Published October 31, 2007
The Alehouse Murders by Maureen Ash. When four murder victims are discovered in an alehouse the day before the Lincoln fair begins, the town’s female castellan and keeper of the peace, Nicolaa de la Haye, realizes that this crime must be solved quickly and quietly before the town and its many visitors panic and before the recently crowned King John hears the news and removes her from her position. She calls upon her clerk, Sir Bascot de Marins, a Templar Knight on temporary leave from the Order, to investigate. What do the alehouse keeper, a Jew, a harlot and a young man have in common that would cause their murders? Bascot, with the assistance of his mute servant boy, Gianni, must sort through the lies told by witnesses and the dangerous rivalries of the greedy, local gentry to eventually confront the killer.
There are so many medieval mysteries series set in England that it is hard for an author to distinguish themselves from the pack. Ash’s attention to detail certainly matches the others and her intricate plot is better than some, but her writing style is not unique and her character development beyond Bascot is lacking. Readers get overfed Bascot’s back story, especially for the first of a series, and so little of anyone else’s that no other characters stand out. I will be interested to see if anyone steps forward in the second volume.
Published October 30, 2007
We are Marshall on DVD. This movie is a story about grief and recovery, set around the events following the plane crash in 1970 that took the lives of 75 members of the Marshall University football team and the Huntington, WV community. The school must hire a new coach (Matthew McConaughey) to rebuild the program from scratch. McConaughey’s performance is unspectacular. However, the supporting roles are exceptional: Matthew Fox (Lost) as the lone returning member of the coaching staff, Anthony Mackie as the team captain trying to convince the school not to shut down the sport, David Strathairn as the university president trying to lead his institution through this crisis, and Ian McShane as the father struggling with the emotions of losing his son in the crash. This is definitely a tear-jerker along the lines of Remember the Titans and Brian’s Song. The filmmakers took some liberties with the facts, especially those surrounding the hiring of the new head coach, but the action scenes are not too fanciful and the inside look at what it takes to build a program from the ground up is fascinating. Although many scenes were shot in Huntington, conveying the emotion of this small, steel-mill town, one major disappointment is the lack of a documentary featurette. For those interested in learning more about the real-life events, the official Marshall University athletics web site has two short films: one on the making of the movie and one a tribute to the 1970 team and the Special Collections Department of the Marshall Library has a memorial section.
Published October 29, 2007
My Lady Judge by Cora Harrison. The idea of a historical mystery set in ancient Ireland with a female investigator is certainly not a new one. However, readers of the immensely popular Sister Fidelma series by Peter Tremayne will find significant differences in the character of Mara, Brehon of the Burren. Mara is older and more mature, already a grandmother, and divorced from her first husband. As a dalaigh, Fidelma investigates cases, but as a brehon, Mara must ultimately sit in judgment and make decisions under the watchful eyes of both her community and her king. This responsibility and her management of the local law school are key elements that formulate her character. The time period of 1509, more than 800 years after Fidelma’s adventures, brings with it new complications in the form of influence from England and its laws, a theme likely to be more prominent if this series continues.
However, there are also many similarities. Mara must search for clues that appear like flowers among the clints to solve the case of a violent death within a community seeking justice, but also holding many secrets. Plenty of local suspects are uncovered and a political element is also exposed. Harrison’s tone and pacing are reminiscent of Tremayne’s and her description of the lush, yet rocky Irish countryside matches his as well. Overall, Mara is a welcome, complementary addition to the stable of Irish crime solvers.
Published October 26, 2007
The Detective and the Toga maintained by Richard M. Heli. Last week I looked at The Sybil & Sleuth: Historical Mysteries of Ancient Greece. If the sun-baked, and sometimes blood-soaked, shores of the Aegean aren’t to your liking, then perhaps the seven hills of Rome, also often blood-soaked, will be better. Rick Heli’s site on Roman mysteries, begun in June 1994 as The Sword and the Sleuth, provides so much information that it is hard to know where to start, which is its only real weakness. The two-panel arrangement is awkward at best and the link to the index of novels published in English is not nearly prominent enough for first-time visitors. The main page for the site presents current information on works in print for the first time, new editions and translations, forthcoming titles, and newly-found stories. Updates appear about once per month and the attention given to editions in languages other than English is a uniquely strong aspect of the site. The links and acknowledgments contain many good avenues of exploration as well including a yahoo group devoted just to the works of John Maddox Roberts and the SPQR series.
