Posts Tagged ‘Mystery’

BOOK: Flash and Bones by Kathy Reichs (2011)

September 30, 2011

As much as I used to love Kathy Reichs’s series about forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (the mystery series that inspired (loosely) the Fox series Bones), I think it’s time to declare me and it officially through.  I’ve been pretty disappointed in the last four or five installments, and her overuse of cliffhangers is something I’m finding increasingly insufferable and amateurish.  If you have to end every single chapter with a cliffhanger in order to manipulate your readers into turning pages, then you aren’t writing a good book.  And Ms. Reichs?  You aren’t writing good books anymore.

Writing aside, the plots, too, have been getting less intriguing (they used to feature a lot more science and now it’s almost as if Reichs thinks her fans are just lazy TV watchers, not real science or book lovers, and she feels she needs to dumb everything to appeal to the least common denominator or risk losing her audience), as have the relationships between the characters, which have become, for me, truly stale.

Of course, it didn’t help that the frame for the story in this installment was  NASCAR racing, quite possibly my least favorite subject.  It begins with Tempe being called in to try to determine the identity of a corpse found encased in a barrel of cement at the NASCAR race track in Charlotte — a dead body she soon discovers is connected to an old cold case involving a missing young couple with ties to a local militia group.  She quickly teams up with one of the detectives who had worked the original case — super-stereotype Det. Slidell (uncouth, arrogant ball-scratcher) — to try to figure out how the cases fit together and what happened to each of the three victims.

As with Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, Reichs’s novels seem to be getting shorter and shorter.  But unlike Parker’s Spenser and gang, I’m starting to lose interest in the characters in the Brennan series.  The same thing happened to Patricia Cornwell’s series about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta — those novels started off rich in story and science, with complex characters and relationships, and gradually became sloppily written and uninspired in general.  I wonder if maybe the success of Bones has gone to Reichs’s or her publisher’s heads?  Is she being pressure to crank out more, and more simple, installments?  Or is it what I suspected happened to Cornwell — when an author becomes famous, do their editors stop caring about quality, knowing the books will sell no matter what?

Either way, the end result is me skimming paragraphs and rolling my eyes way too much.  Time to find another series about a smart science lady.  Anybody got any suggestions?

[MYSTERY]

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BOOK: Sixkill by Robert B. Parker (2011)

September 17, 2011

Well, I caved.  I had been planning to save the last Spenser novel (RIP, RBP) for as long as I could to avoid having to say goodbye to the old gang at last, but I didn’t manage to hold out very long.  I first started reading this series in high school and have spent the years since being over the moon every time a new installment came out. In fact, Parker was one of only two novelists I managed to nervously stammer out the names of when, during my first (only) radio interview about the Boyfriend of the Week site, the DJ dude asked me if I had any summer reading recommendations.  (The other writer was Tracy Chevalier, by the way; I erroneously described her as French.  Woo!  Nice work!)

Despite the fact the Spenser books kept getting shorter and shorter, with less and less satisfying endings (the last ten or so had endings that felt abrupt and rushed to me, as though Parker simply ran out of interest in his own stories), I never stopped loving the wonderful characters or the vividly drawn world in which they lived.  From Spenser to Susan, Hawk to Belson, and even the recurring bad guys in between, I truly felt like I had a relationship with the whole cast.  Their world became my world every time I cracked open a new cover, and it’s a world I will miss terribly.

This novel purports to be the last one Parker ever “finished,” but it didn’t seem to me he truly got it done.  There were a few things introduced that got dropped conspicuously by the end, for example, as though he’d been planning to get back to them and ran out of time.  Nevertheless, I still enjoyed it and I’m only sorry we’ll never get to learn more about the new character introduced in this one, a big, burly Native American bodyguard named Zebulon Sixkill.

