Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Pale Companion

I pulled The Pale Companion off my shelf as I was nearing the end of my annual book diet.  I read an earlier (the first?) book in the series nearly a decade ago and remember it as enjoyable but not particularly gripping.  That's also my assessment of The Pale Companion; a decent mystery but not one that left me desperate to hunt down the rest of the out-of-print series.

The Chamberlain's Men are traveling to an estate near Salisbury where they will perform "A Midsummer Night's Dream" the night before the ceremony.  Along the way, company member Nick Revill ends up on the wrong end of a riot and meets local magistrate Adam Flemming whose daughter Kate tends to Nick's bruises.  Due to the Theory of the Conservation of Characters, we know that the Flemmings will be guests at the wedding, and that (since this is a mystery), Adam Flemming will be charged with solving it.  And we are not disappointed - we even get a bonus murder.  The first death is that of Robin, a feral woodsman found hanging from a tree.  His murder has not been solved when, the night after the performance, someone kills Lord Elcombe with a gnomon.  His elder son, Henry (the groom to be) appears to have killed him, but has he?  Phillip Gooden creates a good puzzle, giving strong motives to the innocent and supporting his slightly improbably conclusion.  I'll give The Pale Companion a middling grade - worth reading, but perhaps not worth searching for.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Dance of Death

Roger the Chapman began solving mysteries at the behest of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Kate Sedley has framed her novels as the memoirs of an old man countering the then-current Tudor propaganda against his occasional patron.  Sedley - and Roger - have reached 1482, a year before Richard III became king and three years before he died in battle.  Perhaps that means she's going to wind down the series, or maybe Roger will return to solving ordinary, non-political mysteries.

I hope it's the latter.  The Dance of Death is the second consecutive (and third of the last four) Roger the Chapman novel to involve Richard and political intrigue.  It's the best of those three, but I miss Roger's life in Bristol with Adela and their children.  Roger does as well, which is why Richard's spymaster Timothy Plummer intercepts Roger's message to his family to force Roger to perform one more mission.   Actually, he's on two separate missions, the first posing as the husband of a half-french woman whose cousin has information regarding the French King's attempts to void the engagement between the Dauphin and Elizabeth of York.  The second verges on treason; Richard has asked him to find evidence that Edward IV is illegitimate and that their mother was unfaithful.  Disguised as a wealthy merchant and his wife, they travel to France accompanied by one of Richard's men and Phillip Lamprey, an old friend of Roger's.

Sedley devotes most of The Dance of Death to the journey from London to Paris, seemingly followed by an unhappily married couple, a jeweler, and a flirtatious courtier and leaves the mystery to the final few pages.  Maybe that's why she got me - the killer's identity surprised me, even though I'd seen all the clues.  After a relatively disappointing installment, Sedley produced a satisfying and enjoyable mystery.  Unfortunately, I may have to miss the next few installments.  I hadn't ordered from in a few years and during that time, her publisher apparently shrank the print runs in favor of ebooks which are not available in the US.  My next trip to London may include scouring the city for used book store (or maybe curling up in a library, devouring the two books between The Dance of Death and the one I just ordered).

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing

I like Peter Ustinov's portrayal of Hercule Poirot.  It's not quite accurate, but it's how I picture him.  The  real Poirot (and Poirot as played by David Suchet) is a bit too unreal and mannered to solve crimes.  Ustinov gave the impression that Poirot's fussiness was at least partially an act so that witnesses - and criminals - would underestimate him, say too much, and allow him to solve the mystery.

Vish Puri, the Delhi-based private detective who solves The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing reminds me a bit of Poirot.  He's a bit younger than Poirot, a happily married family man, and less mannered, but there's a sense that he lets people underestimate him and then turns to his advantage.  Plus, he never misses a meal - or a snack, even when trying to solve the apparently supernatural death of India's #1 debunker.  Dr. Jha is the Guru Buster, part Uri Geller, part MythBuster, exposing both New Age twaddle and Indian televangelists preaching a Hindi version of the Prosperity Gospel.  One day, during his weekly Laughing Club meeting, he and the rest of the group are overcome with uncontrollable laughter.  They're paralyzed by humor, and unable to act when a god appears and fatally stabs Dr. Jha.

Vish Puri reads about the Guru Buster's death and decides to investigate.  Looking both at the Laughing Club members and the charlatans Dr. Jha had exposed, Puri solves both Dr. Jha's murder and the apparently unrelated death of a young woman at a Swami's compound.  Hall does something interesting here, writing parallel plots which may or may not be related.  He also allows Puri's operatives, particularly Facecream, the young woman who infiltrates the Swami's compound, to be competent and interesting, not just flunkies following the boss's orders.

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing isn't just a satisfying mystery, it's also an enjoyable domestic novel.  Puri's wife Rumpi is preparing for their daughter's baby shower, Puri's brother-in-law shows up with yet another get-rich-quick scheme, and when armed robbers disrupt the kitty party (a party where Ladies Who Lunch pool money for a monthly drawing) attended by Rumpi and Puri's mother, Mummy-ji decides to solve the crime.  Hall weaves these domestic scenes (and a lot of food - this probably isn't a book to read while hungry) around the main mystery, creating a truly enjoyable book.