The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The characters are not built on psychological depth but are of the stock types that people the gothic mystery genre. However, Doctorow goes beyond mere stereotypes to add the ambiguity of a postmodern mystery. McIlvaine, the editor of The Telegram, is the narrator, and he is absorbed in the narration of the story. His work is his life, and the freelance reporters who work for him make up his only family. He is a confirmed bachelor whose one marriage prospect died of heart failure. He is also an elderly man recollecting the one story on which he never got his “exclusive.” This sets up an ironic distance in the narrative, as McIlvaine claims that memory distorts and notes that his tale might arise out of his own insanity, though he tries to assure the reader that he is thought of as sane. Though he tries to maintain the detachment of a reporter, he finds himself involved in the tale he is telling. Yet McIlvaine is only one of the novel’s alienated heroes.

Martin Pemberton, who wears a great Union Army coat, sees the objects of the Civil War only as modes of fashion. He is a cynical, acerbic young man who writes scathing reviews of potboilers and reports on the fashion of the wealthy ladies whom he detests. He wrote a scathing exposé of his father’s underhanded business practices that led to his being disinherited. His shaky engagement presents only a glimmer of a close attachment. His quest for his dead father reveals only his ambivalent feelings.

Edmund Donne fulfills the role of the detective in a sort of Sherlock Holmes/ Doctor Watson combination with McIlvaine. Like McIlvaine, Donne too is...

(The entire section is 668 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

There are shadowy characters in keeping with the mystery of Doctorow's novel, The Waterworks, and more conventional figures in pursuit...

(The entire section is 342 words.)