The story opens with lawyer Rita Fiore begging Spenser to help her with her latest case, defending an obese, crass comedian/actor named Jumbo Nelson, accused of murdering a young woman he’d recently had sex with in his hotel room.  Jumbo swears he didn’t kill her, but the press is out for delicious, delicious celebrity blood.  Can Spenser find out the truth?

In his way, at least initially, is Jumbo’s bodyguard, the aforementioned Zebulon Sixkill.  But when Sixkill makes the mistake of losing a fist fight with Spenser, Jumbo fires him on the spot.  And Spenser?  Well, naturally, Spenser offers to make Sixkill his protegé, teaching him how to box so he’ll win the next fight he’s in.  (Spenser has always been a sucker for underdogs — one of the reasons I like him so much, I suppose.)  Through their training routine, the two men become buddies, Sixkill eventually saving Spenser’s butt more than once when the case takes a turn for the violent.

It’s not a great book — for one thing, I can’t even remember the ending, which is never a good sign, and for another, Sixkill ends up doing what most f Parker’s new characters always seem to end up doing:  talking just like Spenser.  I have long been annoyed by that — the way EVERYBODY in the series, especially in the later novels, is a super-intelligent razor-sharp wit (in real life, those gems are depressingly rare, I find).  But complaints aside, I’ve always been more than happy to overlook some flaws simply to have the excuse to spend more time with Spenser and his pals.  It’s been worth it.  Worth every single minute.

All in all, this isn’t the novel I wish Parker had gone out on; I wish it had been stronger.  But I’ll take it.  And if you were a fan of this series yourself, you probably ought to take it too.

Thanks for the stories, Mr. P.  You’ll be missed.

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BOOK: Murder at Graverly Manor by Daniel Edward Craig (2009)

August 31, 2011

I picked this mystery up off the shelves of my local public library a few weeks ago on a total whim.  I’d never heard of the author, but I was looking for something short and frivolous, and the description on the book jacket made it sound like just the thing: a spooky little “cozy” set in a bed and breakfast.

Though not particularly well-written (it’s not badly written either, mind you — just not a stand-out language-wise), I really enjoyed both the story and the main character, Trevor Lambert, a hotelier who, it turns out, is the star of a series of mysteries by author Daniel Edward Craig (the “Edward” stands for “Not THAT Daniel Craig“).  Always nice to stumble into a new batch of books, especially ones you can trust to be entertaining throw-aways when you want to take a brain break between two heavier novels, a purpose previously served well for me by Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, RIP.

This story begins with Trevor feeling literally burned out from his last job, a gig managing a huge luxury hotel recently destroyed in a fire. (Ha! Get it? Literally burned out?)  Depressed and unemployed, Trevor moves back to his hometown, Vancouver, BC, to look for another position.

Just as he’s about to take a crappy job at a crappy hotel, a twist of fate strikes:  a big, classy, old bed and breakfast, Graverly Manor, goes on the market, and at a ridiculously low price to boot.  Immediately, Trevor wants it; he’d already been thinking he was tired of all the hustle and bustle of managing huge hotels, and a B&B seems like the perfect, quiet change he needs.

It’s not long before he figures out why Graverly Manor’s on the market for peanuts, though — it turns out its octogenarian proprietress, Lady Elinor Graverly, has to sell it fast in order to move to the UK, where she must establish residency or risk losing the family home there as well.  But Elinor isn’t in so much of a hurry she’s willing to sell the manor to just anyone.  After talking to Trevor a few times, she agrees to let him buy it, but only if he’ll work alongside her for a month so she can make sure he’s TRULY qualified.

Trevor’s not thrilled by this plan — Lady Graverly is unlikely to let him make any of the changes he’s eager to get started on before reopening under new management — but he desperately wants the place, so he agrees.  After moving in, however, he realizes he’s in for quite a ride.  Elinor is a complete mystery to him, for one thing.  On the one hand, she has very specific rules about things (mostly cocktail hour) and woe to the person who attempts to bend or break them.  On the other, she’s hardly ever around, procedures are bafflingly lax, and the place is utterly filthy.  Plus, she immediately forbids Daniel access her apartment in the manor, not even to take a peek before he signs the paperwork.  When it turns out she has an adult son with developmental disabilities living with her, this rule makes a little more sense — perhaps she doesn’t want him to get upset by the presence of strangers.  But even that is somewhat mysterious — who is this son of hers, and what happened to make him the way he is?

