Sunday, October 30, 2011

Flu: A Social History of Influenza

Flu: A Social History of Influenza wasn't what I expected. The 1918 flu epidemic severely attacked Philadelphia (it was quite possibly the US city most affected by the flu), and killed my maternal grandmother's younger sister and both of my paternal grandmother's parents. Regina was buried in her First Communion dress after the last funeral held in the parish before funerals were banned as a public health measure, and Grandmom and her brother, who had grown up in privilege, were put in an orphanage by two aunts who stole their inherence. Pandemic flu is part of my family history, and even though I wasn't born for another 50 years, probably affected my life and even my experience (my paternal grandparents wouldn't even have met if my great-grandparents hadn't died), and when I bought Flu: A Social History of Influenza, I expect to discuss the societal impact of past and potential future flu pandemics. It touched on them, and on the science of flu, but there was nothing that I hadn't read in John Barry's and Gina Kolata's books on the 1918 epidemic.

Quinn does a good job, though, of tracing the history of influenza from the first well-described outbreak during the Renaissance through the modern day. I was particularly interested in the discussion of 18th and 19th Century outbreaks. Although doctors had little medicine effective against the flu, they were surprisingly sophisticated in their descriptions of the disease and had an idea of contagion. Other than that, there was very little in Flu that I didn't already know. It's well-written and I enjoyed reading it, but I probably would have liked it better as an introduction to the subject than as the 5th or so book I've read about it.

Unnatural Death

Unnatural Death starts with a perfect murder - one that looks natural. Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend Detective Charles Parker are discussing death over dinner when a fellow diner breaks in with the tale of an unsuspected murder. The man, a doctor whose country practice had recently been destroyed by a rumor that he had caused (directly or indirectly) the death of one of his patients. Understandably, the man declines to give his name, but Lord Peter can't let this rest. He gives his assistant, the apparently dithery spinster Alexandra Climpson, the task of finding the doctor's late 'victim' and acting as his agent in the investigation. Miss Climpson finds the victim, Agatha Dawson, and the village and settles herself into its distaff society. Meanwhile, Lord Peter's search for the servants dismissed from the Dawson home leads to the death of one and a near escape for Lord Peter himself. A dropped prayer book, an attempt to frame a distant relative (with the unlikely name of Rev. Hallelujah Dawson), and letters which cross in the mail lead to a much more climatic ending than one would expect when the murder's identity is so clear.

I've already mentioned that I'm re-reading the Lord Peter mysteries, and as with Clouds of Witness, I'm getting much more of the humor this time around. Peter and Charles usually investigate separately, but when they interview a witness together, Charles always tries to rush the witness. This invariably causes the witness to go further off point, leading Peter to kick his friend or whisper sarcastic comments while gently leading the witness back to the topic. Miss Clipson's letters to Peter also made me smile - they're informative but so full of emphasized words and phrases that you read them in the voice of an elderly gossip sharing the latest over coffee and a biscuit.

There's one more aspect of Unnatural Death which I didn't notice in the past. Sayers speaks of 'mannish' career women, and independent women aren't viewed in a totally favorable light. However, Sayers was a career woman - an expert in medieval history with an MA from Oxford, she also worked as an advertising copywriter for a few years. I wonder if she was writing what she thought the public would want to read, or was she reflecting criticism that had been aimed at her?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Detective Wore Silk Drawers

A few months ago, Deadalus Books had a buy-four-get-one-free mystery sale. They had the next, hard-to-find book in Sharan Newman's Cathereine LeVendur series so I picked four random titles to justify the shipping and take advantage of the sale. Although I didn't realize it, two of the books were the first two on Peter Lovesey's Sergeant Cribb series, written in the 1970s and recently reprinted.

Set in the 1870s, the series features an analytical but essentially underrated Scotland Yard detective. As Sergeant Cribb is mulling over a pint in his local, a man gives him a tip on a body - a headless corpse that has washed ashore. Upon examination, Cribb discovers that the victim was probably a prizefighter and since that sport had recently been outlawed, believes that the crime is larger than a single murder. The titular detective, though, is not Cribb but Detective Jago, a well-born amateur boxer estranged from his family and stuck in a desk job at Scotland Yard. Jago infiltrates the prizefighting ring while Cribb and the plodding Constable Thackery investigate from London. The headless body is actually a bit of a red herring - the main murder occurs later in the book and while there are only two suspects, both have adequate means and motive to keep the audience guessing until Cribb solves the crime.

And Then There Were None

I started reading Agatha Christie in my early teens, but And Then There Were None sort of fell through the cracks. It's one of her 'classics' but I didn't read it until I was in my 30s. Granted, I had two separate copies which became soaked beyond repair (one due to an air conditioner compressor leak, the other due to a dorm refrigerator oozing onto that book's replacement copy), but somehow left copy #3 on the shelf for a decade before reading it, and another decade before my first, RAL-based re-read.

And Then There Were None is a classic locked room mystery. Ten people are stranded on an island, and one by one they're murdered. A few days later, the police arrive to find ten murder victims and no murderer. Some time later, the murderer's confession washes ashore as a message in a bottle, and it's truly ingenious. It also brings up the issues of culpability, revenge, and justice.

