Black Drop – Leonora Nattrass (Viper 2021)

It’s London in 1794 and those with power are nervous. A fragile treaty with America is being attempted, relations with France have become further rattled by events following the French Revolution, and their own subjects fill the pungent air with talk of sedition and treason. This provides the starting point for Leonora Nattrass’ historical  debut novel.

Nattrass has combined fictional characters with those really around at the time and provides us with a useful cast list at the beginning (I consulted this a number of times).  Largely the confession of Foreign Office clerk Laurence Jago, who is hiding his French ancestry and offering information to a shadowy female spy (an underdeveloped character I felt here and perhaps the only one the author does not bring fully to life).  Jago becomes implicated in leaking information which would hurt the British army in France but he is innocent and the house of cards he had built up around himself begins to fall.

This is Jago’s narrative throughout and he meets some lively characters, most notably Philpott, a loyalist journalist who the author states she based upon William Cobbett, who brings a lot of life to the scenes he is in, including one set in a menagerie.  There’s much political intrigue in this well-researched novel but I found it most gripping away from the main plot to uncover spies when it deals with the human cost and the changing loyalties of the volatile mobs.  A trial for treason follows closely along historical facts and involves the Prime Minister William Pitt and provides a high point of the novel.  The title refers to a laudanam type medicine Jago becomes addicted to but this is somewhat underplayed.  This is a strong debut from a promising author.  There were, admittedly, times when my attention wandered but I was pulled back in and found myself caring about the outcome for these characters.

Black Drop is published by Viper on October 14th 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Dust Off The Bones – Paul Howarth (One 2021)

Have you ever been away on holiday, had bad weather and had to put up with everyone saying how glorious it was the week before?  Well, that’s a little bit how I felt reading this book.  And that is my fault.

This is the sequel to the very well received “Only Killers And Thieves”, a historical tale of early Queensland, Australia by British-Australian author and former lawyer Paul Howarth.  I haven’t read that book and when Paul’s publishers got in touch to see if I would be prepared to read and review his latest I was intrigued enough to say yes – to a sequel.  I was hopeful it would work as a stand-alone and I’m sure for many it would.  Unfortunately, I’m not that kind of reader I’ve realised.  I’m happiest when working chronologically through a writer’s oeuvre and for me to read a sequel to a book I didn’t know is pretty much unheard of.

On its own “Dust Off The Bones” is a very good novel but I suspect that “Only Killers And Thieves” is even better and read as a pair might just be something pretty extraordinary.  The action which the sequel hinges on has taken place in the first book and this is largely the repercussions of those actions which affect a family throughout their lifetime.  There are enough references back to the first book to let the reader know what was going on (and thus it can work as a stand-alone) but some of the references seemed so good that I felt like I was missing out.

None of this is Paul Howarth’s fault.  He has focused on a fictional account of one of the many real-life atrocities carried out by the Native Police in Victorian Queensland where treatment of the native population was both obscene and went unpunished.  The McBride brothers have been split up by the traumatic events from the first book and are stalked by the truly evil Noone, who heads a division of the Native Police.  When a lawyer tries to get justice for terrible crimes the poison these characters carry with them takes hold again.

Anyone who has ever enjoyed a Western would love this with the Australian setting giving it a different feel.  It is violent and the existence can be harsh but family bonds, however strained, cannot be broken by such harshness.

Those that have read “Only Killers And Thieves” will no doubt be chomping at the bit to read this book.  For maximum reading pleasure I would suggest reading that first to allow this recommended read to create an even greater impression.

Dust Off The Bones was published by One, an imprint of Pushkin Press which promises “compelling writing, unique voices, great stories” on August 26th 2021. Many thanks to the publishers, particularly Tara from the Press Office for the review copy.

A Corruption Of Blood – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2021)

This is the third in a very solid historical crime series written by husband and wife Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman.  The combination of their professional backgrounds, Brookmyre, an established best-selling crime author and Haetzman, an expert on anaesthesia, is tailor-made for this mid-nineteenth century series set in Edinburgh featuring two fictional characters working for Dr Simpson, a real-life medical pioneer who developed the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic.

