Two Medieval Mysteries

The Western Wind     Samantha Harvey      (2018) 

The first-person narrator of this mystery novel is a parish priest, John Reve, in an isolated English village in the year 1491. Novelist Samantha Harvey recreates the late medieval scene accurately, going against some conventional assumptions about priests, religious beliefs, and intelligence in the Middle Ages. John Reve is a smart and well-read fellow who gently corrects his parishioners’ superstitions. Readers are immediately pulled into the story of how Tom Newman, the wealthiest man in town, may have died and what Reve is going to do about the death.  

The story starts out on Shrove Tuesday, the celebratory day before the forty days of the Christian penitential season of Lent. If the tale seems cryptic at first, that’s because the rest of the novel works backwards, day by day, with Reve’s account of each day filling in more of the details of what really happened to Newman on the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday. Clever markers in the surroundings are reminders of the timeline—food noted as being left over on Tuesday is being prepared on the previous days, for example. And we step back to view the European zeitgeist at a time right on the cusp of the Reformation. In a memory of a conversation with Newman, Reve recounts how Newman pronounced a Protestant view of the primacy of the individual soul, without the need for priestly intervention with God: “I can put my case to God and he can forgive me or not, and he can punish me or not. I’m not sure he needs you to arbitrate.” (175) 

The prose throughout is simple yet elegant: 

  • “The vacant happiness of eating filled me; the meat was tastier than any lifetime of bread. One mouthful of it scythed a whole field of summer wheat to stalk and husk.” (89) 

  • “It was a warm afternoon. The church was mellow and dusty, it had its summer smell of ponds and peaches.” (175) 

As you can tell from my many blog posts about novels set in the Middle Ages, I’m a big fan, but I think that anyone who loves historical novels—especially mysteries—would find The Western Wind highly satisfying.

The Last Hours     Minette Walters     (2018)

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My family expressed cynicism upon seeing the cover of this novel: “Really? A book about the Black Death? Isn’t the daily news depressing enough?” Although I was also skeptical, this book presented an appealing plague scenario: In the absence of her husband, the wise lady of a Dorsetshire manor orders all her serfs into the manor enclosure, shuts the doors, and has the bridge over the moat burned. Of course, there are echoes of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which a group of aristocrats sought to avoid the Black Death by holing up in a villa outside Florence, telling 100 stories to pass the time. The Last Hour is one story, not 100, but there’s that same reader’s itch to find out if the isolation gambit works. And Walters throws in a murder mystery to boot.

Like The Western Wind, reviewed above, The Last Hours offers characters who are literate and savvy—some might say they’re anachronistic in their questioning of divine retribution as a cause for the Black Death. They guess that rats might be involved instead. The portrayals of daily living and survival techniques in 1348 are well crafted if long-winded, especially in the middle third of the novel. Readers are not spared any of the squalor or cruelty of the era. I was quite let down to find on page 537 that the story is “to be continued.” So I’ll have to look for the sequel to The Last Hours to find out the fates of those Dorsetshire serfs.

For my full essay on the sub-genre of medieval mysteries, click here.                                  

A Metafictional Mystery

The Word Is Murder     Anthony Horowitz     (2018)

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Not many writers would undertake a metafictional mystery novel, and far fewer writers would be able to write a successful one. Anthony Horowitz has nailed the whole metafictional mystery bit with The Word Is Murder. So how does he do it? And what is metafiction anyway?

I think of metafiction as a kind of second narrative going on in a piece of fiction, so that the reader has one foot in the fiction and one in the real world. Metafiction draws attention in some way to the artificial construct of a literary work. In The Word Is Murder, the fictional first-person narrator is a fellow named Anthony Horowitz, who is remarkably similar to the real-life author Anthony Horowitz. The real-life Anthony has written a trove of mysteries for the BBC (including the exceptionally fine series Foyle's War), as well as the  popular Alex Rider series of young-adult books and several standalone mystery novels (see my review of Magpie Murders). The fictional Anthony has these very same writing credentials. Exactly how much the fictional Anthony resembles the actual Anthony in personality is something readers really can't know, but I get the feeling that there is considerable personality overlap between the two Anthonys.

When you launch into The Word Is Murder, you aren't quite convinced that you're reading fiction, even though you plucked the book from a fiction shelf at your library. Fictional Anthony is telling you about a murder case in present-day London, against a backdrop of his current writing projects, which you know to be writing projects of the actual Anthony. When fictional Anthony introduces you to a rumpled and idiosyncratic freelance detective named Daniel Hawthorne, you're not sure if Hawthorne is actual, fictional, or a doppelgänger of some kind. In fact, all the characters might be real or might not be. But the murder case is gripping.

Diana Cowper is a wealthy London widow, mother of the Hollywood actor Damian Cowper. One spring morning she visits a funeral home to pre-arrange her own funeral. This act is not too unusual; many people choose to spare their families the choices and expense of such arrangements. What is unusual is that Diana is murdered in her home later that same day. The London police detective assigned to the case doesn't think that the two events are connected, but another police official hires Hawthorne to poke around nonetheless. Hawthorne is Sherlockian in his deductive powers and experienced in murder cases from his days in the police force. (He was fired, but that's another story.) Hawthorne persuades the fictional Anthony to accompany him on his investigation, so that fictional Anthony can write a nonfiction "true crime" book about the case.

Aside from all the metafictional shenanigans, the mystery itself presents many avenues for inquiry by the detectives. Ten years before her own death, Diana was the driver in a tragic auto accident that killed one child and severely disabled another. Might their family want revenge? Diana’s son, Damian, is a fast-living and egotistical fellow who stands to inherit her estate. Diana has been involved in what may be questionable business investments. Her housekeeper, who discovers her body, seems less than truthful. The red herrings keep multiplying, in a way that keeps you gobbling up those pages. A warning to sensitive readers (like me): There’s one violent scene toward the end of the book, but you can sense it coming and skim over it.

Horowitz has written a tour de force in both the metafictional and mystery arenas. I read The Word Is Murder on a long train journey, and it was a good thing that my destination was the last stop, because I would have missed it otherwise!

PS—For some non-mystery metafiction, see my review of The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies.

Michigan Mysteries

Summer People     Aaron Stander     (2000)

Color Tour     Aaron Stander     (2006)

And seven additional titles 

The sand dunes, the sunsets, the resiny scent of pine forests: Michiganders will recognize the setting of Aaron Stander’s series of murder mysteries set in the northwest section of the Lower Peninsula, around the tip of the little finger of the hand, along the shores of Lake Michigan.

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The main detective in these novels is Sheriff Ray Elkins, a rumpled middle-aged former professor of criminal justice from downstate who has retreated to the North Woods where he was raised. He’s surrounded by a distinctive cast of year-round residents, who disdain the vacationers renting beach houses during the glorious warm months.  

In the series debut, Summer People, Elkins suspects links between a murder and three subsequent unusual deaths. Stander’s plot is nicely complex, and his characters come to life quickly and believably. The Lake Michigan images are spot on: “Ray paused at the door, looked out at the lake. He could make out the silhouette of a distant ore carrier steaming north to the Straits. From that height he could see the earth’s curve across the horizon and the long line of waves moving toward shore—there was a sense of rhythm and harmony in the scene.” (70) 

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In the next novel, Color Tour, it’s autumn in the Mitten State, the summer people have departed, and an elderly resident discovers a young man and woman murdered on a Lake Michigan beach. Since the dead woman was a teacher at a nearby private school, Sheriff Elkins must painstakingly interview a large number of suspects. As the investigation progresses, evidence seems to point to one character, then another and another, in an entertainingly indirect way. Though I did guess the surprise of the subplot early on, the murderer was a mystery to me until the end. 

