Tag Archives: Mysteries

Review+Interview+Giveaway: “Time and Regret” by M. K. Tod #FranceBT

3 Sep

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My Review

When a plot involves finding an old document, such as an old diary or a set of letters, I feel both an emotional tug and that insistent spark of curiosity–I am soon deeply committed as a reader.  Time and Regret offers such a plot and wastes no time in getting it underway, introducing the intriguing set of diaries in the first chapter.  Mary K. Tod’s heroine, Grace Hansen, is newly divorced; while sifting through her belongings to make a clean start, she finds a “battered tackle box” left in her attic by her grandfather during one of his visits–with no explanation from him at the time. Prying it open, she finds some letters, a photograph, a map, a French magazine, and a set of notebooks tied with a ribbon. These notebooks prove to be her late grandfather’s World War I diaries, and the photograph shows young Martin Devlin and his friends Pete, Bill, and Michel as they were in May 1915. They are so young, as were most of those serving in the “Great War,” and the diaries will tell their story, but above all it relates the particular experiences of Martin.

It is a marvelous way to connect generations in a family, both in real life and in fiction. And this is especially true when the earlier generation lived during a war, a time the younger generation finds hard to imagine but desires to understand better. A diary can give it form and substance.  It also connects people when death separates them, putting them beyond questioning.  And Grace will have many questions as she reads the diaries.  Tod adds the element of mystery to this gift from the past because her grandfather left her an important message, but chose to hide in it in a puzzle only she is likely to solve; solving puzzles was one of their shared pastimes and passions. The brief note he leaves her, saying, “To my dearest Grace, read carefully.  I never should have taken them,” is cryptic indeed.  What could he have taken, she wonders. As she traces his journey through the war years, she finds the stakes of solving this puzzle may be even higher than she anticipated.

Grace’s prickly grandmother is stubbornly reticent about the war years and offers little or no help, so Grace decides to take matters into her own hands with a bold stroke. She will go to France and Belgium to visit the places, one by one, that figure in her grandfather’s account of his war experiences.  After the thorough upheaval of divorce, this change is just what she needs, and it begins to rebuild her confidence.

As she travels from one town or site of a battle to the next, she reads and rereads her grandfather’s words carefully, as he had urged her to do, and a picture of him begins to form in her mind and heart. She also confronts the devastation of the war itself.

Ruins of Ypres, 1919

Ruins of Ypres, Belgium, 1919. Photo by W. L. King. Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC2-6192

The Belgian town of Ypres, which was the locus of several significant battles, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, was one of her stops. It was also a base from which to visit surrounding villages, such as Passchendaele, where some of the fighting occurred.

Wherever I stopped, I checked Martin’s diaries.  I thought of him as Martin now, not Grandpa, like a character in an unfolding story rather than a man I had known for more than thirty years.  Having read the notebooks three times from beginning to end, I was familiar with the entries, yet I felt the need to honor his service at every opportunity. (p. 25)

The war memorials erected at these sites help Grace in this pledge to herself to honor the service of her grandfather and so many others, and through their sheer size, these monuments, along with their adjacent cemeteries, convey the enormous scope and cataclysmic effects of the war. The Battle of Thiepval Ridge, the first battle of the Somme in September 1916, was marked by an imposing structure 140 feet high with foundations 19 feet thick (a detail Grace learns from her guidebook). Beside it she felt like “a tiny insect.” The Thiepval Memorial was dedicated to the 72,246 British soldiers missing during fighting in the Somme, not only in that initial battle, but in the years 1915 to 1918. It was designed by the renowned British architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens. The ingenious fractal structure of its arches, splitting with each new layer into more and more arches (set at right angles), echoes the row upon row of grave markers.

360px-Thiepval_Memorial_to_the_missing

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. Photo credit: Chris Hartford via Flickr.

In writing Grace’s story, Tod does more than intersperse WWI diary entries in the present-day narrative. Martin’s entries are revelatory in many ways but also terse and constrained by the pain he is feeling. One can imagine that diaries of the time would be a place to unburden troubled minds, yet it might take many years to relinquish certain secrets, even to oneself. Tod’s novel tacitly acknowledges this by providing chapters of third-person narrative fleshing out Martin’s story following each of his diary entries. These paired accounts during wartime are then interspersed with Grace’s life events unfolding in 1991.

This proves to be very effective and necessary. One memorable example for me paired Martin’s diary entry reporting his channel crossing and landing at Le Havre.  From there he will travel to the front. Tod’s narrative tells us what Martin’s first view of the front looked like and hints at how much it shocked him.

Beyond the next rise, the war burst into view, a zigzagging patchwork of Allied trenches facing German lines. The scene looked nothing like Martin had imagined. Instead of deep, carefully constructed trenches designed to protect their men, uneven ditches were connected together in haphazard fashion, with mounds of earth and sandbags marking the lip of every section, and soldiers standing guard at uneven intervals. A sudden breeze carried the smell of mud, sewage, rotting flesh, gunfire, and death.

As far as he could see, the land had been blown to bits, leaving nothing but brown and gray and black, devoid of vegetation except a pocket of shattered tree trunks to the far right. Great rolls of barbed wire and deep craters partially filled with water defined the space between the lines. No-man’s-land. (p. 33)

Martin was certainly not the only character affected by the war, or the only one appearing in his diaries. I appreciated the way we see Grace’s grandmother, Cynthia, as a young woman during the war–when she first met Martin–and then later when Grace is seeking to uncover the family’s past. The intervening years brought many changes to her grandmother’s life but her stubbornness and her determination to secure happiness despite the war proved to be her most enduring traits.

