Thursday, 30 May 2013

A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd

You could say that poets were the rock stars of the 1800s, and when you look at Percy Bysshe Shelley,
his wife Mary (author of Frankenstein) and their friend Lord Byron you can certainly see the similarities. Even though Shelley didn't achieve fame and fortune in his lifetime, the rock-star behaviour was certainly there - the drugs, the women and a tragically early death just for starters.
    Lynn Shepherd weaves Shelley's story into a new case for her detective hero Charles Maddox, whom we met in Tom-All-Alone's, a wonderful book that I reviewed earlier this year. A Treacherous Likeness begins some thirty odd years after the poet's death, when Sir Percy Shelley, his son, leaves a calling card at Charles's house in London, a small event that has a big impact. Charles's uncle has a stroke that leaves him partially paralysed and unable to talk. Uncle Maddox has had dealings with the Shelleys before and it is his early case that becomes the crucial mystery which young Charles must investigate.
    Sir Percy and his wife have worked hard to keep the Shelley flame burning, and this includes the kind of damage control that saw any unauthorised biographies nipped in the bud, and incriminating papers destroyed. They ask Charles to negotiate with a particular party who has certain documents for sale that might show the poet in a poor light.
    Charles manages to inveigle his way into the home of the person in question only to discover that she is none other than Claire Claremont, Mary Shelley's hated step-sister and one-time lover of Byron. The four were together in Italy at the point when Frankenstein was written and events took place that changed their lives for ever. But it soon becomes apparant that the documents Sir Percy and Lady Shelley are really worried about are closer to home, that is, the case notes made by Uncle Maddox, which Charles soon discovers have disappeared.
     As Charles searches for the missing pages, and talks to his uncle's old assistant, George Fraser, little by little, the facts come out that explain much of what happened to the poet and his circle, as well as to Uncle Maddox.
    The story includes the suicide of two young women that Shelley was connected with, the sadly early mortality of several of Shelley's young children - were these deaths natural or was there mischief afoot? There is the question of Shelley's mental state, his sudden mood swings, his violent dreams and moments of terror. Was this to blame for the tragic events that dogged the poet for most of his life or was it the menage a trois of Shelley, Mary and Claire, which fuelled such jealousy that left the sisters no longer on speaking terms?
    In many ways the book is not the mystery novel that one might have expected following the first Charles Maddox adventure - there isn't an obvious murder, and Charles isn't chasing criminals and dodging danger. This is more an historical novel that aims to describe the life of two famous literary figures, but that doesn't mean it lacks an exciting plot.
    Lynn Shepherd has certainly done a massive amount of research and the novel that has eventuated is as intriguing as any murder mystery and the sad events that touch the lives of both detectives make it all the more poignant. You may wonder if the author has taken a huge liberty in the kinds of things she suggests may have happened. The notes at the back of the book however do give a good degree of insight on the writing of the book and argue a strong case for Shepherd's theories. One can only wonder what she has in store for Charles Maddox next.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Last Friends by Jane Gardam

Last Friends is Jane Gardam's final novel in the trilogy concerning Edward 'Filth' Feathers, his wife Betty and Filth's rival, enemy and eventual friend, Terry Veneering. This one fills in a lot of gaps about the life of the mysterious Veneering, born in a slum in a Teesside coastal town that is grubby with coal and with few opportunities for someone with such brilliant potential.
    His story begins when his mother, the fierce and passionate Florrie, falls for a circus acrobat from Odessa. When Anton Venetski badly damages his back during an aerial stunt gone wrong, Florrie takes over and moves him into her parents' home. When it is obvious there's a baby on the way, marriage is inevitable, but the reader can't help but wonder at this odd couple. Anton turns out to be as intellectual as he once was agile, but as a chronic invalid who can he share his ideas with? Possibly the parish priest, who sends young Terry out for whiskey.
    Terry likewise is an outsider - he spends a lot of time wandering the black stained beach or hanging around in the band rotunda, dreaming of a life at sea or just thinking. Between the efforts of his headmaster, Mr Smith (one of Sir's masters if you remember from Old Filth), Mr Parable, the town's peculiar lawyer and the even more weirdly named, Mr Fondle, Terry manages to escape. There are some dramatic near misses with World War II looming large as life, and Terry seems to be flung about more by fate than by determination. But in the end, as we know from the earlier books, he makes his name in construction law in Hong Kong, married to the breathtakingly beautiful Elsie.
    In Last Friends, we find out how he got there, and it also links up all the other little stories and characters that happen along the way. Gardam sets this up from the start by having us meet the remaining 'last friends' when they turn up for Filth's memorial service. It can take quite an effort to keep track of them all, particularly when a lot of the remembering is done from the point of view of Dulcie, widow of a another legal heavyweight, Judge William Willy.
    Dulcie is quite hopelessly silly and rushes off on odd impulses much to the distress of her daughter and neighbours. When Dulcie finds herself putting up perpetual houseguest and scrounger, Fred Fiscal-Smith, the two end up trapped together in the village church, where it is so cold they are in danger of hypothermia. Later she has an urge to visit Fred in his crumbling northern manor (he turns out to be Mr Smith's son), where she enjoys the wonderful hospitality of the Judges Hotel, a refuge that has saved one or two elderly characters from the grips of pneumonia. Which is just as well as their efforts at memory and stabs at understanding each other and events of the past are hugely entertaining.
    The way the characters' connect and how the narrative weaves their lives together is a bit like a very elaborate folk dance. Somehow all this happens with writing that seems surprisingly effortlessness, with the most priceless dialogue that only Gardam can do. And in spite of the advanced years of the remaining characters, the ending offers some interesting future possibilities. All in all, I guess Jane Gardam won't be coming off my favourites list anytime soon.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Sacrilege by S J Parris

