The Sanctuary Seeker – Bernard Knight (1998) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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The first in a set of ten Bernard Knight books I purchased from “The Book People” quite a while ago has at last been taken down from the bookshelf and read.

It is the opener to Knight’s “Crowner John Mystery” series about Exeter based King’s Coroner Sir John de Wolfe.  Set at the end of the twelfth century this is the first medieval novel I’ve read for quite a while.  I overdosed on Bernard Cornwell’s a while back and decided I needed a break from the hard existence, the mud and the travelling to and fro but all that is certainly present and correct in Knight’s novel.

He has set up a good character here for a historical crime series and you can tell there’s certainly a lot of mileage in Crowner John (the other nine books on my shelves also tell me that, not to mention the other five which take the series up to 15 with a prequel to this novel 2012’s “Crowner’s Crusade” being the latest).  Whilst reading this I was reminded of another historical sleuth Gordanius The Finder in the Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor, set in Ancient Rome which I must pick up on again.

In 1194 it was decreed that all counties should appoint coroners.  This caused conflict in areas between the existing law officials, the sheriffs, with duties being split between the two.  In Knight’s Devon circumstances have meant that John de Wolfe is the only crowner for the county and this professional tension is further notched up as the sheriff is his brother-in-law and there is no love lost between the two.  Home life is already strained by John’s relationship with his wife, the sheriff’s sister Matilda, which causes John to look elsewhere for comfort.

It did take me a while to get into this book and in common with a number of historical crime novels it is based around a number of set pieces on the legal practices of the time.  Here it is the ability of an accused person to seek sanctuary for forty days from a church; the process of “amercement” whereby a village can be fined for not following the legal powers granted to the coroner to the letter and, most memorably in this book, Trial by Ordeal.  This old practice was eventually abolished by the Pope some twenty years after this novel was set and here it is used to prove guilt.  It was a barbaric ritual where the accused would have to complete a task, which would likely lead to serious maiming or their death but may prove innocence, if for some reason the inevitable medical repercussions did not occur.  This is rather like the well-known treatment of witches in ducking stools where if they lived they were found guilty but if they drowned they were deemed blameless.  John is opposed to such practices which are still deemed to be worthy by the Church and his brother-in-law.

A body of a recently returned Crusader  is found in the village of Widecombe and Crowner John together with sidekick Cornishman Gwyn of Polruan and clerk Ralph, a defrocked priest are required to hold an inquest to ascertain responsibility for the death.  Bernard Knight was himself a Home Office pathologist who carried out thousands of autopsies so he is certainly writing what he knows. The historical aspect of his old job is obviously a passion and he certainly brings twelfth century Devon to life.  He had been writing novels since the early 60’s, a number as Bernard Picton, but it is from here onwards that he really begins to make his name.  This is a good, solid introduction to a historical crime mystery series.

threestars

The Sanctuary Seeker was published in 2008 by Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

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Crimson & Bone- Marina Fiorato (Hodder & Stoughton 2017)

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I really enjoyed Marina Fiorato’s last novel “The Double Life Of Kit Kavanagh” which was a vibrant account of an extraordinary gender-challenging woman who, away from the author’s fictional account of her life, became the first female Chelsea Pensioner in tribute to her distinguished military service.  Here Marina Fiorato returns to purely imaginative historical fiction, taking her inspiration for her main character the young woman portrayed in John Everett Millais’ painting “The Bridesmaid”.

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Fiorato recasts this woman as Annie Stride, a prostitute whom we encounter at the beginning about to recreate the recent suicide of her only friend by jumping off Waterloo Bridge.  She is stopped by a passer-by, Francis Maybrick Gill, a Pre-Raphaelite artist who nutures Annie as his model and muse.  There is a simmering tension throughout as Annie attempts to put her miserable past behind her whilst something is askew with her relationship with the artist.

The plot moves from Central London to Florence as Gill takes Annie with him for further inspiration.  His main theme is the fallen woman throughout history and Annie finds herself his Mary Magdalene.  There’s admittedly a slight dip in interest when the novel first moves to Italy but the author makes up for that with an excellently handled last third.

When I moved into my new house I was delighted to find a Camelia in the garden, but after this I’m not so sure as the flower here plays a slightly menacing role, becoming overly dominant in Annie’s new life, from its cloying smell to the artist’s obsession with Alexandre Dumas’ “La Dame Aux Camelias”.

