Archive for the ‘**’ Category

I’m usually quite thrilled by detective novels set in academia. Something about dons and scholars and professors bumping each other off and stealing each other’s work and nursing grudges against each other, while holding forth on philosophy, literature, social sciences, and so on, pleases me to my bloodthirsty, pretentious core. A hit is a very palpable hit (witness my intense love for Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night); a miss, like this novel by Nicholas Blake, makes me downright gloomy.

To be fair, it has quite a serviceable plot. Blake’s detective, Nigel Strangeways, is staying at Cabot University near Boston (a thinly disguised Harvard), where he has become acquainted with the Ahlberg brothers, Chester of the business school, Mark of English literature, and Josiah of classics; Charles Reilly, an Irish poet; and Sukie Tate, Mark’s student and fiancée. Then, Josiah disappears and Strangeways ends up investigating his murder, assisting the police. Josiah wasn’t well-liked, not even by his brothers, so there are several suspects, including Sukie’s brother John, who was forced to drop his classical studies for a year after accusing Josiah of stealing his work. But something just doesn’t work for Blake here; everything seems tired and bit hackneyed, none of the characters are engaging, and the conversation is truly dull. Eventually, after Strangeways enjoys a strange gratuitous sexual interlude that comes completely out of left field, the book climaxes in an ill-advised chase and attack scene that fails to be at all exciting. But you know, by then, I honestly didn’t care. Very disappointing. I’m hoping that this one was a poor piece of work only because it was one of the last two Blake wrote.


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Almost inevitably, when I read a Brother Cadfael book, it strikes me that the former crusader, now mediaeval monk and herbalist, is too good a character for the workmanlike series of novels Ellis Peters wrote around him. They’re pleasant books on the whole, but lend themselves a trifle too easily to a drinking game — take one sip when a stranger arrives at the Abbey, take five sips when a dewy, fresh-faced young person is locked up and under suspicion, drink the whole damn bottle when the lovers are united after the mystery is solved. Peters’ books lack the layered philosophical and psychological texture of that most perfect of mediaeval mysteries, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; but then again, that is comparing bananas to mangos. Only discontent can come of it.

The Heretic’s Apprentice does no better and no worse than Peters’ other installments in the series. The young clerk Elave comes to the Abbey, bearing the body of his master, William of Lythwood, to be buried there. He brings also a secret treasure in a beautiful carved box, as dowry for William’s adoptive neice Fortunata–and a trick of letting his tongue get him into trouble. Before long, William’s worthiness to be buried on Abbey ground has been debated, and the very doctrine of original sin itself has been contradicted–and then, the body of a man is found floating in the river, stabbed.

The murder mystery is neatly, through hurriedly, solved. The different pieces of Peters’ jigsaw fit together fairly well–characters, settings, historical background, social and technical knowledge, and that particular tidiness of expression that she brings to her writing, with its neat evocations of a mediaeval England that was doubtless dirtier and bloodier and smellier than she makes it seem.

But the more arresting point of this novel is the theological discussion that is given entry, with references to various doctrinal debates and schismatic heresies that serve as a reminder of how the points of religious belief are inevitably based on the arguments of men. They remain only superficial, a plot and conversation point, with no philosophy entering into the crafting of the novel and affecting its form or language, but they do underline how ably researched the Cadfael books are and how they have been a doorway into historical interest in the Middle Ages for so many readers. The revelation of the treasure, too, while bringing up a notion not new in historical scholarship or philosophy or cultural theory, is ultimately a way of bringing that idea (which I won’t discuss, for fear of spoilers) to a wide readership. What was valuable at a particular point in history, and to whom, and why? These ideas, and Cadfael himself, might be worthy of a more literary treatment–but for now, this is what we have. And very nice it is too, though I don’t think niceness is what was called for.

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I got hold of a copy of this book thanks to Bookmooch, and, as usual, couldn’t wait to get started on it–it was just perfect for a sleepy afternoon after meeting an important work deadline. This is, no mistake about it, late Innes–very late Innes, i.e., patchy at best. There’s a semi-ruined Cornish castle by the sea, not one but two missing family treasures, an archivist who meets an unfortunate end, a highly suspect speleologist, and Inspector Appleby–my apologies, Sir John Appleby. And, of course, there is the family that owns the castle, and they were the best part of the book: eccentric, given to practical jokes and more serious subterfuge for which they take each other as objects, and sketched efficiently and sometimes comically by Innes. I didn’t care for the over-complicated plot and the ultimate feeling of anti-climax I got from this slim novel, but then, this is, as I’ve already remarked, late Innes. Reading through some of the Appleby novels is a courtesy, not an unmitigated pleasure.

