Friday, December 14, 2018

The historical novels of Beverly Swerling (1941-2018)

I was saddened to learn, via her official page on Facebook, that author Beverly Swerling Martin had passed away on December 3rd. The four novels in her City series (City of Dreams, City of Glory, City of God, City of Promise) are enjoyable reads for anyone interested in exploring Manhattan's history in fiction; they follow the stories of several families from the 17th-century colonial period up through the late 19th century. 

I reviewed books 2 and 4 for Booklist and thought I'd reprint those reviews below. Each book works as a standalone. What I remember most is included in the last line of my City of Glory review: "The perfect antidote for readers who mistakenly believe American history is either boring or unromantic." At the time, while historical fiction was growing in popularity, American settings were still uncommon; they were perceived as dull in comparison to novels about glamorous royal courts. Swerling proved that assumption wrong.

For City of Glory:
In this smartly executed, highly entertaining sequel to City of Dreams (2001), Swerling continues tracing the physical, social, and moral development of Manhattan through the stories of the fictional Turner and Devrey families. Nearly all the action occurs over 10 days in mid-August 1814, a critical period during America’s “second war of independence.”

The numerous characters, all fascinating and distinct, include a brothel owner, a sly merchant prince, an Irish ship’s captain, and a devious young widow, not to mention John Jacob Astor himself. At their center is Joyful Patrick Turner, a multilingual trader, businessman, and ex-surgeon who sets out to preserve the family shipping company, save his country from secessionists, and win the hand of Manon Vionne, a jeweler’s lovely daughter, in the bargain.

As the characters scheme among themselves, hoping to leave their mark on the growing city, the plot fairly gallops along, and historical novel fans will relish the bountiful period details of old New York. The perfect antidote for readers who mistakenly believe American history is either boring or unromantic.
(written for Booklist, December 15, 2006)

For City of Promise:
In 1864, New York City overflows with opportunities for those with foresight, acumen, and ambition. Joshua Turner, the hero of the fourth entry in Swerling’s enormously diverting saga, fills the bill. Manhattan must expand upward, northward, and underground to accommodate its growing population and their housing and transportation needs, and Josh doesn’t let his wartime disability stand in his way.

His marriage to Mollie Brannigan, a Macy’s shopgirl and spinster niece of an Irish brothel-keeper, unexpectedly aids his transformation into a real estate mogul. She is a savvy businesswoman, as he discovers to his dismay. With his motley associates, he harnesses the strength of steel to construct multi-storey apartment buildings and entices middle-class residents to move in, but old enemies scheme to bring his family down.

With a fast-paced, complex plot showcasing opulent Fifth Avenue mansions, Wall Street pandemonium, deals both fair and underhanded, and the rising influence of ethnic gangs, Swerling expertly interlaces the stories of a Gilded Age couple and their magnificent city. Compulsive reading that informs and entertains.
(also written for Booklist, August 2011)

Swerling's most recent novel was a multi-period thriller spanning five centuries in England, Bristol House, and she wrote other historical sagas as Beverly Swerling or Beverly Byrne. Many of her older titles were re-released as ebooks. Read more about them at her website.


  1. Oh I am sorry to hear this. I loved her books. She never got the praise deserved. Her research was so evidently thorough.We could all learn from her.

    1. I agree - her work should have been better known. She wrote wonderful books!

  2. I’ve never heard of this author, but the books sound amazing. I imagine American history would only be boring if you had to study it at school! Those of us on the other side of the world didn’t have to, so might find it interesting. ��

    1. When I was in school, US history was presented as a series of facts and dates (mostly about battles!) that we had to memorize. I found it deadly dull. The fact that it was nearly all about famous men (presidents, generals, etc.) didn't help. I grew to appreciate history more by reading historical fiction. If I'd read Swerling's novels as a teenager, it might have changed my opinion far earlier! I enjoy reading novels about Australian history, too :)