SISTER BENEATH THE SHEET by Gillian Linscott (Review)

I have a second-hand copy of the hardback first edition here (published in 1991) and on the back of the dustcover are the usual adulatory snippets from The Guardian, The TLS, etc. One from the Daily Express caught my eye before I ever bought the book.

Excellent … a witty and original story set in the fashionable London of 1874.

Now I had already read and reviewed Dead Man Riding which is chronologically the first Nell Bray story and is set in the year 1900, so while reading I kept an eye open for internal evidence, and in fact it is set in 1909, not 1874. And in Biarritz, not London.

However, to give the Daily Express critic his due, the story is “excellent … witty and original.”

When it opens, Nell, a suffragette, has just been released from Holloway (a notorious prison for women in central London) after serving three months for hurling a brick through a window at Number Ten. (The Prime Minister’s residence. These days the whole of Downing Street is sealed off!) But there is no peace for the wicked. Emmeline Pankhurst, the grande dame of the wonderful suffragette movement, informs Nell that a prostitute (whisper the word!) has left the suffragettes £50,000 in her will. Should they refuse it on principle? Of course not! is Nell’s response. So because she doesn’t find it shocking, and because she speaks French, Nell is the one chosen to go off to Biarritz, where the “highly successful prostitute” Topaz Brown lived, worked and finally committed suicide, and organise everything.

Only it soon becomes evident that Topaz would never have committed suicide, she enjoyed life too much. That in fact she was murdered.

And so begins what was, at least until Dead Man Riding was written, Nell’s first investigation, and our introduction to one of my favourite characters from crime fiction.

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Christine Keeler IS Grizabella

Something rather different today.

Christine Keeler musical

I have always been a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s. However, it seems to me – and I may be wrong, I haven’t yet seen, or even read a synopsis of, Stephen Ward – but it seems that he has lost the thread somewhere along the line.

The Mary Magdalenes (as in Jesus Christ Superstar) and the Grizabellas (as in Cats) have been forgotten.

I don’t mean the whores – there will, I assume, be plenty of that in Stephen Ward (how could there not be when he was, by profession, a pimp?) (one of the up-market ones, bien sur; me, I have always preferred the more earthy ones, bastards you know where you are with).

No, I don’t mean the whores, I mean the outsiders, the ageing beauties, the ex-whores, indeed all those who when they pass their use-by date are cast aside “like flowers of the field”.

This thought came to me when I read these two articles. Read them now – please – before going on. This one from The Guardian (which is admirable) and this one from The Daily Mail (which is the usual tripe). But read both to get the full picture..

Who was “the Glamour Cat”? Who was the femme fatale who had affaires with  John Profumo, the secretary of state for war in Harold Macmillan’s government, and the Russian naval attache, Yevgeny Ivanov, and brought down a government?

And who is now the shunned outsider?

Lloyd Webber should be seen with his arm round Christine. “Touch me! It’s so easy to leave me all alone with my memory of my days in the sun …”

It is indeed.

But now, apparently, it is just the silly and superficial (and rich) who count.

Or perhaps it is simply that Christine Keeler (unlike Mandy Rice-Davies and Stephen Ward) is not and never was “one of us”.

(Not so different from what I am usually on about, actually, now I look back over it.)

THE DEAD WON’T SLEEP and TO TELL THE TRUTH by Anna Smith (Review)

One of my favourite books of the last year or two is Lin Anderson’s Easy Kill, the easy prey being Glasgow’s multitudinous, but totally unprotected, prostitutes. (Unprotected in comparison with those of say Amsterdam or Paris.) And so I slipped easily into The Dead Won’t Sleep with the feeling of being back on familiar territory.

There is no “who-dun-it” here. When the body of a fourteen-year-old prostitute and drug-addict named Tracy is washed up on the river shore, we already know who did it: a trio of corrupt and brutal senior police officers. The drama lies in the fight to the death – literally – between them and investigative journalist Rosie Gilmour, who is determined not to let Tracy’s death be covered up by the establishment. Or the subsequent death of another prostitute, the only witness.

But then her investigations into Tracy’s background reveal that other powerful establishment figures have access to the children at the orphange Tacy had fled, and are using them for their sickening paedophile games.

A great start to a new series. Rosie is tough – but not that tough; she too had a horrifying childhood. Let’s say courageous rather than tough. And she has two very attractive male friends: Adrian, a ruthless Bosnian hardman who would give his life for her; and TJ, a wandering minstrel – a busker with itchy feet whom she is slowly falling for in a big way.

 

TJ doesn’t appear in the sequel, To Tell the Truth, but Adrian does – in the nick of time, and saves Rosie’s life yet again.

