‘A few prayers, word of the Book, nod of the head, and into the ground sharp.’ – Skin and Bone by Robin Blake

March 23, 2017 at 1:08 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)


Titus Cragg is Coroner to the town of Preston, in Lancashire, in the 1740s. I do not give the exact date because this series advances one year per entry. Skin and Bone is the fourth such.

In the first, A Dark Anatomy, we meet Titus and his close friend, the physician Luke Fidelis. From time to time, Luke lends his assistance in Titus’s death investigations. His expertise often proves invaluable.

In Skin and Bone, the mystery commences with the discovery of the body of an infant. Neither the child’s identity nor the cause of death are known. Pursuing the answer to these questions lands Titus in a world of trouble he could not have anticipated.

Blake’s plots are well wrought, but the real joy of this series lies in his meticulous evocation of mid-eighteenth century England. Details describing the workings of the coroner’s office are particularly fascinating. The characters are eminently real. believable, and appealing, for the most part. A particular pleasure is the depiction of the marriage of Titus Cragg and his wife Elizabeth. With their steadfast devotion to one another, and in particular her staunch loyalty to her often beleaguered husband, we witness first hand the source of their strength.

Titus and Elizabeth eagerly await the coming of a child into their lives. Elizabeth in particular has to fight impatience and anxiety on this score. Titus is well aware of her struggle. Early in the novel, this exchange occurs:

Her mocking tone had long gone and, now, tears were glinting in her eyes.

‘My dearest wife,’ I said, kneeling by her chair and clasping her hands. ‘You are not yet thirty and God is merciful. It is not too late for you–for us–I am sure of it.’

A simple yet moving statement of faith.

I am somewhat perplexed that this series is not better known. I would rate it without hesitation among the very best of the  historical mysteries. One thinks of the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters and C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series.

Do yourself a  favor and  start with the first, so that the novels’ cumulative effect can work freely on your imagination. For myself, I eagerly await the fifth.


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Current trends in crime fiction part three, the books: historical mysteries

February 24, 2017 at 8:20 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction)

V. Historical mysteries

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The Apothecary Rose and The Lady Chapel by Candace Robb
Robb vividly evokes the world of 14th century Britain.

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P.F. Chisholm does likewise for the 16th century in  A Famine of Horses . Chisholm’s writing is enlivened by an irony and irreverence rarely encountered in historical fiction, which has an occasional tendency to take itself too seriously. Her protagonist, Sir Robert Carey, is based on an historical  figure. The scenario she depicts, up north by the Scottish borders, is rife with a sort of cheerful, energetic lawlessness. This too is based in the factual history of the period. In her introduction to this novel, Chisholm tells us that  “…I first met Sir Robert Carey by name in the pages of George MacDonald Fraser’s marvellous history of the Anglo-Scottish borders, “’The Steel Bonnets’.” I love this quote from Fraser:

The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.

This series currently encompasses six novels. They’re not all as compelling as the first, though A Chorus of Innocents, the most recent, I thought was every bit as good as Famine.

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A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake. The first entry in the Cragg and Fidelis series, one that deserves to be much better known than it is. Set very specifically in eighteenth century Preston, Lancashire, and peopled with an exceptionally appealing cast of characters. (See the link at the beginning of this post.)

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

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The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Wow! A standalone novel of tremendous depth and power. The year is 1869. Amid the oppression of a community of Scottish crofters by cruel and heedless overseers, a young man’s anger and resentment build steadily until they reach the boiling point. His Bloody Project made the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2016, apparently astonishing certain folk among the ‘literati.’

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Judge Dee at Work and The Haunted Monastery by Robert Hans van Gulik (historical and international!) Here’s a case in which the story of how these books came to be written is as fascinating as the books themselves. I wrote of this in some detail in a previous post.
Born in the Netherlands in 1910, Robert Van Gulik spent most of his childhood in what was then the Dutch East Indies and is now Jakarta, Indonesia. While there. he learned Mandarin as well as other languages. He seems to have been an  intellectually voracious and  multi-talented individual whose life was cheifly characterized by a love of all things Chinese. The site RechterTie.nl is a veritable goldmine of information on this fascinating man his work.


