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“A rip-roaring page turner. A perfect read!” – Boston Globe
Meet the Pratt clan. Driven men. Determined women. Through six turbulent generations, they would pursue a lost Paul Revere treasure. And turn a family secret into an obsession that could destroy them. Here is the novel that launched William Martin’s astonishing literary career and became an instant bestseller. From the grit and romance of old Boston to exclusive — and dangerous — Back Bay today, this sweeping saga paints an unforgettable portrait of a powerful dynasty beset by the forces of history…and a heritage of greed, lust, murder and betrayal.
Table of Contents
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They always tell young writers, "Write what you know."
I never bought that advice, even at the beginning of my career.
I've always believed that you write what you want to know, or where you want to go, or who you want to meet when you get there.
So, in the opening chapter of Back Bay, I traveled to Federal-era Boston, to a banquet at Faneuil Hall, and I sat at the table with George Washington, John Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere. History records some of the details. I imagined the rest.
I had always been fascinated by the eighteenth-century city, a place of amazing intellectual and political ferment, a place where giants walked the streets. I had also just read Gore Vidal's Burr, which suggested that those giants were as human as the rest of us, and I wanted to see if I could humanize them, too.
And why not? I was twenty-seven, recently graduated from the USC film school, and trying to get into the storytelling business. So I was learning everything I could from the movies I saw and the books I read. I believed that if I worked hard enough and honed my talents, I'd soon be making a living by telling my stories and humanizing a few giants, too.
Call that confidence or blind faith or the arrogance of naïveté. But any young person who decides that they are going to succeed in any of the arts needs it. They need to say to the world, "Don't tell me the odds, because I plan to beat them."
I can quote from memory the first paragraph of the first chapter of Back Bay. That's how hard I worked on it, because I knew, even then, that I had to capture my readers right away, that the hardest job for any writer is to make a skeptical reader turn the first page. So I brought a character named Horace Taylor Pratt right to stage center and started him fumbling with his snuffbox. I wanted you to fix on him, because even if you didn't like him (and he's not especially likeable), I wanted to tell you, before he even opened his mouth, that he would soon be causing a lot of trouble.
And characters who cause trouble, or promise to, can get a story going quickly.
After that first chapter, I knew I was on my way.
But what did I do in the second chapter? All right, I'll admit it. I wrote what I knew. I took the story into the present and introduced a character named Peter Fallon, who might not be me but certainly made a good stand-in.
When Back Bay came out two years later, a critic said that it was not your typical first novel, which is usually a voyage of self-discovery for a young author. "On the contrary, this is a story of straight adventure spiced with mystery and laced with history." Nice. Nothing like a little rhyme to fix a good review in a reader's mind.
But if proving yourself is part of the voyage of self-discovery, Peter Fallon and I were both taking the trip. We both came from a Boston-Irish background. We both had gone to Harvard as undergraduates and done construction work to make a few bucks. We both had gone on to study something other than the law, which disappointed our fathers. I went to film school. Peter studied history. My father encouraged me despite his misgivings. Peter's father did not. But we both wanted to show our fathers that we could use what we'd learned in graduate school to make our way in the world.
Like Pratt, Peter is a fictional character, so he gets into a lot more trouble than I do. He's followed and threatened, but he doesn't let anyone intimidate him. He falls for a girl who rebuffs him, but he keeps coming back. He has to fight hand-to-hand four stories above the ground, but… let's not give too much more away.
As for me, I got to sit at a desk and dream it all up.
I started writing Back Bay in Los Angeles, in the stacks of the Doheny Library at the University of Southern California. I had written two movie scripts by then, both based on California history. They were big stories on broad canvases, the kind of tales that had transported me from my only-child world in a middle-class Boston neighborhood to exotic and adventurous places where the vistas were long, the gestures were grand, the women were beautiful, and the men did their best to hide their flaws behind their bravery. Think of a book like Nordhoff and Hall's Mutiny on the Bounty or a movie like Lawrence of Arabia and you get the idea.
