The Classic or Golden Age detective fiction convention is that you have a small group of people in a secluded place to limit the number of suspects. There should be an initial death. The series detective confirms it as a murder and we then follow the investigation through to its usually successful conclusion. If we look back to the time when this style of mystery really took off, the British were recovering from the disaster better known as World War I. In everyday life, a balance had to be struck between the sense of rapid social change and the need for stability. Britain was watching its Empire crumble as a new Communist regime emerged in the East, so it preferred a very predictable form of fiction in which stereotypical characters were drawn together in a puzzle situation and the one with murderous tendencies would be revealed (and executed). The author and the readers had an understanding. The puzzle would be presented in a fair way and the whole book would be entertaining. If the reader should understand the significance of the clues, he or she would beat the detective to the answer and would be delighted. If the reader failed to grasp what was happening but was pleased by the detective’s revelations at the end, the reader was happy. Either way the author emerged the winner in this “contest”.
In a sense, the keys to the Classic or Golden Age Mystery are the quality of the puzzle, the authorial sleight of hand to mislead the reader, and a reasonably fair chance for the reader to be able to crack the case before the detective. This means, of course, that the majority of crime stories written today are following in this tradition. The only differences are that, in most cases, the characters have more psychological depth and there’s a better sense of place for the action. All of which brings us to Capacity for Murder by Bernadette Pajer (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) which is the third mystery featuring Professor Bradshaw. I was particularly pleased with the last book because it represents a collision between history, science and classic detective fiction. This time, the history is less significant an element, but the science and detective elements have stepped up to the mark. Under normal circumstances, the introduction of hard science leaves me wallowing in heavy seas. Sadly my understanding of physics ground to a halt during the 1950s through my complete inability to do the maths. But these books are immediately accessible because I saw some of this technology in action as I was growing up. Both the mechanical and electrical engineering relies on turn-of-the-century technology and, for once, I’m wholly comfortable with it. Indeed, it actually inspires a kind of nostalgia. My grandmother had a copper boiler and still used a posser — a wooden device for agitating the washing while the soapy water heated. She would have benefitted from a scaled-down version of this belt-driven system for washing clothes.
Our hero is called to a distant part of the coast, northwest of Hoquiam, Washington, where death has occurred at the isolated Healing Sands Sanitarium. As part of the “payment” for his services, he’s encouraged to bring family, the man with whom he works as an investigator, and some students whom he’s supposed to be teaching. When they arrive, he discovers that the cause of the death is a machine he had built some years earlier. Electricity has always been thought to have healing properties and this is an early version of what we now call a Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) machine. He’s fairly quickly able to see how “his” machine was persuaded to become lethal and then it’s down to the process of deciding whodunnit and why. On the way, there’s some particularly fascinating insights into bioluminescence and its relationship to phosphorescence, the significance of sand, and the curious case of the cheese that went missing during the night.
At this point, I have to make a small apology. So far, I’ve been allowing you to assume the mystery does play strictly fair with the reader and, up to a point, that’s true. However, the ultimate solution depends on information Professor Bradshaw ferrets out later in the book. This suggests the motive for the death by electricity and leads to the final stage of the book which moves into straight thriller mode. I’m tempted to make a comparison between the Detective Murdoch novels and both television series based on Maureen Jennings’ characters. Ignoring the straight adaptations of three novels in 2004, Season 1, Episode 1 and Season 3, Episode 13 of the long-running second series involve death by electrocution and feature Nikola Tesla. Although set a few years earlier than the Bradshaw mysteries, both series rely on the appliance of science to arrive at their conclusions. The main difference being that Murdoch and Dr Ogden are principally concerned with forensic science and only incidentally refer to different technologies, whereas the Bradshaw mysteries are more narrowly focussed on electrical and mechanical engineering with only passing reliance of the new investigative techniques of fingerprinting and so on. Indeed, Bradshaw is slightly more cerebral than Murdoch in the way he works out what is most likely to have happened. On balance, I prefer the quality of the puzzles produced by Bernadette Pajer but I think Maureen Jennings is the slightly better writer. There’s a tendency for Ms Pajer to be a little Spartan in delivering the plot. I prefer a little more substance to the prose. That said, Capacity for Murder is distinctly intriguing murder mystery and well worth picking up.
For a review of the second in the series, see Fatal Induction.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Blood Lance by Jeri Westerson (Minotaur Books, 2012) is the fifth in the Crispin Guest historical mystery series. We’re off in time back to 1386. In Latin this was the medium aevum or Mediaeval Period which, because of its length, has been divided into different periods. For me, 1386 is in the Late Middle Ages, i.e. from around 1300 to 1485. King Richard II had been crowned in 1377, survived the Peasants Revolt and married in 1383 — Anne of Bohemia dying in 1384 without producing children. This novel finds the King caught up in tensions at the Court. John of Gaunt and most of the knights are in Spain although his son, Henry Bollingbroke, remains at Court. The are the usual stresses because uncertainty over the relationship with France and the mixed signals over taxation.
Against this background, our hero is accidentally in the right place to see someone fall from London Bridge into the Thames. Being of a heroic disposition, he dives in only to find the man dead. He’s initially prepared to believe the local opinion that this was a suicide but, when he takes a moment to reflect, he realises the man did not struggle as he fell. When he examines the body he confirms the probability of a murder. Final proof comes when he examines the room from which he was thrown. There’s clear evidence of a fight and the body being dragged across the floor to the window.
