Archive for November, 2008

Taking a break

I will be taking a break from writing until after the Thanksgiving holiday.  I’m in the middle of an out-of-state job interview and the preperation for that and the concurrent real estate search are taking up some time.

I am still reading though and finished Sara Fraser’s historical mystery, The Resurrection Men.  I enjoyed it very much and will go back to read the first book in the Constable Thomas Potts series, at which point I expect I’ll write a reveiw.

Our badminton tournament went well this weekend.  We had sevety-one participants from nine states.  You can find pictures of the event here.


Veil of Lies

Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson. There is much to like in this debut historical mystery set in the reign of the boy king Richard II and yet it could still be better. Our hero, Crispin Guest, was once a knight before siding with wrong nobles eight years earlier after the Edward III’s death. His treasonous actions led to being degraded, stripped of his title and all his possessions. He now works as a Tracker, investigating problems and finding missing objects for his clients. The pay is miniscule and he lives in a single room above a tinker in London’s Shambles. This history allows the author to introduce a broad range of characters from all levels on England’s economic and social classes, from Guest’s former mentor, the Duke of Lancaster, to his current servant, Jack Tucker, an eleven-year-old orphan, beggar and thief (who bears not a passing similarity to Louis Bayard’s 1860s street urchin, Colin the Melodious, in Mr. Timothy). Jack and the Sheriff Simon Wynchecombe, who has an uneasy, yet profitable, relationship with Guest, are two worthwhile characters likely to reappear in future books. Yet Guest spends much of his time alone and unfortunately, readers are forced to listen to his internal dialogues about his fall from nobility and his subsequent thoughts about class rank.

Westerson’s mystery is complex with many twists and turns, but perhaps a few too many as she tries to include a foreign criminal syndicate, Saracens, imposters, long-forgotten relatives, a holy relic, secret passageways, a beautiful widow, and an evil Sherriff all in one story. This overabundance of plot points is a trap that many first-time authors fall into, but the writing process is difficult and getting that first book published even more so, as Westerson describes in detail on her very good blog (which has several interesting companion sections in support of the book). So readers may excuse an author trying to cram too much into one story in an effort to appeal to all audiences. Along those lines, there is the inevitable romance which comes into Crispin’s life. Until the very end, Westerson handles this well, but becomes a bit overdramatic at the end.

Her depiction of 1380s London as a dark city filled with dangerous citizens all of ranks and covered with a layer of soot and grime is quite vivid. However, she does have a tendency to be repetitive in some of her descriptions, such as the “ratlike” Lenny. Also, she mentions men’s hands on their daggers so many times I was tempted to turn it into a drinking game. I understand using the action to convey danger and tension, but if this was so common an occurrence, then it need not be mentioned.

These are minor quibbles and easily rectified or, if not, then to be tolerated in an otherwise good adventure. The series has promise and I look forward to Serpent in the Thorns, yet another “snake” title, next year.

My name on television

Have you ever wondered how characters get named on television shows? What would it be like to share the name of a famous character like Richie Cunningham, Sam Malone or Adrian Monk? I have a fairly common first name, but my last name can be spelled several ways and my family’s is one of the more unusual ones. I’ve seen the other variations a few times with different first names, but imagine my surprise when I heard my whole name coming out of the set earlier this week. I expected to be disappointed once again, but there in the background was a plaque with the exact spelling. Wow.

Unfortunately, my namesake was a murder victim who remained unseen until his decomposing body was found dumped in a freezer. He did briefly come to life in a flashback showing his murder by bludgeoning. Even in life, he wasn’t that sympathetic a person. He was a workaholic who ignored his family to the point of being unconcerned about the affair his wife was having with one of his employees and he contributed to his son-in-law’s gambling addiction by hiring him to work with “whales” at his casino.

Still, that was my name on screen and since I don’t plan on a reality show appearance anytime soon, it will probably be the only time it happens.

The Black Tower

The Black Tower by Louis Bayard. Unlike his previously-reviewed title about a grown-up Tiny Tim, Bayard accepts an altogether different challenge in his new book by writing about the real-life character, Eugene Francois Vidocq, the first director of the French Surete and the inspiration for several fictional private detectives. During the days of the Restoration in 1818 Paris, Bayard has Vidocq investigating the possible reemergence of Louis-Charles (Louis XVII), son of the deposed Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Charles supposedly died in 1795 while imprisoned in the Black Tower, but imposters have been reappearing and claiming the throne ever since Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo brought the monarchy back into power. Vidocq drags into the investigation our narrator, Hector Carpentier, son of the doctor who tended to the dauphin in prison. Hector’s association with Vidocq leads him into several instances of physical danger, but also forces him to reexamine his father, his mother and himself.

Thankfully, Bayard’s well-crafted writing from his previous books is in evidence once again in this tale. His Restoration Paris is just as vivid as his Dickensian London and the supporting characters, such as the aged Father Time, friend to Hector’s father, enliven the action-filled narrative. Many characters are named after people from Vidocq’s real life, but, although many claimants to the French throne certainly came forward, the author’s ambiguous ending does not propose with any certainty that the dauphin escaped the Tower and survived. As he did in Mr. Timothy, Bayard actually uses two writing styles, including entries from the doctor’s journal from his days caring for the prince.