The manor seems to have an eccentric personality all its own, as well.  Rumors abound that it’s haunted by Lord Graverly’s ghost, for example — he disappeared several decades back, and though Lady Graverly insists he isn’t dead (but instead ran off with the maid), suspicious events lead Trevor to suspect she might not be telling the whole truth.  The house is also full of strange sounds, terrible odors that seem to come and go, a truly evil cat, an odd elderly butler who’s been with the Graverly family forever, and a housekeeping staff of one (who also happens to be sleeping with the elderly butler — try not to think about it).

Something weird’s going on at Graverly Manor, that’s for sure, and Trevor quickly finds himself smack-dab in the middle of it.  When he begins to poke around looking for answers, he sets off a series of events (starting with the sudden disappearance of the housekeeper) that roller-coaster us to an incredible twist at the end — a twist that caught me completely by surprise (in part because I wasn’t paying all that much attention, but still), a quality I always find extremely pleasurable in a story, even when it’s a bit on the silly side, as it is here.

In short, this is a thoroughly entertaining novel, and fans of spooky stories and murder mysteries will probably enjoy it quite a bit.  I’m looking forward to reading another installment myself the next time I need a break from something weighty, so watch for more reviews coming soon!  (It may be just what I need as soon as I finish my current book, Karl Marlante’s brilliant Vietnam War novel Matterhorn, which I’m finding as heavy emotionally as it is physically (600 pages-plus!).)

Recommended!

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MOVIE: Good Neighbors (2011)

July 15, 2011

I was pretty excited to see this film when I found out it was written and directed by Jacob Tierney, the same guy who made last year’s oddball comedy The Trotsky, one of my Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2010.   Unfortunately, the oddballness that made The Trotsky so much fun is completely missing from this extremely amateurish mystery.

It opens with a guy named Victor (Jay Baruchel, also the star of The Trotsky), just back from a year teaching school in China, moving into a new apartment in Montreal.  On moving day, he meets two other tenants in the building about his age, a woman named Johanne and a guy in a wheelchair named Spencer (Scott Speedman from Felicity).  Though both Johanne and Spencer are, quite frankly, prickly assholes, Victor quickly develops a crush on Johanne and the three become somewhat bristly friends.

Meanwhile, a serial killer is stalking the streets of Montreal, torturing and killing young women at random.  When one of Johanne’s workmates turns up dead, Victor insists on meeting her each evening after her shift to walk her home.  It’s not long before his crush has turned into full-on love — love she doesn’t seem to reciprocate, not that he notices.

As bodies pile up and hints keep dropping, it becomes evident that one of the three main players is the killer, but it’s hard to figure out which one.  Ordinarily, this is the kind of thing I’d appreciate in a mystery, but here it was so clearly and clumsily being done on purpose to yank us around that it was more annoying than intriguing.  Worse, though, was the fact I didn’t really care who did it anyway.  I didn’t care about any of these characters, and when the killer’s identity was finally revealed, I was torn between finding the resolution completely boring and being relieved Tierney didn’t opt for the twisty bait-and-switch I was expecting.  The bait-and-switch would’ve been predictably gimmicky, so I was glad he didn’t go that route.  But the route he did go was completely ho-hum.  So:  lose-lose for me on the final act, I’m afraid.  There was really no ending that could’ve rescued the film from its lameness.

I love Jay Baruchel, even though he plays the same character in every film he makes.  The problem here was that he was totally over-acting that character, as though he’d been instructed to “be himself” and had no idea what the director meant by that.  He ended almost every sentence with an awkwardly tacked-on “eh?” to make sure we remembered he was Canadian, and his typically adorable hangdog expression was completely lacking in charm this time, possibly because I spent most of his scenes wondering what in the hell a nice guy like that saw in the bizarrely-boring-for-a-psychotic Johanne.

