Will Byrnes's Reviews > The Last Days of Night

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
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really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, fiction, nyc, new-york-city

All stories are love stories. Paul remembered someone famous saying that. Thomas Edison’s would be no exception. All men get the things they love. The tragedy of some men is not that they are denied, but that they wish they’d loved something else.
Paul Cravath, a young attorney in late 19h Century New York City, is drawn into a battle of the titans, as George Westinghouse engages him to defend his company against a lawsuit filed by his nemesis. The amount demanded is staggering, one billion dollars. The opponent is one Thomas Alva Edison. Not only is he suing Westinghouse over the light bulb GW had developed, but he has launched 312 suits against GW. Good luck, kid.

Graham Moore - from moviehole.com

What is a historical novel supposed to do? It should explain to the contemporary reader how this or that historical event occurred. What happened? What were the driving forces behind making it happen? Who were the people involved? What were their motivations? It should also offer the reader a touch and feel for the place and time. What was life like then? What was different? What was the same? If we wanted a straight up history we would pick up a history book. Historical fiction is the spoonful of sugar that makes learning history go down easier. It helps if the era is significant. One could write about the drudgery of a serf’s life in the Middle Ages, but unless the serf were in some way involved with changing that world, it would be unlikely to be very interesting. It also helps if the characters the author creates, or, if presenting actual people from history, interprets, engage our interest. That interest can be positive or negative, but interest must be generated. Also, there is the problem of us as readers knowing how things turn out. It removes an element of mystery.

So how does all this flesh out in TLDON? The history is of a significant time in American, actually world history, the electrification of modern life. Gas lamps had been doing the job of illumination for a long time, but the fire hazard they presented was significant. Providing an electric alternative had been a goal for a long time, but it was only then, in the late 19th century, that making the switch became technologically possible, with the development of an efficient light bulb. The battle on which the novel focuses is the legal contest between Edison and Westinghouse over who will secure the very lucrative right to light up the world. Edison had based his bulb on work done previously, his genius being the application of an industrial mindset to the development of new technology. He employed large numbers of lab workers and tried out thousands of different materials, searching for a workable filament. Of course this did not stop him from filing his patent before that final piece was in place. But when Westinghouse, also aware of and building on lighting tech that predated Edison, had come up with a better light bulb, Edison sued. This is the central legal battle going on here.

Edison- from The Atlantic

There is a second, very much related, bit of technology that is illuminated. Edison’s lightbulbs, and sundry devices, were all built to use direct current. Think your flashlight. But that tech came with significant limitations. Because, with direct current, DC, a way had yet to be found to sustain a power level beyond a minimal distance, the source would always have to be near the destination. What that would require, infrastructure-wise, was the installation of small power plants everywhere. Not a big deal if one were powering, say, lighting in a mansion, but quite another if one aspired to lighting a city. Thankfully, there was another way. Alternating Current, or AC, was a technology that had been thought to be unusable for large scale power, but a way was found, by one of the great inventive geniuses of all time, a Serbian émigré named Nikola Tesla. Tesla had worked for Edison, but had issues with the boss. When he left, GW snapped him up. Of course, Tesla would fit very nicely into at least one of our notions of a mad scientist. Not that he had evil designs on anyone, or imagined ruling the world. It was more along the lines of him being actually barking. I have not read a biography of Tesla, so have no basis for comparison, but I thought the gibbering Tesla depicted here might be a bit over the line. Of course maybe he was really that strange. In any case, Tesla as depicted is a pretty over-the-top (Sasha Baron Cohen pops to mind) character.

The book has the feel of a screenplay, where most of the storytelling is external. There are some internal looks, but it is clear that the author’s talent lies in the visible. I had the feeling that this book was intended to be a film, and was not at all surprised to see, not only that it had already been optioned for film, but that the lead had already been cast. I wondered if the author, the academy-award-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game, actually began with a screenplay, then expanded it into a book, as opposed to the usual sequence. Turns out not so much. According to Moore, it was intended to be a novel all the while. He was writing it while filling down time on the set of The Imitation Game, and only after it was more or less finished (on final edits) did some folks close to him (and given his primary line of work we presume them to be cinema sorts) suggest that it would make a wonderful film. I am not sure I actually believe this, but you can read the tale in his blog.

