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.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Death of a Scholar

I just realized I skipped an installment in Susannah Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew series.  I have it, but a month ago grabbed the wrong book.  While you can read her books out of order, there are enough continuing characters that it helps to read consecutively.  Maybe that's why I was confused by some of the interactions between Matt and Julitta Holm, the wife of the local surgeon.  Or maybe it's because I was in the process of researching antibiotics for MDR resistant infections - I'm pretty sure that's why I had trouble keeping characters, deaths, and motives straight.  

Death of a Scholar starts with the death of a merchant, Matt's brother-in-law Oswald Stanmore.  His death is followed by the deaths of several members of the Guild of St. Mary which Oswald started to assuage his conscience over his shady business deals.  Matt and Brother Michael, his friend and the University's Senior Proctor, suspect that the deaths are related not only to each other but to the new college being rapidly built to train lawyers.  The new Wynwick Hall - and every other college and hostel in Cambridge - has attracted more scholars than they can accommodate, adding to the always tense town-gown relations.  Even in my distracted state, Matt's and Michael's detection held my attention.  I didn't solve the puzzle, but Gregory left enough clues to support the murder's identity and  transmitted them to the audience through the gentle, delusional, but surprisingly observant Clippesby.

Scientific Discovery from the Brilliant to the Bizarre

You can't go wrong with an Ig Nobel Laureate.  Chemist Len Fisher achieved immortality with his study of how to properly dunk a biscuit in a cuppa, and in Scientific Discovery from the Brilliant to the Bizarre, he takes on several well-considered - but ultimately wrong - scientific discoveries.  His first example, the soul-weighing Dr. Duncan MacDougall, appeared in Mary Roach's Spook.   Fisher uses MacDougall's experiments to demonstrate the scientific method, and how you can do everything right but still be wrong.  He follows that thread through Benjamin Franklin's lightning rod (helpful, but the best shape isn't the pointy rod Franklin created but one with a ball on the top), alchemy, and why pre-microscope ideas of reproduction made sense at the time.  It's the perfect commute book - amusing, intelligent, and easily read in snatched moments.

Wolf to the Slaughter

An artist, his missing sister, a recently released criminal,  and a cop's obsession with a shopgirl.  That's what Ruth Rendell used to frame her third Inspector Wexford novel, Wolf to the Slaughter.  Artist Rupert Margolis reported his sister Ann missing the same day that Wexford received a letter claiming that a woman named Ann had been murdered.  Rupert is neither helpful nor worried (he reported Ann's disappearance by asking the police to find someone to clean his house), and Wexford looks down on the Margolis siblings (Rupert is too disconnected to reality and Ann gets a bit of slut-shaming).  Still, he can't let a possible murder go uninvestigated, particularly since Monkey Matthews is out of jail.  While I found the psychology (Rendell's trademark) a bit out of date, I appreciated her surprising but well-supported plot twists.  The world she depicted is still a bit too foreign for me, but Wolf to the Slaughter was an extremely enjoyable novel.

A Share in Death

In an online discussion a few years ago, someone mentioned that she liked starting a series around book 3 or 4 because the author had by then worked out some of the problems with the characters and set-up.  I'm obsessive about reading series in order, and it's only because my mom was so enthusiastic about No Mark Upon Her that I was willing to enter Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series about a dozen books in.  I loved the book, so of course I went back to the beginning.

I met James and Kincaid as newlyweds with a long-term relationship and three shared kids (one hers, one his, one in the process of being adopted by both - No Mark Upon Her takes place as James ends her parental leave and Kincaid starts his).  It's odd to meet them as near-strangers, both divorced and Gemma's son the only child making even a cameo appearance.  She's not even around for most of the novel, which is an interesting way to introduce a dual protagonist mystery.  

It's also a nice twist to introduce police detectives into a "cozy" structure that Agatha Christie could have written.  After several weeks of particularly hard work, Duncan drives to Yorkshire to spend a week in a time share loaned to him by a relative.  We get the usual Christie treatment - large house, people from diverse walks of life thrown together, a hint of romance - and a mysterious death.  Here it's the assistant manager of the resort, a young man whose life centered upon bon mots and stored information.  Soon, there's another death, and the Christie-like assumption that one murder was committed to cover up another.  That's true, but exactly which murder was the core is a real surprise, and one I didn't discover until about two pages before Duncan (with the aid of his DS and not-yet-girlfriend Gemma, working independently to provide the crucial information).  I'm eager to see how quickly (or slowly) their relationship develops - and to read more of Crombie's well-plotted puzzles.