One of my scripts won a fellowship given by Hall Wallis, the producer of classics like Casablanca. This gave me a measure of confidence, but no one wanted to turn my scripts into movies. Too much history, they said. Too expensive, they said. And my agent, puzzling over what director or producer she could submit to, actually muttered, "Too bad John Ford and George Stevens are dead."
Then one day, a producer said to me, "The way you write, you ought to write a novel."
And I thought, sure. I know how to tell a story. I can sustain a plot. I understand narrative velocity. I'll just do it in prose rather than in that strange mix of imagery, stage direction, and dialogue that forms a screenplay.
That was the arrogance of naïveté, squared then cubed.
But before I even conceived of Pratt or Peter Fallon, I needed a plot hook, a reason to put characters in motion. And I had an idea that that had been germinating in my head since I was a kid. Writing it would take me, at least in my imagination, to the place that any Bostonian living in L.A. would be happy to visit: that ancient city of red brick and monuments.
From the time that my parents first let me ride the subways alone, I had wandered the streets of Boston, felt its rhythms, and explored the places where its history had unfolded. And I often wondered why they named the city's most beautiful section the Back Bay. Where was the water?
I got the answer in a fourth-grade geography class: landfill.
It was said that Puritans arrived at the Shawmut Peninsula in 1630, fell in love with it, and promptly began changing it. They cut down the hills and dumped them onto the surrounding flats to create new land, culminating in a massive nineteenth-century project that covered a huge marsh, washed twice a day by the tides, in a layer of sand and gravel twenty feet deep. This marsh lay to the west of the city, or behind it, so they called it the Back Bay. And after it was filled, the architects went to work.
In the 1950s, our teacher told us that beneath the basements of those fine, old buildings you could find things that people had thrown into the landfill a hundred years before—trash then, archaeological treasures today. What, I wondered, if there were real buried treasure in that landfill? Twenty years later, when the movie producers didn't want my screenplays and I was not interested in returning to construction work, I wondered again.
The broad contours of the novel came quickly: it would be a two-century search for a lost Revere tea set that may have sunk into the Back Bay. It would encompass two stories set on converging tracks, one past, the other present… as if I didn't have enough challenges telling just one. But remember the arrogance of naïveté: if a single plotline was good, two would be twice the fun. It would be another big story on a broad canvas with plenty of big scenes—battles, sinking ships, subway chases—the kind of set pieces that drew me as a screenwriter. But there would be intimate moments, too, because any good story is about characters who reveal themselves through their small gestures and silences as well as their actions. And while human characters like Pratt and Peter Fallon would drive things, the city of Boston itself would be the main protagonist.
Back Bay has now been in print for most of the last thirty-two years, an eternity for a work of popular fiction. And Peter Fallon is still appearing in my novels, getting into trouble, getting out of it, and guiding us book by book through American history.
The enduring popularity of this novel has been attributed to many things: its unusual structure, in which past and present play off of each other with a contrapuntal rhythm that enhances both; its pace, because the conflict advances as quickly as the years fly by; its characters—Pratt and Peter Fallon and the rest—who know what they want and go after it, all else be damned. But I think that the book has lasted because of what it tells us about ourselves.
I've often imagined how green and peaceful the Back Bay must have looked on an August afternoon in the eighteenth century, with the westerly breeze stirring the grasses and riffling the water, the redwing blackbirds and swallows flitting about, and some eel fisherman working a spear in a tidal stream. I've also imagined how sinister it must have seemed on nights in the nineteenth century, with the wall of landfill advancing from the east, the wet surface of the mud glistening in the moonlight, and the scavengers going about their business. I have even wondered what would happen if those Puritan descendants tried to fill the Back Bay today. Would the Environmental Protection Agency shut them down over destruction of wetlands?
As the Puritans' City Upon a Hill evolves before us in these pages, as the flats are covered and modern Boston rises, we see how much of our world is a product of the past, how intricately and intimately our lives are tied to our ancestors' dreams and decisions—some of them wise, some foolish, and some as grandiose as the plan to fill a square mile of marsh, then build a mini-Paris on top of it.