This time the setting is the south of Spain, the Costa del Sol, the whole place seemingly owned and run by crime bosses from Russia, Albania and – yes, you guessed – an old enemy from Glasgow who had to leave the UK in a hurry after Rosie flashed his face on the front page of her newspaper.

A little girl, the daughter of two ‘Brits’ on holiday, has been kidnapped, just picked up and carried away while playing on the beach. Again, Rosie’s investigations spread out ever further like the ripples when a stone is dropped into a pond. Like the Moroccan rent-boy who, at the time of the kidnapping, was giving the British Home Secretary a blow-job on a balcony overlooking the beach, said Home Secretary being all-too-chummy with a Russian billionaire whose manifold business interests include trafficking girls in from eastern Europe for the straight sex trade and small children for the paedophile industry.

One of the great things about these books is that the large supporting cast are all rounded and memorable characters. I does not make me want to go rushing off to the Costa del Sol, I would have too good an idea now of what is going on all around me. I am still planning to visit Glasgow, though!

THE DEVIL’S DOMAIN by Paul Doherty (Review)

Busy at the moment, but here is a review I posted a while back on MedievalMysteries.com, and thought I might repost here. It is a favourite of mine (the review I mean) because I talk about myself in it and introduce the new reader to Brother Athelstan – a great favourite of mine!

I recently came across three of Paul Doherty’s Brother Athelstan books that some kind traveller with excellent taste had left behind in Kolkata (for new members, I’m in India!). I picked them up at one of the second-hand bookshops down by the Maidan – in Sudder Street, I think. Strange, the things people carry with them when they come here, and subsequently escape into. Homesickness for England? Homesickness for the medieval world? Both, certainly, in my case. Alright, I could catch a plane and be in London in hours. Somehow, though, that is not the London I miss.

I have never fitted in in modern London. While I was growing up (I was born in 1975) I witnessed what little grace was left from the post-war years and the 60s destroyed by the brutal philistinism of the Thatcher years. It is, I believe, recovering slowly, but when I was a kid I used to escape into the past with books like Georgette Heyer’s unforgettable Regency stories, then ancient times, ancient Israel (Frank Slaughter’s Biblical novels!) and ancient Britain. By the time I left school and made my first trip out here on my own (I took a year off, a gap year, before they became fashionable) I had started reading books set in the times my wonderful grandmother used to tell me about – the times before, during, and immediately after the Second World War.

Then, finally, while I was at university, my tutor told me to read Anya Seton’s Katherine, and I was hooked. I had found the Middle Ages, and I knew at once that my grandmother was right: she believed in reincarnation, and I felt so completely at home in medieval Britain that I knew I had been there before, had lived not one but possibly a series of lives including one in the second half of the 14th century and one in Saxon times during the clash between Nordic paganism and Christianity.

What a ridiculously long introduction!

Anyway, Doherty’s Brother Athelstan books have always rung absolutely true to me. This is exactly what London was like in the 1370s and 80s. So you can imagine my delight when I found not one but three, two of which I had never read before, in a pile of books beneath a picture of Goddess Saraswati. One was this, The Devil’s Domain, and the others The Field of Blood and The House of Shadows, the ones which follow it in the series. And none of them had been reviewed for this site. Perfect. (In fact, I found that while we had reviewed a great many Doherty books, these that I now clutched in my hand would be the very first from the “Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan” series.

Some background: Brother Athelstan is a Dominican Friar and is the priest in charge of the Church of St Erconwald in the extremely sleazy (but homely) suburb of Southwark, which lies south of the river, at the other end of the bridge from the City of London itself. His twin attributes of a razor sharp mind and total incorruptibility have gained him a reputation as an entirely honest investigator, and among those who bring their unsolved and apparently insoluble problems to him are Sir John Cranston, the Lord Coroner of London.

In this particular book, The Devil’s Domain, the phrase “the devil’s domain” means different things to different people. To Brother Athelstan, it seems to be this world, with all its suffering and cruelty. To his friend Sir John, it is parts of this world, like the area known as Whitefriars, on the north bank between the City itself and Westminster (much worse than the more notorious Southwark), and the house ruled over by the evil Vulpina. To the group of French naval officers held captive while the authorities await their ransom money from France, it is Hawkmere Manor, the dismal house where they are imprisoned.

“The authorities” at this time, of course, being John of Gaunt, the Regent. And when one of the captives is poisoned, he, John of gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, summons Cranston and Athelstan to investigate. It seems that the French themselves suspect one of the captives of being a traitor, a secret English agent.

Then another is murdered with the same poison.

