Historical whodunit not for the po-faced

Templecombe
Templar Head of Christ displayed in Templecombe church, Somerset

 

Michael Clynes The Grail Murders Headline Books 1993

It is 1522 and Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham has just been beheaded for treason. Soon afterwards Cardinal Wolsey’s spies start to be bumped off one by one, apparently in revenge for Buckingham’s execution. Buckingham himself was searching for two objects in darkest Somerset and seems to have been in cahoots with a powerful secret society, supposedly disbanded for two centuries. Under pain of execution two investigators, Benjamin Daunbey and Roger Shallot, are ordered by Henry VIII to find these two missing relics — the Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, and Excalibur, the fabled sword of King Arthur — and foil the Templar plot against the Tudors. Along the way there is a lot of intrigue and action before matters are finally resolved. Or not.

First, the good news. Continue reading “Historical whodunit not for the po-faced”

Memorable female characters

Helen Hollick The Kingmaking
Book One of the Pendragon’s Banner trilogy
Heinemann 1994

Why does the Arthurian legend attract so many women writers? Rosemary Sutcliff, Catherine Christian, Marian Zimmer Bradley, Mary Stewart, André Norton, Vera Chapman, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken and Jane Curry (to name but a few) have all mined that rich seam, producing gems in various genres including fantasy, historical fiction and children’s literature. Does the work of another exponent, Helen Hollick, provide an answer? Continue reading “Memorable female characters”

Not living up to its promise

The Georgian House, Bristol (Wikipedia Commons) The possible model for the hero's family home
The Georgian House, Bristol (Wikipedia Commons) — the possible model for the family home of Inigo Bright (Brightstow was one early spelling of Bristol)

Christopher Wakling The Devil’s Mask
Faber and Faber 2011

Bristol was the English port that John Cabot sailed from to discover Newfoundland, and was a point of embarkation for the heroes of Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island. It was also a key port in the slave trade, profiting for over a hundred years, until 1807, promoted by the Society of Merchant Venturers. It is a city I know well, having lived there for the best part of half a century, and so I was looking forward to reading this novel set there in 1810, a year after the opening of the Floating Harbour and a year before the Prince of Wales became Regent.

The Devil’s Mask certainly makes good use of Georgian Bristol as a backdrop to this tale of commercial shenanigans and casual inhumanity. The streets, the variety of buildings (merchant houses, coffee houses, speculative property developments) and the muddy and silted river Avon flowing through the city are all based on either real or typical topographical locations and to a large extent the novel captures the mix of genteel living and rank poverty that typified ports such as Bristol. However, Continue reading “Not living up to its promise”

A complete possession

Execution of émigrés, 1793 (Wikipedia Commons)
Execution of émigrés, 1793 (Wikipedia Commons)

Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities
Collins Classics 2010 (1859)

History repeats itself, and too often repeats itself in terrible ways. The downtrodden masses of 18th-century France had genuine grievances but when the inevitable reaction came moderation soon gave way to the Reign of Terror between September 1793 and July 1794. So it also was in 20th-century Russia and later in China, and recent years have seen too many other risings with hopes for natural justice being perverted by cruelty, bloody mayhem and corruption.

Dickens’ early years just overlapped the close of the Napoleonic Wars: he was born in the year of the failed French invasion of Russia, commemorated by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The French Revolution had begun not even a quarter of a century before and so its events were not at all dry-as-dust history for Dickens and his generation, but he does acknowledge a debt to Thomas Carlyle’s “wonderful book” detailing this turbulent period when preparing for his novel, published seventy years after the start of the conflagration. Dickens 1859 preface also tells us that

“A strong desire was upon me then to embody [the main idea of this story]  in my own person … Throughout  its execution, it has had complete possession of me; I have so far verified what is done and suffered in these pages, as I have certainly done and suffered it all myself.”

This rather veiled personal admission also furnishes further clues on what motivated Dickens to write this novel, clues which, thanks to the sands of time and Claire Tomalin’s 1991 study The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (now a feature film also called The Invisible Woman) we are better able to unravel from the text. Continue reading “A complete possession”

Neither a true nor a final discovery

King_Arthur

Chris Barber and David Pykitt
Journey to Avalon: the Final Discovery of King Arthur
Blorenge Books 1993

Many years ago F T Wainwright wrote an illuminating essay* about the relationship between the disciplines of history, archaeology and place-name studies; and when I first read Barber and Pykitt’s Arthurian theory I found it informative to use some of Wainwright’s criteria by which to judge its success.