Good groundwork has already been laid in the first two novels “The Way Of All Flesh” (2018), a book I often recommend to our library users, and “The Art Of Dying” (2019).  Firstly, the will-they-won’t-they relationship between main characters Will Raven and Sarah Fisher is enthralling as are the ongoing obstacles for a nineteenth century woman attempting to prove herself as anything other than a wife and mother.  At the start of this novel, in 1850, Sarah has set off to meet with another real life figure, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to obtain a medical degree and be registered with the UK General Medical Council for advice, but she is not encouraging.

In fact, the malaise experienced by Sarah as she returns to Edinburgh following this encounter seems to infiltrate the novel as the first half feels a little flat compared to its predecessors.  Raven should be in celebratory mood as he has developed an understanding with a doctor’s daughter, Eugenie, but she feels under-drawn here (purposely so?) making it hard to appreciate why Raven would choose her over Sarah.  However, the Victorian Era is full of contradiction and hypocrisy and the victim of one of the crimes, which occupies Raven’s time, is an advocate for ill-treatment of prostitutes who may have been poisoned by his son.  The title refers to the term for total disinheritance should the heir be convicted of such a crime.

Sarah, at the same time, is engaged on locating the whereabouts of an unfortunate housemaid’s baby, given away at birth. It’s not until the two main characters come together that the pace picks up enhanced by the chemistry between them.  The last quarter of the novel is very strong indeed which lifts this book back up onto a par with the other two.  Further crimes are revealed, some particularly horrific, and careful plotting leads to an impressive exciting climax and resolution.

There is plenty of mileage left in this series and I look forward to finding out what the writers have in store for these characters.

A Corruption Of Blood is published in the UK in hardback by Canongate on 19th August 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. 

Double Falsehood – Vaughn Entwistle (2020)

Vaughn Entwistle has featured here before.  I have read and enjoyed two of his books and in 2016 he agreed to an interview in my Author Strikes Back thread.  My favourite of his books to date has been his 2015 publication “The Angel Of Highgate” which I described as a “splendid romp, fast-paced and very readable with extremely memorable characters”.  The same description applies here in a very different feeling historical novel.

One of the most impressive aspects of this author’s work is that he writes with such great relish.  I wasn’t sure whether an Elizabethan-set “Shakespearean Thriller” as this novel is described would perhaps be a little dry.  I’d obviously forgotten his writing style because this certainly is a vibrant tale bringing history to life.

William Shakespeare is travelling with the rest of his acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to Marlborough because the London theatres have been closed down amidst cries of sedition.  En-route they discover a corpse and an apparition in the woods and flee to a nearby inn.

Fast-forward to the present day and a first-person narrative from Harvey Braithwaite, recent owner at the now fairly down-at-heel ancient pub “The White Hart” who makes a discovery which could change his fortunes but threaten his life.

The Elizabethan characters have the bulk of the action and it is an explosive mix of murder, treason, religious persecution and a lust for life with underground passages, deception, disguise and sex having their part to play.  Both sections are full of a bawdy energy.  Braithwaite has a lot in common with these lusty Elizabethans- at time it can border on a “Carry On Film” script but here that works very well and Entwistle does not let the humour get in the way of him telling a good yarn and having it present in both parts of the narrative gives the whole thing balance and symmetry which I very much approve of.

The history is incorporated well, the author does not feel the need to bombard us with his research and in many ways it does not matter if he has veered away from historical fact as the energy wins the reader over.  The title itself refers to a play controversially attributed to Shakespeare which also feels appropriate to the action here.  I got a lot about the dangers of not towing the line, on an everyday basis, religion-wise through the characters of the Pursuivants hunting out Jesuits and the fear instilled by the Queen’s odious torturer Topcliffe, probably picking up more history on the way than in many more serious (dare I say drier) works.

Once again Vaughn Entwistle has given me a lot of enjoyment, there’s a good balance of darkness and light in a well-structured pacy tale which all in all leaves me to conclude he may have written his finest novel yet.

