Review 1415: The Poison Bed

In 1615 London, a glittering couple was imprisoned in the Tower for murder. They were Robert Carr, long a favorite of King James, and his wife Frances of the powerful Howard family. The victim was Thomas Overbury, a friend of Robert’s who was poisoned while imprisoned in the Tower.

The narration of this novel is split between Frances in the third person and Robert in the first person. It tells the story of their meeting, when Frances was married to the Earl of Essex, and their subsequent struggles to be married, which resulted, almost as collateral damage, in Overbury’s death. One of these narrators is undoubtedly unreliable, however.

This novel was based on a scandal in Jacobean England, and Freemantle proposes a theory of its solution, although the truth is still not understood. A few reviewers have criticized it as being historically inaccurate. Based on my very little research, I can’t speak to that, but I can say that, considering the subject was interesting to me, the novel dragged curiously at times. Perhaps this was a result of the he said, she said format. It got a little more interesting when the truth about one narrator came out, but then it dragged again.

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Review 1390: End Games in Bordeaux

I had already planned to post this review today, but last week I noticed that September 1 was also the beginning of Readers Imbibing Peril, where participating readers read mysteries, horror, suspense, and so on between September 1 and October 31. I usually read a fair number of books in those categories anyway, not to mention trying to read something suitable for Halloween. So, here goes. Let me count this book as my first entry!

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Those who select the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize have an annoying tendency to choose books from the middle or end of a series. I read five long Matthew Shardlake novels just to read Heartstone for my project and then felt it wasn’t necessary to have read the other books. I didn’t realize that The Quality of Mercy was the second of two novels until I began reading it, but I found that it was easy enough to figure out what I had missed.

So, when it came time to read End Games in Bordeaux, I reasoned that since it was a mystery, it probably wasn’t necessary to read the preceding three books. That turned out to be a mistake. Not only does the novel check in periodically with a plethora of characters whose relationship to the main character is not explained, but an understanding of the plot relies heavily on the cases covered in the previous books. So, I was fairly well confused the entire time I was reading the book.

World War II is winding down. There are rumors that an invasion by the Allies will come soon. Superintendent Lannes is suspended from duty by order of the Germans for reasons that are not clear.

Count St.-Hilaire asks him to find a young girl who has run off with a ne’er-do-well, Aurélien Mabire. When Lannes finds Mabire, however, the girl isn’t with him. Mabire is, in fact, gay, and he lured the girl away with a promise to meet her father, long estranged from the family. Mabire was working at the bidding of Labiche, a crooked advocate whom Lannes despises.

The situation begins to deteriorate as people begin changing sides preparatory to the end of the war. Lannes finds himself being threatened and rumors being spread about him.

I had to wonder if I would have liked the book better if I had understood who some of the characters were and what the background was. I’m not sure I would have. The novel is narrated in terse little blocks of text while we skip from one situation to another, which doesn’t give me confidence that I would have found it much more understandable. Perhaps Massie was relying on readers’ knowledge of the other works in the series, but novels need to stand on their own. In the case of a series, therefore, some reiteration is necessary. Furthermore, the writing style makes me not want to go back and read the books in the series that I missed. One quote on the cover says the characters are evoked vividly. Well, maybe they are if you’ve read all the books. I didn’t find that to be the case.

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Review 1367: See What I Have Done

See What I Have Done is an interpretation of the famous Borden murders in 1892. It is absolutely seething with undercurrents and is occasionally very creepy. I think most people don’t know that Lizzy Borden was not found guilty of the murders of her stepmother and father. Somehow, this novel maintains suspense by creating uncertainty about that.

The novel concentrates most of its energy on the day before and the day of the murder, but it goes backward and forward in time and changes point of view from one character to another.

Schmidt depicts Lizzy as a childish 30-year-old who has been alternately indulged and oppressed by her father. Fatefully, on the day before the murders, Mr. Borden slaughters Lizzy’s pet pigeons with an ax. Then, instead of telling her what he has done, he leaves her to discover it.

There are other people in the house who have motives for the murders. Lizzy’s uncle, John, has hired a ruffian named Benjamin to make Mr. Borden pay attention to his demand that his nieces be treated better. Benjamin is lurking around and inside the house the day of the murders, which made me wonder whether the warning was to go awry. Also, the day before the murders, Abby Borden, who was killed first, confiscated from the maid, Bridget, all of the money she saved to get her back to Ireland.

The narrative style, from Lizzy’s point of view, is feverish. In all, I found this novel to be really interesting, imaginative in its approach and unsettling in effect.

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Review 1356: The Ides of April

Cover for The Ides of AprilFor a long time, I followed Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco mystery series set in Ancient Rome. Davis knows her period, and the books are amusing, but after a while I got tired of them. A few friends have recommended her newer Flavia Alba series, so when I found the first one at the library, I decided to try it.

Flavia Alba is the daughter of Marcus Didius Falco and Helena Justina, who adopted her as an abandoned and wild fifteen-year-old in Britain on one of their cases. Hence, I was vaguely aware of her in some of the Falco books. At the beginning of The Ides of April, she is a young widow who has become an enforcer in her adoptive father’s footsteps.

As a female enforcer, she doesn’t get the best cases. She is trying to get her client, Salvidia, off the hook in a lawsuit against her company for running down a young boy. The aedile, Manlius Faustus, has advertised for witnesses to the accident, so she goes to his office to find out if anyone has left a statement. At the office, she encounters two key characters, Tiberius, who works for the aedile, and Andronicus, an archivist, with whom she begins a flirtation.

