Thursday, March 31, 2011

Disordered Minds

Minette Walters doesn't write straight-forward novels.  She drops newspaper clippings, e-mails, and police reports into the narrative, but somehow makes sure they contradict what she's just written.  Disordered Minds is a particularly twisty puzzle of a novel, and in my mind her second best (behind Fox Evil).  

Disordered Minds opens in 1970 with the particularly brutal gang rape of a 13-year-old girl as her best friend watches.  A few weeks later, the girl disappears.  Walters then cuts to a chapter in "Disordered Minds," a scholarly book by anthropologist Dr. Jonathan Hughes which argues that Howard Stamp did not murder his grandmother a few weeks after the opening scene.   George Gardiner, a 60ish woman who now lives in the neighborhood where both crimes occurred 35 years earlier contacts Dr. Hughes and after a particularly rough first meeting, they begin to unravel the case which is not so much cold as forced into a freezer.  

It doesn't take a lot of deduction to realize that the two crimes are somehow connected - two violent crimes separated by a few weeks and a few blocks, involving people who knew each other just can't be coincidental.  Walters is a master, though, and she keeps us guessing as to how they are connected, and who committed which crime.  Nothing is as it appears, and several characters have so completely hidden their pasts that the revelation of their true natures comes as a shock.  Against this dark and violent backdrop, Walters places the present day subplot of a wary academic with few friends and a lot of emotional baggage becoming close to the schlubby, frumpy older woman with whom he tracks down the killer.   Like a particularly dark Agatha Christie, Minette Walters serves justice with a happy ending.

Queen Isabella

Never designate a serious book as bedtime reading if you've also got a Sudoku addiction.  I think I've put off reviewing Queen Isabella because I didn't give it the level of attention an Alison Weir biography deserves.  Isabella of France, like most medieval princesses, made a political marriage.  Unluckily, her husband Edward II was a weak man who had no desire to be king and rejected her for his male lovers.  Even worse, he had horrible taste in men, choosing corrupt, social-climbing lovers.  Piers Gaveston never really understood court life, and that led to his downfall but the more courtly and manipulative Hugh le Despenser brought England to the brink of civil war.  Isabella made a similar mistake, because Roger Mortimer was also manipulative and corrupt, but he was a better tactician than any of Edward's knights.  Isabella and Mortimer led the only successful invasion of England, deposed Edward II, and acted as regents to Edward III.  Mortimer's greed eventually brought him out of favor and Isabella into disgrace, and she retired from public life and eventually regained some of her reputation - a reputation later ripped apart by early historians.

The book is much better than my review.  I need to read Queen Isabella again and give it the attention it deserves.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Death Ship of Dartmoor

I think I've figured out what Michael Jecks's problem is - he needs a new editor.  I still enjoy reading about Sir Baldwin and Simon Puttock, and Jecks still vibrantly draws 14th Century England.  I just wish he'd return to the tight plotting he used in his earlier novels.

The Death Ship of Dartmoor is at least an improvement over the last two installments in the series, and the main mystery is fairly engrossing.  Simon is now the Keeper of the Port of Dartmouth and when a ship comes into harbor, burned and with the crew missing but the cargo intact, it's his job to figure out what happened.  Baldwin appears not to help him but to try to find Bishop Walter Stapleton's nephew who has disappeared in Dartmoor and may be the man found murdered in a hole in Dartmoor's main road.  While Baldwin's mystery is yet another disposable subplot, the fate of the titular death ship was interesting enough to keep Jecks off 'probation' and Sir Andrew de Limpsfield (the coroner and this volume's comic character) was actually amusing and helped advance the plot.  Jecks's 20th novel may signal a return to form, and I really hope it is.  Mainly because I don't want to think I've wasted money ( does not offer free trans-Atlantic shipping) and I've got six more volumes on my bookshelf.