The many state references will tickle those who, like me, love our nation’s third (Great Lakes) coast. Small Michigan details drop in on almost every page, as in this description of a minor character in Summer People: “A string tie hung on his chest: A Petoskey stone cut in the shape of the Michigan mitten was centered on the two strands of the tie.” (144) And the folks Up North do appreciate delicacies from other parts of the state. For instance, in Color Tour, a detective is sent south to check out some evidence with the words, “’If you have time on your way out of Ann Arbor, here’s a few things I need from Zingerman’s Deli.’” (152)  

I’m sad to report, however, that these two novels desperately needed a copy editor and a proofreader to catch typos, wrong words, awkward phrasings, and inconsistencies, which distract from otherwise competent writing. I still plan to read more in the Sheriff Ray Elkins series, the seven additional titles of which are 

Deer Season (2009)

Shelf Ice (2010)

Medieval Murders (2011)

Cruelest Month (2012)

Death in a Summer Colony (2013)

Murder in the Merlot (2015)

Gales of November (2016)

Adventures in 1956 Italy

The Italian Party     Christina Lynch     (2018)

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Welcome to Siena, Italy, in the year 1956, when the Italians have regrouped after the destruction and privations of World War II. Rolling into this magnificent Tuscan city are the newlywed Americans Michael and Scottie Messina, in a brand new Ford Fairlane. (Good Lord, how much it must have cost to ship that behemoth for them!) Michael has a job selling Ford tractors to Italian farmers, whom he must convert from their traditional agrarian practices. Scottie will be the model housewife, supporting him.

Italy is a major character here, as Scottie meets the locals and comes to adore the small shops, the camaraderie, and even the gossip. “Everything about it fascinated her—the way food was revered, treasured rather than seen as an inconvenience to be packaged in a way that made it as easy as possible to prepare and consume. Nothing in Italy was ‘instant’ or ‘new and improved.’” (86) An excellent aural learner, Scottie quickly learns to speak Italian. “Here in Italy she felt like a different person altogether—more expressive, more curious, more open.” (58)

Michael, on the other hand, sees Italy as backward, greatly in need of an infusion of American-style mechanization and democracy. And he has a view of his new wife that was common in the 1950s: "She had no mission other than to keep house for him. He envied her naïveté, her unsullied innocence, her lack of secrets. She was the American ideal he was sent there to promote. She was like Dale Evans, he thought: a beautiful, pure, faithful, true cowgirl. She was the only one not there with an ulterior motive.” (55)

Well, not so much. Little by little, the sunny picture darkens as we learn that many secrets lie beneath the surface of this marriage and of this sojourn in Italy. I won’t spoil the revelations for you, but you can know that treacherous international espionage is involved. Still, the sun shines a lot in Siena, and novelist Christina Lynch keeps us bubbling along with glorious meals of pasta and prosciutto and panini and Prosecco. As one character tells Michael, “‘The world is your oyster, my boy. You should suck it down in one gulp and be happy. A beautiful wife, a good job, and an Italian assignment . . . Life here is a party. Join the fun.’” (265)

Yes, this is an Italian party. The title of the novel is certainly referring to the glamorous lifestyle that Scottie and Michael can afford to live in Italy. But it also refers to the political parties that the plot revolves around, and even to the representation of Italy globally. Lynch sets up the view of American exceptionalism that dominated the Cold War era, and then she pokes at its underpinnings, especially through Scottie’s love of Italy. Yet even Scottie relies on a multitude of American beauty products to put together her stunning appearance. In a scene describing Scottie’s daily beauty routine, Lynch itemizes Helene Curtis Spray Net, Lady Gillette razors, Peggy Sage Spice Pink nail polish, Revlon Creamy Ivory liquid foundation, Michel flesh-colored powder, Max Factor eye shadow, Maybelline mascara, Coty Dahlia Pink creamy lipstick, Joy by Jean Patou eau de toilette, Taylor-Woods fifty-four-gauge stockings, and Warner’s garters. (182-3)

The Italian Party is as effervescent and rosy as the Campari-and-soda drinks that the characters order constantly in streetside cafés. The tone is similar to that of A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, another frothy confection with seriousness underlying its brisk plot. I highly recommend both novels.

Mysteries from 3 Countries

In this post are reviews of mysteries from Iceland, the United States, and England, offering quite distinctive approaches to the genre. For even more reviews of mystery novels, go to the Archive in the right-hand column and click the “Mystery” category.

The Shadow District     Arnaldur Indriðason     (2017)    

Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

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I haven’t read a Scandinavian noir since I raced through all three volumes of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc) a decade ago. Those novels were terrifying for me, but I kept turning the pages. Although Indriðason’s The Shadow District is billed on the cover as a thriller, it’s not scary—or even fast-paced—but it’s a serviceable mystery that I would class loosely as a police procedural.

The novel toggles between present-day Reykjavik and the same city during World War II, when Iceland was occupied by British and American troops. In the present day, a 90-year-old man is found dead in his apartment. Looking for a motive for the murder of this seemingly innocuous elderly person, retired police detective Konrad reopens an investigation into the unsolved murder of a young woman that took place in 1944 in the titular Shadow District. Readers follow the path of the investigators in 1944, but Konrad has to uncover the details painstakingly, because records of this unsolved case have (surprise!) disappeared. One thread of inquiry involves the huldufólk, the elves of Icelandic folklore. As a character explains, stories about the huldufólk “can reveal a great deal about people’s attitudes over the centuries, whether it’s their fear of the unknown or their desire for a better life or dreams of a better world. They can tell us so much directly and indirectly about life in the past.” (207-08) If you want to join the stampede for Scandinavian crime stories but shudder at the usual gore, this Icelandic offering may fill the bill. Note that the translation uses British English, so there are a few idiomatic phrases that may puzzle American readers. And the English-language edition of this book spells the author's surname "Indridason" when in fact the Icelandic spelling is "Indriðason." There's quite a difference, since "ð" is pronounced as "th."

The Last Place You Look     Kristen Lepionka     (2017)

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Now, this novel is truly scary, so I had to skim cautiously over several sections in which the tension built. But it’s well written, and I wanted to read to the end to discover the murderer.

Private detective Roxane Weary is the thirty-something daughter of a recently slain Columbus police officer. She had a conflicted relationship with her father, but she’s devastated by his death and has turned to whiskey for solace. Meanwhile, in an Ohio prison, inmate Brad Stockton has exhausted his appeals and is slated for execution. Brad’s sister, Danielle, hires Roxane to see if there’s anything that can be done to save him. Danielle swears that she has caught sight of Sarah Cook, the daughter of the couple that Brad was convicted of murdering decades ago. Sarah disappeared and is presumed dead also. The case gets exceedingly complex and dangerous as Roxane delves into it, drawing plot elements from actual cases that I’ve seen in the news over the past few years.