Flavia Alba’s case very soon becomes more sinister as she learns that her client, Salvidia, is dead of no apparent cause. A visit to the undertaker leads her to understand that a lot of healthy people are dying for no apparent reason. She begins investigating these deaths despite being warned off by the aedile’s office, but soon she is working with them in the person of Tiberius.

Unfortunately, although I enjoyed this book in some ways, there was nothing new here. Flavia Alba’s jaunty, flippant first person sounds exactly like Falco’s. Davis avoids too much repetition by hardly mentioning Flavia Alba’s parents, even when she goes to visit them, but by then I would have been happy to meet them again.

As to the mystery, there is one character with a hidden identity that was obvious to me, and I was onto the murderer fairly quickly, at least mistrusting this character almost immediately. The story arc is very similar to Davis’s first book, Silver Pigs, in that the main character encounters someone who may be a future love interest.

So, for me anyway, been there, done that.

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Review 1317: Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the Ballroom

Cover for Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the BallroomDandy Gilver fears that her summons to a house named Balmoral in Glasgow may prove to be a humdrum affair, but she is mourning her dog, Bunty, and feels a need to get out. When she and her partner, Alec Osborne, arrive, their doubts about their customers are confirmed, for Sir Percival and Lady Stott are vulgar nouveau riche. However, they fear that their spoiled daughter, Theresa, or Tweetie, is in danger.

Tweetie is taking part in a ballroom-dancing competition. She has begun receiving veiled threats that someone wishes her harm. The Stotts have urged her to quit the competition, but she is determined to continue. So, Dandy and Alec repair to the Locarno Ballroom to investigate. It seems that only Tweetie’s partner, Roly; her cousin, Jeanne; the pianist, Miss Thwaite; or another couple, Bert and Beryl, could have access to leave some of the messages. But what Dandy and Alec can’t figure out is why everyone around the ballroom seems so terrified. Shortly, they discover that there was a similar incident the year before that resulted in a death.

Although I am gaining enthusiasm for McPherson’s contemporary thrillers, my taste for the Dandy Gilver mystery series is losing momentum. I like Dandy and Alec but feel that perhaps this series gets a little too mired in red herrings, if that makes any sense.

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Day 1279: Harriet

Cover for HarrietHarriet is a novel written in 1934 based on a true crime that occurred in 1875. As such, it is suitable for the season as well as for the R. I. P. Challenge and the Classics Club Dare.

Harriet is a woman in her 30’s who has her own fortune of £3,000 with prospects of 2,000 more. She is a “natural,” which I take to mean having some sort of mental incapacity. Although her mother, Mrs. Ogilvie, cares about her, she boards her periodically with poorer relatives, allowing them to make a little money and giving herself and her husband a little break from Harriet, who can be difficult.

Mrs. Ogilvy sends Harriet to stay with her cousin, Mrs. Hoppner. Mrs. Hoppner lives with her spoiled daughter, Alice. Visiting her are her older daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s husband, Patrick Oman, an artist. Also visiting is Patrick’s brother, Lewis, a clerk. Patrick and Elizabeth are devoted to Lewis.

Although the charismatic Lewis is courting the delicate and beautiful Alice, he turns his attention to Harriet. He is soon engaged to her and marries her despite Mrs. Ogilvie’s objections. In fact, Mrs. Ogilvie tries to get Harriet made a ward of the court to block the marriage, but this backfires when Lewis finds out and tells Harriet she wants to have her committed. Once they are married, Lewis proceeds to strip Harriet of her money and possessions.

After Harriet has a child, he boards her at his brother’s house and moves into a nearby house with Alice. Up until then, Lewis’s actions are marginally legal if morally repellent. It is after this that the behavior of the two brothers and two sisters becomes criminal.

This novel is chilling in its psychological depictions of the two sisters and brothers. Jenkins was fascinated by the case and uses people’s actual Christian names, imaging the thoughts and activities of the characters. This novel was one of the first fictionalizations of a true crime.

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Day 1271: Mistress of the Art of Death

Cover of Mistress of the Art of DeathHere’s another book for the R.I.P challenge with a very appropriate cover!

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I recently realized that of Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar series, the only book I had not kept was Mistress of the Art of Death, the first one. This realization made me immediately buy another copy, which made a good excuse to reread it.

In 1171 Cambridge, someone is brutally murdering children. The locals have decided to pin these murders on the Jews, despite their having been locked up in the castle for safe keeping after the first death.

King Henry II has asked the King of Naples for help. An investigator is requested, as well as a Master in the Art of Death, a medical doctor who investigates the causes of death, trained by the University of Salerno. To everyone’s surprise and some dismay, along with Master Simon, the fixer, comes a woman, Adelia Aguilar, a doctor trained in Salerno.

Adelia finds herself in a relatively barbaric country where her identity as a doctor must be concealed for fear she will be accused of witchcraft. To be able to treat people, she passes off her Moorish manservant, Mansur, as a doctor, while she pretends to be his assistant and translator.

Her party enters Cambridge in the company of some pilgrims returning from Canterbury. Soon discoveries lead Adelia to fear that the murderer may be among the pilgrims she traveled with.

I think I enjoyed this novel even more this time through. The first time, I was skeptical that there were woman doctors in the 12th century. Now that I know Ariana Franklin better, I’m more confident that she did her research.

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