Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book review: The Laws of Murder, by Charles Finch

London, January 1876: Charles Lenox’s new detective agency has just opened for business. Having left Parliament to revive his favorite pastime on a professional basis, he hopes his previous successes and old contacts will attract new clientele. However, when he and the agency start receiving bad press, he worries he’s become a liability and is letting his three partners down.

Then, when a member of Scotland Yard pulls him in to solve the killing of one of their own, an erstwhile friend and ally of his, Lenox finds himself involved in a trio of interlinked mysteries that echo back to an incident from his past. The scene where the body is found, a beautiful street leading into Regent's Park, appears disturbingly familiar to him.

Lenox is a gentleman whose views reflect his time. A devoted husband who adores his young daughter, Sophia, he heeds the rules of the era but also wonders at the logic of a society that will let him vote but not her. He is a proud, careful man who hesitates to tell his wife, Lady Jane, about his career woes but still feels much better for having shared his problems with her. Lenox also struggles with being “in trade” – for the agency to survive, he needs to be paid for his work. All of these facets combine to make him a very human character.

The plot unfolds swiftly, and the tension runs high. One shocking revelation follows another, but Lenox untangles the multiple strands in a logical fashion; the story moves with assurance that all will be solved in the end. There’s a fair amount of wit, too, especially thanks to his French partner’s go-getter nephew, who speaks amusingly imperfect English.

The Laws of Murder features Lenox’s eighth outing, but with sufficient backstory woven into the initial pages, it stands alone with confidence. If you haven’t been introduced to this exceptional series before, this is the prime time to discover it.

The Laws of Murder will be published on November 11th by Minotaur/St. Martin's Press ($25.99 / Can$29.99, 290pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.  For US readers interested in winning a copy for themselves, see the giveaway form below the author's guest post yesterday

Monday, October 27, 2014

Guest post from Charles Finch: When did the Victorians drink their tea? (plus giveaway)

Welcome to the latest stop on Charles Finch's Whodunnit blog tour, in which the author has been dropping by different sites to write about the who, what, where, when, and why of mystery novels.  It's fitting for a historical fiction blog to feature his "When" essay, no?  (See the links within this post for the earlier stops.)

Readers in the US also have a chance to win a copy of The Laws of Murder, his latest Charles Lenox mystery set in Victorian London, thanks to Minotaur Books.  You can find the entry form at the end of this post.  For more information about the series, including a special quiz, see the dedicated landing page at Minotaur.  I'll also have a review of the new novel up later this week, and suffice it to say that I thought it was excellent.

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The Whodunnit Tour: "When"
Charles Finch

When did the Victorians drink their tea?

The answer’s not as straightforward as you might think. For one thing, our idea of “high tea” is wrong – a recent innovation, like big modern white weddings. The later you took tea in Victorian England, in fact, the lower the class you belonged to. (In many parts of working-class Britain, the evening meal is still actually called “tea” for that reason.) For the upper classes, it was “afternoon tea,” and until very late in the nineteenth century it was only accompanied by a biscuit or two, something fortifying, rather than the waterfall of cakes and sandwiches and pastries with which we now associate it.

Though, to their credit, the Cornish were drinking their tea with scones, clotted cream, and strawberry jam, the most delicious combination of foodstuffs mankind has yet dreamed up, early in the 1800s. It’s the clotted cream, not the milk in the tea, that gives that west country meal its name, by the way – cream tea.

Then there were laborers, who took tea throughout the day, made as strong as possible (very strong tea in England is still called “builder’s tea”) so that they would stay energetic through the impossibly long hours that Victorian workers were expected to work, fourteen and fifteen hours on end; or on the other end of the spectrum, the ladies of Queen Victoria’s court, who in the morning took a few weak cups of “Grey’s tea,” or what we now call Earl Grey.

author Charles Finch
(credit: Alix Smith)
And coffee! Early in the series of Victorian mystery novels I write, Charles Lenox, the detective, drank tea exclusively. Then, some time around 2009, I started drinking coffee myself, and it began to sneak without my permission into the books – a cup here or there when a character was exhausted. Now it’s here for good, Lenox’s morning drink, though coffee was more common in coffeehouses and in the navy than in private homes, in the 1860s. I guess it’s just that as I drink my own coffee I can’t seem to help myself from giving my characters some. Very generous of me.

