GALLOWS THIEF by Bernard Cornwell (Review)

Rider Sandman, late Captain of the 52nd Regiment, hero of Waterloo, and also of this book, does not appear in the Prologue. That is a vivid, almost too vivid, description of a hanging at Newgate. The repulsive hangman, the victims, one of them a girl accused of stealing a necklace from her mistress, crying and protesting her innocence till the awful end (rightly, it turns out, the necklace is later found behind a sofa – too late, but nobody seems to care). (Sorry about that “spoiler”, but you just know she is innocent anyway.)

Then we meet Captain Sandman, who is also a cricketing hero – yes, really! – but penniless because his father seems to have lost everything, money, title and all, then died, and Sandman had to sell his army commission to provide his mother and sister with money to live on.

Now he is staying at the cheapest lodgings he can find, sharing it with thieves and prostitutes such as the irrepressible Sally. The contrast between his very proper and correct attitude and her very improper approach to life is perfect, while the difference between her cockney thieves’ slang (the “flash” language) and his posh English is frequently laugh-out-loud funny.

But there is not only Sally, the whore and would-be actress, there is Rider Sandman’s one true love, Sir Henry Forrest’s daughter Eleanor, for whom her mother (for obvious reasons) no longer considers Sandman good enough.

And there is the Countess of Avebury, an ex-dancer who managed to marry one of her admirers, but is murdered while having her portrait painted.

The artist is duly tried, convicted and condemned. But then Sandman is recruited to investigate the case becasue someone in high places has petitioned on the artist’s behalf. Sandman is at first unenthusiastic, believing the artist, Charles Corday, to be guilty of rape and murder. Then he goes to Newgate and meets him, and changes his mind – and has only days to find the true murderer.

I loved it, and love that immediate post-Napoleonic-Wars period. It reminded me of Daughter of the Game, which is brilliant – nothing can compare with the ex-prostitute heroine of that book – but Cornwell is better – he is the best! – at poverty and sleaze, life as it really was.

CROWN IN DARKNESS by Paul Doherty (Review)

A mystery featuring medieval sleuth Hugh Corbett

Scotland, 1286

The north of England had been a new experience to Corbett who had served in Edward’s armies in France and Wales, but Scotland was something different. Quieter, more lonely, beautiful yet menacing. He had observed it carefully as he travelled into Edinburgh. Vast forests of pine, dark and forbidding, where boar and wolf ruled; wide wastes of lonely, haunting moor, bogs, mountains and lakes covered the land. In England, the old Roman highways, sometimes much broken but their foundations still solid, spread out from London to form the main routes for travel. In Scotland, apart from the King’s Highway. the Via Regis, there were few roads, only beaten tracks. Corbett had found it difficult to reach the royal burgh of Edinburgh and. when he did, bitterly wondered if it had been worth the effort …

I have been looking at some of the early Hugh Corbett mysteries, ones I missed first time round.

Crown In Darkness takes as its historical setting the death of 44-year-old King Alexander III of Scotland as he rode from Edinburgh to his wife at Kinghorn on a wild night in March, 1286. The horse stumbled and fell, the king was killed.

But Was there more to it than that? my favourite medieval-mystery writer, Paul Doherty, wonders – and sends Sir Hugh Corbett to investigate.

Why should there have been more to it than that?

Because both his sons were dead, and his eldest daughter, who was married to King Eric of Norway, had also died, in childbirth, so Alexander’s sole heir was his three-year-old Norwegian granddaughter. An unlikely contender for the throne.

What is  more, Alexander had recently taken a second wife, Yolande, a French princess and it was to her that he was hurrying the night he died (or was murdered).

No, he had to read Kinghorn where Yolande was waiting. He thought of his new French Queen. The beautiful face of a Helen of Troy framed by hair jet-black as the deepest night., olive, perfumed skin and a small curvaceous figure clothed and protected in a profusion of satins, velvets and Bruges lace. He wanted her now; to possess that soft warm body, ripping aside the protests and the pretences. Perhaps she would conceive, bear a son, give Scotland a Prince. A vigorous boy to wear the crown and protect it against the ring of wolves and falcons both at home and abroad. He must reach Kinghorn …

And there on the road he died (orwas murdered).

But cui bono? Who would benefit (a) by the king’s death, and (b) in particular by the king failing to reach his queen before he died?

