied her, much to the delight of the crowd, which returns for another pulse-quickening scene towards the end of the novel. People do enjoy a good lynching. But Sanders is not just another thriller writer—he’s better than that. I was deeply involved with the characters and the period from the opening paragraphs. In his attempt to clear the name of the Stowes, the couple who together ran a woman’s medical college, Whitman is brought into the disturbing world of the Resurrection Men, the group making a lucrative living digging up fresh graves and selling the bodies to medical schools. This is a fast-paced, evocative novel that vividly brings to life nineteenth-century New York and the great poet-be. If you’re waiting for another The Alienist, this may be it.
— Steve’s staff pick
Mystery People Review
Sanders gives us a vivid and grimy New York of its time. Whitman’s scrappy and competitive newspaper world gives it a pace for a ripping yarn. The city has the feel of an enormous village who’s rapid growth is out of control.
— Scott Montgomery
The Longest Chapter
In the early 1840s, a young Walt Whitman worked as a journalist and wrote average fiction, poetry and editorials that, according to debut author J. Aaron Sanders, were “overwrought, sentimental, and derivative.” Not much later, in 1855, Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass, poetry that upended the classical metered schema and now holds a place of significance in the canon of literature. Sanders takes a fictional pen to imagining what those gap years could’ve looked like. In doing so, he’s created a fast-paced, compulsively readable historical mystery set in 1843 New York City with Whitman as protagonist and sleuth. It may feel odd to think of the esteemed 19th century literary figure as a young journalist pursuing truth in a murder case, but it works, and tremendously well.
— Kassie Ross
The Rap Sheet
Pierce’s pick:However, the vast majority of responsibilities in these pages fall to Whitman himself, who proves quite capable of handling not only protesters fiercely opposed to anatomical dissection of cadavers at the women’s college (for they fear their loved ones will be deprived of “resurrection” if they’re missing body parts), but also short-sighted superiors, obdurate lawmen, and the occasional knife-wielding assailant. (In an interview in The Rumpus, Sanders says that “When I started the book I didn’t really understand Walt’s physicality. He was a strong, athletic man, and he did get into fights.”)
— J. Kingston Pierce
Pretty Sinister Books
Grave robbers. Ghouls. Resurrectionists. Call them what you will, the very name usually gives a reader pause. Any one of those terms will conjure up eerie images of creepy characters digging away in cemeteries during full a moon, the sounds of shovels hitting hard soil accompanied by flitting bat wings, hooting owls and howling dogs. It’s old fashioned horror movie imagery thanks to stories dating back to Stevenson’s The Body Snatchers and the gruesome tales of legendary grave robbers for hire Burke and Hare who when they ran out of corpses weren’t too shy of creating a corpse or two with a little murder. And then there are the legitimized forms of grave robbery that fall under the category of archeology which have already been touched upon last week (see review of The Mummy by Riccardo Stephens). Most of the stories of ghouls of this sort come from Britain and very few stories of grave robbers have their origins in the US. J. Aaron Sanders now brings us a brief history of the grave robbers of 19th century America in Speakers of the Dead.
Murder By the Book
1843, New York City… Walt Whitman is a young reporter trying to clear the names of two friends wrongly accused of murder. Whitman finds himself up against corrupt sheriffs, body snatchers, and a public terrified of having their remains stolen after death. This debut is the perfect mix of Lyndsay Faye’s trilogy and C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries. I really enjoyed this debut and can’t wait to see what Sanders does with the series.
Crime Fiction Lover
Despite the high melodrama and constant diet of carved up corpses, Speakers of the Dead is an entertaining read. Should the fictional Whitman take time out from his writing to solve another crime, I shall look forward to reading how he gets on.
— David Prestidge
Carole’s Random Life
Wow! I am kind of shocked by how much I ended up enjoying this book. I grabbed this book to review without a lot of thought. I later looked at it and wondered what the heck I had been thinking. I don’t read poetry. Ever. Ok…I was forced to read some poetry in both high school and college but since then my poetry reading has been limited to greeting cards. In other words, Walt Whitman was not any kind of draw for me. My distaste for poetry didn’t even matter because you don’t have to know anything about Mr. Whitman to enjoy this book. It might even be better that I didn’t know a thing about the man to be honest because I could just go along with this fictionalized version of him without any difficulties.
— Carole Wooten
Books and Things
I have to admit that at first I wasn’t happy to have Walt Whitman as this character. It just didn’t mesh with the picture in my head. However, reading the notes by the author at the end really brought it to clarity for me. He tells that he took an aspect of Walt’s life and then built a mystery around it. It made so much more sense to me and really changed how I saw this book.
