Day 1082: Revelation

Cover for RevelationIn C. J. Sansom’s fourth Matthew Shardlake novel it is 1543. Matthew’s experiences working for Thomas Cromwell have driven him away from his former Reformist religious views, and he has been avoiding becoming involved in political cases. He has never been happier working for ordinary people in the Court of Requests.

But soon his friend Roger Elliard is murdered in a most peculiar way, and Matthew vows to Roger’s widow Dorothy that he will find the killer. This purpose forces him to work for Archbishop Cranmer, along with the Earl of Hertford and Thomas Seymour, who are all worried that Roger’s death has something to do with Lady Latimer, Catherine Parr, whom the king is courting. Their fears are because of a similar murder of Dr. Gurney, who attended Lord Latimer during his final illness. They appoint Matthew to work with Coroner Hartsnet to find the murderer.

Of course, their fears are political. Henry VIII has been turning more and more back to conservative religious views, away from the Reformists. The Seymours and Cranmer see a marriage to Catherine Parr as the only hope for Reform. The English are more and more polarized by religion, with fanatical Reformists ranting in the street on the one hand while Bishop Bonner cracks down on them on the other.

Soon Matthew is convinced that there have actually been three murders. Further, they are modeled after passages in Revelation that detail seven ghastly visitations.

Although Sansom’s Shardlake mystery novels create a fully realized world with highly developed, convincing characters, there is something about them that holds me back from complete attention. I am always mildly interested but not absorbed. In this case, the novel took me an unheard of twelve days to read. That makes me happy that I have only one more to read, the one for my Walter Scott Prize project, although since I understand there is only one more after that in the series, I may choose to finish the series.

Don’t misunderstand me. These novels have complex mysteries that are difficult to guess and are well researched and interesting. I think lots of people would and do love them. I have personally not been able to decide why I’m not that involved. Perhaps Matthew Shardlake is too depressive for me.

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Day 1079: Murder in the Dark

Cover for Murder in the DarkOne of our pleasant discoveries since moving is to find that the local PBS station schedules lots more murder mysteries than Austin did, including our favorite, “Midsomer Murders.” On another channel, we also discovered the “Miss Fisher Mysteries,” based on the Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood being reissued by Poison Pen Press. When I saw that Netgalley was listing three of the series, I promptly requested them.

Phryne Fisher is a sort of flapper detective in this Australian series set in 1920’s Melbourne. Murder in the Dark is the 16th in the series. For those of you who have been watching the TV series, I have to warn you that this novel bears very little resemblance to the episode of the same name.

Christmas is nearing when Phryne begins to receive threats related to the Last Best Party, a house party given by siblings Gerald and Isabella Templar. Someone does not want Phryne to attend and even sends her a Christmas present of a poisonous snake. Of course, this makes Phyrne determined to attend.

When she speaks to Gerald about it, he admits that someone has sent him death threats. Soon after she arrives at the house, Gerald’s adopted son, Tarquin, disappears, as Isabella’s adopted daughter, Marigold, has already done. Although they thought Marigold had run away, Tarquin seems devoted to Gerald. Phryne also begins a sort of scavenger hunt, as she receives clues, supposedly from the murderer, that each lead to the next.

Phyrne soon finds out from her sources that someone has hired a hit man. Unfortunately, the description of the man is so vague that it could apply to most people.

In the sybaritic atmosphere of the party, Phryne tries to find the clues and locate the hit man before he kills someone. Since the guests include members of the upper classes, polo players, musicians, hashish smokers, the acolytes of the hosts, and even a goat lady, there are a lot of characters roaming about.

This novel was a pleasant enough light reading experience. The culprit wasn’t readily guessable because there was so little information about the plethora of characters. And indeed Greenwood cheats a bit by having, count ’em, three different culprits. I did glancingly guess the identity of the person who hired the hit man but dismissed the idea because it didn’t seem to make sense.

link to NetgalleyOne character who doesn’t appear in the TV series (oops! not until after I wrote this) is Phryne’s lover, an elegant Chinese man named Lin Chung. In this book, at least, he seemed to be completely unnecessary, perhaps only around to make Phryne’s behavior at the party seem more scandalous. But maybe he is more important in some of the other books. In any case, the TV show centers around a flirtation between Phryne and the police inspector, Jack Robinson, that does not seem to be present in the novels. Or maybe I’m talking from too little exposure to Phryne’s world.

