Archive for April, 2008

Women in historical mysteries

Even in the sub-genre of historical mystery there are specialists. Some focus on one country such as Italy, Greece or Egypt. Others look only at real people as sleuths. With a few exceptions, I read stories set outside the United States and prior to 1900. One very interesting, and growing, specialty is women detectives. The people behind the Women in World History web site have compiled an excellent list of over 100 titles with women characters in historical mysteries. The titles are arranged by geographical area and then by time period with about two-thirds of the books being set outside the United States. Each title is given a brief review with details about both the plot of the book and the principal female character. Included are well-known sleuths such as Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple and Kathy Lynn Emerson’s Lady Susanna Appleton, but also some less well-known such as Barbara Cherne’s Giuditta. When dealing with a book series, the site authors have wisely chosen the first book of the series to review. The overall mission of the site is to promote their educational curriculum and the selection of books and the reviews reflect this goal. Relatively recent titles, such as Barbara Cleverly’s The Tomb of Zeus, indicate that the list is still being updated. However, I did not see last year’s My Lady Judge by Cora Harrison featuring the character of Mara, Brehon of the Burren.

Given that women’s rights and freedoms, especially universal suffrage and property ownership, are relatively modern phenomenons, one might be surprised by the number of different characters on this list. As the site owners point out, “Some writers feature female sleuths as a conscious way to revise stereotypes about women. They bring attention to the fact that there always have been strong women in the past. . . . We often find that many of the female characters we’ve reviewed in surprising ways have access to a variety of life styles and can pass between social classes at will.” Still, many of the characters reviewed come from the ecclesiastical ranks or have upper class backgrounds and the resulting degrees of literacy, education, freedom of movement, and wealth are advantages in their detective work. Less surprising is the fact that the vast majority of authors are women given the demographics of both new authors and the book-buying public. For fans of female detectives or just fans of historical mysteries, this is a valuable resource.


To Kill or Cure

To Kill or Cure by Susanna Gregory. There are two things you can say about the thirteen chronicles of Matthew Bartholomew: they are always about 100 pages too long and they are always well-researched with wickedly complex plots. Bartholomew is a teaching physician in 1350s Cambridge who also treats patients throughout the town. His colleague at Michaelhouse College is Brother Michael, Senior Proctor for the entire University. Michael’s responsibilities include upholding all University rules, settling the many major disputes with citizens of the town and investigating any suspicious deaths among members of the University. Because both men interact frequently with the townspeople as well as scholars, the books have a broader cast of characters and more complexity than others. The University setting allows for many recurring characters such as Michaelhouse’s Master, Ralph de Langelee, its resident dogmatic theologian, Father William, and its bullying housekeeper Agatha. But the setting also means that there will always be character turnover as new students and Fellows arrive and depart. Gregory has the unfortunate habit of having Matthew and Michael repeatedly discuss every clue, question every suspect’s motive and probe every possibility. However, she also has a great ability to weave multiple subplots together and to depict the harsh living conditions for all in the 14th century.

In the latest book, Cambridge is once again on the verge of a major conflict between town and gown, this time over the matter of rents charged by town landlords to scholars in the many local hostels. University statutes have kept rents artificially much lower than prevailing market conditions and the landlords want changes made in their favor. Into this combustible situation comes Richard Arderne, a charlatan, who claims to be a healer possessing a powerful feather that cures all and special knowledge superior to that of the current Cambridge physicians, all of them associated with the University of course. He subtly incites the townspeople in order to gain business. When violent deaths start happening, Matthew and Michael find plenty of suspects both in the town and behind the college walls.

For other HM set in Cambridge, I recommend Catherine Shaw’s The Riddle of the River set in the 1880s and Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death set in the 12th century. Neither of these utilizes the academic setting of the city, but are excellent mysteries on their own.

Juno on DVD

Juno on DVD. A good script and a very strong cast, especially Ellen Page in the title role, make this an entertaining and enjoyable film. Its Oscar nomination for Best Picture might be going too far however. If there is such a thing as a serious comedy, then Juno is it. The main subject of teen pregnancy is treated seriously in an adult manner and, therefore, there is never the possibility that this will be an outrageous comedy. Instead, viewers see complex relationships, realistically depicted, that derive their humor from the quirkiness that resides in each of us. I especially liked the drama associated with prospective adoptive parents portrayed by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner. The bonus features include some screen tests and a gag reel, but are not very special.

Elizabeth: the golden age on DVD

Elizabeth: the golden age on DVD. Rarely does a sequel live up to its previous film, but this is one of those rare instances. Cate Blanchett was nominated for an Oscar for her 1998 portrayal of the young Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne, her relationship with Lord Dudley, and her battle with male advisors eager to marry her off for political reasons in the film Elizabeth. Nine years later, Blanchett was nominated again for her reprisal of the same role as she depicts Elizabeth as a confident, fearless leader when working with her English lords or against the attacks from Spain. It is her more personal relationships that continue to cause her anguish and doubt, whether it is her testy dealings with Mary, Queen of Scots or her fascination with the adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh.

