History News: Coventry’s Doom Painting

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Doomsday paintings are medieval depictions of Christianity’s Last Judgment, when the dead rise from their graves to gather before Christ enthroned, to find out whether their new eternal homes will be in heaven or hell. The most famous painting is that of Michelangelo, an enormous, extremely detailed rendition that covers the east wall in the Sistine Chapel. But in less important churches across Western Europe, as well as in some cathedrals, less renowned artists produced smaller frescos that were usually located on the arch at the exit point, generally a west wall. Their purpose, of course, was to scare the congregation into avoiding temptations and focusing their behavior on performing works of mercy and kindness. Sometimes such paintings would be placed on the chancel arch near the altar, where worshippers could contemplate it throughout the entire service.

In England, many of these paintings were destroyed or whitewashed over during the Reformation, but quite a few still remain. The one shown above is located at Holy Trinity Church in Coventry, where it was restored in 2004.

 

Just a little food for thought……..

 

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It’s a Mystery: The Detective’s Daughter, by Lesley Thomson

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Detective’s Daughter  does not have a straightforward opening, which is off putting to many readers. It reads as a collection of unrelated short stories, and requires some patience until things start to become clearer. These are backstories, and they’re well worth the wait.

On a sunny day in 1981, young mother Kate Rokesmith is found murdered along the banks of the Thames in Hammersmith. Hours later, her little boy, Jonathan, is found huddled at the foot of sculpture he always enjoyed visiting, and police deduce that he probably witnessed to killing, but the trauma leaves him unwilling/unable to answer their questions.  A single witness, a neighbor,  saw the pair head off for their walk, but otherwise there is a frustrating dearth of information. The police suspect the husband, but lack any semblance of evidence, and the case goes cold. This is one of the cases that has  obsessed former DCS Terry Darnell for thirty years, even into retirement. When he dies suddenly of a heart attack, his semi-estranged daughter, Stella, owner of a professional cleaning business, sets about clearing his house, and a box  of papers she was sorting through indicates that he was actively pursuing the case. When she hires  Jack Harmon to serve a cleaner to her new dentist, Stella finds him decidedly quirky, but surprisingly effective and efficient. It isn’t long before he becomes as interested as she is in the unsolved crime. What ensues is a distinctly cerebral mystery that grows harder and harder to put down. Along the way, Stella learns things about her dad as well as herself that she had never before considered or even recognized. More than a simple police procedural, The Detective’s Daughter is a book about relationships, with vivid, realistic characters, eerie surprises, and several genuinely suspenseful moments.

While reading this novel, I did a web search about the setting, finding many evocative photos that helped bring the story to life. Finished the book this afternoon, and now I’m off to start Ghost Girl, the second book in this series, eager to know more about how Stella and Jack develop as characters. Can’t wait!

It’s a Mystery: Weycombe, by G. M. Malliet

Weycombe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jillian White is bored. When she and her aristocratic husband married and moved to a posh enclave in the village of Weycombe, she thought her life was perfect. Then she lost her job producing a crime series with the BBC, and with time hanging heavy on her hands, she realizes that, as an American, she doesn’t quite fit in. So when her near neighbor Anna is murdered, Jill decides that investigating this crime on her own will liven things up for her, distracting her from her loneliness and from dwelling on  the failing health of her marriage.

The mystery is recounted in first person by Jill, and it isn’t until about halfway through the book that it becomes clear that she’s an unreliable narrator. Shallow and self-centered, she has difficulty empathizing with others, operating from a false  sense of superiority and keeping everyone at arm’s length.  The story has its interesting segments, broken too often by rambling soliloquies about Jill’s innermost thoughts. Something about the brittleness of  her shell is distinctly off-putting; then again, it seems that the entire population of this village are like that. Given the meandering nature of the bulk of this book, the ending seems rushed and abrupt, but it did contain surprises, and Jill does attain her goals at  last.

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It’s a Mystery: The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney

The Girl Before

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recently, it’s become increasingly difficult to find new original novels, what with so many authors seeking to capitalize on the popularity of such bestsellers as Fifty Shades of Gray, Gone Girl, and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and also the dystopian/YA/vampire market. Some book sources are inventing names for new genres. I don’t know about that, but it’s pretty easy to recognize piggy backing for popularity when you see it. Some of the writers doing that are Ruth Ware and B. A. Paris, both of whom I’ve read and enjoyed, and perhaps if their  books had been published first, they’d be the bestsellers. The same can be said of The Girl Before, by J. P. Delaney, but to give credit where it’s due, Delaney has added some twists of her own.

This book focuses upon two women who rented One Folgate Street, an avant-garde, architectural prize winning house in London going for a ridiculously reasonable rent. Emma is the first tenant, the “girl before”, whose occupancy ended with a fatal fall down the interior stone stairs. Her successor is Jane, who is struggling to find her equilibrium following a stillbirth. It’s a mystery why either of them would even consider moving to a place whose creepy, obsessive owner, architect Edward Monkford, presents them with a manual containing hundreds of  restrictions (just the two about no rugs and no books would have killed the deal for me) and has a computerized, visual monitoring system called “housekeeper” that controls the home’s every system and ensures the tenant’s compliance.  The book’s other mystery concerns Emma’s death; when Jane learns about she becomes determined to discover what happened and why. That task is complicated by the steamy affair she and the kinky Edward are conducting.

Though loaded with time-honored  tropes and other derivatives (that creepy “housekeeper”, an owner reputed to have caused the death of his own wife and child, the fact that both Emma and Jane are ringers for the dead wife), this book has its appeal. The atmosphere is decidedly eerie, and the  house, austere as it is, nevertheless provides some clues, as does Emma’s rejected former boyfriend.  Jane’s behavior is often foolhardy, but if you can accept that, the psychological implications of all that goes on are fascinating, as is the surprise that abruptly pops up at the very end. The characters are strange and Edward in particular is odious, but their story is weirdly compelling.

