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.

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DAUGHTER OF THE GAME by Tracy Grant (Review)

Daughter of the Game is a sequel to Tracy Grant’s Beneath a Silent Moon and is, in my opinion, even better than the first book, which I read (but never got round to posting a review of) some time ago when I was actually in London – albeit a very different London from that of the early nineteenth century, immediately after the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo, though still often enough dismal and dark and misty and mysterious.

 

In Beneath a Silent Moon, Charles Fraser, scion of an old Scottish family and grandson of the Duke of Rannoch, is settled in London with his wife Mélanie. Both are survivors of the wars in Spain and France (she is actually of half French, half Spanish aristocratic descent), both have been spies, and both prove very capable as well as very sympathetic when their past suddenly catches up with them in London. It is a good story with some great characters and plenty of fascinating period detail. I do suggest you read it first.

 

Then, as I say, go on to Daughter of the Game, which I came across second-hand on a street stall out here, and grabbed. Which game is that, I was wondering as I set out on this new adventure with Mélanie. And I imagine all readers wonder the same thing. Without giving the game away (sorry!), I can tell you that the Great Game (as Kipling puts it in Kim, a book I adore) continues, but Mélanie’s background turns out to be not all she claimed and Sir Charles would certainly not have married her if he had know about it!

The story starts when their six-year-old son, Colin, is kidnapped by Spanish anti-monarchist activists who want a certain gold ring that they believe the Frasers have in their possession. It is an ancient  “ring of power” (to quote another great favourite from my childhood!) that is widely believed to bring victory in battle to whoever is in possession of it. “The ring Princess Aysha had commissioned for her husband or her secret lover. The ring Ramón de Carevalo had taken as plunder or received as a gift of love. The ring that had been the cause of victory and betrayal and murder ...”

Unfortunately, the Frasers do not have it, and they have only one week in which to find it, or Colin dies.

Then one of Colin’s fingers arrives in a small packet, to let them know the kidnappers are serious, and the search through gambling-dens, theatres, brothels and the notorious Marshalsea debtor’s prison for someone who knows of its whereabouts, becomes desperate. And all the time behind them comes another, a silent hunter seemingly intent on killing one or both of them before they succeed.

One of those books where you you become so much a part of their make-belief world that you are reluctant ever to return to reality.

THE CLERKENWELL TALES by Peter Ackroyd (Review)

Medieval Outsiders

>  Sister Clarice, a nun who prophesies: is she possessed, is she a witch, is she a heretic – or are the prophecies genuine?

>  William Exemewe, friar and conspirator

>  Hamo Fulberd, “simple’ or “silent” Hamo, abandoned as a child, brought up in the priory; attaches himself to Exemewe

>  Richard II, deposed king; has lost his wits 

1399 is the year in which Richard II of England was deposed and murdered, and the usurper Henry Bolingbroke, son of John o’ Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, seized the throne as Henry IV – an act which led directly to the Wars of the Roses the following century.

In this fascinating novel, we follow a plot by a group called “Dominus”, whose aim is to stir up unrest in the City of London by means of a series of murders and explosions in churches (things don’t change) and so make it unlikely that the people of London will rise in support of Richard.

The author’s arrangement of chapters, his way of telling the story, is strange and was – to me – a little off-putting, at least at first. Each chapter focuses on a different character – and the characters are nominally those of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, though they are not to be identified with them (as for instance the characters in Doherty’s An Ancient Evil are intended to be). For these are “The Clerkenwell Tales”, not “The Canterbury Tales”, and all the characters are linked by their association with the nunnery known as The House of Mary, in Clerkenwell.

So, each chapter is like a short story, the tale of that character (not, be in noted, a tale told by that character). But it works. The characters interact and chapter by chapter we become familiar with them all. Not only do we see the plot unfold and witness Richard’s downfall, but we are told so much about the lives of the many different people that we come to feel completely at home in the London of the turn of the century.

The main character, though, is the nun, Sister Clarice: Brank Mongorray opened the window of the nun’s chamber to enjoy the air of May. He was on the first floor, above a lead cistern of water which the birds used for their refreshment. John Duckling was crouched silently against it, so that he might hear any words that were spoken.

‘Did you hear the thrush this morning, Brank?’ It was the nun’s clear voice, known now by so many. ‘They say that if a man is sick of the jaundice and sees a yellow thrush, the man shall be cured and the bird shall die. Is that not too cruel?’

‘A man has an immortal soul. A bird does not.’

‘Who can be sure of that? Dieu est nostre chef, il nous garde et guye.’

Duckling had never heard her speak Anglo-Norman before; for some reason this seemed to him to be evidence of her duplicity. There was more conversation but the monk and nun had moved away from the window; Duckling could make out only occasional words until he heard her cry, ‘When will come the day of the Seven Sleepers?’ Then she called out, ‘Deus! cum Merlin dist sovent veritez en ses propheciez!’ These were marvellous strange words from a young nun: Merlin was no more than a devil worshipped by the little folk who lived in the moors and marshes. He could hear Brank Mongorray talking quietly to her. Could they be in league against the world of holiness?