I found the first-person narration of The Last Place You Look engaging, revealing Roxane as a hard-nosed yet caring Sam-Spade-like detective. Her sexual liaisons with both men and women are treated matter-of-factly, not as aberrations. Lepionka’s characters have substance, and her plot is cleverly orchestrated.  

Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales     PD James     (2017)    

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Renowned British mystery writer PD James died in 2014 at the age of 94, so be warned that this small collection of her stories is not new work. Instead, gathered in a slim volume are six stories that first appeared in print between 1973 and 2006. These are classic James mysteries, very much in the tradition of the Golden Age mysteries that James transformed with a signature wit and careful writing throughout her career. Four of the six stories are told in first-person narrative, and the reader should be wary of assuming that sympathy with the narrator is warranted.

Take this PD James collection along on your next vacation, for engaging reading in the airport or train station. If you want more about the writing methods of PD James, see my review of her 2009 nonfiction book, Talking About Detective Fiction.

A Mystery in Cornwall

The Lake House     Kate Morton     (2015)

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Really, nothing’s new in the fiction game. A few basic plots (the journey, the quest, the betrayal, the discovery) pretty much cover it, plus characters, settings, and episodes from one century or another. A writer of fiction assembles these pieces, using language as the glue and the paint. The artistry lies in wise choices of plot and characters and settings and episodes and language. Chaucer knew this in the 14th century when he reworked old stories and stock types into the magic of The Canterbury Tales, giving life to his pilgrim characters with a most sophisticated form of English. I’m not talking about plagiarism here but rather careful selection and artful re-crafting.

In The Lake House, Kate Morton selects

  • a little of the actual Lindbergh kidnapping case of 1932
  • a smidgen of the character of author Agatha Christie
  • pointers from 1930s Golden Age British mysteries
  • a bit of the fictional 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the 1950s Chronicles of Narnia
  • a distillation of several contemporary fictional female British detectives.

Morton sets all these pieces in the fabulous landscapes of Cornwall and populates her family-saga-cum-mystery with deftly drawn individuals. The passages that describe the natural world in Cornwall and that build the personalities of the protagonists are particularly strong. The novel toggles back and forth between 1933 and 2003, with occasional forays into World War II and the years just before World War I. The time switching can become dizzying, but it allows for plenty of family backstory and for the integration of two distinct plots.

The book is long—at 492 pages, perhaps overly long—and complex. In 1933, during an elaborate lawn party on Midsummer Eve at an estate called Loeanneth in Cornwall, the infant son of wealthy Anthony and Eleanor Edevane, Theo, disappears from his nursery in the night. The boy is never found, either alive or dead, and the grieving family moves to London, abandoning the estate. Skipping ahead to London in 2003, police detective Sadie Sparrow is put on an enforced leave for leaking information about an unrelated case of a mother apparently deserting her young daughter. Sadie decamps to her grandfather’s retirement cottage in (wait for it) Cornwall, where she becomes intrigued by the 70-year-old cold case of Theo Edevane. A key witness from that night in 1933 is Alice Edevane, older sister of Theo, who, at age 86, is the doyenne of the police procedural novel in 2003 London.

Morton throws in innumerable flashbacks, including Sadie’s teenage rebellions, Anthony’s experiences in World War I, Eleanor’s upbringing, the genesis of Alice’s writing career, and even the background of Peter, personal assistant to the aged Alice. Although there are no explicit sex scenes, several romances are included, as well as many, many secrets. The tendency of the Edevanes to keep secrets allows for multiple red herrings in the mystery plotting. I’ve read an awful lot of mysteries, so I guessed about 75% of the secrets. Still, the last fifty pages of The Lake House surprised me, in a good way. I especially relished the final chapter, which takes the surviving characters ahead to the year 2004, giving a brief picture of how they all have adapted to the revelations of the year 2003.

Kate Morton is an Australian writing phenomenon and internationally bestselling novelist, now living in London. I’ve just discovered her work, and I plan to check out more of it.

A Mother Disappears

Swimming Lessons     Claire Fuller     (2017)

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On the southern coast of England, across from the Isle of Wight, the sea is a relentless presence. If you’ve had swimming lessons, you might venture out into the frigid waters, to contest with the treacherous currents. Two of the characters in this novel feel an inexorable pull to the sea, and they’re both strong swimmers.

One is Ingrid Coleman, wife to Gil and mother to Nan and Flora. She disappeared twelve years before the main action of the novel, presumably drowned despite her expertise at swimming. In the month before she disappeared in 1992, she wrote long letters to Gil, recalling how they met in London in 1976, married, and moved into a ramshackle house on the beach. Ingrid’s letters form about half of the text of Swimming Lessons, though where the letters are to be found is mysterious. Ingrid slipped each one into a book that linked thematically to that segment of her story, but Gil owns so very many books that the letters would be hard to locate.

Flora is the second strong swimmer of the novel. She’s never recovered from Ingrid’s disappearance when she was a child, and she displays her anger and grief in her adult relationships. Flora’s point of view is represented in the non-epistolary portions of Swimming Lessons, taking place in the present day. She clings to the belief that her mother is still alive, and she swims on the same beach where Ingrid vanished. “The water was the colour of mint tea, and sometimes if she listened hard enough, her mother’s voice sounded amidst the swish of the weed and the tumble of the sand, telling her to straighten her legs, to keep her lead hand in motion, to swim against the current so that it was always easy to return, even when tired.” (162)

The present-day crisis that brings Flora, her sorta-boyfriend Richard, and her sister back to the family home is Gil’s hospitalization from a bad fall that he takes while chasing after a woman he thinks is Ingrid. Whether the woman actually is Ingrid or whether Gil is hallucinating is another of the mysteries in this novel, which is not officially billed as a mystery.

Despite the richness of the writing, I wanted author Claire Fuller to develop the characters of Nan and Gil more fully. From the evidence presented, Gil is a reprehensible fellow—a middling writer and a manipulative womanizer who lies obnoxiously to cover his tracks. The clutter of his life is reflected in the stacks of books that fill his house to overflowing: “Hardbacks about space and time, paperbacks about love affairs, tumbling together with poetry pamphlets and novella, knocked the top off another stack and then another, like a line of dominos.” (312)

Although I didn’t get enough of a sense of Nan and Gil, the forward movement of the narrative is kept brisk by unanswered plot questions, with twists and turns right up to the end. Meanwhile, Fuller tosses out sumptuous descriptions like this one: “She . . . took the uphill footpath through the small beech wood, the trees stained by streaks of copper where the rain dripped in slippery runnels. She slapped their trunks with the palm of her hand as she passed, as if she were whacking the meaty rumps of giant horses.” (261)

The moral of the story, if that might be allowed, may be that when people are not honest with each other they can be swept away from those they love. Claire Fuller is an author to keep an eye on.

Among My Faves—McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series     Alexander McCall Smith

Some of my friends seem abashed to admit that they read a “soft” author like Alexander McCall Smith. His novels run around 225 pages, with simple plots, mostly lovable characters, and generally happy endings. I can consume one in an evening, and I relish every minute of it.

