Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Lost Abbot

If I'd read The Lost Abbot before Death of a Scholar, I might not have felt like I was missing something while reading the latter.  Or perhaps not, because I was alternating chapters of Susanna Gregory's novel with articles on recent developments in treating drug resistant bacterial infections.  While reading The Lost Abbot, my mind was clear of almost everything but whether Expressway traffic would allow me to finish the chapter before the bus reached the train station.

The Abbot of Peterborough has disappeared and the order has sent Brother Michael (scholar, courtier, and Matthew Bartholomew's closest friend) to investigate.  He's accompanied by several Michaelhouse colleagues.  Master Ralph de Langelee is a retired soldier who's still good in a fight (and his latest lover's husband has discovered the relationship), Brother William has once again alienated much of Cambridge, Matt has become too close to the surgeon's wife, and gentle Clippsby can't be separated from his protectors.  Once in Peterborough, they find an abbey full of intrigue and a town whipped to the edge of revolution by the 14th Century version of a millionaire socialist.  Gregory wrote a satisfying mystery with hints of workplace comedy.  We've known Matt, his book bearer Cynric, Michael, and William for 19 books and the other two travelers for more than a dozen.  We see how they know and play to each other's strengths and foibles, and how even prickly and unlikable William is a friend who the other can count on to "have their backs."  Once again, I want to binge-read the series from the beginning so I can see how the friendships have developed.

Wrath of the Furies

Warning - mild spoilers for Raiders of the Nile and The Seven Wonders

After Gordianus rescued Bethesda from the Cuckoo's Nest in Raiders of the Nile, the couple return to the relative safety of a fishing village near Alexandria.  While guests of retired court eunuchs Kettel and Berynus, Gordianus get word that his former tutor, Antipater of Sidon is still alive.  Antipater had two purposes in escorting Gordianus to the Seven Wonders - showing his pupil the world and helping overthrow the Roman Empire.  Despite this, and the danger any Roman will encounter traveling in the outer reaches of the Empire, Gordianus feels a duty to rescue his mentor.  Posing as a mute to disguise his obvious accent and bringing Bethesda as a translator, Gordianus finds Antipater in a lower tier of Mithridates court and possibly regretting his decision.  Thanks to his disguise and his encounter with an undercover diplomat, Gordianus ends up witnessing the Ephesian Vespers, but can he save his tutor?  Or any of the Romans scheduled for execution?  Steven Saylor's latest Roman sub Rosa mystery is thoroughly engrossing and taught me about an ancient massacre I'd never heard of.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Brush Back

I've got mixed feelings about Brush Back, Sara Paretsky's most recent VI Warshawski novel.  At its heart is a murder in retrospect (one of my favorite tropes), but Paretsky's awkward use of retcon kept pulling me out of the story.  She probably though that rooting her novel in the past would emphasize VI's new age instead of reminding me that a character once just a few years younger than my mother is now barely older than I am.

If you can ignore Vic's obvious age shift, Brush Back fits in well with the other late Warshski novels. Vic's high school boyfriend Frank (the one who comforted her after her mother's death) wants her to investigate his sister Annie's murder, a crime for which their mother Stella served 25 years in prison.  There's no reason for Vic to take on the case - it's technically been solved, Stella hated (and hates) the Warshawski family, and Vic was slightly jealous of the striving girl her late mother took under her wing.  Vic's also hosting her late cousin Boom-Boom's goddaughter, a Canadian hockey prodigy whose presence both leads to the book's climax and helps set Boom-Boom's hockey career in the early 90s (7 or 8 years after his character was killed in Deadlock).  I enjoyed watching Vic dive into the past, unraveling her usual blend of political, financial, and police corruption, but would have enjoyed t even more if the time shift had been more subtle.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Color of Law

It's been an angry week, and The Color of Law added to my rage.  I'd heard Richard Rothstein on NPR, and I'm somewhat familiar with 20th Century urban history so nothing was new or shocking.  But it still infuriated me.

The average white family has a net worth of about $132K; the average African American family a net worth of about $10K.  Most of this is because American wealth is built on home ownership.  That's why my parents encouraged me to buy a house (even letting me live at home for a few years while I paid down law school debt and save for a down payment).  And my parents were able to do that because *their* parents were able to buy houses - my paternal grandparents' house had a deed with a white-only cause.  Home ownership means a stable living situation, costs that don't rise as quickly as rent, equity against which to borrow for education, and a nest egg for a comfortable retirement or to pass down to heirs.  A combination of laws (struck down by the Supreme Court in 1948) and real estate and banking practices made this simple step into economic security unattainable for one eighth of the population.

