Murder and Mayhem in London

Many many moons ago, when I was wee little kid (comparatively speaking, as in I was about 20 years old) I was wondering through the shelves of the local British Council library for something interesting to read. I picked up a murder mystery set in 13th century England; I recollect I really enjoyed it. I recollect that the main protagonists were a Priest and a Knight and that is all I had to go on,  for I do not recall the character’s name, I do not recall the series name and worst, I do not recall the author’s name! Cut to the present, I am browsing NetGalley for a a good historical fiction to read during the holidays and I come across a Brother Athelstan’s mystery set in 1300’s England called The Mansions of Murders by Paul Doherty and considering the genre, I immediately request for it, and as I start reading, I suddenly find, what I had been looking for since last 15 years!!

MOM (2)

The novel is set in 1381 England, John of Gaunt is the Regent and with young Richard II as the King; the Great Revolt has been completely crushed and the Lords of the land, like Beaumont, Arundel and John of Gaunt rule with an iron fist. London is completely under the sway of underworld gangs, the riflers who ran the law around the slums of Thames, who were in turn used by Lords, in keeping control of London. The most powerful of these gangs are the Sycamores, led by Simon Makepeace aka, The Flesher. They are vilest, cruelest, and the most influential gang of London, running a host of businesses, from taverns to murder for hire to prostitution. They manage a Mansion of Murder, as is commonly known; a former Church now owned by The Flesher, with high walls and brutal dogs, let loose on people who become a problem for the former. In this background, where no one dares to raise their voice against The Flesher, a crime is committed against him – his mother’s who had recently died and whose body was kept in the Church for mourning, prior to the burial, is snatched away with demand for ransom. Furthermore,  Parson Reynaud of the same Church and Daventry, Arundel’s go between, are both found murdered inside the church! Meanwhile, Fat Margo, the embalmer in Brother Athelstan’s parish, dies, bequeathing all her possessions to the Parish. However, Brother Athelstan soon discovers, that the possession includes the unexpected but well preserved body of Margo’s husband and son, who were believed to have died in a battle 18 years ago. Thus, Brother Athelstan and Sir Jack Cranston, the Lord High Corner for London, try to solve for two unrelated mysteries, and find truths, closer home!

As I read through the novel, I remembered why I wanted to find this series again – simply because it is such a good thriller. 14th century London comes alive in Mr. Doherty’s hands, with its slums, and gangs and dirt. You can feel the stink, the sweat and the ugliness of London as it rises, very different from its current modern avatar! The history is impeccably researched and all details and nuances of 14th century, wonderfully crafted in the main narrative of the novel. The characters are all well rounded and without getting into too much off background, the motivations and actions of all, both primary and secondary easily understood and come across as extremely plausible. The plot moves along smoothly, though sometimes, Brother Athelstan’s mediations seems to slow down the narrative a bit, it does not really hamper the overall flow. The end was, while not wholly surprising was presented in a very innovative manner and tied in all the lose ends, extremely well! The only thing, which left me a bit bemused was the title of the novel, as the actual Mansion, has very little to do with the actual mystery and seems in hindsight, a bit sensational, which may take away, the actual good solid storytelling of the book! To end, this is a very enjoyable, thoroughly gripping book, well written and a good read for all Historical Fiction cum Murder Mystery aficionados!

Thanks to Severn House and NetGalley for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Cook Investigates

Couple of weeks back, as part of Penguin’s First To Read program, I had the good luck to get a copy of Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley. The book is expected to come out next year and I was glad to get a copy of what seemed like a good, old fashioned crime thriller to take my mind off the unnecessary and pointless events happening around me!

