Review 1874: The Fire Court

The second book in Andrew Taylor’s Marwood/Lovett series, The Fire Court begins shortly after the Great London Fire that was the setting of the first book. James Marwood’s father wanders off in his senility and discovers a salacious scene in chambers near where the Fire Court sits—a lascivious painting of a woman dressed like a whore stretched out on a couch.

His father comes home with blood on his sleeve babbling about what he has seen, but James thinks he has experienced a senile delusion. However, a few days later the body of a woman is discovered nearby in a pile of rubble. She is dressed up like a whore, but she is not one. She is Celia, the widowed niece of Mr. Poulton, a client of Mr. Hakesby.

Hakesby has given refuge to Cat Lovett, who has fled her family. She is now going by the name of Jane Hakesby, supposedly Mr. Hakesby’s cousin and servant. But Mr. Hakesby is very frail, suffering from an ague. Cat has been helping him with his architecture work, and he badly needs the custom of Mr. Poulton, who has a case before the Fire Court.

The Fire Court’s mission is to make decisions quickly about competing rights of property so that London can be rebuilt. Mr. Poulton wants to develop some property called Dragon yard that is mostly owned by himself and his niece Celia, and Hakesby is drawing up the plans. But Philip Limbury, an upperclass personage with influence at court, has some rights to Dragon Yard and also wants to develop it. Marwood is sent to look into the death of Celia, and he soon realizes that his father must have seen her murdered in the apartments of Mr. Gromwell, his father’s description of where he went being so vivid. Marwood begins to believe there is some sort of conspiracy going on involving the Fire Court, and both he and Cat are soon in danger.

Although I felt the characters in this book took too long to realize they were involved in real estate conspiracies, this was another complex and interesting novel in this series. The 17th century setting seems convincing, and James and Cat are interesting characters.

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Review 1869: The Widows of Malabar Hill

In 1920’s Bombay, Perveen Mistry is the only female lawyer in the city. She is working with her father at the Mistry law office when a question comes up about the trust for the three widows of Omar Farid. First, the family’s agent Mr. Mukri says the widows want to change the purpose of the trust from support of veterans to the establishment of a madrassa. Further, the wives are giving up their mahr (sort of a dowry) to the trust. That may not be allowed by law. But Perveen also notices that the signatures of two of the women appear to be the same. Since the women are living in purdah, Purveen talks her father into allowing her to interview the wives.

When Perveen visits the wives, she finds Mr. Mukri rude and uncooperative and only Sakina, the second wife, understands and agrees with the requested changes. Sakina is shocked to find out that Razia, the first wife, is the administrator of the trust. Razia is unaware that Mr. Mukri has filed for a change in the purpose of the trust, but she is clearly afraid of him. Perveen also finds out that the agent has not been paying the household’s bills and that the third wife, Mumtaz, is trying to hide a pregnancy from the rest of the household. Perveen believes Mukri is mishandling the estate’s funds.

This novel is being marketed as a mystery, but it is about 80 pages before Perveen goes to see the women and 120 before a murder is committed. That is mostly because Massey devotes about half the novel to Perveen’s personal life, particularly her brief marriage. It seems to me that she could have accomplished what she needed to do in a few paragraphs or a chapter, because we don’t invest much in this relationship. Perveen is afraid of her ex-husband at the beginning of the novel, but the reasons could be explained in a lot less space.

Massey does a good job of giving the feel of the indoor spaces and food and costume, but I didn’t get a good sense of what Bombay was like at this time, something that I look for in a novel set in an exotic location or other time. And, in fact, Perveen’s visit to Calcutta for the first time is an excellent opportunity to describe that city, but there is no description.

At first, too, I thought I was going to object to Perveen being too much out of her time, for I really dislike historical novels where the heroines behave more like they live in the present. This particularly bothered me in the section about Perveen’s romance, but as the novel continued, it stopped being an issue.

This is not a mystery, however. Perveen pokes around a bit, but the solution just depends on her being in the right place at the right time. It is her father who actually finds the most important clues. So, overall I was disappointed in this novel.

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Review 1844: Karolina and the Torn Curtain

I was interested in reading more foreign novels, so for some reason I picked Polish and then just googled a list of books. I picked a novel I thought was written by a woman only to find out that Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym for two gay men. I would scold myself for sloppy research, but I enjoyed this mystery, although it is second in a series and I prefer to start with the first. However, I don’t think you miss much if you start with this one except maybe more introduction to the main characters.