Meanwhile, the historical background produces a sub-plot. The Peasants’ Revolt is brewing and ready to come to a head, and Athelstan’s church is being used as a meeting place by some of the leaders of the revolutionaries – starving peasants at the end of their tether – now all ready to pour out of Essex and Kent and into London. When this comes to John of Gaunt’s ears, he wonders whether Athelstan is involved. After all, the little priest’s symapthies openly lie with the poor and oppressed.

In another sub-plot, a prostitute named Beatrice, “a quiet, rather gentle whore who sometimes dressed as a nun to please her customers”, makes a brief but tragic appearance.

And behind it all lurks an elusive assassin known as Mercurius.

This is Paul Doherty doing what he is best at, the authentic medieval mystery. No one can do it better.

A SEASONING OF LUST by Jane Kohut-Bartels (Review)

Seasoning of Lust coverA little book of erotica that came my way, left behind by a visitor actually, and though I try to return books lent to me I don’t feel I need to return this little gem to him. In fact he may have left it on my bedside table intentionally: there are things in here that every woman should ponder, and, if the cap fits (so to speak) take to heart;  and things that any man with imagination will thrill to.

It is a book of “very short stories” and “very short poems”, miniature masterpieces, many of them set in the world of the professionally beautiful and submissive geisha, a work of art in herself, there only to give pleasure.

Not a world we know, most of us, here in the West, though I have had some experience (some experiences) of it – that world, the East – on my travels and during my stays in India and Burma (yes, I know, Myanmar) and Thailand. But I have never been to China or Japan, and now perhaps never will. Being one for Tibet and for freedom I have no wish to visit imperialist China, and the Japanese men I have known have put me right off working there.

However, if anyone could make me change my mind, it would be Jane. I love nearly everything in this book.

Among my favourites are the 200-odd-word story Bad Karma.

“Who is coming?” she said as Midori painted her eyebrows high on her forehead.
“So sorry, but it’s Tanaka-san today.”
Bao’s eyes widened. “Aiiieee! He likes things pushed in odd places!”
“Just do as he wants. We’ll have rice balls later.”
Tanaka-san’s karma was to be short-shafted and have peculiar desires. Bao mourned her own karma.

And Ali Baba And His Four Thieves, where we get something different: belly-dancing. Jane is a belly-dancer (another thing we share) and the belly-dancer here is a silly western girl who is asking for it, and gets it. I found that of all the girls in the book, I couldn’t help identifying most fully with her! (Very embarrassing, but I’m being honest.)

Then there is the Shibari series of thirteen exquisite miniatures. “Shibari”? Synonymous with “Kinbaku-bi”, which apparently means ‘the beauty of tight binding’. (Was this why he left it by my bed?)

And the Haiku. Listen to this:

The glance at a wrist
White, the pulse of a river
Tiny beat of life

And the Tankas:

The morning wren sings,
I stand in the moonlit dawn
kimono wrapped tight.
Last night I made my peace
now free from all attachments.

The collection finishes with three slightly longer stories, two, both unforgettable, set in France, and the third – my favourite, because so original, so surprising – set in Venice. It is called La Vendetta and tells of the spoilt Signora Maria de Guiseppa Agnesi Faini; her husband, Signor Faini; her lover, Alfredo, “an officer, a dashing lieutenant, now on maneuvers somewhere across the Alps”; and her “friend” – Signor Alessandro Balsamo was her friend. Actually he was her cisebo, tolerated by her husband because Signor Balsamo was a castrato. He had been cut when only a young boy (“Viva il coltello![Long live the knife!] the audience yelled when he appeared on the stage) and sang until his voice disappeared.

But now the castrato is growing old and can be treated with contempt. … Or can he?

To be dipped into, then, rather than read straight through. You’ll love it too, I’m sure.

MURDER IMPERIAL & THE SONG OF THE GLADIATOR by Paul Doherty (Review)

Rome, 313 AD

As visitors to this site may have remarked, I am a big Paul Doherty fan. His new Brother Athelastan novel will come out in November, but in the meantime this series, set in Rome in the time of Constantine, the first Emperor to recognise Christianity, was new to me.

I have now read the first two, Murder Imperial and The Song of the Gladiator.

I discovered – I hadn’t known, but why am I not surprised? – that the instigator of this revolution was not so much Constantine himself  as  his mother, Helena – the great woman behind the great man.

Helena was an inn-keeper’s daughter from York, in England, where Constantine himself was first proclaimed Emperor, and where an imposing statue of him still dominates the square outside York Minster.

Doherty’s Constantine is actually little more than a glorified gladiator, but the revolution that took place during his reign was profound and all-pervading. In a few short years, Christianity went from being the object of a brutal mass persecution under Diocletian with hundreds being slaughtered in the amphitheatre in Rome and thousands more all over the Empire, to being by far the most widely respected and  practised and influential religion in the Roman world.