Illustrations by Robert Van Gulik

61hyr7optnl  The Judge Dee mysteries take place during the 600s (Tang Dynasty). In Jade Dragon Mountain  by Elsa Hart, events transpire in an era much closer to our own: the early 1700s. We are nonetheless presented with kingdom which, for all its riches, remains largely aloof from Western influences. The Jesuits, however, have made significant incursions into the culture of this isolationist empire. It is their presence, and their influence, that lie at the heart of this impressive first novel.

Li Du is an exiled scholar whose wanderings take him to Dayan, a city at the edge of China’s empire. Here, feverish preparations are under way for a festival in honor of the Emperor, whose arrival is imminent. A shocking murder disrupts the proceedings, and Li Du, a cousin of the ruling magistrate, finds himself pressed into the role of detective. The Emperor is due to arrive in Dayan in a matter of days. Li Du is required to have solved the mystery by that time. It is a daunting task.

So, to be honest, is the reading of this novel – at least, it has been, for me. (I’ve got about 45 pages to go.) Hart spends a fair amount of time describing life in the city of Dayan during this era. Her writing is wonderful, but in the midst of her rich prose elaborations, I found it all too easy to lose the thread of the plot. It seemed at times to wander like the depiction of a sinuous landscape one sees in certain paintings from the Qing Dynasty.

Clearing after Rain over Streams and Mountains by Wang Hui, 1662

Clearing after Rain over Streams and Mountains
by Wang Hui, 1662

There are several examples of story within a story in Jade Dragon Mountain. In one instance, one of the featured characters was none other than Judge Dee. Another story is the retelling of an old Sufi legend that I first came across in a biography of Somerset Maugham. Maugham retells the story in his play Sheppey. Sometimes referred to as “Death Comes to Baghdad,” sometimes as “The Appointment in Samarra,” it is more of a fable, actually, its message being that we cannot outrun the fate that awaits each of us.

I’ve already had occasion to praise Elsa Hart’s writing. Some passages in this novel rise to the poetic. Here Li Du, traveling in mountainous terrain, is enjoying a rare moment of repose after a meal. Gradually he finds himself enveloped in clouds and mist.

The quiet deepened into silence. Li Du did not move, but rested his eyes on the soft white expanse. As he watched, the cloud shifted and broke. He saw, as if through a window, a tree on the opposite side of the gorge. It was a dead, hollowed oak, blackened by fire. Only one branch remained, reaching out perpendicular to the trunk. The vapor thickened, the window closed, and the tree was gone.
Another opening appeared. Through this new window Li Du saw movement, and though the could make out the rounded back of a little bear trundling across a clearing into a copse of evergreens. Again the mist moved, erasing the scene.The next break in the cloud framed  a waterfall, a still, silver column too distant for him to perceive its tumbling energy. That window closed, another opened, and he saw a tree. It was in the same place as the tall oak he had seen minutes  earlier. Only this one was not hollow, but alive, its limbs and trunk whole and draped in garlands of lichen.
He imagined then t hat t he shifting clouds contained thousands of years, and that he had seen the same tree in two different times. What if every moment of that tree’s existence, the whole of is past and its future, exited at once, here in this blank and infinite cloud?

Oh that we could each of us be vouchsafed such a lovely vision!

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It’s ancient history: Robert Harris brings his Cicero trilogy to a stunning conclusion

June 10, 2016 at 10:33 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Italy, Music)

Here are the three novels in the trilogy:


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I just finished Dictator. Words fail me, but luckily they did not fail Robert Harris. Quite, in fact, the opposite:

I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium— their yearning, keening howls, like animals in heat— and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.

It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled from Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.

The story of Cicero’s turbulent life and dramatic death is told to us by Tiro, a former slave who remained in Cicero’s service as scribe and factotum after Cicero had freed him. Tiro supposedly invented a type of shorthand writing; moreover, it is said that he penned a biography of Cicero. This document has never come to light – at least, not until Robert Harris resurrected it through the power of his imagination. It is a brilliant conceit, brilliantly executed.



