Review – Edmund Persuader – Stuart Shotwell


Edmund Persuader: A Romance
Stuart Shotwell
ISBN-10:098410321X
1550 pages

Description:

Edmund Percy has been driven from the hurricane-haunted seas of the Caribbean to the heart of England’s tranquil Hampshire in search of the Dark Queen foretold to him. He must unriddle the taunting mystery of her past, if he can; and he must use that discovered secret to win her with his most silver persuasions. It seems that all his efforts avail nothing, and the days and minutes allotted to his quest race away. Then fate or Providence slips a last chance into his hand . . .

An epic, a romance, and a mystery, Edmund Persuader is the tale of a man both blessed and cursed by his powers of persuasion. Those powers seem to perform the greatest wonders when they work him ill, yet fail when he needs them most—until he can emerge from the depths of moral error and climb toward the exaltation of redeeming love.

The Premise:

Edmund is a second son of one of England’s most prominent families; thus, despite the prestige of his name, there is nothing for him to inherit, and he has spent his life preparing to earn a living as a clergyman. However, management problems at his family’s sugar plantation send him to Antigua, where the realities of slavery and a forbidden, stormy love affair shatter his confidence in his own moral fortitude. When he finally must return to England, he is heartbroken and confused, no longer certain he is fit to be a man of God. As he wrestles with his conscience and with the necessity of finding a way to support himself, his troubles are compounded as his eye is caught by the sister of his best friend. The lady is noble, accomplished, wealthy, kind, and completely beyond the reach of a second son. She is also haunted by some grave, secret sin.

The Good:

Everything, goodness me! While the narrative voice occasionally pauses in an aside to acknowledge modernity, on the whole, the book feels more like a classic than a period piece. Without those little asides, and without having done a small amount of research on Shotwell, I would never have guessed that Persuader was not, in fact, written behind the leaded windows of a country estate of Regency England. The voice is perfect. The historicity is perfect. The characters’ attitudes are perhaps a little more progressive than one might expect of the time, but not outside the realm of possibility, especially if the writer were acquainted with radical theology.

That brings me to the moral lesson of the story. I know a lot of people cringe away from the very idea of a novel with a moral lesson, but the fact is that all fiction comes with morals, and they can be done either well or poorly. Persuader is not about a squeaky-clean protagonist endlessly whinging about how hard it is to stay squeaky-clean in this horrible, evil world. It is not about a squeaky-clean protagonist agonizing over all of his tiddly, imagined sins. It is not about a hardened sinner being taught his lesson and transforming into a squeaky-clean evangelist overnight. (Looking at you, Scrooge.) It is about a human being who has to realize that everyone sins, everyone falls, and the only way out of the sin of guilt is self-forgiveness.

I love the characters, too. Edmund, genuine and flawed and human. Tark, with his jovial bombast. The obligatory conniving aunt, Andromeda. Evelyn is particularly fascinating; it’s rare to find such sensitively portrayed non-neurotypical characters, most especially in historical fiction.

The Bad:

Being so perfectly modeled on the novels of the period, it does tend to ramble in places. I don’t think I really needed fifty pages dedicated to every minute detail of a fox hunt – not that I didn’t enjoy it, but I certainly didn’t need it. Descriptions get very lengthy in places and actually tedious once or twice, and I am saying this as one who has nearly endless patience for description.

It was also very odd to find such detailed descriptions of sex. Not nastily detailed, and I’ve certainly encountered much, much more explicit sex in books, but it felt strange and out of character for a book that in other ways mimics classics so closely.

In Conclusion:

Yes, I was able to find some flaws. No, Persuader wasn’t perfect. But it was still one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time, a new favorite, and I cannot wait to get my paws on the sequel, Tomazina’s Folly. I would strongly recommend Edmund Persuader for those whose tastes coincide with mine, as I am assuming they do if you’re following this blog.

Pick up a copy. Take it slow. Savor it.

I received a copy of this book from Goodreads FirstReads in exchange for an honest review.

