blood-of-the-oak

Some of you may recall my love of Eliot Pattison’s Tibetan mysteries beginning with The Skull Mantra featuring Inspector Shan, a disgraced Chinese policeman exiled to Tibet. Pattison’s use of the mystery genre to convey the beauty and tragic history of Tibet is one of the few series that manages to portray the fierce resilience and compassion of the Tibetan people in the face of annexation and oppression. Pattison is also the author of a series set in colonial America before independence and I was keen to try it.

Blood of the Oak is the fourth volume of Pattison’s Bone Rattler series and features Duncan McCallum, an indentured Scot in colonial America. It is 1765 and Duncan, now living in Edentown with his partner Sarah Ramsey and his friend Conawago, a Nipmuc, is summoned by Adanahoe, an Iroquois elder, to investigate the theft of a sacred mask. Having earned their trust and because of his medical training, Duncan is known by the Iroquois as the Death Speaker, a rarity amongst the Europeans.

America is in the throes of conflict, a burdgeoning sense of independent identity is forming amongst a small group of influential men and women and resistance is growing against the English and the French who are keen to lay claim to the rich lands held sacred by the Native American tribes. They find themselves caught in the middle, used and discarded by both sides, wary of the Europeans, desperate to protect themselves. When Duncan’s search for the mask leads him to an injured ranger, his friend Patrick Woolford, he realises he has stumbled upon another mystery. When Woolford tells him 19 men have gone missing from Benjamin Franklin’s fledgling communications network including some of his own rangers, Duncan knows they are facing an incredibly clever and terrible foe. For Woolford, like Duncan and the Iroquois, is an expert in navigating the forests.

As the powerful elite in England try to cement their control over their wayward colony through the Stamp Tax, Duncan is drawn into the power play that threatens everything he holds dear. As he begins his journey with his friend Tanaqua, a Mohawk, and Analie, a French orphan, to try and prevent the brewing catastrophe, he will come face to face with evil from his past. What is at stake here is not just the lives of those dear to him but the state of the nation itself. But where there is evil, there will be resistance and Duncan finds himself in the midst of those who are willing to put aside differences to fight together for their rights.

As well as tackling the complex nature of the different resistance groups supporting the revolutionary cause, the sheer number of people who risked their lives from the Scottish, the English, all the Native American tribes and the African American community, from the freedmen to those struggling under the chains of slavery, Pattison draws an intricate portrait of colonial America and the high stakes involved. The fragility of freedom, the long yoke of servitude and indenture, the indignities, torture and injustice suffered by so many because of the misplaced belief that one race, one people, one class can be better than another is a polemic that is familiar and should still be feared today. And that the only way to overcome the odds is to work together towards a common goal which Pattison shows beautifully.

Like his Tibetan novels, Pattison pulls off an intricate mystery while building a world in which historical figures come alive. The complexity of his characters, each with a difficult past, each making their own hard choices, show how tough it was to survive in the new land. And yet within such chaos also lie scenes of stillness and beauty, of the power and sanctity of nature, the importance of belief and worship, and ultimately what ties you to your identity. Pattison excels in creating a story that combines mystery with politics, history and adventure, but what I like best about his novels are his compelling characters. Although some of the characters may be a little too cut and dry, especially the antagonists, Pattison avoids too much stereotyping by including a whole spectrum of characters and he doesn’t shy away from showing the ugly side of society in each community. And like his Tibetan novels, making an outsider, in this case Duncan, the central character makes it work. It certainly sets one thinking about how history and cultures are recorded and by whom.

Although this novel could be read as a standalone, I enjoyed it so much that as soon as I finished it, I ordered the rest, Bone Rattler, Eye of the Raven and Original Death. As much as it is a mystery, it is also a love letter to the Native American tribes as well as the exiled Scots who only wanted a place in which to live free.