What follows is a highly entertaining mystery cum adventure story. Crispin Guest is a knight who chose the wrong political faction when King Edward III died in 1377. He only escaped with his life because of influence brought to bear by John of Gaunt. He now operates as a semi-official investigator, sometimes working for the Sheriffs or other high-placed officials to find missing/lost property or to identify criminals. He has a young apprentice, Jack Tucker, who in some ways proves less gullible than his master. In his defence, Crispin is suffering from a high fever during the early part of the book and so is not quite fully engaged when he first meets key people. This leads him to begin with the wrong impressions and, as we all know, once rooted, prejudices are difficult to shake off.
The balance between the historical information and the action is well managed. I’m not at my best with this period of English history but, so far as I can judge, this comes across as being credible. More contentious is the decision to deal with the issue of PTSD in knights. We’re all familiar with the notion that knights are men of honour. They swear oaths to one another and are punctilious in executing every last element promised. This also reflects a practical necessity on the battlefield. If you’re standing side-by-side with a fellow knight, you want to know you can rely on him to fight to the best of his ability until he can no longer stand unaided. If trust was lost, the vanguard would never advance confidently towards the enemy. Hence knights who displayed symptoms of cowardice would be weeded out and, if they could not convince their brothers-in-arms they were reliable, they would be given trial (usually by battle which would ensure their ignominious deaths).
The other thread of interest is the role of relics in a deeply religious community that believes in supernatural phenomena associated with these preserved objects and body parts. This time we’re looking at the so-called Spear of Longinus — the spear used by a centurion to piece the side of Jesus while on the cross. Because it’s covered in the blood of Christ, anyone holding the spear is said to become invulnerable. Whether true or not, the mythology of the blade makes it of “interest” to all the powerful men of Europe. In this case, a transaction designed to place the blade in “safe hands” is subverted by a knight tainted with the allegation of cowardice. If this person could secure possession, he would restore his honour both in court and on the battlefield. The man at the heart of the deal being brokered is the one who involuntarily decides to take a bath in the Thames. This leaves Crispin Guest with the increasingly dangerous task of deciding which of the many would have the opportunity to steal the blade.
There’s some nice misdirection from the author in the way we see each of the individuals involved. With the hero suffering from an increasingly feverish cold, he’s distracted when he should be focused. Although he’s not really an unreliable narrator — that would be a little problematic when writing a murder mystery — there’s uncertainty until the end as to precisely what he’s not seeing. So although I guessed quite early on where the Spear would be found, I was pleasantly surprised by identity of the murderer. It’s perfectly reasonable when you look back but perfectly hidden in plain sight.
I’m prepared to accept the fighting as a necessary part of who the hero is. Honour does sometimes persuade people to engage in dangerous activities. Although I think the book would probably have been as strong without it, it does provide a different quality of adventure about the entire enterprise. On the whole, Blood Lance is very good of its type.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I think it’s time to plunge into a minor thicket of incomprehension and talk about irony for a moment or two. I have it on the best authority that Americans just don’t do irony. In terms of humour, the American audience is usually driven by the gag and dislikes situations in which the listeners are not sure whether the punchline has been delivered and they’re supposed to laugh. I suppose that’s why they clap at the beginning of a song. This avoids any embarrassment in not wanting to clap at the end when they find out how awful the song is. The rather specific cultural omission of an irony gene is customarily explained by an alleged seriousness buried in the American psyche. It seems Americans want uncomplicated communication, not situations in which they have to work out whether what’s being said is to be taken seriously. They therefore reject most irony as tiresome sarcasm, characterising the speakers as rude. So why start this review this way? Well, the general rule is if you don’t know what irony is, it doesn’t help to read definitions in a dictionary. But I hesitate to leave America in the dark. Given its publication in America, I therefore offer Sharps by K J Parker (Orbit, 2012) as a good example of irony for Americans to study.
The author specialises in writing a form of alternate history fantasy. Rather than write straight historical fiction, we’re presented with a different set of largely balkanised countries either caught up in national accumulations or Empires, or sufficiently distinct to have retained independence. It’s not uncommon for some of these kingdoms to fight economically disastrous wars, not because the people have anything personal against each other, but because their ruling elites disagree over policy. In this book, we focus on Scheria and Permia. The last war was ended somewhat abruptly when Scherian General Carnufex broke a siege in Permia by damning up nearby rivers and then releasing a flood which drowned thousands. This earned him the nickname of the Irrigator. The temporary peace deal identified a DMZ. By an oversight, this zone happens to be rich in valuable ores. If either side was free to mine, the sale of the resulting metals would rescue the winning country from bankruptcy. As it is, both governments have borrowed money and are unable to repay. As and when the governments default, the banks will collapse and both countries will lose their appearance of wealth. This does not suit the “rich”. Even though they are all mortgaged up to their eyeballs, they see salvation in the resumption of hostilities. To provide a casus belli, the powerbrokers agree that a team of top fencers shall be sent by Scheria to fight exhibition matches against Permian teams. In all the foreseen scenarios, war will be declared.