McCall Smith writes most of his books in series, so you get to know the characters and want to find out the next events in their lives. You can, however, select any book from a series as your first foray, and McCall Smith will provide you enough background to get oriented. I’ve reviewed two of his series previously on this blog:  the Isabel Dalhousie series and 44 Scotland Street series. But the grandmother of them all is McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

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The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is set in Botswana, where McCall Smith taught law in the 1980s and for which he plainly has a great affection. After I’d read a couple of the Botswana novels, I educated myself about this nation in southern Africa (bordered by South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe), to get some context. Since Botswana is at 24 degrees south of the equator, and since the Kalahari Desert makes up about 70% of its territory, you’ll find ample references in the novels to hot, dry, dusty, sunny weather conditions. Thanks to cattle farms and the mining of gemstones and precious metals, the economy of Botswana is especially strong, and residents enjoy a good standard of living, especially with respect to education and health care. Still, the AIDS epidemic has hit the country hard, so a recurring feature of McCall Smith’s books is an orphanage that shelters children whose parents have died from AIDS. The Tswana African people are the predominant ethnic group, and Christianity is the predominant religion. English is the official language of Botswana, but you’ll find honorifics in the Setswana language:  “Mma” for women and “Rra” for men. You’ll also find the English adjective “late,” referring to the deceased, used not only as a modifier (“her late father”)  but also as a predicate adjective (“her father was late”). 

Zooming in to the series, you’ll meet Precious Ramotswe, the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in the capital, Gabarone, a bustling city with a mix of Western amenities and traditional African dwellings and family affiliations. Precious, who is 34 at the start of the series, was raised primarily by her beloved Daddy, the cattle farmer Obed, in a rural village. Although she had a happy childhood, she married the musician Note Mokote, who physically abused her and then abandoned her, leaving her unable to bear children. When her father dies, Precious is able to sell some of his herd to launch her business, the first detective agency in Botswana. She hires the capable Grace Makutsi as her secretary and sets up an office near the auto repair shop of  JLB Matekoni, an excellent mechanic. The detective agency usually takes on cases that involve domestic or business problems—cheating spouses, thieving employees, missing persons, petty vandalism.

Although Mma Ramotswe does thorough surveillance and research, she also applies levelheaded thinking to solve the cases, and she encourages her clients to utilize compromise or forgiveness as part of the solutions. Readers have access to her thoughts as she ponders motives and ethical challenges. McCall Smith’s specialty in his years as a law professor was ethics, and through Mma Ramotswe’s cases he presents many moral quandaries. Is a legal approach or personal reconciliation preferable? What are appropriate punishments for various degrees of crime? How have societal views of women affected attitudes toward domestic violence? At a much lesser level, what should the response be to a coworker who is good hearted and efficient but irritating in manner? These are the kinds of tough questions that underlie the easygoing banter of McCall Smith’s dialogues. He paints scenes of kindness, but not without pushback on ethical issues. Oh, and there’s romance in some of the novels, too.

McCall Smith churns out writing at a prodigious rate. Remember that he’s publishing books in several other series at the same time as he’s writing more for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In addition to the two series I’ve mentioned above, he has books in the Corduroy Mansions series and in the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series. He’s also written versions of African folk tales for children, and he’s produced half a dozen freestanding novels for adults. I’d recommend steering away from the freestanding novels, which vary in quality.

But the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is highly recommended. I offer the list to date below. At your library or book store, be sure to look under “M” for “McCall Smith,” since that’s his full, unhyphenated surname.

  • The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
  • Tears of the Giraffe (2000)
  • Mortality for Beautiful Girls (2001)
  • The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2002)
  • The Full Cupboard of Life (2003)
  • In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (2004)
  • Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006)
  • The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007)
  • The Miracle at Speedy Motors (2008)
  • Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (2009)
  • The Double Comfort Safari Club (2010)
  • The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (2011)
  • The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection (2012)
  • The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (2013)
  • The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Café (2014)
  • The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (2015)
  • Precious and Grace (2016)
  • The House of Unexpected Sisters (2017)

Video side note: In 2008-2009, BBC/HBO broadcast seven episodes of a  television series loosely based on the early books about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I found that these episodes, filmed in Botswana, admirably captured the spirit of the books. 

An Irish Cozy Mystery

Holding     Graham Norton     (2017)

A village in the west of Ireland, a human skeleton unearthed at a building site, gossip about old love triangles, and a bumbling local police sergeant:  all the ingredients for a classic cozy mystery novel. Holding is indeed that, but it goes beyond the genre.

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In Holding, Graham Norton has produced some noteworthy character studies of mature people who are at turning points in their lives. He has readers sympathizing with the middle-aged police sergeant, PJ Collins, who is overweight, underutilized, and desperately lonely. Norton also pulls us into the plight of middle-aged Brid Riordan, who loves her kids but often gets drunk to forget how unhappy her marriage is. Another character is Evelyn Ross, who’s stuck in the past, lamenting a failed romance from twenty-odd years ago. There’s also PJ’s elderly housekeeper, Lizzie Meany, whose background is revealed in a heartbreaking and surprisingly violent segment of the novel.

The mystery plot is not that tricky for readers who read a lot of cozies—I guessed the identity of the bones early on and had a good idea who buried them by the midpoint of the book. Still, the climax of the book, with the solution of the mystery, was suitably tense for me. It’s the unraveling of the story, with the appropriate red herrings, that gives the author scope for more interactions of his characters. PJ, for example, compromises his professionalism in his dealings with two of the murder suspects, and Brid makes some major changes in her family situation.

Holding has such a classic-1930s-mystery vibe to it that modern elements like DNA testing and mobile phones seemed slightly odd at first, but Norton skillfully integrates twenty-first-century technology into a rural Ireland that in some ways has not changed for a century—the pubs on the main street, the church fete, the outlying farms and hedgerows. He does allow, of course, for occasional lapses in phone reception that will advance his plot!  

Although I had never heard of him before, Irish-born Graham Norton is a well-known television personality and cultural commentator in Britain. This status might have gained him some book sales in the European market, but it clearly didn’t influence my decision to pick up Holding at my local library and stick with it to the end. (I have a “50-page test.”  I assess each title that I start reading at the 50-page mark to decide if I want to invest more time it in. I abandon many, many books even before page 50. Holding easily passed this test.)

The epilogue of Holding contains suggestions that more adventures of Sergeant PJ Collins may be forthcoming. I hope Norton takes time from his television career to produce another PJ mystery. I’ll be on the lookout!

More Medieval Mysteries

In my essay on the twelfth-century Brother Cadfael mysteries and in my subsequent posts (Fifteenth-Century Mysteries, Part 1, and Fifteenth-Century Mysteries, Part 2), I’ve introduced you to my minor obsession with crime novels set in the Middle Ages. Authors who write in this highly specialized sub-genre tend to churn out multiple books for their sleuths. Here are two more series that I liked.

The Domesday Series     Edward Marston (pen name for Keith Miles)     (1993 to 2000)          

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After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, William the Conqueror’s Norman barons moved in to subdue the Anglo-Saxon population and redistribute land and assets. In 1086 William ordered the compilation of a massive survey of properties, known as the Domesday Book—in modern English called “Doomsday Book,” perhaps because it sealed the fates of those listed. Conflict is built in to this scenario! Enter Gervase Bret, the brilliant lawyer, and Ralph Delchard, the intrepid soldier, who travel around England investigating disputes related to the Domesday Book and, of course, solving crimes. Descriptive passages in this series are especially fine, and the stories are multifaceted. For example, the plot of The Wolves of Savernake plays well on fear, fantasy, rumor, suspicion, and superstition.