Journey to Avalon is a handsome book co-authored by David Pykitt (who provided the bulk of the text) and Chris Barber (who supplied the copious monochrome photographs and published the book under his own imprint Blorenge Books), filled with plentiful line illustrations — mostly uncredited — and attractive maps. There is an extensive bibliography, several appendices and generous acknowledgement of sources of information and general help (including from this reviewer). The main theme of the book is the identification of Arthur as not only a 7th-century Welshman, one Athrwys ap Meurig, but also the 6th-century Breton saint Armel. The result is nearly 200 pages of close-packed argument in which the authors present the conclusions of years of research.

However, when we come to examine the details of the their hypothesis (with its title deliberately contradicting Geoffrey Ashe’s 1985 The Discovery of King Arthur) we find that the scaffolding surrounding their construct is decidedly rickety. Continue reading “Neither a true nor a final discovery”

Two enthusiasms combined

Blaise Castle House
Blaise Castle House

P D James: Death Comes to Pemberley
Faber and Faber 2012 (2011)

In a piece she wrote for the Daily Telegraph (included in the paperback edition of Death Comes to Pemberley)  P D James explained the genesis of the novel in her desire ‘to combine my two lifelong enthusiasms, namely for writing detective fiction and for the novels of Jane Austen’. In evaluating this sequel to Pride and Prejudice consideration must be given to the degree of success she’s achieved with that combination of enthusiasms as well as all those other touchstones for masterful writing. The imminent screening of a BBC serial based on the novel  proves that the public appetite for such a combination is certainly still there  — though from the trailer clearly a lot of dramatic licence has been taken.

The trigger for the action is easily adumbrated… Continue reading “Two enthusiasms combined”

Not very magical

battersea shield

Molly Cochran The Third Magic
Saint Martin’s Griffin 2003

Molly Cochran’s third Arthurian novel is both exciting and exasperating – exciting in the passages set in modern-day North America, exasperating when the action shifts to Dark Age or prehistoric Britain. In the descriptions of the young reincarnated Arthur living in the American Midwest, and the characters he encounters and the situations which develop, Cochran has that sure touch that comes from following the advice that all debutant writers are given: write about what you know. Within the thriller genre that she utilises, these episodes work well, with reasonably complex characterisation and hugely enjoyable edge-of-the-seat action.

Cochran’s Dark Age Britain is not one that I even vaguely recognise, however. Continue reading “Not very magical”

Ingenious genre-crossing

snowscape

Jill Rowan The Legacy Snowbooks 2011

Folktales and ballads often recount the fantasy of a fairy abduction or visit to the Otherworld where both reality and time are suspended until the human visitor returns to their own world. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court gave this trope a time-travel twist by using the story as a means of satirising contemporary mores, perceptions and attitudes. Jill Rowan has given this by now well-worn motif a further twist: her protagonist, Fallady Galbraith, visits a kind of fairyland (the late 18th century), leading her to re-appraise her personal philosophy, her perceptions of life lived then and her attitudes to class, gender issues, education and love. How she copes with the possibility that she mayn’t return to 2008 while yet enamoured of her ‘fairy lover’, a country parson, is the mainspring of the plot and the conflict she has to resolve. Continue reading “Ingenious genre-crossing”

Peril in the Pyrenees

landscape

Joan Aiken Bridle the Wind Puffin 1986 (1983)

In the chaotic years that are the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars young Felix Brooke is journeying from England to his home in Galicia in Spain when he is shipwrecked off the Basque coast of France, thus precipitating the strange sequence of events in this novel. He convalesces at the fictional Abbey of St Just de Seignanx, on the French coast near Bayonne (very much like Mont-St-Michel in France or St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall) but finds that due to a form of amnesia partly brought on by a supernatural happening he has lost three months of his life. Rescuing Juan, a youngster his own age, from hanging, he helps them both escape the terrifying Abbot Father Vespasian by trekking east before crossing the Pyrenees on their way to hoped-for freedom in Spain. But, not unexpectedly, things don’t go to plan as they are haunted by the memory of the Abbot and chased by a group of brigands. Continue reading “Peril in the Pyrenees”