We can thank those ancestors or blame them. But we should always learn from them before we move on.
That's what Peter Fallon does. So return with him to old Boston, a place that for him was both familiar and fresh at the same time, because I wrote what I knew about Boston in the context of what I wanted to know about it.
Boston, July 2012
Horace Taylor Pratt pulled a silver snuffbox from his waistcoat pocket and placed it on the table in front of him. He hated snuffboxes. They were small, delicate, and nearly impossible for a man with one arm to open. Whenever he fumbled for snuff, Pratt cursed the two-armed world that conspired against him, but when he wanted a clear head, he had to have snuff. This evening, he wanted wits as sharp as a glasscutter.
He slid the box open, took a pinch of black powder, and brought it to his nose.
"Father!" The young voice cracked, and Pratt turned to his son, a handsome boy of thirteen. "You're not going to sneeze in the presence of his majesty, are you, Father?"
Pratt looked around, his fingers poised theatrically just below his left nostril. "Majesty? I see no king, Horace."
Two hundred of Boston's most prominent citizens sat with the Pratts at a great, three-sided banquet table in Faneuil Hall. The gentlemen were dressed in their finest satins, brocades, broadcloths, and silks. The table was covered in Irish linen and laden with fruits and cheeses. Candles glowed against October's early dusk. John Hancock's personal stock of port filled crystal stemware. The guest of honor, seated between John Adams and Governor Hancock, was America's most royal figure.
"I mean His Presidency." Young Horace looked toward the middle of the table, where a hulking man with powdered hair chewed on a piece of cheddar while Hancock and Adams conversed around him. "You can't take snuff in front of George Washington."
Pratt leaned close to his son and whispered, "He looks rather bored sitting between those two Massachusetts magpies. I daresay he'd love a dash of snuff himself right now."
Pratt inhaled the tobacco and took another pinch in his right nostril. He closed his eyes. He felt the tingle spread through his sinuses. His mouth opened, his back stiffened, and he reached for his handkerchief. Before he could cover his face, the sneeze burst out of him, and Washington jumped as though startled by a British musket. Pratt sneezed again, more violently. Conversation stopped all about the room. John Adams shot an angry glance at Pratt. Young Horace slumped in his chair and counted the stitches on the hem of the tablecloth. Pratt sneezed once more, a final, satisfied bark. Then he blew his nose and looked around. Every eye was on him.
When Horace Taylor Pratt wanted attention, no discreet clearing of the throat or subtle shuffling of the feet would do. He glanced toward the center of the table. Washington was still staring in his direction, and John Adams's bald head was blushing crimson, the color of Washington's satin frock.
Pratt stood quickly. "Before John Adams, in the high dudgeon for which he is famous, chides me for taking a bit of snuff, let me propose a toast." He lifted his glass. "To the health of our Federal Republic and its new President."
"Hear, hear," grunted Mather Byles, the old Tory minister seated next to Pratt.
John Hancock raised his glass. John Adams lifted his crankily. And the gentlemen of Boston toasted the President.
Then Washington stood slowly and raised his glass to Pratt. "To you, Mr…."
"Pratt. Horace Taylor Pratt."
"To you, Mr. Pratt, and to all your peers in Boston. We certainly hope that your snuff comes from fine Virginia tobacco." Washington smiled, and everyone else laughed politely.
Pratt had introduced himself to the President. When he spoke out later, Washington would know him. He finished his wine and sat down as conversation began again in the banquet hall.
"I must offer Mr. Washington some of my English snuff after the ceremony," whispered Pratt to his son.
Mather Byles leaned into the conversation. "Your father may have bad manners, Horace, but he has excellent taste in snuff."
"The English know how to make it," explained Pratt, "along with most other things."
"You have such admiration for British craftsmanship," said Byles, "I sometimes wonder that you weren't a Tory."
"Reverend, fourteen years ago, the British Crown stood between me and a fortune. Had men like me remained loyal, the British would still be here, and I'd still be poor."
"You'd still have your left arm."