The novel is set in Victorian England, and opens with Cook Kat Holloway, starting her first day as the cook at the Rankin household at Mayfair, London. Lord Rankin is in some kind of stock brokering business, through which he has resurrected the family’s tottering fortune. He is married to Lady Emily, and resides in the Mayfair house, with her and her elder sister, Lady Cynthia. Lady Cynthia and Lady Emily are the daughter’s of the colorful Lord Clifford, who has done away with most of his inherited fortune, by a wild living and has no money for his surviving daughters. Lady Cynthia, is a bit of an eccentric, dressing up in gentleman’s clothes and doing all kinds of activities, considered to be the domain of men! The household servants are under the tutelage of Mr. Davis, a sleek but kind, efficient and gossipy butler, Mrs, Bowen, reticent but effective housekeeper, several other maids and footman and Ellen who is the assistant cook to Kat. Kat’s first day turns out to be way more than she bargained for; first she has to help Lady Cynthia take care of an injured man, whom she accidentally hurt with her carriage. Then she decides to take up the coffee to Lord Rankin, when the latter asks for the same to be sent up by Ellen, after realizing that Lord Rankin is in a habit of getting sexually free with the maids. Deciding to put a stop to such activities with the servants under her purview, Kat takes up the coffee to Lord Rankin’s library, only to discover an angry master and his guest – the mysterious Daniel McAdams. Daniel McAdams, is a friend of Kat’s who has helped her out in past from sticky situations and is a mystery man , associated in some capacity with the Legal arm of the government, and who usually moves around the city of the London, under the guise of a delivery man and man on hire.  Seeing Daniel at Lord Rankin in formal attire, surprises Kat though, she does not give away her knowledge of Daniel to her employer and makes her suspect, that there is more to things in the household than meets the eyes. Things come to a head next morning, when going to the larder, Kat finds the dead body of poor Ellen. It is now up to her and Daniel to figure who is involved and why, before more violence is committed!

The premises of the books of course intrigued me from the go – Victorian England, a Cook and a murder mystery; what is there not to like. The characters developed by the author are quite enjoyable. Kat is an exceptionally kind, but firm and efficient heroine, who lays no tuck with nonsense or sentimentality. She does good work and takes care of people she loves and cares. The Lord and Lady Rankin are typical of their position, rich and bored and with  minimal interest in the lives whose very livelihood and existence depends on them and whose safety and security are their responsibility! In Lady Cynthia, we find a character who must have seemed at odd with the norms of the then prudish Victorian Society and she seemed capable of understanding and empathizing with the lesser fortunate, despite the difficult situation that life had placed her in. I wish Ms. Ashley had focused a little more into this very interesting character and evolved her a bit more! Daniel McAdam was ….well, Daniel McAdam. Much later in the series I realized why I was not finding much to root for the hero; Ms. Ashley is a RITA Award winning author of several best selling historical romance, and Daniel McAdam seems to have come out of those novels. He is good looking, brave, smart with smoldering attraction for Kat and yet seems to hold back some mystery and yada yada yada! Nope, he seemed to be there to add romance and I would have much preferred a tobacco chewing, fat, married Inspector with a paternal interest or something like that helping Kat out, instead of a hero out of one of Harlequin Romances! This brings me to the part of the novel that I did not like – the writing! Kat’s heart throbs or beats wildly or some such boring cliche. I could not glean any originality of thought or emotions from the novel, and once again I felt, the romantic themes of a historical romance were transplanted into this book, making some of writing, just plain, incongruous with the plot and the setting. The plot however is good and Ms. Ashley had done extensive research to get the finer details right!  One of few books, where the protagonist not only investigates, but also does his/her day job; Kat plans and cooks meals for the Upstairs and we get a very interesting insight into the food and eating habits of the Victorian England. The politics and social structure while not explored in detail, however came across as accurate and adds a fine layer, to the novel setting! The ending seemed a tad bit improbable, but I must confess, this was one of the very few modern whodunit variety, where I could not guess, who actually did it, till the very end!

Finally, to end, I would only say, it a good read, for those nights, when you need a blanket, a bowl of soup/mug of coffee or any other beverage of your choice and curl up with a book, where you do not stress your intellect, and are simply looking for entertainment and an temporary exit from the real world!

 

Normans and Murders ….

As part of my 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, I recently completed two books of two wholly different genres and different times – the only common theme: It’s all about the English….

