Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Seven Wonders

HIstorical mystery novelists don't have to worry about their characters getting too old or reconfiguring the timeline.  When it became unrealistic for Steven Saylor to follow Gordianus forward through the early days of the Roman Empire, he went back to Gordianus's youth and his frequently-referenced tour of the Seven Wonders.   Over the course of a year, we see Gordianus lose his naiveté while using the deductive skills he learned from his father (also a Finder) to solve a mystery at every stop along the way.  A betrayal and the political situation back in Rome leaves him in Alexandria to start his own detective career and leads to his first encounter with his eventual wife, Bethesda.


Coincidences happen.  As an urban legend enthusiast, I depend on that fact when I'm debunking stories that "can't have happened by chance."  As a mystery fan, I have a more complicated relationship with coincidences.  Too few and the novel becomes unrealistically sterile; too many and the coincidences are a crutch.  I thought about the coincidences in Grasshopper because the novel starts with one. Electrician Clodagh Brown goes out on a call and realizes that Mrs. Clarkson, who called her because "C. Brown" was at the top of the phone book listings, is Liv, the semi-fugitive Swedish nanny who was among those with whom Clodagh explored London roofs a dozen years earlier.  Back then Liv was agoraphobic, under the spell of her criminal boyfriend, and pining after Wim who'd started the crew on their roof-walking hobby.  Now she's "respectable" and tries to bribe Clodagh to keep her identity secret.  Clodagh refuses the money, but with some free time (her husband works for a relief charity and is doing field work), she opens up her old journals and writes the narrative of her first year  in London, with the perspective of time.

Clodagh's first meeting with Liv was also coincidental.  At 16, she started climbing the towers that hold electrical wires, and a year later that led to the death of her slightly younger (by a few months) boyfriend.  Depression and social ostracism led to poor A-level scores so her only option was a third-rate polytechnic and a program which did not interest her.  Living in the basement flat of a house owned by her mother's cousin and his wife (the star of an Eastenders style soap), she's isolated and miserable, a claustrophobic and depressed young woman living in what feels like a dank cave.  About to be expelled for non-attendance, she's on her way to a meeting with her advisor when police activity forces her to use the pedestrian tunnel where she has a panic attack and is rescued by Michael Silverman - Silver - the son of her cousin's neighbors and the resident of an attic flat in his parent's usually unoccupied house.

Silver is also about 20, but neither working nor in school.  He inherited money from his grandmother, enough to live on comfortably but not extravagantly, and he's assembled a small group of misfits who live with or drop in on him.  Liv is one of them, brought to Silver by Johnny, she's hiding the secret of the money she stole from her employers and hiding from her apparently reasonable parents.  Johnny is a  criminal (theft and assault), and others (Morna, Niall, Lucy) mainly students who came and went.  The one thing they shared was a love of rooftop exploration.  Led by Wim, they ran around London nearly 100 feet in the air.

That wouldn't be much of a story if they hadn't discovered a fugitive couple in one of the upper floor flats on their regular route.  Alison and Andrew wanted to adopt Jason, but child services decided that the bi-racial boy shouldn't be raised by two white parents so they abducted him.  Silver wants to help them, and Clodagh goes along with the plan.  But Alison and Andrew are not as they appear, and Silver discovers yet another coincidence just a little bit too late.

Ruth Rendell wrote Grasshopper 15 years ago, and that led to another level of analysis.  I'm about the same age as Clodagh, so I kept pulling back to my college years and seeing her story as I would have seen it back then.  Would a teenager obviously suffering from PTSD and depression after seeing her friend get electrocuted then fall to his death have been scolded rather than treated in the late 1980s?  Probably.  How about her parents' reaction to her claustrophobia?  Mine is not as severe as Clodagh's, but I get more eye-rolls than sympathy when I mention how difficult it is to drive through a tunnel under water or when I flinch at anything unexpectedly too close to my face.  She's reflecting at 32 and happy how she was at 20 and coming out of depression.  I kept wondering what Clodagh is like at 47.  It added to my enjoyment of a book that started slow but was definitely worthwhile.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Dangerous Inheritance

Sr. Maureen Christi had the unenviable task of facing me and about 20 other teenagers at 8 am every day 30-plus years ago.  It's not that I wasn't receptive to Poe (her favorite) and Shakespeare at 14; it's that this particular night owl wasn't receptive to much before 10 am.  I must have paid attention, though, because what she taught me then (and three years later at a more reasonable 1 pm) regularly pop into my mind.

One thing she told us was that Shakespeare was a political creature and a man who knew who - Elizabeth I - paid his bills.  Without getting into the details of Richard III (although I might have preferred that to Romeo and Juliet), she let us know that the victorious Henry VII's granddaughter wasn't going to stand for a pleasant portrayal of the vanquished king.  Art influences us, probably more than unvarnished reality, and Richard III became deformed and irreparably evil in our consciousness.  Fiction (and the recent discovery of Richard's body under a car park) adds some much-needed nuance to that view.

Alison Weir adds her voice to the novelists rehabilitating (somewhat) Richard III.  He's a supporting character in A Dangerous Inheritance, the father of one of the protagonists.  Kate Plantagenet is his illegitimate but recognized daughter, and through her eyes, we see a loving father and husband and concerned knight displeased with the state of his country.  Kate's faith in him is sweet, and because she only sees glimpses of his slide into despotism, supported by her reality.  His death throws her, now married to the Earl of Pembroke, into the political sphere.  Pembroke "switched sides" late in the war (possibly after he knew the outcome), and Henry VII needs to know whether Richard murdered his nephews.

Seventy years later, Katherine Grey marries one of Pembroke's descendants in a double wedding, alongside her sister Jane and Guilford Dudley.  Unlike Jane, Katherine is eager to marry - she loves pretty dresses and quickly comes to love her husband although they're forbidden to consummate their marriage.  The night Mary retakes her throne from Jane, Pembroke separates the lovers and deposits Katherine, with no guard and no warning, on her parents' doorstep.  Political maneuvering (and close blood ties to the throne) bring her to court as one of Mary's attendants.  Here, she meets proud, savvy, brilliant Elizabeth who's much better at the political game.  Katherine wants to be queen, and changes alliances and religions more than once in the hope that it will happen, but she wants the pageantry rather than the power. She likes pretty dresses and being in love and making her husband king.

It was love rather than political machinations that led her to marry Edward Seymour, son of Edward VI's Lord Protector.  That marriage (or, rather, the children it produced) led to Katherine's downfall.  Elizabeth knew that her people would rather have a man on the throne than a brilliant but prickly (and justifiably paranoid at times) woman.  A cousin of royal blood, married and with a son was a threat, one which had to be sequestered in the Tower of London with cast-off, mostly broken furniture.  In exile, Katherine connects the pendant she found in her first husband's house, one which Kate Plantagenet owned, to the voices she thinks she hears late at night, and sets off to discover the fate of Edward V and the Duke of York.

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Dreadful Murder

A Dreadful Murder, like Chickenfeed, is a "quick read" based on a real, unsolved murder.  Someone shot Caroline Lugard in August, 1906.  Her husband, a dour retired Army officer, was both the last person to see her alive and was alone when he found her body.  An inconclusive inquest and Major-General Lugard's friendship with the local police chief launch the widower into a swamp of rumor and innuendo, from which two Scotland Yard investigators cannot withdraw him.  Brief and simply written (the quick reads series is written at a basic level, in part to get non-fluent readers interested in literature), A Dreadful Murder barely qualifies as a novella, but it's worth the small investment of your time.