Archive for March, 2008

The Iron Tongue of Midnight

The Iron Tongue of Midnight by Beverle Graves Myers.  Although there are several HM series set in the world of theater, such as Margaret Frazer’s featuring Joliffe and the traveling players and Edward Marston’s featuring Nicholas Bracewell and Lord Westfield’s Men, this is only one I know of with an operatic theme (see update below).  Our hero is Tito Amato, a castrato of some renown in the Venetian opera world of the mid-1700s with a complicated family life and a knack for solving mysteries.  The fourth book in the series finds Tito and his brother-in-law, the English artist Gussie Rumbolt, on their way to a country estate where Tito will join rehearsals for a new production sponsored by the socially ambitious mistress of the house and Gussie will paint scenes of the countryside for the master.  Almost immediately trouble arises as Tito discovers someone from his past using a false identity is also a member of the opera’s cast and later that night an unknown man is found dead in the hallway outside the guests’ rooms.  Myers cleverly uses letters from Tito’s brother based in Constantinople to create a secondary stream of clues which give readers of the series more insight into Tito’s family history, but only makes the current situation murkier.  As additional murders occur, Tito’s loyalties to family, truth and justice are tested as are his detective skills.  Although this volume does not have the same tension level that the first Tito story had, its plot is complex, but not unbelievable; the violence is not too bloody, and the country setting is a nice break from the canals and plazas of Venice.

While doing research for another post, I discovered that Barbara Paul wrote a short series set at New York City’s Metropolitan during the “Golden Age of Opera” in the early 20th century with tenor Enrico Caruso as the lead investigator.


The Keeper of Secrets

The Keeper of Secrets by Judith Cutler.  For those of you who prefer a whole lot of character development and background before the main mystery gets going, then Cutler will certainly satisfy your needs.  This debut mystery is set in 1810 Warwickshire and features a young parson, Tobias Campion, in his first assignment since leaving behind the comfortable life of his upper-class English family.  He is befriended by the local doctor and justice of the peace, Edmund Hansard, and smitten by one of the maids at his patron’s manor.  Cutler spends the first half of the book introducing the many characters that make up the parish of Moreton Priory, from the poor living in hovels by the river to manor lords and ladies and their servants.  Campion and Hansard work well together to solve the mysteries of the parish as the pace of action picks up in the second half.  I like strong secondary characters and the time that Cutler spends developing Mrs. Beckles, the manor’s housekeeper, Jem, the parson’s groom, and others is well spent in preparation for future volumes in this series.  Readers who enjoyed Catherine Shaw’s Riddle of the River or Deanna Raybourn’s Silent in the Sanctuary will find pleasure in this book as well.

Hitman on DVD

Hitman on DVD.  Despite an unoriginal and flawed script, this film, based on the video game of the same name, was enjoyable because of the interesting principal characters.  Timothy Olyphant plays the unnamed hero, trained since childhood to be an assassin for an underground group known as the Organization.  The training scenes were remarkably similar to those from Jessica Alba’s television series, Dark Angel, right down to the shaven heads and the tattoos.  While on assignment in Russia, our hero discovers that for some unknown reason the Organization has agreed to sanction a contract on their best operative.  So now he must not only escape the Interpol agents tracking him, but his own people as well, sort of like the Bourne movies.  Along the way he develops a relationship with a woman, there’s always a woman, who has information about the man who wants him dead.  The interplay between the two and the expertise and preparation that Olyphant shows as an expert killer are the high points of the movie along with a couple of nice plot twists.  There is a lot of gunplay, a bit too much for my tastes, but it wasn’t too gruesome and even though I had never heard of the video game, it didn’t seem to matter at all.

Vienna Blood

Vienna Blood by Frank Tallis.  More than 5,000 miles and eight time zones separate Vancouver and Vienna, but these differences pale in comparison to the dissimilarities between Rowse’s and Tallis’ works, though both are set in almost the exact same time.  Blood opens with a most unusual killing, the dissection of a thirty-foot anaconda in the Emperor’s zoological gardens, and continues as a madman attempts to execute his demonic plan. Tallis writes that 1900 Vienna was “the most civilized city in Europe . . . [but] was undoubtedly repressive with respect to the formation of societies and associations.”  Therefore, these groups, such as the Freemasons and early Aryan and Pan-German orders, flourished in secret and the city “attracted intrigue, conspiracy, and sedition.”  It is in this setting that the second mystery featuring Freudian psychologist Dr. Max Liebermann and Detective Oskar Rheinhardt takes place.  As in the previous story in the series, A Death in Vienna, it is less sound detective work, but rather Liebermann’s work with his patients and colleagues that eventually leads to clues which help solve the case.

Tallis continues to provide wonderfully vivid descriptions of Vienna with extensive references to its musical heritage and its robust and decadent pastries.  Almost nary a page goes by without a mention of one or the other.  Liebermann’s relationships with his fiancée, Clara, and his ex-patient, Miss Lydgate, are further developed, though disappointingly we see less of either man’s families than in the first book.  Although I was not as happy with this story as I was with the first, I am sufficiently intrigued enough to continue with this series when the third book comes out later this summer.

For another mystery set in early 20th-century Vienna, try Jody Shields’ The Fig Eater.  I haven’t read it yet, but it received an excellent review at WRL’s Blogging for a Good Book.