There are certain periods of history that lend themselves to dramatic representation and the reign of Elizabeth is definitely one of those. Mary plots with King Phillip of Spain to assassinate the English queen. English Catholics, including close relatives of Elizabeth’s privy counselors and ladies, support these intrigues. Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen’s spymaster builds traps to snare these traitors. Meanwhile, Phillip on his own builds the armada to invade England and men like Raleigh introduce fantastic discoveries from the new world. Director Shekar Kapur blends the historical action with an intimate look at the monarch.

The special features on the DVD are also excellent whether it’s explaining how computer graphics are used to depict the sea battles between English ships and the Spanish armada or how production designers had to hide four hundred years of improvements to the churches and cathedrals used as locations for the film.

A Death in Gascony

A Death in Gascony by Sarah D’Almeida. This is another series where I’ve read only some of the stories, but these tales of the Four Musketeers during the 17th century reign of Louis XIII are self-contained and can be read individually. This most recent entry takes place six months after D’Artagnan arrives in Paris while he is still serving his apprenticeship before joining the Musketeers. A letter arrives informing him of the death of his father in a duel. D’Artagnan feels obligated to return to his home in Gascony to investigate and to take over management of the family lands. Naturally, his friends accompany him and when villains twice try to assassinate their young colleague, they suspect that his father’s death may not have been accidental. After settling at the D’Artagnan homestead, Athos, Porthos and Aramis each follow differing investigative trails using their own singular skills and interests. Suspects are plentiful including the widow, neighbors, and relatives. Naturally, Cardinal Richelieu’s influence comes into play here as well and adds further twists to the plots.

D’Almeida’s style is most reminiscent of Margaret Frazer’s, who contributes a book jacket quote (well, it would be a book jacket quote except that it’s a paperback, so there’s no actual book jacket) here. There’s plenty of descriptive prose of the characters, landscape and scenery and, like Frazer, too many pages devoted to the internal deliberations of each character. Fortunately, D’Almeida has four distinct investigators to describe, which at least provides readers with some variety. Also, she does include sufficient action scenes as one might expect from a Musketeers’ tale. Overall, the plot and characters are interesting and I look forward to more of the series.

Death on the Holy Mountain

Death on the Holy Mountain by David Dickinson. I’ve read a few, but not all, of the seven Lord Francis Powerscourt series and found them to be of only middling quality. However, this latest book, though badly mistitled, is the best I’ve seen. Powerscourt, his wife Lucy, and his best friend Johnny Fitzgerald end up in Ireland to investigate a series of art thefts. The country was going through the fiercely contested battles for Home Rule during this period and they play a large part in this story. Dickinson provides detailed histories of the country and past revolutionaries and although informative, these histories do slow down the action considerably in the first third of the book. The victims are prominent English landlords, Protestants determined to maintain their land-based power in an increasing Catholic environment. Powerscourt suspects political intimidation, rather than greed, is the motive behind the robberies, especially when the victims refuse to disclose the threats for future action contained in blackmail letters received from the criminals. There is a strange air of gentility amidst all the danger, partly due to the presence of Lady Lucy, but also due to Dickinson’s depiction of the English nobility’s sense of entitlement and naivety. The “Holy Mountain” referred to in the title is Croagh Patrick, site of an annual pilgrimage, and although a body is found at its summit, the subplot involving the mountain is mostly present to provide humor in contrast to the main story.

Lions for Lambs on DVD

Lions for Lambs on DVD. Sometimes I think I should write my comments about a film immediately afterwards instead of waiting to think about it. When the final credits for Lions finished, I thought it was an interesting, entertaining film, but the more I thought about it, the more negative I became. It seems increasingly difficult for filmmakers to leave their political agendas out of the creative process and just make films for audiences to enjoy, especially when the subject matter is something as controversial as war. Or maybe they’re not even trying. Robert Redford, who produced and directed this film, presents the same tired message that our political leaders are failing to lead, the media is succumbing to corporate demands and a celebrity-mad culture and failing to ask the important questions, and the general populace, especially the young, are apathetic witnesses to it all. However, the packaging of this message is pretty original.

Redford and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan present three interrelated storylines, happening simultaneously over the course of ninety minutes. One thread has an aging professor (Redford) confronting a student with great potential about his personal apathy and society’s general lack of engagement. A second conversation is happening between an aggressive U.S. Senator (Tom Cruise) and an experienced reporter (Meryl Streep) in which Cruise tries to spin a new military offensive in Afghanistan as a brilliant positive move in the ongoing war. In contrast to the two verbal duels taking place in isolated offices, the third thread shows the violent action of the initial stage of the offensive and the consequences for two young soldiers, who happen to be former students of Redford’s; students who also had potential and decided to get engaged by enlisting in the army.

The three unique stories are woven together with effective editing and all are well-written, but it is saga of the two soldiers that is the highlight of the film. Michael Pena and Derek Luke give compelling performances and the frequent flashbacks to their student days add to the development of the characters. And it is this storyline that gives the film its dramatic energy and crescendo in contrast to the other passive conversations. Without it, there’s ninety minutes of content that could just as easily be found on the daily talk shows, well-scripted and well-acted, but not that compelling.

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