It’s fun to see how Marston works an animal into each title and plot of the eleven volumes:  The Wolves of Savernake (1993), The Ravens of Blackwater (1994), The Dragons of Archenfield (1995), The Lions of the North (1996), The Serpents of Harbledown (1996), The Stallions of Woodstock (1997), The Hawks of Delamere (1998), The Wildcats of Exeter (1998), The Foxes of Warwick (1999), The Owls of Gloucester (2000), and The Elephants of Norwich (2000)

In addition to the Domesday Series, Marston has written a mystery series about a theater troupe in Elizabethan England, featuring the stage manager Nicholas Bracewell. This series has more seaminess and sex. Under his given name (Keith Miles) and the pen names Conrad Allen, Martin Inigo, and Martin Garland, Marston has written dozens of other books set in various historical periods.

The Owen Archer Series     Candace Robb     (1993 to 2008)     

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In the early 1360s, an archer who has lost an eye in England’s never-ending war in France retires to the city of York, in northern England. Owen Archer apprentices himself to a female apothecary, Lucie Wilton, whom he marries. The mystery part comes in because Owen also works as a spy for John Thoresby, who is the Archbishop of York and the Chancellor of England under King Edward III. As Owen rides away to crack cases, Lucie tends the shop in York and gets involved in sub-plots. Although the dialogue occasionally doesn’t ring true for me, the plots in these books are complex and satisfying. The personalities of Owen, Lucie, and numerous supporting characters are believable and well-rounded.

There are ten Owen Archer mysteries: The Apothecary Rose (1993), The Lady Chapel (1994), The Nun's Tale (1995), The King's Bishop (1996), The Riddle of St. Leonard's (1997), A Gift of Sanctuary (1998), A Spy for the Redeemer (2002), The Cross-Legged Knight (2002), The Guilt of Innocents (2007), and A Vigil of Spies (2008). Two other separate mystery series by Candace Robb feature characters Margaret Kerr and Kate Clifford. Under the pen name Emma Campion, Robb also writes non-mystery historical novels set in the fourteenth century.

Applied Ethics in Scotland

A Distant View of Everything     Alexander McCall Smith     (2017)

The Isabel Dalhousie Series

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The detective is a fortyish woman in Scotland who edits an academic journal about applied ethics. Seriously? Only Alexander McCall Smith could pull this one off, and he has, for eleven books in this bestselling series of mellow mysteries.

It all started in 2004 with McCall Smith’s The Sunday Philosophy Club, where we meet Isabel Dalhousie. Isabel is an independently wealthy divorcée, so she can afford to pursue her scholarly interest in ethics without pay, and she has the time to investigate activities she comes across that she considers ethically questionable. “There was no reason why she should become involved in the affairs of others, but she seemed to be irresistibly drawn into them. And every time that she did it, it was because she imagined that there was a moral claim on her.” (69)

You might just call Isabel a busybody, but she has many other defining qualities. She speaks Italian, attends classical concerts, collects fine art, and works crossword puzzles. She treasures her city of Edinburgh, though she’s half American: “Her own heritage, she thought, was enviable: Scottish commonsense philosophy on one side and American pragmatism on the other. That was a perfect combination.” (163-4)

Isabel can be stuffy. She muses on sundry subjects randomly, and she can go off into quotes from the poet WH Auden (whom she calls “WHA”) at any moment. She refers casually to the writings of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. Since I live with a philosopher whose specialty is Kantian ethics, I have assistance with these references, but you can always Google them. The philosophy background adds considerably, I think, to the multifaceted personality that McCall Smith is building for Isabel. (Reader friends of mine either enjoy this approach or despise it.)

Where this series gets spicy is at the third installment, The Right Attitude to Rain (2006), in which Isabel enters into a love affair with Jamie, a handsome, kind bassoonist who’s fourteen years her junior—and also the former lover of Isabel’s niece. As with other aspects of the McCall Smith novels, you’re likely to find the Isabel/Jamie affair either charming or ridiculous. The vagaries of this relationship intertwine with the mystery plots through the rest of the novels.

The mysteries don’t usually involve death. In fact, in A Distant View of Everything, the most recent of the series, Isabel investigates whether a matchmaker’s pairing of a couple is suitable. This plot line is thin, but the ongoing saga of Isabel, Jamie, and their expanding family fills in. Yes, I’ll reveal that the cougar Isabel gets pregnant in her forties, and Jamie is a doting dad.

McCall Smith uses a fair number of Scots words and phrases to add Edinburgh flavor to these novels, but he’s usually careful to provide clues to his dialect choices in the context. In case you’re wondering, though, Scots slang for a toilet is “cludgie,” and in British slang the cheap theater seats, in the highest balcony, are called “the gods.”

And one more thing: the Sunday Philosophy Club doesn’t actually meet. It’s more a pleasant idea. If you want to catch up with the Isabel Dalhousie books, here’s the list to date: The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004), Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (2005), The Right Attitude to Rain (2006), The Careful Use of Compliments (2007), The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday (2008), The Lost Art of Gratitude (2009), The Charming Quirks of Others (2010), The Forgotten Affairs of Youth (2011), The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds (2012), The Novel Habits of Happiness (2015), A Distant View of Everything (2017). In addition, three shorter Isabel Dalhousie stories are available as e-books.

An Accidental Thriller

You Belong to Me     Colin Harrison     (2017)

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Somehow I missed the word “thriller” in the blurbs about this book. Thrillers give me nightmares, so I rarely read them. I thought that You Belong to Me was a literary novel about a map collector. Hah!

Paul Reeves, a 50-year-old collector of old maps of New York City, is indeed a central character, but his quest to acquire rare and pricey specimens is only one of several plot lines that novelist Harrison leads his readers through. Paul’s girlfriend, Rachel, has a little scheme of her own. Then there’s the story of Billy, a tough former Army Ranger from Texas navigating contemporary New York as he tries to win back his gorgeous girlfriend, Jennifer, who’s now married to someone else. That someone else is Ahmed, a prominent Iranian-American financier with relatives who came through the 1979 revolution in Iran with plenty of guerilla survival skills. And guerilla tactics are part of the arsenal of Mexican bodybuilder and hitman Hector, who also gets involved. All of these plots play out on the streets of New York, as we elbow through the lunchtime crowds in Rockefeller Center to reach Christie’s for a map auction, as we creep down a squalid back street behind a grimy weight-lifting gym, as we careen along the Belt Parkway with a murderer in pursuit.

