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In her second novel, In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield imagine what Renaissance Europe might have been like with two different species of humans: landsmen with their nations and their politicking; and the strong, wild deepsmen who live free in the sea and disdain the complex life of the land. These two worlds are welded together by the royal houses, who, with their combined deeps and landsman bloodlines, are able both to walk on the shore and to speak to sea dwellers in their own language.

But this joining has come at a great cost. After generations of consanguineous marriage between the descendants of the first half-deeps queen, Angelica of Venice, the royal houses have developed a tendency to physical weakness and to give birth to atavisms who are unable to rule.

Auguries had predicted that William, perfect first-born Prince William, would have a brother to follow him. But when the courtiers first beheld the child that emerged, slick and silent from his mother's womb, none so much as dared cross himself. The deepsman strain had been preserved in royalty down the generations, prince marrying prince, cousin marrying cousin. And sometimes the salt blood thickened in the veins, cankering the flesh into mutant twists and clots that produced children such as Philip. Philip the Sufferer, second son of the King of England, fused from hip to knee in a single, solid tail, with a two stunted and withered limbs branching off beneath. The court declared him a boy, silently prayed that their guess, their hopeful view of this flat-fronted, ungenitured infant, would prove correct.

With the monarchy living in great fear of a bastard, a first generation lands-deepsman, stepping healthy and strong from the sea and challenging their rule, the price of helping such a creature is terrible: to be burnt at the stake. Thus, when a scholar finds such a child abandoned on the shore and decides to take it in, he has no choice if he is to save himself but to raise the child as a pretender to the throne of England.

The narrative of the book alternates between the bastard, Henry, with his simple first-generation deepsman view of the world, and Princess Anne, the younger daughter of the Crown Prince, who has been raised in complex world of the court by a strong but distant mother. Both children are outsiders in their own ways. Henry believes in simplicity and directness, that might and strength and honesty are what matter, that politics and nations and, most especially, religion are the foolish products of a people who spend too little time hunting for food and spend too much time creating complexities for their own sakes. Anne, on the other hand, is a shy and deeply religious child who trades on her appearance — her face phosphoresces blue when she becomes embarrassed — to pretend simplicity and to hide from her grandfather's court. This difference between the two main characters is greatly emphasized by their language choices. Anne speaks, reads and writes a number of languages, and is particularly alert to subtle changes in address and word choice. Henry, in contrast, refuses to read or learn Latin, eschewing subtly in favour of simple directness and becoming annoyed at the circumlocutions of others — he particularly objects to the use of honorifics and titles, choosing to call the great aristocrats of the land by name rather than by the name of their demesne.

As well as strong and consistent world-building and a pair of strong narrators, In Great Waters also features a strong cast of supporting characters. Foremost among these is Erzebet, Anne's mother, who seems to be exactly the sort of ruler Machiavelli envisions in The Prince, for she is strong-willed, ruthless and possessed of the belief that it is more important for a ruler to be feared than loved. With Edward aging rapidly, William gone and Philip unable to comprehend anything but the simplest concepts, Erzebet is clearly being groomed by the King to be his effective successor. Also excellent are the two Claybrooks, father and son. Robert, Earl of Thames, is the consummate courtier, always smiling and always maneuvering to strengthen his position as Philip's advisor. John, Thames' son, is almost the opposite; open, honest and good humoured, he is friendly with both Anne and, covertly, with Henry, able to bridge the gap between the pair.

In Great Waters is a clever, beautifully written book with strong characters, set against a wonderfully convincing backdrop. While there many be a couple of moments that don't quite work, these are rare and are more than offset by the sudden moments when one of the characters will have a sudden realisation that casts previous events into a new light. I think it might just be my favourite book of the year so far.

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It's taken me a month or so, but I've finally finished The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross' excellent history of 20th century classical music, starting with the shock of Strauss' Salome and ending with John Adams' dazzling Nixon in China.

I really enjoyed the book — hardly surprising, given all the quotes I've blogged along the way — and I've learnt a alot, particular about the friendships and rivalries that developed between particular composers and particular schools of composition. And if there is a slight tendency to neglect British composers in favour of their American contemporaries — although Britten and, particularly, Peter Grimes, are covered in some detail — this is probably only a sign of provincialism on my part.

Just in case any further proof is needed as to the greatness of the book, I'll conclude with a short quote from the epilogue about the relationships between classical and popular music:

[S]ome of the liveliest reactions to twentieth-century and contemporary classical music have come from the pop arena, roughly defined. The microtonal tunings of Sonic Youth, the opulent harmonic designs of Radiohead, the fractured, fast-shifting time signatures of math rock and intelligent dance music, the elegaic orchestral arrangements that underpin songs by Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom: all these carry on the long-running conversation between classical and popular traditions.

Amen.

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I read a few bleeding chunks of Ben Wilson's What Price Liberty? for my MA, but being pushed for time, I skipped some chapters. With more time available to go back and fill in the blanks, I've managed to form a more rounded impression of the book as a whole. Generally, I thought it rather good in the historical sections but less so in discussions of modern politics.