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Plot, characterisation and atmosphere are handled here so well that this book confirms Marina Fiorato’s reputation as a strong historical story-teller.  She gets across the darkness and obsession present throughout the novel very well indeed and never overplays her hand, avoiding the melodrama it could so easily have become.  Like the best historical fiction, the history is incorporated seamlessly creating a seductive yet chilling tale.

fourstars

Crimson and Bone is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 18th May 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Picador 2013) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A little while back I read Australian author Hannah Kent’s second novel “The Good People”,  a dark sombre tale set in nineteenth century Ireland with superstition and folklore battling against religion and common sense.  A friend, who read and loved it recommended I seek out Kent’s debut and I am very glad I have.

This writer can certainly do atmosphere.  The claustrophobic smoke-filled peat huts of village Ireland are here replaced by the darkness, freezing conditions and damp wool of nineteenth century Iceland.  Like “The Good People” Kent has used a real-life case for this historical crime novel.  Here it is the plight of Agnes Magnusdottir whose claim for infamy is that she was the last person to be executed for murder in Iceland in 1834.

Following a spell in prison after the death of two men Agnes is sent out to lodge with a local official’s family to await her beheading and to get access to a local minister who would attempt to set her back on the right path.  Agnes had previously spent some time in the area where she had met a young Reverend who she nominates as the man to meet with her. With an Icelandic winter approaching escape from her situation is unlikely and she becomes involved with the work of the family in their preparation for winter.

Her tale is largely told in the one room of the farm with the family and workers, understandably wary of the murderess in their midst, listening in.

This is some debut with Kent totally abandoning the “write what you know” advice to recreate nineteenth century Iceland.  She had spent some time in the country as an exchange student.  This was when the location of the real-life Agnes’ execution was pointed out to here but this novel obviously required a vast amount of research and immersion into the environment to give its intense atmosphere and make it totally convincing.  Her absorption of Icelandic sagas is incorporated into the narrative style of the novel.  This is backed up with good use of documents and reports, which I’m loving in crime novels at the moment and which was the real strength of “His Bloody Project” another nineteenth century tale of murder in a small, isolated community.

The fate of Agnes and the truth about her incarceration is central to the novel and the theme of the woman outside the norm being seen as somehow wicked is a fairly universal one for the time when it was set.  Agnes could have indeed worked as a character in Victorian England but what Kent would have not been able to achieve is this intensity, the claustrophobia, the darkness and dampness nor the vivid impression of the life of these Icelandic folk.

If asked to choose between the two I might give “The Good People” a slight edge because I really enjoyed the way it incorporated Irish folklore into the story.  These two novels show Kent as a writer with so much potential.  I  was also fascinated by the author’s account of the writing of this novel in the back of the paperback edition I read.

fourstars

Burial Rites was published by Picador in 2013.

The Author Strikes Back – Vaughn Entwistle

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I was very pleased to be contacted recently by Vaughn Entwistle whose novel “The Angel Of Highgate” I found so entertaining.  Vaughn left a comment on my review (always a little nerve-wracking when an author does this).  I contacted him to thank him for his kind words and was thrilled that he has agreed to answer questions about his book.  I am also delighted that he dressed up for the occasion.    So without further ado…………….

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What is it about Highgate Cemetery that made you choose it as a central location for your novel?

The inspiration for the novel came many, many years ago when I was a  graduate student. I was wandering the stacks of the university library when I happened to pick up a book entitled: Highgate Cemetery: Victorian Valhalla, by Felix Barker.

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There wasn’t much text: just a brief introduction to the history of Highgate Cemetery and a few simple maps of the grounds. But what made the book so compelling were the atmospheric black and white photographs taken by John Gay, a professional photographer. The book was published in 1988 and many of the photographs were taken around that time. They show a Highgate in full surrender to nature with its tombs and statuary (many since lost to erosion or attacks by vandals) wreathed in vines and slowly submerging beneath foliage. At this time, West Highgate had long gone out of business as a cemetery and was derelict and overgrown.  A volunteer society: The Friends of Highgate Cemetery, have since taken it over and are working to restore the cemetery, which now also serves as a wildlife sanctuary and is home to many species of birds, as well as foxes, badgers, and the occasional wallaby. (Yes, really!)

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Highgate Cemetery

As I pored over the book, I was immediately struck by the sheer gravitas of the place:  gothic, mysterious, and suffused in entropic decay. Here’s a few words you may or may not be familiar with: tapophile (one who loves graves, cemeteries and funerals) and coimetromania (an abnormal compulsion to visit cemeteries). Both words aptly describe me. I grew up in northern England watching Hammer films and loved all things spooky and eldritch. At any rate, the book affected me deeply and I immediately recognized that Highgate would make a magnificent setting for a novel. After university I went on to have a career as a writer/editor working in various industries, but part of my mind was still back in Highgate cemetery, spawning a cast of characters to inhabit this moody necropolis. Decades later, I finally sat down to write The Angel of Highgate, a novel in which the cemetery functions as a major character in the dramatic action.