As I’ve written the blogs of this “Whodunnit” blog tour – Who, What, Where, and now this one, “When” – I’ve tried to look at some of the big themes and choices that make up a historical mystery. Tea is a decidedly small subject, by contrast; but it’s also what defines, for me, the when of my books. I started writing the series with a book set in 1865, A Beautiful Blue Death, and by the most recent entry, The Laws of Murder, it’s 1876. In that decade a great deal happened in the public sphere. But if you really want to go back and feel the texture of life, you have to think about little things. The joy of writing these books, which are also the type of books I read, is in details, not in big, top-heavy bouts of history. I can’t read biographies. I don’t much like long volumes of history. Those are books about people that assign them the traits of history, not the traits of life. I would trade every treaty Victoria signed for a letter in which she describes one of her dogs. That’s where you’ll find it, for me – the when that can make a novel come so alive that your tea goes cold, forgotten on the table next to you.

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Charles Finch is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. He lives in Chicago.

The following giveaway for a copy of The Laws of Murder is open to US readers.  Deadline Monday, November 3rd.  One entry per person; void where prohibited.  The winner will be announced here on Tuesday 11/4.  Good luck!


Saturday, October 25, 2014

A creepy country house gothic with a creepy hero

The Winter Folly, one of the choices in my recent gallery of new country house novels, is a massive, juicy gothic saga.  A splashy beach read, but with chills an intriguing combination.  I barely noticed its 500-page length and gobbled it up in just over a day. 

Unfortunately, the clueless behavior of its modern-day heroine and its warped interpersonal relationships made the book hard to digest.

This is a dual-stranded story, with one thread set in the '60s, the other set a generation later, in the present.  Both offered some shocking surprises I didn't see coming.  One concluded in a satisfactory enough manner, albeit with some High Drama along the way.  As for the other...

In 1965 England, the sheltered, young Alexandra Crewe agrees to an arranged marriage but quickly comes to regret it.  Her love affair with an old friend, Nicky Stirling, leads her to become the unexpected mistress of Fort Stirling, a castle in Dorset which loomed large in her childhood.  Alexandra's toddler son, John, nearly tumbles to the ground while climbing the ruined old tower on the property, and other horrors are still to come.  The historical backdrop doesn't come through strongly, but I can't say anything felt out of place, either.

Delilah Stirling, Alexandra's daughter-in-law, is the novel's second heroine.  Much younger than John, she becomes his second wife after a whirlwind romance and settles in with him at the castle, but she isn't entirely easy about the decision.  There's some mystery in his past that inexplicably turns her seemingly thoughtful and beloved John, who she barely knows, into a brusque, controlling man.

She quits her London job at his request (without too much objection) and isn't permitted to make the house her own.  The dusty attic, full of old trunks and secrets, is "the only place in the house that she was allowed free rein."  John has lost his taste for socializing, so Delilah is essentially isolated.  He also pressures Delilah to get pregnant.  He laughs at her contemptuously when she tries to help him with his problems.  Good thing their sex life is so amazing, because that makes it all worth it.

With so much time on her hands, she determines to uncover the trauma in his past.  Why is there no trace of his beautiful mother after 1974?  What terrible things happened at the old folly?  There are rumors that it was the scene of a suicide...

