Archive for September, 2008

Tribute of Death

Tribute of Death by Simon Levack. Although the majority of historical mysteries are set in the familiar western civilizations of Greece, Rome and the United Kingdom (with Egypt being popular as well), history is happening every day and everywhere. One of the most exotic and unusual series out there is Simon Levack’s tales of murder set in the mountains of Mexico in the early sixteenth century. Cemiquiztli Yaotl is a lowly slave who once was in training to be an Aztec priest. As his new mistress and lover, Lily, frequently points out, Yaotl is not handsome and does not possess the strength of the warriors, but his brain is a good one and is really his only tool to escape the dangers from which he constantly seems to be facing. In this fourth adventure, Yaotl’s peaceful exile ends when he is summoned back to the capital city by his old nemesis, the chief minister Lord Feathered in Black.  One of the minister’s captains, an elite otomi warrior, has gone rogue and has been threatening Yaotl’s family and friends. Upon his return, Yaotl finds the situation even more dire as the otomi has teamed up with a sorcerer who hides in the shadows and manipulates events.

Levack does a wonderful job of bringing to life the Aztec world. His focus is on the domestic lives of ordinary citizens rather than on the ministers and emperor and he weaves together the domestic concerns of feeding and sheltering their families with the superstitions and religion which were such an important part of the Aztec culture. Lily and Yaotl’s romance is a nice sub-plot and an abundance of interesting secondary characters add to the story, though our hero’s series of escapes can be a bit unbelievable at times. These adventures are well-written and the setting unique to the genre.

Black Ship

Black Ship by Carola Dunn. Life is certainly changing for Daisy Dalrymple, daughter of a viscount and wife of Scotland Yard Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher. Alec has inherited a house in Hampstead from a great-uncle which will provide considerably more room for the growing Fletcher family. But with the house comes a set of new neighbors on Constable Circle, including a wine merchant named Jessup and his two sons who have agreed to supply an American gang with booze in defiance of the Prohibition rules in effect in the 1920s. Though they are breaking no English laws, when a body is found next to the community’s fountain, Alec is given the difficult task of investigating his neighbors and their connection to the case. With her own dining room being used as a temporary on-site headquarters, Daisy has ample opportunity to gather information about the crime and make her own contributions towards its resolution.

Regular readers of this long-running series should have little trouble figuring out the final solution, especially since they are privy to the key clues much earlier than either Daisy or the police. Unlike the previous story in the series, there is less of a sense of danger threatening our heroine. Instead, there is a more detailed look at the way Alec and his comrades work to gather evidence and put the pieces together. The fluid domestic situation with the new house, servants, and neighbors combined with the description of the rum-running activity off the New England coast will keep readers interested and fans of the series will not be disappointed.

As I’ve mentioned before, there is a growing number of “between the wars” mysteries with female leads, but I consider Dunn’s the best of the bunch. Other characters to consider include Barbara Cleverly’s Laetitia Talbot, Rhys Bowen’s Georgiana Rannoch, and Kerry Greenwood’s Phyrne Fisher.

The Love Guru on DVD

The Love Guru on DVD. No one associated with Mike Myers’ latest venture into self-love (he writes, he produces, he acts) will be thrilled to have this horrible, horrible movie in their filmography. Myers tries to incorporate his passions for eastern philosophies and ice hockey with a script in which he plays a guru hired by the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Jessica Alba) to reunite her star player and his wife, who is now living with a rival goaltender (Justin Timberlake). The guru must overcome his own desires for fame and popularity in order to achieve success with his client and find peace for himself. The attempts to poke fun at the commercialism of self-help experts and Bollywood films generally fall flat and the sometimes sexually suggestive writing that generates laughs in the Austin Powers’ series devolves into trashy toilet humor not worth repeating here.
If you do make the mistake of watching this film, there are a few redeeming points such as Timberlake’s portrayal of the egotistical French-Canadian net minder who loves all things native to his beloved Quebec and whose claim to fame is his overly large central appendage. Stephen Colbert and Jim Gaffigan provide a reasonably funny, though not original, parody of hockey announcers and the hockey scenes themselves are well done despite several factual errors that one would have expected a fan like Myers could have corrected. The bonus features for the DVD have some good moments as well.

