Danish Crime, Historical Mysteries

Oathbreaker by Martin Jensen

OathbreakerI had been keen to read Oathbreaker since enjoying the first novel in Martin Jensen’s Halfdan and Winston series,  The King’s Hounds, back in November. While it was not a perfect read, I loved the vivid historical setting, striking characterization and the little historical details Jensen incorporates throughout the novel that bring the past to life.

The King’s Hounds seemed to be driven with the external pressures on the two sleuths to solve the crime quickly and tidily. Here we see them given more time to solve a mystery but also placed in a situation where they are not able to use the threat of the King’s displeasure to force compliance from unwilling witnesses. This case requires them to utilize a different skill set and the story has a slightly different texture and tone as a result.

The book incorporates an interesting mix of elements, some of which feel quite fresh while others will be more familiar to readers of early medieval mysteries. We have a monastic setting, a bitter dispute between two groups of priests and a monk who appears to be hiding from a bloody past. What elevates these familiar period elements for me is the way they are used as a starting point to explore the political and religious conflicts of this period.

A somewhat insolent monk who has been sent to the church to reflect on his conduct is discovered dead in the middle of the night. His body has been arranged into the shape of the cross and his right hand has been severed from his body. When a representative of the Thane recognizes Winston and Halfdan from the events of the previous book, he requests their assistance in investigating the matter. In doing so the pair must navigate that bitter rivalry between the two monasteries, discover the dead priest’s true identity and work out how these events relate to the threat of a possible insurgency in Mercia.

While this case may appear to offer lower stakes for our sleuths than their previous one, I appreciated the interesting mix of suspects and I enjoyed learning about the historical background for the crime. For those interested in the events, Jensen includes several pages of historical notes citing his sources and giving more detail.

I was a little disappointed that the most interesting and entertaining character from the first book, King Cnut himself, does not feature directly in this novel though this was probably necessary to give our two sleuths space to establish themselves independently of him. Still, though we do not see him though we are still aware of his presence and I continue to find him an intriguing, ruthless and complex figure even from a distance.

One of the aspects of the first book that I didn’t care much for was Halfdan’s aggressive sexuality and I was pleased that this second book tones that down quite considerably. He remains a letch and we still have to read his assessments of female characters primarily through their looks but the second half of the book gives one of its female characters more to do than any of the women in the first title.

On a related note, Halfdan feels a much richer character here independent of Winston. We see him exercising more initiative in his investigations, coming up with some critical deductions at a key moment in the story drawing upon his own knowledge and background, and he clearly has a stronger sense of purpose than in the first novel. It is clear that he is more than just a Watson to Winston’s Holmes – he is a competent investigator in his own right. I did miss their interactions a little though.

Winston does not participate quite so visibly in the key moments of this investigation but he does have an entertaining if slight character arc of his own in the second half of the novel. There is one development in particular later in the novel that I felt promised an interesting change for the character and I am curious to see how that may affect him in the next novel in the series.

Overall I was more than satisfied with this second installment of the series and felt that the tweaks made to characterization and the shift of emphasis generally worked to the material’s benefit. Where the previous book was arguably a stronger historical novel than mystery, Oathkeeper is the more satisfying mystery.  I continue to find this setting fascinating and look forward to seeing what may be in store for Halfdan and Winston in the next volume at some point soon.

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Historical Mysteries

Sitting Murder by A. J. Wright

SittingMurder.pngThis is the fourth title in A. J. Wright’s series of Victorian mysteries set in the industrial town of Wigan in the north of England. I have not read any of the previous titles as the series had somehow escaped my notice, but I was excited to see a Victorian-era story set outside of the well-trod streets of the City of London.

The setting is not simply a veneer for the story as Wright draws on the distinctive demographic makeup of a northern town such as Wigan to populate his cast of characters. Previous entries in the series have situated the action in more distinctly northern settings such as in a colliery but even a story whose setting is primarily domestic like this still possesses plenty of atmospheric touches and details.

Having picked up the series partway through, I did feel that the characters of the two detectives, DS Brennan and Constable Jaggery, seemed to lack a sense of a life beyond their actions in uniform though a rather wonderful moment in the epilogue left me feeling that the author may have built up these characters’ personal lives in previous volumes. While I may have missed out a little by jumping in with the fourth book, my lack of knowledge did not prevent me from following and enjoying the action.

