A crisis or two ago, Rebecca West enjoyed a posthumous revival. As Yugoslavia disintegrated and its fragments collapsed into the hell of ethnic cleansing, her immense travelogue-cum-history of the South Slavs, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), became the book to read -- or at least be seen with. But A Train of Powder (1955), a collection of her reportorial essays on trials and crime, not only showcases West at her most passionately perceptive, it's also about one-quarter the length of the earlier colossus. What's more, A Train of Powder may be the most successful marriage of law and literature ever entered into.
With an explosive title adapted from John Donne, A Train of Powder centers on the Nuremberg Trials, that flawed but necessary Allied effort to bring Germany to book for its crimes during World War II. Her reporter's eye for detail serves West well here, from her vivid depictions of the unrepentant Goering and the befuddled Hess to her puzzlement over the refusal of a bull-headed German woman to believe that countless Britons bear the first name David without being Jewish. West's grousing over the hardships involved in judging the Germans lends force to her approval of the tribunal's ultimate achievements. "However much a man loved the law he could not love so much of it as wound its sluggish way through the Palace of Justice at Nuremberg," she writes. "For all who were there, without exception, this was a place of sacrifice, of boredom, of headache, of homesickness." West excised most of the headache and all of the boredom from her account, leaving the righteous fascination of watching former Nazi leaders confront the enormity of what they had done.
Two other pieces rival the Nuremberg sections. The first is the aptly titled "Opera in Greenville," about a trial that followed one of the last lynchings to occur in the United States. West begins by evoking the oppressive South Carolina climate in which the trial was held: "To sustain the life of a large modern city in this cloying, clinging heat is an amazing achievement." She revels in the Dickensian oddities of her dramatis personae (including a cab driver called Fat Joy) and the nuances of local pronunciation. A lifelong lover of all things American, she ends up treating the South somewhat more gently than might have been expected of an Englishwoman writing for the New Yorker, where the piece first appeared.
Second, there is the brilliant "Mr. Setty and Mr. Hume," which traces the unlikely connections between two English lives -- one riddled with bankruptcy and crime, the other so stamped by unaffected wholesomeness as to give off a kind of splendor -- brought into juxtaposition by the discovery of a headless and legless body on the English coast. Although the facts of this case are far removed from the crimes of state that otherwise preoccupy West, her account anchors the whole book in the firm soil of healthy human existence, set off against its feckless counterexample.
Our discussion of A Train of Powder can range from the universal (the philosophical issues raised by the Nuremberg Trials) to the particular (how well does West draw her sweeping pronouncements on human nature from the diurnal details that she reports?) and even to the personal (the author's stormy life). A cautionary note: A Train of Powder is in print, from the publisher Ivan R. Dee, but it may take some effort to get hold of it. If you can't find it at your local bookseller's, try the online bookstores, including abebooks.com, which when I made a recent check listed more than 90 used copies for sale. And please join me for an online discussion on Thursday, Feb. 27, at noon on washingtonpost.com. *