The early chapters of the book, which sketched out the history of England by following the discussions about individual liberty through the early modern age to the start of the twentieth century, were excellent. Although necessarily brief, they set the history of each period with reference to what the key political thinkers argued and did to promote the cause of liberty. In the twentieth century sections, the focus shifted away from ideas towards actions, as the power of politicians grew and justifications for policies shifted away from the ideological and towards the pragmatic.

But I feel that the book really lost focus when it moved on to the late 20th and early 21st century. Although Wilson is good at setting out some of the ideas, I didn't feel as though he was arguing so much as simply complaining — in places, it seemed like a rather more rigourous version of one of Simon Jenkins' Guardian comment pieces. But even here, there gems were still to be found. I particularly liked the bizarrely Hayeckian take on crime from the Home Office that we should, "[v]iew offenders as illicit entrepreneurs ... and price them out of the market through systematically raising the costs and risks and lowering the rewards of offending." In the discussions on multi-culturalism, I thought that some good points were made about the justifications for a pluralist society; but I thought that Sandel, in his Reith lectures, made a rather better job of showing why we need to be able to discuss moral values outside of a economic and technocratic framework.
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Happening across an import of David Weber's By Schism Rent Asunder, his second Safehold novel, in my local bookstore, I simply had to buy it. And I'm rather glad I did.

The book follows on from Off Armaggeddon Reef, tracking the progress of the island kingdom of Charis as it attempts to stabilise its position following a recent demonstration of its naval might. Forced to confront the corruption of the hierarchy the universal Church of God Awaiting, the Archbishop of Charis charges the four most powerful members of the vicarate with complicity in the recent naval attacks and calls upon them to reform, quoting Martin Luther's famous words in the process.

Although there are some minor irritations — mainly the names, which Jo Walton touches on in her comments on Armaggeddon Reef — Weber's general world building and descriptions of (re)industralisation are wonderfully compelling. He really captures the feeling of a world on fire with curiosity, one where people who've been held back by a fake religion designed to keep them confined to medieval levels of technology are suddenly able to blossom when provided with a few choice hints about which ideas to pursue.

Weber obviously has fun with the Church of God Awaiting, setting up it up as a pastiche of the worst excesses of medieval Catholicism and peopling its Vicarate with cynics and degenerates and politicians. Equally the opponents of the church are all good Lutherans, with their strong belief in personal conscience and freedom of choice; for, as one character notes, belief means nothing unless people are free to choose to disbelieve. But despite all this, the clerics never quite fall into parody because even the worst of them retain at least some sense of belief in their purpose — even the almost clownishly horrible Grand Inquisitor pursues his twisted faith with a genuine zeal and responds with grudging respect when one of his colleagues rediscovers his own sense of faith following a particularly unpleasant episode.

The cast of characters is vast — the book helpfully includes a 12 page listing of the dramatis personae but despite this, the main characters are well drawn and generally convincing. As noted, Weber shies away from creating two dimensional villain because, after all, no-one is a villain in their own head, no matter how appalling they seem from outside. But the heroes too are generally well rounded with, as Weber has noted elsewhere, the vices of their virtues. He even deals rather elegantly with the tricky problem of Merlin, applying convincing limits to his capabilities that prevent him from simply turning into a deus ex machina and genuinely making him work to achieve his goal of helping Charis towards industrialisation.

I'm certainly looking forward to reading the next book. The bookstore had a hardback copy of the third novel the other week, but I balked at the price — well over twenty quid — especially because I hadn't (then) read the second. Perhaps I'll wait until it comes out in paperback and, in the meantime, get down to some work on my to-read pile...
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Perhaps a slightly obvious choice, but I've recently read Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which, although not perhaps as good as the hype, was still enjoyable and satisfying.

Convicted of libelling Hans-Erik Wennerström, journalist Mikael Blomkvist decides to retire from the public eye to allow his magazine, Millennium, to rebuild its reputation. Asked by retired industrialist Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance of his niece, Harriette, from an isolated island in 1966, Blomkvist reluctantly agrees. Quickly concluding that a member of the sprawling Vanger clan must have been responsible, Blomkvist sets about investigating the members of the family who were trapped on the island on the day of the murder. But as the investigation proceeds, it becomes painfully and dangerously apparent that the murder case is not nearly as cold it first appears.

Eventually realising that he can't cope alone, Blomkvist decides to recruit an assistant. Following up on a chance comment from Dirch Frode, Vanger's lawyer, that Milton Security had run a background check on him prior to his employment, Blomkvist decides to recruit Milton's star investigator, Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous girl with the dragon tattoo. Despite her hopeless social skills and deeply dysfunctional life, Salander and Blomkvist make a superb team and soon find themselves on edge of breaking the forty year-old case.

Although there are some bits of the book that could, perhaps, do with something of an edit — some of the early bits with Salander in Stockholm spring to mind — the story picks up very satisfactorily once Salander and Blomkvist team up to solve the mystery. And while I'm sceptical about Salander's hacker skills (although, to be fair, Larsson talks the talk better than most writers) and general kick-arse-ness, I liked the idea of a protagonist who just doesn't seem to give an damn what any one else thinks about her, regardless of the problems it causes for her.

