C. J. Sansom's Dissolution (trade paper $14) was nominated for the CWA's Ellis Peters Historical Dagger and the John Creasey Best First Novel awards. Its follow-up, Dark Fire (501 pp., $24.95, limited number of signed copies available) is equally impressive. Set in 1540 Tudor London, the dissolution of monasteries continues. England is still divided between those loyal to the king and the new Church of England and those still faithful to Rome. The sharp but unambitious hunchback lawyer and reformer Matthew Shardlake is again featured.
When a young girl is accused of murdering her cousin by pushing him down an abandoned well her distraught and disbelieving uncle turns to Shardlake. Because she inexplicably stands mute to questioning and refuses to enter a plea at court she faces the press. This is where the accused is laid on the floor with a sharp stone beneath their spine. A board is place over them and rocks are slowly added until they confess, or their back breaks.
To gain a two-week reprieve to investigate and save the girl, Shardlake is coerced by Thomas Cromwell to accept a dangerous task. Henry VIII 's powerful and feared vicar general is desperate to find a lost cache of the legendary and infernal substance Greek Fire (perhaps more appropriately the Devil's Tears) along with its formula and delivery apparatus. Papist France and Spain threaten to invade England.
Shardlake follows a trail that crisscrosses a drought-stricken city that somewhat ironically won't experience The Great Fire until 1666 ---- during the Reformation. Shardlake encounters the highborn and lowborn, treason, conspiracy, violence and betrayal. He's assisted and watched by a swordsman (and secret Jew) who's only loyalty is to Cromwell. A good friend, and black apothecary who must keep his family's Islamic background quiet, also helps the "best mind in London". Being shadowed by a murderous pair of villains, and King Henry's outrageous marital problems, are just two further complications. And time is running out. Dark Fire's very plausible hook, its suspense and researched period details are remindful of the novels of David Liss. (Next time you're at a wedding mention to the bride's maids what a nosegay was originally used for.) Recommended.
Steven Saylor's chosen historical period is ancient Rome, and he's also highly regarded for his scholarship and research. I perked up when I read an interview (Publisher's Weekly 5/10/04) where he related a discovery; ".... Cicero's speech defending a man for murdering his father. To hear Cicero tell it, the more he discovered about the real crime, the greater his personal danger...." It was this revelation that led to Roman Blood ($6.99), the first in the Rosa Sub Rosa series featuring Gordianus the Finder.
But what a right-on sentiment to describe the professional and amateur fictional detective! It fits Matthew Shardlake, Gordianus, and the vast majority of investigative protagonists I can think of. The idea predates the conventions established in the works of Uncle Edgar Allan Poe by centuries. It's almost always a demonstrated literary truth.
Saylor's latest, The Judgment of Caesar ($24.95), is expected as a June paperback. Having been out for some months it's attracted mostly good, but also some not so good reviews. While I can recommend the series, I'm unable to rave about the tenth Gordianus the Finder. Perhaps it's because the series is as character-driven as it is plot driven. The hero does indeed grow older with each installment. And when all is said, it's best to read them in order. I've missed a few.
It is 48 B.C. Gordianus and his seriously ailing wife Bethesda are returning to her homeland of Egypt in hopes that the waters of the sacred Nile will cure her. At Alexandria he is caught up in the final throes of the years-long conflict between rival Roman generals Julius Caesar and Pompey. Soon, Gordianus is caught in the middle of another very hard place ---- the treacherous and murderous rivalry between Queen Cleopatra and her brother King Ptolemy. Caesar serves as the spade ace of trumps.
The one genuine mystery serves as a subplot. Gordianus has a surprise encounter with his estranged son Meto, now a trusted lieutenant (there's that Gaul influence) of Caesar. It puts a difficult new twist to their relationship. Meto is accused of murder by poison, and it's up to his father to clear him and prevent a swift and fatal reckoning. But the crime and its investigation, from beginning to resolution, takes place internally. It is incidental to the history-making events that Gordianus witnesses, and the fate of Bethesda. Some readers will find the conclusion of The Judgment of Caesar ambiguous and therefore unsatisfying.
The author certainly is not alone in exploring crime in ancient Rome. Readers spinning off can check out; Lindsey Davis, Rosemary Rowe, P.C. Doherty, Simon Scarrow, John Maddox Roberts, David Wishart, Marilyn Todd, and others.