At one point during the war, the weight of grief and responsibility from losing men close to him began to take its toll on Martin, interfering with his performance of duty. His captain ordered a few weeks of medical leave at a facility in England. As a psychologist, I found the therapy sessions between Dr. Berger and Martin especially interesting. These scenes separate Martin from the group setting of trench life with his comrades and mark a turning point for portraying his individual character, his frame of mind, and the underpinning of his choices.

Besides the regrets that many characters harbor, trust becomes a major theme for Grace. The novel begins with broken trust because Grace’s husband Jim suddenly demanded a divorce. Then she discovers that her grandfather has entrusted her with his diaries, and the secret they conceal.  When secrets are involved–family secrets, business secrets–who can Grace really trust?  Can she even trust her grandmother? Someone is following Grace in France–a man wearing a distinctive fedora–and he seems determined to interfere with her apparently innocent plans to discover her family’s story. Could her grandmother be trying to thwart her efforts to uncloak the past?  Finally, she desperately wants to trust in her new feelings for Pierre Auffret, an attractive art curator she meets during her travels, and with whom she joins forces to investigate the path her grandfather took. The romantic frisson between them is spontaneous and exhilarating. Her heart tells her that it is mending, but still, she is not sure whether her trust can keep pace with her hopes for the future.

In her three novels so far, Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence, and now Time and Regret, and on her blog, A Writer of History, M. K. Tod has shown her commitment to deeply researched, intelligently crafted, and beautifully written historical fiction. I have read and reviewed the latter two novels (I want to read Unravelled next!) and I found both of them to be satisfying as fiction, unsettling as history, and tremendously moving in their treatment of people caught in the rough grasp of war, trying to keep on living and loving.

Interview with M.K. Tod

I am delighted to welcome M.K. Tod, who has kindly agreed to share some thoughts on her novel and her approach to writing historical fiction.

Q1. Your previous novel Lies Told in Silence recreated the battle of Vimy Ridge primarily from the point of view of those living nearby, in northern France near the Belgian border, whereas Time and Regret takes us right into the heart of that battle, and others. Through Martin Devlin’s diaries, we can feel the pain of the combatants and the variety of emotions they experience. Can you describe how your own experience writing about World War I differed for these two novels?

Vimy Ridge has been a central battle in all three of my novels—Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence, and Time and Regret. My grandfather fought at Vimy and when I first researched World War One, I spent a lot of time trying to understand what had happened. The battle itself was enormous both in preparation and execution and in that regard it fascinated me. In Lies Told in Silence, Helene Noisette and her brother Jean are observers and so I concentrated on the feelings of horror and awe that an ordinary citizen might feel. However, in Time and Regret and Unravelled, I wanted the reader to feel in the thick of battle, making decisions and reacting to the chaos as a soldier would. Of course, one experience is female and the other male and I had to imagine those different perspectives as well.

Q2. To tell Martin’s story, you use not only his diary entries, but also longer narrative recreations of the events. Was this choice based on the nature of the diaries and accounts you read? What is it like to try to transform a primary source account of a battle or a soldier’s part in it into the storytelling world of a novelist?

The central concept of Time and Regret is Grace’s discovery of her grandfather’s diaries and a puzzle he has left for her to solve. I came up with the idea after reading many soldiers’ diaries during earlier research efforts. While many of the diaries downplay the horror of battle, a few write more honestly about their feelings and experiences and this is what I tried to emulate in Time and Regret. Including the diaries also allowed me to have Martin’s voice in first person so the reader comes closer to what he really thought and felt about the war.

As to the second part of your question, there are many, many accounts of the facts, figures and military details. The challenge for a novelist is to turn those into a compelling story, making sure that such historical details don’t detract from it. It’s a very selective process and I often worry that I haven’t done justice to the true horror and slaughter of WWI. At times I used Martin’s diary entries to position an upcoming battle and then only told a snippet of the battle itself, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. Actual battle details are as accurate as I could make them.

Q3. Grace Hansen is your main character in 1991. Her name feels significant to me. When I read about someone named Grace, I expect her to be either the recipient of unusual grace in the course of things or the bestower of grace on others. Or a little of both. Did you pick her name with any such considerations in mind? How do you go about naming your characters?

This answer might be a bit disappointing, however, I picked Grace just because I like the name! As I wrote the story, the thought occurred to me that perhaps Grace should embody the attributes of the word and I hope she does, at least by the end. In general, I don’t go about naming characters with any particular objective in mind. For the most part, a name will pop into my head. I’m sure that doesn’t sound very ‘writerly’. I did choose names for Grace’s grandparents that I thought would suit the era and hence Cynthia and Martin. Pierre’s name immediately suggests someone who is French (my objective) without being too difficult for an English-speaking reader to pronounce. I’ve even found names on grave stones.

Q4. The element of mystery blended very well with the historical side of your fiction. Did you enjoy incorporating a puzzle into the story, and do you plan to write more historical mysteries?

What a lovely compliment! The mystery was my husband’s idea—he loves mysteries—and in fact, he helped me sketch out the initial story concept. Writing a mystery is quite difficult and I enjoyed the process very much. My next novel isn’t a mystery, but you never know, Grace might appear again!

Q5. In your blog, A Writer of History, you generously open a window on your own process and reflect on the craft of historical fiction in general. Now that you have written three novels and have a fourth in the works, what has been the hardest lesson to learn or the most valuable one to pass along?

I’m so pleased you like my blog, Lucy. What a tough question! Beyond learning the craft of writing, I think learning how to incorporate historical detail without weighing down the story is the most difficult challenge. Readers expect to feel immersed in the times of the story, whether that time is ancient Rome or World War One, but they don’t want the facts to obscure the story or slow it down. History needs to serve the story, not the other way around. In terms of the most valuable lesson, I’m reminded of something Hilary Mantel called the dramatic arc of history. Mantel suggests that authors need to find the events that dramatize the time and serve the story. The real answer to your question is that I’m still learning and exploring what makes historical fiction tick!