Of course no-one from Scheria would go if they knew they were being sent to their deaths. So a team of expendables has to be recruited. It’s led by Phrantzes, a man of military experience and an ex-fencer. He’s aided by the elusive Colonel Yvo Tzimisces who, when he’s actually around, functions as a kind of fixer. The actual team does contain a current national champion. He’s Suidas Deutzel who’s desperate for money. As a result of his experiences during the last war, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has a tendency to behave in a rather erratic way. Giraut Bryennius was interrupted while making love to a Senator’s daughter. The irate father burst in on them and was provoked into drawing his sword. More by luck than good technique, our naked hero killed the avenging Daddy in self-defence. Iseutz Bringas is a rather bad-tempered woman who refused the arranged marriage that would have given her family a status enhancement. The price of this refusal was membership of the team. Adulescentulus (who prefers the informal name, Addo) Carnufex is the son of the Irrigator — his presence gives the team political credibility. If this is a peace mission, the son of the hated General makes a good sacrificial lamb in the fights. The latter three may, at best, be described as amateurs, i.e. they have never fought in competition and have only ever used foils and blunted weapons. It therefore comes as a shock to them when they discover they will have to use “sharps”, i.e. real weapons that can maim and kill. Naturally, anyone on the Permian team who draws Addo will be out for blood.
So there we have it. Our team of heroes sets off for Permia and fencing glory except there are problems even before they manage to get out of Scheria. At first these problems are dismissed. Their suspicions smack too much of paranoia. And even among themselves, they refuse to believe the General would have sent his son to die. What Addo thinks is, of course, less clear. In every way, this is a beautifully constructed mystery as the author challenges us to work out what’s happening while propelling us forward with breakneck speed into a series of fights both on and off the formal piste. The politics and economics are also skillfully interwoven so we can piece together who would have a motive for each move and countermove. The character development is also a delight as either confidence is shaken or cowardice is confronted. I forgive it for being slightly on the long side. When you look back, it’s hard to see what could have been left out without damaging the end product. All things considered, this makes Sharps something of a triumph and, as a standalone, you have no excuse not to read it (missing out on it would, in itself, be an irony given my opening paragraph).
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
An inferno of curiosity burned through my veins as I picked up this book. Would the purple prose sear my senses? Have I secretly been craving the sweet torture of reading interruptus, i.e. getting into the dark mystery between the pages only to have my wife walk in on me before the chapter is over? Well, against my better judgement, I talked myself into reading a romance. This folly comes from accidentally picking up one or two books labelled as being in the fantasy genre, only to discover they were actually romances in the old-school style. Finding them some what tedious, I thought it a good idea to read something that actually announces itself as a romance. Not, of course, that I want to make a habit of reading such books. But out of a scientific curiosity to see how far the genre has moved on since I last dipped my wick into some wax to make a candle.
For me, the main interest in Wicked Nights With a Proper Lady by Tiffany Clare (St. Martin’s Press, 2012) does not lie in the second meeting of our heroine and her ex-hero. There’s never any suspense in such events. It’s always obvious they will end up in bed with each other, either literally or metaphorically depending on the house style. Yes, the main publishing houses have formalised guidelines dictating what their couples can or cannot do with or to each other. Some permit only the most chaste of physical contacts while fantasies of clutching and holding dominate the interior monologues. Other allow relatively steamy sex scenes although, of course, the language portrays the intimacy in wonderfully euphemistic terms. I suppose the substance of what’s described could be taken as hard core pornography, but the language will always be suitable for very polite middle-class company.
Anyway, the real interest in the book lies both in its lack of real social commentary and in the viciousness of a subplot. Taking the thin subplot which deserves a lot more coverage, the Countess of Fallon is in a terrible marriage. As is always the case, the question of inheritance dominates the conversation both within the family and in the wider social group. There’s a form of consensus as to who should and should not take title and property when the dominant male dies. For those of you not into the intricacies of testamentary succession, wills can tie up estates for generations, dictating who shall have the right to take based on their full- or half-blood relationships to the original owners and/or the rules of complex trusts. The book opens with the funeral of the husband and the now dowager (Jez to her friends) is slowly shown to be ill. The explanation and its effect on the entail is a classic example of wanton cruelty. Since Jez proves to have some practical relevance later on, it’s a shame more is not made of this. Although, I suppose, it could all be left for a sequel together with the broader political question of the regulation and taxation of sugar production in the West Indies.
Looking overall, there’s modern tenor of disapproval about some of the other social customs of London society in 1846, with some implied commentary on the overt hypocrisy of the social set. I was disappointed, but not surprised, at the relative invisibility of the servants. The world described here was only possible because of the exploitation of the people in service. Yet the author is not intending to write a historical novel so I suppose we can pass blithely over the question of how the women of this class managed to get into and out of their clothes, got their hair to look so perfect, and so on. As a romance, we enter a kind of fantasy version of historical reality where everything is subordinated to the development of the love between the heroine and her man. In that sense, we have a not-unpleasing context for the “drama” between our heroine Genevieve Camden and our potential Lothario, Leonidas Harrow, Earl of Barrington. They had a sexual affair some four years before the book begins and it resumes about halfway through this book.
Given the essentially fantasy nature of the book, there’s little effort to write in a period prose style appropriate to Britain of this period. We’re simply given the usual run of sexually-charged euphemisms and purple prose in contemporary language. It was nevertheless more explicit than I had expected. It seems this publisher is aiming at a more adult niche of the market. Wicked Nights With a Proper Lady is therefore as good of its type as you would expect. As a summary: Leo gets steamy in the greenhouse with Genny and it was Col Mustard with the tongue in the maze with Lady H.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
One of the supposed benefits of my education was a strong emphasis on languages which, as was then the fashion, included both Latin and Greek. While nurturing the development of a rather intellectual way of speaking within the school, there was a necessary parallel development of a separate street language to minimise the bullying from the rest of the neighbourhood. To this day, I can still switch on the Geordie if required. One of the more pleasing idioms from my classical days was, “To pile Pelion on Ossa.” When the Aloadai were attacking Mount Olympus, they were having problems reaching up so high. Their answer was to take Mount Pelion and pile it on top of Mount Ossa, hoping this would give them the necessary height. Sadly, this epic construction project was a failure, albeit spectacular.