Normally, I would avoid mysteries like this that go into great lengths to describe Phryne’s clothes and are too detailed about her love affairs. I have two more to read, so we’ll see how well I can stand it. In any case, these novels are like popcorn, light and fluffy.

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Day 1045: Sovereign

Cover for SovereignI am working my way through C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series so that I can cross his fifth novel off my Walter Scott prize list. Sovereign is Sansom’s third, set in 1541.

Henry VIII is now married to Catherine Howard, and he is already engaged in a progress through the north when the novel begins. Archbishop Cranmer asks Matthew to meet the progress in York and help handle and judge the legal petitions that will be presented to the king. In addition, he asks Shardlake to see to the welfare of the state prisoner and make sure he stays alive until he gets to the Tower of London.

Once Matthew and his assistant Jack Barak arrive, things get complicated. His fellow lawyer in charge of petitions, Wrenne, seems like a nice man, but Matthew does not like Fulke Radwinter, the jailer for the prisoner Broderick. And there are complications. Shortly after arriving, Matthew finds the body of a glazier, Oldroyd, who has fallen into a cart of glass. The man in charge of the investigation, Sir William Maleverer, is up to his ears in corrupt land deals with Matthew’s great enemy, Sir Richard Rich.

When Matthew and Barak search Oldroyd’s house, they find a locked box in a hidden compartment. They take the box to a safe place in their lodgings, where Barak opens it, but as he is glancing through the papers inside, someone knocks him out and steals them.

After that incident, someone begins trying to kill Matthew. But are the murder attempts connected with the prisoner and his treason, the stolen papers, or Matthew’s law case against Richard Rich?

As usual, I found this novel full of period detail and knowledge of Tudor history. In the background of the novel is the story of Catherine Howard’s downfall. Shardlake, who became disillusioned with Thomas Cromwell and the Reformation in the first novels, now begins to view his monarch with distaste. The series is an interesting one, and I’m happy to continue reading it.

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Day 1027: In the Month of the Midnight Sun

Cover for In the Month of the Midnight SunI enjoyed Cecilia Ekbäck’s first novel, Wolf Winter, very much, so I was delighted to hear that her second was out and ordered it right away. This novel is also set in the Lapland area of Sweden, near the fictional Blackåsen Mountain, but it takes place about 75 years later, in 1856.

Magnus Stille is an administrator at the Bergskollegium, the Swedish Board of Mines. His father-in-law, who is also the state minister of justice, asks him to travel north to investigate a situation that has developed. Three men have been murdered, apparently by a Lapp. The minister wants to make sure the murder is not related to a Lapp uprising, which could put a huge mining agreement in jeopardy.

At the last minute before Magnus leaves, the minister asks him to take along his sister-in-law, Louisa. Louisa has gotten into some kind of trouble, and her father is apparently throwing her out of the house.

These two characters act as narrators of the novel, along with Büjá, an older Lapp woman who is grieving for her husband. Also speaking at times is Nila, Büjá’s dead husband.

Magnus has not been asked to go all the way to Blackåsen Mountain, but when he meets the Lapp, he is not sure he believes he is the murderer. So, he decides to walk all the way to the remote village. Once he gets there, he feels there is something terribly wrong at the foot of the mountain.

Like Wolf Winter, In the Month of the Midnight Sun features tension between the native ways of the Lapp and the settlers’ Christianity. It also has a supernatural element to it. The unusual setting makes these novels really interesting, as does Ekbäck’s talent for depicting her characters.

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Day 1008: An Officer and a Spy

Cover for An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and a Spy is about the Dreyfus Affair. Of course, we know how the Dreyfus affair turned out, but in writing about it, Robert Harris has managed to infuse the story with suspense. He accomplishes this by concentrating not on what happens to Dreyfus himself but on the man who exposed the sham.

At the beginning of the novel, Georges Picquart is only peripherally involved in the Dreyfus affair, but the generals in charge see him as helpful and he is rewarded by being put in charge of the Statistical Section, the army’s intelligence department. Picquart does not want the post, but he soon finds he is good at his job.