Described as “the wickedest man in London”, a description which certainly seems fitting at the start of the novel where there’s a little bit of playful misleading from yourself, main character Lord Geoffrey Thraxton has to win us readers over, which he does.  How did you develop the character of this unlikely hero?

My protagonist, Lord Geoffrey Thraxton is a louche lord with Byronesque pretensions and a morbid fascination with death. Like Highgate, Thraxton is a dark mirror of the Victorian era, whose outward veneer of Empire, modernity and wealth concealed a seething underworld of vice and crime, crushing poverty, and rampant disease such as consumption (tuberculosis), which prematurely snuffed out rich and poor alike. It could be argued that the Victorians fetishised death with their elaborate mourning rituals and their creation of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries—Highgate, Kensal Green, etc.  A more shocking example currently circulating the web is photos of Victorian families posing with dead relatives/children.  Although ghastly and ghoulish to modern eyes, the photographs were taken as treasured mementos of a lost beloved.

Like many of the time, Thraxton suffered a deep trauma in early childhood when his mother died.  Thraxton’s brutish father soon remarried and withdrew all love from the young boy, who was left to wander the cold halls of Thraxton hall, forgotten and alone. By chance the young lord strayed into the family mausoleum and found that the screws of his mother’s coffin had been removed. Thraxton opened the lid . . . and crawled inside, seeking the comforting embrace of his mother’s arms.

 “The Angel of Highgate” is a highly enjoyable Victorian novel.  Which novels from the Victorian period have given you the most enjoyment?

Anything by Dickens, of course. Bleak House is arguably my favourite. I read Oliver Twist at very young age and still remember it vividly (especially the scene where he is apprenticed to a coffin maker and spends a terrifying night alone with the coffins). This scene is probably what gave me the twisted sensibilities that later drove me to write The Angel of Highgate. The Woman in White and Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, are other faves. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot is poetic and beautiful. And of course, Austen is represented by Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The Victorians produced a singularly amazing coterie of poets/playwrights and novelists. 

 

Some of Vaughn’s Victorian picks

One section which is written with real relish is how Lord Thraxton deals with a critic who savaged his poetry.  Thraxton describes critics as “leeches sucking on the body of art” and his subsequent treatment should make us reviewers wince.  What’s the worst criticism you have had to endure?

I don’t know if it was apparent to readers (some material was edited out) but Thraxton was a pretty lousy poet and the unfortunate critic’s scathing review of Thraxton’s collection of poetry was entirely warranted.

I have to admit that bad reviews wound at the deepest level and are hard to recover from. At first I read every review, good or bad. But I have found that the bad reviews tend to stick in one’s mind much longer than the good reviews, so now I stop reading a review as soon as I gather that it is turning negative. (There is enough rejection in a novelist’s life; I don’t need to go looking for more.)

I will say that reviewers on web sites are generally fairer than the snarky comments one reads on sites like GoodReads or Amazon. There is a lot of obvious trolling and “sock-puppeting” taking place on these sites and reading some critiques it soon becomes apparent that the reviewer has not even read the book, as evidenced by confused character identifications and other giveaways.

One thing that helps me put criticism in perspective is to read reviews of books by authors that I greatly admire. Even terrific writers who have written terrific books receive the odd nasty review. On GoodReads you can check out reader reviews of books such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In amongst the five star reviews you will find a scattering of one and two star reviews by people trying to convince the rest of the world that, despite the massive success of these novels, the books are trash and that the rest of us are deluded fools. I don’t understand why these people can’t admit that the novel was just “not their kind of book.”

Speaking of which, I recently received the worst review I’ve ever had on the website Fandom Post. The reviewer opined that every character was a cliché, every situation in the book was a cliché, and basically hated every sentence.

The sheer vitriol of the review took my aback, since most of the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? I think the reviewer even hated the cover art and the type font. If only I could arrange a meeting between this critic and my antagonist, Dr. Silas Garrette (insert fiendish laughter here: Moohahaha!)

What’s next for Vaughn Entwistle?

I am currently writing the third novel in my Paranormal Casebooks series, entitled The Faery Vortex and I am also working on a collection of Ghost/Horror/Weird fiction stories. 

Lastly, I would like to end by thanking Phil Ramage and all the other independent book bloggers out there. Now that most major newspapers have decreased or reduced the size of their book review pages, independent Book Bloggers are vital resource for both readers and writers alike.

 Thanks, to you all for what you do.

 

Thanks for the thumbs up, Vaughn and for the considered responses to the questions which have certainly enriched the experience of “The Angel Of Highgate” for me.  Both this and his two novels  in his “Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”  “The Revenant of Thraxton Hall” and “The Dead Assassin” are available from Amazon (Clicking on the titles should take you straight there).