I begin in a chronological manner, though I read them in reverse order

Wine of Violence by Priscilla Royal: Set in 1270, more than 200 years after Normans have conquered the Saxon England, tensions between the two groups still run deep. On the East Anglian cost, the Priory of Tyndal, sits amidst this uneasy peace and prepares itself to receive the extremely new, extremely young and extremely inexperienced Eleanor of Wynethope as the new Prioress. The fact that she has obtained this position as reward for staying loyal to King Henry III is not lost on the young Prioress, but she is determined to succeed and use all her intellect and her learnings from her aunt, the Prioress of Amesbury. However as she starts to realize that the Priory is not only in dire financial straits but is also severely mismanaged and duties are given not basis skills but rather per the need of teaching “humility” to its denizen.  Before she is able to resolve the strained circumstances of the Priory, the place is rocked by two brutal murders and an attempt at a third. Together with the help of sub infirmarian Sister Anne and the newly inducted Brother Thomas who is the confessor of the Sisters of the Priory and Ralf, the King’s Coroner, Eleanor of Wynethope, must quickly track down the murder before an innocent man is hung for a crime he never committed.

Now for the book….let me not hold back and shout it out loud – I am DISAPPOINTED!!! The book is set in one of my favorite eras and culture (Catholic Culture) and it’s a murder mystery…..it had potential to be such an amazing tale! But it fails and that too miserably. The book is flat, the mystery is flat and everything is clichéd. Let’s begin with the characterization, young Eleanor of Wynethope is witty, calm and has complete confidence. She is completely unperturbed on seeing a viciously murdered body and does not bat an eyelid when the second murder happens or she meets a wild man in the middle of nowhere all alone. No doubt there were woman who had nerves of steel and who knew whats and hows of sex, but a 20-year-old, who had spent all her life save one year in a convent, should know so much about it makes one wonder on the plausibility of the tale. She is always telling people that they will not be punished for being honest and that is the only thing she ever says of any result through 200+ pages. The only human thing is her feelings for Brother Thomas which are anything but holy, but then she wisely summarizes that love of all kind elevates a person to be better. The problem with Eleanor of Wynethope is that she is quite a likeable character in 21st century, but somehow to endow her with the foresight and liberality of understanding of this century and replace it 13th century is just too much to digest. While I know there were very strong and powerful women in medieval Europe, the kind of worldly understanding and ability that Eleanor of Wynethope displays, would have earned her a place on the stake in 1300s. Then let’s get to Brother Thomas – somebody explain to me why was he needed? The illegitimate son of an Earl, he was caught in a compromising position with his best friend. He was then jailed and only released by an unknown benefactor on the condition that he becomes a tonsured monk who will work per the dictates of this benefactor. He is then sent to Tyndal to find out why such a fertile priory is bleeding in finances and who was stealing all the funds – which he never discovers because he is chasing the elusive Brother John with green eyes and has non holy feelings as well. Through the book we are aware that Brother Thomas admires Eleanor of Wynethope but only he has given up on women!!! I mean what? The good brother is constantly confused about his sexuality and that is all that one comes across through the book. He is introduced as a highly intelligent person with acute mental powers who had in past worked as an informative, but where these powers were during the 200 pages, one wonders!

Then the plot – oh! Lord!! The good is so good and the bad is so bad and our world can only be black or white. Just because the sub prior does not like Eleanor of Wynethope, he has to be the villain. The fact that a man who had ruled the Priory single-handedly for many years may dislike being usurped by a woman half his age is enough for the author to make him the true denizen of hell; a natural feeling of jealousy which is far more human and often the case in many such circumstances is not enough!(Spoiler Alert)  No! We have to endow him with all the seven deadly sins – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony!! One is not enough to paint him black, let’s do it in seven different layers! Could there be a blacker character? And what is the plot – superfluous sex and violence. Complete sensationalism and nothing more. That too sensationalism of the worst kind! The book seems to be written because I think the author just wanted to write a book! There is no other reason for it. The characters are unreal, there is no plot and if there is something called a flat storyline, then this must 10 feet under and still digging!

This I know has to be one of my most caustic reviews and I know I am in no place to judge anyone’s talent, especially considering that Ms. Royal has published this and several more works, while I struggle to still find a foothold; however as a reader I can say that it’s a shame that such promise was laid to waste.

I need to quickly read a Susana Gregory or a CJ Sansome to restore my equilibrium and faith in the genre of medieval mysteries!!!

P.S. I will review The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas for the next post, considering this vitriolic was long enough!