The man who thought he would step into the gap was Robert Bruce, grandfather of the Robert Bruce who did eventually become king years later. Robert Bruce the elder, who was now nearly eighty years old, was still full of energy and was, after the late king, the most powerful man in Scotland.

The other potential king was John Balliol, who did eventually become the next king. His claim was probably better and he had the support of the man who was de facto if not de jure overlord of them all, Edward I of England.

This is the setting. Hugh Corbett does not want to go to Scotland and does not enjoy his visit. But he does manage to solve the murder – for murder it was – before being declared persona non grata (a lot of Latin today!) in Scotland and deposited unceremoniously on the English side of the border – to his great delight.

A classic.

MORALITY PLAY by Barry Unsworth (Review)

As is so often the case with Barry Unsworth’s novels, the reader finds himself living the life of an outsider, in this case a whole gallery of typically medieval outsiders: a young priest on the road, outside his diocese and therefore outside the law; a troupe of impoverished strolling players struggling to survive in the middle of winter; a whore,down on her luck, travelling with the players; a group of religious dissenters, the Brethren of the Spirit … And all involved in what can only be described as a very literary medieval mystery.

It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on. The first was of the man called Brendan and I saw the moment of it. I saw them gather round and crouch over him in the bitter cold, then start back to give the soul passage. It was as if they played his death for me and this was a strange thing, as they did not know I watched, and I did not then know what they were.

Thus the story opens. The young priest, Nicholas Barber, freezing cold (having lost his cloak in a narrow escape from an irate husband who returned unexpectedly) and starving hungry, happens upon a death scene being performed by a company of players; only the death is real and because of the death the players are one man short: Nicholas is co-opted.

He travels north towards Durham with them (they have been ordered to perform at Durham Castle on Christmas Day) but before they can get there they are caught up in the death of a child – a boy, Thomas Wells – and the story of the young woman accused of murdering him.

It is not, though, your typical “medieval mystery”. The players simply need money to continue their journey north and the only way they can lay hands on any is to perform a play that will attract an audience. Martin, their leader, decides to perform a “true play”, the play of this local murder; but to perform a play based on such a thing is quite unheard of. “Who plays things that are done in the world?” demands one of the shocked players when Martin suggests it.

Then, when they perform it, they find it is false: it does not work.

The whole first half of the book builds up to the performance of the first Play of Thomas Wells (which they subsequently rename The False Play of Thomas Wells) and its follow-up, The True Play of Thomas Wells; the second half of the book is the traumatic if not finally tragic sequel to these performances.

As a player, Nicholas sees everything, from medieval life in the raw –

I saw the beggar who had come to our fire and spoken of lost children. An egg had fallen and smashed below the stall, where the snow was trodden. The yolk of the egg made a yellow smear on the snow and a raw-boned dog saw it at the same time as the beggar did and both made for it and the beggar kicked the dog, which yelped and held back but did not run, hunger making him bold. The beggar cupped his hands and scooped up the egg in the snow and took it into his mouth and ate all together, the egg and the fragments of shell and the snow

– to a great joust. Nicholas, imprisoned in a castle tower, watches the joust taking place in the lists below and realises that the knights and nobles too are performing in their own play; and later sees a dying knight, mortally wounded in the joust, with “no role left to play but this last one of dying, that comes to all.”

Fine writing and a fine story with some great characters and a vivid reconstruction of the life of those particular outsiders known as players whom we now think of as central to the culture of an age and place and people.

TUTANKHAMUN by Nick Drake (Review)

In my post on Nick Drake’s Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead, I said that, with the possible exception of Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End, it was the best murder mystery set in ancient times that I had ever read. And certainly the second best novel set in ancient Egypt: the best, of course, being Mika Waltari’s The Egyptian – which I will do a post on some time soon for anyone out there who may not have come across it.

By “set in ancient times” I suppose I mean BC, so I am not making invidious comparisons with all the private dicks, male and female,  who prowl the mean streets of Rome (I like Claudia – of I, Claudia quite as much as I like Falco). Rahotep’s mean streets are those of Thebes, and Tutankhamun is set entirely in this almost mythical city, apart from one very brief excursus by Royal Barge down-river to Memphis.