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Review – The Notting Hill Mystery – Charles Adams

The Notting Hill Mystery
Charles Adams
ISBN-10: 1464204807
235 pages

Description:

The Notting Hill Mystery was first published between 1862 and 1863 as an eight-part serial in the magazine Once a Week, written under the pseudonym Charles Felix. It has been widely described as the first detective novel, pre-dating as it does other novels such as Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) and Emile Gaboriau’s first Monsieur Lecoq novel (1869) that have previously claimed that accolade. The story is told by insurance investigator Ralph Henderson, who is building a case against the sinister Baron ‘R___’, suspected of murdering his wife in order to obtain significant life insurance payments. Henderson descends into a maze of intrigue including a diabolical mesmerist, kidnapping by gypsies, slow-poisoners, a rich uncle’s will and three murders. Presented in the form of diary entries, family letters, chemical analysis reports, interviews with witnesses and a crime scene map, the novel displays innovative techniques that would not become common features of detective fiction until the 1920s. Now made available again, with George du Maurier’s original illustrations included for the first time since the original serial publication, this new edition of The Notting Hill Mystery will be welcomed by all fans of detective fiction.

The Premise:

The Notting Hill Mystery is, according to the introduction, either the first true detective story or among the first true detective stories, though it departs a little from the type by featuring not a police or private detective, but an insurance investigator, and by presenting all the gathered evidence without presenting the investigation by which the evidence was acquired.

Baron R- has recently insured his wife for a startling sum. Obviously, doubts begin to arise when she does, in fact, die shortly after, apparently by taking poison while sleepwalking. Our investigator is sent to make sense of the event, and through diligent sleuthing, uncovers a bizarre swirl of soap-opera family drama, mesmerism, and, of course, murder. Quite a number of murders, actually.

The Good:

I’m a sucker for the epistolary novel, ever since I read Dracula, and this one is especially well done. Each speaker (or writer, rather) has a distinct and identifiable voice, so that they don’t all run together. Each one sounds like an individual. That added verisimilitude makes you wonder – just once or twice – whether you might not actually be reading a case file rather than a work of fiction.

And, while there is a certain amount of the expected swooning and crying out and running from rooms that Victorian works so frequently exhibit, it doesn’t skew ridiculous even once. I’d say that a woman being eaten alive by a powerful acid has every right to cry out, actually.

The Bad:

The long, convoluted language is a little hard to get through, though not excessively so.

The plot also hinges on some really laughable period “science”. Namely, that the sympathy between twins is so great that you can kill one by poisoning the other. And of course, that you can hypnotize a woman into poisoning herself. << Highlight text for spoilers.

In Conclusion:

It was certainly a very interesting read, if for no other reason than because I enjoyed identifying some of the early earmarks of the nascent genre. The Notting Hill Mystery certainly does differ markedly from the genre it helped create.

I was a little irked when it became apparent that it’s really a paranormal mystery, not because I dislike paranormal mystery but because I was expecting something more grounded in reality. However, once I had reconciled myself to that fact, it was a very enjoyable read. I can’t really fault the book for not being what I expected, especially when it does such a good job of being what it is.

Solid four stars.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review – Sherlock Holmes and the Copycat Murders – Barry Day

Sherlock Holmes and the Copycat Murders
Barry Day
ISBN-10:1504016505
192 pages

Description:

It has been too long since his last assignment, and Sherlock Holmes is beginning to come unglued. He stalks around his rooms at 221B Baker Street, too tense to work, and he is about to drive Dr. Watson up the wall when they are rescued by a knock at the door. It is Inspector Lestrade from Scotland Yard, and he has come to save Holmes—with a murder. A man has been found dead in Bayswater, slumped over a piece of homemade stationery marked with the words “Jabez Wilson”—the name of the victim in the long-solved mystery of the Red-Headed League. When Holmes enters the death room, the first thing he spies is the corpse’s flaming red hair. The old case is open again.

A series of bizarre crimes follow, each an imitation of one of Holmes’s greatest triumphs. Either Europe is in the grip of a madman—or the great detective has finally gone ’round the bend.

