Second in the Order of the Air series, 2013’s Steel Blues revisits the protagonists of 2012’s Lost Things. Henry Kershaw, a flamboyant plot-enabler, also turns up again.
It is two years into the Great Depression. Nothing President Hoover has done has helped. One of his measures, pulling all the air mail contracts from the small carriers and consolidating the contracts with just four large carriers , threatens Gilchrist Aviation, the small company run by Alma Gilchrist and Mitchell Sorley. Hoover has yanked their mail routes and Gilchrist Aviation is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
There is one faint hope on the horizon.
The Great Passenger Derby is a “no holds barred” airplane race, offering $25,000 (just short of $400,000 in modern currency) to the first team to deliver a passenger from Los Angeles to Miami. Winning the race seems well within the abilities of Alma and her husband, fellow pilot Lewis Segura. That leaves only the matter of the registration fee. There Alma can look to her fellow occultist Henry Kershaw for a bit of short-term financial aid.
Speaking of Henry, a brush with demonic possession hasn’t stopped him from shopping for interesting artifacts. The most recent purchase: a cursed necklace. Henry isn’t the only rich idiot with a desire for that necklace, which is where Countess Anastasia Rostov comes in. Stasi’s claim to the title as dubious as her claim to the surname Rostov, but she’s genuinely a medium and also an expert burglar. This combination of skills that makes her uniquely useful to Jefferson Lanier of the New Orleans Laniers, the family that originally owned the necklace.
Unfortunately, Stasi’s caper doesn’t go off quite as planned. Necessity and opportunity leave her hiding in the plane Alma and company are entering in the race. The team isn’t pleased to find their stowaway (not least because Stasi’s extra weight puts them at risk of running out of fuel somewhere over the desert). Their attempts to rid themselves of the charming burglar prove curiously ineffective.
And then there’s the matter of the gaps in Mitch Sorley’s memory and how those gaps line up so nicely with the period in which New Orleans was plagued by the notorious serial killer, the Axeman….
My review of the first book in this series proposed that a useful rule for people living in this particular occult universe might be “shoot all archaeologists.” The useful rule that comes to mind after reading this volume is “shoot Henry Kershaw.” Henry has boundless optimism about his ability to properly manage artifacts of DOOM and enough wealth to acquire said artifacts of DOOM. In the first book, he had no idea that the mysterious Lake Nemi tablets would pose any difficulties. In this volume, he has a pretty good idea what’s up with the necklace, so he doesn’t even have the excuse of ignorance.
I knew as soon as Stasi turned up hiding in the plane that she was going to end up joining the Gilchrist Aviation team in some capacity. It’s true that she’s not an aviator, but a Hungarian Jew with occult abilities and a troubled past  fits so nicely into Gilchrist’s gang of unusual characters that I figured Alma would find some plausible use for Stasi.
In the first book, Alma had to worry about the cops taking too close an interest in her personal life. In this one she encounters something a lot more dangerous; the press taking too close an interest in her personal life. Newsman Walter Winchell spends a good chunk of the book floating around the edge of Alma’s life like a hungry shark. Painting her as a bold aviatrix will sell papers, but so will stirring up a scandal over Alma’s unconventional personal life (as Winchell imagines it to be). It is not clear which option he will choose.
Alma and company are playing for considerably lower stakes in this book than they were in Lost Things. Rather than the fate of the world, it’s the fate of Gilchrist Aviation that is at stake. Rather than a demon who can hop from body to body in quest of political power, the occult item in this book is one that can be safely contained by sealing it away in a box . Perhaps counter-intuitively, that makes it a more interesting novel than Lost Things, at least for me. Save-the-world plots are a dime a dozen; cross-country air races are much less common. The race was genuinely interesting, the authors get good use out of their interest in early aviation, and it’s easier to worry about individuals than the entire world.
Steel Dreams is available in omnibus form for a very reasonable amount.
1: Large and well-connected politically, one presumes, although Scott and Graham don’t say that.
2: Her habit of basing her fabrications about her past on well-known Russian novels would be less of an asset.
3: Assuming nobody like Stasi comes along to open the box. And really, what are the odds of that happening?