Marcus Tullius Cicero 106 BC – 43 BC

Whether writing about contemporary political intrigue or ancient history, Robert Harris produces works that are compelling, convincing, and altogether satisfying.The Fear Index was a high tech thriller, at times difficult to follow but nonetheless enjoyable. The Ghost is a riff on post-Blair Britain and America. It was turned into a terrific film entitled The Ghost Writer:

Pompeii was about…well, the volcano of course, but Harris fleshes out the story with fascinating characters and incidents. (There is something uniquely powerful about fiction in which an impending catastrophe looms over the narrative and you know it’s coming but the characters don’t. One thinks of Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself about the sinking of the Titanic. And of course,  Ruth Rendell’s Judgement in Stone, with its famous opening sentence that at the time – 1977 – astonished the world of crime fiction: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”)

Finally there is An Officer and a Spy, in which Harris tells the story of the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Lieutenant Georges Picquart. In the course of the novel, Picquart becomes increasingly convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence and ends up putting his career and even his freedom on the line as he doggedly pursued the truth of the matter.

So I wish to salute Robert Harris, master storyteller.


For a musical accompaniment, may I suggest the finale of The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. You may have to adjust the volume as this piece attains its blazing climax!

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Inspector Chopra and Sir Robert Carey round out the ‘Book list for a Friend’ series

May 27, 2016 at 12:52 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

516HHZhs9JL._SX299_BO1,204,203,200_  And who. pray tell, is Inspector Chopra? The creation of author Vaseem Khan, Inspector Ashwin Chopra is a self-effacing, rigorously upright member of the Mumbai Police Department. On the day that we meet him, he’s in the process of retiring after a long and distinguished career.

True, he can do this officially and physically, but from a psychological and emotional standpoint, police work is in his  blood. He cannot stop himself. No sooner has he cleared out his office than he begins, on his own, to investigate the mysterious death of a boy. Although ruled accidental, Chopra becomes increasingly convinced that it was murder – a murder  that’s being too conveniently  swept under the rug.

Ashwin Chopra and his wife Poppy live in an apartment block in Mumbai. Early in the novel, a baby elephant arrives to disrupt their rather simple existence. It seems that this lovable but somewhat depressed creature has been left to Chopra in the will of his recently deceased uncle. Part of the fun of The Unexpected Inheritance lies in watching Poppy and Chopra attempting to cope with this rather cumbersome legacy. At one point, “Baby Ganesh” ends up actually inside the Chopra’s apartment!

Ashwin and Poppy are extremely appealing individuals; even more so, the city of Mumbai itself can be considered a character in this novel. Chopra has much to say about the city he loves, and indeed, generally speaking, about his native country in its present incarnation. Upon visiting a mall filled with high end luxury goods, these are his thoughts:

Chopra did not need Van Heusen and Louis Philippe shirts, he had no use for Apple accessories and Ray Ban sunglasses. Sometimes it seemed to him that the whole country was being rebranded. He imagined the lines of Indians moving past booths manned by representatives of foreign multinationals as each Indian went past he was stripped of his traditional clothes, his traditional values, and given new things to wear and new things to think. Branded and rewired, this new model of Indian went back to his home thinking that he was now a truly modern Indian and what a fine thing that was, but all Chopra saw was the gradual death of the culture that had always made him proud of his incredible country.

That sounds rather gloomy and heavy, but this novel is for the most part optimistic, if cautiously, and even at times humorous.

In the biography on his website,  London-born Vaseem Khan tells how when, arriving in Mumbai in 1997 to work as a management consultant, he beheld an elephant walking down the middle of the road. This amazing vision…”served as the inspiration behind my Baby Ganesh series of light-hearted crime novels.” Khan concludes his biographical sketch thus:

Elephants are third on my list of passions, first and second being great literature and cricket, not always in that order.

(For the complete biography, click here.)

