Wednesday, November 22, 2017

L. C. Tyler, A Masterpiece of Corruption


L. C. Tyler, A Masterpiece of Corruption
Constable © 2015 L.C. Tyler
ISBN 978-1-4721-1496-9

Following nearly a decade of civil war, Charles I has been defeated (and executed), Charles Stuart (also known as Charles II) has fled to Belgium, and Oliver Cromwell has become Lord Protector.  And John Grey (whom we first met in A Cruel Necessity) has become a law student, in London, in the winter of 1657.  His father, a Royalist, has also fled to Belgium, and his mother has “remarried.”  John’s life is about to become almost unbearably complicated.

A letter arrives at the house in which he is lodging, which reads

Mr. S. K. presents his compliments to one newly arrived and begs your presence at his chambers at Gray’s Inn.  He wishes to be better acquainted with you.  Have no fears—he is an honorable man and wishes you no hurt.  Tonight at seven o’clock would be agreeable.  Ask the porter for directions.  The one-eyed porter, not the other one.

When he gets to Grey’s Inn (where a number or lawyers have places of business), he is directed to the chambers of one Sir Richard Willys (of whom he has never heard), where he finds two men.  After some confusion (they were clearly expecting someone else), they accept him, and he lets them know that he knows who S. K. is—and that they are Royalists working for the re-establishment of the monarchy.  They think he is a co-conspirator, come to England to assassinate Cromwell.  Grey can hardly just try to walk away.  First he thinks his father is somehow involved.  And, somewhat more urgently, if he does try to walk away, they’re more likely to kill him than wish him a pleasant evening.

And with that Grey becomes involved with Royalist plots.  And, in short order, with Republican counter-plots, as he is almost immediately coerced into working for Cromwell’s spy service, to uncover the plot and report on it.

Tyler handles the period quite well, both in terms of the intrigue and the politics (for reference, here’s a handy timeline of Cromwell’s life: http://historysheroes.e2bn.org/hero/minitimeline/3), but also for the mundane facts of travel and accommodations in the late 17th century.  Grey is an engaging narrator, and the supporting cast—Cromwell, Charles Stuart and his advisors in Belgium, an assortment of conspirators on either (or both) sides, and Grey’s acquaintances—add depth to the narrative. 

Given the timeline, it should be no surprise that by the end of this episode in Grey’s life, Cromwell has died (in September 1658), and old allegiances are once again re-worked.  But the twists and turns that bring us to that point make a rather remarkable story.   Particularly for those with an interest in this period of English history, this will be an enjoyable few hours.  And also for those who just enjoy a good mystery.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Mark Pryor, The Crypt Thief


Mark Pryor, The Crypt Thief
Seventh Street Books © 2013 Mark Pryor
ISBN 978-1-61614-785-5

As a general rule, I’m not a fan of nutcase serial killer books; on the other hand, I have truly enjoyed the Hugo Marston series by Mark Pryor (of which this is the third I have read).  So which of these attitudes won out?

Well, Pryor clearly loves Paris and he does an excellent job of making you feel you are in Paris.  (I have included a photo of one of the riverboats on the Seine,; such a houseboat plays a role in the story.  The continuing characters, starting with Marston, are well-conceived and people I, for one, want to spend time with. 


In this entry in the series, two young tourists are found murdered ((one of the dead is the son of a US Senator who was about to start a job in the US Embassy, where Marston is head of security near Jim Morrison’s tomb in the Pere Lachaise cemetery), and there are indications that the killer was in the cemetery for a purpose that he was unable to complete.  So the police, with Marston’s cooperation and assistance arrange in-depth surveillance of the cemetery, and, as it turns out, he returns.  And somehow escapes.  (The intelligent reader is likely to get to the how of the escape pretty quickly.)

The situation is exacerbated by the Senator’s insistence that the perpetrator is a Muslim terrorist, so the effort to catch the murderer is potentially being disrupted by a search for the terrorist.  Marston hasn’t bought the terrorist angle, so he continues to pursue the crazed serial path while his friend and ex-CIA agent (still doing some jobs for them) Tom Green is involved in the search for the terrorist.

The book is quite readable (I read it in about 6 hours of one day), and the narrative is compelling.  The risks to everyone involved are clear, and Pryor does an excellent job of making us aware (often uncomfortably) or our surroundings.  So I am, in a way, glad to have read it.  But the crazed serial killer aspect (and, believe me, this killer is crazed) made it a difficult read for me.  There are at least 4 more books in the series, and I sincerely hope that we do not run into another nutcase serial killer.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Steve Hockensmith (with Lisa Falco), Give the Devil His Due


Steve Hockensmith (with Lisa Falco), Give the Devil His Due
Midnight Ink; First Edition, © 2017
ISBN-13: 978-0738742243

In the first book in this series (The White Magic Five and Dime, 2015), Alanis McLachlan has moved to Berdache, Arizona upon inheriting her mother’s new age store, The White Magic Five and Dime.  (Along with the shop, she inherits her half-sister Clarice.)  Unfortunately, her mother was a con artist, and Alanis was—before she broke away—an apprentice con artist.  Her mother has been murdered, and now the store (along with a fair amount of undeclared cash) is hers.  She decides to take on the store and try to make amends for the years of deception.  And in the process learns enough about Tarot to help keep the store afloat without fleecing the customers.

Berdache is, according to Alanis, a “Sedona light,” new-agey, but not thriving.  And in the first book, and in the second (Fool Me Once), Alanis has to think fast and work hard to solve some mysteries.