And let’s not even talk about Scott Speedman, who also always plays the same character in everything he does.  That character?  A cardboard box.

Yawn.

Good Neighbors is not unwatchably awful — we’ve all certainly seen much worse.  But it doesn’t have anything interesting to offer either.  Here’s hoping Tierney goes back to wacky comedy next time, maybe trying someone new in his lead role, and that Baruchel’s  next gig forces him out of his increasingly uncomfortable comfort zone a bit.  Can’t stay on the dork train forever, dude; your fans will get bored and jump.  I’m starting to mosey toward the caboose myself and I haven’t even had a chance to make you a Boyfriend of the Week yet, man.

Thoroughly skipable.

[Prequeue at Netflix | Stream at Amazon | View trailer]

Genre:  Mystery
Cast:  Jay Baruchel, Scott Speedman, Xavier Dolan, Emily Hampshire, Gary Farmer

BOOK: Painted Ladies by Robert B. Parker (2010)

July 5, 2011

I launched into this Spenser novel last weekend thinking it was the last one I’d ever read, as Robert B. Parker died last year, much to my incredible grief.  Happily, I was wrong about that — there’s one more (Sixkill) AND, hurrah!, there’s also a “Young Spenser” novel for young adults (Chasing the Bear), which is the next one in my pile.

(Incidentally, and unhappily, I also learned recently that the publisher of this series hired SOME OTHER GUY to continue writing Spenser novels (!!).  Sacrilege!  Just let it go, stupid publisher!  I get that you want to keep raking in the dough, but you’re going to ruin it, and everybody who’s a true fan knows it, and you’re a bunch of buttheads.  THE END.)

This one is about a stolen painting, a ransom payment that goes terribly wrong, and Spenser’s quest to put things right again.  It’s as funny, fast-paced, and thoroughly entertaining as all the rest and, unfortunately true to form with the last several in the series, I felt like the ending was kind of abrupt and rushed.  But now that Parker is gone, I confess I wish he’d rushed a few more endings and cranked out a few more stories.  I first started reading this series when I was working part-time as a library assistant in high school, at a military library that got almost no patrons.  I devoured every one we had in the stacks in a single summer, along with all of Ed McBain’s 87th precinct novels (which are also excellent), and I’ve been reading them steadily ever since. I’m just not ready to let them go.

It’s rare a writer doesn’t totally fizzle out after keeping a series going for such a long time — aside from Parker, Ed McBain, and Dick Francis, I can’t think of another modern mystery series that didn’t start to suck after about seven installments (long since given up on Patricia Cornwell and about to ditch Kathy Reichs too, for example).  But the Spenser series never jumped the mystery-series shark.  The people grew and changed, they came and went and sometimes came back again, the stories never got tired, and the setting, Boston, one of my favorite cities, was always a joy to hang out in.  As corny as this sounds, I’ve long thought of Spenser, Susan, Hawk, Bensen, Quirk, Pearl, and the others as my friends.  I got to know them that well.  And I will miss them tremendously.

Luckily, I’ve forgotten most of the early books, so as soon as I turn the last page of Sixkill, I think it’ll be time to start all over again.  Thanks for the memories, Mr. Parker.  You will be missed.

[MYSTERY]

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MOVIE: The Scenesters (2009)

May 16, 2011

I’d never even heard of this film when I came across it on hotel pay-per-view a week or so ago, but after having just sat through the utterly-awful The Next Three Days on PPV, I figured it could hardly be any worse.  The trailer made it look like a keen little murder mystery, for one thing, and that was exactly what I was in the mood for.  Plus, I’m getting ready for the upcoming Seattle International Film Festival (25 films I want to see, 9 I refuse to miss — watch for reviews to start rolling in after the holiday weekend!), so diving back into the world of independent film seemed appealing as well.

