It’s a Mystery: Instruments of Darkness, by Imogen Robertson

Instruments of Darkness (Crowther and Westerman, #1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“When I found the body I thought you might be able to read his death like the read picture cards.” So explains Harriet Westerman, mistress of Caveley Park manor, when she makes her first visit to renowned but reclusive anatomist Gabriel Crowther. And a forensic team, a la 1780, is formed.

Instruments of Darkness is the debut novel of Imogen Robertson, and an auspicious beginning it is. This book has everything an English country house mystery needs in its compelling characters, beautifully described Georgian settings, and rich historical detail. Conversations are proper but anything but dull, and the multi-murder plot plays out in rural Sussex, London during the Gordon Riots, and the American War for Independence. As Harriet and Gabriel piece the deadly puzzle together, light dawns for the reader as well, and by the end, although we know who’s behind all the evil, that simply makes the denouement that much more satisfying. (One of the villains comes to a particularly gratifying finish.)

As of this writing, there are three sequels to Instruments , and it looks like I’ll be reading and enjoying them all.

View all my reviews

Modern Lit: Survival of the Fittest, by Robin Hawdon

Survival of the Fittest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books defy classification within a single genre, and that is true of Survival of the Fittest, a new novel by British playwright and actor Robin Hawdon. Part historical fiction, part mystery, and part spiritual/philosophical ¬†journey, it’s based upon the private, unpublished papers of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma. Following the recent trend of splitting plots into two or three subplots, Survival opens with depressed widower and London book dealer Maurice Aldridge, who after four years has yet to emerge from his grief over the death of his wife. Maurice relies upon his work and frequent dips into the whiskey stash in his desk to get him through the day. His routine is interrupted one morning by a visit from an American collector of rare books, who want Maurice, for a princely sum, to track down copies of the private journal of Emma Darwin, and the addendum in which the great scientist himself spells out his own beliefs about the existence of God. Both of these prizes have been the topic of rumors for 150 years, but to date, no one has managed to locate either. Maurice is in for the adventure of his life.

Interspersed between Maurice’s chapters are segments from the journals of Mrs. Darwin, in which she details her deepest concerns about the spiritual well being of her husband, whom she fears (and many believe today) has imperiled his soul by daring to denying God’s role in creation. She paints a vivid picture of family life, which was full of love, loss, the raising of ten children, and some very odorous scientific research, and these passages vividly portray Darwin as man rather than icon.

The third major character in Survival is writing from prison in 1951. Klaus Fuchs is a physicist who worked at Los Alamos on the development of the atomic bomb that put an end to the Second World War. During that period, he was working as a secret agent, providing the Russians with the project details, and following the war was convicted of treason and espionage. With so much time on his hands, Fuchs sets himself to describing the many reasons, most quite moral, profound and philosophical, which guided his actions.

Judging by this novel, Robin Hawdon is a fine author, his writing intelligent, clear, and engaging. His characters nearly step out of the pages, all three protagonists struggling with serious, life altering questions. Their emotions and experiences become those of the reader, and linger in the mind after the book has been closed. This is a work of fiction that could be taken as biography, and has prompted me to look more deeply into Darwin’s life and work. It’s also a first rate detective story, with its full share of surprises and turnabouts.

Enjoyable, thought provoking, and wholly worthwhile.

View all my reviews

Thriller: Cabal of the Westford Knight, by David S. Brody

Cabal of The Westford Knight: Templars at the Newport Tower
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The daVinci Code crosses the pond to Westford, Massachusetts, following clues about the secret Jesus/Magdalene bloodline hidden in Scotland’s and the Sinclair family’s Roslyn Chapel. Cabal of the Westford Knight is based upon legends concerning the infamous Templar Knights, a band of which is supposed by some to have arrived in what is now New England, more than a hundred years before Columbus. Cameron Thorne is a small town lawyer who grew up in the region, and in the course of ordinary business, he stumbles into a diabolical conspiracy by parties unknown. The Knights are rumored to have left a priceless treasure, and Thorne quickly learns that there are those more than willing to kill for it. He determines to reach that treasure, whatever it may be, before the conspirators can.

Author Brody weaves existing artifacts and places into a historical fiction thriller that expands from local legend to archaeological fact to world wide religious conspiracy. Westford Knight is a labyrinthine tale, dependent upon countless twists, turns and incredibly lucky breaks. Amply supplemented with photos, it invites the reader to consider the physical evidence and draw his/her own conclusions. Character development is sacrificed to the necessities of a complex, galloping plot, though there is a budding romance between Thorne and a beautiful, brainy historian. Together, the couple track down artifacts and draw some pretty spectacular inferences, all while dodging bullets and jumping off bridges. Brody’s writing is competent but extremely literal, and appears to have been thoroughly researched. For readers interested in further exploration on this topic, he maintains a couple of interactive websites, referenced in acknowledgments.