My knowledge of Native American history is pretty much limited to James Fenimore Cooper’s oft-criticised The Last of the Mohicans set in the same period, and reading this has re-awakened my interest. As well as the bibliography in Blood of the Oak, I have Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and any further recommendations would be greatly welcome.

I would like to thank Eliot Pattison for kindly offering me this book for review. He was right in saying this was a topical and timely read, especially in the wake of recent world events. It would do America and the rest of the world good to go back and re-assess the reasons why people fought so hard for independence in so many countries around the world and that we mustn’t forget that liberty, equality and justice are rights we cannot afford to discard.

Deadly Election

As you all probably know, I am a huge fan of Lindsey Davis’ Falco series set in Vespasian’s Rome. Her follow-up series with Falco’s adopted British daughter Flavia Albia, though a little darker in tone due to Rome being under the brutal thumb of Domitian, has firmly hit its stride.

In her third outing, Deadly Election, Albia is caught in the middle of a Roman election whilst trying to identify a decomposing corpse that falls out of a locked chest from Pompeii belonging to Callistus Valens in the middle of a highly publicised auction at her family’s auction house. Together with her new friend and magistrate Manlius Faustus, currently campaign manager for his childhood friend Vibius who is standing for the office of aedile at the elections, Albia delves deeper into the mystery of the dead body found bound and stuffed into the chest. As she unravels the strangely intricate familial ties between the sellers of the chest of death and the various electoral candidates, she comes up against a formidable political family headed by Julia Verucanda, ‘the mother-in-law from Hades’. As the death count mounts in the hot July summer, Albia and Faustus find themselves caught in a deadly web that spans generations.

Once again, Davis has delivered a highly enjoyable and educational mystery. I raced through Deadly Election as with all her other books, stopping once in a while to wonder at her deft characterisation and her beautiful rendering of a living, breathing ancient Rome. You can see how much she loves Rome with all its complex social hierarchies, variety of peoples from all over the empire and the deadly politics that underpinned Roman life. I love the characters of Albia, who is a mature, independant woman who has seen enough of the harshness of life to appreciate what is truly precious, and Faustus, a serious, upright citizen with a soft spot for Albia. I like a bit of romance in my mysteries and Davis has drawn this one out long enough for you to care about both characters. Domitian doesn’t make an appearance here but he is always present, a constant threat in people’s lives.

If you haven’t tried Davis’ mysteries, I urge you all to start. I like reading a series in order so would recommend you start with The Silver Pigs. However there are over 20 mysteries in the Falco series which are all separate mysteries but follow a slow chronological arc where you see the evolution of his relationships and family. Part of the joy of reading a series is seeing how the characters develop, and Davis is particularly good at this.

If you want to start with Flavia Albia’s series, that is fine too, although I feel you will enjoy it more from dipping into some of the books in the Falco series first. The titles in the Flavia Albia series so far:

The Ides of April
Enemies at Home

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

Alan Bradley’s seventh novel featuring the magnificent 11 year old chemist Flavia de Luce comes after the satisfying conclusion of a six book long story arc which culminated in the revelation of Flavia’s mother, Harriet’s, fate. This led to Flavia being inducted into some special secrets and what she sees as her ‘banishment’ from her beloved home, Buckshaw, in the lovely English village of Bishop’s Lacey. We start As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust with Flavia reluctantly on her way to Harriet’s old boarding school, Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, to be finished.

The night Flavia arrives at Miss Bodycote’s, she is rudely awoken by a fellow student quickly followed by a dessicated corpse that comes tumbling down from her chimney wrapped in the school’s Union Jack flag. The student is taken away in shock but Flavia keeps her cool and secretes a medallion that has broken loose from the grisly corspe before she is bundled away to sleep in the Headmistress’ living room. The incident is played down and yet there are strange rumours of missing girls and ghosts. As Flavia tries to adjust to her new surroundings and get acquainted with her fellow boarders, she begins to suspect that not all is as it seems at Miss Bodycote’s. Her Aunt Felicity had sent her here to learn the tricks of the trade in order to follow in her mother’s footsteps so Flavia knows this school is nothing but ordinary. However, the air is thick with secrets and the Chemistry teacher, to Flavia’s delight, is an acquitted murderer. Will she get to the bottom of the mystery? Whose corpse is it and why does no one speak of the missing girls?