Q6. Can you tell us a little about your next project, set in Paris during the 1870s?

I don’t have a title for this story yet, so I refer to it by the names of the two main characters, Camille and Mariele, who were introduced in Lies Told in Silence. In that novel, Mariele is Helene Noisette’s grandmother while Camille is her deceased great-aunt. Having written three novels with WWI settings, I wanted to explore a different era, so I chose 1870s Paris: Paris because it’s one of my favorite cities and 1870s because Camille and Mariele would be around twenty at that time. Happily, all sorts of tumult occurred in France at that time including a war with Prussia, the siege of Paris and the Paris Commune. Can you imagine me rubbing my hands with glee when I discovered all that?

Q7. Could you tell us about one of the places you visited in researching Time and Regret, someplace that made a particularly strong impression?

So many places to consider! Vimy Ridge, which I refer to in your first question, remnants of zigzag trenches still visible in the Somme, memorials marking major battles with enormous casualties in northern France, Le Havre where Canadian and British soldiers disembarked on their way to the front lines, Bailleul where many went for training. But let me tell you about a tour my husband and I had in the area around Ypres and Passchendaele. Our guide took us to various places but the event that made a significant impression on me was when he stopped to grab what I thought was a handful of dirt and came up with a handful of shrapnel. Looking at those bits of metal so readily at hand hit me hard as I imagined thousands and thousands of similar pieces flying about during battle. A visceral feeling. It’s a wonder anyone survived.

Many thanks for having me on your blog, Lucy. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about Time and Regret and the writing of historical fiction.

And many thanks to you, Mary! Not only do you craft a compelling story (and a mystery with some subtle clues!), but you reflect on the writing craft with such infectious vitality, such joie de vivre! Your novels convey this too: although your characters are facing some of the most sobering realities that can affect a person’s life, they seem to find their way toward renewal and hidden graces. So, yes, I would say Grace Hansen is aptly named indeed.

***

M. K. Tod

on Tour

September 1-10

with

Time And Regret

Time and Regret

(historical mystery)

Release date: August 16, 2016
on Amazon

ISBN: 978-1503938403
366 pages

Author’s page | Goodreads

SYNOPSIS

When Grace Hansen finds a box belonging to her beloved grandfather, she has no idea it holds the key to his past—and to long-buried family secrets. In the box are his World War I diaries and a cryptic note addressed to her. Determined to solve her grandfather’s puzzle, Grace follows his diary entries across towns and battle sites in northern France, where she becomes increasingly drawn to a charming French man—and suddenly aware that someone is following her…

Through her grandfather’s vivid writing and Grace’s own travels, a picture emerges of a man very unlike the one who raised her: one who watched countless friends and loved ones die horrifically in battle; one who lived a life of regret. But her grandfather wasn’t the only one harboring secrets, and the more Grace learns about her family, the less she thinks she can trust them.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Time And Regret MK TodTime and Regret is M.K. Tod’s third novel.
She began writing in 2005 while living as an expat in Hong Kong. What started as an interest in her grandparents’ lives turned into a full-time occupation writing historical fiction. Her novel Unravelled was awarded Indie Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society. In addition to writing historical novels, she blogs about reading and writing historical fiction at http://www.awriterofhistory.com,
reviews books for the Historical Novel Society
and the Washington Independent Review of Books, and has conducted three highly respected reader surveys.  She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and is the mother of two adult children.

Please visit her website and her blog A Writer of History.
Subscribe to her mailing list
or contact her at mktod [at] bell [dot] net

Follow her on Facebook and Twitter
on Goodreads and Pinterest

Buy the book (print, ebook, audiobook): Amazon

***

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Be sure to follow each participant on Twitter/Facebook,
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.

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Global giveaway open internationally:
5 winners will receive a print copy of this book.

***

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*Note*: I received an advance review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.


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Review and Giveaway: “Messandrierre” by Angela Wren #FranceBT

26 Feb

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My Review

Sherlock Holmes once remarked to Dr. Watson, as they were taking a train out of London to work on a case at a country house:

“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” (from The Adventure of the Copper Beeches)

Detective Jacques Forêt left his investigative job in Paris to take up a post as gendarme, a regular policeman, in Messandriere, a rural village in the Cévennes region.  He had hopes that this new, less high-powered assignment would help him heal from an injury and traumatic events in Paris (left shadowy) and bring him a measure of peace. Yet it is not working out this way.  Numbers Jacques (as he became known on the Paris force) cannot help noticing the mounting total of strange disappearances in this tiny village. Meeting with his associate Thibault Clergue for lunch, they chew over more than their plate of charcuterie:

“That’s four disappearances in thirteen months, Thibault.”  Deciding to leave the ham until last he took a mouthful of salami instead and chewed on it.  “That’s almost Paris statistics and this is a village a fraction of the size of the city.”

“Ah.” Clergue scraped his fork through a slice of rosette and stuffed it into his mouth. “Numbers Jacques!”

The use of his old nickname from his time in the Judiciaire in Paris made him wince…

Another thing that is making Jacques Forêt wince is the aloofness of his girlfriend, photographer Beth Samuels, who has just returned to Messandrierre but chose not to let him know herself.  It seems they were very close during her last visit, but this time she is pulling away from him. She is overwhelmed with questions surrounding her deceased husband Dan’s curious business dealings and her own concerns about disposing of their property.  She clearly still admires Jacques but doesn’t want to let herself resume their relationship–the very thing Jacques wants above all else.