The Silk Train Murder: a mystery of the Klondike

The Silk Train Murder: a mystery of the Klondike by Sharon Rowse.  There are only two things wrong with this debut mystery set in 1899 Vancouver.  First, the title is severely misleading as the characters never get on the train and the train plays very little part in the plot at all.  Also, given the use of the word “Klondike” in the sub-title, I was expecting a bit more wilderness setting than urban Vancouver.  Even worse, Rowse does very little to capture the tone of the city at that time through her description of the streets, neighborhoods and residents.  This is especially surprising since she lives in Vancouver and should have access to historical records.  The second problem is that the characters lack originality.  The main character, and the one future books in this series will feature, is John Granville, fourth son of the fifth Baron Granville back in England.  The idea of the gentleman detective is certainly not new, nor is the independent adventure-seeking young woman of upper-class birth, found here in the form of Emily Turner.

The plot itself is not bad: the Honorable Mr. Granville arrives in Vancouver downtrodden and almost penniless after failing to find gold in the Yukon.  His old mining friend Sam Scott hires him as his partner in guarding train cars, soon to be filled with silk from the Orient, from sabotage.  The morning after their second night on the job, the pair finds the dead body of one of the city’s criminal captains.  Mr. Jackson has a long list of enemies, but twenty-four hours later it’s Scott that’s in jail, accused of the murder and Granville must determine who the real killer is before his friend goes on trial.  Along the way, Granville is assisted by a young ex-thief, Trent Davis, the rebellious Miss Turner, and an ambitious newspaperman as he meets with most of Vancouver’s underworld bosses and ventures into opium dens and back-alley brothels in his chase for clues that will free his friend.  One can only hope that Rowse can improve her ability to convey the historical details of her setting in future books.

A much more interesting independent woman from this time period is Dianne Day’s Fremont Jones, a Boston native living and working in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake.  For a great mystery set in the Canadian wilderness, I recommend Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves set in the 1860s.  I’m also a big fan of Maureen Jennings’ series featuring William Murdoch, a police officer in 1895 Toronto.

Nancy Drew on DVD

Nancy Drew on DVD.  I enjoyed the Nancy Drew books growing up, watched the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew television series and have even seen some of the old B&W movies as well.  This updated version is cute, simple tale for fans of the character, but there is very little back story given, so newcomers to the character might be left in the dark about some things.  It’s set in contemporary time, but has a unique blend of traditional and modern elements.  Nancy has a cell phone and digital recorder and rappels down buildings, but maintains a classical wardrobe and drives a vintage blue convertible.  Emma Roberts plays the title role and does a good job as the intelligent, caring, risk-taking sleuth.  The very simple plot has Nancy joining her father in Los Angeles, where his legal work has led to a temporary assignment.  Although she has promised her father that she will refrain from detective work while on the West Coast, she deliberately has them rent a house where a famous movie actress mysteriously died.  Coming from small-town River Heights, Nancy is a bit different than the other kids at Hollywood High, but attracts the amorous attention of an absurdly young classmate who also doesn’t fit in with the crowd and who tags along as she searches for clues.  No explanation is given as to why Nancy is allowed to leave her old school for just a temporary stay in California or how her boyfriend Ned gets an extended vacation to visit her, but such is the fantasy world of movies.  As Nancy and her gang get closer to the truth behind the mystery, she finds herself in peril more than once, but manages to corral the villain in the end.  A good batch of special features that are not typical of most DVDs adds value.  They include interesting interviews with the young cast and information about the props used by Nancy, but a brief history of the character, the books and television series would have been a good addition as well.

Doherty’s recent and forthcoming works

If you think I’ve covered all of Paul Doherty’s works this week, you are mistaken.  I didn’t mention the three-book series featuring 15th century English soldier Matthew Jankyn, his non-fiction works on Elizabeth I or the crown jewel robbery of 1303, or his historical fiction/romance work written as Vanessa Alexander.

At the age of 62, he’s certainly not slowing down too much.  Last summer saw the second entry in a new series featuring Mathilde of Westminster, physician and former lady-in-waiting to Edward II’s consort Isabella (The Poison Maiden).  The action mostly takes place in early 14th century London.  Last winter saw the debut of yet another series; this one based on the foundation of the Templars in 1096 Jerusalem.  Doherty has written about the Templars before, specifically in the first installment of his older series based on the Canterbury Tales (An Ancient Evil).  In April 2008, the fourth book in his relatively new Roman Empire series is due to be published in the UK (Murder’s Immortal Mask).  The main character here is again a woman, Claudia, secret agent for Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. Unfortunately, I have not read any of the books in these newer series. 

In August 2008, the 16th Hugh Corbett adventure hits bookstores (Nightshade).  This is Doherty’s best known series in which Corbett, a clerk and spy for Edward I, and his assistant, Ranulf, perform special services for the king and rise in the court to ever increasing levels of treachery.  These books, especially the early ones, are a bit more gritty and tough than most historical mysteries.  I have read the first thirteen in the series, one of my favorites.  I don’t understand why my local libraries stopped getting them, but I’m ordering them through interlibrary loan so I can keep up.

Finally, it appears that Doherty is returning to Egypt yet again with his December 2008 publication of The Secret of Sobeck.  I have not been able to find out any information about this title, but Sobek was the Egyptian crocodile god.

As I wrote earlier in the week, Paul Doherty is one of the best in this genre.  With stories set in England, Rome, China, Greece and Egypt, across many different time periods and with a variety of characters, a newcomer to historical mysteries will certainly find something of interest to them among his library of titles and will not be disappointed.

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