Iron Angel

Jul. 26th, 2009 03:24 pm
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In preparation for the last book Alan Campbell's Deepgate Trilogy, I've decided to re-read Iron Angel, the sequel to Scar Night, which I read when it came out last year, but for one reason and another, failed to blog about at the time.

The first part of the book opens in the town of Sandport, where Rachel and Dill have fled following the near destruction of the city of Deepgate. As the pair struggle to stay out of the hands of the Temple's Spine assassins, another interested party arrives in town: the sea god Cospinol, convinced that the scarred angel Carnival is the key that will let him escape the prison of his rotting skyship, would also like a word. Aided by John Anchor, the massively strong acolyte who tows his ship through the sky leaving destruction in his wake, Cospinol pursues Rachel and Dill when they find themselves forcibly returned to the remains of the Temple of Ulcis in Deepgate for questioning by the Spine.

The second part of the book is set in the Maze of Blood, an ever-changing Sartrean hell where King Menoa and his Mesmerists hold absolute sway, and where everything — every building, every door, boat and weapon — is formed from a damned soul; but when left to their own devices, the souls form themselves into houses and rooms whose contents represent the character and personality of their owner. On sensing Dill's arrival in the Maze, Menoa orders his chief engineer, Alice Harper, to find the angel and to return his soul so that it can be use to create an arconite, a vast and indestructible war machine. Aided by the god Hasp, the Lord of the First Citadel, Dill flees Harper and her vast army of demons in an attempt to escape his fate.

The third part of the book takes place on a glass train filled with Mesmerist socialites, hurtling towards Coreollis City to demand the surrender of Rys, the god of flowers and knives, with the forces of hell at their heels and an arconite as vanguard. But as the journey progresses, it becomes clear that the passengers are not alone: a ghostly force is detected; a piano is destroyed; and a passenger is murdered. Alice Harper, recently returned to the human world by her king, investigates and, much against her will, is compelled to call upon the assistance of the god Hasp, now trapped in a fragile glass body and compelled to obey any Mesmerist by demonic parasite embedded in his skull. After a series of mishaps, the remaining passengers arrive at their destination, just in time to witness a vast battle between the combined forces of the six fallen gods and Menoa's legions.

Despite liking Iron Angel very much, I've got a few minor quibbles, most of which are probably due the sheer number of things that Campbell packs into the book. The sheer number of characters and locations packed into the book inevitably means that there are places and people I'd have preferred him to linger on and develop in more detail. But if that seems a churlish complaint, it's only because the details sounded so intriguing I'd have liked to learn more about them. Then again, I also realise that, had he done this, he'd have ended up with a Stephensonian doorstop of a novel rather than the fast paced steampunk actioner that he clearly had in mind.

Of the three main sections, I thought the first wasn't as strong as the latter two, probably because it revisited some ideas and locations covered in more depth in Scar Night, but it was still enjoyable. But the latter two sections really shone with invention and weirdness. The hellbound section was suitably infernal, full of demonic priests ready to torture innocent souls — heaven, remember, is closed to all souls regardless of their acts in life — and to press them into the service of Menoa's philosophy of constant change. While the final train journey is like some crazed version of Murder on the Orient Express where the murders are committed by demons and the detective is a blood breathing corpse.

I'm generally positive about it as a novel — if nothing else, it's good honest savage fun — but it's not without its flaws.
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According to LibraryThing it's taken me two months, but I've finally reached the end of my run through P.D. James' Adam Dalgliesh mysteries. So here's Shroud for a Nightingale, which has the distinction of rounding things off.

When a nursing student dies during a practical demonstration at a regional teaching hospital, the local police investigate, but the general consensus amongst the staff is that the death was accidental. But when a second student is found dead in her bed, the local police are only too happy to hand the case over to the Met, in the form of Superintendent Dalgliesh and Sergeant Masterson.

Unconvinced by the accident theory, Dalgliesh sets about questioning the hospital staff about both the deaths. He soon discovers that the nursing college is a hotbed of gossip and intrigue, a place where the staff and students seem to live on top of each other, a panopticon where everyone seems to know everyone elses business, secrets and routines — something that leaves him with no shortage of suspects.

Although I enjoyed the murder mystery, I particularly liked the sense that James gives of a vanished NHS: a hospital where matron rules with a rod of iron; where the hospital and college is overseen by a somewhat ineffective committee made up of local worthies; where the arrogant surgeon, one of the last great generalists, has the swagger of feudal lord right down to exercising his droit de seigneur over some of the students; where the students and staff live in the same accommodating and where there are concerns that the preference of one of the older students for a whiskey nightcap might be corrupting the morals of the younger ones.