"A small price to pay." Pratt smiled, but he showed no pleasure. His deep-set eyes and prominent nose gave him the look of a predator, a man who never rested. Although he was only thirty-nine, his gaunt frame had already begun to bow and his hair showed considerably more gray than black.
Byles looked at the empty sleeve. "You never know when you might need two arms, Horace."
"My son is my left arm, Reverend, stronger and more reliable than my own limb." Pratt wrapped his right arm around the boy's shoulders.
Byles looked at young Horace. "Does the boy enjoy being one of his father's extremities?"
Horace didn't notice the sarcasm. "I'm a Pratt, Reverend. One day, I'll take my place at the head of Pratt Shipping and Mercantile. It is in my best interest to help my father in whatever way I can."
"The warmest of filial sentiments," said Byles.
The sound of silver tapping gently on a crystal wineglass interrupted the conversation. John Hancock was ringing for quiet.
"Watch closely," whispered Pratt to his son. "Your lesson for today is about to begin."
"Mr. President and gentlemen," began Hancock, "you will forgive me for not standing, but the gout keeps me in my chair."
"Three days ago, Hancock was strutting around like one of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers," whispered Byles. "He has no gout."
"The silly ass is play-acting," said Pratt. "When the presidential entourage arrived, Hancock wouldn't visit Washington until Washington visited him. Some foolishness about the governor being sovereign in the state and the President merely his guest. Washington would have none of it and browbeat Hancock into paying the first call. To save his pampered face, Hancock announced that he was indisposed because of the gout. He had his feet wrapped in bandages, ordered three men to carry him to his carriage, and then from his carriage into the President's lodgings, where he visited Washington like some Catholic martyr."
"And the charade continues," said Byles.
"Aye. He wouldn't visit Washington's living quarters, but now he's about to kiss Washington's hindquarters."
Hancock was reaching one of the flourishes in his speech. "It is being said, Your Excellency, that men from Massachusetts and men from Virginia led the Revolution, and together we will lead a new nation into the nineteenth century. Let it be so. From the South will come abundant food and raw materials. From the shores of New England will venture forth the bravest merchant fleet the world has ever seen. And the commerce of the nation will thrive."
The businessmen in the hall, most of them certain that Hancock was referring to the brave fleets in which they had interest, applauded his vision. Hancock accepted the ovation as a tribute to his eloquence, nodded his thanks like a gracious monarch, and allowed the applause to last a reasonable length of time before tapping his wineglass again. "Gentlemen, thank you. Your generosity is too great."
"It most certainly is," squawked Pratt, and once again everyone was looking in his direction.
"Excuse me, Mr. Pratt?" Hancock did not like to be interrupted.
"I was agreeing with you, sir. Please go on."
Hancock glared at Pratt, whose gaze never wavered, then he continued. "You were last here, Mr. President, in 1776. When you drove the British from Boston on that day in March, you also drove from our midst Tories and British sympathizers who preferred rule by a monarch to government by their peers." Hancock sounded to Pratt as though he were trying to rouse the populace against a Royalist uprising. "Those who fled left behind homes and property which the state confiscated and sold to pay for its war effort."
"Most commendably, I might add," said Washington.
"Thank you, sir. However, we retained a store of Tory gold and silver, some of it in plate, some of it in unworked form. For several years, we were at odds over its best use."
"I agree with that as well," announced Pratt, but Hancock ignored him.
"Now, Your Excellency, as a gift from the people of Boston to the new government, as a sign of goodwill from the businessmen of Boston to the new President, this precious metal has taken form sublime. To present it, I introduce a great patriot, a master craftsman, and your fellow Freemason, Paul Revere."
Although Pratt couldn't stand him, Paul Revere was among the most respected men in Boston, and his peers greeted him warmly. He wore a brown broadcloth frock, tan breeches, and waistcoat. At fifty-four, he looked as solid, prosperous, and handsome as his own best work. He bowed to the President, then gestured to a servant, who wheeled a cart into the middle of the room.
"Welcome back to Boston, Mr. President."
"It's a pleasure I've long awaited, Mr. Revere."
