The Brothers Boswell (2009)

by Philip Baruth

Samuel Johnson is famous as a literary giant in 18th-century London and author of the Dictionary of the English Language. James Boswell is famous as his biographer. James had a younger brother, John, about whom little is known except that he suffered from a mental disorder that affected him periodically.

Those details form the foundation for Philip Baruth’s literary thriller The Boswell Brothers. Nineteen-year-old John Boswell, nurturing perceived grievances against both his brother and Johnson, stalks the pair in London with guns in his pockets. The ambitious James had wheedled himself into Johnson’s life two months earlier. Flashbacks return us to the Boswells’ youth in Edinburgh and reveal how both brothers came to idolize Johnson.

For readers who love period details, the book is rich in the sights and smells of 18th-century London and Edinburgh. But the plot is less compelling. John Boswell, who narrates most of the chapters, seems too sane to be believably mad. The switches between London and Edinburgh are confusing. And as hard as Baruth tries to build up suspense, we know that The Life of Samuel Johnson wouldn’t have come about if James Boswell and Samuel Johnson hadn’t gone on living.


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