View all my reviews

Nonfiction Worth Reading: Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death, by Gary R. Varner

Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death: Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strangely Wrought Creatures is subtitled Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture. The first half of this slim volume (157 pages) discussing those two iconic figures, the gargoyle and the green man, which have been a feature in ecclesiastical architecture for more than a millennium. Quoting from his own research and that of others, Gary Varner speculates about the reasons for the inclusion of these “pagan” figures in most of Europe’s great churches and cathedrals, and about what they might symbolize (there are five times more green men in one English cathedral than images of Jesus!) He does the same in the book’s second half, where he covers such enigmatic creatures as dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and griffins, and others. The upshot of his study is that there is much disagreement about what these image “mean”, and why prelates would allow such carvings in a place of Christian worship.

The book is liberally illustrated with photos of strange creatures located on buildings old and new, primarily in England, France, and America. Why do twenty and twenty-first century folks find these images so compelling? Perhaps, Varner believes, because we long for connections to our distant past, and are influence by our embedded archetypal memories. This is a good overview for readers new to the topic, but for those with broader knowledge about it, there’s little new to be found in its pages.

View all my reviews

Nonfiction Worth Reading: Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s a mistake to think of history, any history, as static, and now Nathaniel Philbrick offers the general reader a new take on the earliest days of America’s War for Independence, most of which played out in and around Boston. Starting in the aftermath of the infamous Tea Party, he describes the passions, tensions, fears, squabbles, and the incipient battles in well documented and lively detail. Of particular interest are the character sketches Philbrick included in his larger narrative. about Washington, local hero Joseph Warren, and a heretofore little-known rabble rouser who called himself Joyce Jr. As a museum docent who talks about Washington and the Revolution on a daily basis, it was amusing to read of his appalled reaction, when this self-styled, Southern officer and gentleman arrived in Boston and attempted to take command of an army composed of poorly supplied, rough hewn, strong willed Yankees, who insisted upon electing their own officers and following orders only when they thought they were sensible. Joseph Warren has long been a local hero in Massachusetts, and Philbrick tells of how the New England soldiers revered him; Warren was brought down a few notches in my opinion, however. Until reading Bunker Hill, I had no knowledge of a vigilante calling himself Joyce, Jr., who patrolled the streets in flamboyant disguise looking to tar and feather any Tories whom he happened to encounter (tar and feathering is a brutal affair, not a joke.)

But as the author himself states in his closing, the real hero of this story is the city of Boston, and he has done it a great service in relating its history from the point of view of the courageous citizenry who gave birth to a revolution.

View all my reviews

It’s a Mystery: The Lost Days of Agatha Christie, by Carole Owens

The Lost Days of Agatha Christie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In December, 1926, Agatha Christie, England’s most popular novelist of the era, disappeared for eleven days. When she was finally located in a Harrogate hotel, she could not remember who she was, and was unable to identify her husband. She did finally recover her memory, but was never able to recall what she did during that mysterious interval, or indeed, why she even left home. In a novel reminiscent of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, American psychotherapist Carole Owens imagines changing that outcome by placing Christie in an intensive, day long therapy session with a fictional Oxford psychiatrist. This plot device serves admirably as a way for the reader to learn about Christie’s childhood, writing career, and first marriage, while the psychiatrist helps his patient explore some of the possible psychological ramifications of the memories that she describes. It also serves as a vehicle for gaining insight into some of the ways in which therapy can work. In addition to providing a very credible explanation of what might have caused Christie’s strange experience, the book also paints a picture of early twentieth century life, its attitudes and expectations, among the minor English gentry. It’s difficult to write a story containing only two main characters, but Owens did so with authority, style and elegance, making both doctor and patient very real and likable. Though the book is heavy on dialogue, she builds in enough suspense to make her book a page turner. It’s a sleeper that deserves much wider readership, and it’s interesting to discover how some of the features of Agatha’s life might have influenced her creativity as an author.

View all my reviews

Historical Fiction: Prophecy, by S.J. Parris

Prophecy (Giordano Bruno, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

1583 is the year of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, prophesied to be the moment of Queen Elizabeth’s downfall. Now in London following his perilous adventure in Oxford (Heresy), Giordano Bruno is residing in the household of the French ambassador, planted there by Walsingham to learn information about attempts to restore Mary Stuart to the throne, and Catholicism to England, via intervention from the Duke de Guise of France. There is much apocalyptic angst among the populace, stirred up by the many pamphleteers hawking mystical versions of what is to come. When two Maids of Honor are viciously murdered, with strange signs carved into their flesh, the court is thrown into great consternation and dread. Bruno is charged with discovering who might be behind these crimes, which are considered treasonous. Soon he is himself in great danger, knowing not how to distinguish friend from foe, and he fears that Elizabeth herself is indeed the target.

Prophecy unfolds at a very stately pace, with Bruno spending much time contemplating and concocting theories. During this too-lengthy sequence, Parris does a creditable job of evoking the spirit and conflicts of the times and the maze that was London. It is not until the final quarter of the novel that the real action begins, and when it finally arrives, the conclusion is rapid, almost forced. The true culprits emerge as something of a surprise, and there are enough ends left untied to merit a sequel. Heresy, book 1 in this series, served as a fine intro to the engaging, down to earth, sometimes hapless character, Bruno, and his exploits; let’s hope the third one moves along at as brisk a pace as the first.