And, in Give the Devil His Due, the devil—her mother’s partner in con, Biddle (no first name that I can remember) shows up; Alanis had thought him long since dead.  (I’m pretty sure “Biddle” is the Devil referred to in the title.)  Things rapidly get weird.  An older man enters the store and asks to use the john…and disappears.  Another man, whom Alanis immediately pegs as some king of cop wanders into the store.  So she uses a ruse to get Clarice (and her girlfriend CeeCee) out of the store so she can give the guy a Tarot reading.

The weirdness expands to involve a German billionaire, a reporter, a couple of older former mob guys, a senior-citizen female professional killer, a local crook (GW) who would like to get closer to Alanis, and a stolen (in 1991) Van Gogh.

Large chunks of the plot are fairly far-fetched, but the characters are intriguing, the dialogue is smart, and the story moves quite quickly along.  And the resolution, if somewhat far-fetched, is handled very well.

I do have one reservation about the plot hook here—the stolen Van Gogh—a reservation I have in a lot of mysteries in which a valuable and important painting is at the core of the plot.  The people involves, both the bad guys and the good guys, too often seem to treat the multi-million work of art in ways that seem highly likely to cause serious damage to it.  And, in my opinion, it happens here.  (Also, the value of the painting is given as $2.5 million, which might have been plausible several decades ago, but now?  Eh, not so much.)

It’s not clear whether Biddle will return in the next outing (but we can hope).  I enjoyed the book quite a lot, reading it in one big gulp (of about 4 hours).  And I hope the series continues.

Friday, November 10, 2017

And now, a movie review: Murder on the Orient Express

We (finally) got to the theater to see Murder on the Orient Express today (we've both seen the 1974 Albert Finney version and the more recent David Suchet version, and we've both read the book). Since I first read the book--a long time ago--I've been somewhat prejudiced against it, because I think the ending is something of a cheat. But it has worked well as a movie.

Both the 1974 version and the 2017 one have things in common--chiefly that they are both "star" vehicles, especially in the non-lead roles. The 1974 version, for example, has these folks in it:
Albert Finney
Lauren Bacall
Ingrid Bergman (who, for me, was reason enough to see it)
Jacqueline Bisset
Sean Connery
John Gielgud
Wendy Hiller
Anthony Perkins
Vanessa Redgrave
Rachel Roberts


If anything, that's more star power than the remake (but not by much):
Kenneth Bramagh
Daisy Ridley
Penelope Cruz
Johnny Depp
Derek Jacobi
Michelle Pfeiffer
Judi Dench
Willem Dafoe


And, in fact, one of my problems with both feature film productions is that most of those stars are mostly wasted.

As it happens, we both mostly enjoyed the current version (although the sound, in the theater in which we saw it, was muddy), at least while we were watching it. But, as I have thought about it afterwards, it was not a particularly well-made movie. Much of the "location" footage was at best adequate (and the opening scenes were pretty much unnecessary). The use of camera movement once we got on the train was distracting (and did not add anything). And the set d├ęcor and lighting were at best adequate.

But, again, for me, the waste of talent was appalling. Johnny Depp, as Edward Ratchett, seemed bored. He had a right to be--he didn't have much to do. Judy Dench had, I think, about 8 words of dialogue, and, while she sat nicely in her train seat, that's about all she did. Willem Dafoe didn't have much to do, either. I thought Daisy Ridley was about as engaging as anyone, and that Michelle Pfeiffer was excellent. Bramagh (I know a lot of people didn't like his 'stache, but it didn't bother me all that much) just seemed wrong as Poirot--not dedicated enough to the use of the little grey cells (and what was the deal with the picture he was carrying with him), and seeming to jump from suspect to suspect almost at random. Maybe he was too concerned with directing the thing than with his performance.

Fortunately, we get the senior citizen discount and we both had a really nice lunch before the movie. I think we'll watch the David Suchet version again, just to see how it holds up

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Elizabeth Edmondson, A Question of Inheritance


Elizabeth Edmondson, A Question of Inheritance
Thomas & Mercer © 2015
ISBN-13: 978-1503947856
Also available as an ebook

The second in the series featuring Hugo Hawkesworth, who is still working for British Intelligence despite a severe leg injury.  We first encountered him in A Man of Some Repute, in which Hawkesworth unravels a 7-year-old mystery.  A consequence of that discovery is that an unexpected claimant to the Earldom of Selchester has been discovered—a 40-ish American  history professor, Augustine (Gus) Fitzwarin, and he and his two daughters (Babs and Polly) have arrived shortly before Christmas in 1953.  The old Earl’s daughter Sonya is very disturbed by this, as she had expected to inherit the property (if not the title) and had expected to sell it for at the very least a small fortune.

As a part of that, she has plans to sell a stash of paintings, the provenance of which is doubtful in the extreme, and she has brought Oliver Seynton, a somewhat ethically flexible art expert from a somewhat ethically flexible auction house, to Selchester Castle to examine a cache of paintings she has hidden in the castle.  She hopes to make up a part of what she had expected to be her inheritance by selling them quietly.

And a severe snowstorm strikes England, disrupting rail and road traffic, so, at least for a day or so, no one is going anywhere—except to the village.  And, of course, murder ensues.

Hawkesworth’s connection with the intelligence community and his wartime experience give him son insight and some standing as the local police begin their investigation.  And the past is very much a part of the present events.

The characters are well-conceived and (at least as far as I’m concerned) seem to be “real” people, not just characters slotted into their roles in a story.  The pace is leisurely, and we spend at least as much time and attention on the people as we do on the murder, which, in this case at least, works well enough.  I was not particularly thrilled by the first book in the series, but this one is a significant advance.  I’m now looking forward to the third (A Matter of Loyalty).