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is as delightful as all the other novels in the series. Bradley’s principal characters are so well drawn that I really missed Flavia’s family in England as much as she did. Although there have been some reviews decrying Flavia’s jaunt across the pond, I really enjoyed the rarified and insular air of the girls boarding school which brought back happy memories but with all the twisted friendships and secrets that are part and parcel of boarding school life. Flavia, who normally only has her sisters and the people in her village to keep her company, is suddenly thrust into this new world in which she has to make new friends but be alert enough to know whom to trust. And for someone who likes not to be too noticeable, she is also the daughter of Harriet who is revered like a god at Miss Bodycote’s.

All of Flavia’s schoolmates were given interesting names and characters and apart from one niggling point about a missing girl which didn’t seem to be sufficiently explained, the mystery was pretty good. But what keeps drawing me back to Bradley’s creation is Flavia and her family. Flavia’s pluckiness, this time combined with a barely held back home-sickness, just made me want to go and give her a big hug. And what makes reading these books so enjoyable is you can feel how much fun the author is having writing them. I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series.

Other books in the series:
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag
A Red Herring Without Mustard
I Am Half Sick of Shadows
Speaking From Among the Bones
The Dead in their Vaulted Arches

House of Shattered Wings

Fallen blood is power.

Aliette de Bodard is one of the new breed of writers ushering in a welcome change in the SFF literary community with her stories set in the Xuya universe, a brilliant coalescence of Western SF traditions and her mixed Vietnamese background, so compelling and beautifully written. She is also the author of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy, murder mysteries set in the Aztec Empire beginning with Servant of the Underworld, a series I love tremendously for its ability to immerse you in an utterly foreign culture with a completely different set of rules and a religion in which magic plays an important part. If you haven’t read her fiction already, I urge you to try.

In her new book, The House of Shattered Wings, she tries something different. Set in a post-apocalyptic Paris forsaken by God, there exists a fragile equilibrium controlled by the Houses, structured communities of fallen angels and humans, of which the three strongest are Silverspires, Hawthorn and Lazarus. The novel is set sometime in the 20th century, many years after the Great Houses War which destroyed most of Paris leaving it an empy hull with pockets of surviving communities, the safest being the Houses protected by the Fallen, of whom Lucifer Morningstar is the most powerful. But it’s been 20 years since Morningstar’s disappearance and his successor, Selene, is still struggling to overcome her doubts in taking charge of Silverspires, once the grandest of the Houses.

Every so often, a newborn Fallen is thrust out of Heaven and lands in a part of Paris and there is a race to retrieve him or her. If a House gets her, she will become a strong ally, if a Houseless gets to her, she will be harvested for her magic, every inch of her skin, bone and flesh used to ingest, produce and barter, a sick but lucrative trade. When Selene saves Isabelle, a newly Fallen, she also captures Philippe, a mysterious Annamite with hidden powers, a member of a Houseless gang. When he unwittingly unleashes a malevolent spell, Silverspires is drawn into complex game of survival. For something or someone is determined to destroy Morningstar’s legacy, leaving behind a trail of corpses. As Selene, together with Isabelle, Philippe and Madeleine, the House alchemist with a secret of her own, struggles to contain the darkness, can they stop the darkness which threatens the very safety of Paris itself?

One of the first things that you encounter as you read this tale is Bodard’s striking vision of Paris.

The Grands Magasins have been reduced to piles of debris, Notre-Dame is a burned-outshell, and the Seine has turned black with ashes, rubble, and the remnants of the spells that tore the city apart.

