Published October 30, 2008
Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard. Working with someone else’s characters has its plusses and minuses. An author does not have to explain to his audience the history of the character because the previous author has already done so, but the new writer is also constrained by that same history. Bayard manages to overcome this problem by moving Dickens’ Tiny Tim forward by more than a decade into young adulthood. Mr. Timothy is living in a small brothel, receiving his room and board in exchange for tutoring the madam and occasionally assisting an old seafarer in recovering bodies from the Thames. Mostly, however, he relies on gifts from his Uncle N to cover his expenses. His only living sibling is a brother, married and with a profitable photography business. It’s a tolerable life without excitement until he discovers two dead young girls, each with a mysterious brand upon their shoulders. When he comes across a living angel with the same mark, he becomes her protector and finds himself plunging into a dangerous adventure. Primarily assisted by a street urchin named Colin the Melodious, Tim uses all his contacts to combat the evil forces arrayed against them and get justice.
Bayard’s description of 1860 London has a Dickensian feel to it and by moving the story forward in time, he gives himself the ability to have Tim fill in his own history with remembrances. Bayard has Tim haunted by the ghost of his own father to whom Tim writes poignant letters in his mind. These letters provide welcome breaks from the almost continuous action of the story. Bayard has two more books in which he takes real-life characters and puts them into mysteries: first Edgar Allen Poe as a young West Point cadet in The Pale Blue Eye and Eugene Francois Vidocq as the first director of the French Surete in The Black Tower. I have little interest in Poe, but am curious about Vidocq.
Published October 29, 2008
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on DVD. Director Steven Spielberg did not want to do an alien movie, but producer George Lucas said they would be “inter-dimensional beings” instead. Spielberg should have followed his instincts as the weakest part of the fourth Indiana Jones film is not believing Harrison Ford as a sixty-something adventurer, but the crystal skulls themselves. Unlike the mythological components of the first three films: the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara Stones, and the Holy Grail, crystal skulls from an alien race with paranormal mental abilities is so far-fetched as to be laughable and a distraction from the rest of the movie.
The first half-hour is wonderful, classic Indiana Jones adventure with the initial great escape from the evil villains (set in 1957, we progressed from the Nazis to the Russians), a second chase scene via motorcycle, and a mysterious riddle written in a dead language. However, once the action moves to South America, the rest of the movie is only average: entertaining yes, but not spectacular. The self-described “part-time professor’s” problem-solving abilities are, unfortunately, not utilized to their fullest.
Published October 28, 2008
Jade Rooster by R. L. Crossland. As we move deeper into the first decade of the 21st century, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised to be coming across more and more books set in the early 20th century. Just in the last few months, I’ve seen Ronan Bennett’s Zugzwang, Rhys Bowen’s Lady Rannoch series, Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands and Laetitia Talbot series, Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series, Anthony Flacco’s Randall Blackburn series, Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, Clare Langley-Hawthorne’s Ursula Marlow series, Michael Pearce’s Mamur Zapt and Sandor Seymour series, Jody Shields’ The Fig Eater, Frank Tallis’ Lieberman series, and Kate Furnivall’s The Russian Concubine.
Crossland adds his name to this list with an interesting look at a mystery involving the U.S. Navy in the waters off Japan and Korea during the 1910s when the Island Empire was in its ascendancy and annexing its neighbor. An American merchant ship has gone missing, but the severed heads of three of its crew and one passenger are found in baskets in one of the ship’s whaleboats set adrift. Two men: Sabatelli, representing the insurance company, and Quartermaster Hobson, representing the Navy, are ordered to find and salvage the ship. Their investigation will uncover a complicated underworld involving the Japanese military, U.S. Naval Intelligence, the Korean New Hwarang fighters, double-dealing gun runners and agent provocateurs.
Like most of the better HM authors, Crossland includes a great deal of historical information as he lets the mystery unfold. Similar to the Captain Hoare story, there is a lot of nautical jargon here, but it does not overwhelm the tale. Also, like Pearce’s Seymour, Hobson’s ability with languages and empathy for the native population are vital in gathering information. The narrative wanders a bit with tangential sub-plots and Sabatelli disappears for a long stretch of the action, but eventually everything comes together. The writing is not helped however by the poor editing done by Broadside Press. There are several typos and mistakes throughout the book.
Published October 27, 2008
Dmitri and the One-legged Lady by Michael Pearce. Sometimes it takes an author a book or two to fully develop a character or situation and such was the case with Pearce’s Dmitri Kameron, an ambitious young lawyer serving in the turbulent and sometimes corrupt, Russian judiciary system. Dmitri is troubled by the oppression that he sees happening around him in the last decade of the 19th century as the tsar attempts to keep control of a population that grows more restless for the freedoms they hear happening elsewhere in Europe. Yet his family has served the tsar’s for generations and he hopes that by working within the system, he can make a difference.