Vaseem Khan

Vaseem Khan

The second book in the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series, entitled The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown, will be published here this coming August. 26227647

Just for fun, to get you in the mood for things Indian, here’s one of my favorite music videos, the manically cheerful and riotously colorful “Kal Ho Naa Ho – Maahi Ve:”

25106676  Last February, I wrote a post in which I expressed my disappointment in A Murder of Crows, then the latest installment in P.F. Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey series. I was not sure that I wanted to read A Chorus of Innocents, the novel following that one. Then I saw the Kirkus review, in which the writer concludes with this assessment:

One of Chisholm’s best Elizabethan mysteries… combining all the historical information readers have come to expect with a swiftly moving story featuring a strong woman whose romantic aspirations have yet to be fulfilled.

The strong woman in question is Lady Elizabeth Widdrington. In A Chorus of Innocents, she is determined to solve a murder that smites her sense of justice deeply. It is more or less unheard of that a woman, even – or especially – a noble woman, should involve herself in a murder investigation, but such considerations do not weigh greatly with Lady Widdrington.

She has the great misfortune to be married to a thoroughly nasty man who beats her and refuses to share her bed. The same unbending rectitude that impels her to pursue the malefactor in this case also governs her behavior as a wife. She  believes she must submit to her husband because he is her lord. Unlike many women of her rank, she is without exception faithful to her spouse, no matter how odious his treatment of her. What makes this situation especially remarkable, not to mention painful, is that she is deeply in love with another man, Sir Robert Carey, and he, equally with her. Sir Robert serves in Queen Elizabeth’s court when he’s in London and serves as Deputy Warden of one of the Marches located in the border country between England and Scotland. (This is an altogether tough region to police; it very much reminds of the early days of the American West.)

P.F Chisholm is on record as having taken her inspiration for  this series of novels from her reading of The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers by George MacDonald Fraser. I’ve only read the first few pages of this book, but I hit almost at once upon this quote:

The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.

Chisholm’s depiction of this clash of civilizations is robust and amazingly vivid and convincing. She writes terrific dialog, redolent of the speech patterns and eccentric vocabulary of those who dwell in the border regions. They are as lively and irreverent a gang of folk as I’ve met in a long time, or perhaps ever. Religion is invariably a hot topic in these parts, and in the midst of a debate over the afterlife, this view is offered to Elizabeth:

“….all the borderers go to hell; it’s warmer there and better company.”

Quite naturally, she can’t think how to reply and so remains silent.

Throughout this novel, times of intense activity and excruciating suspense alternate with moments of tenderness and heartache. Along the way there is a good deal of humor, though mostly laced with irony and  sometimes even bitterness. The Kirkus reviewer is right on the mark: this is outstanding historical fiction.

A Chorus of Innocents is the sixth entry in the Sir Robert Carey series. As I’ve read the five previous titles, I’m undecided as to whether a reader can begin here, or whether it’s needful to go back to the first book,  A Famine of Horses.  That novel was similarly wonderful; the three immediately following were enjoyable rather than stellar, and the fifth, as I’ve already said, was below par in my view.

So, Reader, it’s up to you. Whatever you do, don’t miss the series opener and this latest installment. You will be amply rewarded by both.

Patrica Finney, aka P.F. Chisholm

Patrica Finney, aka P.F. Chisholm



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Mysteries: Two winners and one disappointment

February 23, 2016 at 2:25 am (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

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The Novel Habits of Happiness is the latest in Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series. It’s not fresh in my mind at this point. I only know that I loved it. McCall Smith’s writing, as always, is precise and lyrical; his wit, gentle. His intellectual world is a place of play and revelation. Most of all, his insight into the human heart – especially into the heart of one woman – continues to amaze me.

She was not sure what she wanted to say about God. She thought that he might be there— embodied somehow in the perfection of the world, or in the sublime harmonies of a great work of music. Of course, if he was anywhere in music, she felt he was in the grave beauty of the motets of John Tavener, or in the more sublime passages of Bach. The architecture of such music was incompatible, Isabel thought, with a world that was meaningless.
“Babar!” demanded Charlie, and snuggled down in his bed, holding his mother’s hand. Isabel felt an overwhelming tenderness. My little boy; this little creature I have created; the person I love more than anything or anybody in this world; who means absolutely everything to me; who provides my answers in the way in which no philosophy, however brilliant, can ever do; mine.