Young Paul Cravath, of the Tennessee Cravaths, and late of law school, is the link that binds all the parts together, Edison’s bullying, Westinghouse’s manipulations, and Tesla’s genius. In addition to the marquis names, Paul Cravath was a real person, and the telling of this tale reflects broad truth about the events that transpired. Cravath was extremely young to have been put in charge of such a monumental challenge. He is portrayed as a charming young man, with an interesting family history (Dad having been instrumental in setting up Fisk University, a school for Negroes) and a short fuse when the venal rich proclaim their bigotry in his company. It is his spirit that presumably appeals to GW. He is clever and decent, and you can go right ahead and imagine Paul with the face of Eddie Redmayne, as the Academy Award winning actor has already been signed to play the role.

Cravath (well after the events depicted in this book) and Redmayne

Ya can’t have a modern American novel without some sort of love interest, and Moore checks that box, in the form of toast-of-the-town opera singer, Agnes Huntington, another person pulled from the pages of history.

So we have a Goliath vs Goliath battle going on, mostly (although not entirely) being waged in courtrooms and in the arena of public opinion. I suppose one could see Paul as a David, but he had resources behind him that would fill quite a few slings. Neither of the primary combatants comes off too well. There is a bit of mortal peril to spice up the moral equivalent.

George Westinghouse - from the Old Post-Gazette

One of the spiffy things about the novel is that Moore looks at the sausage making of how public opinion was manipulated. Given how the media has been covering the current election, I would guess that not much has changed. And he looks at how power was held and connections were made. This definitely enriches the read. His portrayal of the social scene in NYC is fun. Calling in large personalities like Stamford White and Alexander Graham Bell for a bit of sideshow work adds spark as well. And JP Morgan plays a crucial role in the final chapters. Details of the era inform the sometimes carnival-like atmosphere. For instance, that there was no bar-exam requirement for practitioners of the law. The demonstrations by Edison’s people trying to show the dangers of A/C are chilling, and very much reality based.

Moore also notes events and changes that were afoot, if not yet realized. Bell, for example, mentions in passing some guys in Ohio who are working on a flying machine.

Last Days of Night tells a story of a time, the people who were involved, the challenges they faced, and the events that took place. It does it quite well. Using Cravath as the link to all was an excellent, workable approach. Events take place that you can see and hear. Which is what one would expect from a writer who makes his living writing screenplays. Nothing wrong with that. But while the fast-moving battles and intrigues keep the current flowing, there is another element to the book.

Moore looks not only at what his characters do (what the historical characters did) but at what motivates them. While it may be that one’s driving forces cannot always be reduced to a phrase, Moore gives it a go. I have no idea if his analysis of the actors is accurate, but it is certainly interesting, and prompts one to consider what motivates contemporary figures in the public eye. It is this as much as anything that raises the book a notch. He uses quotes from contemporary tech all-stars, which highlights the permanence of some of these concerns.

Nikola Tesla

I have a few gripes about the book, of course. Whenever Moore wanted to introduce some historical exposition, he uses the “Paul was thinking…” or “Paul was remembering…” mechanism too often, which seemed a bit heavy-handed. Definitely takes one out of the story. Characters appear to travel considerable distances with relentless ease. Scene One here, fade to black, Scene two there. One might be forgiven for wondering if they were flying before the Wright Brothers had had their way with Kitty Hawk, or maybe they had a spare TARDIS on hand. God knows, Tesla could probably have invented one. Also, I was a bit tepid about Paul. He was appealing, but maybe not appealing enough. Casting Redmayne should take care of that nicely for the film version. Dates have been changed to streamline story-telling, but the gist appears to be generally true. Moore included in his site a wonderful side-by-side look at where his time sequence diverges from the historical timeline.

But aside from that, Moore delivers. This is a fun, inventive read, one that casts considerable light on a process that was a lot more complicated than connect plug A to socket B, one that is little known to modern readers. You are likely to get a charge out of this one, whether you read it using the direct current of an electronic device, or the lumens cast by A/C–powered light bulbs. The Last Days of Night shines brightly indeed.