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Man-of-the-world Viscount Desford finds a runaway acquaintance, young, pretty Charity Steane, walking along all by herself on a public road and takes it upon himself  to find her grandfather so that she can take shelter with that elderly gentleman and not have to go back to her unkind aunt. In the meantime, however, he has to send her somewhere respectable, so he appeals to his old friend Henrietta Silverdale and goes off in search of Charity’s absconding grandparent. This could have been interesting, and there are flashes of Heyer’s wit, but she spends so much time discussing the Viscount’s travel logistics that the necessary romance, when it finally surfaces, seems to have been tacked on hurriedly and sent to print. Ho-hum. Not her best at all, but then it is one of her later works, so maybe this was her way of winding down.

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The Shadow Guests (Joan Aiken)

This isn’t, perhaps, the most inspiring of beginnings, but I started this blog more than a week ago and haven’t yet managed to make a single post. Procrastination is a dreadful habit. So, while this isn’t Book #1 of 2010, it is Book #1 as of this blog.

I’ve read a couple of Joan Aiken’s books before, on the insistence of a friend, though never came across any of her work as a child. Perhaps that’s why I found myself thoroughly underwhelmed by Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds on Nantucket, though I did enjoy The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. These books just weren’t written for adults; and while I found her details of England in a parallel ‘Victorian’ era — in which Victoria isn’t queen — remarkably inventive and delightful, the books lacked emotional depth and truly engaging characters.

That isn’t precisely the problem I had with The Shadow Guests. Set in England of the late 1970s, the story tells of Cosmo Curtois, who has had to leave Australia and join a boarding school near Oxford, spending weekends with his Cousin Eunice Doom at an ancestral property. At first, we don’t exactly understand why Cosmo’s life has been turned inside-out so peremptorily; all we know is that it has something to do with what happened to his mother and brother. It takes a chapter or so of Cosmo struggling to settle in at school and with Cousin Eunice before the story comes out; as Cosmo learns, to his horror, the family is under a curse dating from Roman Britain, under which the eldest son is always fated to die in battle and his mother in turn of grief. Cosmo’s mother and elder brother Mark have disappeared a couple of months previously; where they are and what has happened to them is a mystery. And as if it weren’t bad enough that Cosmo has to deal with his loss and his new knowledge of the curse, he’s also being shadowed by strange ghostly people who follow him about on his weekends home from school.

This could come across as daft, but it doesn’t. In itself, the plot is intriguing and the tale quite compelling. And Aiken certainly writes deftly enough of Cosmo’s anger at being singled out and bullied by his classmates and of his increasing comfort in the new country home that soothes every injury he suffers at school. It’s not a plot divorced from the realities of loss, of exile, of homecoming, of fears of the unknown, of unjust treatment, of uncertainty, despite its fantastic elements.

So it’s not with the ghost story and the curse themselves that I have problems; it’s with Aiken’s treatment of them. Ultimately, this isn’t complete fantasy. It’s a real world situation, into which certain supernatural elements intrude, disrupting real world lives and emotions. I’ve read other books of that sort–Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, for instance–and Aiken seems to break one cardinal rule. The problem is Cousin Eunice.

She’s supposed to be a mathematician (and it is telling that I automatically wrote “supposed to” there). That would imply a sense of the rational, of logic, of reason. Yet, when Cousin Eunice discusses the family curse and, in the end, Cosmo’s otherwordly visitors, she is maddeningly willing to believe anything, just about anything. There is a cursory look at how things might work in ways we don’t really understand, talking of theories and of people who are able to do things science can’t quite explain, but this doesn’t do anything to convince me of the truth of the book’s fiction; it just makes me think Cousin Eunice is dreadfully gullible and Joan Aiken in too much of a hurry to properly justify the world of the book to the reader. Because that seems to be Cousin Eunice’s function; she’s an embodiment of logic and the mouthpiece for Aiken’s fictional logic. It’s another matter that the logic of fantasy must be demonstrated, not told, to be convincing and Aiken, unlike Pearce and Farmer, doesn’t seem to fully understand this.

It may be, of course, that science, physics and mathematics in particular, in the 1970s were so woo-woo as to verge on barmy, and Cousin Eunice’s theories are representative of those going around in scientific circles at the time; but if I start believing that, I’m apologising too much for Aiken’s hurried writing.

She’s also just too detached from the situation, too stiff-upper-lip to really develop the lows of the psyche when she has to, though she lets them into this book. Death happens, but is passed over very quickly; and the joy of life, in the process, also ends up becoming merely a sort of formal pleasure.I’d like to put this grey, verging on colourless, tone down to  the chief protagonist  trying to repress all the pain he feels, but it’s difficult to assert this as valid. It just seems as if Aiken wanted to avoid discussing some things in any detail; and her rather polite prose doesn’t lend itself to such discussion anyway, though it’s perfect for recounting a rational, quiet conversation and matter-of-factly describing a scene. Unfortunately, the outlandish visions Cosmo has aren’t matter-of-fact. And neither is the haunting bare outline of this ultimately disappointing novel.

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