Archive for February, 2008

The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin

The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin.  Here is the first nominee for my 2008 Book of the Year list.  Although I enjoyed her first mystery featuring forensic doctor Adelia Aguilar, Mistress of the Art of Death, this story of the poisoning of Henry II’s mistress, Rosamund Clifford, is much, much better.  Henry has refused to let Adelia return to her native Sicily, so she has settled with her baby daughter, Allie, her new maid, Gyltha, and her trusty Muslim protector, Mansur, outside Cambridge.  Rosamund’s death is laid at the feet of Henry’s estranged wife, Eleanor, who has recently escaped imprisonment in one of the royal castles in Aquataine and has traveled to England to help lead a revolt with her son.  Henry requests that Adelia travel in the middle of winter to Oxford to investigate the situation.  Soon, everyone is trapped by deep snow in a convent outside the city.  This includes the queen herself, several courtiers, two unhappy bands of mercenaries, one arrogant, bullying Lord Wolvercote, Adelia and her group, and the assassin.

The main plot and sub-plots in this second story are quite complex, with several excellent twists right until the very end.  The inclusion of Henry and Eleanor makes for a much more richly layered tale.  This is the type of mystery that draws you in so thoroughly that you won’t want to put it down and do anything else.  I haven’t had that experience and sensation in a while and it felt so good.


Thank you for smoking on DVD

Thank you for smoking on DVD.  This film will not make you fall out of your seat laughing, but it does have some very funny lines and a few good scenes, especially the one with Sam Elliott.  Aaron Eckhart stars as the charismatic Nick Naylor, chief lobbyist for the tobacco industry.  His world is one filled with vilifying talk show hosts, old-time tobacco businessmen in exclusive southern clubs, sneaky journalists out for blood (and other bodily fluids), and antagonistic congressmen.  It’s a lonely life.  His only friends are fellow lobbyists from the alcohol and gun industries and he only sees his 12-year-old son on weekends since his divorce.  Naylor spends much of the movie explaining what he does to his son and anyone else who cares to listen and it’s a message of free speech and personal freedom to choose.  Director Jason Reitman would have you believe that it is a film about America’s overuse of spin doctors and political correctness, but that’s just his own spin.  Enjoy the film and have a few laughs without worrying about the political message.

Grandmother Hanna

Last week I mentioned the birth anniversary of my grandmother Bonnell.  This week includes the 113th birth anniversary of my grandmother Hanna on my mother’s side.  I do not have a digitized picture of her yet, but you can see the house where she and grandfather lived in Virginia.  We would visit them in the summer and the screened porch was a wonderful place to watch the thunderstorms, a phenomenon we didn’t have at home. 

Grandmother Hanna was the descendant of Patrick Hanna, who came to America seven generations earlier from north of Ireland in the 1730s.  She was a pioneer in her day, graduating from college and working in the county offices in Ohio.  According to her diary, on February 10, 1919 there was “quite a time in the office.  The new man comes.  Mr. McDermott.”  Her entry five days later indicates that “the new man seems very nice.”  Two years later, they were married and she became the first woman in the family to move out-of-state as her husband was an engineer helping build the roads through West Virginia.  She passed that same adventurous nature and sense of curiosity to my mother and to my sister as well.

T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton

T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton.  With a series that has been successful for as long as this one has, it’s hard for the stories to not blend together over time in readers’ minds.  The characters, from female private investigator Kinsey Millhone to her landlord Henry Pitts to the irascible restaurateur Rosie, all seem familiar after twenty books.  It’s like a favorite television show that you look forward to each week. 

If you’ve never read any of “the alphabet novels,” don’t start with Trespass.  You don’t need to read them all, but at least read A is for Alibi first to see how it all begins.  The main adversary in Trespass is Solana Rojas, a con artist and identity thief who moves in next door to Kinsey.  Rojas pretends to be a caregiver for Gus Vronsky, Kinsey’s elderly neighbor, who is recovering from a fall, but Rojas has plans to abscond with all of Vronsky’s financial assets and possibly do him physical harm as well.  Millhone eventually becomes suspicious of Rojas and the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse is quite entertaining.  As someone responsible for an aunt in an assisted-living facility a thousand miles away, this story plays upon all the fears of those in that situation.

I tried to think of a television show with a female private eye to compare with these books, but really couldn’t think of one in which the woman wasn’t part of a male-female team (Moonlighting or Remington Steele) or part of an official investigative bureaucracy (Cagney & Lacey or Karen Cisco).  Actually, the on-screen detective Kinsey most reminds me of is Jim Rockford, living life down by the beach and solving crimes.  But after reading more about the show, the similarities aren’t that strong.

