November 22


Archived Newsletter Content


Newsletter #65 March - June, 2004

Mystery Reviews
by Jeff Hatfield

        Battle-scarred Lieutenant Richard Sharpe, along with his Irish Sgt. Patrick Harper and green-jacketed Riflemen, indeed march again in Sharpe's Havoc ($25.95, trade paperback, $12.95, due mid-March) and Sharpe's Escape ($25.95, due mid-April) by Bernard Cornwell. Judging by how quick I've been over the years to pick up the Sharpe novels when they first appear, plus the fact that I've re-read them (an unusual occurrence), indicates that it is my favorite series of historical military adventure. And while the novels have no intellectual puzzle, investigative procedure, or mystery, there's still plenty of crime. Always of the brutal and violent variety.
        In Sharpe's Havoc (chronologically following Sharpe's Rifles) it's the Portuguese spring of 1809 and the seemingly inexhaustible armies of Napoleon led by self-promoting Marshal Soult have began their second invasion from the north. The relatively small contingent of British troops dithers in Lisbon, not knowing if they are to stay in the field or are to be shipped back to England. Sharpe and his riflemen are ordered to look for the daughter of an English wine merchant missing from her home in Oporto on the banks of the River Douro. But the French onslaught and capture of Oporto strands the unit behind enemy lines. Sharpe's position is precarious- even doomed. And a traitorous and self-serving English Colonel who has his own plan for driving the enemy out of Portugal further complicates the situation. It's only the arrival of the new British commander, a certain Sir Arthur Wellesley who mounts a daring counter offensive, that gives Sharpe and his green jackets any chance for survival.
        An editorial change turned Sharpe's Charge into Sharpe's Escape. This seems prudent and a bit self-evident since the French enemy does the only charging in the novel, and Richard Sharpe (perhaps the ultimate survivor) needs to escape not once, but again and again. It's late summer 1810, which makes this adventure not the sequel to Sharp's Havoc but rather a follow-up to Sharp's Gold.
        This third and most threatening invasion of Portugal, with French forces lead by Marshal Massena, would historically prove the last. Sharpe, all professional and recognized as a natural leader and inspired strategist by the ranks as well as the British high command, now leads a light company mix of red coats and riflemen. They play a significant role in a successful battle at the gaunt ridge of Bussaco where a hungry enemy is making a decisive sabre thrust toward Lisbon and the beating heart of the country. The French, both men and horses, are about to get hungrier. For Wellington has instituted a scorched earth tactic, scattering Portuguese civilians into the hills while actually luring the French toward Lisbon and away from Spain. And winter is coming.
        Sharpe, in a bit of misguided nepotism by British command, has his light company taken away from him and is made of all things a quartermaster. The bitter Lieutenant toys with the idea of leaving the army. Traitors and personal enemies among the Portuguese draw he and Harper into a death trap in Coimbra. Sharpe again must escape (along with the now obligatory English damsel in distress) from behind enemy lines. He must somehow survive the nasty sack and rape of the city, find his way out of an escape-proof rat infested warehouse cellar, make his way through a filled sewer, and race his enemies across country toward his own company.
        Meanwhile Messena's invaders reach the northern outskirts of Lisbon only to astonishingly butt their collective heads against Wellington's Lines of Torres Vedras. This huge construction project comprised three lines of 152 forts and bastions and covered 52 miles of defensive front. What is the most amazing, historically, is this massive undertaking was successfully kept secret not only from the French (well known for their effective espionage network) but also British and Portuguese governments. Like a Peninsular War Maginot line-only this one succeeded. And it is here that Richard Sharpe must use all his wits and courage to make his final escape in a furious and bloody climax.
         Again Cornwell consistently and successfully blends fictional and historical characters along with actual battles. It makes for very entertaining reading. There's the promise and possibility that Uncle Edgar's will have author autographed copies of Sharpe's Escape. But until copies are in my arms let's not count on it. Like the now classic novels of Patrick O'Brien, we years ago made a point of carrying the UK editions of the Sharpe novels when they were not readily available to U.S. fans. Perhaps one of these days we'll be able to lure Mr. Cornwell from his Cape Cod home to Mid-America for a signing/reading event- and make sure he doesn't escape.