Suspense increases as the two stories, told in alternating chapters for the most part, wind together more closely.  I was curious about the underlying mystery, and it's for this reason that I had trouble setting the novel aside.  Two-thirds of the way through, though, we have this, from Delilah's viewpoint:

"For the first time, she wondered if her marriage had been a mistake.  John had been so awful to her lately and it seemed that despite all her efforts and all her love, her marriage was crumbling ... Can I still save it? she wondered.  Do I have the strength?  Can I fix him?  But, more than that, she wondered if she still wanted to."

I kept thinking:  Delilah, hon, your husband is a manipulative creep.  Your marriage isn't healthy.  You can't "fix him."  This isn't the way it works in real life.  You need to get away.

Let me also say that this isn't paranormal fiction.  If it was, maybe I could have bought into more of Delilah's storyline.  As it was, though, its resolution left me utterly disappointed.

The Winter Folly was published by Pan in 2014; this was a personal purchase.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

E. B. Moore's An Unseemly Wife: A different look at the American westward migration

In 1867, two visitors to Aaron Holtz's central Pennsylvania farm stop by to tell him enticing tales of free land out west.  With four young children and another on the way, he can't resist the opportunity to provide a prosperous future for his family even though he and his wife, Ruth, already have a happy, plentiful life.  To her shock and dismay, and even greater fear, Ruth gets pulled into Aaron's daring plan to uproot their family and livelihood and travel to distant Idaho by Conestoga wagon alongside a group of strangers.

This isn't your typical novel about a family's 19th-century westward migration, for Ruth, Aaron, and their "littles" are all members of a tight-knit Amish community.  Ruth has never so much as crossed to the other side of Lancaster County before, let alone spoken to one of the "English."  A dutiful wife who obeys the husband she loves, Ruth does her best to ready herself and her children for the months-long trek.  Knowing that they risk attack by Indians if they travel alone, she sees her forced interaction with non-Amish settlers as "one evil warding off a greater evil."

I found myself unprepared for this novel's emotional heft.  Moore renders her heroine's physical and inner journeys with sensitivity and great depth, giving readers a sense of how wrenching it is for Ruth to disobey the Ordnung followed by the Plain People and leave everything she knows for parts and places unknown.  Through wagon mishaps, illness, personal betrayal, and periods of even more intense darkness, Ruth already a tough woman who had been "childbearer, cook, housekeeper, milker, horse trainer, sheep shearer, gardener, plowman, field hand" develops even greater strength and an independence that would have been previously unthinkable.  I very much enjoyed the poetic writing style but also wanted to turn the pages quickly to see where Ruth's journey was leading her.  This is a hard-hitting, courageous book.

An Unseemly Wife was published by NAL this month in trade paperback ($15.00 / Can$17.00, 320pp), including discussion questions and a Q&A with the author. I had picked up an ARC at a library conference earlier this summer and was also granted access via NetGalley.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mañana Means Heaven, the story of the "Mexican girl" from Jack Kerouac's On the Road

Legendary Beat writer Jack Kerouac passed away in the wee hours of the morning on Tuesday, October 21st, forty-five years ago.  His autobiographical novel On the Road, chronicling his restlessness and search for identity on a cross-country trip he took in the late '40s, is perhaps his best-known work today; it's still widely read and studied in American classrooms.

One of his most memorable characters from that work is "Terry, the Mexican girl," a migrant farm worker from California's central agricultural region who he met at a bus station in Bakersfield when she was trying to escape her abusive husband.  She had left her two children behind, temporarily, in an attempt to earn some money and set up a new life for herself first.  In the book, Terry and Jack's fictional persona, "Sal Paradise," have a passionate two-week affair that plays out in Los Angeles and in the migrant labor camps of the San Joaquin Valley before they part and move on with their separate lives.

Some years back, poet, performance artist, and writer Tim Z. Hernandez, an admirer of Kerouac's, had begun writing a novel about Bea Franco, the real-life inspiration for "Terry."  Scholars knew her name (and her family members' names) from his journals and her letters to him, but she was otherwise lost to literary historyThat is, until Hernandez got stuck during the writing process and decided to do some firsthand research on his subject.

