Published July 23, 2008
A Stolen Tongue by Sheri Holman. In one of those strange coincidences, both Past Poisons and the very next book on my stack involve Saint Catherine of Alexandria. In Holman’s tale, Friar Felix Fabri is on pilgrimage from Germany to Mount Sinai in 1483 to honor Catherine, his spiritual bride. He is accompanied by Lord Tucher and his son Ursus, a barber named Conrad and Archdeacon John Lazinus from Hungary. Their trip is disrupted by the discovery that the holy relics of Catherine are being stolen from their resting places in churches along their path. A mysterious woman, who claims that the saint speaks through her, and her older brother along with his Marmeluke servant add to the confusion. Felix assigns himself the task of recovering the relics, but is thwarted at every turn until the climatic scene upon the mount.
The book is written as a diary crafted by Fabri for his brothers at the Dominican monastery in Ulm in which he describes the hardships that 15th-century pilgrims face each day, whether aboard ship, in Saracen-controlled cities or while journeying across the desert sands. His writing also exposes his own secrets and sins as well as those of his fellow travelers. Through this method, the characters and journey are well-developed, but the mystery takes second billing. There are long stretches in the middle of the story with little progress being made towards its solution. This style may be a bit too slow for many readers and reminds me a little of The Grenadillo Box by Janet Gleeson, though the settings are completely different and the language more conversational.
Published July 22, 2008
Be Kind Rewind on DVD. Every film has a few specific highlights that fans remember most: a spectacular stunt or chase sequence, a climatic revelation or twist or, with comedies especially, an outrageous line or stretch of dialog. These moments can make up for a lot of mediocrity in the rest of a film and save it from being a dud. Other times, you end up with a very funny trailer and a not-so-great movie (see P.S. I Love You). In this case, the highlights keep Be Kind Rewind from the waste bin, but just barely. The heart of the movie is two guys (Jack Black and Mos Def) becoming movie producers, directors, and actors as they create short remakes of blockbuster films to rent when Black becomes magnetized and erases all the inventory in Mr. Fletcher’s (Danny Glover) independent movie rental store in Passaic, NJ. The remakes become hugely popular and soon the entire neighborhood becomes involved in the venture. However, the film wanders around for way too long before reaching a groove once the two misfits start their unusual projects and also ends with a bit of a whimper as well. The scenes of them creating these awful shorts are quite funny (especially the one for Rush Hour 2) and Melonie Diaz is excellent as a girl from the local dry cleaners who becomes their leading lady and partner in the business. I just wish the rest of the film had been as good.
Published July 21, 2008
Past Poisons: an Ellis Peters memorial anthology of historical crime. As has been said of Scott Turow and legal thrillers or Sue Grafton and forensic science investigations, there are many who credit Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters, with the explosion of the sub-genre of historical mysteries through the huge popularity of her Brother Cadfael series, beginning with A Morbid Taste for Bones in 1977. Her twelfth-century Benedictine herbalist and sleuth inspired several authors to put pen to paper in an effort to show that a historical setting could provide the right atmosphere for crimes of all types. The financial success of the books, eventually turned into a television series, allowed publishers and editors the freedom to take some chances on these new authors and helped establish the sub-genre as a viable commercial field well before her death in 1995.
I started reading the Cadfael series in 1991 as a public librarian and found in them everything that I now use to judge all other historical mysteries: a realistic portrayal of the historical setting, an interesting investigator using his or her brain to unwind intricate plots, and well-developed supporting characters who continue to grow as the series progresses. These books, along with those of the authors listed below and Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time kindled the passion that I still feel for historical mysteries.
The memorial anthology of short stories published in 1998 showcases many of the premier HM writers of the time, including most of my favorites such as Lindsey Davis, Paul Doherty, Edward Marston, Michael Pearce and Peter Tremayne. Each tale is preceded by a short tribute from the author to Peters describing her influence on their careers. The breadth of settings from Greece, Italy and Egypt to Scotland, London and even Heart’s Castle at San Simeon accurately demonstrates the variety that historical mysteries has to offer readers. It is an excellent introduction to the genre, though I do wish that one of Peters’ own pieces had been included.
Published July 18, 2008
I Wish I’d Been There, Book 2: European History. If I were an aspiring or published historical mystery writer searching for new story ideas, then this is a must read book. Twenty academic historians are asked to write an essay on the one moment in European History they wish they could have attended. Although the majority of moments are political in nature (beginning with Alexander the Great’s death and ending with Germany’s surrender in WWII), there are also essays about critical points in art, music, theatre and science. As with any multi-authored collection, some contributors do a better job than others at explaining the background of each moment, its importance in time and what questions they hope could be answered by being present at the scene, but there are far more successes than failures.
