With a snowstorm bearing down, an elderly widow and a CIA agent are murdered on a Delaware estate. What Margaret Quinn knew, and who prevented her from telling Roy Howard, forms the core of Susan Bacon’s espionage novel The History Teacher.
Set in 1978 and the post-World War II era, Bacon’s tale straddles multiple plot lines, locations up and down the I-95 corridor, and features a cast of conspirators, intelligence agents, industrialists, and academics, all with hidden alliances and dubious motives.
Trust no one, question everything
Except Emma Quinn, Margaret’s granddaughter and only survivor, who teaches history at Columbia University and is summoned home. Her grandmother’s death initially appears to have been due to a fall on slippery ground, until federal agents show up. The focus then shifts to the family’s involvement, decades before, with Balfour Chemical, a Delaware company with close ties to the military, where both Margaret’s late husband James and son-in-law were employed.
As the inheritor of the estate and presumably, any secrets Margaret intended to share, Emma knows little of her own heritage. Her parents died when she was a child, after which she lived with her grandfather and troubled, distant grandmother Margaret. As Emma seeks information, she’s pursued by a posse of allies and adversaries who want to know why Margaret contacted the CIA.
Bacon parcels out clues, some of them designed to misdirect. James Quinn’s papers are stolen the night of the murders, and the estate had been wiretapped for years. Balfour Chemical was long suspected of providing weapons to Germany in the lead-up to both World Wars. During World War II, James Quinn was involved in development of the atomic bomb and later, played a role in the investigation of accused communist Alger Hiss. And when Emma returns to Columbia, up pops a visiting scholar who coincidentally is an expert on the Hiss case.
Consider the source
Everyone except Emma seems suspicious, and the victim herself may have been delusional.
Margaret Quinn had a history of depression, apparently due to bipolar disorder, during episodes of which she was confined to her bedroom and prevented from reading newspapers. When well, she consumed the news obsessively, clipping and saving seemingly unrelated articles. The practice may have been a manifestation of her mental illness, or a way of validating accurate suspicions related to Balfour Chemical.
Margaret is the book’s most fully developed character and the true history teacher of the proceedings. We meet her in a diary Emma finds, in which Margaret described not only personal struggles, but the internal workings of the family Emma barely knew, and observations on life in postwar America.
Time is relative
There’s a lot to track in The History Teacher, which vividly recreates historic periods but suffers from too many thinly drawn characters. Those familiar with American involvement on the world stage as the Soviet threat emerged will best appreciate the action. Descriptions of Delaware and veiled references to DuPont will resonate with local readers.
On paper, the 1970s now seem as remote as the 1950s. At a critical moment, Emma must find a phone booth. She visits the library to consult newsreels and microfilm. The Quinn telephone lacks an answering machine, and the estate has no security system. And the key to all of the intrigue is recorded in a little black book. These details are The History Teacher’s most enjoyable feature.
What, When, Where
The History Teacher, by Susan Bacon. Memphis/Austin: Porter Street Press, 2019. 331 pages, softcover; $14.95; E-book $3.99. Click here.