So this brings me to The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (HarperCollins, 2012). This is a very ambitious novel which takes a relatively conventional murder mystery and locates it in Louisiana with a setting in an old plantation estate, preserved as a museum and exploited as an upmarket venue for weddings and social events. A balance therefore has to be struck between a service to local schools in sanitising and demonstrating the circumstances under which slaves worked the cotton fields, and maintaining the colonial mansion and immaculate lawns to provide the right milieu for the upper middle class to continue flaunting their wealth and massaging their egos. A necessarily ironic juxtaposition providing the money to pay for the upkeep of the house and grounds, and to offer employment to many who live in the local community.
The book therefore straddles a number of quite different genres. A murder occurs which starts us off in the mystery category with Caren Gray, the manager of the estate, thrown into the role of amateur detective. She has a daughter and, during the course of the book, Caren Gray finds it necessary to contact the father of the child. This adds an increasingly strong romantic element. In a social context, the book also examines the way in which the cotton industry is now consolidating and discusses the impact this has on local communities. Because of the setting in a colonial estate, a counterpoint emerges as we’re invited to compare how the plantations were run using slaves to the current position of the undocumented workers from Mexico, El Salvador and other sources of willing labour. Indeed, the history of the estate becomes increasingly important as the book progresses so we acquire some more general social comment on racism in both a historical and contemporary genre style. There’s a political element and, of course, because the daughter may have seen or heard more than she should, it’s a thriller.
As a much-practised juggler, I was just about keeping all the balls up in the air as the book progressed, but one more element suddenly appeared. It was at this point, I lost faith in the entire enterprise. The golden rule when writing should always be that simple is best. Although an author can legitimately flesh out the basic bones of plot with the characterisation and detailed descriptions of the milieu, there comes a point when enough is enough. This book is a classic example of piling Pelion on Ossa. Just when you think the giants cannot push their mountain consolidation project any higher, they come up with a new system of buttressing and throw up new earthworks. The problem is that, no matter how high each new set of earthworks, they are never going to arrive at Olympus. So it is with authors. They can keep piling new plot elements into the mix but this, of itself, is not going to make the best book. All the complexity does is prove the author’s lack of confidence in a simple story. There’s a murder. The estate’s manager is pushed into a situation where she has to investigate. The innocent young black boy is accused by the white police. As a single mother, she needs the help of her ex-partner and, together, they must weather the storm as the solution slowly emerges. Obviously motive is important so some history and general background is essential, but what we have here is excessive.
It’s a great shame. The prose is of the highest quality with a multilayered approach. Structurally, the early stages of the book could not be bettered but, as you read on, the author loses her way. The plot grows increasingly diffuse and I gave up caring who was responsible and why. So The Cutting Season goes on to the list of valiant failures. It’s a brave effort but just as the Gods in Olympus were able to look down on the Aloadai as they tried to mount an attack (pun intended), so we can see this as a book that almost made it but missed out completely because, no matter how hard she tried, the author could not close the final gap to arrive at her destination. That said, the quality of the prose demonstrates this is an author to watch for the future. Even though I found this book unsatisfactory does not mean future books will be flawed. I shall be watching for the next book if only for the pleasure of reading the prose.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Devil’s Madonna by Sharon Potts (Oceanview Publishing, 2012) takes us down a moderately familiar road. It’s a curious coincidence that immediately after reading a novel about an eighty-seven-year old Jewish man who discovers that a Nazi who almost killed him in a POW camp may still be alive, I should pick up a novel about a ninety-three-year old woman with Nazi problems from her past. She calls herself Lillian. In Berlin before the war broke out, she was an actress using the name Leli Lenz. When her stage show closed, she met Dr Altwulf, a much older man who taught art at the University and painted for his own enjoyment. Thanks to him, she appeared in three films made as part of the Goebbels’ propaganda campaign. In England before the war broke out, she met the American who was to marry her. At this time she was calling herself Astrid Troppe, born in Austria. Later she became Lillian Breitling, born in London with a British passport. It seems her real name was Ilsa Straus with her parents university teachers in Vienna. Her daughter, Dorothy (named after the Wizard of Oz), died in a car accident leaving a grandchild, Kali (named after the Goddess of Time and Change) who’s married to Seth Miller and carrying his child.
From this outline, you’ll understand the book is interested in the question of identity. Anyone who lives into their nineties is likely to get forgetful, even at the best of times. When she almost starts a serious fire, it’s obvious she can no longer live on her own. Later she has a stroke which compounds the problem. Since she won’t have anyone else in the house with her, the only way to deal with this is for Kali to move back into the house she lived in after the death of her mother. Kali quickly discovers that her grandmother has become more than a little paranoid. Yet they seem to fall back into a familiar pattern. Unfortunately, Seth is particularly resentful his wife should be showing him disloyalty. He had expected her to stay with him throughout the pregnancy. Kali is disconcerted by this apparent change in her husband. She had done everything possible to fit into his family, even converting to Judaism to ensure their child would stay within the faith.