Double Falsehood was published by Masque Publishing in August 2020.  For more about the author and his books visit https.//vaughnentwistle.com/

The Glass Of Time – Michael Cox (2008)

This is the lesser known sequel to “The Meaning Of Night”, a former Book Of The Year which last year on re-read I placed at number 5 in my end of year Top 10.  It is a book born from tragic circumstances – Victorian academic Michael Cox spent decades toiling over its predecessor, his debut novel, until, reputedly, steroids for an ultimately fatal condition gave him a significant burst of energy which led to the completion of two novels.  This was published two years after the debut with the author passing away in 2009.

I actually didn’t know about this sequel until my re-read last year and my wanting to know what had become of an author whose debut showed so much talent and then discovering both the existence of this book and the author’s tragic demise the year after publication.  Although the debut was more satisfying the two books together prove an extraordinary tribute.

“The Meaning Of Night” probably has the edge because of its stronger sense of the Gothic which I loved with an evocative conjuring up of the streets of Victorian London.  The sequel is set twenty years later largely on the Evenwood estate which is also a significant location in the first book.  Esperanza Gorst, brought up by a guardian in France, engineers a place as lady’s maid for Baroness Tansor, known in the first book as Miss Emily Carteret.  Esperanza, renamed Alice by her new boss does not know the reason why she has been sent here, other than it is part of a “Great Task” set up by her guardian and her tutor and that she should record her observations of Evenwood. The details are gradually drip-fed to Esperanza in the form of letters and diaries which form part of her account.

As in the previous novel this is a first-person narrative which actually would work well as a stand-alone but enriches the first as themes and plot strands are developed.  It is a long book, rich in authentic historical detail (although you do not get as much of a feel of the wider Victorian society as in the debut) and once again comparisons to Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens are appropriate.

I found it a very rich read and it might have just solved the problem which I have mentioned before of the details of “The Meaning Of Night” slipping away from me once I read it.  Here the twists to the plot seem more vivid as the past and present reveal their secrets.  As the main character observes towards the end of the novel; “I stare constantly into the Glass of Time, that magic mirror in which the shifting shadows of lost days pass back and forth in dumb show before the eye of memory.” Michael Cox is brilliant at creating these shifting shadows coming and  going in the Glass Of Time.  Both of his novels come highly recommended.

The Glass Of Time was published in 2008 by John Murray.

Crowner’s Quest- Bernard Knight (1999) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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It’s a quick return for me to Bernard Knight’s medieval Crowner John series having only read one a couple of months ago.  This is book number three and now I seem to have formed a regular pattern with my response to this writer.  I’m involved until after the first crime is revealed (here it’s a hanging Canon) but then I experience a slump where I’m struggling until around the mid-way point when once again something happens which brings me back (here the lead character is set up leading to the accusation of a crime) and then my interest level stays fairly constant until the end by which point I’m looking forward to the next in the series.  That’s from a book I could have abandoned around 100 pages in (if I would ever do such a thing, which I can’t).

Knight’s writing style is rather dense and very detailed but sometimes the history sits heavy on the plot.  We get characters telling each other things they would already know purely for our benefit because of our lack of knowledge in medieval history.  Sometimes this feels heavy-handed but I totally understand that the world of Crowner John is so different to ours that it needs this to keep readers in the loop.

I did not feel this book flowed as well as its predecessor but it does have a bigger scope and moves further and more often beyond the Exeter city walls.  It takes place a few weeks after “The Poisoned Chalice” to which there is the odd reference but nothing that would make this book not work if encountered as a stand-alone.  (I just have a thing about reading series titles in order).

We begin at Christmas Eve 1194 where the coroner’s wife is attempting to boost her standing socially with a celebratory feast with local dignitaries.  The relationship between John and Matilda is strained at the best of times and suffers further when he is called out to investigate a death in the Cathedral’s precincts. Initially considered a suicide it develops into a cover-up murder where discontent with the largely absent King Richard is implicated.  Buried treasure is also involved.  When the plot is wound up satisfactorily there’s a surprising turn in a Trial By Combat.  This feels like a set piece added on to the novel to explore a legal quirk of the period (we had this with Trial By Ordeal in the first novel) yet this section and its aftermath was what ended up with me more eager to seek out the next in the series than I was expecting when reading the first half.