Frequently one reads that Denise Mina is currently one of today’s leading exponents of Tartan Noir. Having recently consumed The Red Road, I can but concur with that sentiment. This is a harrowing roller coaster of a novel. Alongside Detective Sergeant Alex Morrow, one hangs on for dear life! Exceptional writing (especially as regards dialog), cunning (if somewhat Byzantine) plotting, and memorably limned characters combine to make this one outstanding read.

The Red Road is the fourth in the Alex Morrow series. The fifth, Blood, Salt, Water, came out last year. I look forward to reading it – after I’ve fastened my seat belt, that is!

Denisee Mina

Denise Mina

After breezing through the first four novels of  P.F. Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey series and enjoying them, albeit in varying degree, I  regret to report that the fifth, A Murder of Crows, was disappointing. The London setting does little to enhance the plot, and the story itself was so convoluted that by the time I was about two thirds of the way  through the book, I was hopelessly confused. But the most dismaying development in the novel was the gradual disappearance of Sir Robert Carey from the action. I like his second-in-command, Sergeant Henry Dodd, well enough, but for me, Sir Robert is the guiding star of this series. I missed him sorely.

512f-nfy3pl-_sy344_bo12042200_  Now this should by no means discourage you from reading the stellar first entry in this series. A Famine of Horses is one of the most original and entertaining historical novels I’ve ever read. Chisholm brings the Anglo-Scottish Border country vividly to life. The action takes place in the 16th century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. In her introduction to the novel, P.F Chisholm (the nom de plume of noted historical fiction writer Patricia Finney) describes the conditions that prevailed at the time:

The Anglo-Scottish Border at that time made Dodge City look like a health farm. It was the most chaotic part of the kingdom and was full of cattle-rustlers, murderers, arsonists, horse-thieves, kidnappers and general all-purpose outlaws. This was where they invented the word “gang”— or the men “ye gang oot wi’ “— and also the word “blackmail” which then simply meant protection money.

Sound like fun? Is it ever. It was the closest thing to a sort of cheerful, robust lawlessness that you can imagine. The austere stateliness and discipline of the Queen’s court – where Sir Robert had previously served Her Majesty –  was so remote that it might as well not exist.

The author was inspired to write this novel by her reading of George MacDonald Fraser’s history of the period, The Steel Bonnets (available as a Kindle download for $9.99). I was only a few pages into Fraser’s book when I encountered a sentence that delighted me:

The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.

The sixth novel in this series came out last year and is called A Chorus of Innocents. Kirkus calls it “One of Chisholm’s best Elizabethan mysteries,” so my hopes are again  high for this latest entry.


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Some thoughts on historical fiction

April 20, 2015 at 9:01 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

My thoughts have turned to  this subject of late, for two reasons: I’ve been reading quite a few historical mysteries, and I’m watching Wolf Hall:

I have little to add to the praise that has already been heaped on this production. I adored both books – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – and I’m loving the screen version, although I by no means consider them equivalent in impact. But oh, those costumes, those sets, those tapestries! (what you can see of them in the dark, that is).

(Vanity Fair has posted a very helpful guide to the cast and characters in Wolf Hall.)

Now, on to the meat of the matter. Currently I have two favorite historical mystery series. First, there’s Robin Blake’s novels featuring coroner Titus Cragg and his friend and fellow investigator Luke Fidelis, a physician. These books are set in a very specific time and place: Preston, Lancashire, in the eighteenth century. The first, A Dark Anatomy, takes place in 1740. The next two, Dark Waters followed by The Hidden Man, advance the action exactly one year forward. Thus having recently finished The Hidden Man, I feel firmly rooted in the world that Robin Blake has created. It’s an extremely interesting world and it feels utterly real. I feel as though I actually know Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis. Titus is married to the sweet and empathetic Elizabeth; Luke is single. (I am most eager for Elizabeth to become pregnant and for Luke to find a soul mate.)

51mwQKVwdiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_    Dark Waters


P.F. Chisholm’s series is set in the late 1500s in the far north of England, near the Anglo-Scottish border  In this region,  a curious and widespread lawlessness prevails. Queen Elizabeth is apparently too far away to take any meaningful corrective action; one doesn’t get the sense that she’s much interested in this remote domestic Hell raising anyhow. She does send one of her favorite courtiers, a distant cousin named Robert Carey. Would he please try to impose some sort of order on these people? Once arrived, Sir Robert assumes the role of Deputy Warden. Although his immediate superior, the Chief Warden of the region, happens to be his brother-in-law, this does not secure for Sir Robert any special favors. Rather, as he goes about the often dangerous business of pursuing outlaws, he is subject to a more particular scrutiny by that gentleman. Sir Robert’s sister, the wonderfully named Philadelphia, gives him a hand whenever she can.

After reading the first in the series, A Famine of Horses, I went on to read the next three in quick succession. I couldn’t get enough of Sir Robert Carey, his occasionally hapless men, and his seemingly doomed to be hapless love life.These books sparkle with wit, dry humor, and offhand irreverence. They are a joy to read – and there are more!

512f-nFy3PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  Seasonofknives


Surfeit  Plagueofangels

I’ve written about both Blake and Chisholm elsewhere in this space. It perplexes me that they are not better known and appreciated. Be that as it may, I recommend them to the discerning reader as highly as I possibly can.

What qualities are inherent in good historical fiction? To begin with, the writing has to be first rate. And so important: no anachronisms! Banish them utterly; they break the spell and spoil the illusion. Dialogue can be especially treacherous territory. I’ve read – or begun to read –  some historical novels in which one encounters blocks of prose that are passable, even elegantly descriptive. But when the characters open their mouths to speak, they sound like high school kids from some idyllic valley in California. One certainly wishes them well – but do please extract  them from Elizabethan England, the sooner the better! One way to skirt this pitfall is to cast the novel in the form of a first person memoir. Although this will limit point of view – the narrator can’t know what’s going on elsewhere except later and at second hand – it’s a technique that offers certain advantages. This is nowhere more apparent than in Marguerite Yourcenar’s brilliant Memoirs of Hadrian. Memoirs_of_Hadrian

Really good historical fiction is carefully researched so that the era in question can be meticulously recreated. That research must then be subsumed beneath the surface of the story that’s being told. If it obtrudes itself in an ungainly way into the narrative, then  the cherished illusion of being transported into a past time is under threat. C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels have been justly praised for their rich depiction of life in Tudor England. I’m currently reading the latest, Lamentation.  A1Ziez18WCL._SL1500_  I’m about  third of the way in – it’s quite long – and generally speaking, I’m enjoying it. But I’ve  been dismayed to encounter several instances in which one or another aspect of the times is explicated for the benefit of the contemporary reader rather than for the novel’s characters.

Here’s an example: Shardlake, a lawyer, is conversing with his new pupil Nicholas on the subject of the accoutrements  that may legally be worn in public. As they head for  the street, Shardlake asks if Nicholas is carrying a weapon. The pupil replies in the affirmative, and Shardlake offers this comment:

“Since your father’s being a landowner decrees you are a gentleman and gentlemen wear swords in public, we may as well turn the sumptuary laws to our advantage.”

Granted, sumptuary law will prove an arcane subject for most contemporary readers. (The WordPress visual text editor does not have the word “sumptuary” in its lexicon.) Still, in the context of the novel, this is too much information, methinks. Shardlake and his contemporaries would probably have been well versed in this body of regulations, since violating them could carry serious consequences. For whom then is this information intended? The modern reader, one can but supposed.

Admittedly a small cavil, but what can I say? It sets my teeth on edge and breaks the spell.


If, like me, you love historical fiction, here’s a little book that may drive you crazy in the best possible way:



For me, the chief task of historical fiction is to transport me to another time and place – and keep me there for  the duration. Above all, transcendent writing can help make the leap. There are two passages from Wolf Hall that illustrate this phenomenon exceptionally well well. This one:

‘The harvest is getting in. The nights are violet and the comet shines over the stubble fields. The  huntsmen call in the dogs.

And this:

He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.

All our senses are heightened and brought into play. The past is made real once again.