As it turned out, the mystery part of this film, about a serial killer in Los Angeles, was the least entertaining part of the whole entertaining shebang.  Even though it was the backbone of the story, by the time we got to the end and the killer’s identity was revealed, I’d practically forgotten we were looking for a killer; I was too busy laughing and loving all the kooky characters instead.  This is probably just as good, though, because had I been paying more attention, I’m sure I would’ve figured out whodunnit much sooner than I did (and I figured it out at least  a third of the way in — it’s a bit Scooby Doo, I’m afraid. (That’s a spoiler for anybody who’s ever had a conversation with me about Scooby Doo, but since I think that’s probably only my sister, I’m not too concerned I just blew the ending for most of you.)).

The story is about a broke indie filmmaker, Wallace Cotton (Todd Berger), who has just been hired as the LAPD’s murder scene videographer.  He shows up at the scene of the first crime and records what he sees, but when his producer buddy watches the tape the next day, he tells Wallace it was boring as hell and urges him to try to make his next crime scene recording more interesting.

Together, they end up hiring the local crime scene clean-up guy, Charlie Newton (Blaise Miller), to play the role of a detective in a film they start making using the real crimes as their plot.  But as it turns out, Charlie is actually really sharp, and the more the bodies pile up, the more he starts to notice connections between the various murders.  Soon the group is convinced there’s a serial killer at work, and while Charlie’s goal is to stop him, Wallace’s goal is to make an exciting film — two goals that start to clash, with dangerous impact, as the film progresses.

The frame for the story is set in a courtroom, clearly the trial for the killer.  As the DA (Sherilyn Fenn, looking pretty damn good here, I must say) asks Wallace and his friends questions about the murders, their involvement in the case, and why they didn’t report their suspicions to the cops, we watch the actual mystery unfold, intercut with scenes from Cotton’s film ABOUT the mystery, a hilariously cliché-ridden noir thing with several shots and lines that had me laughing out loud.

As an added bonus, the film opens with a fake trailer for Cotton’s latest movie, which features three hipsters with bad skin sitting in an empty wading pool talking about nothing interesting, and includes pull quotes from reviews that say things like, “Three people talking. . . FOR TWO HOURS!”  in a delightful spoof of the “mumblecore” genre.  It was so mumblecorey, in fact, it took me a while to realize it was part of the joke.  It wouldn’t have surprised me one bit if it had been authentic — that’s how many really crappy films of THAT genre I’ve seen.  Brilliant.

The film definitely feels like exactly what it is– the first film this group has ever made together (the actors/writers are all part of an improv group in LA called “The Vacationers“).  It’s very clumsy at times, to the point of feeling somewhat like a really good student film, and could’ve been a lot more tightly and creatively written (especially the actual crime elements).  But overall, I enjoyed this one a lot and am greatly looking forward to seeing whatever it is these guys do next.

Recommended!

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Mystery, Comedy, Independent
Cast:  Sherilyn Fenn, Blaise Miller, Suzanne May, Jeff Grace, Kevin Brennan, Todd Berger

BOOK: Ice Cold by Tess Gerritsen (2010)

March 2, 2011

I’ve been in the mood for an entertaining mystery/thriller for a while now and was having a hard time finding one I could really get into (slogged my way through the first half of Kathy Reich’s 206 Bones before giving up on it, for example).  Picked this one up at the library, having read several of Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles series before, and man, was it ever the perfect thing!

For those unfamiliar with the series (which is also now a TV show on TNT — not brilliant, but a guilty pleasure of mine nonetheless), Jane Rizzoli is a cop and Maura Isles is her medical examiner buddy.  They solve crimes.   (There, you’re all caught up.)