I also very much liked the interaction between Dalgliesh and his subordinate, Masterson. It's made clear early on that neither likes each other and that where Dalgliesh is cerebral and cool and correct, Masterson is a impulsive, occasionally reckless, and, sometimes, ethically dubious. All of this is rather neatly summed up in the moment when the two men first meet the hospital committee and the matron for the first time: Dalgliesh immediately admires the matron's efficiency, writing off the rest of group as probably more of a hindrance; Masterson writes off the matron as a termagant and admires instead the efficiency of the group secretary.

All in all, a nice little note to end on.
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Hopping back to Unnatural Causes, the third of James' Dalgliesh novels, I find myself almost, but not quite at the end of my survey.

Dalgliesh is on holiday in Suffolk, visiting a maiden aunt and trying to recover from a particular grueling series of investigations. But the calm of Pentlands cottage is abruptly shattered when a delegation of local eccentrics arrive to express concern about a local mystery writer, Maurice Seton, who seems to have gone missing. When, in the midst of all the kerfuffle, the police arrive to report that a hand-less body has been washed ashore in a dingy, the locals are horrified. Not so much by the crime but because the discovery of the body precisely mirrors the events described in the draft of Seton's novel, which arrived with the first post.

There are many similarities between Unnatural Causes and Devices and Desires but, to invert Marx' famous comment, what first happens as farce later repeats itself as tragedy. Both novels are set in a similar part of the world, both involve an eccentric cast of locals and both have Dalgliesh in a slightly antagonistic relationship with the police officer in charge of the case — in this instance, the wonderfully named Inspector Reckless. Both novels also involve a body being discovered during a social evening, but where the Mairs' dinner party has tension, the impromptu party at Pentlands has much lighter air, with the various potential suspects struggling to out alibi each other.

While Devices and Desires is the better novel, Unnatural Causes is enjoyable in its own right. It's quick and snappy and the mystery works well, while Dalgliesh, broodingly trying to decide whether to marry Deborah Riscoe shows off some new sides to his character. It even has a flood sequence that, surely, must own more than a little to The Nine Tailors. What's not to like?
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Having concluded the Jain storyline of his Agent Cormac series of Polity novels, Neal Asher's The Shadow of the Scorpion jumps back in time to explore Cormac's childhood and early years. The result is a most enjoyable novel that really lets Asher fill out the character of one of his main protagonists in a way that really works.

Ian Cormac grew up during the Prador War, his mother an archeologist and his absent father a soldier, dispatched to some remote part of the galaxy to fight on the front lines. Naturally, Cormac — he insists, aged eight, that he no longer wants to be called Ian — signs up to join Earth Central Security and ships out to fight the enemy. Dispatched along with his sqaud-mates to Hagren, an Earth-like world, to guard a downed Prador dreadnought, he quickly realises that the AIs who rule the Polity have goals that go far beyond merely watching a derelict hulk.

The narrative of the Shadow of the Scorpion is divided between Cormac's present experiences as a soldier and a set of formative interludes from his childhood, which head up each chapter. These interludes give the impression of an untroubled, isolated and rather insular child who isn't greatly touched by the events around him. But they also suggest, thanks to a series of mysterious encounters with a scorpion-shaped drone, that he might not be the most reliable of narrators, at least as far as his childhood might be concerned.

The structure is further split, with the first half covering Cormac's experiences as a regular soldier on Hagren and the second following him as he is assigned to an elite Sparkind military unit. It is his recruitment into the Sparkind that causes him to start to question his own early experiences, in an attempt to come to terms with his childhood and to discover why his memories are haunted by a scorpion drone. All of which goes quite some way to explaining why Cormac later shows up an emotionally ruin, unable to relate to other human beings, at the start of Gridlinked, whilst also allowing two dramatic climaxes, one mid-book and one at the end, rather than one big finish.
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The sixth Dalgliesh novel Death of an Expert Witness immediately follows The Black Tower and precedes A Taste for Death, bringing me back to where I started my recent Jamesian readings and re-readings.

While investigating the murder of a young woman, Edwin Lorrimer, the senior forensic biologist at Hoggatt's Laboratory in Norfolk, is found brutally murdered in a locked lab. To prevent any possibility of compromise, Dalgliesh and Inspector John Massingham find themselves helicoptered into investigate the death. They soon learn that Lorrimer was a prickly and difficult perfectionist, with a gift for rubbing people up the wrong way. Add to that a series of murky goings on at the lab and the two detectives find themselves confronted with no shortage of suspects, both from the lab and from the local community, who might have wished to bump Lorrimer off.

In general, Death of an Expert Witness works rather well once you get over the McGuffin of the initial murder, which only really serves to introduce the main characters and their working environment. Although Lorrimer initially appeared to be a pretty unsympathetic character, the investigation revealed hitherto hidden facets of kindness, and provided plausible explanations for his perfectionism and his horror of failure. I also rather liked Brenda Pridmore, the young receptionist whose enthusiasm for science both captures the imagination of others and, I rather hope, provides her with a way to escape her family's intentions that she should marry herself off to a local boy at the first possible opportunity and settle down to be a good little housewife.

As to the mystery, I don't mind admitting that it kept me guessing until the last. Not as so much as to who had done it or how, but very much as to why — probably because I was diverted by all the red herrings and asides James so neatly deploys.