I just loved the way she described a Paris that is at once reminiscent of its medieval heritage yet is set in an alternate 20th century with glimmers of history which seem familiar but isn’t.

As well as being a mystery, The House of Shattered Wings delves deep into the matter of faith. What happens when the thing you believe in the most rejects you. Bodard tackles this head on not only with Christian but also Vietnamese mythology. The character of Philippe, an Annamite exiled from his own land with its own religio-mythology in the Court of the Jade Emperor and its parallel history of colonialism, is fascinating in itself as we see him coming to terms with his loss and anger. I loved when his story of ancient Vietnam meets that of Selene’s Paris and Bodard does a wonderful job in tying the two parallel strands together in a credible way. You would think there might be a jarring of the two disparate worlds yet they complement and work together seamlessly. Philippe’s tenuous friendship with Isabelle, his sparring with Selene and his dealing with the Houseless, who initially took him in, and Asmodeus, the head of House Hawthorn, Silverspires’ nemesis, paints him as a complex figure, probably the most human with his mixture of compassion and street smartness. I found Madeleine, a human originally at Hawthorn saved by Morningstar when Asmodeus staged a coup to take over his House, fascinating in her despair and misguided memories, unable to get over her trauma and hiding her growing addiction, while trying to function in her job. But the two most intriguing characters are Asmodeus because he’s evil but with a secret agenda and there is always the spectre of Morningstar, more glorious, more powerful and more cruel than all the Fallen who haunt this book. In comparison, Selene is probably the weakest, always unsure and so hesitant for a leader of a House, but with the unwavering support of her lover, Emmanuelle.

Bodard’s plotting may have gotten the upper hand over her characterisation in this novel, it’s intricate and polished, her story substantial but wearing the research lightly, and I certainly wouldn’t have complained if it was longer, especially with her sublime prose. So I’m really looking forward to learning more about her varied characters in the sequel, many of whom seem to have incredibly intriguing back stories. And although the ending may have left me slightly wanting, I can’t deny that in The House of Shattered Wings, Bodard has created a richly textured world, intricate and beautifully written.

Do also check out Bodard’s In Morningstar’s Shadow, which includes 3 short stories that complement and is set before the events in The House of Shattered Wings, and Of Books, And Earth, and Courtship, about Selene and Emmanuelle. Lovely vignettes exposing more of Bodard’s talent. You can also read more of her stories on her website.

Maigret by Georges Simenon

12 August, 2015

Maigret

I’m going to tell you everything, Uncle. I’m in big trouble. If you don’t help me, if you don’t come to Paris with me, I don’t know what will become of me. I’m going out of my mind.

Georges Simenon’s 19th novel featuring his eponymous detective Maigret which was first published in 1934 is my first foray into the famous detective’s world. In this episode of the detective’s long literary career, Maigret is enjoying his retirement in the countryside with his wife when his nephew, Philippe, comes knocking at the door late one night.

A rookie cop following in the footsteps of his uncle, Philippe is still young and naive and has found himself in trouble. On a stakeout for a drugs raid in Floria, a night club in rue Fontaine, Philipe takes the initiative to wait inside the club against orders and promptly finds himself with the corpse of the suspect on his hands. Rattled, he runs off leaving behind his fingerprints and is also seen by a witness. Having nowhere to hide, he begs his uncle for help.

And so begins a cat and mouse chase as Maigret returns to Paris to find the killer. Some of his colleagues, especially Detective Chief Inspector Amadieu who took over from Maigret, are none too pleased to find him back in his former workplace. However, when Philipe is arrested for murder, Maigret sets about catching the real culprit but this time without the authority of his badge. With the help of Fernande, a prostitute who frequents the Floria, Maigret must pit his wits against an intelligent and ruthless man who holds the strings to the case, and Philippe’s freedom.