Beth becomes embroiled in the string of disappearances when a couple of hiking tourists stop for the entire afternoon at her place, and then one of them, Rob Myers, fails to show up to meet his friend Will later that week.  Beth is very concerned about Rob’s whereabouts but she is evasive when Jacques must question her in his capacity as Messandrierre’s gendarme.

“Did they say anything about where they were going?” Jacques noticed that her frown had returned and that she was twisting her wedding ring round and round her finger. He wondered why. “Or, perhaps, they mentioned what their plans were?” Putting his notebook down he observed her as she formed her response.  A moment later, when he recognized that she was avoiding his gaze, he prompted her gently.  “Anything they said could be helpful, Beth.”

“But that’s the point.  Had I known that you would be here today asking me about them I would have paid more attention.  But it was just chitchat, you know.  They said something about working for the summer.”  She looked at the floor.

Her reticence disturbs him, both professionally and personally: what could she be hiding?   The investigation continues and before long, Beth is in real danger of becoming the next missing person.  To me, Beth seems too trusting and takes too many chances; she might benefit from following the old maxim to be careful when talking to strangers!

Messandrierre works very well as a mystery/thriller.  About 10% into the book, I caught myself having forgotten for a few moments that I was reading–surely a good sign–instead, I was completely caught up in the story and its very effective suspense.  The author uses a lot of dramatic irony, in which the reader knows that one character or another is blithely hurtling into danger, and the dénouement is quite chilling.  Sherlock Holmes was right about the “dreadful” crimes that can go unnoticed in the “smiling and beautiful countryside,” unless he and Watson–or Jacques Forêt–are on the case.  I look forward eagerly to the next books in this new mystery series.

Besides the author’s website be sure to visit her blog, James et Moi, to read her illuminating “interviews” with her characters, Jacques and Beth. I loved reading these charming (and rather sly) pieces and seeing the beautiful photos of France she used to illustrate them:

 

******

Angela Wren

on tour

February 23-27

with

Messandrierre cover

Messandrierre

(murder mystery/romance)

Release date: December 8, 2015
at Crooked Cat Publishing Ltd

119 pages

ISBN: 978-1910510759

Website | Goodreads

******

SYNOPSIS

Sacrificing his job in investigation following an incident in Paris, Jacques Forêt has only a matter of weeks to solve a series of mysterious disappearances as a Gendarme in the rural French village of Messandrierre. But, as the number of missing persons rises, his difficult and hectoring boss puts obstacles in his way. Steely and determined, Jacques won’t give up and, when a new Investigating Magistrate is appointed, he becomes the go-to local policeman for all the work on the case. Will he find the perpetrators before his lover, Beth, becomes a victim? Messandrierre – the first in a new crime series featuring investigator, Jacques Forêt.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Messandrierre Angela Wren

Angela Wren
Having followed a career in Project and Business Change Management, I now work as an Actor and Director at a local theatre. I’ve been writing, in a serious way, for about 5 years. My work in project management has always involved drafting, so writing, in its various forms, has been a significant feature throughout my adult life. I particularly enjoy the challenge of plotting and planning different genres of work. My short stories vary between contemporary romance, memoir, mystery and historical. I also write comic flash-fiction and have drafted two one-act plays that have been recorded for local radio. The majority of my stories are set in France where I like to spend as much time as possible each year.

******

Visit her website and her blog. Follow her on Facebook, Google +

Connect with her on LinkedIn

Buy the book on Amazon or on Smashwords

******

Global giveaway open internationally:
5 participants will each win a copy of this book:
print or digital for Europe residents
digital otherwise

Be sure to follow each participant on Twitter/Facebook,
for more chances to win

Enter here

Visit each blogger on the tour:
tweeting about the giveaway everyday
of the Tour will give you 5 extra entries each time!
[just follow the directions on the entry-form]

******

CLICK ON THE BANNER
TO READ OTHER REVIEWS AND EXCERPT

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*Note*: I received an advance electronic copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.  I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.  

High Summer Read-a-thon 2015 Wraps Up! #HSReadathon

28 Jul

high summer readathon 2015

Summer is a prime time for reading, isn’t it?  Usually.  But some summers are so packed with activity that reading is done only in bits and snatches.  Nevertheless, thanks to the High Summer Read-a-thon, hosted graciously by Michelle at her blog Seasons of Reading, I found some quality reading time this weekend and at last made some progress with Harbor by John Ajvide Lindqvist.  It is our July selection for TuesBookTalk Read-a-Longs and I am finally past the half-way mark and starting to discover some of the book’s chilling secrets.  It begins to remind me of a Shirley Jackson story, but set in a remote Swedish fishing village. Lindqvist ’s novels have gained a wide international following, and I was glad to have this little push to read one of them. I came across his name in the course of my Northern Lights Reading Project, and when I finish this book, I will review it there.

In nonfiction, I started reading Becoming Madison: the extraordinary origins of the least likely founding father by Michael Signer.  I visited Madison’s newly restored home of Montpelier in northern Virginia a few years ago, when the main house was opened to visitors and the archaeology of the entire plantation was well underway, and this sparked my interest in Madison’s life.  Signer gave an excellent talk about Madison on C-Span’s BookTV last weekend, and after listening, I spent much of the rest of the day reading his book on my kindle (ah, the joys and temptations of instant book gratification!).

I hope all this year’s participants had a lovely Read-a-Thon, and I did too, after all. Visit Seasons of Reading to find out what everyone was reading, via the wrap-up links.