The novel is set in 1895 Crakow. Zofia Turbotyńska is the respectable wife of a professor at the Jagellonian University. However, she has another occupation—solving crimes.

Zofia’s maid Karolina has disappeared from her house without explanation, and later her body is found in the river, where she has been thrown after being shot. The autopsy reveals she has also been violated.

When Zofia investigates, she learns that Karolina had met a young man, an engineer, who wanted to marry her and take her to America. Looking into it further, it appears that Karolina was lured by a white slaver, and the police claim to have identified him and shot him during an attempted escape. But then Zofia’s other maid Franciszka sees Karolina’s boyfriend in a crowd.

This mystery is quite convoluted and also fairly witty. One of the things modern audiences will find funny are some of the “scientific” ideas of the time—for example, that educating women affects their organs so that they can’t give birth. Another is the chapter subtitles, reminiscent of those in older novels except facetious.

I enjoyed this novel but didn’t feel the characters were that compelling. I’m not sure whether I will read another one.

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Review 1837: The Ashes of London

London is in the midst of the Great Fire of 1666. James Marwood is on an errand for his master when he stops to watch St. Paul’s burn. He is barely able to stop what he thinks is a boy from running right into the fire. When clothes begin to burn, the resulting dishevelment reveals a young woman rather than a boy. James puts his cloak around her, and she runs off still wearing it.

The girl is Cat Lovett, whose father is an attainted traitor as a result of the Restoration. She was supposed to meet him next to St. Paul’s. She has been living with her uncle’s family, the Alderleys, but they are trying to force her to marry Sir Denzil Croughton, a man she dislikes. She is hoping her father can help her. That night, though, her cousin Edward rapes her, and she stabs him in the eye, so she runs away with the help of her servant Jem to Jem’s sister.

James is also the son of a man who was on the wrong side of the Restoration. His father is a member of a sect called the Fifth Monarchists, who believed that after the King was put aside, Christ would be King. Now frail and senile, he keeps saying things that are deemed traitorous.

James works for the publisher Williamson, but soon he is asked to meet Mistress Alderley. She wants James to find her niece, and later he is asked by government officials to try to find Lovett.

There is also the matter of two bodies that have turned up. They both have their thumbs tied together behind their backs and have been stabbed in the neck.

I decided to read this series after the strong recommendation by Helen of She Reads Novels. I found it to be engrossing and entertaining. The atmosphere of burning London is well done as is the general paranoia following the Restoration. James and Cat are both appealing characters. Although it is quite a long novel at 400+ pages, it went very quickly. I’ll just have to look for the next one.

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Review 1823: Murder in Old Bombay

Nev March says she was inspired to write Murder in Old Bombay by Sherlock Holmes and Kipling’s Kim. Certainly I can see the influence of the Holmes novels, if not in the hero’s deductive processes then in the complicated plot and disguises. From Kim, I hoped for a more atmospheric novel.

Captain Jim Agnihotri has retired from the army and is in the hospital recovering from serious wounds when he reads about a murder case. Two Parsee women fell or were pushed from the university bell tower, and the man charged got off because it wasn’t clear whether it was suicide or murder. Also, two other men present on the scene could not be found. Jim decides to offer himself as a journalist and investigate the case.

Having been hired, Jim goes to interview Adi Framji, whose wife and cousin were the victims of the crime. As a Eurasian, Jim is not usually accepted into either British or Indian society, but the Framjis soon accept him as a friend. Although Parsee families don’t marry outside the Zoroastrian religion, he finds himself smitten by Diana, Adi’s sister returned from London.

Jim’s investigation at first doesn’t turn up much, but even though the break in continuity seemed odd, the novel gets more interesting when he takes on a mission for the army. Indeed, he gets the opportunity to travel a bit and don several disguises.

As far as the mystery goes, this novel seems to stumble along. Jim also makes some cognitive leaps that don’t seem warranted by what has come before. For example, early on Jim concludes that the two girls who fell from the tower were being blackmailed. This turns out to be true, but where did it come from? There is nothing that comes before it to lead him to that conclusion.

The adventure portion makes the novel perk up, but otherwise I felt the effort was a little lackluster for a historical novel. March doesn’t supply much background for the historical events, nor does the reader get much sense of the sights, sounds, and smells of Victorian India, which is one of the things that makes Kim so wonderful.

Finally, although Jim is a likable character and I also liked the Framjis, I wasn’t interested in the romantic plot.

Maybe I’m making this review sound a bit too negative. I enjoyed parts of the novel, but the mystery seemed all over the place and I wanted more descriptions—of rooms, the city, the dress, the food. I wanted to feel the atmosphere of 19th century India, as a historical novel should make me do.