Thematically, I was reminded of Hitler’s Daughter by Jackie French in which four Australian children discuss what it would be like to have Hitler as their father. Obviously, from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy, it’s difficult to establish a clear picture of the man and so he begins to ask his parents for information. In this book, we have a old woman who may be sliding into dementia and is, at times, very confused. Some of the things she says makes her granddaughter more curious about her family’s history. In part, this is a desire to be able to pass something of her heritage on to her own child. She thinks it important a child should have a sense of his or her roots. This has assumed greater importance in her mind because of her recently redefinition as Jewish for the marriage. She seeks a context for this change in her own identity, hoping to be able to pass on an oral tradition of who she was and how her Christian family came to join with a Jewish family.
While it would not be true to say her grandmother had been actively secretive when she was young, Kali has no facts about her grandmother’s life before she married. So, with the help of the boy next door who has now grown into a professor of history, she begins to disentangle the facts from the strange assortment of information her grandmother offers. The narrative develops along two tracks, one as historical fiction showing what actually happened to Lillian as a young woman, the other detailing the slow emergence of a threat to both grandmother and granddaughter. Although it becomes fairly obvious what must have happened about halfway through, the book does say interesting things about the nature of identity, wondering whether we can ever really be honest about who we are and what we believe. So often society condemns us if the majority recognise a difference. Over the generations, so many many groups have been on the receiving end of discrimination and persecution. For all our modern lip service to equality and the rights of the individual to a peaceful existence, innocent individuals can suddenly find themselves ostracised or worse. On this front, The Devil’s Madonna is successful. But, to my mind, it stops at entirely the wrong point.
I don’t mind books stopping abruptly, but I do object to books stopping arbitrarily. Obviously, I can’t discuss the detail of this without engaging in spoilers. All I will say is that the author had arrived at a situation forcing the whole issue into the public domain. An investigation was inevitable. A criminal trial might even have been appropriate. Whether or not the decision was taken to prosecute, an exploration of the legal and moral implications would illuminate not only the author’s views, but also allow readers to rehearse the arguments about what the long-term outcome should be. To stop at this point strikes me as moral cowardice. Having created the opportunity for a real discussion on the merits, the author should not throw up her hands and walk away in silence.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Second-Last Woman in England by Maggie Joel (Felony & Mayhem, 2012) starts with an event I remember all too well. Although my parents were not as wealthy as the family described in this book, they bought a television to watch the Coronation in 1953. As a result, we instantly became the most popular family in the neighbourhood. On the 2nd June, our living room was filled to overflowing with patriotic fervour and neighbours who had all thoughtfully supplied contributions to a celebratory buffet set out in the garden. Fortunately, my mother resisted the natural temptation to shoot my father dead. Even at the best of times, he was not the most sociable of men, but he never did anything intentionally to justify his execution. The same restraint was not exercised by Harriet Wallis who, at a party not dissimilar in spirit to ours, took her husband’s gun and shot him dead in front of all their guests.
At this point, allowing for the threat of Alzheimer’s hanging over me, I frankly confess to having no memory of this killing. A brief survey of Google confirms the probability all the events described in this book are fictional. The last three women hung for murder in Britain appear to be Louisa Merrifield on 18th September 1953, Styllou Christofi on 13th December 1954, and Ruth Ellis on 13th July 1955. On this assumption, the book becomes an unhappy compromise between an inverted crime and an allegedly true crime novel. It’s not an inverted crime novel because we have the shooting described in the Prologue and then the nine months leading up to this unhappy event covered in the following chapters. There’s no detective like Columbo gently teasing at the facts to catch the murderer. Equally, it’s not a description of real events although the context is historically accurate. This denies the readers some of the relevant insights into the history of past murders as in Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House (Bloomsbury, 2008). Hence, it lacks the usual dynamic of a murder mystery. There’s no pressure on a detective to pull a rabbit out of a hat and say whodunnit, nor do we have to watch through the killer’s eyes as the detective circles and closes in for the arrest. I suppose it means we have to label it as “historical” in the fictional sense of the word and watch the author recreate the class-ridden and social hypocrisy of the time.
In this, I recognise the people involved. Although the first time I visited London was for the Festival of Britain in 1953 and so cannot claim to have any direct understanding of the gulf between the East End and high society, I was unlucky enough to grow up on the fringes of our county’s elite — using the word to refer to that small group of people who consider themselves better than everyone else in the room, no matter where the room may be located. The family on my mother’s side had grown up with servants, but my grandparents fell on hard times in the inter-war years. This left us making our own way immediately after the war. But the wealthy parts of my family relied on servants for everyday chores and tasks, and many of the families we knew socially, continued to depend on living-in staff until the 1960s when it became too difficult to find enough people prepared to do the work.
The real story of this book begins with the arrival of a new nanny for the two children in a wealthy, well-connected London household. This young woman’s family was eliminated by the arrival of a VII which levelled one side of the street where they lived in Stepney. The only reason she survived was because of an argument over whether they were going to attend Chapel. She left on her own in anger. Such is the arbitrary nature of warfare when ordinary decisions turn out to have life or death consequences. Still suffering the emotional damage, she moves into the Wallis household. Mr Wallis held a low-level government post during the war and continues as a director in a shipping company. Mrs Wallis comes from a family that went through the Raj. As her mother was dying, she and her younger brother were sent to join their older brother at English boarding schools. In the 1950s, the older brother now works in the Palace with his wife making a career on children’s television, she married a reasonable amount of money, and the younger brother went off to Canada.
