Book review: The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

The long-forgotten War of Currents'¦ when two of the biggest names in electricity crossed swords '“ and wires '“ in New York in the late 1880s, it sparked one of the biggest battles in legal history.

Wednesday, 5th October 2016, 8:28 am
Updated Wednesday, 5th October 2016, 4:39 pm
The Last Days of Night byGraham Moore
The Last Days of Night byGraham Moore

Electricity was still in its formative years and the two scientific giants behind its invention, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, famously locked horns both legally and personally over who would reap the massive financial benefits when the lights came on all over the United States.

At the heart of the hostilities between the two geniuses was a young lawyer – hired to take up the case for Westinghouse – and whose role in the brutal battle becomes the focal point for a brilliant and multi-faceted novel from Graham Moore, Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game.

This remarkable fictional account – the majority of it based on true events and featuring the real-life leading players – is a brilliant tour-de-force and will soon be heading to the silver screen as a major film starring Eddie Redmayne.

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Immaculately researched, brimming with skulduggery and subterfuge, and positively crackling with tension, The Last Days of Night is a brand of historical fiction at its entertaining best… a doorway into real, fascinating events from the past, a page-turning legal thriller and the stage set for a truly astonishing cast of characters.

In New York in 1888, gas lamps still flicker in the city streets but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy and the person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history, and a vast fortune.

A young, newly qualified lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes on a case that seems impossible to win. His client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question… who invented the light bulb and who holds the right to illuminate the country?

The case gives 26-year-old Cravath entry to the heady world of high society including the glittering parties in Gramercy Park mansions and the more insidious dealings done behind closed doors.

But the task facing him is beyond daunting. Edison is a wily, dangerous opponent with vast resources at his disposal… private spies, newspapers in his pocket, and the backing of J. P. Morgan, the wealthy and influential American financier and banker.

‘If you think you can stop me,’ Edison tells Cravath, ‘go ahead and try. But you’ll have to do it in the dark.’

Yet this unknown lawyer shares with his famous adversary a compulsion to win at all costs. In obsessive pursuit of victory, Cravath crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer both on stage and off.

As Cravath takes greater and greater risks, he finds that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem…

Moore weaves a seductive and enthralling story, a dazzling backdrop for an extraordinary literary odyssey which explores the nature of genius, the cost of ambition and the billion-dollar battle to electrify a nation.

In his Author’s Note, Moore reveals that his book is ‘a Gordian knot of verifiable truth, educated supposition, dramatic rendering, and total guesswork’ and this delightful melee has produced one of the most electrifying novels you will read this year and a clever, intriguing history lesson from an inspired and entertaining storyteller.

Fact and fiction in perfect harmony…

(Scribner, hardback, £14.99)