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When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka

January 29, 2013 at 1:06 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction)

764073  I was immensely moved by this novel. Its slenderness belies its power.

In When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka tells the story of the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War by relating the experience of a single family consisting of two parents, an eleven-year-old daughter, and an eight-year-old son. The place is Berkeley, California; the year is 1942.  As the novel opens, the father has already been arrested and imprisoned in New Mexico. The authorities had hustled him out of the house while he was hatless and still in his dressing gown and slippers. It is an image indelibly stamped in the minds of his wife and children. For the son in particular, it is a mortifying memory of the father he adores.

The mother barely has time to pack before she and her children board the train. Their destination: a prison-like facility in the bleak Utah desert. Once resettled there, their existence is drab and circumscribed; one day is very much like the next.  There is no variety and no beauty, with the exception of the wild horses occasionally glimpsed beyond the confines of the camp:

She pulled back the shade and looked out into the black Nevada night and saw a herd of wild mustangs galloping across the desert. The sky was lit up by the moon and the dark bodies of the horses were drifting and turning in the moonlight and wherever they went they left behind great billowing clouds of dust as proof of their passage.

Yet before long, those same horses provide a fresh source of grief.

The point of view from which this story is told shifts from chapter to chapter, as the narration shifts from one family member to another. The boy’s voice is especially poignant, as he struggles to understand what has befallen his formerly happy family, and why. He wants only a return to their former life. He begins to plan for that eventuality, and when the war is finally over and they are allowed to return home, expectations soar:

Nothing’s changed, we said to ourselves. The war had been an interruption, nothing more. We would pick up our lives where we had left off and go on. We would go back to school again. We would study hard, every day, to make up for lost time. We would seek out our old classmates….We would join their clubs, after school, if they let us. We would listen to their music. We would dress just like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real names we would turn away and pretend not to know her. We would never be mistaken for the enemy again!

Surely one of the most hateful aspects of prejudice is the way in which its victims internalize the opprobrium of other people. The unreasoning animus of others is transformed into a denigration of one’s own self. (This process is vividly bodied forth in William Blake’s poem “The Little Black Boy.”)

A few pages later:

We would accept all invitations. Go everywhere. Do everything, to make up for all the years we had missed while we were away. Yes, the world would be ours once again: warm days, blue skies, the endless green lawns,cold frosted glasses of pink lemonade, bicycles skidding across the gravel, little white dog on long leashes with their noses pressed hard to the ground, the street lamps coming on at dusk, the distant clang of the trolley cars, small voices crying out No, I won’t, the sound of screen doors slamming, the quick patter of footsteps running across driveways, mothers with wet hands–Mrs. Myer, Mrs. Woodruff, Mrs. Thomas Hale Cavanaugh–stomping out onto front porches shouting, Just wait till your father gets home!

The very next line tells us what we already suspect: “But of course it did not happen like that.” In fact, everything has changed, and changed irrevocably.

Julie Otsuka’s writing is elegant and full of poetry; it reminded me of a pointillist painting in its restraint and precision.And just below the surface there runs a current of barely restrained rage. That rage does not break through until the novel nears its end. Some reviewers have called the concluding chapter a mistake. I did not feel that way. By that time, I was ready for an anguished outburst. To me, it seemed a fitting way in which to end this sad and terrible tale.

Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka


Wikipedia has a comprehensive entry on the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during the Second World War. Some of the visuals featured are shocking – at least, to me they are. It was a shameful thing that was done to innocent people.

There’s an excellent review of When the Emperor Was Divine on the blog Books on the Brain.

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The Bedlam Detective, by Stephen Gallagher

January 27, 2013 at 8:54 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

 AR-303259945.jpg&maxw=638  The Bedlam Detective takes place in England in 1912; there are also several brief but intense excursions into the Amazon jungle. Sir Owain Lancaster ventured forth on these expeditions with plenty of preparation – only it was almost all the wrong kind of preparation, informed as it was with Sir Owain’s colossal hubris. He even took his wife and young son with him, making sure that they were provisioned as the family of an English aristocrat ought to be. The results – madness and death – are pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Now it is Sebastian Becker’s task to travel from his home in London down to the West Country in order to determine Owain Lancaster’s mental state and consequent ability to conduct his own affairs. If he is not competent to manage them, the Masters of Lunacy must take action. Sebastian, who for a time was a detective with the Pinkerton Agency in the U.S., has recently returned to England with his American wife Elisabeth and their son Robert. He’s now in the employ of the Masters of Lunacy in the capacity of special investigator. The meager salary barely pays the rent, but it’s a job, and one that holds a certain fascination for Sebastian. Moreover, this particular inquiry is destined to take Sebastian deep into ominous territory beyond the original remit.

