Review - Speakers of the Dead by J. Aaron Sanders @jaaronsanders @PlumeBooks

Speakers of the Dead: A Walt Whitman Mystery by J. Aaron Sanders
Penguin Publishing Group - Plume
Publication Date: March 1, 2016
Date Read: March 12, 2016
Source: First to Read

Speakers of the Dead is a mystery novel centering around the investigative exploits of a young Walt Whitman, in which the reporter-cum-poet navigates the seedy underbelly of New York City's body-snatching industry in an attempt to exonerate his friend of a wrongful murder charge.

The year is 1843; the place: New York City. Aurora reporter Walt Whitman arrives at the Tombs prison yard where his friend Lena Stowe is scheduled to hang for the murder of her husband, Abraham. Walt intends to present evidence on Lena's behalf, but Sheriff Harris turns him away. Lena drops to her death, and Walt vows to posthumously exonerate her.

Walt's estranged boyfriend, Henry Saunders, returns to New York, and the two men uncover a link between body-snatching and Abraham's murder: a man named Samuel Clement. To get to Clement, Walt and Henry descend into a dangerous underworld where resurrection men steal the bodies of the recently deceased and sell them to medical colleges. With no legal means to acquire cadavers, medical students rely on these criminals, and Abraham's involvement with the Bone Bill—legislation that would put the resurrection men out of business—seems to have led to his and Lena's deaths.

Fast-paced and gripping, Speakers of the Dead is a vibrant reimagining of one of America's most beloved literary figures.

My Review

Wow!  I am kind of shocked by how much I ended up enjoying this book.  I grabbed this book to review without a lot of thought.  I later looked at it and wondered what the heck I had been thinking.  I don't read poetry. Ever.  Ok...I was forced to read some poetry in both high school and college but since then my poetry reading has been limited to greeting cards.  In other words, Walt Whitman was not any kind of draw for me.  My distaste for poetry didn't even matter because you don't have to know anything about Mr. Whitman to enjoy this book.  It might even be better that I didn't know a thing about the man to be honest because I could just go along with this fictionalized version of him without any difficulties.

This story is set in New York during the mid 1800's.  The story really focuses on cadaver dissection and body snatching during that time period.  I love books that involve forensics or medical information so this story ended up being a great fit for me. I just found the whole topic to be incredibly interesting.  This was a period of great learning and in order to learn about the human body, physicians need to be able to see how things work by dissecting cadavers.  There was no easy way to acquire bodies legally so body snatching became a very lucrative business. The fact that the college at the center of the story was for women just added another layer to the story.

There is a lot of excitement in this story and I was immediately hooked.  There are murders to be solved and a whole lot of suspense along the way.  The characterization of Walt Whitman in this story was really very interesting.  Yes, this was a fictionalized version of Walt Whitman but I really liked him as a character in this story.  He was passionate about proving the innocence of his friends and saving those that he could.  I liked that he used the resources that he had to shake things up and try to get the answers that he was looking for.  He was willing to make huge sacrifices in order to achieve his goal often putting himself at risk.  I thought the feelings between Walt and Henry was sweet and felt very authentic.

I liked the writing style in this story.  The book opens with a bang and there were a lot of scenes that were action packed.  The action heavy scenes were nicely balanced out with others that really made me stop and think.  The descriptions of what was involved in taking a body from the grave and the dissections were really well done.  I really didn't figure out who was behind everything until the very end and there were some moments that I was really nervous for the characters.  It was really kind of fun to have characters show up in the book that I have heard of and I could help but grin at Edgar Poe in the story.  The historical setting was very well done and added a lot to the story as well.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a different kind of mystery.  This re-imagining of Walt Whitman is very thought provoking and incredibly entertaining.  Once I started reading this one, I really didn't want to put it down.  This is the first book by J. Aaron Sanders that I have had a chance to read but I am looking forward to his future works.

I received an advance reader edition of this book from Penguin Publishing Group - Plume Books via First to Read for the purpose of providing an honest review.

About the Author

Author photo by Ryan Krafthefer
J. Aaron Sanders is Associate Professor of English at Columbus State University where he teaches literature and creative writing. He holds a PhD in American Literature from The University of Connecticut and an MFA in Fiction from The University of Utah. His stories have appeared in Carolina QuarterlyGulf CoastQuarterly West, andBeloit Fiction Journal, among others. This is his first novel.

Author Links: Website | Goodreads | Facebook | Twitter


  1. I don't think I would have given this one a 2nf look because I'm not a poetry fan and am even less of a Walt Whitman fan but this sounds great! I love the sound of the setting - I had family that lived in that area during that time - and am super curious about seeing Edgar Poe. Definitely adding to my TBR

    1. Before I started reading it, I was dreading this book but it ended up being fantastic! You don't need to like Whitman at all. There is no poetry in this book at all. I hope that you get a chance to read this one.

  2. Oh yes! I've been seeing quite a few good feedback for this book. And while I read and write poetry, I can never reach the level of Mr. Whitman himself. Still curious about this retelling of sort though.

    1. It is highly rated on Goodreads but that doesn't always mean anything for me. I thought that Whitman only wrote poetry but I did look him up after reading the book and found that he wrote novels and did some work at newspapers as well.

  3. LOL! I don't like much poetry either, Carole so I might have passed on a story with Walt Whitman as the lead character, but glad you reviewed it. I love historical mysteries so I'll have to keep this one in mind.

    1. This story has nothing to do with poetry. It is such a well written historical mystery.

  4. This one doesn't sound like it's for me but I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

    1. I really did enjoy this one. I was only going to give it a few pages but ended up not being able to put it down.

  5. oohh.. historical and a different take on mystery and focus on cadaver dissection? Count me in please! I've never seen this book before but I must add it to my tbr now!! Great review, Carole! :)

    czai @ the Blacksheep Project

    1. I do hope that you get a chance to read this one, Czai! It was really such an interesting and wonderful mystery.


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