Imagine the possibilities, if the intellectual Henry and William James of the east, were brothers to the villainous Frank and Jesse James of the west.
This is the premise of Richard Liebmann-Smith's farcical book The James Boys.
Working from the premise that the two youngest brothers of the east coast James family did not, in fact, die fighting in the civil war, but instead deserted, taking on the names Frank and Jesse and disappearing into the wild west, Liebmann-Smith weaves these two families together with the help of a free spirited young woman by the name of Elena Hite.
While on a return trip from a book tour, Henry James makes the acquaintance of Ms. Hite only to have their flirtations interrupted by the arrival of Jesse James, in the midst of robbing this very train. To Henry's surprise, he not only learns that his brothers are, indeed alive, but are notorious and about to take him on the ride of his life.
As an alternate history, The James Boys is a lot of fun. Liebmann-Smith takes these characters on a fascinating ride through 19th century America and into Paris at the height of it's artistic era. Introducing many historical figures, seamlessly, throughout the story.
Unfortunately, the seams not only show, but rip wide open when the author insists on noting actual biographical works, as he does throughout the book. This technique works fine in the introduction, before the story begins. And it works well again in the epilogue, once the story has ended. But, within the story itself, this practice only distracts the reader and sends one's mind into wondering, among the unfamiliar names, who is and isn't real.
This is Richard Liebmann-Smith's first novel and, even with this critique, I look forward to his writing another. I think he just tried to do more than was needed with this one. The idea, itself, is original and well written enough without the extra "gimmick" of noting his research.
Title: The James Boys
Author: Richard Liebmann-Smith
Publisher: Random House