If you enjoy good writing and a wealth of detail, read it.

THE SUN AND THE MOON by Patricia Ryan (Review)

Another by Patricia Ryan, author of Still Life with Murder, which I noted was “one of the best – and best written – historical crime novels I have ever come across”.

When I began The Sun and the Moon, I didn’t know it was a sequel. In fact, I didn’t realise that until I had finished it and found I was being recommended Book 1 – Silken Threads. So don’t let that put you off. It really does “stand alone”.

I also thought it was going to be a medieval spy story, but it turned out to be much more than that. Spy story it certainly was – the hero, Hugh of Wexford, a sort of 12th-century James Bond, working for Henry II – but it is also a medieval love story which occasionally crosses genres yet again to become erotica. The long and detailed description of the gentle deflowering of a virgin is perfect, but there are a couple of other set-pieces – one overt BDSM scene – that strike me as perhaps gratuitous here, in this context. Only having read the one other book by Patricia Ryan before, I am not sure whether this kind of thing is characteristic. Maybe it is. In Still Life with Murder, there are frequent references to Nell’s past life as a prostitute, but no flashbacks; perhaps there should have been. Yes, I believe now, having read this other book and seen how good she is at this kind of thing, that there should have been, that it would have filled out the background. So, on second thoughts, those scenes in this medieval story are not gratuitous after all. I’ve changed my mind.

I’m rambling here, but I am going to leave this as it is. Suffice it to say that while Patricia is not as at home in 12th-century Oxford and Southwark as she is in 19th-century Boston, Mass (“Bloody Hell!” seems hardly medieval – I’m more used to such colourful and authentic sounding phrases as “God’s Bollocks!”) this is another very good story and while Hugh of Wexford is a bit stereotyped (the hard case with a heart of gold) Philippa of Paris, the virginal James Bond girl, is completely original.

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.

CITY OF SHADOWS by Ariana Franklin (Review)

Berlin, 1922 and 1932

Sometimes you read a historical novel which turns out to be a real eye-opener. It will be set in a period you thought you knew and deal with a situation you have been familiar with for years – and you find you were quite mistaken. It is like travelling back in a time-machine: oh, wow – so this is how it really was!

City of Shadows teleported me back to Berlin in 1922, and then, in Part II, 1932. The terrible post-war poverty (exactly the same as in post-war Leningrad – I’ve been reading a biography of Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet and will post a review of it here soon), the black market and the racketeers, the first ominous indications of the rise of Hitler and nazism: then ten years later, the organised brutality as Hitler makes his bid for the Chancellorship while his personal army smashes all opponents and gradually takes over even the police force, meaning that the many murders they commit will not even be investigated.

One such racketeer is “Prince Nick”, a self-styled member of the defunct Russian royal family living in exile in Germany. In fact, of course, he is just a con-man with a pseudo-elegant veneer and – now – a lot of money. His secretary / personal-assistant, based at the largest of his chain of night clubs, is Esther Solomonova, a multilingual Russian Jew who is extremely beautiful when seen in profile from the right, but had the left side of her face smashed by an axe in one of the two progroms she miraculously survived.

She does not approve of Nick’s activities, but has little choice. It is work for him or starve in the streets.

She is particularly disapproving when Nick decides to take up the cause of a young woman named Anna Anderson, a patient in a mental asylum who claims to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the only survivor of the massacre of the Czar and Czarina and their children.

Nick’s only interest, Esther knows, is Anastasia’s claim to the Romanov family fortune deposited in a bank in London.

But Esther comes to feel responsible for Anna when she realises that someone actually is hunting the poor woman, that it is not just paranoia, a fantasy, and that this “big man” who appears regularly once every six weeks, will stop at nothing to kill her. Anna claims that it is the Cheka, the Soviet hatchet-men, who have marked her down for assassination because she is the heir to the throne of “all the Russias”.

Esther does not agree.

Neither does Detective Inspector Schmidt, whose task it is to catch the assassin when he starts killing those around Anna in order to get to her. Schmidt is a good man caught up in a terrible situation where everything he believes in – freedom, equality, justice – is being systematically replaced by tyranny, racism and injustice.

In Esther Solomonova, the good man recognises the good woman.

But is Anna Anderson Anastasia? Other books have been written about her, arguing the toss one way or the other. And that doubt remains in this book right till the last pages. I have no intention of revealing the stunning ending, though I must say there are clues in the earlier chapters I should have noticed. Look for those clues, but don’t cheat and go peering at the back of the book – you will ruin the story for yourself!

I must also say that when I picked up this book I knew it would be well written, but I didn’t expect it to be as good as the wonderful Adelia books. In fact it is even better. It is one of the half-dozen or so best historical novels I have ever read. I only wish the author, Ariana Franklin (pen-name of Diana Morgan) was alive to hear me say that. And to write more books like it. She will be greatly missed.