"It's our pleasure, as well, sir." Revere rarely spoke in public and spent no further time on introductions. "Now, Mr. President, it is my honor to present to you and the American people a gift which it has been my greatest honor to create." Revere nodded to the servant, who removed the velvet cover from the cart. "The Golden Eagle Tea Set."
For a moment, there was silence. Even Horace Taylor Pratt was dazzled. The tea set seemed to vibrate in the candlelight as though it had been touched by St. Elmo's fire. The men of Boston were transfixed.
Revere had created thirty-one pieces of flawless silver in the Federal style: a majestic coffee urn with an ivory handle, a paneled teapot, creamer, sugar urn, wastebowl, tea tongs, serving tray, and twenty-four spoons. Expanses of shimmering silver, graceful lines, and delicate engravings offset the central decoration, America's coat of arms. On each upright piece, a small golden eagle, talons clutching arrows and olive branch, eyes ablaze with pride, spread its wings against a background of silver.
Finally, someone whispered, "Bravo!" and the applause burst forth.
"The inscription"—Revere began to speak over the ovation—"the inscription on the urn reads 'To President G. Washington, on the Occasion of His Visit to Boston, October 29, 1789. In Commemoration of His Victorious Siege of Boston, Ended March 17, 1776.' We hope that this tea set will remain in the President's House for generations to come as a reminder of our esteem for George Washington."
Washington stood and bowed deeply. "I accept this work of art with the deepest humility and gratitude. I am honored."
Adams rose and began a toast: "To our President and to Paul Revere…"
A single fist pounded into the table like a sledgehammer. Horace Taylor Pratt leaped to his feet, shrieking, "Seek the high ground, Mr. President! The enemy has surrounded you!"
"That man is out of order!" barked Adams.
"I will have my say!" Pratt slammed his fist on the table again.
"Be careful, Pratt. That's how you lost the other arm," cracked Byles.
Pratt ignored the nervous laughter that skittered across the room. "The hypocrites are praising your name, they're fawning at your feet, and they'll have their hand out to you in the morning!"
"Are you referring to the gentlemen of Boston, sir?" asked Washington.
"I'm referring to the men in this room, and damn few of them are gentlemen!"
Hancock jumped up like a dockhand in a tavern brawl. "Least of all yourself, Pratt!"
"A miraculous cure, Mr. Hancock?" Washington's voice dripped bile.
Hancock remembered his bandaged feet and sat quickly. "Such words are hard to bear, Mr. President."
"The truth always is, sir," yelled Pratt. "You have no gout, and that tea set is no memorial to Mr. Washington."
"This is an outrage!" boomed Henry Knox, Secretary of War.
Pratt's hand shot toward the tea set. "That is an outrage!"
"If Mr. Pratt sees no gentlemen in the room, perhaps by example he could show us the look of one!" cried Revere.
At the sound of the silversmith's voice, Pratt seemed to grow several inches in every direction. "You dare ask me to act like a gentleman? You see this, sir?" He began to wave his stump in the air. It was one of his favorite tricks. "I once had an arm, a hand, and fingers just like yours, but I lost them and a brother at Bunker Hill. You escaped the Revolution with nothing but a few saddle sores, yet you have the gall to ask me to act like a gentleman! When I am confronted by hypocrisy and stupidity, I do not act like a gentleman!"
"We have had enough of this rubbage!" announced Adams. He called for the guards, and three soldiers appeared at the back of the hall. Adams pointed to Pratt. "Remove this man at once."
"There is no need to remove anyone," said Washington.
"Mr. President, this man is speaking slander on everyone in this room," charged Adams.
"He is speaking an opinion, sir. He has the right to be heard." Before Adams could respond, Washington turned to Pratt. "Without undue display or unfair interruption, say your piece."
Pratt smiled and bowed. Just as he had hoped, he had Washington's support, and he had everyone else angry. "Thousands of dollars have been spent on that tea set, sir. Public money that might have been used to ease the burden of heavy taxes on men like me, or to help the farmers who rebelled with Colonel Shays, or to erect new buildings at Harvard College."