Most satisfactory.
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Not being able to find the third book in sequence in my local bookstores, I've jumped ahead in my survey of PD James to The Black Tower, the fifth Dalgliesh novel.

Recovering from a life threatening illness, Adam Dalgiesh has decided to respond to a summons from an old friend, Father Michael Badderley. But on arrival at Toynton Grange, the eccentric nursing home where Badderley worked, he learns that the elderly priest recently died of heart failure. Deciding to use the time to recover his strength, Dalgliesh sets about sorting through his legacy — Father Michael's books.

As Dalgliesh finds himself sucked into the affairs of the home, he discovers that all is far from well. Why did Father Michael want his advice? Who sent the poison-pen letters that seem to have done the rounds of staff and patients? Did Victor Holroyd commit suicide by rolling his wheel chair off the cliff or was he pushed? But this time around, Dalgliesh is far from a willing detective. Determined to reprioritise his life after his brush with mortality he has decided to resign from the police and branch out in a new direction, but he finds his attempts to persuade himself of his own disinterest unconvincing.

The Black Tower is classic James. Set in a semi-monastic community — the home was established by a man who believes that a trip to Lourdes miraculously cured his MS — on a relatively self-contained headline populated by oddballs, it is has a certain amount in common with both Death in Holy Orders and The Lighthouse. But unlike the latter, Dalgliesh is forced to contend with the murderer on his own, unassisted by colleagues, in poor health, beset by doubts about his abilities and suddenly uncertain about his course in life — something that contrasts with the confident, if remote, Dalgliesh of later books.
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Next in my on-going PD James sequence is A Mind to Murder, the second of the Dalgliesh novels. Which, for the record, I very much enjoyed.

When the administrative officer of the Steen Psychiatric Clinic is found stabbed in the basement archives on a chaotic Friday night, Adam Dalgliesh finds himself conveniently placed to investigate — he is at a party at his publishers, Hearne and Illingworth, just across the square from the clinic. Investigating Dalgliesh and Martin gradually start to uncover the truth about the victim: that she was insensitive, target driven in a way that tended to rub the medical staff up the wrong way; that she was worried that something improper was going on at the clinic and had requested a meeting with the group secretary to discuss it; and that there were others interested in her job and her money.

There's a lot to like about A Mind to Murder. Dalgliesh is more involved and more central to the story than in Cover Her Face and his personality comes across as far more developed, his characteristic aloofness brought out in an early encounter with Deborah Riscoe, whom he clearly finds attractive but who he is reluctant to pursue for fear of sacrificing his independence. The other characters, particularly the psychiatrists, are also very clearly drawn. Dr Stiner, analytical and dismissive of his more eclectic colleagues; Dr Baguley, morose, keen on ECT and in love with one of his colleagues; and Dr Etherege, the directory of the Steen, a television intellectual with a set of mannerisms designed to convey his contemplative brilliance to a watching audience.

And as if that wasn't enough, the book opens with a very funny scene setter in which Paul Steiner complains at length about the noise, about his colleagues about Miss Bolam, even the patient he is currently treating:

[Steiner] did not recall the session in question but as unconcerned. With Mr Burge pretty basic stuff was invariably near the surface and could be trusted to emerge. An unaccountable peace fell. Dr Steiner doodled on his notepad, regarding the doodle with interest and concern, looked at it again with pad held upside down and became for a moment more preoccupied with his own subconscious than that of his patient.

At which point, the calm is shattered by a scream that heralds the discovery of the body...

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Returning to the beginning, I've jumped back to PD James' first novel, Cover Her Face. Although not as nuanced as some of the later novels, it's still a good read that paints a convincing portrait of a genteel upper class family living in straitened circumstances in the early 60s.

Everything changes for the Maxie family on the day of the local church fete when Sally Jupp, the house maid, announces that Stephen, the heir, has proposed to her. When Sally is found dead the next morning, strangled in her bed, Adam Dalgliesh is called in to investigate. He quickly finds himself confronted with tricky problem: was the murder committed by an intruder, or was it committed by a member of the Maxie household; and if the murder was committed by a family member, who was it?

Cover Her Face is country house murder in the best traditions of the genre. It features rampant class prejudice, repressed sexual tension and an almost Austenian obsession with the preservation of the the family's dwindling inheritance.

Unlike many of the subsequent Dalgliesh mysteries, the Chief Inspector doesn't take a particularly prominent role in the narrative. Instead most of the developments come out thanks to the work of two members of the Maxie clan, dedicated not so much to the truth as to ensuring the protection of the family. One consequence of this structure is that Dalgliesh remains relatively undeveloped as a character. The only significant things we learn about him are that he is a poet and that he is a widower, his wife and infant son having died a decade or so earlier.