His staff seems distrustful of him, while he believes that some of their methods are sloppy. He receives intelligence that indicates that there is still a traitor in the French army, and it is not long before he figures out that the army has found Dreyfus guilty for crimes committed by a Major Esterhazy.

When Picquart notifies his superiors of what he believes is a mistake, his investigation is shut down. Soon, he is sent on a mission out of the country and begins to believe that his own staff is working to discredit him. It becomes clear to him that Dreyfus was actually framed for Esterhazy’s crimes in a climate of antisemitism.

Soon, Picquart is striving to save his own career and reputation. But he also refuses to give up on his campaign to right a wrong.

This novel is deeply involving and at times truly exciting. I have not read Harris before, but picked this up because of my project to read finalists for the Walter Scott prize and since I have read it, have read most of Harris’s Cicero trilogy. This novel is a masterful historical novel that is full of suspense.

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Day 974: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d

Cover for Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mew'dI wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue with Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mystery series, because it seemed to be going a bit off-kilter with the turn toward espionage. Still, at the end of the last novel, Flavia was sent home from school, and I thought I would continue with the return to Bishop’s Lacey.

Now 12 years old, Flavia returns near Christmas time happy to be home, but her expectations of being greeted by the family aren’t met. Instead, only Dogger comes to the station, reporting that Flavia’s father is in the hospital with pneumonia.

Flavia isn’t allowed to visit him, so she distracts herself by going out to see friends. The vicar’s wife, Cynthia Richardson, is also ill and sends Flavia on an errand to take a message to Mr. Sambridge, the church wood-carver. At Sambridge’s she finds the man dead, hanging from a frame on the back of his bedroom door.

One clue Flavia picks up is a curious link to Oliver Inchbald, the author of children’s poetry who has been dead for some years. Mr. Sambridge has a collection of his books, including one owned by a local girl, Carla Sherrinford-Cameron. When Flavia looks into this connection, she finds that Inchbald died in odd circumstances, apparently pecked to death by seagulls on a small island. The woman who identified the body died shortly thereafter in an aqualung accident.

Were all these deaths suspicious? As Flavia investigates, she turns up some odd connections.

link to NetgalleyThis Flavia novel lacks the snap and humor of the first few books. As Flavia ages, she’s becoming more thoughtful, but she is not nearly as entertaining. There are still some flashes of that wonderful combination of book knowledge and naivete that made the first novels so good, though. And I confess, I did not figure out the solution to the mystery, although I felt that one secret was obvious. On the other hand, I’m not happy with what is happening in Flavia’s personal life.

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Day 968: Lost Among the Living

Cover for Lost Among the LivingIt is three years after World War I. Jo Manders is working as a paid companion to her husband’s aunt, Dottie Forsyth, after her husband Alex disappeared during the war. Jo has been in a limbo of grief and practical concerns. Although he is assumed dead, Alex has not been declared dead, so Jo cannot receive a pension. Penniless, she was forced to take the job with Dottie, who is often unpleasant or rude.

Jo has been traveling with Dottie through Europe buying art from newly impoverished nobility. But now they are on their way to Dottie’s home, Wych Elm House, which has been closed for some time. Dottie’s son Martin is returning home from a hospital where he’s been treated since the war, and Dottie has summoned home her husband with the plan of finding Martin a wife.

On the first day at the house, Jo walks into a room and sees a young girl in gray and pearls. It takes her some time to realize she’s seen a ghost—Dottie’s mentally ill daughter Franny who died during the war by falling off the roof. Franny had hallucinations and claimed that a demon dog named Princer protected her. In the village, Jo hears that children claimed to have met Franny and Princer in the woods. On the same day that Franny died, the body of a man was found in the woods, torn to pieces.

As Franny keeps appearing to Jo, sometimes leaving things for her to find, Jo begins to believe that Franny was murdered. She also wonders about one of Dottie’s clients, a  mysterious Colonel Mabry, who seems to know something about Alex.

St. James just keeps getting better and better at her chosen combination of suspense, the supernatural, and romance. In this case, a little of the mystery was lessened because there was only one plausible romantic partner for Jo, but still, this is a very suspenseful, eerie novel.

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