For more information about Vaughn Entwistle you can visit his website or the website of his publishers Titan Books.

 

 

The Double Life Of Mistress Kit Kavanagh – Marina Fiorato (Hodder 2015)

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Back when I was in Primary School a very elderly teacher used to come in to teach the class singing.  She taught a selection of traditional ballads that I’d never heard before or mostly, never since but there was one that has always stuck in my head.  It was the tale of “Sweet Polly Oliver” who  “lay musing in bed/when a sudden strange fancy came into her head”.  She decides to dress in her dead brother’s clothes and enlist as a soldier to be with the man she loves who was serving in the army.  This song probably dating from the 1840’s ran through my head whilst I was reading Marina Fiorato’s impressive seventh novel.

Kit Kavanagh decides to do the same as Polly Oliver after her husband takes the Queen’s Shilling in their Dublin bar in 1702.  Kit follows him, ending up in conflict in Italy as a member of the Royal Scots Grey Dragoons.  This novel has a lot to tell us about gender.  Kit purchases a silver implement to provide the necessary physical adaptations and is increasingly able to throw herself into the life of a soldier.  She faces a dilemma when she begins to have feelings for her Captain and becomes confused by his attentions to her.  I was urging her on to find her husband but that is only part of the story and Kit’s tale becomes increasingly fascinating.  At times I did think things were straining the bounds of plausibility and it was not until I finished the book that I discovered it is strongly based on fact.  Kit Kavanagh did serve in the Dragoons, became the first female Chelsea Pensioner because of her distinguished army service and was commended by Queen Anne.  She could have feasibly been the inspiration for “Sweet Polly Oliver” written in the next century.

Just as the ballad of Polly Oliver was running through my mind there’s an earlier Irish ballad which was obviously running through Fiorato’s as “Arthur McBride” is present throughout.  It is the tale of two cousins who encounter a pair of soldiers who attempt to press them into the army.  I very much like the way Fiorato uses this throughout as a “touchstone” for the story she is telling.

The tale twists and turns sometimes in surprising directions and I was rooting for Kit right from the opening scenes when she is offered money by a stranger travelling in a carriage to roll down the hill so he could view what was under her dress to her final days in the Chelsea Hospital, reflecting a life where, for a time, she had something very different under her clothing.

It is well-written, vibrant, bawdy (there’s a few new swear words to be learnt here) and highly readable.  The fact that it tells the tale of a forgotten extraordinary woman is icing on the cake.  I think Marina Fiorato is for me a very good find and I am looking forward to reading her other historical novels.

fourstars(and very close to being 5*)

The Double Life Of Mistress Kit Kavanagh was published by Hodder in 2015.  Many thanks to the publishers and Bookbridgr for the review copy.

Wolf Of The Plain – Conn Iggulden (2007) – A Running Man Review

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My only previous experience of Conn Iggulden was back in 2008 when I read the first in the sequence of his “Emperor” Series “The Gates Of Rome”. I quite enjoyed this first part of the life of a Roman hero but didn’t get round to reading any more. Over six years later I’ve now read the opening book of his “Conqueror”series. I toyed with the idea of setting up a new historical category on the blog for this book but basically it’s an adventure genre novel set in the past, so although my little running man symbol should probably be wearing armour instead of a suit and tie, I’ll let it go!

This book was similar in format to the last of Iggulden’s books I read and it does work as well. It is the tale of the harsh life of the young Temuijin who becomes, (although I only realised this during the course of reading the book I don’t think I’m giving too much away here) Genghis Khan. Life in thirteenth Century Mongolia was not exactly much fun. Temuijin is the second son of a Khan and he and his family are abandoned and left to starve when his father dies. The family unit structure provides a good basis for Iggulden to centre his story (although I did find a couple of the brothers interchangeable and the similarity of names provides a little bit of a challenge for the reader here). Temuijin here is established as a vital character (which he needs to be as he is the mainstay of this series) as is his mother. This book is hinged on shows of strength and courage, of waiting for revenge and a chance for this outcasted family to re-establish themselves. There’s quite a lengthy battle sequence with the Tartars towards the end of the book and with these I do have the unfortunate tendency to switch off and predictably I found my interest waning a little here, but generally speaking this book provides a good balance of character and warfare. It is a well-researched slab of history set in a time and a place I knew nothing about. There are another four books in this sequence with “Lords Of The Bow” being the next one, so there is plenty left to tell. I will get round to searching out the others in due course but too often in these historical sequences it is the first book that I end up enjoying the most. I think I prefer the formative years of the characters and seeing how the power is established rather than the maintenance of that power. Nevertheless, fans of the historical adventure genre are in for a treat. threestars

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