Beowulf, Grendel, and The Goldfinch: High Summer Read-a-thon #HighSummerRAT

19 Jul

high summer read-a-thon 2014 (437x600)
I am delighted to be participating in the High Summer Read-a-thon hosted by Michelle, The True Book Addict, over at her Seasons of Reading.  I’m planning on a small menu of reading options for the week. First, I plan to read two books for an upcoming Fictional 100 post: Beowulf in the J. R. R. Tolkien translation, newly published by Christopher Tolkien, and as a companion, Grendel by John Gardner.
tolkien-beowulf-339x500Grendel cover
I’m reading The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier for TuesBookTalk Read-a-Longs.

Lady and the Unicorn coverI’d like to make a start on The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

The Goldfinch coverSignature of All Things cover

 

Finally, I plan to begin Last Bus to Woodstock, the first Inspector Morse mystery by Colin Dexter. I’ve been following the Endeavour series on MasterpiecePBS, and the finale airs this Sunday evening. Although I’ve watched and appreciated John Thaw’s signature portrayal of the mature detective, young Endeavor Morse, played most winningly by Shaun Evans, has finally gotten my attention enough to explore reading the mysteries!

Last Bus to Woodstock coverI’m glad to have the focus of the Read-a-thon, for one week at least! I will report back in a wrap-up post next week, and later in a review of Tolkien’s Beowulf.

Coming of Age as a Detective: Sherlock Holmes in “The Consulting Detective Trilogy Part I”*

8 Sep

The Consulting Detective Trilogy Part I: University by Darlene A. Cypser, Foolscap & Quill, 2012.

Consulting_detective_i_university_cover_297x450

Following her masterful debut novel, The Crack in the Lens (which I reviewed last year), Darlene Cypser is continuing her psychologically rich Sherlockian prequels in a new Consulting Detective Trilogy.  After young Sherlock’s first run-in with Professor Moriarty (in the previous novel), one which left him bereft of his first love, Violet Rushdale, and almost unhinged from his sanity, the first installment of the trilogy finds him still making only a precarious recovery at home but embarking nevertheless on his university studies at Cambridge, where he must cope with further dramatic events that will form his character and fully reveal his life’s purpose.

The budding field of psychiatry as a branch of medicine is beginning to make its appearance in the latter part of the century, and Cypser takes full advantage of the possibilities in the early chapters of the novel.  Sherlock continues to be physically and emotionally at his lowest ebb as the novel begins. He is suffering from flashbacks of Violet’s death and a cycle of obsessive recrimination and anxiety that we would not hesitate to label post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, today. But more than 100 years ago, a sufferer risked commitment in an asylum that had little hope to offer except for palliative physical care, restraint from self-harm, and the rudiments of counseling for the lucky few who encountered a capable doctor.  While Sherlock struggled at home, he began receiving visits from Dr Mackenzie, one such capable doctor summoned from the asylum to consult about Sherlock’s condition. While Moriarty was nemesis to Sherlock in the first book, in this new novel, Dr Mackenzie fills the role of an anti-Moriarty, proving to be not only a trusted physician but a crucial ally and mentor as Sherlock’s attraction to the sciences—and the science of detection—increases.

However, the doctor’s experimental remedy for Sherlock’s “traumatic neurasthenia,” namely, an injected solution of cocaine, will dog him throughout his life, first as blessing, and then as a persistent and secret curse. But here, in the beginning, it served its purpose, suppressing his anxiety and panic attacks, while fueling his intellectual excitement:  “Sherlock’s loquaciousness [on the train with Mycroft for a holiday] varied as the influence of the drug varied, fading out as it did. His true nature lay somewhere between the extremes” (p. 113).

The novel hits its stride as Sherlock barely begins to find his, as a new member of Sidney Sussex College, which is pictured in foreboding darkness on the book’s attractive cover.  And darkness is surely still haunting Sherlock as he begins his studies in mathematics, living out of college in private rooms. His panic attacks can still be triggered by anything that reminds him of Violet’s death (such as an early snowfall) or unduly taxes his nerves. Fortunately, he has a capable and devoted companion in young Jonathan Beckwith, who accompanies his charge to Cambridge as servant, as fencing pupil and partner (when Sherlock is strong enough), but above all as Sherlock’s only friend, besides Dr. Mackenzie, for many months of self-imposed isolation.  (Jonathan is so engaging and colorful a character that Cypser has announced plans for another mystery trilogy from his point of view.)

Ironically, Sherlock’s first close friendship at university, with classmate Victor Trevor, begins quite unpromisingly with a dangerous bite from Trevor’s dog. (We also glimpse the aloof Reginald Musgrave and his coolness to Holmes.)  But the friendship with Victor develops rapidly during Sherlock’s convalescence; he visits daily and introduces Sherlock to pipe-smoking, which incidentally provides a stimulant and practical alternative to cocaine. At this point, Cypser deftly interpolates her own retelling of “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” from the Conan Doyle canon; as it is told retrospectively by Holmes, this account intersects with the chronology of Cypser’s story of Holmes’s university days. While he spends a holiday with Victor Trevor and Trevor’s father, events precipitate his first solution of a mystery, one calling forth the unique observational and deductive skills he has already demonstrated casually to the amazement of his classmates. But the stakes soon rise to life and death, and Holmes begins to see—as he later affirms—“perhaps I’m not your average man.” He is destined to pursue no average calling but to create his own profession, as the world’s first consulting detective.

