Suicide Notes

A trio of biographies inspired by the notion that society's true history is revealed as much by its victims as by its victors.

THE FATAL ENGLISHMAN: THREE SHORT LIVES

by Sebastian Faulks (Vintage Books, $14) THREE CREATIVE lights that burned brightly in the gloom of early-20th-century England—where blinds were drawn against artistic and cultural exploration—extinguished themselves in madness and self-immolation. Faulks sets out to learn why, and the result is three masterfully told narratives charged with mystery that unfold in beau monde Paris, during the air wars of Europe, and at the height of Cold War intrigue. The Fatal Englishman concerns three young men you probably never heard of who promised to shape the times they lived in but were instead indirectly destroyed by prevailing attitudes and institutions. One pursued fame as a painter, in defiance of his provincial roots. Another, an airman, wrote a book about the Battle of Britain that made him an icon of British guts and honor. The third pursued adventure in Moscow rather than a lofty chair in academia, where his open homosexuality rendered him both a beloved dandy and a monster among his peers. Faulks gains a fresh cultural perspective on an England emerging stiffly from the Victorian era into the modern world by gazing at it from the eyes of the doomed. Better yet for those of us who are removed from that period, Faulks captures frailties in his subjects that cause us to care deeply about them and walk away with an elevated sense of the interlock between human potential and the social conventions that guide it. He further livens up his storytelling by letting us in on conversations he held with living sources as he investigated the murky details of his subjects' deaths. Faulks doesn't make the mistake of arranging these men's lives in a neat bundle. He brings them to the page in all their painful conflicts, creating stories that keep in sight the vital personalities that were lost. Kevin Fullerton

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