Update from Crimes Unlimited

While I wait for Hurt to provide her bi-monthly list of new books, I checked on Clues Unlimited and found two new lists for August, September, October and November with several interesting titles. Although their recommendations also include historical fiction as well as mysteries, I still find good choices here and the synopses are quite helpful. They had new entries from Barbara Cleverly, C.S. Harris, Laura Joh Rowland, and Carola Dunn as well as authors I had not heard of before such as Karen Maitland and Jeri Westerson. I placed seven titles on reserve at my local library and am already reading Dunn’s latest Daisy Dalrymple adventure.

Though I won’t be reading them as they fall outside my areas of interest, two additional works are worth noting. First is David Liss’ new book set during the American Revolution. Liss made my 2004 Book Awards list for his Conspiracy of Paper. Another author who has been on my Book Awards list is David Pierce, who temporarily ventures from his “Dead Man” series to write about a serial killer in American-occupied Tokyo following World War Two.

The Russian Concubine

The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall. After waiting several months for this title to finally arrive at my library, I was quite disappointed to find this novel set in turbulent Junchow, China in 1928 was pure historical fiction with very little mystery. Sure, there are vicious drug lords, unscrupulous English bureaucrats and mysterious Russians that add to the intrigue as China falls into civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops and the Communist rebels. Yes, there is extortion and smuggling and kidnapping and the theft of a brilliant ruby necklace. But all the political, familial and criminal intrigues are secondary to the romantic story of teenagers Lydia Ivanova and Chang An Lo. Lydia and her mother Valentina, a concert pianist whose meager earnings are spent mostly on vodka, are stuck in Junchow with no passport and few job opportunities and are struggling just to survive after fleeing the Bolsheviks in Russia. Lydia attends a school in the whites-only International Settlement with a headmaster who appreciates and teaches about the beauty and history of China. She provides for her family’s expenses by engaging in pick pocketing and selling her trophies in a Chinese pawnshop. On one of these dangerous visits to the old section of the city, she is rescued by the Black Snake tong by Chang, an orphan who firmly believes in the communist cause. The passion that these two young people have for life soon translates into mutual interest as they attempt to protect each other from the criminals and troops hunting them.

As historical fiction, Furnivall does an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary China from the divergent perspectives of the Chinese, Russian, and English communities. Despite the sickeningly sweet romance at its core, the adventure side of it was compelling enough to keep me interested. In fact, my favorite character was the elderly tong leader, who exercises complete control over his gang and the Chinese part of the city and manipulates events in the International Settlement as well, but whose own family structure crumbles around him as he can’t control the actions of the next generation looking to create a vastly different country. The open-ended conclusion allows for the story to continue in a second forthcoming volume.

For those looking for an excellent mystery set in this time period and location, I recommend Tom Bradby’s The Master of Rain, based in 1926 Shanghai.

Nox Dormienda

Nox Dormienda: a long night for sleeping by Kelli Stanley. If you’re tired of the many “Romans in Britain” historical mysteries, then you may want to pass on this tale set in 83 AD Londinium, but just like there are differences between the television hospital dramas, Grey’s Anatomy and House, there are differences between Ruth Downie’s army doctor, Gaius Ruso, and Stanley’s Arcturus. For one, Arcturus is half-native, half-Roman with no mention of a family back in Rome demanding money and trying to get him married, problems that Ruso struggles to overcome. Second, Arcturus is doctor to the provincial governor, Agricola, based in what passes for a cosmopolitan city in Britannia, whereas Ruso travels with the army in much more rural surroundings. Arcturus must manage the political scene in Londinium and an arrogant head of the vigiles, but doesn’t seem overburdened with medical cases that could distract him from solving problems for his patron.