Kim

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Review 1798: The Mirror Dance

It looks like Alec, Dandy Gilver’s detecting partner, is settling down at last. Dandy doesn’t like Poppy, however, and perhaps is feeling a little jealous, so she goes along with her maid Grant to meet her new client, Sandy Bissett.

Miss Bissett has explained that a Punch and Judy show in Dundee has made puppets representing characters whose copyright is owned by her magazine company. The characters are Rosy Cheeke and Freckle. She wants them to cease and desist.

Before her appointment with Miss Bissett, Dandy and Grant go along to see the puppet show. During the show, the puppets stop moving, and after a wait, Dandy goes to see what the problem is. She finds the puppeteer, Albert Mackie, murdered in his booth. Dandy can’t figure out how anyone entered or left the booth without being seen.

Returning with Alec, Dandy finds the mystery becoming more bizarre, with the puppets found in their clients’ conference room, messages in lipstick and blood, and the discovery of a similar murder 50 years ago of a man with the same name. A brother of the murdered man also appears on the scene.

Usually McPherson’s Dandy Gilver mysteries are so full of red herrings that they’re confusing. This time I figured out the murderer, although nothing else, almost immediately. However, the series is still fun.

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Review 1760: The Turning Tide

I’ve started to feel as though Catriona McPherson’s approach to a mystery is to throw clues at you until you’re impossibly confused. That’s probably why I prefer her cozy thrillers. Still, I like her characters Dandy Gilver and Alec Osborne, so I keep reading.

Dandy’s daughter-in-law has given birth to twins when Dandy and Alec finally decide to respond to a third letter asking for help. One reason they decide to come is they have just heard of the death of a family friend, Peter Haslett, that seems to be connected with the case. The Reverend Hogg has asked them to find out what is wrong with Vesper, the Cramond Ferry girl, who appears to have gone mad and now blames herself for Peter’s drowning.

When they arrive in Cramond, they are confused by a meeting with three people who seem to have different agendas, Reverend Hogg, Miss Speir, who runs an uncomfortable inn, and Miss Lumley, who owns a local pub. They also hear different versions of Peter’s death. Most say he fell off the ferry and drowned, but one person says he came off the path and had his head crushed in the mill race.

He supposedly was visiting some friends, agricultural students doing an experiment with potatoes, but when Dandy and Alex meet them, the students make nothing of the fact that they have planted the potatoes upside down. When Dandy and Alec meet Vesper, she certainly seems mad, half naked and babbling about Mercury and snakes. But soon, Vesper too is dead.

I think I defy anyone to figure out McPherson’s crime novels. Still, they’re fun to read.

Dandy Gilver and a Spot of Toil and Trouble

Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the Ballroom

The Reek of Red Herrings

Review 1635: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

This sequel to The Devil in the Marshalsea is lots of fun. The opening of The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins finds our reluctant, roguish protagonist on the way to the gallows. There have been rumors in the neighborhood that he murdered a man in the Borough, but this isn’t the crime he’s been found guilty of.

The story begins with Tom in the street at night on the way home from his usual carouse. He hears the cry of “Thief” from inside the house of his neighbor, Mr. Burden, but when he tries to help, the neighbor becomes abusive. It is Mr. Burden who has been spreading the rumors about Tom.

When Mr. Gonson, the magistrate, comes to investigate the supposed crime, Tom finds that Mr. Burden is accusing Sam Fleet, the nephew of Samuel Fleet, Tom’s friend who was murdered in the Marshalsea in the previous novel, a boy that Tom is supposed to be teaching to be a gentleman. Later, Tom, in a drunken rage, hammers on the Burdens’ door and threatens Burden’s life.

Tip: If you’re in a drunken rage, never threaten anyone’s life. The next night, of course, Burden is murdered, which Tom and his girlfriend Kitty discover when they find Burden’s maid Alice in their house covered with blood. She has come through a secret passage into their house after finding her employer dead. Tom knows that if the authorities find the passage, which he didn’t know about, they’ll assume he is the murderer. The magistrate arrests him anyway, upon no evidence, but then must release him.

Tom also finds himself embroiled in the affairs of Henrietta Howard, the King’s mistress. He undertakes a job, hired by Sam’s father James Fleet, the king of the London underworld, to meet a lady in the park. The lady is Henrietta Howard, whom he finds being attacked by her own husband, Charles. Tom is hired by Queen Caroline to try to find some dark secret to put pressure on Howard, who is trying to blackmail King George by threatening to force Mrs. Howard to return to him.