Maigret was an interesting story because it showed the detective’s chase from the other side of the official fence. What struck me was the gritty, adult nature of the novel. There is sex, there is violence and real evil. Without being explicit, nevertheless the harsh reality of a criminal life and the psychology of the criminal mind is all there. This isn’t some cosy crime caper, it’s a gritty noir. It’s somehow difficult to believe that this was written in the mid-30s. There’s a lot of smoking, drinking and flirting going on. It’s a different world to what we know now, but it brings back a whiff of nostalgia mixed in with modern grittiness that I would like to revisit again.

At an event celebrating Simenon’s work, his son John said he wanted readers to become addicted to his father’s books. This short, sharp tale will do just that.

Maigret

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to a reception held at the Groucho Club to celebrate Georges Simenon and his most famous creation, Inspector Maigret. Like many, I knew a lot about Maigret and watched a couple of episodes of the English TV adaptation starring Michael Gambon except that I hadn’t actually read any of his novels as I was obsessed by Agatha Christie when I was younger. But my first literary love has always been crime fiction and so in preparation, I dipped my toes into the smoky and boozy world of Maigret.

As well as learning more about Simenon and his work, I was also looking forward to meeting John Simenon who gave an insightful talk about his father and his work. What was particularly interesting, and astounding for me, was that Simenon had written almost 400 novels, often writing 5 a year. His Inspector Maigret novels were first published in 1931 with Pietr the Latvian and there are almost 75 volumes, rivaling Agatha Christie. Both John and Penguin, who are republishing all of Simenon’s novels in new translations, are hoping that people will get hooked on the novels and devour them one after the another.

John Simenon

Simenon always saw himself as a craftsmen rather than an artist and was fascinated by the neurological and psychological aspects of crime. He was a humanist and was considerably influenced by the Church although he was often angry with it. He worked as a traveling journalist from 1919 to 1922, a period in which he made profound discoveries about his fellow men and what it meant to be human. The following decade was a period of apprenticeship where he produced pulp fiction until 1931 when he introduced Maigret to the world. But he soon wanted to change direction, moving on from crime, and began to publish his romans durs, what he called his pure, standalone novels. Regarding his writing habits, Maigret used a typewriter at first but then moved on to write with a pen and then edit and finish the draft with a typewriter. Even with such productivity, John recalls that Simenon always considered himself a father first and writer second.

And finally, we were all really excited to hear that a new TV adaptation of Maigret featuring Rowan Atkinson is in production. I can’t quite picture him as Maigret yet, but I’m certainly looking forward to it.

It was a lovely afternoon hearing John speak and to catch up with other bloggers including Annabel (do check out her post on the event) and to meet Sarah of Crimepieces, Elizabeth of Fictionbitch and Charlie of The Worm Hole. Thank you to John and Simenon UK for the kind invitation and for Penguin who supplied lots of Maigret titles for us to take away. I’d better get cracking!

Poirot

Last week I attended the Guardian Book Club where author Sophie Hannah and literary critic John Mullan discussed Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

You may not know this already but I am a huge Agatha Christie fan. I discovered her mysteries when I stumbled upon a copy of Murder on the Links hidden away on a bookshelf in my grandfather’s house in Sri Lanka one hot summer. It probably belonged to one of my aunts and uncles but I took it with me when I left. I never learnt who it belonged to but I still have my well-thumbed copy and it still remains my favourite mystery to this day.

What is it about Christie’s novels that has ensnared millions of readers? For me, it was the sheer shock of finding the murderer was not who I expected. Stunned, I can still remember wondering how she managed to fool me. And with each novel, I would make a guess and get it wrong. Sometimes I couldn’t handle the tension and would take a furtive peek at the final pages which would inevitably spoil the rest of the novel for me but I just couldn’t help myself. And so my love affair with Christie began when I was nine and I went through her entire crime oeuvre, spending hours in English bookshops in far flung Asian cities counting the titles I had and hadn’t read, waiting for the special days when I was allowed to buy a book. Admittedly I did get better at guessing the murderer as I went through her novels but it was more a gut feeling. And once I got over that, I really began to enjoy her cast of characters and unraveling her fiendish plots.