Giordano Bruno was an astronomer, philosopher and mathematician who was burned at the stake for heresy in Rome in 1600. His statue stands on the site of his death in the Campo de' Fiori and he is often seen as a martyr for free thinking and modern scientific ideas.
    Bruno is also the main character in a series of mystery novels set in Elizabethan England by S J Parris. Believe it or not, among the other strings to Bruno's bow is a possible stint as one of Sir Francis Walsingham's spies during his time in England where he worked with the French ambassador.
    As you can tell Bruno got around. You can read about why he left Italy as a young man in Heresy, the first book in the series. This book starts off with Bruno's escape from a monastery as a young monk, threatened with death because of his heretical reading matter. It is a really exciting beginning, and having read all three books in the series so far, I can say that the excitement never for a moment lets up.
    In Sacrilege, Bruno's third outing, he is called upon to help clear the name of Sophia, the daughter of a Cambridge professor who we also met in Heresy. Sophia disgraced her family and was packed off to Canterbury to be wed to a complete nasty by the name of Sir Edward Kingsley, a wealthy landowner over twenty years her senior. When Kinglsey turns up dead near the cathedral with his head stoved in, Sophia becomes suspect number one and flees to London with the help of some friendly Huguenots.
    Here she catches up with her old admirer, Bruno. It is midsummer and because of the threat of plague, people are leaving London in droves. Dressed as a boy, Sophia accompanies Bruno to Canterbury, where he is sequestered with another of Walsingham's spies, Doctor Harry Robinson. In spite of being somewhat elderly, Harry keeps an eye on the clerics at the cathedral who, among others, might wish to use the cult of Saint Thomas Beckett, slain around four hundred years before, as a means to reignite Catholicism and a rebellion against the Queen. Included on his watch-list is the chillingly austere Canon Langworth, who instantly seems to be suspicious of Bruno.
    Langworth is a powerful man, but that doesn't stop Bruno from doing some serious breaking and entering, thieving of documents and duplicating of keys in his efforts to uncover a sinister plot. The local law enforcers seem to be in Langworth's pay and eagerly snaffle any old vagrant or foreigner for whatever crimes happen around town. In no time Bruno is fingered for at least one of them, which is hardly surprising really. He's such a master snooper and with his head turned by Sophia, he is somewhat hot-headed and vulnerable.
    Meanwhile the infernal heat of midsummer drives everyone crazy and Parris's writing is so vivid you can just about smell the body odours of folk living closely together and not blessed with hot and cold running water. The bustling market of the town, the awe-inspiring cathedral and its cavernous crypt are all recreated for the reader but not in such a away as to detract from the action which rattles along towards the requisite surprise ending that we expect from all the best whodunits. It's an altogether brilliant series and I am pleased to note that the next book, Treachery, is due out very soon.

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Necropolis Railway by Andrew Martin