It is the business of this novel to unfold for us Sherlock’s early exercise of talent in a new mystery at the university (which I won’t reveal), as well as his change of academic  direction, suiting all his studies to those sciences which will inform and develop his detection skills and build his arsenal of knowledge.  Though not aiming to become a police detective, he is fascinated by police detectives’ work and gets into some nasty scrapes trying to observe it first hand, much too closely for their comfort.  With his prodigious memory, he begins to be a serious student of crime and collects accounts of it. Mycroft sends him clippings from the London papers, and with satisfaction, the reader watches the genesis of his alphabetic file of crime reports, which will come in handy so often, tantalize the reader with names and cases Watson hasn’t yet narrated, and fill Mrs. Hudson with consternation when the mass of riffled clippings is strewn everywhere at 221b…

But all that lies in the future. For now, Sherlock is a young man not quite 20 who must deal with authority figures still wielding much power over his life, whether they are university officials or his own implacable father. It is also the business of this novel to show how he will assert his own choice and begin to follow his “line in life”—which will also be his lifeline, drawing him back from his darkest moods.

In a recent New York Times essay,The Art of the Sequel,” author Andrew Motion considered the proliferation of literary sequels and prequels,  even including an  “I, Sherlock Holmes”  on his facetious list of typical sequel titles. Based on his analysis of some of the most effective sequels, such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (a sequel to Hamlet) or Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (a prequel to Jane Eyre), he offered some pointers to would-be fashioners of such works.  Although it is a tremendous advantage that the characters are already familiar, and possibly beloved, a successful sequel or prequel “allows us to think afresh about characters whose fame can otherwise make them feel inaccessible to new interpretations.”  In other words, it should attempt to add something more to what we already know about them, perhaps surprise us by its revelations, even when we believe we already know a character—say, a complex hero such as Holmes—very well indeed.  Moreover, sequel-writing presupposes a certain playfulness, artfully inserting familiar references, while deploying ingenuity to put the character to a new test. No matter how much we revere a character, Motion argues, “something more than imitation is far more honoring.”

Both of Darlene Cypser’s Sherlockian prequels to date fulfill these criteria.  Her pastiches are not imitation but exploration, and she shows the confidence and command of the canon which enable her to inquire more deeply into Holmes’s formative psychology.  Her latest novel has the hallmarks of a true bildungsroman—a coming-of-age novel—about a sensitive protagonist, often a youngest son, who suffers loss and undergoes a series of difficult trials that lead to mastery of self and ultimately to maturity.  It can encompass education or other training disciplines, artistic development, and apprenticeships (Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship being the classic example). At the end, the hero understands himself better, knows how he might move beyond self to contribute to the world, and is both ready and equipped to do it.

Through psychological insight, swift movement of the plot via effective dialogue, and consistent characterization, Cypser has fashioned a bildungsroman for young Sherlock with great skill.  As goddessinsepia writes, with her usual grace and clear perception,

“By the end of Cypser’s second novel, the reader stands in full knowledge and awareness of the man before them, and you wonder how you missed it, so understated was his development. Where previously there was only the merest hint of the man that would become the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes now stands tall, assembled, if not yet fully-formed.”  [See the rest of her insightful review at her blog Better Holmes and Gardens]

My interest and absorption in this story never flagged, a tribute to Cypser’s high level of craft.  I also enjoyed her humor, for example, when a fellow student observed Sherlock’s easy victory over an opponent who had challenged him to a match with unfamiliar fencing sticks, the bemused spectator remarked, “I don’t think the weapon matters. Holmes could probably thrash any of us with a teaspoon.”  This first installment of The Consulting Detective Trilogy works as mystery fiction, but more than that, it emerges as a fully rounded novel of Sherlock Holmes.

*Note: FTC disclosure. I received a complimentary review copy of this novel. The opinions I’ve expressed are, of course, my own.

  • In my next post, I will review Andrew Motion’s own sequel, Silver: Return to Treasure Island.

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Further links:

“The Solitary House” by Lynn Shepherd: A Review, with remarks on Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House”*

2 May

It might be said that, for great literature, pastiche is the sincerest form of flattery. The works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others, have been particular favorites in the art of pastiche, because of the wealth of opportunity they offer for variation and creative amalgamation. Not to be confused with parody, pastiche is “(a) a literary, artistic, or musical composition made up of bits from various sources; potpourri; (b) such a composition intended to imitate or ridicule another’s style” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1982). The element of parody can be present, but pastiche can equally well be a work of respectful imitation and delightful re-invention.

Such are the mystery novels of literary specialist Lynn Shepherd, whose first work, Murder at Mansfield Park (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), turned the tables on Austen’s heroine Fanny Price and found new possibilities for Mary Crawford and the other young people gathered at the venerable country house. In particular, she plucked Charles Maddox from his relatively minor role as a prospective player in the “Lovers’ Vows” private theatrical and repurposed him as a very excellent detective.

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For her second mystery, Shepherd has pushed the clock ahead a few decades to the 1850s and she has found her inspiration chiefly (but not exclusively) in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. In The Solitary House (Delacorte Press, 2012; titled Tom-All-Alone’s, in the UK), Shepherd brings her careful attention and knowledge to produce a new detective story that worthily comments on its original, varies it meaningfully, and finally stands on its own.

 

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G. K. Chesterton, still one of Dickens’s most perceptive and appreciative critics, wrote: “Bleak House is not certainly Dickens’s best book; but perhaps it is his best novel.” John Forster, Dickens’s friend and early biographer, agreed in his estimation of Bleak House: “The novel is nevertheless, in the very important particular of construction, perhaps the best thing done by Dickens.” Shepherd avows that Bleak House is Dickens’s masterpiece; her affection and appreciation for the novel is everywhere evident. In The Solitary House, she makes full use of what Bleak House offers, even adapting a selection of Dickens’s chapter titles, rearranging them, and giving them a new significance in the context of her own detective mystery. Here we meet again the inscrutable lawyer and repository of his clients’ secrets, Tulkinghorn, and the jovial, but keen-eyed and relentless Inspector Bucket.  (Dickens’s illustrator Hablot Knight Browne, “Phiz,” chose to illustrate the jovial side in the “Friendly Behaviour of Mr. Bucket”; image scan by George P. Landow.)