In my bounce-around reading, I responded to a few juvenile (for want of a better label) fantasy novels that have grabbed me around the ankles. I'll mention and recommend, with minimal critical comment and details, Inkheart (trans. from German, 568 pp. $19.95, trade paper expected early May) by Cornelia Funke. All fiction is fantasy, but this has plenty of crime. Set in Italy, there are very dark villains, heroic heroes, some coming-of-age, and magic. Inkheart a bibliophile's book, and should also be enjoyed by adults ----- at least those that have liked Harry Potter.
It was gratifying to be named with Uncle Edgar's in the acknowledgments page of Quintin Jardine's latest Oz Blackstone, Alarm Call ($25 import, ltd. # of signed copies expected, $9.99 UK pb announced for June). Scots P.I. turned actor and movie star, Blackstone comes to the aid of his unforgettable ex-wife Primavera Phillips after her life is thoroughly trashed by her despicable con-man husband. Bitter Oz sets off on a dark journey of revenge and discovery that hops around the western U.S., but not before an extended and significant fictional visit to Minneapolis. Pages 114 and 115 are almost embarrassing. But I've got to give it a proper reading ---- so it's on top of the stack(s).
In the same "to be read" boat, elbowing for a seat in the bow, are two other very welcome titles; Peter Corris' Masters Mates and The Coast Road (Aus. trade pb, $11.95). Both feature veteran Sydney Private Eye Cliff Hardy. Hardy is in the classic vein akin to Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer. A favorite and he's been missed. Goodness ---- I think the last time he was seen in Uncle Edgar's was in Wet Graves, a 1995 Dell paperback
A few quick notes: A nod and smile to those who stopped and mentioned noticing me hovering in line in the background during the PBS airing of "The Antiques Roadshow " (St. Paul). Strange, not book related, and there's not even a short story there. So, never mind.
By the time you read this (familiar last words) I'll have given a presentation/talk on New Mystery and Crime Fiction (Feb. 16) to the well-read and interested patrons of the Stillwater Public Library. I'm sure it will go well, so my thanks to Lynn Bertelmo for the invitation.
by Gerri Balter
Sharon McCone is going through a rough time as Dead Midnight by Marcia Muller ($7.50) begins. Her younger brother commits suicide. Sharon feels both anger and guilt. Anger because he took his own life and guilt because she didn't find him in time to stop him. When a friend of hers, Glenn Solomon, wants her to investigate the suicide of his godson, Roger Nagasawa, so that the boy's parents could sue his employer for a wrongful death suit, she says no. Roger's death resembles her brother's too closely. After thinking about it for a while, she decides to accepts the case. As she begins to investigate, she learns that there is something more going on. His parents are no longer living together. His older brother is falling apart emotionally. His younger brother claims to want to have nothing to do with the rest of the family. Two employees at his workplace have disappeared. One of them is so frightened, she leaves her belongings behind. There is something more going on and Sharon is determined to find out the truth.
Jane Isenberg writes the about the aftermath of 9/11 on the residents in New York in Hot and Bothered ($6.99). Some of them, like Bel Barrett's significant other, Sol, want to leave the city. Sol tries to convince Bel to take early retirement and move out of the city. He tries to get her children to convince her to move. They feel she should stay. She agrees. The situation grows worse when a part_time professor is murdered and everyone except Sol wants Bel to look into the murder. Bel is one of the few people who knew that the murdered part_time professor was also working as a stripper to make ends meet. Which profession led to her death? That's what Bel is determined to find out.
May the Best Man Die by Deborah Donnelly ($5.99) begins as Carnegie Kincaid, wedding planner receives a call from a bride who's wedding she's planning. She wants Carnegie to go to the groom's bachelor party. Even though she didn't plan the party she goes. It seems the best man wants Carnegie to go on a beer run. She refuses to go, but before she can leave she sees Aaron Gold, the man she dated and dumped when she found out he was married. Even though she refuses to admit she has feelings for him, she spies on him. While she is spying, sees a fight between the best man and the younger brother of her best friend Lily. When the best man is found murdered, Carnegie is forced to tell the police the truth and Lily's younger brother is arrested for the crime. Carnegie feels responsible is decides to clear his name. Reluctantly, she allows Aaron to help her as long as he keeps it on a professional basis. It's difficult for Carnegie to keep her mind on the investigation when Aaron keeps wanting to explain why he didn't tell her he was married. The murderer isn't happy about Aaron and Carnegie's investigation and tries to stop them. When Aaron has to leave town, Carnegie is left alone to find the truth and face the murderer.
