Tag Archives: London

Historical Mystery Satisfies on Only One Front

BluedeathI recently read A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch, his debut novel introducing Charles Lenox, an amateur detective, Victorian gentleman, and armchair explorer. The novel was described as “equal parts Sherlock Holmes…and P.G. Wodehouse” (flyleaf, St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2007). The plot revolved around the murder of a housemaid from an exotic, expensive poison. Based on this, the novel held great promise for me, but failed to deliver. Although Finch provided interesting historical details about early 19C London and lovingly described Victorian society, lavish balls, and multi-course dinners, the plot that was to hold it all together was thin and the resolution of the murder felt contrived and unconvincing. Much of the investigation and uncovering of clues comes in the form of a secondary character reporting his findings to Lenox so we do not see the action. When Lenox is on the case himself, most of his work entails accusing various suspects of the murder and questioning them. Although I am quite satisfied to read a mystery that is not all action packed but rather slowly unfolds based on various conversations as a means of uncovering the culprit, I want those talks to reveal a tense, psychological cat and mouse game. I also want the story to be to be tightly plotted with a “never saw it coming” ending to the investigation. None of this is evident in Blue Death. Although the mystery felt flat to me, I very much enjoyed the character of Charles Lenox with all his idiosyncrasies, and the constellation of friends and helpers. Finch has gone on to write several more adventures of Charles Lenox and is recognized as a successful historical mystery writer. Perhaps this was just not his best novel.

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You Can’t Go Home

Murder and Mystery in Dublin's poor inner city

Murder and Mystery in Dublin’s poor inner city

Tana French’s intriguing novel FAITHFUL PLACE is founded on the premise that you can never go home. But go home indeed is what Undercover Detective Frank Mackey is forced to do when something suspicious is uncovered in his old neighborhood. You see, back in 1985 on a cold winter eve, Frank made secret plans with his girlfriend, Rose Daly, to escape the dead-end life, poverty and dysfunctional family lives of their inner city Dublin neighborhood, Faithful Place. With a carefully planned out escape and elopement to London, Frank is uplifted by hope for once in his life. But when Rose fails to show up at the agreed upon hour and place, finding only a cryptic note, Frank  assumes she has dumped him and gone on alone. Frank leaves that night, not to return for over twenty-two years. That is, until Rose’s suitcase, packed with her clothes and tickets, turns up in a derelict building in Faithful Place. Thus begins a psychological tale of mystery pitting the successful son who “escaped” against the family members who remained home and true to their duties. In addition to family tensions, Frank is shunned as an outsider and turncoat for having become a cop, constantly judged and found lacking by dozens of watching eyes and whispering lips, evaluating his every move in the neighborhood. The mystery of Rose’s fate keeps the pages turning, as well as the tense, poignant, and cruelly realistic family vignettes in this novel. The characters are so sharply portrayed, it is hard to believe they aren’t real. French has a fine ear for language as well. The dialogue and slang of the rough streets of Dublin in the mouths of these characters, although unfamiliar, is lyrical and feels right. The only weakness I could see in the story was perhaps Frank’s daughter, Holly, who at age nine seemed a bit too sophisticated and savvy for her years.  Also, (no spoilers) a second body turns up and in the end, but I was not fully on board with the motivation for this murder was revealed. All told, however, French has spun another riveting tale of horrible violence, wrapped up and delivered in beautiful prose.

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The Third Angel

angelofdeathAlice Hoffman has always been a favorite writer of mine.  Her prose is a delicious combination of stunningly visual scenes from nature against sometimes shattering personal experiences.  Magical realism is woven through the tapestry of all her stories, and The Third Angel carries on this tradition.  The tale in this case centers around three different women who have fallen in love with not only the wrong man, but a man so terribly wrong as to send their lives into a headlong tailspin, and take a few family members with them.  First, there is Madeleine Heller, who finds herself freakishly attracted to his sister’s fiance, then there is Frieda Lewis, who throws herself at a drug-attled rock star wanna-be, and lastly Bryn Evans, headed to her wedding, while at the same time already married to another man.  What is curious and genius about the book is in the telling: the story moves backwards.  We meet the first star-crossed lovers in London at an run-down hotel, and learn about a ghost haunting one of the upstairs rooms.  As that story winds down, we meet the mother of a character, who as a girl also worked in the same hotel, so we move backwards in time to learn more, until we finally come upon the central character of the whole novel, the twelve-year-old named Lucy green, who blames herself for the tragic event that happens at the hotel, spurred the hauntings, and launches her on a decades long search for the Third Angel–not the angel of death, or the angel of life, but the angel on earth who angellifecan renew her faith.  Overall, I enjoyed the book because of Hoffman’s lyrical writing, and the clever structure of the story, weaving time backwards with related characters who meet and become intertwined, but I did, however, grow tired–exhausted!–by the end of the novel from the endless stream of destructive and desperate people in the story– preternaturally beautiful and stunning blondes,  willfully self-destructive drug addicts, self-absorbed and vain men, who only wanted to satisfy their own desires.  So, Alice Hoffman, having brought me as a reader down this path of woe, unrequited love, longing, and death, I really wanted a bigger bang at the end.  No spoilers here, but I felt that the story ended with a sort of philosophical shrug at most, after opening the reader up for much more.

alicehoffman

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