 

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Thankfully, the Maddox family has jumped from the fictive world of Austen to take a decisive role in this tangled Dickensian world. Young Charles Maddox, the great-nephew of the detective in Murder at Mansfield Park, has followed the elder Maddox into his profession, and both have important connections to Bucket: Bucket, it turns out, was the elder detective’s protégé, whereas young Charles Maddox has just lost his official place in the detective police force because of “insubordination” in a clash with his boss, Inspector Bucket. Young Charles is a rough-and-ready fellow–rough around the edges from all the buffeting he has received, but still ready to pursue the truth despite all costs. At one point, after he has taken a beating, he says to his great-uncle, “As far as I’m concerned, this case is only half over. I have Tulkinghorn’s money, and I intend to spend it finding out exactly what it is he doesn’t want me to know” (p.136).

After reading about 80 pages of Shepherd’s book, I went in search of a copy of Bleak House for a re-read and refresher. I wanted to appreciate in detail what she was doing, and although I can’t claim to have caught all her skillfully placed references, I found much pleasure in comparing the two books. For example, she begins her novel, as Dickens does, with “London. Michaelmas term lately begun, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.” But then she takes up the symbolic topics of the mud and fog and riffs on them with her own associations and from her own research into Victorian London.  This Prologue also introduces the reader to her Narrator. Like Dickens, Shepherd tells her story by means of a double narrative, from an anonymous third-person narrator and from a first-person account (Esther’s, in Bleak House; Hester’s, in The Solitary House).  Dickens’s third-person narrator is knowing, but not omniscient. Critic Jeremy Hawthorne comments on this important structural innovation: “It is important to stress that not only is Esther ignorant of the anonymous narrator and his narrative, but the anonymous narrator is–although of course aware of Esther as a character–ignorant of Esther’s narrative” (p. 61). In The Solitary House, the third-person narrator appears to be contemporary with readers today, often referring to “we…now,” and inserting references that post-date the time period of the narrated story, for example, mentions of “Flanders fields” (World War I), the “Baroness of Holland Park” (detective author P.D. James), “the very model of a modern teenage geek” (colloquialism of today, with a hint of Gilbert and Sullivan), and “we would call it post-traumatic stress” (from modern psychology). Also deftly managed is Hester’s first-person narration, which is helpfully set off in a different typeface; it draws upon the notorious quirks of Dickens’s Esther Summerson (e.g., her combination of modesty and self-congratulation, her lack of self-awareness), but Hester manages in the end to tell a story quite her own (which I won’t reveal). Mr. Jarndyce has morphed into a “Mr. Jarvis” and, as with Hester, his character is both recognizable and different.  Only in the combination of these two narrative threads do we discover the purport of a mystery which turns out to have some very grisly features–not for the squeamish.  It has some themes in common with Anthony Horowitz’s recent authorized Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The House of Silk–a likeness which tells as much about the moral concerns of the 21st-century as it does about their Victorian inspirations.  Yet The Solitary House is firmly grounded in its Victorian sense of place, whether the setting is a lonely country house, Tom-all-Alone’s, Seven Dials, or “Cook’s” rag-and-bone shop.

Pastiche stands alongside the critical essay as an alternative means not only to explore structural devices, but also to underscore character. The way Shepherd has introduced and developed Inspector Bucket pays tribute to Dickens and to the crucial role the so-called “New Police” force was playing in Dickens’s life and thought at the time he wrote Bleak House.  It is often noted that one Inspector Charles Field was the prototype for Bucket, even down to the habit of emphasizing his points with a very mobile “forefinger.” Dickens wrote, in his magazine Household Words, about an evening spent “On Duty with Inspector Field” and along with other similar pieces, these show Dickens’s high regard for the profession of detective which had only become an official part of the police force in 1842, ten years before he wrote Bleak House.  In his excellent book, Dickens and Crime, Philip Collins remarks on the “laudatory, indeed awestruck” tone of the Household Words articles on the police, and cites “the contrast between his [Dickens’s] admiration for the police and his contempt for, or indifference toward, other public functionaries–politicians, magistrates, officers in the armed services, civil servants and local government officials” (196). Collins surmises that Dickens felt comfortable with detectives, who usually came from lower class origins, although they moved in all circles of society. Further, he admired their intelligence and energy and their habit of bringing matters to swift completion, if possible, rather than dithering–again, qualities the indefatigable author possessed.

In The Solitary House, Inspector Bucket becomes involved with a new mystery (although the problem of “my Lady Dedlock” is apparently going on in parallel, off-stage). But is he the same man? It is one of the delightful puzzles of this novel to discover the true character of Bucket in Shepherd’s re-imagining of this singular figure in the annals of early detective fiction.

I hope that reading The Solitary House will put many readers on the trail of Bleak House as well, but as I’ve said, this new mystery works confidently on its own, and can be read with pleasure even if one hasn’t read Bleak House.  Shepherd shows a sure hand in the management of incident and suspense. As witness to this, I’ll mention that after coming to the end of one of her chapters, “Bell Yard,” I looked up and had the delicious sensation, precious to inveterate readers, of realizing that I had been completely involved and had forgotten that I was reading. This was just one such occasion in a literary mystery worthy of its illustrious forebears.

