"Cornflower's Ghost" by Thomas Pullyblank


“Each day that week I sat at my desk, pencil in hand, intending to summarize what I knew about Theodorick Crane and Cornflower and arrive at some conclusions about their lives and deaths.  But each day as I set to work I was hit by a malaise that froze my fingers and numbed my mind, the result, I knew, of something more than a case of the midwinter blues.  My unease was partly explained by Langley’s death, an event that brought back dark thoughts and feelings from my own past: contempt for an uncaring God, jealousy for those who had not suffered loss, resentment towards a world that
seemed to offer no consolation.”
— from “Cornflower’s Ghost”

Some of the best detective stories feature a sleuth who isn’t really a professional investigator, from Miss Marple to Eleanor Roosevelt.  They are driven by their sense of morality and justice, and guided by a keen intelligence applied to the facts and feelings that they observe.  Tom Flanagan surely brought passion and perceptiveness to the case of history professor Peter Langley, who died in an accident — or maybe was murdered.  Tom is a graduate student at the fictional (but quite real-sounding) State University of New York at Clinton Falls and Langley’s teaching assistant.  He must take over his classes but is more concerned with the circumstances of Langley’s death and its connection to others on the campus and in the community.  The roots of Langley’s sudden death may lie in a parallel with events from the time of the American Revolution: the murder of a disillusioned revolutionary named Theodorick Crane and the execution of an Iroquois spy called Cornflower (actually a British sympathizer named Mary Strong).  Flanagan’s investigation draws on his talents as an historical researcher but also alienates those who might advance his career and could lead to his own death.

“Cornflower’s Ghost: An Historical Mystery” is narrated by Tom Flanagan and the cast of characters he must deal with at SUNY-Clinton Falls all seem to have something to hide, personal pains and resentments that make the present as mysterious as the past.  They include Martha Radisson, a college administrator who was once Tom’s supporter, her husband Harold, a powerful U.S. congressman and their niece Julianne.  The well-positioned Radissons are also descendants of Theodorick Crane.  Harold and Martha’s plan to develop a Revolutionary War theme park in Clinton Falls has drawn angry opposition.

This is the first mystery novel written by Thomas Pullyblank and it reveals many sides of his experience as a farmer in Fly Creek, NY, an Ordained Elder serving two United Methodist churches in Otsego County and an historian who teaches at SUNY Oneonta. The characters from the Revolution are fictitious but the setting and atmosphere of the Revolutionary War era are true to the facts.  However, in “Cornflower’s Ghost” the flow of historical fact often appears to be directed out of its natural stream.  People can make history in more ways than one.

Thomas Pullyblank joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about history and fiction, his work on “Cornflower’s Ghost” and the sequel “Napoleon’s Gold”.

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