On a cold December afternoon, Arcturus is visited by a beautiful native woman, Gwyna, who knows of his investigative talents and has come to warn him that a spy has been sent from the Emperor Domitian with a message demanding Agricola’s resignation. When the spy soon turns up murdered and the message vanishes, the good doctor realizes that the governor will be the prime suspect. Unless he can uncover the true killer before the news reaches Rome, Agricola’s life will be forfeit. The investigation takes Arcturus into the city’s brothels and palaces and brings him in contact with rebellious natives and the Druid, Mithran, and Christian cults active in the region at the time. His interest in Gwyna also creates turmoil and stress within his usually peaceful household. In the end, a nasty conspiracy is revealed, but the status quo is changed as well.

The author claims to be introducing a new genre of Roman Noir featuring hard-boiled prose in the style of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Perhaps it was a bit darker with a touch less humor, but I did not sense much change in tone compared to other Roman-based mysteries with scrappy detectives. My biggest problem with the book was the sense that I had missed the opening act. There were frequent references to previous cases and histories between characters that established their relationships, but few details. Perhaps that is part of the Noir style, but I found myself having to confirm that this is Stanley’s debut novel. There is a short story featuring Arcturus that is available online and I think fans would be well-served to read it before attempting the novel. The author also says that “various bits of Latin are peppered throughout the story, in the hope that readers will savor their sounds and maybe decide to learn the language.” To my tastes, the peppering was too much. There is a helpful glossary at the back of the book, but no mention of it in the front, so unless you go searching for it, it remains hidden. However, the story is well-paced and the characters and the mystery are interesting. I enjoy all the stories in this setting and will look forward to the next Arcturus mystery.

Crime thru Time part 2

Although the author/title database is the core of the Crime thru Time site, there are several other important and useful features. If you’re one of those readers that relies on reviewers to help weed through all the options out there, even in a sub-genre as specific as historical mysteries, then CTT’s reviews page is for you. They have partnered with the expansive book review site, myshelf.com, to provide reviews of any HM book that appears on their site. All of the more than 500 reviews are listed on one page and arranged alphabetically by author’s last name and then by title. Links are provided to the myshelf site with each review being about 300 words and including publisher’s and setting information. Newer reviews also include a book cover image and a link to amazon.

For book lovers who have a craving to devour everything set in Ancient Greece or the Tudor period or any of the many others eras throughout time, then the Timelines page will be a valuable resource. Each era gets its own section with three sections covering all the history of man prior to 1000 AD: Before Common Era, Ancient, and Early Medieval. Beginning with the 11th century, each 100 year span gets its own section.  The lists for each section are not arranged chronologically, but rather by author’s last name. Each entry includes a link to the author’s full entry in the main database, the name of the series or title of stand-alone book, country of setting, and, of course, time setting as well. One handy tool, especially for Anglophiles, is that at the top of each section includes date information on the reign of every ruler since William the Conqueror plus selected other world-renowned leaders.

One of the few areas of the CTT site that has been a bit of a disappointment is the Recent Releases page, which lists all releases made during the current year. Each entry includes title, pricing, publisher and main character data and, like the Timelines page, a link back to the author’s full entry in the main database. Although it covers an entire year, the page is broken into monthly sections and it is updated throughout the year to keep it current. However, the inclusion of both hardback and paperback editions as well as releases in the UK and US leads to a lot of duplicated information or entries for books I’ve already read.

Although technically not part of the web site, I must also mention the CrimeThruTime Yahoo group. This active (five or six messages daily on average), vibrant group of readers and authors discuss all aspects of the historical mystery genre. The topics of discussion are quite varied from book recommendations and criticisms, to resources for research and the use of period language. Occasionally members stray, but moderator Malo brings them quickly back into line. Having a great number of HM authors as active participants in the discussions brings tremendous insight into the writing process and the travails of being a professional writer as members benefit by learning directly from Alan Gordon, Carola Dunn, I.J. Parker, Priscilla Royal, Margaret Frazer, Sharan Newman, Mary Reed and others.

Overall, the Crime Thru Time site and group are amazing and continue to keep me interested in historical mysteries. I can’t thank Kim Malo, who works so hard on the site, and all the authors enough.


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ascot6361 at yahoo.com

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