The main index on works published in English is arranged alphabetically by author with more than 30 authors mentioned. The titles in each author’s entry are arranged alphabetically with publisher, publication location and date information included for each edition. A brief synopsis of each title follows and a rating system from one to four stars is provided for about half of the titles. Only five, all by Steven Saylor or Lindsey Davis, have been given four stars, but there are many at the three-star level.
Another nice addition, besides the rating system and the attention to foreign editions, is a page of author profiles. There are also supporting pages on titles for young readers, non-fiction works about Roman daily life, music and games with a Roman theme, and togas among others.
Published October 25, 2007
The Riddle of the River by Catherine Shaw. Shaw has a nice gentle, flowing writing style, which is very relaxing. Thankfully, this Victorian mystery doesn’t include Lords and Ladies like so many others, but rather ordinary people, though some celebrity names are dropped in peripherally. This is the fourth in the Vanessa Weatherburn series set in Cambridge, but the first that I have read. In this episode, Weatherburn, married to an extremely understanding academician husband who allows her to disappear on her adventures at will, is asked to identify the body of a murdered woman found in the nearby River Cam. Our heroine uses some intuition, her deductive abilities and a fair amount of luck to succeed in this initial task and then follows the trail by going undercover to solve the crime. Shaw incorporates the technological advancements of the time and the Victorian interest in the paranormal to reflect the times at the end of the nineteenth century.
Published October 24, 2007
For readers who prefer a whole series of stories by the same author in order to see characters develop over time rather than isolated tales, Gaslight Books, “a specialty bookshop in Canberra, Australia, for readers of crime, mystery and detective fiction, and science fiction, fantasy and horror” has put together an excellent checklist for historical mysteries set before 1918. It is arranged alphabetically by author with over 200 writers listed, from Mary Jo Adamson and Boris Akunin to Ann Woodward and M.J. Zellnik. Each author entry includes the name of the principal character and, with a few exceptions, the location and time period of each book. The databases maintained by Kim Malo and N.S. Hurt have much the same information, but it never hurts to have another source and here the titles are arranged by publication date, whereas with Hurt each author’s titles are arranged alphabetically. There are several pseudonym references, a few links to author web sites and notations about retitling of books for foreign editions. In addition to the main list, at the bottom of the page there are separate lists for anthologies and for books set between the Wars (1918-1939). One downside to this site is that it has not been updated since February 2007. I can only hope that this is a temporary problem and does not reflect an abandonment of the effort.
Published October 23, 2007
Set up, Joke, Set up, Joke by Rob Long. I really wanted to like this book. I really did. I went to high school with Rob’s brother and even had Thanksgiving dinner at their parents’ house one time in college. But one hundred pages into this story of a year in the life of a sitcom writer, I was in despair. This wasn’t funny. I wasn’t laughing. I know Rob’s funny. He wrote great stuff on Cheers for years for gosh sake. Maybe I didn’t “get” the dark, edgy, satirical humor or maybe I needed to see it delivered visually onscreen. Sure, there were plenty of anecdotes, but maybe I needed to be more inside the “Industry” to get the jokes. Eighty pages later and I realized what a great writer Rob really is. It wasn’t supposed to be funny and I wasn’t supposed to be laughing, smiling to myself sometimes sure, but not rolling on the floor. This wasn’t a sitcom he was writing; it was a fiction story about unlikable people and the craziness that is Hollywood based on his experiences over the years. He had captured those emotions and made his reader actually feel them. For more of Rob’s great writing, check out his weekly blog every Wednesday at Martini Shot.