The Wallis family matches the stereotype of public school and Oxbridge education (which doesn’t make any of them very intelligent or wise), a network of business and social connections that can get most things done, and a life that, to outsiders, looks serene. Except all is not well. To people such as this, appearances are everything and, as they are about to discover, there’s nothing so fragile as a reputation based on sand. Where the book succeeds is in its description of the fear and anger when their lives become less socially comfortable. The husband finds himself caught up in a commercial scandal when a trusted employee embezzles quite a large sum of money and disappears, probably to South Africa. The wife comes under pressure when her younger brother returns from Canada and asks for help. This collision of circumstances, allied to the arrival of the new nanny, produces a fast track to the wife shooting the husband. The reason? Well, let’s just say the husband’s self-righteous lack of empathy puts him in the sights of his own gun. We could debate whether the wife’s decision to pull the trigger until there were no more bullets was objectively justified, but that would get us nowhere. Let’s just assume she felt better for having killed him.
So The Second-Last Woman in England is a book that calmly dismantles the social situation that led to this murder. Once certain key facts are revealed, it’s clear why this man has to die. Although he does have enough sense to feel guilty about some things, his whole value system has been distorted by his membership of, and experiences in, the upper class of society immediately after the war. He deserves to die but is probably unaware of the anger and resentment he has caused. It’s not that he’s stupid. It’s that his entire social conditioning has made him into this self-centred walking disaster area. And with that happy thought, I will leave you with just one final suggestion. This is an interesting book that’s worth reading for its insights into 1950′s society. If you accept this recommendation, remember this is a society recovering from a major war. Some acts will therefore be seen as far more devastating than comparable acts today. The particular act at the core of this book was socially devastating and potentially contagious, i.e. people seen to be involved would be considered morally deficient and that would never do for men like Wallis.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Modern authors are always under pressure to come up with the next big thing. Back in the Golden Age of pulps, it was easier. Editors would send out messages to all the writers on their lists demanding twenty short stories by the end of the month, and “some of them damn well better be good!” In this scatter gun approach to publishing, there was an incredible volume of pure crud — see Sturgeon’s Law — but equally a small percentage of wonderfully inventive fiction. All you had to do as a reader was filter out the rubbish to get to the good stuff. Today we’ve got the reverse problem. Instead of there being several hundred magazine and publishing houses churning out books by the thousands, there are only a few. With tens of thousands of wanna-be authors and slush piles growing ever taller, this puts terrible pressure on editors to pick only the good stuff. To get noticed and become one of the few people published today, authors need a mixture of craft and creativity. In terms of plotting, there’s very little that hasn’t already been done to death. So the skill of an author is to take an idea and dress it up in a slightly different way so we won’t notice it’s not very original.
I start in this way because, in these days of mashups with Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter just about to hit the big screen, Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear (TOR, 2012) has managed to come up with something rather unusual. Most fantasy stories fall into very predictable formats as the fight promoters match up the Hero with the Dark Lord in the best of three falls. Magic will be allowed but not necessarily gouging or cowardly blows. There may be elves or other “folk” who take sides in the good vs. evil contest, a wiseacre will advise the Hero who often has to come out of his/her shell and discover the strength within before being able to vanquish the forces of evil, there should be a quest, and there will be a love interest which may help or hinder the Hero at the whim of the author. So, to provide variety, Elizabeth Bear has hit on the idea of Genghis Khan vs. Aladdin, i.e. of conflating the excitement of horse-born armies thundering across the Steppes with the tropes of One Thousand and One Nights. This is not entirely unfair because, once the Mongol Hordes got going, they occupied a goodly chunk of Central Asia and many of the myths and legends that ended up in the Arabian Nights originated from that region.
We start with the battle for the city of Qarash between claimants to the throne of the Khagan. Quori Buqa’s army smashes the defensive forces led by Qulan and levels the city. Timur is one of the few left alive. As the Khagan’s grandson, he’s potentially in line for succession to the throne, but that’s not on his mind as he slowly moves away from the military disaster. The practicalities of survival dominate. He’s adopted by a small kin group and, after a short courtship, falls into a relationship with Edene. What he does not know is that Quori Buqa is being assisted by Al-Sepehr, a powerful wizard (when he communicates with Quori Buqa, he uses the name Ala-Din). Having used the human armies to generate death on an industrial scale, our wizard can raise them as an army of ghosts as did his forebear Sepehr al-Racid ibn Sepehr. This puts the wizard in a potentially dominant position, but the actual process is very tiring. Hence, there’s still a need for human agents. To keep options open, a platoon of ghosts is sent to kidnap Timur. Unfortunately, he fights back. Frustrated, the ghosts carry off Edene instead. This sets Timur off on a quest to find his lost partner. On the way, he meets up with Samarkar, a newly qualified wizard, and they must defend themselves as individuals and seek to make the world safe from the ghost army. For Quori Buqa, his nephew Timur is an unfortunate loose end. The tribes will not unite while a legitimate claimant to the throne is still alive. He therefore demands Ala-Din kills his rival. This drive for unity in the tribes is not what Al-Sepehr has been working towards but, perhaps, that’s what Fate demands and there will be other ways to destabilise the Mongol Empire.