He looked around in public records, phoned around to area cemeteries, and even hired a private investigator... but got nowhere.  This is where the story really gets fascinating.

From a 2013 piece from Public Radio International:

"The private investigator said to me before we parted ways, 'In all my years of experience, dead people are very easy to find. It's people who are alive that are difficult to find. Have you ever thought that she was alive?'" said Hernandez. 

Hernandez ended up finding Beatrice (Renteria) Franco Kozera, who was nearly 90 and living with her daughter just a mile or so from his hometown.  Neither she nor her children had known about Jack Kerouac's subsequent fame, or that she was immortalized in his novel or that they themselves had been mentioned in numerous biographies and works of literary criticism.

His award-winning novel, Mañana Means Heaven, is an intermingling of fiction and fact, based on his native knowledge of the region and interviews with Bea toward the end of her life.  It's an unusual historical novel in that it couldn't have been written with such depth and meaning without the cooperation of its subject.  A photo of Bea (circa 1942) appears on the novel's cover.

You can read more about the story in an interview with the author from the Fresno Bee.

I read Mañana Means Heaven this past summer, and much of it has stayed with me. No knowledge of Kerouac or his work is needed; Bea is the focus here, and Hernandez demonstrates that her version of their story is an equally important contribution to the historical American experience.  In 1947, when they meet, Jack is an aspiring writer whose background and sensitive outlook makes him different from the men Bea knows from the campo.  In the company of the man she calls "Jackie," she dares to dream of a life in which poverty doesn't weigh her down, but she feels torn between him and her love for her innocent children.  It's an emotional story, both honest and melancholy, and yet hopeful at the same time.  The setting isn't one that was familiar to me personally, but the portrayals felt so true that I was able to identify with Bea every step of the way.  I highly recommend it.

Mañana Means Heaven was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2013.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Wynfield's Kingdom: The making of a Neo-Victorian child hero, a guest essay by Marina J. Neary

Marina Julia Neary is here today with an essay about a literary archetype that appears in classic Victorian literature as well as in one of her own novels.  She also details her experience in seeing characters she created come to life on stage.  Details and photos below.

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Wynfield's Kingdom:
The Making of a Neo-Victorian Child Hero
Marina Julia Neary

When I started writing the first draft of what became Wynfield's Kingdom at the age of fifteen, I did not realize I was trying to create a Neo-Victorian child hero or resurrect an archetype that was so prominent in 19th-century literature. That term was not familiar to me at the time. I read a lot of literature but not a lot of literary criticism. I just knew what type of character I gravitated towards, and it was never the romantic brooding leading man. It was the spunky, street-smart, barricade-climbing child who navigates between social classes without belonging to either one of them and yet sympathizing with everyone, even his enemies.

They have impressive survival skills, yet paradoxically their self-preservation instinct seems to go out the window when they are presented with an opportunity to show off their heroism. They don't have to be saintly or altruistic, but they do possess a benevolent streak, meaning they do not bully those who are weaker, though they do derive a certain amount of pleasure of provoking authority figures.

We are talking about Gavroche Thenardier in Les Miserables and the lesser-known Jehan Frollo in Notre-Dame de Paris. In British literature we have a string of similar characters in Charles Dickens' novels, one of the most prominent being Oliver Twist. Over the decades, cinematic and theatrical directors have exploited these characters for sentimental purposes, simplifying them, making them one-dimensional, somehow more palatable to general audiences and, as result, somewhat cartoonish. Thanks to Boublil and Schönberg, I can no longer think of Gavroche without hearing "Little People" in my head. My hands itch to choke the performer. One of Hugo's most intriguing child characters has been reduced to a cute homeless puppy. A big part of Gavroche's cuteness is that he dies young.

Now imagine if Gavroche had not died on the barricades. Imagine if he had lived into his mid-twenties. Would he still be adorable and endearing? Or would he have turned into his father? The possibilities are numerous. Maybe Hugo had a good reason to kill his young hero before he had a chance to become a disappointment to his fellow-characters as well as the readers.