Wright’s use of spiritualism as a key element of his story is interesting in what he choses not to do as much as what is in the book. Those expecting table tapping and elaborate theatrics may be surprised as the simplicity of Alice’s sittings which is at least partially a reflection of the setting. Instead the readings are plain and short but what attracts people is that rather than speaking in generalities, Alice seems to be able to specifically identify some things that she ought to have no knowledge of. She claims that these abilities manifested after the death of her husband in an industrial accident but DS Brennan is skeptical.

Following a series of successful sittings, Alice receives an anonymous message that seems to be threatening in its tone. Soon threats turn to murder and DS Brennan has to figure out who amongst Alice’s clients may have turned killer and why.

The novel spends quite a significant portion of its opening chapters establishing the characters and it is a surprisingly long time before the body shows up. The mechanics of how the crime was committed are very simple and so the investigation focuses exclusively on identifying the killer and their motive.

The assortment of suspects that Wright provides us with are nicely varied in background and personality although some feel more fully developed than others. Though I identified the killer early in the novel, I still enjoyed reading the interviews as they contain some interesting character moments as well as some small revelations that enhanced the themes of the book. In any case, I rather suspect that my figuring it out was more a result of happening on the right question to consider by chance than a reflection of any great weakness in the novel’s plot and I felt the solution hung together fairly well once all of the pieces were revealed.

On finishing the novel, I was not entirely sure what to make of it. I thought that the book had a potentially interesting premise but the mystery was a little slighter than I had hoped. I never wholly warmed to the two sleuths which kept me from really investing in those characters yet I found the supporting cast of characters to be an interesting mix. I was conflicted.

I suspect that I may have been more enthused by this novel had I checked out some of the earlier titles in this series first. Some of these sound quite interesting, particularly Elementary Murder which, according to its blurb, features a locked room component.

While my To Read list is currently bulging, I hope to give this series another try at some point. I enjoyed the fresh setting and felt Wright did a good job of incorporating historical elements and details while building an interesting mix of supporting characters.

Review copy provided through NetGalley.

 

Historical Mysteries, Movie Time

Wobble to Death by Peter Lovesey

I have previously written about the second of the Cribb novels, The Detective Wore Silk Drawers in my very first post on this blog, so I felt I needed to come up with a good reason to jump back in the series order to revisit the first novel.

My excuse came when my parents were visiting as they brought over DVDs of the Sergeant Cribb series. I had fond memories of these adaptations having viewed them when I was first getting excited about crime fiction and I was curious to see whether they lived up to my memory.

The Novel

WobbleWobble to Death is a novel with a really striking concept. Actually, I think a case can be made that the setting for this story is so interesting and unusual the mystery aspect of the novel inevitably plays a sort of second fiddle to the descriptions and period details that fill the book.

The story is set during a pedestrianism contest, also known as a ‘wobble’, in which competitors walk around an indoor track for several days to win a cash prize and title. Lovesey depicts the event as colorful and attracting an interesting mix of competitors and the book is at its best when discussing some of the mechanics of the event and the personalities of the people who choose to participate.

Early in the race (though quite a way into the novel) one of the front-runners dies and soon the Police have cause to believe the deceased was murdered. Rather than stop the proceedings, the race continues to proceed resulting in some comical moments where Sergeant Thackeray has to interrogate witnesses while walking the circuit himself.

Cribb is a slightly unorthodox lead investigator in that he delegates much of his work to his long-suffering assistant Thackeray and has a somewhat lazy approach to his profession. This sort of laid back approach to sleuthing does suit the author’s focus and the two make for an entertaining and likeable pair.

With so much attention being given to the mechanics of the race, including regular summaries of the racers’ positions given at the end of chapters, unsurprisingly the mystery suffers a little and feels quite simple. This is a shame because there are some really memorable characters amongst the suspects and the explanation of what has happened seems a little bland when considered against the story’s backdrop.

The Adaptation

CribbMy strongest memory of watching this production was how well the setting was realized and while I think the grime of the walking track doesn’t quite live up to the filth described in the book, I still think this does a good job of visualizing the novel.

Unfortunately I think the adaptation does suffer a little for being compressed to fit a forty-five minute format. Firstly, the adaptation has Cribb and Thackeray in the building observing the race on the off-chance of something happening which avoids some repetition of the basic facts of the case but feels rather odd. Second, we lose some of the business that happens around the murders between the competitors. Finally, there are just fewer interviews which, combined with the previous point, means that the competitors do not feel anywhere near as fully formed as they do in the novel.