The Bedlam Detective is one of the historical mysteries I included in a recent post about new historical mysteries.   At that time I had just begun reading this novel, and I mentioned that Stephen Gallagher’s prose, characterized  by “a  sort of measured understatement,”  very much appealed to me. I’m happy to report that there was no falling off as the novel progressed. In fact, there was unexpected added value in the form of some marvelous set pieces, like this description of a country fair:

First came the noise. Not one Marenghi organ, but a dozen, each one cranked up to drown out its neighbor….their tunes varied as the wind changed.

There was a gateway of painted scenery and electric bulbs that turned the entrance of a common field into a portal of wonders. Beyond it, a bazaar of light and noise. The fair was a portable city of tents and boards, of wooden towers and brilliantly decorated show fronts. Among the temporary buildings stood mighty engines like Babylonian elephants, all crashing pistons and blowing steam, powering the rides with their belts and dynamos.

Talk about putting you right there, in the midst! This is but one of several wonderfully evocative passages. Stephen Gallagher’s deep knowledge of the period about which he writes informs this novel throughout. It is not intrusive or distracting, as can happen with historical fiction. Rather, it acts as an enhancement to this absorbing story of crime, madness, sanity, courage, and love.

stephengallagher  Although a fairly prolific novelist and screenwriter, Stephen Gallagher does not appear to have a series currently on the go. Yet The Bedlam Detective has a tantalizingly open-ended conclusion that left me wanting more. And so I hope that in future Gallagher will favor us with additional novels featuring Sebastian Becker.


This Marenghi organ was built in Paris in 1910:

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Four (hurried but sincere) recommendations

January 24, 2013 at 3:36 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, History, Mystery fiction)

My reading has far outstripped my reviewing capacity at this point, and now I’m heading for the airport. But I simply can’t leave without recommending four books: two are historical fiction, one is a classic of psychological suspense, and one is a biography. All were outstanding, and I hope to write about each of them in detail when time permits. Meanwhile, here they are:

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I mentioned The Bedlam Detective in a recent post on new historical mysteries. At that time, I had just begun the novel. Now I’ve finished it and can recommend it without reservation. It’s a vivid evocation of Britain just prior to World War One. Also it’s exceptionally well written.

When the Emperor Was Divine is more than exceptionally well written – it is just beautiful. Beautiful, and almost unbearably sad, this is the story of what happens to one Japanese-American family during World War Two. Events unfold through the eyes of a young boy, who witnesses his family being uprooted and torn asunder. When I finished it, my heart felt so heavy, I could think of nothing else all day.

Of Georges Simenon‘s Act of Passion, John Banville asks, “Has there ever been a more penetrating account of love’s destructive power?” Penetrating, riveting – and profoundly shocking.

When I finished Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, I felt compelled to learn more about just what happened to Ann Boleyn, and why. So I turned to Alison Weir’s biography of that hapless figure in history. The Lady in the Tower was all absorbing and deeply tragic. And some questions are still not answered, and may never be.

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Looking ahead: the coming year in reading: historical mysteries

January 8, 2013 at 1:33 am (books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction) ()

For this reader, 2013 might well be the year of historical mysteries. These are a few that are looking good to me right now:


Kate Williams wrote ENGLAND’S MISTRESS, a biography of Emma Hamilton, which I greatly enjoyed.

13641951  nxg_blake  resurrectionist    white_alana_book  Shepherd_Solitary-House  AR-303259945.jpg&maxw=638  I’m already about a quarter of the way through The Bedlam Detective. I was a bit uncertain at the beginning, but I am now well and truly hooked. This mystery is set in England’s West Country, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. Stephen Gallagher writes with a sort of measured understatement that I find extremely appealing.

Reviews for each of the above titles can be found at Kirkus.

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