So I was excited to hear Hannah’s views on Christie. Most of you will know by now that Hannah was chosen by Christie’s estate to write the new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, which was published last year . I, like many, was nervous about reading it but was completely won over by her intricate plotting and handling of Poirot. And I wasn’t surprised to learn that Hannah is on her third re-reading of Christie’s crime novels. Impressive stuff. She has a great love for Christie and her work, although she admits she is not as knowledgeable as John Curran, Christie’s archivist and author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, whom she would phone with questions when writing The Monogram Murders for which he would have instant answers.

For the Guardian Book Club, Hannah chose to discuss Death on the Nile partly because she wanted something different to the usual choice which is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, probably one of Christie’s most infamous novels, but also because it is one of the few that is successful in all mediums – book, tv and film. It is also one where you meet the characters going about their daily business before the actual murder occurs.

As much as they were bestsellers, I recall most notably in an English literature class at school that Christie’s novels were considered derivative and her characters two-dimensional, criticisms which still echo in genre fiction today. As young as I was, I did wonder why books you could race through weren’t considered serious literature however well written. It didn’t stop me reading or loving her novels, and when I re-read Elephants Can Remember a few years ago, I was surprised at how dark the plot was and how tightly written the prose. Hannah does point this out saying it’s an unfair label. She believes the characters need to appear to be two dimensional at first before the unveiling of the third dimension by the detective.

Christie’s strength lies in her interest in the psychology of crime especially how we assess others. She lets the readers mislead themselves and only at the unmasking do you realise your error in judgement. And one of the devices she uses in her novels is that a large proportion of her subjects are hiding something, all are guilty of something but perhaps not the murder. No one is perfect, everyone has a flaw. Christie is unparalleled in her understanding of character, human nature and psychology.

On accusations of stereotyping and stylised settings, Hannah does acknowledge that Christie recycles setting and plot devices but her tales are so interesting that readers don’t mind. A reader pointed out that The Murder on the Nile was somewhat similar to Endless Night and Mullan clocked on to a similar echo of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove which brought about a discussion on the limitations of plot. In some contemporary crime novels, the mystery isn’t enough to sustain the reader’s interest and so they pile on the bodies, but Christie doesn’t need to do this. However Hannah pointed out that Christie was fascinated by the possibilities of the crime novel and tried every possible permutation. She instinctively understood what every novel needed and was in total control. Christie is famous for being a meticulous planner before she put pen to paper and this can be seen in the very intricate way in which Christie manipulates her novels’ timelines. This was one aspect of the crime novel with which Hannah had difficulty and is also probably one of the reasons why she finds it so difficult to pinpoint Christie’s culprit.

For the serious mystery reader, the inability to guess the murderer is crucial. Christie overtly draws your attention to the clues, she is never sly or frugal in this, but still manages to fool you. You don’t know until the second Poirot or Miss Marple starts explaining who the murderer is. And she does this all the while increasing the tension bit by bit until you just have to know who did it.

The event ended with Hannah describing Miss Marple as a bit of a misanthrope and Poirot a romantic who liked to play cupid, often directing the attentions of a young lady away from a handsome rake to a slightly boring but more suitable man. Her favourite secondary character is Jane, Lady Edgware, in Lord Edgware Dies and one of her top ten favourite novels is After the Funeral as well as The Body in the Library which she says is flawless.

It was just a lovely evening to hear someone who loves Christie as much as I do talk about various aspects of her work and it has reawakened my urge to re-read some of Christie’s novels again as well as dip into John Curran’s books.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for Agatha Christie’s novels. If you have read them, which is your favourite mystery? And if you haven’t read any yet, which one would you like to start with?