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Crowner’s Quest  was first published in 1999. I read a Pocket Books paperback edition

The Poisoned Chalice – Bernard Knight (1998) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I should really crack on with this series.  I  read  the first one “The Sanctuary Seeker” (1998) back in 2017 and it has taken me this long to get round to the second.  I have another 8 of them on my shelves and at this rate I’m not going to complete them until 2032 and then there are the other five Bernard Knight has written that I do not currently own.

My experience with this one was much the same as the previous which introduced us to medieval coroner Sir John De Wolfe.  I found it took me quite a while to get into it and never felt totally immersed in Knight’s vision of late twelfth century Exeter.  Set a month or so after its predecessor this tale begins with an inspection of a shipwreck then moves back to largely within the city walls as a local silversmith finds himself implicated in two crimes involving daughters of notable families.  Relationships between the characters are further established.  We know that the coroner is going to continue to be pitched professionally against his brother-in-law, the sheriff, an inevitable consequence of the redefining of legal boundaries at the time and is also going to experience a fair amount of conflict with his wife Matilda, preferring the more welcoming arms of his mistress, pub landlady Nesta.

Knight packs quite a lot of history into his text which initially makes it a dense read as the historical significance of events require backtracking and a glossary of medieval terms needs to be frequently consulted but once the plot hits its stride around mid-way through this becomes less of an issue as the events in Exeter are brought to a satisfying conclusion.  I think, on reflection, I did enjoy this more than “The Sanctuary Seeker” which bodes well for the series.threestars

The Poisoned Chalice was first published in 1998.  I read a Pocket Books paperback edition.

 

Company Of Liars – Karen Maitland (2008)

 

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Karen Maitland is an author I’ve been meaning to get round to for some time.  I have a few of her books unread on my shelves, I’ve been tempted into buying them by the darkness suggested by their titles and cover design.  This, her second of her to date nine fictional works is subtitled “a novel of the plague” which with its mid 14th Century setting suggests a read rich in atmosphere and gloom, perfect for these unseasonal Indian Summer days!

 I like the premise of a group of individuals with varying backgrounds and dark secrets in their pasts bonding together to escape the plague.  The disease stalking and occasionally overtaking them is superbly done and adds to the atmosphere and tension of the novel.  I realised midway through that I’m never as much of a fan of the “road” novel as I think I am.  For some reason I like characters to get to their destinations rather than just travel there, books which focus purely on a journey such as “Lord Of The Rings” as well as countless others have not appealed to me as much as I would have liked.  (Already I’m thinking of exceptions to that statement, Steinbeck’s “The Grapes Of Wrath” immediately springing to mind).  I think this is a personal quirk which can affect my enjoyment but is not a slight on the quality of the story-telling.

 It is narrated by a character referred to by the others as “Camelot”, a peddler in ancient relics of dubious provenance.  Amongst the group fleeing to safety is a couple of musicians, a couple approaching parenthood, a magician and a very strange child with a talent for interpreting runes.  A couple of my favourite characters get bumped off before their time which I found a little disappointing.

 Long medieval travels inevitably means story-telling and there are a number along the way which gives the work a Chaucerian feel.  There’s a mystical element appropriate for the beliefs of the time where even the Church acknowledged the presence of werewolves and vampires. 

 It is a heady mix of history, crime with a touch of fantasy and horror but the elements do not quite come together in the way I was hoping they would.  It’s been a valuable introduction to the work of Karen Maitland and I am sure I will enjoy other of her novels even more than this.  “Company Of Liars” just misses out on a 4* rating because I save that for those books I would be keen to read again and this is one that I’ve read, enjoyed and am ready to move on from.

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 Company Of Liars was published by Michael Joseph in 2008.  I read the 2009 Penguin paperback edition.

The Art Of Dying – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Ambrose Parry’s “The Way Of All Flesh” was one of my crime novel highlights of 2018. I found its Victorian Edinburgh setting refreshing and the combination of an unpredictable crime set-up and a seamlessly incorporated history of medicine at the time was extremely effective. Two strong lead characters also helped, implying a lot of potential for this series.