However, in searching for some television comparisons, I did come across some interesting items for those that want to pursue this idea further.  In her article, Female Private Investigators – The Difference Between Fact and Fiction,” Marg McAlister has an informative discussion with Victoria Howard, an ex-private investigator, that shows how realistically Grafton presents certain aspects of the job.  Isabelle Roblin presents an academic paper on Nancy Drew revisited: female private eyes in contemporary American fiction.”  And Linda Mizejewski has contributed a full book entitled Hardboiled and High Heeled: The Woman Detective in Popular Culture.” 

Also of note, it appears that we will never see Kinsey brought to life on either television or film as Ken Fermoyle writes in his article, “Mystery Novel Characters: Often Miscast for Films, TV,” for the Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association, “One role no casting director need worry about filling is that of Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton’s hugely popular female private investigator.  Ms. Grafton, who refers to her 15-year career writing scripts for movies and TV as ‘doing time in Hollywood,’ refuses to sell screen rights to her books.  In a talk recently she made that abundantly clear with this statement: ‘I would rather roll naked on a bed of broken glass!’”

A plague of snakes

Having just finished Janet Gleeson’s The Serpent in the Garden, imagine my surprise when I saw that not one, not two, but three historical mysteries set for release this year also included the word “serpent” in their titles.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be astonishing that this well-known representation of evil is so frequently used, but I was still intrigued enough to search through my blogroll sites to see what other authors had made use of this creature.

Clare Langley-Hawthorne – The Serpent and the Scorpion                                     2008

Franklin, Ariana – The Serpent’s Tale                                                                   2008

Suzanne Arruda – The Serpent’s Daughter                                                            2008

David Ashton – Shadow of the Serpent

Janet Gleeson – The Serpent in the Garden

Elizabeth Peters – The Serpent on the Crown

Peter Tremayne – The Subtle Serpent

Joan Wolf – The Poisoned Serpent

Paul Doherty – The Serpent among the Lilies

Edward Marston – The Serpents of Harbledown

Kel Richards – The Vampire Serpent

Lensey Namioka – White Serpent Castle

Judith Merkle Riley – The Serpent Garden

The Serpent in the Garden by Janet Gleeson

The Serpent in the Garden by Janet Gleeson.  Although this is Gleeson’s second mystery set in mid-18th-century London, none of the characters from The Grenadillo Box appear here.  The basic plot is the same however.  A craftsman-artist travels to the home of his current patron and soon dead bodies appear. Unfortunately, the painter Joshua Pope of “The Serpent” is not nearly as interesting as cabinetmaker Nathaniel Hopson from the first story.  Pope is residing at the home of Herbert Bentnick and his fiancée, Sabine Mercier, commissioned to paint their marriage portrait.  I find it extremely unlikely that they would be co-habitating given the social mores of the time, but perhaps because both are widowed, this was an acceptable arrangement.  An unknown man is discovered dead in the greenhouse by Sabine, and for some reason, the local authorities are not called in, but the visiting artist, who has no knowledge of the family or the area, is asked by the bride-to-be to investigate.  And when Sabine’s emerald necklace in the shape of a serpent disappears, Pope is suspected as the thief and must also investigate this crime in order to save his reputation.  Pope is a pompous, self-centered, imbecile who is always late for any appointment.  It is beyond belief that he would successfully ferret out the solution to this once-again overly-contrived murder.  There is one more tale by Gleeson in her non-series trilogy, but since there are so many more worthy mysteries out there, I will not be reading it.

Perfect Stranger on DVD

Perfect Stranger on DVD.  The excellent casting of Bruce Willis as the smug, temperamental, philandering advertising executive Harrison Hill is what makes this thriller a surprising success.  After the death of her friend, who has been having an affair with Hill, investigative reporter Rowena Price (Halle Berry), with the assistance of her tech-savvy friend, Miles, attempts to gather the evidence to convict Hill of murder. 

Director James Foley explains during the “making of” featurette that he was seeking a high “hot fudge factor,” the contrast one finds between the dark chocolate and vanilla ice cream in a sundae.  The two main settings, Hill’s H2A offices and Price’s apartment, are supremely different with one being light, airy and full of glass walls and windows whereas the other is all dark wood and shadows.  The costume designer purposely selected monochrome outfits for most of the cast yet frequently featured one person in each scene in a blaze of color.  And writers Rood Komarnicki and Jon Bokenkamp make sure that each of the three principal characters are hiding secrets gradually revealed throughout the film.  Like a holographic jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces in place, when viewed from a different angle, a new image appears to delight viewers.

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