Archive for September, 2007

Historical mystery sites, part 1

I’m in a bit of a down period for historical mysteries, though I am reading a pretty good non-fiction book right now (description coming next week). In the meantime, I’d like to take this opportunity to describe a couple of the great resources for historical mysteries listed on my blogroll on the right.

First off is the tripod site on Historical Mystery Fiction managed by N.S. Hurt. The core sections of this terrific site are the author and time period indexes. The database fields for each index include author, title, period and location. Unfortunately, the two indexes are not hyperlinked.

I immediately felt a kindred spirit with Ms. Hurt after reading her lengthy description of the criteria for a “historical mystery.” She brilliantly explains date restrictions and why historical novels, regency romances, science fiction and time travel mysteries don’t fit this sub-genre. My list is a bit more inclusive when it comes to Sherlockian mysteries, but it’s a minor quibble.

 

The feature I use most often is the new title list, updated every two months. There are usually between two and four dozen new titles to examine, plenty to keep even the most voracious of readers busy. Another nice feature is a special section of titles for children and young adult readers.

So a big thank you to Ms. Hurt for putting her site together, maintaining it and making it available to readers.

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The Bloody Tower

The Bloody Tower by Carola Dunn.  Dunn’s historical mystery series is set in 1920s England and features Daisy Dalrymple, daughter of a viscount, who scandalizes her noble family by marrying Scotland Yard Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher and then starting a career of her own as a magazine article writer.  In this episode, the 16th in the series, Daisy demonstrates once again her unbelievable ability to stumble across dead bodies, this time after spending the night at King’s House, the on-site residence of the Governor of the Tower of London, where she was researching the ceremony by which the Tower is locked up tight each night.  This volume is typical of the set as it’s more a cozy than a police procedural.  What makes it unique is the supposedly locked room setting, even if the room in question is an entire royal fortress with its compound of buildings, stairwells, tunnels and walkways that make up the Tower.  There’s murder (of course), blackmail (always helpful for generating suspects), a bit of romance (not unusual in a cozy) and the ongoing sub-plot of Daisy and Alec’s domestic life.

Horseradish

Horseradish: bitter truths you can’t avoid by Lemony Snicket.  About twice a month I’ll leave the world of fiction and venture into the even stranger world of non-fiction.

This weekend I managed to sneak in Horseradish, a thin compilation of observations on life, work, family, travel and other topics.  Most are sarcastic, some even snarky, but nonetheless, all of them have some grain of truth.  A few samples of my favorites from the book:

It is always sad when someone leaves home, unless they are simply going around the corner and will return in a few minutes with ice-cream sandwiches.

Siblings who claim to get along all the time are definitely hiding something.

It is one of life’s bitterest truths that bedtime so often arrives just when things are getting interesting (ed. Note: unless, of course, you don’t need to set your alarm clock)

Just about everything in this world is easier said than done, with the exception of “systematically assisting Sisyphus’s stealthy, cyst-susceptible sister,” which is easier done than said.

The White Russian

The White Russian by Tom Bradby.  This historical mystery set in the winter months prior to the start of the 1917 Russian Revolution follows Sandro Ruzsky, chief investigator of the St. Petersburg police department, and his struggles with a series of murders in a city on the brink.  Ruzsky, just returned from exile in Siberia and estranged from both his wife and his noble father, attempts to unravel a complex conspiracy with political ramifications while facing dangerous opposition from the Okhrana, the Tsar’s secret police, and also overcoming his personal demons.  Readers of Bradby’s first mystery, The Master of Rain, will find many similar themes: murder by stabbing, a hero new to or returning to a city in turmoil, corrupt and competing law enforcement organizations, and a beautiful femme fatale.  However, Bradby’s descriptive abilities make these titles unique as he captures first the heat of summer in Shanghai and then the bitter cold of winter in St. Petersburg.

For other historical mysteries set in Imperial Russia, I recommend Boris Akunin’s series of books featuring Erast Fandorin.  The Winter Queen, set in 1876, is the first in the series.  Or if one prefers the mid-1860s Russia of Dostoyevsky, then The Gentle Axe by R.N. Morris, a “faux sequel” to Crime and Punishment, is quite good as well.

The Master of Rain

The Master of Rain by Tom Bradby. This historical mystery set in Shanghai in 1926 begins with the murder of a young Russian woman. Richard Field, British, member of the Special Branch, and newly arrived in China, is partnered with an American detective from the Crime Branch to investigate. As the case develops, Field discovers that finding anyone to trust is difficult within a police department rife with political intrigue and corruption and within a multinational city such as Shanghai. The pace of the book is quite good and the mystery plot has sufficient twists, though some of the red herrings are a bit obvious and one wonders about the lack of decisive action by a supposedly ruthless and violent criminal. There is a fair amount of sexual content and blue language, so this may not be a choice for all readers. However, these quibbles did not stop me from reading the second Bradby mystery, The White Russian.

Beauty and the Geek

One of my guilty pleasures on tv, Beauty and the Geek, is back for its fourth season on the CW.  I am certainly socially-inept enough to be one of the geeks, though I imagine my IQ is too low and my age too high.  I especially love watching the auditions.  Whereas the guys take their work very seriously and seem unable, or unwilling, to describe it in non-technical terms, they also seem to revel in, or at least accept, their geekiness.  However, I don’t understand the women applicants at all.  Don’t they know that the producers of the show are going to edit the tape to make them look really stupid?  Are they so self-secure because of their beauty that they just don’t care?  This year’s selections to make the show were a bit predictable, but when you are looking for a specific type of reality show contestant, I guess this is to be expected by the fourth season.  Having said that, I think this year’s group of guys is pretty good, but I did not find the women to be particularly attractive.  Maybe when we see more of their personalities in future show, someone will shine through and hopefully, they’ll get along better than last year’s felines. 

 I do like the introduction of the female geek and male beauty couple, though this may be considered the “jump the shark” moment for the show.  However, I don’t think they’ll last long in the competition.  For what it’s worth since I haven’t done well in the past, I’m picking Hollie and Josh to win.

 During the first challenge, the geeks had to demonstrate how they would kiss their girlfriend using a mannequin.  Did the producers intentionally position the mannequin, Molly, in such a defensive posture?  She was quite tall, taller than several of the guys, and was leaning far backward away from the guys, making it difficult for many to even reach her face.

Tenderness of Wolves

I’ve got one more post to make about the blog itself, but since I promised you that there would be book reviews here, I thought I should deliver one.

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney.  Winner of the 2006 Costa Book of the Year award in the UK, this historical mystery is set in 1867 in the Northern Territory of Canada.  The principal character is Mrs. Ross, whose son disappears after the murder of a local man.  The murder investigation eventually involves officials from the Hudson Bay Company, several native Indians, a community of Scandinavian settlers all in search of the truth.  The character descriptions are quite in-depth and the action across the cold, northern landscape is captivating.  An excellent read.  For those interested in other Canadian historical mysteries, I recommend Maureen Jennings’ tales of Toronto in the 1900s.

http://www.costabookawards.com/awards/index.aspx


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