The Premise:

This book comes in two parts that separate neatly: the foreground and the background. In the foreground, a series of murders have taken place, decorated with props carefully chosen to suggest one or another of Watson’s publications. Some of them reveal knowledge of details only Holmes or Watson could have known. Worse yet, Holmes himself has been seen coming and going from each of the victims’ homes, though he claims not to remember. Either he has gone criminal, or he has gone insane.

In the background, a top-secret weapon is being developed, its designers are in mortal danger, and a land-grasping group of German agents may be responsible. But Holmes, under suspicion of treachery or insanity, may not be allowed to intervene.

The Good:

The writing. The writing was beautifully Watsonian, with several charming and unexpected flashes of humor. In fact, there was more than a bit of whimsy about the entire book, with Watson and Mycroft and Lestrade occasionally exchanging knowing looks over Holmes’s often pompous self-assurance. At the same time, though, it was not too whimsical for the subject matter; there is a deep and nuanced humanity in Watson’s helpless fear as it becomes more and more apparent that his best friend is losing his mind. I was also very pleased with the respect given to Lestrade, who is far too often portrayed as crooked or as a buffoon. Day shows us a dedicated, competent police detective who, like the rest of us, is still not quite as sharp as Mr. Sherlock Holmes, but who, over the years, has yet come to view him as a friend.

The characterization is beautiful, the action quick, and the writing smooth.

The Bad:

Mostly smooth. There were a few turns of phrase that jarred me out of the story, either by feeling too modern or too archaic. Whether they were accurate or not, they felt off. There weren’t too many of those, though.

Also, the first half of the mystery is mind-bogglingly transparent. I knew whodunnit almost from the get-go and kept waiting for a surprise that didn’t come. It was terribly disappointing that Watson hadn’t a clue. I consider myself pretty sharp, but I don’t expect any reader to be mystified by the foreground mystery.

I’m also sick to death of surprise Moriarty. It’s over-done, and there was no compelling reason that it had to be a Moriarty brother trying to help the Germans annex Britain. < Highlight text for spoiler.

In Conclusion:

I would purchase another book by Day. This one made for a fun addition to the Canon, and none of its flaws, for me, outweighed the enjoyment.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review – Thirteen Guests – Jefferson Farjeon

Thirteen Guests
J. Jefferson Farjeon
ISBN-10:0712356010
256 pages

Description:
On a fine autumn weekend, Lord Aveling hosts a hunting party at his country house, Bragley Court. Among the guests are an actress, a journalist, an artist, and a mystery novelist. The unlucky thirteenth is John Foss, injured at the local train station and brought to the house to recuperate – but John is nursing a secret of his own.

Soon events take a sinister turn when a painting is mutilated, a dog stabbed, and a man strangled. Death strikes more than one of the house guests, and the police are called. Detective Inspector Kendall’s skills are tested to the utmost as he tries to uncover the hidden past of everyone at Bragley Court.

This country-house mystery is a forgotten classic of 1930s crime fiction by one of the most undeservedly neglected of golden age detective novelists.

The Premise:

Being as brief as possible:

John Foss falls off a train and is scooped up by a ridiculously alluring widow, who drags him against his will to Bragley Court to recuperate. He’s stuck in a conveniently-placed anteroom, where he hears quite a lot of compromising conversations while the mystery blooms. A dog is murdered, a painting is vandalized, a man is found at the bottom of a cliff, then a blackmailer is murdered, and it just gets worse from there. There is a pretentious painter, some uncouth new money, a cynical journalist, a marginal actress, a tomboy heiress and her beau, the aristocrat who wishes he were said heiress’s beau, the aforementioned alluring widow, and the Chaters, whom no one can quite explain. Poor Foss is trapped in the middle with, potentially, multiple murderers.

The Good:

All the elements are there for a classic novel of the Golden Age of Mystery. There is a country house, a closed set of suspects, a long string of bizarre happenings, and several dead bodies, and they all fit together nicely.