Turning to the casting, Alan Dobie captures some of Cribb’s indolent personality but the character’s most defining characteristic – his piccadilly weepers, a sort of long, bushy side-whisker – are conspicuous in their absence. I do think that having him proactively be present at the scene of the crime it actually undermines the character’s relaxed attitude towards his work though I can understand that the pacing of the novel makes it hard to convert into short-form television.

I do think that some of the supporting cast here are excellent however, particularly Michael Elphick as the promoter, Sol Herriot. When I read the book I visualize the character just as he appears here both in style and manner so that casting worked perfectly for me. Kenneth Cranham is similarly very good in the part of the Doctor, Francis Mostyn-Smith although it took me a while to decipher who it was through the facial hair!

While I still think this is an entertaining piece of television, especially the moody chase sequence towards the end, I do think that the mystery becomes hard to follow as a result of the trims. After Cribb collars the criminal, Thackeray questions how Cribb came by the solution and I think based on what the audience sees we may wonder the same whereas the book felt decidedly fair.

Historical Mysteries

Death Wears A Mask by Ashley Weaver

DeathWearsAMaskI found Murder at the Brightwell to be a charming and witty read and quickly fell in love with the two series leads, Amory and Milo. Death Wears A Mask picks up their story soon after the events of the first book but here we find that Amory and Milo’s relationship was not repaired just because they solved a case together.

It turns out that word has spread through London society about their adventures and soon Amory is approached by an old friend who is seeking her help. She believes that one of her friends has been stealing jewels from her home and wants Amory to put her detective skills to work to discretely figure out the guilty party without getting the police involved.

Amory reluctantly agrees to help set and spring a trap, using a fine necklace as bait at a high society party but when a guest is murdered at that party she finds herself once again investigating a murder.

There are a number of challenges that any second novel in a series, particularly one featuring a pair of amateur detectives, must face and overcome. It is often difficult for an author to find a credible way for the heroes to find their way into another murder case. After all, while we may accept that someone might find themselves confronted with a death in mysterious circumstances once, it can be hard to accept it happening on a regular basis.

This story faces an additional challenge however in that the first book seemed to have advanced the relationship between Amory and Milo to a much healthier, and perhaps less entertaining, point. If Weaver picked up exactly where she left off we would likely have a very different relationship and the approach to the story would have to be altered whereas if she ignored those developments and simply repeated the formula the reader is likely to feel a little cheated.

On the latter point I think Weaver makes some very smart choices. Rather than presenting us with an Amory and Milo who have resolved their trust issues and repaired their relationship, Milo still behaves in a thoughtless and insensitive way with regards Amory. In addition, Amory finds that she has attracted the interest of a notorious womanizer, causing Milo to become quite moody and jealous. In short, if you enjoyed their cool bickering and mutual mistrust in the first book you will have plenty to enjoy here.

Weaver is less successful in the way she approaches the first problem, although I think she had the right instinct to have Amory accidentally find herself engaged in another murder investigation while working on another case. While I might ignore one simple coincidence, we then have an additional and unnecessary one added when Detective Inspector Jones turns up having been given a transfer.

Matters are not helped either by the case being much less colorful than her first. The mechanics of what was done and how it was achieved were not particularly helpful while the array of suspects lacks some of the glamour and charm of those found in the earlier novel. Nor does it help much that the situation in which the crime occurs feels less dramatic than in Brightwell as Amory’s investment in the outcome is much lower when her ex’s life was on the line.

And yet.

Even when featured in a weaker mystery such as this, Amory and Milo cannot help but be entertaining. Sure, some of the obstacles to their reconciliation introduced here feel a little contrived to produce conflict but what makes this pairing work so well is the sense that the reader knows exactly who they are and the personalities they project. Both are extremely witty, cool and Amory’s wonderful practicality in the face of danger makes her a charming heroine.

While Death Wears A Mask may not be quite as accomplished as its predecessor, it still possesses charm and wit in abundance. If you enjoyed Amory and Milo’s first outing, there is plenty to enjoy here.

Danish Crime, Historical Mysteries

The King’s Hounds by Martin Jensen

KingsHoundsThough I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about British history I must admit that the period between the Romans leaving and Edward the Confessor is a bit of a blank for me. Consider it one of those areas in history that I just hadn’t got around to learning about yet.

Martin Jensen’s novel, The King’s Hounds, has convinced me that I need to rectify that. The story is set in the early days of King Cnut’s rule as he awaits the receipt of his Danegeld and prepares to unite the whole of England under his rule. The politics of this period is complicated and yet Jensen explains it very clearly to those (like me), making the setting very accessible.