References

  1. Chesterton, G. K. Chesterton on Dickens (Intro. by Michael Slater). London: J. M. Dent, 1992.
  2. Collins, Philip. Dickens and Crime (3rd ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
  3. Dickens, Charles. Bleak House (Ed. by G. Ford and S. Monod). New York: Modern Library, 1985. (Original work published serially from 1852-53)
  4. Dickens, Charles. “A Detective Police Party,” Pt. 1, Household Words, Vol I, No. 18, 409 (July 27, 1850).
  5. Dickens, Charles. “A Detective Police Party,” Pt. 2, Household Words, Vol I, No. 20, 457 (Aug 10, 1850).
  6. Dickens, Charles. “On Duty with Inspector Field,” Household Words, Vol III, No. 64, 265 (June 14, 1851).
  7. Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens: The Illustrated edtion (abridged by Holly Furneaux). New York: Sterling, 2011. (Original work published in 3 vols. in 1872-74; full text online at http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/CD-Forster.html)
  8. Hawksley, Lucinda Dickens. Charles Dickens: The Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012. Insight Editions, 2011. [Chap. 25, “Dickens and Detectives” has a nice little section on Inspector Field]
  9. Hawthorne, Jeremy. Bleak House (Critics Debate series). Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987.
  10. “We Mean Nothing But a Little Amusement,” http://austensmansfield.wordpress.com/category/charles-maddox/ [A nice blog article on Charles Maddox and the “private theatricals” in Mansfield Park]

*Note: FTC Disclosure. I received a free advance copy of The Solitary House from the publisher, as a prize randomly drawn from entries in a contest on the author’s website.

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The House of Silk (Review): Dr. Watson’s “one last portrait of Mr. Sherlock Holmes…”

14 Nov

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz. New York: Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2011.


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The House of Silk is one of those books whose publication becomes an event, one that creates a great deal of anticipation. It is the first Sherlock Holmes novel authorized by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, entrusted with the canon of original Sherlock Holmes stories and novels and, therefore, the caretaker of a legend. Whatever the skills and prior credits of the new novel’s author, Anthony Horowitz–and he does possess those credits as a novelist and screenwriter–the task must have been a formidable burden and opportunity.

I opened this book with some excitement. I consider myself, in some small way, as another champion and caretaker of the Sherlock Holmes legend. His character means a great deal to me and I continue to follow and chronicle his career in the world. New books and films describing further adventures of Holmes keep this greatest of private consulting detectives before the public eye. So many such books appear each year that it is helpful to have a guide to the best of them, so I read with interest when new pastiches are recommended by Better Holmes & Gardens or John H Watson MD (himself!), among others. Yet before it was even written, Horowitz’s novel commanded attention by its special status. Let me say right now: that attention is not wasted. Readers will find a mystery that is carefully constructed and boldly conceived, and, most important, it offers a Sherlock Holmes and a Dr. Watson whom we can recognize as our own beloved figures.

As I go on, rest easy that this review will be very light on *Spoilers*, alluding to just a few of those “strange and interesting features” [FIVE] of the case that might lead an astute reader to deduce plot elements in Holmesian fashion.

The book begins with deceptive calm. At the end of it, I can say that it almost felt like two books: first, a leisurely reintroduction to the world of 221B Baker Street and 1890s London, establishing the reader’s confidence in the author’s command of his characters–their history, their mannerisms–through a careful web of references to the canon; but second, an avowedly “shocking” mystery that suddenly took off at breakneck speed. Perhaps that’s how it would have seemed to Holmes and Watson as well, living inside the novel.

From his entrance, Holmes behaves much as we would expect him to, employing his usual phrases (e.g., “Pray continue.”) in just the right places (when a client or witness is sharing his or her story). He gives several of those casual, but extraordinary performances of his deductive skills which have astonished his clients and Dr. Watson’s readers from the start. Expect to look for Holmes in disguise. Expect him to be in some peril, as he seeks to prevent others from falling prey to great evil. Expect Holmes to ask and Dr. Watson to bring his revolver. Yet there is both newness and nuance in the presentation of familiar tropes. For one thing, Sherlock Holmes shows a new awareness of the implications of using the Baker Street Irregulars, feeling acutely his responsibility for putting them in the path of greater criminality than they might otherwise have encountered even on the backstreets of London.

The case itself may make the novel controversial, because of the picture it paints of those involved and the scope of the crime. All will hinge on discovering the truth behind “The House of Silk.” Yet Horowitz is on solid ground in relying on the fact that what was shocking to Watson–too deplorable to appear among his published chronicles–would still be shocking now. Crime is disturbing and Holmes never flinched when he could combat it. I can only say that the conduct of the case pits him against some truly formidable opponents and reveals some surprising allies.

Yet for me, the most important contribution of this novel is its sensitive portrait of Dr. John Watson. Watson is on his own during much of the story, as he was in The Hound of the Baskervilles. This is true on two levels. First, he is separated from Holmes for much of the investigation. He admits (along with Inspector Lestrade) that Holmes’s virtuosity was at times intimidating and dampened his own powers to reason and act effectively. In this case, Watson has room to do his best, and then some. But more than that, we learn the poignant fact that Watson is writing this story after Holmes’s death, and while he himself is being attended by nurses in his later years. Watson’s superb Preface establishes immediately an extremely intimate voice. He looks back at “the great turning point in my life” when he met a young Sherlock Holmes and reviews their time together. He decides to “take up his pen one final time” not only to present a startling case that has been kept secret, but to show another side of his friend and, vicariously, through the medium of authorship, to prolong the moments he can spend in his extraordinary company. He is doubly sad when the story must conclude, and with it, his renewed companionship on the page.

I too welcome Horowitz’s engaging novel, especially for the gift of time spent in the company of Holmes and Watson, and I highly recommend it.

Further reading:

Let me also recommend to your attention a few other reviews of the novel. These reviews point out  a variety of canonical Holmesian references in their analyses of Horowitz’s story, so one may wish to read the novel first to discover them on one’s own.

 

 

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