A position it never subsequently lost.

But such radical changes do not come about easily.

A great many people, including most of the ancient Roman aristocracy, the patricians, dreamt of putting back the clock. Some did more than dream of doing so. And putting back the clock meant getting rid of his “bitch, “witch” – you name it – of a mother.

Constantine was unconcerned, relying on the fact that the army adored him. His mother knew better: when the assassination attempt took place, the army would not be there. So she ran a network of secret agents, her spies. One such agente in rebus politicis was Claudia, Helena’s “little mouse”, who could go anywhere, watching and listening, and no one would even notice her.

In the first of these stories, three courtesans from the household of Domitilla (a de luxe brothel) are murdered. As Domitilla is by appointment purveyor of prostitutes to the Emperor, and as all three had recently serviced him, Helena finds it more than a little disturbing when they are discovered, one after the other, strangled, and each with the Cross of Christ cut into her forehead and both cheeks. Is the serial killer out to discredit Constantine or the Christian religion? Both, she and Claudia decide.

But then it transpires that a professional assassin known as the Sicarius, whose services Helena herself once made use of, may be killing the girls. In which case, it is aimed at her as much as her son, because after using the assassin she gave orders for him to be permanently silenced. Clearly the wrong man was disposed of – and the right man knows about it.

And Claudia? The little mouse who can go anywhere unremarked and unremembered? She has her own agenda. A couple of years earlier her simpleton brother had been murdered and she herself raped by a man with a chalice tattooed on his wrist. Her own personal objective, overriding all else, is to find and kill him.

This subplot surfaces again in the second book, The Song of the Gladiator. Helena summons Claudia to their summer residence to investigate a stolen relic – the sword reputedly used to decapitate St Paul – and a particularly gruesome murder which is apparently related to the theft.  This time, though, the new religion forms the backdrop to the story even more directly, for the Christians, without a common enemy, have now begun to turn on each other. Constantine and Helena invite representatives of the warring factions of the Church to debate their differences in the royal presence. But can these theologians really be responsible for the theft and the murder, and for the other murders that follow? Or is an outsider deliberately causing havoc in order to sabotage the nrgotiations, or perhaps with some other quite different motive?

Then the palatial villa itself is attacked.

These are enthralling stories set in a fascinating period of history. Though no one at the time realised it, these dozen or so years before Constantine and Helena quit Rome and moved the whole caboodle to Byzantium and established the new imperial city of Constantinople (New Rome!), were the final years of the eight centuries of Roman hegemony and civilisation. After that, for a thousand years, the Popes ruled Rome and the West; another kettle of fish altogether.

Imagine Queen Victoria, the Empress of India (yes, that was one of her titles) and her son King Edward upping sticks in the 1880s and making New Delhi the imperial capital and hub of that vast empire “on which the sun never set”. What would the people of Britain – after all, it was the “British” Empire – have thought? And done?

EXPOSURE by Lisabet Sarai (Review)

A murder story featuring a stripper? (She is called an exotic dancer in the blurb, but that was obviously written by some politically correct young thing at the publisher’s office – perhaps the same one responsible for EXPOURE on the title page – Really! All right, editing standards have been declining catastrophically, and I am not talking about self-publishers – see for example my last post, Out of the Dawn Light – but the title? On the title page? Guinness Book of Records entry for don’t-give-a-hoot editing I would say.)

Now where was I? Ah, yes. A murder story featuring a stripper.

I’ve read a lot of them. I like them. I identify with her.

Of course, she or one of her friends is always the victim – as in Easy Kill, a book I reviewed a few weeks ago. Like the homeless living on the streets in Mark Billingham’s Lifeless, they are prime targets, supremely vulnerable – almost, in the case of prostitutes, asking for it: or at least that is how the public seem to see it.

But Stella, in Lisabet Sarai’s Exposure, is refreshingly different. Not only is she emphatically not a whore (her emphasis – though I think the lady doth protest a little too much here; after all, in the opening chapter she is making love to a stranger in a hotel room and being paid handsomely for her services) but, and this is the main point, she is not the victim. All right, she does wonder briefly whether the bullet was meant for her – reasonably enough in the circumstances – but her immediate reaction is to want to know more. She turns investigator.

I love that.

I loved this book.

If you enjoy a good murder story, if you also read erotica from time to time, and if you find yourself hooked by this opening line – I strip for the fun of it. Don’t let anyone tell you different – then this is the book for you. (I believe it is actually classified as erotic noir.)

While I’m at it, may I recommend Lisabet Sarai’s website, one of the best author’s sites I have come across. Among other treats she offers are a whole sheaf of free short stories for download. I read a few, and particularly enjoyed Butterfly; and I am going back again.