Making Good Stories
As a student of literature, I always find it fascinating to take a relatively well-known literary figure and create a new story of their lives. The narrative is an interesting take on a young Walt Whitman as he develops and finds his voice. A bit rough and tumble with crime bosses running the government, preventing justice for the common folk, the story moves quickly and follows some decent (not so) surprising developments in the case. The incorporation of medical advancement via dissection was a good way to ground the novel into the time period it’s written to be in, as well as the realities that we are affronted with so often in contemporary crime shows.
Live Love Books Blog
I was intrigued with the story line of the young Walt Whitman. Before I knew it, I was turning page after page to finish it. J, Aaron Sanders brings to life all the classic authors we have grown to love in a new light. They may have not have lived the humdrum existence we imagined.
When you begin reading you see Walt being a champion for the right for women to become doctors. But this requires something much darker, the act of buying corpses from grave robbers. In 1843, you can only imagine how the religious community reacted to this. Soon Walt begin losing his friends and the ones he love. Can he bring down the dark underworld of corpse sales and the government of New York City that is protecting them?
Once you start this book, you will have to finish it.
Bookchat | Chat Sach
I do realize that this book is a work of fiction, but I’m glad someone like J. Aaron Sanders did spend the time to research to make a good blend for facts and fiction into this wonderful work.
Escape With Dollycas
J. Aaron Sanders takes a tragic time in history, bodies being snatched from their graves, and twists it just right with a young Walt Whitman on a quest for justice. Lena Stowe has been accused of killing her husband with not much evidence. Her friend Walt Whitman tries to plead her case but is unsuccessful the Lena is hanged in the prison yard. You need to know about Lena and her husband Abraham. They have opened the Woman’s Medical College of Manhattan. Scandalous because women are not allowed to be doctors and because the students dissect corpses to learn about the workings of the body. These corpses may have been donated to the college or stolen from graves and sold to the school. In those days people believed their loved one could only ascend to heaven if their bodies and organs were intact. There were rallies and demonstrations to close the school and to stop the body snatchers. There was also a bill, the Bone Bill, something the Stowe’s supported, in the works that put an end to the body’s snatchers altogether.
This was a truly riveting story. Organ donation and cadavers used for study is common place today, but in 1843 it was a sin and illegal. Walt knows his friend Lena, did not kill her husband and knows there is some deep dark secrets behind the story. He uses the resources he has available writing for the newspaper to ask questions and print articles that will incite the public and help him find the truth. This truth comes at a very high cost.
Meaghan Walsh Gerard
In the muddy, soot-blackened days of early Manhattan, a tiny cabal of scientists pushes for the advancement of medicine and anatomical understanding. A smaller group runs a dangerous underground business in procuring dead bodies. And the general public is disgusted by them all.
Walt Whitman, cub reporter for the Aurora newspaper is both friend to the women’s medical college and curious about the grave robbing trade. His research for an article turns up more than he bargained for. He uncovers a nefarious gang, corrupt city officials, false convictions and more.
The book is purely a work of fiction, though it features real figures. Whitman, of course, is still thrashing about in search of his true calling. He makes rash decisions, ignoring the warnings of those who care about him.
Elizabeth Blackwell, a real pioneer in medicine and a supporter of female doctors, also figures prominently in the story, though very little of what’s depicted in the book actually happened to her.
Pulp Fiction Reviews
“Speakers of the Dead,” is a fast paced mystery to rank with the best this reviewer has ever enjoyed. Sanders effortlessly propels his protagonist through the streets of a past New York that comes to life in his prose. His characters are complex, vulnerable and brave Whitman emerges in a whole new light for those of us who struggled with his works long ago in high school. This is a Walt Whitman who is very much the symbol of a country undergoing growing pains and aspiring to be something ever grander than its origins. Pick up this book and get ready to be entertained to max.
For the Love of Books
Reporter Walt Whitman has made a promise to exonerate a dead woman. Arriving in New York City in 1843, he attempts to save his friend, Lena Stowe who is to be executed for killing her husband Abraham. The sheriff refuses to listen to the evidence Walt has and Lena is hung. Now, with the help of lover, Henry Saunders, Walt will not traverse the dangerous underworld of the Resurrection Men. Providing New York’s medical colleges with dead bodies is a lucrative business, and Walt uncovers information that Abraham was working on legislation that would make the process illegal, thus sealing his and Lena’s fate. A rip roaring adventure into the seedy world of body snatching with one of literature’s greatest heroes in the role of detective. Meticulously researched and beautifully written.