Since the adventure recorded in Nefertiti, about fifteen years have have passed. I am guessing, as it is not explicitly stated. (On the back cover of Nefertiti, it gives the date as 1800 BC, which is either a misprint or yet another example of mindlessness in an editorial office. On the back of Tutankhamun, it says 1324 BC.) Akhenaten’s two children, Ankhesenamun (one of his daughters by his Queen, Nefertiti) and Tutankhamun (his only son, by a mystery woman named Kiya who subsequently disappeared) sit on the throne of their ancestors. However, the real ruler of Egypt is the priest Ay, who has been Regent since the death of Akhenaten.

Now Ankhesenamun summons Rahotep to the Malkata Palace and informs him that she and Tutankhamun plan to seize the reins of power from the ageing Ay during the course of a ceremony which will take place at the great Temple of Amun during the next few days.

Ay will, of course, not like this, and will oppose it with all his might.

But is it Ay who is leaving foul objects in the royal quarters, designed not only to intimidate Ankhesenamun but to terrify the sickly and timid Tutankhamun? Or is it Horemheb, the great general, who with the army behind him has the means to make himself Pharaoh?  It will be Rahotep’s task to answer that question.

‘Why me?’ asks the horrified Rahotep, whose wife and children will be at risk should he upset either Ay or Horemheb.

‘My mother told me that if I was ever in real danger, I should call for you.’ Ankhesenamun tells him. ‘ She promised me you would come.’ 

Rahotep has little choice.

And his interest is caught when he realises that the person responsible for terrorising Tutankhamun may well be one with the perpetrator of some of the most horrific murders I have ever come across, be it in ancient Rome, medieval Paris or Victorian London. You will not forget the grisly details in a hurry. But nor, I promise you, will you put this book down, bored, and turn to another.

I also wrote in my review of the first book in this series, “Nick Drake’s Nefertiti is the most convincing recreation I know of the queen whose beauty shines down through the millennia. She is Nefertiti to me now.” He has done it again with Ankhesenamun and Tutankhamun. These two characters are Ankhesenamun and Tutankhamun to me now.

Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun

NEFERTITI by Nick Drake (Review)

This is by any standards a perfect example of the classic detective story: a tough, cynical investigator straight off the mean streets of Thebes, a setting – Akhetaten, Egypt, 1800 BC – that is almost mythical in its connotations, and a villain and heroine who make their counterparts in most other books seem insipid by comparison and hardly worth bothering with at all.

Akhetaten is the city of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who attempted to reform the complex Egyptian religious system and introduce monotheism by imposing on all the worship of one god, the Aten, symbolised by the sun. Akhetaten, the new capital, was built out in the desert, far away far away from the other great cities of Egypt: and this was its weakness. It became something of a retreat from reality, and Akhenaten, his mind entirely on his religion, gradually lost control of what was, at the time, the greatest kingdom (and greatest empire) in the world.

Then Nefertiti, the Queen, disappears, and it is Rahotep’s job to find her – or her dead body and the name of her murderer. He has only ten days before a great festival at which she must be present; if he fails, Akhenaten tells him, he will die a horrible death, and his wife and children back in Thebes will die with him. But he is a stranger in Akhetaten: where can he start and who can he trust?

Nick Drake’s Nefertiti is the most convincing recreation I know of the queen whose beauty shines down through the millennia. She is Nefertiti to me now.

And the villain? Read it and see. There are some evil men involved and the author keeps the reader guessing, so I must too.

The best mystery set in ancient Egypt since Agatha Christie’s Death Comes As The End.

LOST CAUSE by J. L. Simpson (Review)

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I found Lost Cause quite hard to get into – might even have given up had I not agreed to write a review. I’ll come back to why I found the earlier part of the book somewhat off-putting in a moment.

First, let me say that the book is professionally produced in every way. The writing and the editing are both impeccable. Not even one of those peculiar errors we seem to be becoming inured to like the meaningless “I could care less”. No, here the narrator says she “couldn’t care less”. Bingo.

