Sunday, February 17, 2013

Shakespeare’s England

Our image of an era mutates over time.  There’s a meme about how teenagers dressed in the 80s (a screenshot from The Breakfast Club) and how sorority girls think teenagers dressed in the 80s (all neon, legwarmers, torn necklines/boatnecks and giant hair – as if the fashions of my junior high, high school, and college years were compressed into one horrendous image).  400 years on, we think of Shakespeare’s era as it’s portrayed in his plays, portrayals which in some cases have ossified into works more Serious than entertaining.  Shakespeare’s England uses contemporary documents – diaries, reports, guidebooks, plays, and poems – to give a more accurate view of what life was really like.  Elizabethan and Jacobean England was in transition.  The former backwater became a world power under Gloriana, and the Renaissance was soon to give birth to the Enlightenment and an explosion of scientific discovery.  The urban merchant  middle-class began to rise, although it had not yet eclipsed the agrarian feudal society and would not for a few hundred years.  Shakespeare’s England shows that transition.  It’s interesting and informative, but, like most surveys, doesn’t quite grab the reader.  It’s not exactly disjointed, but it doesn’t flow from chapter to chapter either.  Shakespeare’s England is best used as a reference.  Read it, file away a few facts, and then keep it on your shelf  to look up or confirm something  a few months down the road.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1985.  I remember reading the final chapters while sprawled across a chair in the entrance of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, after taking achievement tests in Math and American History and while waiting for my mother to come out of a lecture.  With that in mind, the cryptic message (a Boston phone number with "ask for Maria N.B. overnight") must refer to my application to MIT.  It's strange that I can remember so much about when and where I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but can only remember the identity of the murderer and how he did it and nothing else about the book.  Well, not quite nothing - I did remember Hercule Poirot hurling a vegetable marrow at Dr. Sheppard.

Dr. Sheppard narrates the mystery, and it's typical Christie.  A rich man invites his sister-in-law and her daughter, a gruff house guest, and Dr. Sheppard to dinner and confides in the doctor that he's being blackmailed.  A few hours later, Dr. Sheppard receives a phone call - Roger Ackroyd is dead.  He returns to the house and discovers Ackroyd's dead body behind a locked door.  Ralph, Ackroyd's stepson and heir is the logical suspect, but Flora (Ackroyd's niece and Ralph's fiancĂ©e), Ackroyd's butler, the housemaid, and a mysterious stranger all have motives or opportunity.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd made Christie's reputation.  Her first six books were generally successful, but this one made her part of the mystery cannon.  It's good, but for some reason it didn't grab me the way some of her other (often lesser) books do.  What interested me most was the possible confirmation of a theory.  A year or so after I started reading Jane Austen, I decided that Christie's debutants, fortune hunters, and widows living in genteel poverty could trace their linage back to Meryton and Bath.  The Murder of Roger Ackroyd features a semi-hysterical widow obsessed with her daughter's marriage prospects, and an unseen but frequently discussed character named Mrs. Ferrars.  Coincidence?  I don't think so.

The Green Man

I've read a number of disappointing mysteries over the past few years.  A few of my favorite series hit lulls (or I reached the lesser installments), but I could rely on Kate Sedley to provide me with a crisply written puzzle which I could solve (but not too easily).  The Green Man isn't a bad book, but it doesn't live up to Sedley's prior books.

England is suffering from famine and turmoil during the summer of 1482 when Timothy Plummer (spymaster to Richard, Duke of Gloucester) arrives in Bristol with a mission for Roger Chapman.  Guard Alexander, Duke of Albany and prospective heir to the Scottish throne during a military campaign against the Scots.  Albany believes that someone is out to kill him, possibly someone close, and he believes that Roger's presence will save his life.  Roger reluctantly leaves Adela and their children and shadows Albany as someone apparently makes several attempts on his life.  Someone who usually disguises himself as the mythical Green Man.

I've complained about subplots in the past, but for me at least, the subplot to The Green Man, a murder charge against Rab Sinclair, one of Albany's closest friends, was more satisfying than the somewhat convoluted question of the threats against the Duke.  Perhaps it's because I'm less well-versed in the history of the English Monarchy (the years between Edward II and Henry VIII, particularly the Wars of the Roses, confuse me) than her average reader, but I just couldn't get a handle on the political implications.  It may be, though that Roger is more at home solving crimes in Bristol or in one of the settlements where he sells his wares.  There, as in the subplot, Roger merely has to discover and interpret the fact, and uncovering a simple lie (as happens in the Sinclair case) unravels the mystery.  Political intrigue is murkier and less easily solved.  Roger began his detecting career in the service of Duke Richard, but Sedley should probably keep him away from politics in the future.