At age 20, Union Lieutenant John “Kit” McKittredge is seriously wounded while leading his infantry at the battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia. Recovering in a makeshift hospital in Glen Echo, he becomes addicted to laudanum—a remedy for his pain and barren surroundings.
Kit is later recruited as an investigator in the Office of the Provost Marshal in Washington. While working on bribery and theft cases, he’s drawn to the murder case of Anya Hagel, a prostitute last seen at the birthday party of the womanizing General Joseph Hooker. Traveling through DC and Virginia in search of answers, Kit observes the persistent realities of war:
“. . . [T]he Rebel artillery began to tear big holes in the ranks of the attackers. We watched them go slowly up through that killing ground, only to disintegrate like the Irish brigade in front of the stone wall. The raw wind tore through the belfry, bringing with it the faint agonized cries of men lying wounded along the path they had just taken.”
His inquiries lead him to Amelie Devereaux, a prostitute who was with Anya before her death. Kit falls in love with Amelie, who warns him that she isn’t as angelic as she seems: “Every whore has a story, didn’t you know that?” Eventually, Kit uncovers a conspiracy involving politicians and generals plotting to end the war and assassinate President Lincoln.
Mrazek—a former Democratic representative from New York who won the Michael Shaara Award for his previous Civil War novel—masterfully weaves fact and fiction. His characters’ hardships—particularly Kit’s addiction and Amelie’s conflict over her way of life—are poignant and well drawn.
Mrazek clearly has qualms about Washington: The Potomac is “a gigantic flow of infected mucous” and the only congressman in the novel is a crook. A general tells the politician that “hundreds of noble young men sacrifice their lives today while bastards like you go on destroying the basic values they are fighting for.”
Unholy Fire is a compelling look at the debilitating physical and psychological realities of war and a brilliant portrait of a time in our history.
Thomas Dunne Books