Modern Lit: Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

Into the Water
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The sleepy, remote little town of Beckford, England has a decidedly spooky history. The river that runs through it has what’s known as the drowning pool, which over the centuries has the site of a string of drownings, all women. As Into the Water opens, Jules Abbott is summoned following the death of her older sister Nel, to identify the body and to take care of Lena, her teenaged niece. Nel has been researching the  history of all the local women who died in the pool, starting with a young 17th century woman who drowned during the dunking test for witchcraft. There are many in Beckford who resent that work and who vow to keep the book from publication. The police believe, or say they believe, that Nel committed suicide, but Jules isn’t buying it. One of Nel’s supporters is Nicky, the elderly town mystic. Most view her as barmy, but when she tells Jules that most of the victims, recent and historical, have been wronged by the men in their lives, what she says resonates with Jules, who will come to rely more and more upon Nicky’s insights. Nicky may not have paranormal powers, but she’s certainly a good observer.

Into the Water has multiple narrators, and it is difficult to tell which are reliable. The star of the production is the town with its river; the theme is social justice, misogyny, and the misuse of power. Because there are several victims, there a several subplots, the most vivid being not Nel’s death but that of her daughter’s best friend who drowned only the month before. But all of the women’s stories are compelling in their own right;  the development of Jules’s thorny relationship with her niece is well presented, as is the denouement of her thorny relationship with her sister.  And over everything lies the aura of the strange, secretive town, not threatening, just peculiar. And it’s easy to allow oneself to be drawn into Nel’s conundrums. Into the Water is more psychological drama than suspenseful mystery.

Most of the critical reviews I’ve read compare Water with Girl on a Train, all opining that Water lacks the same brilliance. I prefer to judge books on their own merits, and that’s what I’ve done with my own review.

 

It’s a Mystery: A Pale Horse, by Charles Todd

A Pale Horse (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #10)A Pale Horse by Charles Todd

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him.” Apocalypse.

Charles Todd continues exploring the hideous ramifications of war in this tenth Ian Rutledge mystery.  Four years after the end of WWI, Rutledge still suffers symptoms of PTSD, which are debilitating even though he manages his flashbacks quite well. The most prominent among his  symptoms is the voice of Hamish, a soldier whom Rutledge unwillingly ordered executed for refusing to follow orders. Hamish functions as a sort of conscience and sounding board , giving readers insight into Rutledge’s thoughts and emotional struggles.

In spite of those struggles, Rutledge is a fine detective, doing  a credible job with Scotland Yard, no thanks to his superior, Chief Superintendent Bowles. Now he’s sent to Berkshire to assist in a War Department search for a missing operative, Gaylord Partridge (really!) Partridge has been residing in a tiny village among eight misfits, who reside in a cluster of cottages originally built for lepers, at the foot of the famous iron age White Horse of Uffington. Though he’s not been briefed, Rutledge strongly suspects that Partridge participated in some top secret mission during the war. Muddying the waters is the discovery, within the ruins of  Yorkshire’s Fountains Abbey, of a corpse wrapped in a hooded cloak, face covered with a gas mask. Though not a part of Rutledge’s assignment, that will prove to be the crucial piece of the puzzle.

Populated with an array of interesting characters, some quite complex and all very real,  and set in one of England’s most mysterious locales, A Pale Horse is a layer cake of secret upon secret, some interrelated and some discrete.  If it weren’t so tightly plotted, following this investigation might have been a bit confusing. As more murders and several arsons occur, Rutledge has an ever increasing abundance of connections to sort through while trying not to tread on the toes of the local police.

The Inspector Rutledge series has a prominent place among the more literary mysteries in the genre, and A Pale Horse definitely fits well into that place; it’s an intelligent, socially relevant novel with resonance in today’s world, where war, business, political secrets, and yes, PTSD,  play such  a large role.

It’s a Mystery: The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

The Lost Book of the Grail

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve gotta say, rarely have I come across a book so expressly tailored to my own particular interests. Put together a collection of ancient manuscripts,  a medieval English cathedral, the long lost relics of a saint, a sacred spring, a mysterious code, King Arthur, the lore of the Holy Grail, and I’m hooked. Charlie Lovett has produced a cracking good tale set in Barchester, the fictional town invented by Anthony Trollope, with a suitably nerdy protagonist, Arthur Prescott, who teaches for a living but lives for the joys he discovers within the  all-but-deserted  cathedral library. He has his few close friends and an obsession with the Grail myth instilled by his grandfather, who believed the Grail is hidden somewhere within Barchester. Arthur’s existence is predictable and ordinary until an effervescent American scholar, Bethany Davis, breezes into his circumscribed world, charged with digitizing the contents of his beloved retreat. After a somewhat rocky beginning, they find common ground in their love of medieval history. Arthur is heartbroken when the dean announces that the manuscripts will have to be sold off to finance much needed cathedral repairs, and feels driven to find a way to save the beloved collection. Luckily, Bethany, a whiz of a researcher, throws herself into the quest, which plays out with

Although flashbacks can be annoying in a novel, author Lovett seamlessly blends them into the modern tale, via well researched sequences that vivify England’s tumultuous religious struggles while providing  grounding for the facts and legends that Arthur pursues. While some of his adventures contain humorous elements, others are more serious, as he searches not only for a “treasure” to save the library, but for something deeper in which to believe.

Engrossing, delightful, and heartening. And highly recommended.

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