In this installment, Maura is at a medical conference when she reconnects with an old friend who invites her to go skiing the next day with him, his teenage daughter, and two of his best friends.  Maura’s reluctant at first, but since she’s been struggling with her boyfriend a lot lately (he’s a priest — it’s complicated), she decides a little fun might be a good idea.

Naturally, the trip doesn’t go as planned.  A blizzard hits halfway through their drive up the mountains and they end up sliding their truck into a ditch.  Stranded in the howling wind and snow, Maura spots a sign warning against trespassers on private property, and the group heads past the sign hoping to find a house and some help.  Instead, what they find is an entire village, completely deserted, which turns out to be the community of a creepy religious cult.

They take shelter in one of the houses, but almost immediately strange things begin to happen:  a door is opened during the night, Maura spots snowshoe tracks near the treeline, one of the houses has blood spatter all over it and drag marks, etc.  Pretty soon, people start dying and Maura finds herself on the run with a kid named Rat who first kidnaps her then convinces her he’s trying to save her life.

Meanwhile, Jane and her husband, an FBI agent, are desperately trying to find out what happened to their friend.  As they work with local law enforcement, though, they begin to suspect that not all there is what it seems.  Hard to know who to trust.  Especially when a local cop ends up dead and it looks like Maura and Rat were the ones who killed him.

Gerritsen can be a really entertaining writer and storyteller when she’s on a roll, and any fan of thrillers that keep you up late into the wee hours should add this series to their list.  Specifically this installment, in fact — it was by far the best of the bunch I’ve read so far.

Recommended!

(p.s. One complaint:  what’s with the book cover, Ballantine?  There are no unconscious, half-naked ladies in this book whatsoever!  Bah.  Whatevs, marketers.)

[MYSTERY]

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BOOK: The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin (2008)

January 22, 2011

This book is the second in Franklin’s series set in the Middle Ages and starring Sicilian “death expert” Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar (whew!).

In the first novel, Mistress of the Art of Death, Adelia was sent to England at the behest of her king to help King Henry II solve a series of brutal child murders.  After the case was resolved, King Henry asked (demanded, really) that Adelia remain in England in case her skills were ever needed again.

Since then, she’s been working as a medical doctor in the fens, helping the poor and caring for her illegitimate child, the daughter of Rowley Picot, former Crusader, Adelia’s lover in the first book, and now one of the king’s bishops (which is why he wouldn’t/couldn’t marry Adelia).

As this book opens, Rowley has come to Adelia for the first time since their child was born to ask for her help in solving a murder.  Still bitter over having been dumped, despite the fact she likely wouldn’t have married him anyway, Adelia at first refuses.  But when Rowley tells her a civil war is brewing because of the crime, she can’t say no.

What’s happened is that Henry’s infamous mistress, Rosamund Clifford, has been murdered — poisoned by toxic mushrooms given to her cook by a mysterious stranger.  Henry is convinced his estranged wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine is to blame, and he’s begun readying his army — as she readies hers — to take her down.

Rowley, though, is convinced the queen is innocent (or murder, anyway) and he desperately needs proof to prevent the war — a war he knows will devastate the nation.  But if it wasn’t the jealous wife, then who?  Someone who wants civil war?  In that case, why?

This is another engrossing mystery from Franklin, full of great characters and packed with history.  Though I found it a little needlessly drawn out in places, even the unnecessary parts of the story are a pleasure to read, offering insight into the roles of women in the Middle Ages, class structure of the era, and the development of forensic science and the study of death.

Looking forward to the next book in the series, and highly recommend both the ones I’ve read so far!

[MYSTERY]

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BOOK: House Rules by Jodi Picoult (2010)

November 30, 2010

Emma Hunt is a middle-aged single mother struggling to raise her two sons: teenager Theo and 19 year-old Jacob, who has fairly severe Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism).  Jacob is highly intelligent and fascinated by science, especially forensic science, but any change to his routine and his reaction can be extremely volatile.  Serve yellow food on blue food day, for example, or make him miss his favorite TV show, a true crime forensics program called Crime Busters, and he may suddenly become violently aggressive or, worse, completely withdraw for days, practically comatose.

