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.

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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.

DÉJÀ VU by Ian Hocking (Review)

The story opens with Saskia Brandt arriving at the EU Federal Office of Investigation building close by the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin in September 2023 after returning by Eurostar from a trip to London where she broke up with her English boyfriend Simon.

(There is no guarantee that Eurostar will still be running – the tunnel seems to me an easy target for terrorists – or that the Brandenberg Gate – or even Berlin – will still be there in 2023, but they probably will, for 2023 is not far away. Which leads me to wonder about the wisdom of setting a futuristic piece in so near a future. I hope I shall still be writing this blog in and after September 2023, and I can imagine avid readers coming upon this post in, say, September 2024 and failing to realise that this story was set in the future. Think “1984” etc. So let me just point out that I am writing this review in January 2019)

But back to the – (I almost wrote “the Future” there instead of “the review”. It may have been a dream I had last night. I never remember my dreams but know I have been dreaming and often suspect that the contents or setting of a dream are lingering in my subconscious. Who knows what dreams may return to haunt our troubled musings?)

But now, seriously, back to the review.

So, Saskia returns from England to find her secretary dead and stuffed into the refrigerator.

(Do you think there is any connection, causal or otherwise, between my reading about scenes like this in books like this – which I do all the time – and the dreams I imagine I have?)

She also very quickly finds that she herself is being framed for the murder.

But this is not your average straightforward murder story. It transpires that she never went to London at all, never had an English boyfriend called Simon, that all this was a “memory” planted in her mind by means of a microchip, and that she is not being framed at all. She was there. She committed the murder.

Beckmann, her immediate superior, says: “Oh, Frau Kommissarin. You are so worried about being caught for your secretary’s murder. You think they’ll wipe your brain. It’s too late. They already did.”

Then they convince her that she is – was – a convicted murderer whose brain was wiped and the persona of Saskia Brandt implanted to replace the original. The mind and memories of Saskia Brandt inhabit and control the body of the condemned woman.

She is now Saskia Brandt, and because of this staged murder, and because of the microchip in her head – which Beckmann has a remote control for and can operate, operating her – she has no choice but to obey.

Then she is sent on the mission to which all this has been a prelude. And that is fine, a great introduction to the story.

Problems arise, though, when we are presented with too many other relatively major characters, each with their own point of view, and what is in effect their own story, at least during the first half of the book until the various stories start coming together. And this is not helped by the fact that some of these stories are set in the past when Professor David Procter of Oxford University committed  a murder at a research facility in Scotland some twenty years earlier. Or is he, too, being framed for committing a murder he did in fact commit?

Or the stories are set in a present that was prearranged by people in the past, twenty years ago. Anything that happens may be happening because someone travelled forward through time twenty years ago and arranged for it to happen … Nothing in this book is what it seems.

But I am giving away too much.

Though difficult to follow at first due to the abrupt changes of setting and point of view, the story is well plotted, while the characters, if somewhat stereotyped, are rounded and convincing, especially in the case of Saskia, whom I identified with from the very first page. The body in the fridge shocked me almost as much as it did her!

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.

VINLAND by George MacKay Brown (Review)

Orkney, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Vinland, 1014-64

On the voyage back to Greenland, Leif ericson often had Ranald seated beside him at the helm of West Seeker. He gave Ranald instruction on navigation and the management of ships. ‘There is only one constant star in the sky, the northern star, and that star is the sailor’s friend always. But there is a great wheel of stars that swings nightly from east to west, and good sailors learn to read that map, and so they can hold a true course. There are five wandering stars that go likie tinkers or like pilgrims among the star-towns, and we become acquainted with their ways too. There is always the mystery of the moon. Does the moon touch some pulse in our blood? I have noticed that the moods of seamen alter with the changing moon. Many a sane sober man says strange things under a full moon. I have known men of few words utter poetry at such a time. I tell you this, Ranald, it is a foolish skipper who sets out on a voyage under a waning moon …’

At first glance, this book is another of those telling the life-story from boyhood to old age (if he is the narrator) or death of some lad who, when the north was torn between its “pagan” past and its “Christian” future, sails west with the Vikings and visits Iceland, Greenland and Vinland, but it is much more than that. For a start, it was, I believe, the first of the sub-genre, apart from Henry Treece’s classic Viking SagaViking’s Dawn, The Road to Miklagard and Viking’s Sunset. And then it is securely based in the Orkneyinga Saga, the history of the Earls of Orkney; is in fact a “dramatisation” of a section of that history, from the death in battle in 1014 of Earl Sigurd (holding the magical Raven Banner: if it was held aloft they would be victorious, but whoever held it would die; after several men had been killed, no one else would hold hold it, so he had to hold it himself) to the death of Earl Thorfinn in 1064.

Mackay Brown seems to have lived through this period of Orkney’s history, and the reader lives through it with him.

But that is not all. Our hero is Ranald Sigmundson who, after stowing away on Leif Ericson’s ship, lives for a while in Greenland and visits Vinland, then returns to Orkney worried about his old mother who must believe he has drowned, and there gets caught up in the farming life – and, briefly, politics, before becoming disillusioned with the earls and would-be earls and the factions and violence and lies – and spends the rest of his life resisting “the call of the sea” and dreaming of the voyages he made in his youth.

The word Vinland here becomes almost synonymous with Tir-nan-og, the Land of the Young, the Celtic Elysium, set out in the sea, far away beyond the sunset, “where Ossian dwelt with Niamh for three hundred years before he remembered Erin and the Fenians”.

A wonderful book. And read also, if you haven’t yet, Mackay Brown’s story of Earl Thorfinn’s grandson, Magnus, who died in 1117 as a result of more of the feuding that Ranald Sigmundson, in this book, hates so much.

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.