The Traitor

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This espionage thriller is set in 1779, at the very turning point of the American Revolution, as Washington’s army teeters on the brink of collapse. A tightly knit core of American merchants, most of them distaff members of the Freemasons, decide to take control of the outcome of the rebellion in order to amass fortunes for themselves and their transatlantic associates. They wish to stop the Revolution from reaching its goals and to establish a more restrictive government that will better serve their internationalist mercantile aspirations.

Unaware of this intrigue, Benjamin Tallmadge, the head of the army’s intelligence service, sends Mattie Grove, a fierce individualist and violent antiplutocrat, to investigate the horrible killing of a British officer and his seamstress girlfriend, who had been serving the Revolution as spies against the English. Mattie’s investigation soon leads him far astray from the White Swan, where the murders occurred, and into the very center of the rebel power structure and the arcane mysteries of the brotherhood of Freemasons.

Sherman has created a slow but fascinating tale of betrayal and death set against the background of the Benedict Arnold-Major Andre plot to sell out the Continental army to the British General Clinton. The book certainly has its moments, but it is not very gripping or suspenseful, and Mattie Grove has such a shadowy background that the reader is never quite sure why he is doing what he does or why he should be so obsessive about it. Also, there are uncomfortable places where the American Revolution seems oddly grafted onto what would otherwise be simply an ordinary mystery story: a serious flaw in a novel which wants to take its very nature from the historical period in which it is set.