Without a doubt I can see talented mystery writers creating new works surrounding these moments from the book: Hannibal crossing the Alps, the Spanish Armada commanders conferring after their first disastrous day in the English Channel, or the backstage drama as Picasso works with the Ballet Russes. And it’s no stretch to see the natural progression from Margaret MacMillan’s essay on meetings in 1918-19 between the French and English prior to the Paris Peace Conference to Mary Doria Russell’s historical novel, Dreamers of the Day, about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference to the delegation meeting in post-war Egypt in Michael Pearce’s latest, The Mark of the Pasha.
For those that prefer American history to that of Europe, Book 1 in the series should be your choice.
Published July 16, 2008
Vantage Point on DVD. Similar to the Bourne series and “The Kingdom,” this is a very good action movie about a plot to assassinate the President of the United States at an anti-terrorism summit in Spain. Unfortunately, it also reminds me of “Lions for Lambs” in that the more I reflect on the film, the less I like it. Lions’ director Robert Redford let his political agenda overwhelm his success in weaving together three stories taking place simultaneously but in different locations. Here, director Pete Travis avoids political messages and attempts to show how eight people in attendance at the summit have differing perspectives of the assassination attempt and subsequent events. The audience experiences the critical minutes of action from each individual’s viewpoint as the scene is repeated several times and unique cliffhangers leave viewers in suspense. Some of the stories are quite good, such as those of news director Rex (Sigourney Weaver) and President Ashton (William Hurt), but the film overreaches on others. The whole arc with the little girl and her mother seemed unnecessary. The terrorists’ plot was clever at times, but overcomplicated at others and some of the action scenes were not believable. For example, the hero’s ability to repeatedly lose and then relocate the bad guys during the car chase through the city streets and Lewis (Forest Whitaker) keeping pace with trained Secret Service agents as they run several blocks after a suspect. The finale seemed a bit hokey and the subsequent media cover up unrealistic given today’s news environment. However, feel free to make some popcorn and be entertained by this film; just don’t spend too much time afterwards thinking about it.
The bonus features are average, though I did find it curious that the only actor not interviewed was the one playing the terrorist mastermind.
Published July 15, 2008
Summer updates from Clues Unlimited and N.S. Hurt. Last week, N.S. Hurt updated the “New Titles” page of her site with a large batch of recently released or soon-to-released books. This is one of my primary sources for new ideas and it is a wonderful resource, as I have mentioned before. However, I was a bit disappointed with the selection this time. I have read only of the titles on the new list so far (Ruth Downie’s Terra Incognita, which she had previously listed as Ruso and the Demented Doctor), but after eliminating the books set in the United States or after WWI (I prefer non-U.S. based, pre-WWI stories) and the ones that are more historical fiction rather than mystery, I was left with less than a dozen new titles. Fortunately, I’m still working through lists for the last year.
Clues Unlimited has also published its new releases for June/July and I found more success there with five titles not on Hurt’s page to add to my “to be found” list, including Rhys Bowen’s latest, A Royal Pain, and a new Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls by John King. As with their April/May list, the number of books set around WWI and WWII is growing. If you’re interested in mid-1930s Europe, then you’ve got a trio of options with For a Sack of Bones set in 1936 Spain, The Spies of Warsaw set in 1937 and The Map of the Creator, also set in 1937, but in Rome.
As always, you can get release dates for these titles on the Crime Thru Time new releases page or on the New Hardcovers page at Stop You’re Killing Me.
Published July 14, 2008
The Guilt of Innocents by Candace Robb. Johnson County Library of Shawnee Mission, Kansas provided Robb’s latest entry in the Owen Archer series. It’s been three years since I’ve read an adventure featuring the captain of the Archbishop of York’s guard, his wife Lucie Wilton, a master apothecary, and their blended family. Robb is one of those authors that devote as much time to developing the family life of her main characters as she does to the mystery in each book.
In this tale, she specifically focuses on Jasper, Owen and Lucie’s adopted son, who is growing into a young man. He works as an apprentice to Lucie, competes with another apprentice, Edric, for the attentions of the family’s nursemaid, Alisoun, and attends St. Peter’s School. Jasper becomes involved in Owen’s investigation into the death of one of the church’s bargemen after a skirmish with boys from the school. The victim had taken a purse belonging to Hubert de Weston, one of Jasper’s classmates and once Hubert is discovered missing, Jasper accompanies Owen through the winter snows to Weston in hopes of uncovering some secrets there that might shed light on the bargeman’s death. The mystery itself is not too complicated with several clues pointing towards one obvious suspect, but the blending of the action with the daily struggles of the Archer-Wilton household and the detailed rendering of life in 14th century York makes for an enjoyable read.