Each of the ten victims was responsible, in a way, for a death that was not classified as murder, and one person decided to dispense justice. The least culpable and/or most remorseful died quickly, while the guiltier, less remorseful killers spent days dealing with increasing paranoia. Was, however, the killer accurate in assessing guilt? Anthony Marsden, the first victim committed vehicular manslaughter - but was he reckless (a higher degree of guilt) or merely careless (as the murderer decided)? Vera Claythorn felt deeply guilty for her crime, and yet didn't show it and was therefore considered unremorseful by the killer. Emily Brent seemed almost proud that she indirectly caused the death of her pregnant out of wedlock maid but was deemed less guilty - was that because she was a step removed, or because dismissing her employee followed the social norms of the day? And was the murderer dispensing justice or a psychopath rationalizing revenge?

Murder on the Orient Express

I've joined an Agatha Christie RAL on Ravelry - every month, we read and discuss one of her novels, and with over 60 to choose from, we won't begin to repeat until at least 2016. I, and many of the other knitters, have already read most if not all of her books, so the discussion is perhaps more important than in most RALs.

Unfortunately, I didn't get much out of the discussion of Murder on the Orient Express. It's probably because I read the book late in August as the discussion was winding down (yes, I know that my 2010 New Year's resolution was to not let any book sit more than a week without being reviewed - I'm going to keep making that resolution until I keep it), and possibly because I've read it so many times. I know the answer to the puzzle, and I've pondered whether the solution was revenge or justice, so there's very little reason for me to re-read the book other than for lightweight enjoyment. It's literary comfort food - a few hours during which I can enjoy the travelogue and admire how well Dame Agatha plotted what became one of her most famous novels. I can also marvel at how perfectly the producers cast the 1974 movie - or I could, if Patrick would ever watch and return the DVD I loaned him three years ago.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Malice of Unnatural Death

Dear Mr. Jecks,

This is your 22nd novel, and I've read all 22 over the past 13 years. I'd like to say I've enjoyed them all, but somewhere around the 15th volume, your books became a bit of a slog. I think I've figured out what your problem is - you're putting Baldwin and Simon in too broad of a context. For 15 books, you had them solving local mysteries - the external world of the 14th Century might be mentioned but had little if any effect on the matter at hand. Then you sent your detectives on pilgrimage - an interesting plot device, but not one that worked particularly well. Still, it was less distracting than your recent habit of injecting the political intrigue of the 1320s into Dartmoor. Yes, the battles between Isabella and Edward II and his lovers are intriguing, but they feel tacked on when they affect a local baron and his friend the bailiff. Alison Weir's biography of Isabella was fascinating and your series takes place while she was in power, but that doesn't mean you have to tie her into your plots.

It's sad, because there are some good parts to The Malice of Unnatural Death, and the idea of a necromancer attempting to murder long-distance is fascinating. You've tied this quite well to the subplot concerning the order of succession at a local abbey, and Coroner Richard's booming personality is more amusing than distracting this time around. You've finally figured out the right tone for that character, and I now look forward to seeing him again. All you need to do is trim about 50 pages of obfuscation and keep the bulk of your story local. A good editor can help you do this - perhaps it's time to find a new one.

Jane Eyre

I am not a romantic - forget flowers and candlelight, I'd rather have a guy who will have long conversations with me, quote Monty Python, and play backgammon - so it's no surprise that I don't find Edward Rochester to be a great romantic figure. In fact, I think he's a manipulative jerk. While I do have some sympathy for his being tricked into a marriage with an apparently insane and violent woman, that does not excuse his keeping her prisoner in the attic and pretending that she does not exist. He does not redeem himself by the way he flirts with Blanche Ingram and makes Jane believe he's going to marry Blanche before his improbable proposal to his ward's governess or with he ignores Jane's requests and showers her with unwanted gifts in the days leading up to their planned marriage.

Jane, on the other hand...well Jane's got spunk. She's got a moral compass without being a boring prig like Fanny Price. It gets her in trouble at home, where her refusal to tolerate abuse by her aunt and cousins gets her sent away to a particularly harsh boarding school, but it's also what drives her to escape Thornfield on what would have been her wedding night and eventually find a new life under an assumed name as a teacher in a charity school. The final chapters of the novel, with their Victorian over-reliance on coincidence, felt like a bit of a let down to me, but I enjoyed Jane Eyre more than I thought I would. Charlotte Bronte had a clear, descriptive writing voice, and while parts were a bit dry for my taste (I can just imagine how acidly Jane Austen would have described the benefactors' visit to Lowood), I could both like and admire it.

The Devil's Disciples

Susannah Gregory's first Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, A Plague on Both Your Houses, took place during the plague's march through Cambridge. Matthew Bartholomew, the Arab-educated physician and fellow of Michaelhouse College, survived to solve a dozen more mysteries. A decade later, the plague has not returned in The Devil's Disciples, but the fear remains - and Matthew finds himself suspected of being the Sorcerer, a heretic who claims to be able to protect people from the plague. Exhausted from treating patients suffering through an epidemic of the flux (his cure - boiled barley water - seems magical to some, pointless to others, but to modern audiences is simply rehydration with untainted fluids), he's dragged into the investigation by his friend Brother Michael. Michael, in turn, has been dragged into political intrigue involving his patron, the Bishop of Ely, and the Pope living in exile in Avignon. Add in a bidding war over a piece of property left to Michaelhouse and you've got a nice, complex problem to solve.

This is one of the better mysteries I've read this year, but much of the plot depended on knowing the history of the characters. I've read the entire series, but it's been a decade or more since I read the early volumes and some details have faded. While I recommend the book, I do not think it's a good introduction to the series. This is a series that really benefits from sequential reading.