Range of Ghosts is firmly rooted in the culture of nomadic tribes so, with everything filtered through the experience of a man who’s spent his life on and around horses, it’s hardly surprising we get such a detailed picture of life, literally from the ground up. It’s actually worth reading just to get a feel for the life on the Steppes. Even the horses get to be real people. As a piece of meticulous background research, it reminded me of Until the Sun Falls by Cecilia Holland which is straight historical fiction. To find such impressive detail in a work of fantasy is even more delightful as the wizard’s manipulation of the Khagan succession and life on the Steppes reaches a critical juncture. Once the magic kicks in, we get a wonderful blend as our heroic group of Mongol Prince, apprentice wizard, Cho-tse and kung fu monk have to fend off assassins and the attack of a rukh or roc as they make their way across the war-torn Empire. It’s all great fun and one of the best fantasy books I’ve read so far this year.
The jacket artwork by Donato Giancola is particularly fine.
“Jumping Jehoshaphat!” I muttered to myself from time to time as I was reading this book. Well, actually that’s not strictly true, but I keep this review site family friendly. So [expletive deleted], not more facts!?! Which is a strange thing to say when reading an historical novel, but I felt I was being bombarded with information and not in a good way. Indeed, given the homicidal intentions implicit in military bombardments, it’s hard to think kindly of an author bombarding his readers with anything, let alone facts. So here’s the issue for the bully pulpit this time around. If a book is clearly labelled as “historical”, can you have too much history? Well, let me take a moment to look back on a long life. My two grandmothers were born in Victorian times (following the tradition of spiders, my grandfathers had, of course, been eaten shortly after the mating) so, when at their knees, I was bombarded (the word for the day) with stories of what it was like when they were young. So I come to my present advanced age with an oral history spanning well over one-hundred years. The facts I take for granted would have to be explained to most of you. For an author, this creates a major problem. If the intention is to set the story during the last one-hundred years, a slice of the readership will be familiar with the contexts but younger readers will not. From a personal point of view, if this is a book set outside Britain, I will often be lost because, apart from holiday trips, that’s outside my experience. So the author is continuously having to decide how much to explain. For what it’s worth, I prefer the minimum amount of background necessary to support the smooth development of the plot.
Now let’s cut to the chase. In The Chalice of Blood (Minotaur Books, 2011), Peter Tremayne continues the Sister Fidelma series set in seventh century Ireland (this is volume 19/20). Obviously, that’s way outside the limits of oral history and a completely different culture. So how much should be updated and what should be explained? Let’s start with measurements. Although the Roman Empire had acted as a kind of European Union and standardised many aspects of life (including the provision of Latin as a common denominator language to allow people to talk with each other), the Romans did not decree the adoption of the metric system. They relied on the pes or “foot” to measure length. Distance had a military overtone with what we would now call a mile being mille passuum, a thousand paces by an average solider on a route march (sorry, I was a classical scholar). It’s therefore disconcerting to see an author set a book in 670 AD and talk about metres for length and kilometres for distance. This is made all the worse because the edition I’m reading is intended for the US market which has not yet succumbed to the metric system.
Anyway, putting this trivial point to one side, we can’t pass a river or a crossroads without someone volunteering a little local history to explain the name or why local people either fight over it or shun it. More importantly, Sister Fidelma is an Irish jurist. Not only does she investigate crimes and arbitrate in disputes between tribes, she’s also responsible for presenting cases before an appropriately convened court. So we lack cultural reference points and need a fairly detailed explanation of local laws before we can understand who might have committed any given offence. We also need to know the procedures and what will be treated as sufficient evidence to prove guilt. That’s why there’s a fair amount of technical material to get through to raise us up to the point where we can make sense of it all. It also reflects on the extensive research effort put in by Tremayne and then considerable technical expertise to manipulate the plot to bring all this information into play. While I’m not averse to learning about different cultural systems including their laws, there’s actually quite a lot to remember if you’re going to do “justice” to the plot. So, if you’re one of these people who prefers a more superficial approach, this book is not for you.
Now on to the plot itself. It starts off as a locked room murder mystery although, anyone with any experience in reading detective novels will almost immediately understand how it was done. This leaves the rest of the book for us to identify the motive for the murder. Only when we understand the why can we narrow down the field and see who must have done it. It’s at this point we come to another possible stumbling block for some readers. As an atheist, I’m unmoved by people discussing heresies. This murder is set in an abbey of the Celtic Church. During the course of the seventh century, there was considerable debate about the detail of the faith and a number of different groups arose who were committed to different sets of belief. There was also dissension on the role of Rome to impose discipline on the theory and practice of Christian worship. So if you’re sensitive on this type of content, you should pass by on the other side.
This leaves a hard core of people who will enjoy this detailed account of two deaths and various wrongdoing. At a factual level, it plays completely fair with all the most important clues in plain sight. More importantly, I was fascinated by the way the law apparently worked back then. Hoping not to sound patronising, it’s actually very sophisticated and, although we might disapprove of some aspects of the results on display here, it would make perfect sense in the historical context. So there you have it. The Chalice of Blood is another step in the life of Sister Fidelma and her sidekick husband (yes, the Church did permit those who had taken Holy Orders to marry). This is very good historical mystery.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Cranford (2007) is a rather elegant study in manners and etiquette based on three short novels by Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford, My Lady Ludlow and Mr Harrison’s Confessions. Set in a small town or large village near Manchester, Cranford’s society depends on its women to keep the wheels spinning smoothly. Series such as this are important for two rather different reasons. Obviously, we watch them as entertainment. The fact the culture may be different does not mean the story lacks relevance to our modern lives. Second, these dramas represent windows into the past. They remind us what life was like only a century or so ago. Cranford is particularly useful because, unlike the novels by Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and others more often selected for adaptation, it gives us a complete spectrum of society from top to bottom. This makes it rather better than, say, Lark Rise to Candleford which focuses on village life for those still working on the land or providing services to the farming community at the end of the 19th Century. The Cranford trilogy is set in 1842 at a time of major change just as the industrial revolution is genuinely working to undermine traditional social structures. The world stands at a tipping point. This village knows it cannot remain in a kind of stasis, regulated like a clockwork machine by one or two key citizens. There’s to be democratisation through access to education and new opportunities for all to earn enough for financial independence. Large estates such as that owned by Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) are about to lose more of their labour to factories in Manchester and the nearby cities. Farm workers will be drawn from a smaller pool of people — those who do not take advantage of the railway’s arrival to travel to work elsewhere.