The resolution, when it comes, is just as traditional as the form of the mystery itself, with the villain unmasked in the drawing room in the presence of the rest of the suspects. While the conclusion might lack the strength of some of the endings of the later books — the climatic scenes in Devices and Desires and A Certain Justice being particularly good — it's a perfectly satisfactory and consistent with the rest of the book.
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While I hesitate to say that The Lighthouse concludes my current survey of P.D. James' Adam Dalgliesh novels — given that I've run from A Taste for Death to The Private Patient, it might be better to say that I've surveyed the Kate Miskin years — it does at least bring me more or less up to date. So without more ado, a few thoughts on a novel that, despite a few reservations, I rather liked.

Set of the coast of Cornwall, Combe Island provides a discreet retreat for professionals escaping from the pressures of modern life. One of these professionals is Nathan Oliver, brilliant novelist and appalling human being, who uses his status as the only person born on the island for two hundred years to come and go as he pleases. Worried that his writerly powers are starting to fade, Oliver has decided to settle on the island and to do so, he has demanded that Emily Holcombe, the octogenarian descendant of the original owners of the island, be evicted from her cottage in his favour. When Oliver is found dead, his body dangling from the gallery of a disused lighthouse, it is natural to assume that the murder was committed either by one of the visitors or by one of the island's eccentric staff.

Despite being well outside his normal remit, Dalgliesh finds himself called into investigate in order to ensure that the murder is resolved well ahead of a forthcoming political conference to be held on the island. Helicoptered in with Kate Miskin and Francis Benton-Smith, Dalgliesh promptly catches SARS from a visiting diplomat — a development that drops the investigation into Kate's lap and effectively places the island in quarantine, denying the police any further help.

I rather enjoyed The Lighthouse and particularly liked the character of the appalling Nathan Oliver, his put-upon daughter Miranda and Dennis Tremlett, his amanuensis. Oliver himself seemed to me to be a classic Murdochian enchanter: completely egotistical, determined to use everyone and everything in service of his talent, but also terrified that his defining ability is draining away. And like every good enchanter, Oliver seems to have a knack for beguiling people, despite his dreadful behaviour, although this gift isn't enough to stop him from being murdered.

The rest of the cast, although overshadowed by Oliver, made for a decent bunch of suspects. Could the killer be the failed priest? Or the medical researcher beset by animal rights activists? Or the guilt ridden doctor and his bored wife? Or the last scion of the Holcombes? Or her butler? Or perhaps Oliver's own daughter, finally tired of her years of servitude? Or Dennis, whose contributions to Oliver's great novels are obvious greater than is apparent to his adoring fans?

And if some of the elements of the plot are a little too convenient — like Dalgliesh's voguish bout of SARS — these can be forgiven because of the end that they serve. In particular, I thought it was nice to see Kate finally getting a chance to come out of her boss's shadow, to demonstrate her stuff despite her own self doubts, and to finally settle her slightly troubled relations with Benton.
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At last, a book that isn't (a) a novel; and (b) an Adam Dalgliesh mystery. Instead, it's A.C. Grayling's clunkily titled Liberty in the Age of Terror, which didn't greatly impress despite the clean, limpid style of the writing.

The book is split into two parts, the first of which examines the history of, and the current problems that confront, political liberalism. The second part contains Grayling's thoughts on a handful of modern political philosophers and thinkers.

The initial whistle-stop tour through the history of political liberalism quickly outlines the defining features that make a set of political values liberal as opposed to, say, libertarian. It then sketches out how identity, equality and justice fit into the picture, and why free speech and tolerance are critical to the liberal state. With these values established, or at least described, the section concludes with an examination of the problems confronting modern liberalism, including threats of terrorism and the loss of freedom and identity, and the problems associated with maintain civil rights and an involvement in democracy.

While all these chapters are well presented, superbly well written and often quite interesting, the material is covered so superficially that it is hard to see why we should take any of it seriously, except that Grayling has told us to do so. Each essay feels very much like a short broadsheet comment pieces — to be fair ACG states in his acknowledgements that many of the pieces have been derived from newspaper articles — intended to provide the reader with something suitablely undemanding for a weekday commute that does not do anything as crass as challenging their political preconceptions.

The second section contains a short series of discussions of the works of various modern political thinkers. These include Isaiah Berlin, Ronald Dworkin and Tzvetan Todorov all of whom Grayling praises (albeit with slight reservations); Roger Scruton, who is treated to sympathetic disagreement; and John Gray, Slavoj Žižek and John Ralston Saul, all of whom are accused of intellectual betrayal and dismisssed.

While I largely agree with these decisions — a sure sign of preaching to the choir — I don't think that the second section does justice to any of the thinkers involved, Grayling included. Why bother providing 5–10 pages providing a caricature of a view only to dismiss it out of hand or to assign it a provisional seal of approval? Surely the book as a whole would have been better served by ditching the second section and bulking out the first.
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Another day and another novel. This time it's P.D. James' The Murder Room, which has the distinction of being set in Hampstead, one of my old stamping grounds.

After a chance meeting with Conrad Ackroyd, Adam Dalgliesh finds himself touring the small, family run Dupayne museum and, at Ackroyd's insistence, visiting the murder room with its relics of grisly cases from the interwar years. Thus, when the burnt body of Dr Neville Dupayne is found in his car in a garage at the museum and the chance words of stranger leaving the scene mirror those of the murderer Alfred Arthur Rouse, Dalgliesh finds himself handily familiar with some of the background details.