Federal programs - VA and FHA loans and the GI Bill for college education - and good union wages created a booming middle class in the middle third of the 20th Century.  African Americans didn't get those benefits.  New suburbs had restrictive covenants (later on, mob violence abetted rather than stopped by the authorities enforced the whiteness of Levittown, PA (among other places), and the federal agencies wouldn't guarantee loans to non-white borrowers.  Add in manipulated school district lines, earlier discrimination in New Deal jobs programs, and unions minimizing or outright disallowing African American membership and you have a country more segregated in 1970 than it was in 1900.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Shogun's Daughter

Five months after the earthquake chronicled in The Incense Game, Yanigasawa has found a new way to usurp the Shogun's power.  He's convinced Tokugawa that he's the real father of Yanigasawa's illegitimate son Yoshisato and the Shogun has named the boy his heir.  Yanigasawa uses his new power to demote those unallied to him.  Chamberlain Sano becomes a magistrate in charge of rebuilding while his son Mashihiro ends up as an ordinary page.  With no official duty to investigate crimes, Sino can refuse when the Shogun's wife asks him to find out who killed her stepdaughter but Sano's sense of justice won't allow him to neglect Lady Nobukura's request

The Shogun's Daughter could not inert on her own, but she could produce an heir. Her death from smallpox led to the succession crisis which allowed Yanigasawa to seize power.  Before Sano and his wife Lady Reiko can determine not only who murdered Tsuriheme - let alone whether she was murdered - he's arrested for the murder of Yoshisato.  There were far too many coincidences for a satisfying puzzle, but the suspense involved in the family's escape made up for that.  There's one one more book in Laura Joh Rowland's series, and I'll be sorry to reach the end.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Someone Always Knows

Marcia Muller invented the female PI sub-genre in 1977 with Edwin of the Iron Shoes.  Sharon McCone was a 28-year-old investigator for a legal co-op, solving crimes in a not-yet-gentrified San Francisco.  A few years later, Sara Paretsky's VI Warshawski and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone appeared.  The three godmothers of the female PI are still writing, but their characters have taken different paths.  Grafton decided to write backwards, only progressing the timeline a few months between books.  Approaching Y in the alphabet series, she's now writing historical.  That makes Kinsey's slower development make sense - she's still a solo operator doing some of the searches people can now do themselves on Google.  VI has only aged from her mid-30s to about 50 in 35 years, and is also still a solo operator but one who focuses on higher-level financial and legal work.  Her cases only involve murder when she takes on a case for personal reasons.

Sharon McCone has all been retconned a bit.  By the mid-80s, there were fewer references to Berkley in the 60s, and in 1999 she celebrated her 40th birthday 10 years too late.  Muller seemed to age her at half-speed for several books, but I'd put Sharon near 60 in Someone Always Knows.  Her business has progressed as well.  In the mid-90s, All Souls legal co-op dissolved and Sharon open her own agency.  It's grown, and Sharon's high profile essentially bars her from fieldwork. She's the executive director, delegating to over a dozen employees and doing analysis in her office and overseeing the merger of her business with that of her husband, Hy Ripinski.

That's what she's doing when Hy's former partner, the shady and assumed dead Gage Henshaw, walks into M&R Investigations.  Theoretically there to claim a share of the business, he's actually involved with a derelict property owned by a boorish developer and which Sharon's former neighbor wants to rehab.  Arson, murder, and a trip to Mexico follow.  The mystery plot had a few too many coincidences for my taste.  The novel, however, was more than just the plot.  Several of the later Mccone books focus on Sharon's family and this time her brother John and the old family hold have brought back memories and led both siblings towards new beginnings.  Sharon mentions several times that she's not ready for retirement and I wonder if those are the words of a 70-year-old author at the end of a contract.t  If so, I hope her publisher listens.  I think McCone has at least a few more cases in her, and I'd like to read them.

The Marriage Game

Elizabeth I started a small, bankrupt kingdom on the way to global empire, but that accomplishment is secondary to The Marriage Game.  She was the greatest marital prize of the mid-16th Century and played tutors off each other until she had aged out of the Game.  Alison Weir's novel looks mainly at the personal side of Elizabeth's political maneuvering and on the Queen's personal reasons for not marrying.

I've never believed the theory that the Virgin Queen wasn't.  By the time she was 16, Elizabeth had seen her mother executed and two stepmothers die in childbirth.  She'd also been subject to rumors and scandal regarding her relationship with Thomas Seymour, Katherine Parr's husband.  Today, we'd see their relationship as molestation but 470 years ago, it was attempted treason for him, near-ruin for her.  With childbirth such a risky undertaking and a family history linking sex and scandal, I doubt the calculating Queen would be willing to risk death to consummate a relationship.