View all my reviews

Modern Lit: The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise, by Julia Stuart

The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Balthazar Jones is a Beefeater, or as he prefers, Yeoman Warder, at the world famous/infamous Tower of London. Despite the fact that their living quarters in Salt Tower are round and more than five centuries old, life was good for the Joneses until the the death of their young son. In their terrible grief, their once happy marriage has crumbled, and now both Balthazar and Hebe, his wife, are hurting too much to muster the energy to do anything about it.

This is a story that could be depressing, but author Julia Stuart deftly balances it with the Jones’s unusual friends, which include a lovesick vicar who secretly writes bestselling erotica, the oldest tortoise in existence ( more than 120 years and counting), the head of the Richard III Appreciation Society, and Hebe’s generously proportioned colleague at the London Underground lost property office. And let’s not forget the ghosts. When Balthazar is assigned to manage the newly recreated Tower Menagerie, composed of exotic animal gifts to the Queen from foreign powers, just about everything threatens to fall to pieces around him.

Tower/Zoo/Tortoise is a warm, quirky tale of love, loss, pain, coping, and healing, all wrapped around the prosaic but essential idea that we are all mostly alike and we all need each other. Ms. Stuart’s injections of wit and gentle humor, coupled with her ability to control her plot and avoid mawkishness, make this novel a little gem. It will make you smile. By the way, the name of the tortoise is Mrs. Cook.

View all my reviews

It’s a Mystery: Fever Dream, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Fever Dream (Pendergast, #10)
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Fever Dream, the tenth entry in Preston and Child’s Pendergast series, opens with an event that took place in Africa twelve years in the past. Though much time has now passed, Pendergast still mourns his wife, Helen, who was killed by a rogue lion in safari country. When the novel switches to the present, he makes an astounding discovery: Helen’s death was no accident. In typical Pendergast fashion, he sets off on a quest to avenge her murder. He seeks assistance from his best NYPD friend, Vinnie D’Agosta. As they jet from NYC to Africa to Maine to the swamp lands of Louisiana, it becomes increasingly apparent that Helen had been keeping secrets from her husband, which deeply shakes the usually imperturbable Pendergast.

Interesting plot, no? Yes. And the tie in with James Audubon is alluring. The trouble lies in the characters and in the book’s verbosity. Pendergast has always been a paragon, always ten steps ahead of everyone else, smarter, better educated, tougher, eerily prescient and more cultured. Multiply Sherlock Holmes ten times over, and combine him with Rhett Butler. Unfortunately, what began as eccentricity has grown and grown till it’s become nothing less than obnoxious. As for Vinnie, he’s the foil, just a good old guy who guzzles beer and often can’t understand what the devil Pendergast is on about. When Vinnie got shot, I kept wishing it was Pendergast. As for its wordiness, this novel could have benefited from tighter editing, with an eye to limiting cliches (the snake on the neck is right out of Indiana Jones) and eliminating useless subplots (Constance Green, Pendergast’s ward.) When the book finally reaches its conclusion, we understand what was going on with Helen. We also understand that there’s a sequel in the works, in which Pendergast and his brother in law will lock horns at a Scottish hunting preserve. Who do you suppose will prevail?

Yes, I realize mine is a minority opinion. But there it is.

View all my reviews

Historical Fiction: The Caves of Perigord, by Martin Walker

The Caves of Perigord

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Major Phillip Manners has just buried his father, and his inheritance included a small piece of paleolithic wall art depicting a bull. He takes the painting to Lydia Dean, expert in the preclassical department of a London auction house, for valuation. Astounded by what she sees, she identifies the work as characteristic of the wall paintings found in the caves of the Dordogne, and warns Manners that it probably qualifies as a stolen artifact. Manners informs her that his father brought it home from France after WWII, when he was stationed there to assist the Resistance forces. Lydia, taking that as her jumping off point, stores the stone securely and agrees to research its provenance. The very next day, it’s stolen yet again. A reward is posted, and Manners convinces Lydia to travel to the Perigord region with him, in hopes of locating the cave in which the painting was originally made.

The Caves of Perigord has a three-fold plot. Author Walker, an NPR commentator, relates Lydia’s quest in the present time, and intersperses into her tale two back stories from this region, one from the Ice Age and the other from the second world war. In doing so, Walker show off his research, descriptive, and creative skills to good advantage, recreating the Ice Age and bringing to life humankind’s earliest visual artists and their milieu. The animals, customs, societal hierarchy, and painting techniques are all vividly portrayed, mainly through the experiences of Deer, a young artist in training. Taylor does an equally impressive job writing about the role of the Brits and Americans who trained and supplied the French Resistors in 1944, centering upon Manners’ father, the Capitaine. These chapters are truly harrowing; the region is a minefield, literally and figuratively, militarily and politically, and Walker evokes the brutality of the struggle much as Leon Uris did in his war novels. He knows how to tell a gripping story and make his readers care about his characters, empathizing with their joys and struggles.

If the book has flaws, they are minor, and lie in the absence of a map, and some extraneous detail that interrupted the action. Some photos or diagrams of the cave art wouldn’t have gone amiss either.

View all my reviews