Halfdan, a dispossessed half-Saxon, half-Danish noble, encounters Winston, an illuminator, while on the road and the pair of them head to Oxford. The mood in the city is tense as Saxon and Danish representatives gather for a great meeting and local merchants are feeling resentful about the Danegeld, a tax being levied to pay off the Viking raiders. Before the meeting has even begun, the body of one of Cnut’s adversaries is discovered and his widow accuses Cnut of having him murdered.

When Cnut meets Halfdan and Winston he sees an opportunity to defuse the political tension and commissions them to investigate the murder. He hopes that because they have different backgrounds neither the Danes or the Saxons will feel that he has taken sides or sought a particular outcome. He does however set them a very clear target that they must have the case wrapped up in a matter of days or else they will risk losing his favor.

Structurally the novel opens with a short third person prologue introducing the character of Winston and then the remainder of the book is narrated by Halfdan. The selection of Halfdan is an interesting one and, based on comments I have read on Goodreads it seems to be a choice readers either love or hate.

I found myself wincing a few times at the character’s objectification of women which I think falls into the category of something that is absolutely credible and fitting for the period but which is likely to turn some readers off. Certainly his grasping and groping behavior really stood out when being read in a month where we have seen allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct from different media and political personalities splashed all over the news. In spite of this though I did feel that Halfdan was an intriguing character in other respects and, given he is less perceptive than Winston I understood why he would make a better narrator structurally. I will admit to liking Winston far more though and being more interested in his back story.

Turning to the mystery, I think Jensen has a solid concept that is elevated by the story’s setting. Cnut frequently interferes in the investigation, demanding updates on its progress and showing signs of frustration when Halfdan and Winston are unable to announce any significant developments. The approach is quite interview heavy but I enjoyed that Jensen makes getting the interviews half the struggle and when a solution is given I felt satisfied that it fit what had come before.

Where I felt that the story was most successful was when it touches on how the Saxon (and Danish) legal systems of the time differ from our own. To give an example, one factor that Halfdan and Winston have to consider is whether the person they will accuse of murder can afford to pay the wergeld, a sum of compensation, to the victim’s family. There are a number of intriguing details such as these woven quite naturally into the body of the text which give the book a strong sense of time and place. This also serves to give their investigation a slightly different texture from those usually found in historical mysteries.

On the other hand, I cannot say that this translation’s use of language always perfectly meshes with the setting though the blame for this may land with the original text. There are occasional phrases or words used that feel decidedly too modern for the period and which stood out a little awkwardly from the body of the story. It wasn’t enough to detract from my enjoyment of the story and I felt that most of the instances were intended to give a sense of a character’s tone and manner of expression but if this is the sort of thing that pulls you out of a story, be warned!

While Halfdan occasionally annoyed when on his own, I did enjoy the way he is paired with the more thoughtful Winston and way the latter would sometimes mock him. I particularly appreciated that the story makes it clear that they are learning just how to do an investigation which felt realistic. Their different styles complemented each other well, making them a solid pairing, and I was interested to see where Jensen took the pairing next.

Though I think some readers might not care for its narrator, I felt that the story worked well and was a good introduction to these characters and the world it recreates. Perhaps the best thing I can say about The King’s Hounds though is that it not only has a strong sense of place, it left me wanting to go and learn more about the period and the figures mentioned in the novel.

Historical Mysteries

The Bookseller’s Tale by Ann Swinfen

BooksellersTaleNicholas Elyot is the official bookseller to the University in the city of Oxford. He is riding along the Cherwell when he discovers a body floating in the water and pulls it to the shore. He is shocked to discover that it belongs to William, a promising student who he had employed several years before for a short period.

While many assume that William had committed suicide, Nicholas comes to believe that the boy was murdered and sets out to prove this. In this task he has the help of his friend Jordain, a scholar, though it is initially hard for them to understand why someone would seek to kill him.

The reason for this killing that Swinfen comes up with makes a lot of sense and is exceptionally well clued. Explanations are clear and easy to follow and I am happy to say that this is absolutely a fair play mystery.

Because the novel’s logic is so sound however, I suspect that many readers will spend much of the book well ahead of the sleuths as they bungle around trying to piece together what is happening. There really is not much in the way of misdirection given in the story and so once you get the gist of what has happened it is easy to work much of the rest out from that core of ideas.