When we start, we see two sisters, Miss Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench) and Deborah Jenkyns (Eileen Atkins) at the heart of the social community. Even though they are only genteel and middle class, the latter has appointed herself as the arbiter of good taste in the township. She dictates the pace of social intercourse and determines the propriety of behaviour. In her self-righteousness, it never occurs to her that she’s a terrible bully, terrorising all around her with her judgmental ways. As the daughter of a local clergyman, now deceased, she assumed the role as if by divine right and has never wavered. The sisters do, however, break routine and accept Miss Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) as a paying guest.
Although she’s an indispensable part of the community, Miss Octavia Poole (Imelda Staunton) somewhat spurns the normal rules of society. As the town’s gossip, she’s an unstoppable force for getting the message out. It may not always be the right message but, for better or worse, it always goes out on her network. Mrs Jamieson (Barbara Flynn) is included for comic relief. Full of aristocratic pretension, she’s always being walked around the town in her sedan chair, carrying her dog. There’s no better way to show how important you think you are. Socially more important, Lady Ludlow lurks out in Hanbury Court, convinced women should remain in the Dark Ages and never learn to read and write. This offends her land agent, Edmund Carter (Philip Glenister) who has seen the future and prefers the idea of equality and liberty for all. Except, on the quiet, he’s slightly less in favour of education for women. The relationship between these two is fascinating. As one of the nobility with set ideas about rank and status, Lady Ludlow is remarkably open with Edmund Carter. She trusts his judgement on many issues and, although they fundamentally disagree on politics, particularly when it comes to education, he’s a force for good in her life even if she does ignore his advice and continue to indulge her wastrel son.
Dr Morgan (John Bowe) is the stalwart doctor, but his position as the trusted physician is threatened when the young and dashing Dr Frank Harrison (Simon Woods) arrives and immediately saves the arm of the local carpenter Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan). In his first survey of the town, the young doctor takes a shine to Sophy Hutton (Kimberley Nixon). Captain Brown (Jim Carter) arrives with his two daughters, one of whom dies almost immediately, leaving Jessie Brown (Julia Sawalha) in sole occupation of the house most of the time. There’s also a nice piece of business when a cat eats some lace and has to be relieved of it — that adds more humour to the pot.
Major Gordon (Alistair Petrie) arrives to visit Captain Brown and Jessie, and must then mount a search for missing cow. Such are the vicissitudes of life in this small town. Hanbury Court is getting ready for the annual garden party. Dr Frank Harrison is turning heads among the unmarried women while Edmund Carter is taking more of an interest in Harry Gregson (Alex Etel), the local poacher’s son, teaching him to read and write, and offering him work as a clerk. Mr Holbrook (Michael Gambon) emerges from the past to remind Miss Matty of lost happiness. At the garden party, news comes that the railway may be approaching Cranford with Captain Brown in charge of the building works. This offends the ladies who think change should stay away. It offends his daughter who has turned down Major Gordon’s invitation to marry and accompany him to India. Then overnight death strikes, taking away Deborah Jenkyns and Sophy’s brother. With Deborah’s departure, Miss Matty now has the chance to pick up her lost love for Mr Holbrook. They rekindle the spark but, on his way back from a trip to Paris, Mr Holbrook catches a chill that turns into pneumonia. Miss Matty now behaves as if she’s a widow. However, feeling everyone should have a chance for romance, she frees their maid, Martha (Claudie Blakley), from Deborah’s bar on relationships. Martha promptly confirms her “love” for Jem Hearne and they begin walking out together. Things are also going slightly better for Dr Harrison as Sophy may be forgiving herself and him for the death of her young brother. There’s then signs of hope for Lady Ludlow who, at the instigation of her land agent, intervenes to save Harry Gregson’s father who’s been wrongly accused of a violent robbery.
As to the cast, Judi Dench is magnificent as she slowly emerges from the years of oppression by Deborah. It’s as though she’s been reborn and is struggling to find her feet. No longer having someone to tell what to do and think, she must finally decide what kind of person she wants to be. Lisa Dillon as Mary Smith is calmly understated, surreptitiously supporting Judi Dench when necessary. The brief resumption of a relationship with Michael Gambon is touching and affecting. His tragic death before he can make good on thirty years of patient waiting is a moment of great sadness. Francesca Annis is doing rather better than playing Lady Ludlow as a dinosaur. We can see her bending in the wind even though she would rather not. Philip Glenister is worldly and knows just how far he can push Lady Ludlow. He will never be wholly liked, but will always do better than being merely tolerated. Finally Simon Woods is wonderfully naive and full of good intentions. If he can navigate through the choppy social waters, he will do well with the chaste Kimberley Nixon. Overall, this is a superior BBC drama and I wait with anticipation for the remaining episodes.