        The stultifying class system of Anne Perry's Victorian England seems downright ultra-progressive when compared to the cultural and social caste system of 11th century Heian period Japan. Exotic, brutal, colorful, mysterious, and somewhat complex - it's the world of minor Ministry of Justice official and amateur sleuth the honorable Sugawara Akitada. Akitada was introduced in the Shamas award winning "Akitada's First Case' (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine July/Aug '99). What has followed are two enormously appealing and recommended novels; Rashomon Gate (St. Martin's Minotaur, 7/02, $24.95) and its sequel, The Hell Screen (9/03, $24.95). Each subtitled "A Mystery of Ancient Japan".
        In Rashomon Gate Akitada is asked by an old mentor and professor to look into the disturbing situation of a fellow professor at the Imperial University being blackmailed. Nearly thirty and head of his own household, Akitada is neither married nor especially successful in his career. But he does have a talent and aptitude for solving crimes and puzzles. Akitada jumps at the chance to escape his dull job at the ministry in Heian Kyo (modern Kyoto) and goes undercover as a visiting lecturer.
        Akitada's noble character, bravery, and modest righteous nature continues to gain him friends in both high and low social stations. With the help of his loyal retainer Tora, a former soldier and highwayman, his investigation leads to the suspicion that the University's system of rigorous student examinations has been corrupted. Which, if true, is a scandal that could have a devastating effect on his beloved "Alma Mater". Akitada is distracted by the strangulation of a young woman, the seemingly miraculous (decreed by the emperor himself) disappearance of a student's grandfather, the threatened life of one of his students (a young lord), and his tentative courtship of a reluctant bride. But Akitada is not reluctant to place himself in personal peril while gathering clues, and must walk between raindrops to solve the mysteries and foil a conspiracy.
        In The Hell Screen, Akitada, now with a wife and young son, is returning to his ancestral home and growing household in the capital after serving a successful stint as provincial governor in a cold and isolated northern province. Traveling ahead to reach the deathbed of his bitter and pitiless widowed mother, he takes refuge from the cold rain in a mountain monastery. Here Akitada is struck by the vividly painted gory visions of the horrific Hell Screen. He also is awakened by a mysterious stifled scream, which later proves to have come from a murdered woman.
        Akitada's year-end homecoming quickly becomes complicated with family strife, trying to clear a tortured young prisoner of murder, involvement in a case of objects missing from the Palace Storehouse, and the deaths and disappearances of prostitutes and children from the city's streets. His investigations bring him in contact with a varied and colorful array of secondary characters and suspects. At least one trail could lead to his own torture and death. Plus all the while Akitada is haunted by the memory of his late and callous father whose household role he now assumes, and as a returning provincial governor he has yet to be summoned to give his report to the emperor.
        Parker's descriptions and depictions are a result of significant historical research, and her plots also take their inspiration from somewhat ancient source material. There is an appreciated roster of characters in the front of both books, revealing historical notes at the end, and helpful maps and crude illustrations (very remindful of Van Gulick's classic Chinese Judge Dee stories) which add to their charm and appeal. Contrast and comparison can be made between the two Akitada novels with: the more slight, generic, and out-of -print samurai novels of Dale Furutani; the somewhat romantic long-running series of novels of Laura Joh Rowland featuring feudal 17th century samurai Sano Ichiro; and the Japanese fantasy trilogy "Tales of the Otori" by Lian Hearn. At present, paperback issues have not been announced, and first printings of hardcover editions may prove scarce. But a third Akitada novel is in the works, and while the wait may be a bit painful, its arrival will be most welcome. A low bow to author I. J. Parker.

Mystery Reviews
by Gerri Balter

        Blacklist by Sara Parestsky ($24.95) tells a story of how past deeds can lead to tragedy in the present. It all started innocently enough. V.I. Warshawski is looking for something to keep her busy so she doesn't think about her lover, Morrell, who is in Afghanistan and in danger. She takes a case from her highest paying client. It seems that his mother, Geraldine, who is living in a nursing home, has seen lights coming from her former home which is now deserted. When V.I. investigates, she stumbles over the body of Marcus Whitby, an investigative reporter who works for an African-American publication. The police claimed he committed suicide. His family insisted he would never do such a thing. They hired V.I. to find out the truth. What she finds is political intrigue, murder, infidelity, power struggles that starts during the McCarthy era and ends with the death of three people.

        Out of Hormone's Way by Jane Isenberg ($6.50) starts when Bel Barrett does a favor for her friend, Wendy. Wendy's mother is ill and Wendy has to go and take care of her. Wendy has just convinced the Jersey City community college to start an Urban Kayaking Club. She's afraid if someone doesn't take over the club temporarily, it will be cancelled and she'll never get it started again. Even though fifty-something Bel hasn't done any kayaking since she was a young mother, she decides to give it a try. Then one of the members is murdered and another member is charged with the crime. Bel isn't fond of the person who is charged with the crime. However, she has doubts about his guilt. She decides to investigate the crime even though it might mean that her own life is in danger.

        Addiction by G.H. Ephron ($6.99) begins when Channing Temple, a friend of Peter Zak, asks his help. She wants him to check out her daughter, Olivia. Suicide runs in Channing's family and Olivia has been depressed and acting strangely. She is under the care of a psychiatrist, Daphne Smythe-Gooding who is Channing's mentor. Olivia isn't responding to treatment. Before Peter can officially examine Olivia, he finds Channing dead of gunshot wounds and Olivia in the room, holding the murder weapon. At first it looks like suicide. Then the police find out it's murder and Olivia is charged with the crime. In the meantime, Peter does examine Olivia and finds out she has been taking excessive doses of Ritalin. While she is being weaned off the drug, Peter begins to investigate the case in the hope of clearing Olivia of the crime. He's sure she is innocent. He finds out that Channing has been doing research on curing the psychological craving for drugs. She's found a natural cure that might work. However, her findings have been called into question by someone who works for a drug company that has a drug that might have the same results. Peter thinks Channing's natural cure might help Olivia. When Olivia has an adverse reaction to the natural cure, Peter begins to wonder if Channing didn't fake her results. Meanwhile the killer doesn't want Peter delving into Channing's research and is willing to kill again to keep him from finding out who killed Channing and the truth about her research.

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