Yes, several gruesome murders take place in the noir New York of You Belong to Me. I tried to zip through those passages quickly, lingering more over paragraphs such as this one, describing a map from 1776: “The large map showed, in stunning detail, the charming young city of New York set amid farm fields, swamps, ponds, streams, and woods, complete with harbor soundings in fathoms. Only months later, in September of that year, much of the southern tip of the city would be consumed in a ghastly fire that broke out in a bordello frequented by British sailors . . . The map also depicted the quaint little village of Brooklyn, spelled ‘Brookland’, and nearby the marshy water of Wallabout Bay . . . The map’s lines were crisp, the detail so magnificent that actual wisps of smoke from individual houses were depicted. Such beauty and precision and provenance made the map fantastically important.” (78)

The title of the novel reveals the theme that unites the narrative: possession. Paul wants to own precious maps of his beloved city. Rachel decides that Paul should belong to her and her alone. Billy and Ahmed both want to possess Jennifer. Hitman Hector wants to acquire the money that is owed to him. Watch out for that greed, New Yorkers! Colin Harrison has your number, and he punches it with impudence and sass. You Belong to Me is the proverbial page-turner, with rapid-fire action and snappy dialogue, but the characters, with all their failings and evil deeds, are strangely endearing. Read this one even if, like me, you don’t usually care for thrillers.

Two Mysteries in One

 Magpie Murders     Anthony Horowitz     (2017)

Anthony Horowitz was the screenwriter for one of my favorite British television series, Foyle’s War, so I was pleased to see his name as the author of a book—and a double mystery at that.

This is the way it works:  Magpie Murders is a mystery novel that bestselling fictional author Alan Conway submits to his fictional publisher in contemporary England. It’s supposed to be the ninth book in the series of cozy mysteries set in a quiet English village in the 1950s, with German-Greek Atticus Pünd as the brilliant detective. If you think that this sounds a lot like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, you’re right. Horowitz inserts an amazingly accurate simulation of a mystery from the golden age of British detective fiction into this novel. (For my blog post on golden-age British mysteries, click HERE.)

Surrounding the text of the Atticus Pünd mystery is another mystery. Susan Ryeland is Alan Conway’s editor. She speaks in first-person narrative, describing her love of the detective genre:  “Whodunits are all about truth: nothing more, nothing less. In a world full of uncertainties, is it not inherently satisfying to come to the last page with every i dotted and every t crossed? The stories mimic our experience in the world. We are surrounded by tensions and ambiguities, which we spend half our life trying to resolve, and we’ll probably be on our own deathbed when we reach that moment when everything makes sense. Just about every whodunit provides that pleasure.” (183-184)

Susan Ryeland sits down to read Alan Conway’s manuscript starring Atticus Pünd, only to find that it’s missing the last chapter or chapters, the essential resolution of the knotty plot that has all the requisite red herrings and suspicious characters. Reading along with Susan, I shared her chagrin at this situation, wanting to know how Pünd resolves the case. Ryeland’s search for the missing ending of the Pünd mystery leads her to another mystery, in the present day, involving Conway himself. Taking on the role of amateur sleuth, she uncovers the modern-day prototypes for the characters in the Pünd mystery. She also discovers innumerable wordplays and hidden references in the Pünd mystery. Never fear:  Horowitz does eventually provide satisfying conclusions for both the Pünd mystery and the Conway mystery.

I found the 1950s Pünd mystery a better story than the present-day Conway mystery, but keep in mind that I’m a stalwart fan of golden-age English cozies. The two mysteries are intertwined pleasingly, and the Conway mystery has a surprisingly violent end, but both are ultimately rewarding to the reader, going beyond just clever. Within the Conway mystery, Horowitz also provides reflections on the nature of publishing and the relations between editors and authors.

I’ll leave you with another quote from Horowitz, speaking through Susan Ryeland: “Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us—the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable?” (70)

15th-Century Mysteries: Part 2

The Roger the Chapman Series     Kate Sedley     (1991 to 2013)

Before reading this post, you may want to check out my essay “Reading Medieval Mysteries” in the Portfolio section of this website. It has a sidebar on the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters, set in the twelfth century. But moving on to the end of the medieval period . . . 

Roger the Chapman is an itinerant purveyor of small household goods and haberdashery in late fifteenth-century England. He tells his tales in first-person narrative, looking back, as an old man, on the adventures of his youthful travelling days. This narrative voice gives an immediacy to the novels, and I find Roger’s voice quite believable. 

The first couple of entries in this series have some weaknesses, with tangents about, for example, how to full cloth, but the series quickly picks up speed, with less didacticism and more challenging convolutions of plot. Roger is an engaging, burly fellow with a large backpack who tramps all around the country—and even to France—to unravel mysteries. His wanderlust allows him to get involved in murders near and far and even to work as an agent for the nobility. Still, he always returns home to Bristol, in southwest England.

Roger has a complicated family history, and the secondary characters such as his wife and his mother-in-law are well developed over the course of the series. If you start with a title later in this series, you’ll still catch on, since author Kate Sedley does a good job of filling in her readers about Roger’s family connections.

Sedley doesn’t affect fake medievalisms but still conveys a sense of the period. I especially enjoyed The Christmas Wassail, in which the murders are set against the festive late medieval celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Kate Sedley is the pen name for Brenda Margaret Lilian Honeyman Clarke, who has written numerous other novels under different names. Here are the twenty-two books in her Roger the Chapman Series:  Death and the Chapman (1991), The Plymouth Cloak (1992), The Hanged Man aka The Weaver’s Tale (1993), The Holy Innocents (1994), The Eve of Saint Hyacinth (1995), The Wicked Winter (1995), The Brothers of Glastonbury (1997), The Weaver’s Inheritance (1998), The Saint John’s Fern (1999), The Goldsmith’s Daughter (2001), The Lammas Feast (2002), Nine Men Dancing (2003), The Midsummer Rose (2004), The Burgundian’s Tale (2005), Prodigal Son (2006), The Three Kings of Cologne (2007), The Green Man (2008), The Dance of Death (2009), The Wheel of Fate (2010), The Midsummer Crown (2011), The Tintern Treasure (2012), The Christmas Wassail (2013).

A Hoot of a Mystery

Celine     Peter Heller     (2017)

Peter Heller’s latest is both a mystery novel and a study of his title character. Celine Watkins is still working as a private investigator at age 68, in spite of her emphysema. She specializes in finding missing persons, especially in reuniting adoptees with their birth families. Celine is feisty, mouthy, clever, brave, discerning, blue-blooded, compassionate, stylish. She’s a hoot.

The story line involves a client, Gabriela, who wants to know what happened to her father, a renowned photographer, some twenty years past. He disappeared near Yellowstone National Park, either killed and consumed by a grizzly—or not. Celine and her longsuffering husband and sidekick, Pete, head west from their home base in Brooklyn, stopping in Denver to borrow Celine’s son’s camper and some firearms. And then we’re into the wilderness. Celine and Pete uncover more and more chilling secrets of the case, on their laptop, through phone calls, and in quirky small-town diners along the way. Celine relishes the danger. She seems to have overcome any fear of death, since she can see her health slipping away, and what the hell, she would have died long ago if she hadn’t sworn off the booze. It helps that she’s a crack shot.

The nature writing in Celine is top-notch, which makes sense, since Heller has published four major nonfiction books on adventure travel at the ends of the earth. A sample: “The sun sets behind mountains but the cloudless sky that is more than cloudless, it is lens clear—clear as the clearest water—holds the light entirely, holds it in a bowl of pale blue as if reluctant to let it go. The light refines the edges of the ridges to something honed, and the muted colors of the pines on the slopes, the sage-roughened fields, the houses in the valley—the colors pulse with the pleasure of release, as it they know that within the house they too will rest.” (94) Yup, that’s the golden hour in the American West.