But how to classify this story? It is called a “mystery” – Daisy Dunlop Mystery Book 1. There are several mysteries, but which one is the mystery I really couldn’t say. It is certainly not a thriller, and though it is a crime story, the rather complex crime and the various bit-part criminals are not really what the book is about. Nor is it a romance, a love-story. The protagonist, Daisy Dunlop, is the mother of a teenage son and almost absurdly happily married to her husband Paul. There is no way she would ever be unfaithful to him. Yet she does flirt, often outrageously, with almost every male she meets. Especially the “Irish git” (her words) that her husband has arranged for her to work alongside as a trainee P.I. and heir-hunter. Both the husband and his friend “Solomon” (the Irish git) assume that after a few days she will abandon this ridiculous idea.

Really, the story is about the relationship between Daisy and Solomon. It is this flirting that you remember when you finish the book on another outrageous line from Daisy. A flirtation story, then. But beautifully done.

Which brings me back to my problem with the opening chapters. Daisy’s husband, Paul, and his mate Solomon are both big, hard, rich, clever, arrogant men. Alpha males. And Daisy is the obedient strawberry-blonde. Well, not always obedient. Far from it. But when she disobeys one of them she invariably feels guilty, and frequently lands herself in a load of trouble from which Solomon must ride in on his white charger (actually an Aston Martin) and rescue her.

Me, I like strong female leads. The stronger the better. And yet I liked Daisy more and more as the book went on and she began to find her feet (not easy on those heels) till by the end she was saving Solomon (all right, causing some typical dumb-blonde chaos in doing so) and I had quite made up my mind that I would definitely read Daisy Dunlop Mysteries Book 2 (see below). I also very much liked the gradual focus on homeless people, whom Daisy decides really are “the secret eyes and ears of the world”.

Final verdict? If you are in the mood for a light-hearted crime story featuring an irresistible would-be sleuth, this is the book for you.

And Book 2? Here’s the cover I found. I’ll put a link here when I get round to writing a review of it.

A PLAY OF LORDS by Margaret Frazer

The Fourth in the “Joliffe” series of Medieval Mysteries

England, the autumn of 1435 

‘Lord Lovell’s players, come to play for his grace the bishop of Winchester!’

The guards gave no sign of being impressed. Their cool, disinterested glance at hamper and players said that far more important people than Lord Lovell’s players came their way every day.

Joliffe did not doubt it. Bishop Beaufort – the bastard son of a royal Duke of Lancaster – was not only bishop of Winchester but cardinal of England and the present king’s great-uncle, a power in England’s government these twenty years and more and very possibly the wealthiest man in either of the king’s realms of France and England. Certainly he was the man who loaned the royal government far more money than anyone else was able to, with sometimes his loans the only thing that kept the war in France possible. Through King Henry’s infancy and young boyhood, Bishop Beaufort and his nephew John, duke of Bedford, had, between them, held the ambitions of John’s brother, the duke of Gloucester, in check; but Bedord was now dead, the war in France was in the worst trouble there had been since the burning of the French witch Jeanne d’Arc five years ago, and Joliffe expected that the king, at almost fourteen years of age, was probably beginning to have a mind of his own, let alone whatever the Duke of Gloucester was now up to, and all in all, life must presently be very interesting for Bishop Beaufort of Winchester, cardinal of England.

The fourth book in this series featuring the player and playwright Joliffe (an off-shoot of the Dame Frevisse series of medieval mysteries – they know each other and have appeared in a couple of books together) is set in London in the autumn of 1335. The Duke of Bedford, chief advisor to the still under-age Henry VI, is dead, and the nobles and bishops are scheming and plotting and jostling each other for positions of power around the boy-king.

Meanwhile, in France, the Duke of Burgundy has reneged on his alliance with England and joined forces with the king of France, thus rendering all Burgundians in England the object of jingoistic hatred. Some are killed by mobs – but are these riots spontaneous or is someone stirring up trouble?

Joliffe and the players find themselves “lent” to Cardinal Beaufort by their own master, Lord Lovell. And Beaufort, son of John o’ Gaunt, grandson of Edward III, and great-uncle of the king, commissions Joliffe to write a play which will influence public opinion against France rather than Burgundy. He also wants Joliffe to act as his spy when the company visit the great houses of other magnates and rich London merchants to perform their play.

Then the players are attacked. And someone is killed …

Hobnobbing with royals and moving with the currents of high society (something Dame Frevisse is well acquainted with – indeed has deliberately turned her back on) is new for Joliffe. As one might expect of such a talented actor and improvisor, he does it very well.

All in all, this is one of the best of this great double series.