Investigating the murder, Dalgliesh and his team — Kate Miskin, Piers Tarrant and new boy Francis Benton-Smith — quickly home in on the tensions behind the scenes at the museum. The three Dupayne siblings, Caroline, Neville and Marcus, seem to have been at odds over the future of the collection and the renewal of the rental contract for the buildings. Tally Clutton, the housekeeper, is concerned about the loss of her home; the ferociously efficient Muriel Godby fears the loss of the only job that has given her any sense of happiness; while the terminally ill curator, James Calder-Hale, worries that closure will divert his waning strength away from his thesis on the history of the inter-war years. Throw in a sullen garden boy, a difficult daughter, a mysterious motorist and someone with a rather too keen interest in some of the paintings, and the police find themselves with a substantial set of suspects.

The case is muddied still further when a second body is found in a position which mirrors yet another of the murders exhibited in the murder room. Could it be that the killer is a crazed outsider and not a member of the museum staff after all?

I rather enjoyed The Murder Room, but I think that I ultimately prefer some of the other mysteries in the series. I didn't buy into some of the characters — to disconnected from reality to believe that they really lived in modern London — I thought that the character of the museum was evoked rather well. I liked the contradiction of a museum that doesn't really want to welcome visitors — least of all hoi polloi — and doesn't see much reason to change. I also thought it provided an excellent setting for moments of real gothic horror, particularly towards the end, after the second murder has been discovered.
sawyl: (Default)
Another murder mystery and another P.D. James novel. This time it's the extremely enjoyable Death in Holy Orders.

When a seminary student dies in murky circumstances, his powerful father is dissatisfied with the inquest verdict of suicide and demands that Scotland Yard look into it further. Under cover of a holiday, Adam Dalgliesh returns St Anselm's College, a fondly remembered childhood haunt set in a desolate part of Norfolk, to investigate further. But Dalgliesh is not to be the only guest at St Anselm's. Also visting are Roger Yarwood, an inspector with Norfolk Police on the verge of a nervous breakdown; Clive Stannard, a sociologist with an interest in church history; Emma Lavenham, a Cambridge academic giving a set of guest lectures on English Literature; and Archdeacon Crampton, a trustee of the college.

When, after an appalling evening meal in which all the tensions of the college are brought to the surface, Matthew Crampton is found battered to death in the chapel, Dalgliesh finds himself dealing with a fully fledged murder investigation. Quickly taking charge, he summons his team from London and sets about trying to sort out who among the college staff and guests had reason to kill Crampton — the list, unsurprisingly, is long — and who actually did.

One of the great pleasures of Death in Holy Orders is the way that it allows James to play to one of her strengths: her ability to create convincingly priestly characters. The Warden of St Anselm's, the aristocratic and intellectual Sebastian Morell, has a wonderful sense of confidence that endures despite the murderers and seems to come just as much from his ancestry as his faith. Father Martin, the former Warden and an old friend of Dalgliesh's from his childhood visits, despite his age and increasing frailty, combines keen intelligence with deep faith in way that allows him to deal with the nightmares of his past and the horrors of his present.

Crampton too, is well drawn. For, if his initial and abrasive encounters with the staff of the college seem to suggest a man determined to offend everyone he meets, James allows his true character to come out through the course of the investigation. This reveals a man at doctrinal odds with the High Church beliefs of St Anselm's, at personal odds with at other members of the community, a man whose zeal for hunting out sin comes in part from his own tortured sense of guilt — there is a particularly good scene when he is profoundly upset by a reading from the first chapter of Barchester Towers — and a man who is both loved and respected by his own parishioners.

Of the other characters, the two that stand out are Raphael Arbuthnot and Emma Lavenham. Raphael, the last living descendant of the founder, and dumped on the college as a baby has a fierce filial loyalty to the priests and a determination to oppose anything that is counter to their interests. His name is appropriate, both because of his intense physical beauty and because he is, ultimately, healed of the worst of his problems by his faith in God. Emma is interesting both for herself and because it's very clear that Dalgliesh finds her attractive — he goes on to marry her in The Private Patient. Fleeing a failing relationship in Cambridge, largely estranged from her father, she seems to be using her time at St Anselm's to reconsider the direction of her life — something not greatly helped by the murder and by Raphael's interest in her.
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In my continuing obsession with P.D. James mysteries, I've reached A Certain Justice, which I thought I hadn't read before but, around the halfway mark, I realised I must have read it when it first came out.

Having just got Garry Ashe acquitted of murder, Venetia Aldridge QC isn't best pleased when she finds that he has taken up with her 18 year-old, semi-estranged daughter, Octavia. But when she casts around for help, Venetia finds herself out of luck. Her married lover, a rather shallow MP, is more interested in protecting his reputation than helping. Drysdale Laud, her nearest thing to a friend, still smarting from discovery that Venetia is trying to usurp his role as heir apparent to the current Head of Chambers, isn't much use either.