What would you do if you were given the phone number that belonged to someone who works at an escort service? That's what happens to Henry Pierce in Chasing the Dime by Michael Connelly ($7.99). Men kept on calling Henry on his cell phone asking for Lily. He tries calling her to ask her to change her number. She never returns his calls. When he finds out she works at an escort service and sees her picture online, he feels compelled to find her. She reminds him of his sister who was found nude and murdered by a serial killer. He finds that Lily hasn't been seen for a couple of months. He goes to the police with what he finds out and they think he killed her. After he is beaten by Lily's employer, he is warned by both the police and his attorney to stop looking for her. He is supposed to be working on how to convince people to invest in his company. They need the money so that they can come out first with a scientific breakthrough he developed that will revolutionize the computer industry and is worth millions. All he can think of is Lily. The more he finds out, the more he is drawn into the intrigue surrounding Lily, one that has more to do with him than he realizes.
Immaculate Midnight by Ellen Hart ($13.95) is the kind of the book that I found hard to put down once I started reading it. The suspense builds with each chapter. Each time I thought I knew who the guilty person was, something else would be revealed that made me change my mind. I had to keep reading to find out what would happen next.
The novel starts with the death of Bobby Alto after a knife fight in prison. Bobby was convicted of being a serial arsonist and murderer although he kept proclaiming his innocence. His lawyer was Ray Lawless, Jane's father. After Bobby's death, Jane receives a tarot card. Next her father receives one. Finally, Jane's sister_in_law receives one. Jane finds drugs in her office in the restaurant she owns. She calls the police in to investigate. Jane's sister_in_law, Sigrid, is beaten so badly it is unlikely she will survive. Because Jane's brother, Peter, fought with her beforehand, he is a prime suspect. Jane and her father, Ray, believe that someone in Bobby's family is responsible. Jane is determined to find out the truth before someone else in her family is harmed. During the investigation the reader finds out that not only the members of Bobby's family but the members of Jane's family have secrets that they would prefer to keep that way. One of them is willing to kill to keep the secret from being made public.
A friend of Vicky Holden comes to visit her on the reservation as The Spirit Woman by Margaret Coel ($6.50) begins. She is working on finding the truth about what happened to Sacajewea after she guided Lewis and Clark. There are lots of stories about her. Those who know the truth are keeping silent. Twenty years earlier another woman named Charlotte Allen came looking for the truth about Sacajewea and she disappeared. Vicky's friend has Charlotte's research. When Charlotte's skeleton is found by Father John O'Malley, both Vicki and Father O'Malley begin to investigate her murder. Somehow it's tied to her research on Sacajewea. Now Vicki's friend is in danger as are Vicki and Father O'Malley. The murderer is looking for the research and will stop at nothing to find it.
Skeletons in Purple Sage by Barbara Burnett Smith ($5.99) deals with the problems adult children have with their older parents. Jolie Wyatt can't seem to get along with her mother. Whatever she does seems to upset her mother. Instead of dealing with her problems with her mother, Jolie decides to investigate the death of Dr. Bill Marchak. Dr. Marchak was the one who helped Jolie deal with her father's illness and death. The police seem to think that the Dr. Marchak committed suicide. A great many of Dr. Marchak's so_called friends refuse to honor him because of it. Her investigation leads her to the realization that someone she knows is the murderer. She doesn't want to deal with that either. However, she has no choice. The murderer isn't going to let her live.
The Marriage Casket by Deborah Morgan ($5.99) refers to a box that holds precious memories. In this case, the box holds letters from Andrew Rose to his mother, Verena. Jeff Talbot, antiques picker, finds the marriage casket among the belongings of Verena Rose who supposedly died from a fall in her bathtub. When Jeff finds blood stains, he calls in the police. They exhume her body and found she had been murdered. Her nephew, the prime suspect, had sold Jeff the contents of her house for a modest price. He needed the money to pay for his son's medical bills. Jeff knows all about medical bills. His wife, Sheila, refuses to leave their house. After having been kidnapped, she now refuses to leave her bedroom. Between paying for a therapist who comes to their home and people who help him take care of her, he has bills too. He hopes that selling the antiques he finds in Verena's house will help him pay his bills. However, the police won't let him touch anything until the murderer has been found. They think the nephew is guilty. Jeff feels differently. He starts an investigation of his own, not realizing that the truth is closer than he realizes.