Publication Date – August 16, 2016

Review posted – September 16, 2016

The publisher was kind enough to send along a copy for review consideration.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, and FB pages

Some facts about Edison

Wiki on George Westinghouse

Wiki for Paul Cravath

Songs –
-----You Light up My Life - Debby Boone
----- The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades - Timbuk 3
----- Light Up The World - Glee

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Reading Progress

September 5, 2016 – Started Reading
September 5, 2016 – Shelved
September 11, 2016 – Finished Reading
September 15, 2016 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
June 9, 2018 – Shelved as: fiction
May 5, 2019 – Shelved as: nyc
May 5, 2019 – Shelved as: new-york-city

Comments Showing 1-26 of 26 (26 new)

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message 1: by Henry (new)

Henry Avila Brilliant review,Will, Tesla was a genius , but what I know of him, a rather eccentric man...

Will Byrnes Eccentric would be one word for it

message 3: by Lynne (last edited Sep 16, 2016 02:41AM) (new) - added it

Lynne King Will, I agree with Henry. This is an absolutely brilliant review. The book does indeed seem like a screenplay but the individual who fascinated me was Tesla! But then I always am intrigued by "unusual" people.

Thanks for writing this Will - made my day!

message 4: by William (new)

William Amazing review, Bill. Thank you

Will Byrnes Thanks, Lynne and William

message 6: by Supratim (new) - added it

Supratim Wonderful review, Will !

Will Byrnes Thanks, Supratim

message 8: by Steve (new)

Steve Further proof of your review-writing prowess, I see. This one looks pretty darn good. When you mentioned J.P. Morgan, it reminded me of another strong piece of historical fiction that featured Morgan (along with others of the era such as Henry Ford, Houdini, and Freud) -- E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. I get the impression that Moore sticks closer to the real history, though, which is certainly not a limitation with a cast as interesting as this.

As for the movie version, I guess physical resemblance was not the primary goal when they chose Eddie Redmayne to play Cravath. But then people will likely say the same thing when I'm cast to play Kris Bryant in the dramatic recreation of Cubs magic from 2016 to 2021. (You had to figure I'd get a baseball reference in somehow, right?)

Sandra VonniessenApplebee It started slow but then picked up and became more of a page turner. I loved how he wove the tale!!

Suzanne Keetch Great review

Arielle Masters Excellent, thorough review. I read the book back in February and noted so on Goodreads but apparently forgot to review it. Your review reminded me of many salient points. Thanks!

message 12: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Arielle

message 13: by Fran (new)

Fran Great review, Will.

message 14: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Fran

Stacey (bookishpursuit) Great quote!

message 16: by Will (last edited Feb 02, 2018 09:14PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Stacey

message 17: by Tiffany (new) - added it

Tiffany Wonderful review, as usual. Your reviews are always so encompassing; it’s impressive.

message 18: by Will (last edited May 25, 2018 09:09PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Tiffany. Always looking to shed some light on the books I read.

Donna Davis Love your reviews

message 20: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Awwwww, thanks Donna. I love writing them.

message 21: by Renee (new)

Renee Godding You reviews are amazing Will! Always love reading them

message 22: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes All right, I’m starting to blush now.

message 23: by Regina (new) - added it

Regina Wilson Fantastic review, as always.

message 24: by Will (last edited Sep 18, 2018 09:02PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Regina

Ms.pegasus Great review. You articulate the misgivings I had about his depiction of Paul Cravath as a character: "appealing but maybe not appealing enough." It took a while for me to accept him as a character rather than a literary device to permit a third person viewpoint of the titans. Unlike you, I found his portrayal of Tesla the pivotal character of the book. To me Tesla was intriguing rather than "over the top." Your review covers all the bases: turn of the century New York, the attention to motivation, and the deft approach to introducing romance.

message 26: by Will (last edited Nov 29, 2019 09:02PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Pat. Sadly, there is no new intel on when we might be able to see a film of it.

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