While the mystery elements are not wholly successful, there is still much to enjoy in this novel however. The most interesting parts of the book for me were not the mystery itself but rather the details of Nicholas’ life and, particularly, his profession. It was interesting to hear about the way stories were collected, books were devised and physically bound and I enjoyed his professional frustrations in dealing with college bursars who were slow to pay their invoices.

I also really appreciated Swinfen’s characterizations, both of her leads and supporting players. I liked Nicholas a lot and found him easy to empathize with, even when I think he is making bad or reckless choices. I particularly appreciated that Swinfen finds a really solid reason for him to risk himself and become involved in the first place. He not only feels a sense of affection for the young man he knows but there is the very real risk that if he cannot disprove that it was suicide then William will not be allowed to be buried in consecrated ground.

I also enjoyed the group of characters Swinfen surrounds her hero with, particularly his very practical sister, his friend Jordain and his two journeymen scriveners. There were some strong personalities among that group and I hope that the stories that follow explore them further.

While I think that The Bookseller’s Tale does not quite succeed in mystifying its readers, I still had a very enjoyable time reading it and do plan on following on with the next installment at some point soon.

Historical Mysteries

Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver

MurderattheBrightwellMurder at the Brightwell is a charming novel that evokes many of the tropes and elements of the Golden Age mystery novel as well as the society comedies of the time. Stylistically it falls comfortably between being a historical mystery and a literary pastiche, perhaps being too modern in sentiment to be entirely either.

Regardless of how you categorize or label the novel it is a joy and that in large part comes down to its characterization. Our lead, Amory Ames, is a smart, witty and capable woman who has been left frustrated and disappointed by her marriage to the charming but reckless playboy Milo who she sees more of in the society pages and gossip columns than she does in person.

Years before the novel began she threw over her solid, dependable fiancé, Gil, to run off with and marry Milo on an impulse. Now Gil has turned up at her home to ask her to stay with him at the Brightwell Hotel in the hopes that she will speak with his sister about her experiences and scare her off marrying her own version of Milo, the dashing Rupert Howe.

Their plan is quickly derailed when, shortly after they arrive, they find Rupert murdered. Gil is arrested for the crime and Amory is determined that she will find some evidence to exonerate him, all the while dealing with her confusion about how she feels about him. And, if that wasn’t complicated enough, Milo turns up at the hotel and is soon drawn into the investigation himself.

If ever someone acquires the movie rights to this book and a time machine capable of going back and catching actors at the right age I am absolutely sure I can cast that movie. To me, Milo is Rupert Graves in the mid-to-late 90s or possibly a James Purefoy from around the time he did Rome. Dark, dashing and utterly charming with a little pinch of self-obsessed ass thrown into the mix. Amory is an Emma Thompson-type being confident, cutting and dignified in the most awkward and embarrassing of scenarios. As for Gil, read a solid and dependable Matthew Macfadyen.

Now, wouldn’t you want to see that movie?

I rarely read a story and imagine it being acted out – I am not that visual a reader – but this book so perfectly pitches its characters that I think most readers will be able to associate them with an analog. That does not mean that I think those characters are simplistic; Amory and Milo’s feelings about their dysfunctional relationship are surprisingly complex and I imagine many readers would feel conflicted about whether they would be happier apart.

The pair soon find themselves working together, with slightly different objectives, to prove Gil’s innocence. As a sleuthing team they are a highly entertaining pair but then I have always been a fan of bickering dialogue. I found their reasons for getting involved in this case credible and I appreciated that the tension between those characters at times inspires them to fresh discoveries and at others threatens to derail the whole case.

To my delight, that case was actually a pretty solid mystery complete with a good array of suspects and clues for Amory and Milo to consider as well as a healthy supply of red herrings to throw our detectives off the trail. The solution is unlikely to surprise many readers but I thoroughly enjoyed the process of getting there and felt satisfied by the conclusion.

Some may feel that the mystery plot is overshadowed by the romance elements. Others may regard the love triangle as lopsided with one man clearly set up as the character Amory will pick. Both of these complaints are justified, although neither troubled me. The romantic angle of the book is important because it has a bearing on how Amory and Milo are working together and it provides the motivation for the investigation in the first place.

Murder at the Brightwell may not be for everyone but I had a very enjoyable time reading it. The characters and setting are lively, the dialogue is witty and the mystery itself entertains. Weaver clearly has an enormous affection for the era of detective fiction she evokes and while this does not match the best of those for ingenuity, it certainly does for charm.