I still find it difficult to believe how much I enjoyed The Necropolis Railway by Andrew Martin, because at the outset there were one or two difficulties that as a reader I had to get my head around. To begin with there was all the steam locomotive jargon, a field of knowledge I know nothing about; then there was the cast of scarily rough and grubby rail workers, and on top of that a swag of early nineteenth century slang. The setting is a wintry Waterloo Station in 1903 - a bleaker spot it is hard to imagine - everything seems drenched in rain and soot, dirt and squalor - what could there possibly be to enjoy?
    For a start there is the wonderful character of Jim Stringer, a nineteen year old eager to make real his dream of one day being an engine driver. He's down from a charming coastal town up north where his father would love him to take on the family butchery business, only Jim is smitten by the railway bug, and manages to get a referral from a visiting railway bigwig, Rowland Smith.
    Jim's to start off as a cleaner (of engines) before eventually progressing to the role of fireman, the step before driving a train. But Jim makes the mistake of mentioning his sponsor, hoping to impress his fellow workers. They treat him like a pariah, and he nearly tosses the job in after a couple of weeks. Even the house he rooms in is a miserable hole, with a leaking roof, truckle bed and no cocoa. If it weren't for the gorgeous, though offhand, landlady he'd certainly be looking for new digs.
    There's a question-mark over the mysterious disappearance of Jim's predecessor, Henry Taylor, which looks more and more suspicious when Jim himself experiences a few close shaves. Then there are the goings on connected with the mysterious graveyard route, its financial woes and Rowland Smith's cost-cutting. Smith sends Jim a peculiar letter asking him for any information on possible misconduct among the rail workers. Andrew Martin layers mystery upon mystery.
    Turn of the century London, the huge station of Waterloo, it's immense sheds full of steam engine paraphernalia; the back stories of rising socialism and the unions, of women beginning to control their own destinies all combine to make an atmospheric setting that draws you in.
    And then there are the terrific minor characters: the mercurial Vincent, who is eager for promotion and his grim, train-driver Uncle Arthur, and Arthur's fellow driver, the frequently drunk Barney Rose. There's Mike, who's face seems to be all teeth and chubby, jovial Mack from the graveyard line who can afford a surprisingly lavish lifestyle.
    These characters and Jim's lovely landlady are given a working-class London vernacular which enlivens the dialogue immensely without recourse to weird spellings. And Jim himself is a vigorous young chap, always beavering away to solve the riddles of the graveyard line. He's a man of action and you can be sure he'll be along for another adventure in the next Andrew Martin book. If it's anything like this one it will be a ripper!

Friday, 3 May 2013

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

In her acknowledgments at the back of the book author Helen Simonson passes on her thanks to the writer that first taught her 'to appreciate the beauty of the sentence'.  One of the things I particularly liked about Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is that Simonson writes such beautiful sentences which not only capture the tone of Major Pettigrew so well, but have a rhythmical cadence that shows you an author who cares about her craft. These sentences are also imbued with a lovely wry humour, and one reason it works so well is because of the pitch and rhythm of the syntax. This is something I first discovered in P G Wodehouse when I was a girl, and possibly even Jane Austen, and have rediscovered in other masters of comedy from Kingsley Amis to Bill Bryson.
    Actually Jane Austen is the first author I thought of as I read this book, because it is a novel about the trials of true love especially in the context of the expectations of society. Major Pettigrew is a widower of sixty-eight, when his younger brother dies suddenly. He is so upset by the news that he answers the door in a floral housecoat that belonged to his late wife, to find himself almost collapsing on the tiny shoulder of of Mrs Ali from the village shop.
    So begins a friendship, and maybe it took such a moment of weakness for it to blossom because Pettigrew is such a traditional, stiff-upper-lip army type that he would never have thought of openly courting the attractive Pakistani widow who sells him delicious loose tea and other comestibles. In spite of their different cultures they find they share a joy in reading and both have a similarly ironic sense of humour.
    But we all know that the course of true love is never easy and both the major and Mrs Ali have problems to deal with first. For the major, there is the issue of the Churchills, a pair of beautifully hand-crafted hunting rifles that were given to his father by a grateful maharaja in India just after the Partition. The major's father left one rifle to each of the boys, on the proviso that they be reunited upon the death of either one of them, and then handed on together to the next generation.
    But the Churchills are of course worth a lot of money and Bertie's wife, Marjorie, as well as the major's son, Roger, would like some extra cash. The major loves his Churchill and the thought of collecting its pair has been one consolation at his brother's death. How will he stand up to Marjorie and Roger, with whom he has an awkward relationship at the best of times?
    Meanwhile, since the death of her husband, Mrs Ali has been slowly handing over the reins of her shop to her scowling nephew, Abdul Wahid. He's a devout Muslim who has been trying to reconcile his soul with the disgrace he has thrust upon his family, some years ago. Mrs Ali is keen to smooth over the difficult waters that prevent his happiness. While the major wants his family to uphold tradition, Mrs Ali wants to encourage her various relatives to break a few rules so that people can live and let live.
    These niggling difficulties are complicated by the coming events of a dance at the golf club, a shooting party hosted by the local lord of the manor, and the arrival of a wealthy American businessman. The usual village characters are all there too: the vague vicar and his busy-body wife, the blushing spinster, the golf club cronies of the major. If there's one fault in this book it is that these characters are so classic that they verge on cliche.
    Luckily the story hums along towards a magnificent climax, where we get to see the major in the action he has trained for, with some lovely touches of irony, of course.