Hancock slammed his hand down on the table. "Mr. President, I must interrupt—"
"We will hear the man out," said Washington firmly.
Pratt was enjoying himself now. He glanced at young Horace, whose eyes shifted nervously from his father to the President. Pratt winked, and the boy looked again at the hem of the tablecloth. Pratt would explain it all later.
"Look around you, Mr. President," he continued. "You see nothing but Yankee businessmen and merchants, tightfisted citizens who give nothing away without expecting something in return."
"And in return for the tea set?" asked Washington.
Pratt took a deep breath. He was about to tap the anger of every man in the room. "They expect favors from the new government."
"Why, that's absurd!" announced Hancock, as he gestured for more port.
Now, Pratt ignored the Governor. "New England is the seat of American shipbuilding. The men of Boston hope their gift will put them in favor when it comes time to build warships for the new navy."
"Mr. President," protested Revere, "I donated my time with no ulterior motives whatsoever."
"Certainly not," shouted Pratt. "Your motive is clear. If the government smiles upon you, Revere and Son will make the spikes and sheathings and cast the cannon for the new frigates!"
Andrew Cabot, shipper and Revolutionary privateer, rose in anger. "Mr. President, this man makes a mockery of these proceedings."
Pratt laughed at Cabot. "The new government may consider imposing tariffs and duties on men like you and me, unless we appeal to its head with silver tea sets."
Two more stood to decry him, and Pratt could see the indignation rising like a spring tide.
"I am an architect," announced Charles Bulfinch. "Am I seeking personal gain by showing my esteem for our President?"
"New York City will not be our capital forever, sir. Perhaps the President will give you the chance to deface a new city with your monstrosities."
Elias Haskett Derby, another shipper and one of Pratt's chief competitors, spoke out. "Mr. President, I beg hearing. Horace Taylor Pratt is not representative of the merchants of Boston."
Others shouted their support of Derby, but Washington would not intervene. After two weeks on his inaugural tour, after two days of parades and tribute in Boston, he was finding this little controversy most amusing. He looked toward Pratt.
"I buy goods. I ship goods. I make money. Just like Mr. Derby," said Pratt. "But I curry favor with no man."
"Least of all the men in this room," cracked John Adams.
"Least of all the Vice-President." Pratt leveled his gaze on Adams and felt the anger overflow all around him.
"Dammit, Pratt!" Samuel Adams took the floor. He was the elder cousin of the Vice-President, the elder statesman of Massachusetts. "You're a disgrace. A damnable disgrace, and I demand an apology right now." He looked at Washington. "President's banquet or not, no man worth his salt ought to sit here and take this!"
"Hear, hear!" Andrew Cabot turned to Samuel Adams and began to applaud. The President's banquet erupted in ovation for Adams, in cries for Pratt's apology. Men pounded the table and stomped their feet like Colonials confronting the British tax collector. John Adams studied the floor and waited for the noise to end, while Hancock rang so hard on his wineglass that it shattered in his lap. Through it all, Washington stood, arms folded and face impassive, as though he expected every banquet in his honor to end with such display.
In an attitude of supreme disdain, Pratt fixed his eyes on the brass chandelier above his head and put his hand on his son's shoulder. The boy did not understand his father's anger, but he felt the pride and defiance in his father's grip. Instinctively, he stood.
The outcry reached its crescendo and quickly abated. Silence expanded to fill Faneuil Hall.
- "A rip-roaring page turner. A perfect read!"—Boston Globe
- "Spellbinding...Ingenious."—Cincinnati Enquirer
- "Marvelous...captures the reader from page one and holds to the explosive ending."—King Features Syndicate
"Martin's first novel is a clever and entertaining blend of history, family, saga, and mystery."
- "Martin has carefully researched the topography of old Boston and tidily balances his inventive plot with narrow escapes and stopwatch action, including a subway tunnel dig and shootout...a bracing brew for long cold nights"—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Apr 24, 2018
- Page Count
- 480 pages
- Grand Central Publishing