Dancing with Demons

Dancing with Demons by Peter Tremayne. Sometimes I just feel like a hypocrite. I have criticized authors in the past for spending too much time on character development and not enough effort on writing intricate mysteries. And yet, I was not entirely satisfied with Tremayne’s latest Sister Fidelma adventure, even though it is has one of the most complex plots in a series that features compelling mysteries. The High King of Ireland has been murdered in his bed within the closely-guarded royal enclosure. In order to insure a smooth transfer of power to the new High King, the Chief Brehon asks Fidelma to come from Cashel with her husband Brother Eadulf to investigate the motive behind the crime and to uncover any unknown collaborators. What they discover is a whole troop of conspirators, each with their own agenda, and a myriad of motives: political, religious and personal. Each chapter reveals a new layer to the crime right through to the final pages.

What is lacking from the story is any development of the two main characters or their marriage. Unlike Pat McIntosh, Tremayne has struggled to move his husband-and-wife investigators forward in their relationship, which has stagnated in the last few books of the Fidelma series. The only change that I’ve noticed in recent books is that Fidelma seems to becoming even more arrogant in her dealings with others, a character flaw that she recognized early on and tried to contain. However, she has done a poor job of it lately.

One similarity to McIntosh’s 15th century Glasgow mysteries is Tremayne’s frequent use of local dialect. Every single page contains some 7th century Irish term, which then needs to be translated into its current Anglicised equivalent. As critics of McIntosh have pointed out, this can be very annoying and distracting and takes away from the flow of the story even as it adds texture and flavor to descriptions of the setting.

Perhaps it’s asking too much of authors to write complex mysteries and to keep their characters growing over a long series of books.

Murder on the Brighton Express

Murder on the Brighton Express by Edward Marston. After the disappointing previous book in the Railway Detective series, this adventure is a slight improvement in that it at least keeps much of the focus near an actual railway. Detective Inspector Robert Colbeck and his Sergeant Victor Leeming face many obstacles in this case set in bustling 1854. First, they must convince an antagonistic Inspector General of Railways, Captain Ridgeon, and a disbelieving and mocking press corps that a head on collision between the Brighton Express and a cargo train was a deliberate act of derailing the passenger train by another party or parties and not an accident caused by the recklessness of the driver. Then, they must prove to their demanding boss at Scotland Yard, Superintendent Tallis, that the criminal was not just seeking to cause mayhem and damage to the train in general, but was in fact targeting a specific passenger on board. The dashing Colbeck’s prime candidates are an executive of the railway line and an outspoken Member of Parliament, both known to regularly take the Express home on Friday evenings and also known to have enemies in abundance.

Although the pace of the book is quite good as is the interplay between the primary characters, Colbeck, Leeming, Tallis, and Colbeck’s girlfriend, Maddy Andrews, but there is no special spark present. Rather there are some nagging problems with both plot and character development. Colbeck fails to provide compelling evidence for his “specific target” theory, and though he is proved correct in the end, even then his success is due less to diligent investigative work or exceptional deductions, but rather to mistakes made by his adversary. Further, the criminal seems to act out-of-character for his profession, makes poor choices, and is only captured by chance and by Colbeck taking unnecessary risks. This story does give readers more insight in Leeming’s character, but the relationship between Colbeck and Andrews does not move forward at all. Regular readers of this series will again find this story satisfactory at best.

Fans of railway mysteries may want to consider Andrew Martin’s more gritty series featuring Jim Stringer and set in the 1900s.


Silks by Dick Francis and Felix Francis. This second Francis father-son collaboration is an improvement over last year’s restaurant-and-racing-themed Dead Heat with more suspense and a better villain, though long-time readers of the series may accurately solve the puzzle well before the end. The book’s title not only refers to the brightly colored attire seen on the horse racing tracks, but to the more somber robes worn in the courtroom as the theme this time is the British legal system. Our hero, narrator, and sleuth is defense barrister and amateur jockey Geoffrey Mason. When another jockey is accused of murdering one of his rivals, Mason is blackmailed into taking the case and intentionally losing it. Convinced that his client is being framed, Mason rebels against the man whispering his threats over the phone and sets out to uncover the real motive and criminal behind the murder. Along the way, Mason finds that his widower’s heart is ready, after seven years of hibernation, for romance once again in the form of an equine veterinarian.

This title, like almost all of Francis’ previous works, is fast-paced and filled with interesting bits of information related to its non-racing theme. Readers will learn a considerable amount about British legal procedure, its history and how it differs from its American and European counterparts. What makes this book special however is the character of Julian Trent, a violent and intelligent criminal who serves as enforcer for the mastermind behind the scenes. Trent’s relentless and vicious cold-hearted brutality and his ability to appear unexpectedly keep Mason, and readers, on edge. Readers are given two climaxes, one within the courtroom and one much more personal.

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