Celine offers up a zany detective, zippy if farfetched dialogue, a serviceable mystery plot, eccentric supporting characters, and gorgeous descriptive passages. Add some flashbacks that fill in Celine’s earlier life, and those pages flip by quickly.

15th-Century Mysteries: Part 1

In the Portfolio section of this website, you’ll find my essay “Reading Medieval Mysteries,” with a special sidebar on the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters, set in the twelfth century. You may want to take a look at that page before jumping forward in time to the fifteenth century for the medieval mystery series reviewed below.

The Dame Frevisse Series     Margaret Frazer     (1992-2008)

Dame Frevisse is a nun at St. Frideswide’s, a small fictional Oxfordshire convent. She’s  a practical and clever sleuth, dealing with murders as well as with all the personality clashes and power struggles that are inevitable in a religious community. We meet Frevisse when she’s already a mature nun, dedicated to her vocation, but still struggling inwardly with sins that we would consider quite petty, such as jealous thoughts or impatience. It’s tough to be as feisty and outspoken as Frevisse when your conversation is limited by the Rule of St. Benedict to truly necessary speech. Fortunately, there are murder mysteries to be solved, so Frevisse gets permission from her Abbess to interrogate witnesses, for example. She also manages to travel quite a bit, on approved business for her convent or for her own family members.

The first six Dame Frevisse mysteries were written collaboratively by Gail Frazer and Mary Monica Pulver Kuhfeld, using the pen name Margaret Frazer. The rest of the series was written by Gail Frazer alone, still as Margaret Frazer. The series ended when Gail Frazer died in 2013. It’s worth mentioning that a character named Joliffe the Player is part of the action in four of the Dame Frevisse novels. Joliffe was then spun off in his own series of six mystery novels (by Gail Frazer) featuring a theater troupe.

The earlier novels in the Dame Frevisse series are like cozy mysteries set in an English village, with the convent standing in for the village. The pace of these novels is fast, but the quality of the construction of the central mystery varies. For a psychologically devastating one, try The Servant’s Tale; I didn’t guess the murderer at all.

Some of the later titles in the Dame Frevisse series, written by Gail Frazer alone, are more like historical novels, though always with a murder mystery for Frevisse to untangle. The series is set between the years 1431 and 1452, in the middle of the reign of the unstable King Henry VI and at the tail end of the Hundred Years’ War with France. So there are plenty of historical events that can be explored.

Dame Frevisse is cast as a fictional relative of the fourteenth-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer. To emphasize this link, the titles in the series mimic those within Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, though the Frevisse stories bear no resemblance to similarly titled stories by Chaucer. I think that reading the series in order works best, but that’s not essential. Here are all the titles:  The Novice’s Tale (1992), The Servant’s Tale (1993), The Outlaw’s Tale (1994), The Bishop’s Tale (1994), The Boy’s Tale (1995), The Murderer’s Tale (1996), The Prioress’ Tale (1997), The Maiden’s Tale (1998), The Reeve’s Tale (1999), The Squire’s Tale (2000), The Clerk’s Tale (2002), The Bastard’s Tale (2003), The Hunter’s Tale (2004), The Widow’s Tale (2005), The Sempster’s Tale (2006), The Traitor’s Tale (2007), The Apostate’s Tale (2008).

Amazing Maisie Mysteries

The Maisie Dobbs Mystery Series     Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear has recently published the thirteenth entry in her outstanding mystery series starring Maisie Dobbs, a private investigator working in London (and abroad) in the 1920s and 1930s. If you’re a fan of historical mysteries, you should definitely get your hands on this series. It’s essential that you read the books in order from the beginning, so I’ve included the list at the end of this post.

Maisie gets her start in the detective field in a roundabout manner. At the age of thirteen she goes to work as a maid in a wealthy London household. Her employer, Lady Rowan Compton, finds Maisie reading philosophy texts in the home’s library and decides to support the girl’s education. A family friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche, who is himself an investigator, becomes Maisie’s mentor. In 1914, as she is starting her Cambridge university career, World War I commences. Maisie drops out to train as a nurse and then spends the war in France, in hospital tents right behind the front lines.

The war scars Maisie, both physically and emotionally. Her fictional experiences remind me very much of the factual story of Vera Brittain, whose bestselling 1933 memoir of World War I, Testament of Youth, is a tragic account of the casualties of that war and of the profound impact that the deaths and injuries had on families, particularly women, in England.

On the fictional side, back in London after the war, Maisie experiences  romance and despair and hardship. Following more training with Dr. Blanche, she’s ready to open her own practice as a “psychologist and investigator” in 1929. By chance, she meets Billy Beale, a veteran who had been a patient of hers in France, and ends up hiring him as her assistant.

Other recurring characters in the novels are Frankie Dobbs, Maisie’s father, a former costermonger; James Compton, son of Maisie’s first employer; Priscilla Partridge, an affluent and fashionable friend from Maisie’s Cambridge days; Simon Lynch, a brilliant physician in the war; and Detective Inspector Richard Stratton of the London police.

What I love about the Maisie Dobbs series:

  • the character of Maisie, who is a strong, intelligent, independent woman bucking a society that often doesn’t acknowledge her gifts.
  • the way that Dr. Blanche teaches Maisie to breathe slowly, observe closely, and get an intuitive sense of people and situations in her investigations.
  • the weaving into the stories of Maisie’s romantic attachments, mostly tied in some way to World War I and its aftermath.
  • the secondary plots involving Maisie’s relatives and patrons.
  • the meticulously depicted setting of Depression-era London, including everything from the bread lines to the women’s clothing.
  • the wrap-up of every case, in which Maisie goes back, after the crime is solved, to the places and people involved and seeks closure.
  • the irony of Winspear’s placing of a female detective in the period of the great classics of detective fiction. (See my post on this subject here.)

What annoys me about this series:

  • the assumption that the British nobility in the early twentieth century would actually support the education of a teenage maid in their household. I call this plot device “The Downton Abbey Propaganda,” since the same false assumption of noblesse oblige permeated that story.
  • Winspear’s breaking of the fair-play rule of detective fiction, which dictates that the author cannot ever let the detective in the story know more about the mystery than the reader knows.

I want to emphasize that, despite these two objections of mine, I’ve read and enjoyed almost all of the Maisie Dobbs novels. In This Grave Hour (2017), set at the beginning of World War II, is unfortunately the weakest of the lot, with a poorly designed mystery and repeated authorial spurning of the fair-play rule. But do read the rest of Winspear’s books, starting with the award-winning Maisie Dobbs (2003), and continuing with Birds of a Feather (2004), Pardonable Lies (2005), Messenger of Truth (2006), An Incomplete Revenge (2008), Among the Mad (2009), The Mapping of Love and Death (2010), A Lesson in Secrets (2011), Elegy for Eddie (2012), Leaving Everything Most Loved (2013), A Dangerous Place (2015), and Journey to Munich (2016).   

PD James & Mysteries

Talking About Detective Fiction     PD James      (2009)

PD James, the esteemed British author of detective fiction, put together this slender nonfiction book in 2009, a few years before her death in 2014.

In it, she sweeps through the history of the genre, going back as far as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859); taking her time with Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930); explaining the Golden Age of detective fiction in the period between the two world wars; and devoting a long chapter to four women writers of the twentieth century (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh). James then dissects the writing process for detective fiction, examining settings, viewpoints, characters, and plots.

