Finding the Funny in 17th-Century History

Finding the Funny in 17th-Century History

THE JUDGE HUNTER
By Christopher Buckley
335 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26.95

Christopher Buckley writing historical fiction? The departure from type calls to mind an old graffito on the New York City subway: “Allen Ginsberg revises.” But it’s true. After two decades of books like “Thank You for Smoking” and “They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?,” Buckley’s most recent publications are historical novels: 2015’s “The Relic Master,” set in 16th-century Europe, and now “The Judge Hunter,” set in 17th-century London and colonial America. And there will be more. His author biography in this book announces his intention to write novels set in the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, and concludes with this sentence: “Good luck with that.”

Writers with 18 books to their credit have surely earned the right to step out of their comfort zone, Buckley’s being satirical novels that skewer the vanities and hypocrisies of American commerce and politics. In “The Judge Hunter,” the satire is mild, for this is mostly a melodrama about a ne’er-do-well brother-in-law of the great English diarist Samuel Pepys.

Balthasar de St. Michel, Balty for short, is a real-life figure who does appear briefly in Pepys’s work. In the diaries, as in this novel, he’s the annoying hanger-on whom Pepys is expected to assist financially because he’s family. The year is 1664, a decade and a half after the beheading of King Charles I, and four years after Charles II has been restored to the throne. Most of those responsible for the king’s execution have been executed themselves, save two judges who fled to the American colonies. To dispose of his relative, Pepys arranges for Balty to take the job of hunting them down.

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Balty is a recognizable type: the bumbling, shiftless young man with neither talent nor accomplishments who ingenuously blurts out things he shouldn’t say yet manages via wile and luck to survive. He repeatedly escapes death and imprisonment, and once is spared hanging at the last moment. The story he inhabits follows the classic pattern of picaresque novels: With an associate named Huncks, he makes his way through the back alleys, mansions, forts and forests of colonial New England, meeting all manner of social and ethnic types — colonial governors, Puritan saints, Quakers, scoundrels, “savages,” merchants, termagants and lovely, sweet women. Unbeknown to him, his commission turns out to be a cover for global political intrigue, which doesn’t merely complicate the plot but also makes of it a lumpy pillow that must be twisted and folded to fit inside its case, the case being the historical record.

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