When Cutwork by Monica Ferris ($6.99) begins, Betsy Devonshire was helping to run an art fair. When one of the artists is murdered, everyone expects Betsy to solve the crime. When the police arrest a teenage boy with a long history of trouble with the law, everyone assumes he's guilty, except for his mother. She wants Betsy to clear him. It isn't going to be easy. He does nothing to help her and his reputation as a thief and the fact that the dead man's money is found in his room leads the police to believe they have an airtight case. Betsy isn't so sure. She begins to talk with people who knew the murdered man, including his family. He was estranged from his wife and children. His wife and son were angry with him. Could one of them have killed him? Then there was an artist friend of his who seemed awfully interested in his artwork. Maybe he did it. Usually Betsy could count on her best friend, Officer Jill Cross, for help. Not this time. Betsy accidentally let slip something Jill told her in confidence and it was spread all over town. Jill is too angry to speak to Betsy. She has to work on her own to find out the truth.
Three Dirty Women and the Shady Acres by Julie Wray Herman ($15.00) is a mystery that deals with the problems adults have dealing with their aged parents or in_laws. Korene McFaile is having problems with her mother_in_law, Dora. Dora is living with her because she can no loner live alone. However, Korene can't take care of her anymore. Dora's son, Cal, hasn't been doing much to care for his mother. However, he comes into town criticizing Korene quickly when Dora sneaks out of the house, drives to Shady Acres, a retirement home, where she accidentally runs over one of the residents. Dora insists that she drove to Shady Acres because Korene left her a note. She also claims that someone has been breaking into Korene's house and taking things. Everyone dismisses this as a manifestation of Dora's illness. When an autopsy reveals that the resident was dead before he was run over, J.J. investigates the crime while dealing with practical jokers, overworked officers who are threatening to quit, and a city budget that can't give him the funds he needs. The mystery is intriguing, but what I particularly enjoyed is the way the author depicted the problems adults have coming to terms with their parents' aging.
The Emperor's Assassin by T.F. Banks ($6.50) tells the story of how the Bow Street runners stopped an attempt to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte. It begins with the brutal death of Angelique Desmarches, a French woman. Bow Street Runner Henry Morton investigates the case. At first he can't find any reason why anyone would want to kill her. Then he finds out that she is the mistress of Count d'Auvraye, a French man. A short time later he is murdered as well. He can't seem to find a reason why anyone would want to kill the Count. With the help of Arabella, an actress and Henry's lover, he begins to follow a trail of men who will do anything to finish what they have started. The problem is that he's not sure what they are trying to do. All he knows is that if he doesn't stop them in time, something terrible will happen.
The village in Death of a Village by M.C. Beaton ($6.99) is the village of Stoyre. It's part of police constable Hamish Macbeth's beat. Something strange is happening at the village. Unfortunately, Hamish is too busy to find out what it is. He's dealing with cases of spousal abuse, animal cruelty, and nursing home abuse. Finally, he has to find out what is going on in Stoyre after a woman is frightened to death. The problem is that no one is willing to talk with him. On top of that, someone keeps trying to kill him. He is determined to find out what is going on Stoyre.
What I enjoy the most about Jonnie Jacobs mysteries is that I can never figure out who the killer is. I'm always sure that I know who it is, and I'm always wrong. Cold Justice ($6.99 pb or $23.00 signed hc) is no exception. It begins with murder of Annie Bailey. Kali Roberts was supposed to meet her for dinner and she never shows up. Kali identifies her body. She is very upset. What upsets her more is that the clues found at the scene remind her of a serial murder case she helped prosecute eight years earlier. The man she helped convict has just been put to death. She's asked by the current district attorney, who was the lead prosecutor on the earlier case, to join the DAs office long enough to oversee the investigation of the current case. She accepts. As more women are murdered, the similarities between the two sets of cases grow stronger. What makes it worse is that one of the possible suspects is a man that Kali is strongly attracted to. By the time she discovers the truth, her life is in grave danger.