Saturday, January 1, 2022

Review of "Stonewall Jackson’s Elbow," by John Billheimer

 Review of

Stonewall Jackson’s Elbow, by John Billheimer, ISBN 1594144621

Five out of five stars

A mystery surrounding genuine fakes

  Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was born in West Virginia and is still considered one of the best generals the United States ever produced. He was accidentally shot by his own troops, which led to the amputation of his left arm. He died eight days later, and his left arm was not part of the burial.

 The main premise of this book is that J. Burton Caldwell was the president of the First National Bank of Contrary, West Virginia and after his death, auditors discovered that three-quarters of a billion dollars was missing. Since Caldwell lived frugally, there are no clues as to what he might have done with the missing money. Caldwell was a bit of a joker, so he had funded a Museum of Fakes and Frauds in Contrary. One of the attractions was what was supposedly the left elbow of General Jackson. That is really the only mention of this particular item, and it has nothing to do with the fundamental plot.

 Owen Allison is a civil engineer that has moved back to West Virginia from the west coast after his divorce. He works on a consultant basis evaluating traffic accidents for the county and he is friends with the sheriff Thad Reader. Allison is also the pseudo guardian of a boy named Jeb Stuart and the story opens with the two of them attending an FDIC liquidation auction of the items in the museum. Their interest is in the boxes of baseball trading cards.

 When one of the winning bidders is found dead at a traffic accident, Reader calls Allison to consult. Her purchases were not found and as the investigation continues, they discover that even some of the forgeries have value and that some that are labeled as forgeries are not. The plot thickens mightily when it turns out that some of the major players are not what they claim to be.

 There is also significant mention of the Oxycontin drug epidemic in West Virginia, it forms the basis for a significant sub-plot to the story. When there are attempts on Allison’s life, it is clear to all that there are very high stakes, much greater than the several thousand dollars of what appears to be the value of the items in the museum.

 The story is very entertaining, with some unusual supporting characters. Of special interest is a man named Underdunck, he makes his living forging signatures on items such as baseball cards. He is of course an expert at spotting forgeries done by others. He does provide valuable assistance in the effort to identify fakes and creates some to be used as distractors of the opposition.

 This is a convoluted mystery with several distractors along the way. The villains turn out to be well hidden in plain sight, eventually exposed, but not after some complex pursuit of the facts and fiction. It is an enjoyable story.

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