This novel is atmospheric of Georgian England, especially the nasty places, and full of adventure. It is also quite suspenseful.

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Review 1606: Things in Jars

Best of Ten!
Imagine a combination of Victorian London, eccentric Dickensian characters, a ghost, a supernatural being of myth, hints of Jane Eyre, a lady detective, and a fascination with grotesqueries. If you can imagine that, you might go a little way toward a hint of this unusual novel.

Bridie Devine, the lady detective, has been summoned to a graveyard to examine a dead body found shackled in a crypt. On her way there, she meets a scantily clad ghost, a prizefighter named Ruby Doyle who claims to know her and follows her on her investigation.

But her real case comes when a baronet, Edward Berwick, hires her through a Doctor Harbin to find his daughter, who has been kidnapped. As she investigates, though, she learns the girl was kept alone in the west wing of the house, and there are rumors that she is some kind of unusual creature. Bridie begins to believe that the kidnappers, who probably include the girl’s nurse, mean to sell her to some freak show.

Bridie has had a difficult path in life that includes encounters when she was a girl with Gideon Eames, the sociopathic son of a man who rescued her from poverty. She thought he was dead but finds he is very much alive.

With an entourage that includes a seven-foot-tall bearded maid, Bridie braves dead bodies, attacks, and visits to a freak show as she pursues the child. We know from the beginning that the girl was taken by her nurse and Dr. Harbin, but more people who want to possess or sell this valuable child get involved.

Not quite at first but very soon I got so involved with this quirky novel that I dropped everything until I finished it. Bridie is an interesting, likable character, Ruby Doyle is endearing even though he is constantly hitching up his drawers, the novel was exciting at times. What’s not to love?

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Review 1499: Tombland

My understanding was that Lamentation was supposed to be the last of C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake mysteries; then Tombland came out. I had previously wavered about whether to continue with the series about the dour lawyer, but Lamentation was so good that I decided to read Tombland.

It is 1549. Edward VI is 12 years old, so the country is being ruled by Lord Somerset, the Protector. It has been a late summer, so crops are not expected to be good. Further, landlords have begun illegally enclosing common land for sheep, throwing their tenants off the land. As a result, thousands of poor are roaming the country. The Protector has promised that a commission will look into this problem, but so far nothing has happened.

Lady Elizabeth asks Matthew to look into a case where a distant relative, John Boleyn, has been arrested for murdering his wife, Edith. Lady Elizabeth does not wish anyone to know that Edith came to her for financial help and did not receive it. Edith had left her husband nine years previously, and no one knew where she went. Recently, she was found brutally murdered, upside down in the creek on her husband’s property. Lady Elizabeth wants to know whether John was guilty and if not, have Matthew find the murderer. If need be, she will try to get John a pardon. This notion is difficult politically because of the Boleyn connection, so it is a last resort.

Matthew thinks it is unlikely that John would have killed his wife and left her body so exposed, because he is the likely suspect and it negates his subsequent marriage to his mistress, Isabella. John’s twin sons, Barnaby and Gerald, seem like demented feral animals, but Matthew also believes they loved their mother. He finds Edith’s father, Gawen Reynolds, to be an angry, hateful man. Still, aside from a land dispute, he can’t find a motive for Edith’s murder.

This novel is 800 pages long, and John’s trial is in the first few hundred pages, so I was wondering about that as we approached the verdict without a solution to the crime. But, for this novel, the mystery is really an excuse, almost a McGuffin, for what Sansom is really interested in, the story of Kett’s Rebellion. Common men anticipating the promised commission begin making camps, rounding up landlords who have enclosed their land, and tearing down enclosures. Matthew, his assistant Nicholas, and his old friend Barak are taken up by the rebels when they go to visit a potential witness, Flowerdew. The last half of the novel is about this incident in history.

I thought this novel was interesting, but I also felt that if Sansom wanted to write about the rebellion, it might have been better not to wrap it into a mystery. In fact, I felt that the section dealing with the rebellion was a bit too detailed, taking up more than 400 pages, with a 50-page essay at the end of the novel. As a result, I didn’t think this book was as good as some of his others, particularly Lamentation. Sansom appears to want to be a straight historical novelist, and maybe he should just do that.

Finally, although I feel that some of the books in this series are outstanding, it has always bothered me that no one in them ever shows a vestige of humor, and Matthew has to be one of the most depressed characters ever.

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