Besides the government, the other major organization at the time was the Church and during a period of famine, the peasants pray to the numerous icons displayed prominently in each monastery. When one of those icons goes missing, Dmitri is asked to investigate in partnership with a man named Volkov from the Tsar’s Corps of Gendarmes. Volkov is an excellent addition to the cast of characters. He is a ruthless, paranoid inspector who uses Dmitri to gather intelligence about potential insurrections by the people. But he’s not the only one manipulating our hero. His young friends Sonya, Vera and Ludmilla all want him to help with their efforts to support the starving inhabitants of the villages. What Dmitri wants is a better Russia with an independent legal system. He is not convinced that all these competing factions can peacefully coexist, but he knows he’s stuck in the middle of it all.
Pearce’s normal conversational investigative technique, which did not seem to fit in the previous book of this series, is much less noticeable here and the book is better for it. It is unfortunate that the series was not continued as it seemed to be gaining traction.
By coincidence the ILL library that lent this book out was the Thomas S. Power Library at Offutt AFB in Omaha. I’ve been to the Offutt base several times for badminton tournaments hosted by the Top Flight Badminton Club, but have never been to their library.
Published October 23, 2008
The Serpent and the Scorpion by Clare Langley-Hawthorne. Repeating her formula from the first book in the Ursula Marlow series, Langley-Hawthorne manages to bury an interesting mystery under a cloyingly melodramatic Edwardian romance. While in Egypt negotiating business deals, our heroine witnesses the murder of a close friend in a Cairo marketplace. Soon after, another young woman is found dead after a fire destroys one of Ursula’s factories. As the authorities seem reluctant to vigorously pursue either case, Ursula attempts investigations of her own. Several characters return from the first book, Consequences of Sin, most prominently Lord Wrotham, trustee of Ursula’s inheritance and the man she hopelessly longs for but refuses to marry because she wants to prove herself a modern, independent woman. The mystery itself is once again pretty good, with a few surprises, and Ursula’s character does sometimes demonstrate the courage she hopes to develop, but the book is filled with too many passages such as this one:
“She felt sapped of all her strength, small and insignificant compared to the worries that weighed upon her. Lord Wrotham stared straight ahead angrily. She wanted to turn, she wanted to face him and give him the answer he needed, but she couldn’t. The struggle was too great within her. She had to master the effect he had on her, tame the emotions that only became confused and tangled when she was around him.”
There are too many good historical mysteries available to waste any more time on this series, despite its tantalizing cliffhanger of a finish.
I did appreciate the most interesting cover illustration by Scott McKowen, who also did the cover for one edition of the first book.
Published October 22, 2008
Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. The Black Plague. The Pestilence. The Great Mortality. The words themselves were considered so dangerous in the superstitious world of the mid-14th century that they were not to be spoken out loud for fear that the disease would appear as if called. It is into this setting that Maitland present her interpretation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Her band of pilgrims attempting to flee north and eastward through the English countryside ahead of the sickness is rife with mysterious characters including a relic seller with only one eye, a magician with his precious boxes, an albino child reading the runes, a young healer, and a pair of musicians.
Though the story lacks a central mystery (hence its classification as historical fiction), they all have secrets and, over the course of the months spent together, those secrets will cause havoc within the group leading to violence and betrayal. Maitland’s depiction of this troubled group, banded together against an enemy that seems to travel on the wind, is quite dark, but brilliantly done. One doesn’t feel like a part of the group, but rather like a close observer, much like the solitary wolf that seems to track them from village to village and into the wilds. Unlike their ill-fated journey, the story progresses effortlessly with each section allowing a new pilgrim to take center stage or tell their tale and the marvelous ending completes the circle begun in the prologue.
Published October 21, 2008
Hoare and the Matter of Treason by Wilder Perkins. This “maritime mystery” was another recommendation from Carola Dunn on the Crime thru Time Yahoo group. Unfortunately, my library only had the last of the three books in the series that ended prematurely with the author’s death in 1999. Given the number of references to Captain Bartholomew Hoare’s previous adventures, I once again felt at an extreme disadvantage by not having read the series from its beginning. This is especially true of the non-mystery elements of the book, since the opening chapter is a description of Hoare’s wedding to the widow Eleanor Graves. Although some effort is made to describe how they met, I felt like I was ignorant of vital bits of information about their history together. The same holds true for Hoare himself and for the important members of his crew about the Royal Duke, a ship designed to be a sort of floating counterintelligence clearinghouse.
Hoare’s honeymoon is superseded by an order to report to the head of the fleet and Navy Intelligence in London. Once there, he is tasked with recovering “certain documents” that have disappeared from the Admiralty offices. But finding the papers only leads Hoare and his team deeper into a treasonous conspiracy in league with Napoleon’s spy master that involves assassination, kidnapping and danger for both himself and those he loves.
The setting at the start of the 19th century was interesting and the mystery and action of the story were of good quality, though sometimes the villains a bit too openly presented and the cameos by historical figures were annoying. However, what makes the story unique was also one of its major flaws. I found that the frequent use of London thieves’ cant and the abundance of nautical terms made for difficult reading at times and I will not pursue the other two volumes through ILL.