This was Ambrose Parry’s debut novel but writing under that name is highly established crime writer Chris Brookmyre in collaboration with his anaesthesia expert wife Marisa Haetzman. This follow-up moves things on around a year with Dr Will Raven coming to the end of a tour of Europe and a violent incident in an alleyway before returning him back to the more familiar ground of Edinburgh where he has accepted the job of being his mentor Dr Simpson’s assistant. Here, he meets up again with another of Simpson’s employees, Sarah, but this time her circumstances have changed and it seems the authors are committed to keeping this couple who seem destined for one another apart.

The character of Simpson is based upon a real-life doctor noted for his discoveries with chloroform, which featured largely in the first book. Here, there is still experimentation with its usage, at one point it is served up as an alcoholic beverage but medically, anaesthetics have become more established and the issue now seems to be how to keep a patient alive after work has been done on them internally. Infection is the new priority.

The crime aspect comes via a woman not so keen on keeping the patients she is nursing alive and her narrative is interspersed throughout the text. I felt initially that the crime was taking a back seat compared to the medical history side of things but this is just Parry setting things up very nicely for us. Once again there were unpredictable twists and the novel builds just the way I always hope a crime novel will do.

Once again this is good quality fiction which is very readable, characters are developed (although Dr Simpson himself is more in the background) and I really want to know what is next for Will and Sarah. This series, in the space of two novels has established itself very well indeed.

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The Art of Dying is published in hardback by Canongate on 29th August 2019 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Meaning Of Night- Michael Cox (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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“Revenge has a long memory”

My first re-read for some time is this historical thriller which was my Book Of The Year back when I read it as a new paperback in 2007. It has sat on my shelves since then and the reason I picked it up for a revisit was although revenge may have a long memory (a dominant theme in the book) I obviously do not as I could remember nothing about it other than I loved it. I wasn’t alone in my admiration as at the time it was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award but was beaten by the eventual overall winner Stef Penney for “The Tenderness Of Wolves”.

I can remember feeling that Michael Cox, a writer and academic known for anthologising Victorian short stories was a major new novel writing talent. Sadly, there was only to be one more novel, a sequel “The Glass Of Time” before he succumbed to cancer aged 61 in 2009. His debut was a work in progress for decades before reputedly a prescription for a steroid drug as preparation for treatment for tumours and loss of sight caused a significant burst of energy which resulted in him beginning to put this work together and saw him bring it and the sequel to completion following his temporarily successful treatment. This moving sequence of events of a writer driven to finish his magnum opus seems fitting for this large, intense, dark novel and this truly is a testament to the talents of Michael Cox.

The author’s feel for the Victorian period is evident throughout and it has real authenticity with strong elements of Wilkie Collins and Dickens making it a rich but in no way a quick read. It begins with a random murder carried out on the streets of London in 1854 by the narrator Edward Glyver whose confession we are reading. The reasons for this, the events leading up to and following this crime form the whole narrative. It is a tale of revenge and betrayal with the central location the country estate of Evenwood and the family who live here. The usual suspects of opium, prostitution, class and hypocrisy are all present but none of it feels any way cliched. This is because the author has really assimilated the period and obviously knows so much about it, garnered from years of research and this permeates the text in a natural and convincing way, particularly in the field of book collecting. An “editor’s” footnotes to the text gives the fiction a further air of authenticity as do other documents pertaining to the events in much the same way as Graeme Macrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project” (2015).

I will admit there were times when I felt I was ploughing through this somewhat (as indeed I have done with many Victorian novels that I have ended up loving) and throughout I was concerned about how little I had remembered from last time round but like many of the novels from the period it emulates it did pull me right in and any effort in the reading was rewarded. On completion the feeling was of total satisfaction for a high quality reading experience. This novel does seem to have faded from public consciousness but I can’t help feeling that a sensitive tv or film adaptation could bring it back to the top of bestsellers lists.

I haven’t read the sequel from 2008 (this was so far under the radar that I didn’t even know it existed until researching for this but given the circumstances of the author’s health issues at the time this is not surprising) but have just ordered it hopefully to read while this novel is still fresh in my mind and I will not be parting with my (now quite well worn) paperback copy of “The Meaning Of Night” anytime soon.
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The Meaning of Night was published in 2006. I read the 2007 John Murray paperback edition.