Marriage would also deprive Elizabeth of her power.  Her sister Mary had been England's firsts undisputed Queen Regnant and her unsuccessful reign had not been helped by her marriage to Phillip of Spain.  As ruler of the country but a subject of her husband, a Queen married to a foreign prince had divided loyalties.  A Queen who married one of her subjects would exacerbate factions within the court.

The Marriage Game adds another complication.  Elizabeth was in love with Robert Dudley.  Both safe (because he was then married to Amy Rosbart) and dangerous (as the brother and son of traitors), she'd known him from their childhood in the Tower of London.  Weir uses their flirtatious, physical relationship as the background to the perpetual negotiations.  Shifting perspective between Elizabeth and Dudley, she portrays a complex relationship hindered by Elizabeth's vanity and position, and later by complacency and Dudley's desire for an heir of his own.  A partially requited love story with political undercurrents, The Marriage Game provides a view of Elizabeth as a person more than as a monarch.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

I'd Know You Anywhere

I don't want my heroes to be too likable or my villains to be completely evil.  Laura Lippman gives her killer a few POV chapters, but the flawed, sometimes unlikeable victims in I'd Know You Anywhere tell most of the story.  Apparently perfect, slightly stand-offish suburban mom Eliza Benedict, both in (a recession-free) 2008 and "the summer she was 15."  Eliza, then Elizabeth Lerner, spent five weeks that summer as a captive to a man who raped her and murdered at least two other girls.  She thrives on normality, becoming slightly angry at herself when she realizes that six years in London has jumbled her idioms.  Her life is a series of events - soccer practice, errands, social functions related to her husband's job.

"I'd know you anywhere," accompanied by a picture taken at one of those functions.  It's from her captor Walter Bowman.  Virginia has set his execution date, and anti-death penalty advocate Barbara LaFortunay forwarded his letter to Eliza.  But why?  Barbara so desperately wants to save Walter's life that she not only puts Eliza and Walter in contact but also entices the author of a long-forgotten true crime book about Walter's crimes back to Baltimore with the promise of a sequel.  Trudy Tacket's  internal monologue focuses on Walter's death, the ultimate retribution for her daughter.  Neither Barbara nor Trudy are particularly sympathetic characters.  Barbara is a zealot whose cause I support but whose character I disliked.  Trudy suffered the greatest tragedy I can imagine, but she comes across as not only justly bitter but as a woman who was, well, a shallow snob obsessed with surface appearances.  Lippmann also surprised me by not making the writer sleazy.  He's a schlubby guy who lives in a row house in Philadelphia and works for the state.  True crime is a hobby, something that keeps him away from his wife's reality TV habit and which probably gives him something to think about on SEPTA.

But what does Eliza want?  How does speaking with, and eventually meeting, the man who kidnapped and raped her, fit into her life?  She's busy protecting her children, pre-teen Iso and 8-year-old Albie, both of whom are adjusting to school in the United States for the first time.  Somehow, LIppman turns I'd Know You Anywhere into a healing story - for Eliza.  Barbara loses Walter, and we suspect that Walter's death leaves Trudy feeling empty because she no longer has a focus for her grief.  23 years later, Eliza finally comes to terms with what happened "the summer she was 15."

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Jane and the Waterloo Map

In November, 1815, Jane Austen was nearly 40, nursing her favorite brother Henry through a serious illness, and negotiating for the publication rights of *Emma*.  Henry's impending bankruptcy made Jane's writing income more important than ever, but *Mansfield Park*'s serious tone (and dull - in both senses of the word  - romantic hero) have made publisher wary of Miss Austen's latest novel.  When the Prince Regent graciously allows her to dedicate her latest novel to him, Jane wants to refuse but can't.  It's more of a "command" than a request.

What could go wrong when a respectable spinster visits Carlton House?  She's only meeting with the King's librarian and politely dodging the offer of well-appointed writing space.  No reasonable clergyman's daughter would expect a man to suffer a fit and die in front of her, uttering "Waterloo map" with his dying breath.  Stephanie Barron's fictional Jane Austen may not have expected to watch an army office die in a well-appointed library, but after solving a dozen murders, she's learned to identify a suspicious death.  Colonel MacFarland had been poisoned by yew needles, and the mysterious map may lead to hidden treasures.  With the help of her niece Fanny, painter Raphael West (mysterious and darkly handsome like Jane's late love Lord Harold), and a servant summarily dismissed by MacFarland's sister, Jane chases down the killer despite a particularly surprising twist.  She also gets to play Miss Bates to Fanny's Jane Fairfax in one of the most entertaining passages in the novel.  We leave Jane enjoying the success of *Emma* and starting to plot *Persuasion*.  It's bittersweet, because we know that she will soon become ill and will barely live to edit her final full novel.  I can't see how Barron can fit in two more murders for Jane to solve, and not enough time for her to decide whether Mr. West is a worthy successor to her Gentleman Rogue.