Little by little I started toying with the idea of evolving a child hero. At the age of twenty-seven I resurrected an old manuscript from the bottom of my hard drive and decided to reshape the protagonist, incorporating some of the archetypal elements, putting my own decorative twists on the classic frame. This is where the term Neo-Victorian comes into play a contemporary author reinventing and reimagining the 19th century. It was also an opportunity for me to engage my dark sense of humor to the fullest.

The result is before your very eyes. Meet Wynfield Grant the king of London slums, an overgrown street urchin, whose maturity level is that of a ten-year-old. A former gang member, savagely beaten for insubordination by the ringleader, he is taken in by a sociopath physician who had lost his medical license. The child blossoms into a romantic opium addict who steals and resells revolvers, puts on comedy skits at taverns and plays darts with his simpleton mates who look up to him for leadership. Immaturity, by the way, is a potent psychological defense mechanism. If you manage to convince yourself that you are still ten years old, the burden of your semi-criminal existence becomes a little easier to bear.

Wynfield's Kingdom, published in 2009 by Fireship Press, brought me modest critical acclaim. I ended up on the cover of the First Edition magazine in the UK and featured in the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal in Wales. There is a theatrical version of the same story, only told from Victor Hugo's perspective. The play opened in Greenwich in 2008 and was subsequently acquired by Heuer Publishing for licensing and distribution.

I am happy to share some of the most illustrative photos from the production. The character of Wynfield was brought to life by a talented young actor, John Noel, who is now gaining prominence on the stages of New York City. It was one of the most transformative and empowering experiences for me as a writer to see the character I conceived in high-school fleshed out on stage fifteen years later. Wynfield, my child-hero, became real to the audiences.








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Marina Julia Neary's Wynfield's Kingdom was published by Fireship Press in 2009 and re-released in 2013 in paperback and ebook with an attractive new cover (at top). 

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas, a sojourn into the Victorian theatre world

Thomas’ follow-up to her wide-ranging romantic epic, The Kashmir Shawl (2013), takes place within the narrower confines of the Victorian theatrical world but is equally gripping. In 1885, when the charismatic Devil Wix meets Carlo Boldoni, a dwarf with undeniable magical skills, they become a dynamic team whose “box trick” electrifies audiences at a shabby venue in London’s Strand. Devil has grand ambitions, though—“to transform the Palmyra Theatre into a palace of illusions... it should be a place of wonderment.

The darkly compelling Devil, an unrepentant gambler with a haunted past, grabs readers’ attention from page one. Surrounding him is a varied cast that includes Heinrich Bayer, who unnervingly treats his mechanical dance partner like a real woman, and Eliza Dunlop, a smart, courageous artist’s model hoping for a starring role in Devil’s life. While the background details on stage magic and the theater business are captivating, Devil and Eliza’s ardent love story is the book’s emotional heart, and the ever-changing connections among all its intriguing performers fill it with genuine life and vitality.

The Illusionists was published by Overlook Press in hardcover in July ($27.95, 480pp).  This review first appeared in the June 15th issue of Booklist.

Some additional comments:

- Rosie Thomas is a prolific UK author who has worked with a variety of styles and settings.  Her earlier The Kashmir Shawl (reviewed here in 2012) won the Romantic Novelists' Association award for best epic romance, but The Illusionists isn't the same type of book.

- Although the British cover for The Illusionists (at right) is gorgeous and no doubt has the book flying off the shelves, I think the US version (at top) fits the tone of the story more appropriately.  Note the differences in color, subject matter, and font.

- The publisher's description for this novel has errors.  The novel takes place in the year 1885, not 1870, and Devil's partner is Carlo Boldoni, not Bonomi. The mistakes have crept into many other reviews, alas.  Naturally, the author's website has it right.