With her gift for offending people, it isn't greatly surprising when Venetia turns up dead at her desk, a blood-spattered wig sat on her head. Called in to investigate, Adam Dalgliesh and his gang have to decide whether the murder was an inside job, in which case the killing could have been committed by one of Aldridge's fellow lawyers; whether the murder might have something to do with her murky past; or whether she was killed by her daughter's prole boyfriend.

While I'm not sure that I was ever really convinced by the character of the victim, who seemed only to exist in a single dimension — that of ace lawyer — I rather liked the rest of the cast. I particularly liked Hubert Langton, the aging Head of Chambers gripped by the desperate fear that his mind was failing, and Desmond Ulrick, a brilliant but deeply self-centred man who sneered at anyone who thought that the law should be anything other than a intellectual exercise. I also thought that the disastrous romance between Octavia and Garry worked rather well. Octavia had just the right degree of desperation, and the way that she alternated between being completely unbearable and being frantic for affection had a certain authenticity to it.
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After a brief pause — oh, alright, three years — I'm rereading Mike Carey's Lucifer. Since I've already mentioned the first three trades, I'm going to resume with the fourth, The Divine Comedy.

Inverting Dante's structure, the volume opens with Paradiso, which finds Lucifer opening the gates of his new cosmos to those who want to leave God's creation on condition that they renounce the habit of worship. Unfortunately, the devil's enemies — the Basanos, the living tarot deck he encountered in Hamburg, and Susanoo, the Japanese god of storms — are maneuvering against him, finally enacting their long ago laid plans.

Struck down in his pride, Purgatorio finds Lucifer helpless and near death, with only the ambivalence of the angel Melios for help. After a cameo appearance from Death of the Endless and some help from Elaine Belloc, Lucifer is able to put enough of himself back together to join forces with the Lilim-in-Exile and drive out the invaders. But this good, which comes coupled with Mazikeen's return, has come at the loss of Elaine.

In addition to the two main story arcs, the volume also contains two short stories. The Writing on the Wall is the touching tale of a young and proud centaur who, after dreaming of Lucifer's defeat at the hands of the Basanos, travels to earth to warn him only to find that a lifetime has passed in Lucifer's cosmos and her home has been lost to her. Living a second life and attempting to correct her mistakes, she finds herself old and uninterested in intervening in present events when her dreams finally become reality.

The second story, Breaking and Entering, follows the fallen cherbim, Gaudium and Spera, as they break into the House of the Sleeper to recover a mummified corpse that grants wishes, in the hope that they might be able to use it to help Elaine. After experiencing various disasters — unbreakable thread breaking, bringing the wrong sort of bird with them, that sort of thing — they're eventually rescued by the archangel Michael, apparently in return for a cup of tea...
sawyl: (Default)
Another novel in my on-going journey though the works of P.D. James. This time, it's Original Sin, a murder mystery set in a publishing house. Here are a few quick thoughts.

Determined to restore the fortunes of Peverell Press, Gerard Etienne has initiated a program to drop unprofitably authors, to sack under-performing members of staff and, controversially, to sell Innocent House, the publisher's grand mock-Venetian palazzo on the bank of the Thames. Thus, when Gerard's body is found in the archives offices with a toy snake stuffed in his mouth, Adam Dalgliesh and his squad find no shortage of suspects.

Could the murder be Gerard's sister Claudia? Or Frances Peverell, scion of the original family? Or maybe Gabriel Dauntsey, the poetry editor, or James DeWitt, who deals with most of the fiction authors? The firm's accountant, Sydney Bartrum? Miss Blackett, Gerard's PA? Or perhaps it might have been spurned author, Esme Carling. Or could it be Mrs. Demery, the tea lady? Or even Mandy Price, the temporary secretary? Or maybe it's someone else entirely. Maybe it's the anonymous prankster who has been waging a campaign to undermine the publisher's credibility — someone who could, of course, be one of the principal characters acting in secret.

I rather enjoyed Original Sin not least because, The Private Patient aside, it was the first of my recent bout of P.D. James novels that I hadn't already read. Thus, I got to play along with the detective — I'm pleased to say I was successful, largely because James plays fair by the reader, revealing enough, amidst the red herrings and misdirects, to make it possible to work out the solution the mystery.

I also liked the setting: the increasingly misnamed Innocent House, a bizarre imitation of the Doge's palace transported, like something from one of Canaletto's visions of London, from Venice to Britain. I enjoyed the way that the brooding Thames, a river full of secrets, mirrored the past of the house, both building and publisher, with its buried secrets and grubby past just waiting to be dredged up by the police investigation. But on the negative side, I'm not sure that I was entirely convinced by some of the characters. I didn't really get much of a sense of James DeWitt, although this may have been intentional, because one possible take on him is that he's supposed to be slightly bland in contrast to Gerard's ruthless boardroom shark. More worryingly, I'm not sure that Daniel Aaron really worked for me either. Despite an opening monologue and a trip to the pub with Kate Miskin, he didn't really come across as a sufficiently turbulent and troubled to carry off his role.

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