Monday, September 17, 2018

Review of The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore (Random House, 2016)

New York, 1888. The economic war to light up America with electricity is raging. Thomas Edison is promoting DC networks and is aggressively protecting his light bulb patent. George Westinghouse has improved the bulb and is rolling out AC networks devised by Nikola Tesla. Edison is suing Westinghouse for a billion dollars and is running a dirty campaign through the media to discredit his rival and using the financial muscle of J.P. Morgan to squeeze his company. Westinghouse turns to a young, untested lawyer, Paul Cravath, a recent graduate of Columbia Law School to represent him. Cravath is ambitious and cunning and he’s willing to fight the hundreds of separate cases Edison has bombarded Westinghouse with. Cravath is playing David to Edison, Westinghouse and Morgan, but he’s tenacious and he’s willing to pursue every avenue in order to win at all costs, including the love of his life, Agnes Huntington, a celebrated opera singer.

The Last Days of Night is a fictionalised story of the battle for control of electricity and lighting supply in America is the late 1880s. There are a number of published factual accounts of the events, as well as biographies of the main actors, but very little about the lawyer at the heart of legal cases, Paul Cravath. Moore sets out to fill this hole through a story centred on the young man, who subsequently invented the present labour structure of law firms and held a number of important society roles. To do so he populates the book with real people and events, speculating as to what was said and done, though in so doing he somewhat alters the timeline for the purposes of the novel and also inserts events that never happened. He’s done this to compress the timeline and create dramatic effect. This is fine in terms of the storytelling, but less so for conveying the historical record, though the broad sweep of the battle and outcome remains. I find this recasting of history a bit unsettling, but parking that feeling Moore does a nice job of bring the characters and events to life and creating a compelling tale of corporate and personal rivalry, with a dash of romance thrown-in. The result is an entertaining and interesting read.

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