Friday, November 27, 2009

A Royal Affair

As an American growing up in Philadelphia, all I knew about George III is that he was the bloody tyrant against whom the American colonist rebelled, ensuring a steady stream of tourists to my home town every summer.  Stella Tillyard's A Royal Affair barely mentions George's political life and focuses on his siblings.  Frederick, Prince of Wales and Augusta had nine children, six of whom lived to adulthood.  George III was unusual for his time and social position in his monogamy and acetic habits; his siblings more than made up for him.  

His older sister, Augusta, was too smart and too forward for the marriage market and eventually married a German Duke, producing the ill-fated and uncrowned Queen Caroline.  Edward, Duke of York was the consummate playboy and a financial drain on the royal treasury before dying of malaria at age 28.  Henry, Duke of Cumberland, was co-respondent in a society divorce before entering a scandalous but ultimately successful marriage with a commoner.  William, Duke of Gloucester, married the illegitimate and widowed society beauty Maria Walpole, only to abandon her after reconciling with his brother.

The saddest and most scandalous marriage was that of George's youngest sister, Caroline Matilda.  Married at age 15 to the cruel and unbalanced Christian VII of Denmark, she was essentially abandoned by her husband after giving birth to their son.  She eventually entered into an affair with Johann Fredrich Struensee, one of her husband's advisers, was involved in an unsuccessful rebellion against her husband, was exiled, and died of scarlet fever at age 24.  Tillyard spends about half of A Royal Affair dissecting Caroline Matilda's marriage, perhaps because it's a case study of why arranged marriages are a bad idea.  Unfortunately, it wasn't a very interesting or long-lived marriage and A Royal Affair never comes alive like Tillyard's previous book, Aristocrats.

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

I want Mary Roach's job.  She investigates odd topics like how we handle dead bodies or investigate the afterlife and writes witty essays which walk the line between irreverent and disrespectful.   She freely admits in Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife that she's a skeptic, but still treats her interview subjects, which range from a little Indian boy believed to have the reincarnated soul of a man from a neighboring village, to a scientist investigating near death experiences, to the woman whose career serves as the basis for the show Medium, with sincerity and asks serious questions.  Roach saves her more sarcastic comments for the chapters on past paranormal experiments and fads (the chapter on ectoplasm is more disgusting than almost anything in Stiff), and for herself.  Like Roach, I'm a skeptic, but I think I could conduct a professional, respectful conversation with a paranormal investigator.  What I don't think I could do is enroll in psychic school or help with an experiment which involves listening for the ghosts of the Donner Party.   Roach did both of these, and managed to both keep a straight face and make herself the butt of the joke ("I can't believe I'm doing this!") in her essays.

Careless in Red

Warning - there are some minor spoilers for With No One As Witness

Elizabeth George hooked me the first time I read one of her novels.  For the Sake of Elena is her fifth Lynley/Havers novel, and George made her victim an unpleasant young woman who used people and painted the killer in a more sympathetic light.   Too many evil to the core killers and sweet, innocent victims cheapen the mystery genre.  Most of George's novels present a messier world, where murder isn't justified but is perhaps explicable.  The murderer acts in the heat of passion, the victim has done something horrible, and the worlds of those around the pair are shattered.

George also created an engaging and intelligent detective in Barbara Havers.  Technically, the hero of her series is Inspector Thomas Lynley, Eight Earl of Asherton, but Havers is a much more interesting character.  Lynley may be rebelling from his aristocratic upbringing by being a policeman, but it's the nature rather than the existence of his career that strikes us as unusual.  When we meet her, Barbara Havers is a bright, striving, dowdy and dumpy, working-class woman still coping with a decade-old tragedy.  She's not supposed to amount to anything - maybe work in a shop for a few years, marry, and stay in the neighborhood.  Unfortunately for her, she's ambitious, highly intelligent, and not pretty, and therefore doesn't fit in.  The first eight or nine books split their focus between Lynley and Havers, and we see her break down her defenses, gain confidence in her abilities, and eventually carry a narrative on her own.

Then, almost inexplicably, George dropped the character.  Havers dropped back, starting with A Place of Hiding, and I missed her.  She's not just the most interesting character in the series, she's also the perfect foil for her aristocratic partner and his upper-crust best friend and late wife.  Lynley is smart and a good detective, but Havers is smarter, more intuitive, and a better lateral thinker.  She plays devil's advocate and looks for alternate theories instead of trusting the evidence as it falls.  Havers-light novels just aren't as good.

Careless in Red starts out as Havers-free.  Thomas Lynley is in the 43rd day of his walk along the South-West Coast Path, not trying to forget that his pregnant wife was murdered but because walking is the only way he can keep his will to live.  On the 43rd day of his walk, he finds the body of Santo Kerne who has apparently died in a climbing accident.  Since this is a mystery novel, we know that Santo was murdered, and because we know the mysterious Thomas is actually DI Lynley of Scotland Yard we know he will help solve the case.  

George writes long novels with multiple subplots, and while I usually enjoy this aspect of her writing, I think she could have trimmed some of the threads.  The earthy orchard owner, the teenager sent to live with her grandfather because she wants to enter a convent, and the conflict between local DI Bea Hannaford and her ex-husband don't add much to the story and aren't effective red herrings.  I also wasn't impressed with how George seemed to be setting up Hannaford as a Havers substitute, but at least the character keeps the investigation moving until the real Havers shows up, all attitude and flannel PJs confronting Lynley before breakfast at the only inn in town.  Still, Careless in Red is a partial return to form.  A few characters are drawn a bit too broadly, especially Santo's nymphomaniac mother and the teenager in the midst of a religious conversion, but most of them are believable.  The identity of Santo's killer isn't obvious (although I did solve the mystery with about 50 pages to go) and I didn't feel cheated, like I did in George's last three novels.  It's worth reading if you've read the rest of the series, but I can't recommend Careless in Red as an introduction to the Lynley/Havers mysteries.