Friday, October 17, 2014

The Killer of Pilgrims

Michaelhouse College entered 1358 in financial shambles thank to Wynewyk's creative accounting in A Vein of Deceit.  Attempting to rebalance the books, Master Langerlee took on more students and the food - historically poor - has become scarce as well.  He also accepted the patronage of wealthy and repellent Emma de Colvyll who, in exchange for masses said for her late husband, promised to replace the leaking Michaelhouse roof.  Unfortunately for Matthew Bartholomew, his college's deal meant he was now private physician to the devil - a cranky devil who doesn't want her infected tooth pulled, and whose romance-reading granddaughter has set her sights on the doctor.  Meanwhile, Cambridge was, for once, free of town/gown battles, but only because there was a war of jokes between the colleges and the less-affluent hostels.  Oh, and someone was stealing pilgrims' badges.  Just an ordinary winter in Cambridge.

Well, until someone found John Drax's body behind the tiles intended for the Michaelhouse roof, a death quickly followed by that of Emma de Colvyll's daughter.  Are these deaths connected to the thefts, the war of practical jokes, or both?  Brother Michael, as Senior Proctor, needs to find out before the college/hostel conflict spreads from the University to the town and, as usual, enlists Matthew's help.

As a mystery, The Killer of Pilgrims is OK.  Gregory supported her conclusion and I didn't guess the culprit right away, but the final scene was a bit far fetched and the solution wasn't particular memorable. As entertainment, however, it ranks a little higher.  There's plenty of action, and several well-integrated comic scenes, including one where four physicians (three of them quite drunk) experiment with pitch, oil, and assorted chemicals in an attempt to create a light brighter and steadier than a candle.  Needless to say, it does not go well, but the disaster made me laugh on my commute home.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Innocent Victims

Warning - spoilers

How reliable is any narrator?  I enjoy books, particularly mysteries, told by an unreliable narrator, but isn't any non-omniscient narrator at least somewhat unreliable?  Minette Walters's novels (with the exception of The Chameleon's Shadow) aren't exactly unreliable, but they're working with limited information.  Innocent Victims isn't a novel but a pair of novellas, both written as Book Week promotions but with different purposes.  Chickenfeed, the fictionalized retelling of a 1924 murder case, is a quick read meant to encourage less-fluent readers into trying fiction.  It's a testament to Walters' skill that I didn't notice how simple the vocabulary and structure were until I read The Tinder Box, which was written to tempt readers into trying new genres.

Chickenfeed's main narrator is Norman Thorne, a teenager recently demobbed from WWI who catches the eye of Elsie Cameron, a volatile and unstable young woman.   When he loses his job as a mechanic, he decides to open a chicken farm several miles from London, and they plan to marry once the farm is successful.  Norman had bought his farm impulsively, though, and two years later, it's still losing money.  Worse than that, he's fallen out of love with Elsie (if he ever was in love with her) and in love with Bessie Coldicott while Elsie's letters and occasional visits show her declining mental state.  One winter night, Elsie, who'd convinced herself she was pregnant, traveled to Norman's farm where she was discovered hanging from the rafters in his shack.  Norman claimed that he'd been out and that Elsie had probably mean to scare him but had accidentally knocked over the chair she was standing on and died as a result.  Was that the truth?  Maybe - he kept to his story through the investigation and his trial, but how believable is that story?

Siobhan Lavenham can't reliably narrate The Tindebox because she's been lied to.  Her neighbor, Patrick O'Riordan allegedly killed an old women for whom he made some repairs and her nurse, and partially at Patrick's mother's request, Siobhan became his only defender.  It's easy for her, actually - although she's lace curtain and the O'Riordans are clearly shanty, Biddy O'Riordan appealed to Siobahn's Irishness - and the dead woman's heirs were unpleasant and bigoted.  What Biddy didn't do was tell Siobahn Patrick's violent history or how she and her husband became disabled. Eventually, the O'Riordan's deceptions and a series of misunderstandings between Siobhan and her other neighbors led to tragedy, but, as we find out, the victims and criminals are not whom we suspect.