At the outset, she spends some time defining her subject:

“The detective story . . . is differentiated both from mainstream fiction and from the generality of crime novels by a highly organized structure and recognized conventions . . . There must be a central mystery, and one that by the end of the book is solved satisfactorily and logically, not by good luck or intuition, but by intelligent deduction from clues honestly if deceptively presented.” (9-10)

James does touch on related fiction, including thrillers, but her emphasis is on the classic works of detective fiction. She knows this subject intimately, having produced fourteen books in the Adam Dalgliesh series, two books in the Cordelia Gray series, and several standalone novels.

How does an author write a detective novel that becomes a classic? James thinks it’s primarily by creating a vivid and distinctive world that the reader can enter. Here she  comments on what are called “cozy” mysteries, set in an English village:

“Detective novelists have always been fond of setting their stories in a closed society, and this has a number of obvious advantages . . . An English village is itself a closed society, and one which, whether we live in a village or not, retains a powerful hold on our imagination, an image compounded of nostalgia for a life once experienced or imagined and a vague unfocused longing to escape the city for a simpler, less frenetic and more peaceful life.” (135-136)

I was pleased that, more than once in this book, James mentions what she calls “the fair-play rule.” This is the convention of detective fiction that the author cannot ever let the detective in the story know more about the mystery than the reader knows. For example, the author cannot have the detective step aside and speak privately with another character in a dialogue that is not revealed to the reader. Authors break the fair-play rule more often than you’d expect, and I growl whenever I see this transgression in a mystery that I’m reading.

Talking About Detective Fiction reads like you’re having a conversation with PD James, but you have the advantage of being able to flip to a discussion of a favorite author—for me, the section on Dorothy L Sayers. James presents the views of Sayers’s admirers and detractors, but she respects Sayers’s Gaudy Night as “one of the most successful marriages of the puzzle with the novel of social realism and serious purpose.” (112)

I was also eager to read James’s analysis of historical detective fiction. She finds this subgenre especially difficult for the writer, since the setting must be so carefully researched. She mentions among the successful authors of historical fiction Anne Perry and Peter Lovesey (Victorian England), Ellis Peters (medieval England), Lindsey Davis (ancient Rome), and CJ Sansom (Tudor England). Although I call the subgenre “historical mysteries,” I agree with her picks.

I wished for an index to Talking About Detective Fiction, but at least it does have descriptive chapter titles. Lovers of mysteries, especially classic British mysteries, will enjoy it.

Two Tudor Mysteries

Dark Fire     CJ Sansom     (2004)     PLUS    Lamentation     CJ Sansom     (2014)

Matthew Shardlake is the subject of ridicule on two fronts. He’s a lawyer, so he’s the butt of jokes about acquisitive lawyers. And he has a hunchback, so he gets crude comments about his physical disability. He’s trying to keep up with the everyday demands of his legal practice in London, that great center of political intrigue, when a high-level government official draws him into a time-pressured investigation of a dangerous new military weapon. And it’s also the hottest summer anyone can remember.

In some ways, not a lot has changed since the year 1540.

Dark Fire is the second in the series of historical mysteries by British historian and former lawyer CJ Sansom. We’re  in Tudor England, with Henry VIII on the throne, unhappily married to the fourth of his six wives. Thomas Cromwell is his chief minister, seeking to keep both his job and his head. Our hero, Shardlake, is in Cromwell’s camp, supporting the reformer against those who want to restore Catholicism to England. But Cromwell is about to be executed, and the novelist knows that his readers know this—or if they don’t, they can read his Historical Note at the back of the book.

In first-person narrative, Shardlake takes us along on his frantic mission, twisting through the streets of London and back and forth on the mucky Thames, sweating profusely and reeling from the reek of rubbish and ordure. He’s pretty peeved that Cromwell has coerced him into taking this dangerous assignment, by helping him on an unrelated criminal case. Shardlake is also terrified by the numerous attempts on his life; his many narrow escapes do become implausible, but mysteries are often like that. The book has numerous sub-plots, as Shardlake tries to satisfy Cromwell’s demands, carry on with his own legal cases, maintain his household, and possibly pursue romance.   

The mysterious weapon, Dark Fire or Greek Fire, is a petroleum-based liquid that’s propelled out of a metal device to quickly engulf a target in flames. As an ethical man, Shardlake is conflicted about the moral implications of the use of Dark Fire. His pursuit of the formula and of the flame-throwing equipment sends him into the secretive and fantastical world of Renaissance alchemy—a tough place for a man of logic and reason to find himself.

The cast of characters in Dark Fire is large, including both historical and fictional people, and corruption among the court toadies is rampant. Through the diverse characters he creates, the novelist explores Tudor-era prejudices that still trouble humankind: anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, disability discrimination, and intra-religion persecution. His treatment of these issues blends into his narrative, so it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed.

I was surprised to see Sansom’s fairly positive portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in this novel. Dark Fire was published five years before Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel Wolf Hall (2009) rescued Cromwell from the opprobrium of history with a detailed portrait of his rise to power. Mantel and Sansom both seem to be saying that history should not be reduced to simplistic good-guys-vs-bad-guys pronouncements. The historical figure Thomas Cromwell and the fictional character Matthew Shardlake are juggling a dozen balls at once, struggling to stay alive, to build their personal careers, and to act for the good of the nation.

Since Dark Fire was such a fine historical mystery, I decided to read the most recent volume in Sansom’s series, Lamentation. This sixth installment of the Shardlake stories is a slower read than Dark Fire, and it wades deeper into religious and political controversies. I relish the dissection of dogmas and doctrines in Tudor England, but if you aren’t interested in the Tudors’ ever-shifting definition of “heresy,” you may find Lamentation somewhat dismal.

The mystery in Lamentation centers on a possibly heretical religious book, handwritten by the queen and stolen from a locked chest in her private chambers. The queen is Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, who must get nervous in the night about the fact that four of her five predecessors were either divorced or beheaded by Henry. Queen Catherine calls upon our hero, Matthew Shardlake, to make discreet inquiries to find the secret book, to keep her from burning at the stake.

The queen’s book did actually exist, but its theft is fictional, as are the ensuing murders and escapades in taverns and dungeons and wherries all over London town. As in Dark Fire, most of the characters in Lamentation have been invented by Sansom. The pleasures of this novel lie in the interaction of the fictional characters with actual figures in Henry VIII’s court during the final year of the king’s life, 1546-1547. Throughout the text, Sansom points gently to the chaos that we know is waiting at the door when Henry dies: the throne passing to his underage son, King Edward VI (Protestant), then to his daughter Queen Mary I (Catholic), then to his daughter Queen Elizabeth I (Protestant). Sansom even gets in a few non-explicit predictions about the execution of King Charles I, which will occur a century later.

Sansom’s historical references are, to my knowledge, accurate, and only a very few anachronisms of speech creep in to his dialogue. The subplots are engaging, and the scenes of sixteenth-century London, in both the palace and the gutters, are constructed well. So if you like wallowing in convoluted royal intrigue, jump right in.

Here are all the books in CJ Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series so far: Dissolution (2003), Dark Fire (2004), Sovereign (2006), Revelation (2008), Heartstone (2010), Lamentation (2014).

This book review is a bonus Sunday post!