Once Jacob begins working with a young woman named Jess, a teacher helping him learn better social skills, he improves dramatically.  But when Jess goes missing and is later found dead — wrapped in Jacob’s old quilt, no less — the police latch onto Jacob as their chief suspect.  Thinking he’s helping solve the case, Jacob immediately confesses to having tinkered with the crime scene in Jess’s house, without explaining WHY.  The police, not understanding the way Jacob’s brain works, assume he’s confessing to killing her, and an hour later, Emma learns her emotionally-challenged son has been locked in jail, pending trial for murder.

This novel is incredibly gripping and fast-paced (I devoured it in two days while on vacation).  Though I had the whodunnit figured out pretty early on, it was still entertaining to see how and when — and IF — the truth would come out.  The book also provides a lot of insight into what it’s like to parent a child with Asperger’s (hint: damn hard), and since it was recommended to me by a friend with a son with Asperger’s, I assume it’s fairly accurate in that regard.

Picoult is an author who is usually pretty hit-or-miss for me; this is about the third or fourth novel of hers I’ve read and I never find them as well-written as I want them to be (the stories are good, but the writing itself is fairly lack-luster).  This one is definitely the best of the bunch I’ve read, though, and I really enjoyed it a lot.  Recommended!

[MYSTERY]

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BOOK: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (2007)

August 31, 2010

I almost didn’t pick this novel up, not really considering myself much of a fan of the “historical mystery” genre.  But I’m glad I did, because I ended up really enjoying it AND it’s the first in a series, which means I have hours of future entertainment headed my way now as well.  Bonus!

The story is set in the time of King Henry II’s reign in England and begins by introducing us to the main cast of characters using a clever little spin on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  The group, consisting of a prior, a prioress, two knights just back from the Crusades, and other Chaucer-esque pilgrims, are on their way back to their small village outside of Cambridge (after a trek to a cathedral) when they get word about something terrible that’s happened while they were away:  four local children, kidnapped, tortured, and brutally murdered.

Village fingers instinctively point to the local Jewish population, hated as they traditionally are.  To keep them safe from retaliatory violence (or, more accurately, to protect his largest source of income — Jews are the best source of tax money he’s got),  the king orders that all Jewish residents of the village be locked up inside the castle.  He then asks his pal, the king of Sicily, if he could recommend an independent, unbiased  investigator to help the village find the murderer.  The Sicilian king agrees to send one of his best experts on death, a young doctor named Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar of Salerno.

Oh yes:  a woman.  This is going to go over really well.

In order to protect herself from the harassment and potential violence she’d undoubtedly experience if the villagers realized she was a doctor (women in England not being allowed to be professionals of any sort, let alone have jobs that frequently bring them into intimate contact with the opposite sex), Adelia convinces the locals the medical professional set from Sicily is actually her partner, a eunuch named Mansur. Almost immediately, they begin flocking to Mansur for all manner of health-related complaints, keeping him busy, them distracted, and Adelia somewhat freer to poke around.

She begins her investigation on the sly, casually talking to suspects, secretly examining bodies, but almost immediately finds herself embroiled in all kinds of trouble (not the least of which are her growing feelings for one of her chief suspects).  As the mystery begins to unfold, Adelia finds her attempts to get to the answer blocked at nearly every turn by both her sex and the religious and superstitious villagers around her.  In the process, we readers get a delightful education in the history of forensics, women in science, and religious upheaval during the Middle Ages.

I found this novel to be extremely well-written and it did a great job of pulling me deep inside the time and place in which it’s set.  The mystery is solid (if a bit gruesome), I really liked the main (recurring!) characters, and there are juuuust the right number of plot twists.  All in all, this is a real page-turner, and one I greatly enjoyed.  Looking forward to reading the second one in the series, which should be arriving in my mailbox shortly!

Recommended!

[MYSTERY]

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