I loved the description, even though some of it got a little overly-introspective. It felt like a Golden Age mystery ought to feel, if that makes any sense.

I loved Inspector Kendall and his dry snark and the back-and-forth between himself and the country police he’s been tasked with sharpening up.

I also love the (wee spoiler, here) twist ending. As far as twist endings go, it wasn’t outlandish and eyeroll-inducing, as they often are. I genuinely did not see it coming, and it genuinely made sense, with the information the reader is given.

The Bad:

Too many characters to keep track of. I know it’s called Thirteen Guests, and that the number is an important point, but there wasn’t enough time to develop any individual characters, and as a result, all thirteen are shallow archetypes. They’re good archetypes, but not particularly interesting characters. This is definitely a plot-driven story (which is not a ‘bad’ point, but I prefer more balance than Thirteen Guests provided).

The dialogue also did not age well. I’m going to assume that some of these exchanges would have made sense to a reader when it was written, but even as a regular reader of period literature and a historian, a lot of these conversations meant absolutely nothing. It wasn’t even a question of slang so much as (I’m assuming) subtext and cultural innuendo. There was a lot of it, and it made for very slow reading.

In fact, much of it made for slow reading. I mentioned lovely, atmospheric description, but the quantity was excessive. Nowhere near Moby Dick levels of description, but there were several scattered pages that, frankly, bored me.

In Conclusion:

A pretty solid three-and-a-half stars. I liked it. It was good sitting-by-the-lake-in-a-folding-chair-with-a-steaming-cup-of-tea literature. I don’t know that I’d pick up another by Farjeon when I have a whole shelf of Christy staring reproachfully at me.

The really interesting thing here is British Library Crime Classics’ reprinting of works that had become quite rare, and I enjoyed this opportunity to read something that had disappeared for so many years.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review – Circling the Sun – Paula McLain

Circling the Sun
Paula McLain
ISBN-10: 0345534182
384 pages

Description:
Paula McLain, author of the phenomenal New York Times bestseller The Paris Wife, takes readers into the glamorous and decadent circle of British expats living in Kenya in the 1920s. Circling the Sun tells the story of the beautiful young horse trainer, adventurer, and aviator Beryl Markham, from her childhood in British East Africa to her relationship with hunter Denys Finch Hatton and rivalry with Out of Africa author Karen Blixen—a notorious love triangle that changed the course of Beryl’s life.

The Premise:
A bio-novel following Beryl Markham from the age of four to the triumphant landing of her transatlantic flight. It begins with her mother’s abandonment of the family and traces Beryl’s struggles, adventures, and liaisons through her horse-training days, her disastrous first marriage, multiple affairs, deteriorating second marriage, and final emergence into independence.

The Good:
McLain’s writing is gorgeous. That absolutely cannot be disputed. Her description is stunning, and the amount of detail makes Africa a palpable presence in the room whenever you pick it up to breeze through a chapter. If I sound like I’m gushing, it’s because I am. She engages every sense with lyrical, rhythmic passages that truly immerse you in the place and the time. At the same time, the writing is never dense or heavy, never sounds contrived or like she’s trying too hard to be poetical. Everything flows naturally, one sweeping landscape to the next, in a way that feels more like watching the land blow past the window of your train than like merely reading about it.

The pacing is flawless, moving steadily through ups and downs without a single hiccup. It never stalls or rushes, never becomes boring. Of course, part of the interest belongs to Beryl Markham herself, who had to have done the interesting things in order for McLain to write about them.

The Bad:
I didn’t care about any of the characters, even a little bit. I was interested to find out what would happen next, but at no point did I want Beryl to succeed or to fail, or anything. I think that’s because of McLain’s rather indecisive portrayal. She seems to like Beryl and want the reader to like her, too, but largely ignores the fact that many of the real Beryl’s actions were selfish and disloyal and that people who knew her didn’t  like her. (Hemingway once called her a bitch.) These actions turn up in the novel, but they’re presented lightly, like the reader is supposed to be okay with them. If she’d been forced and victimized, I’d have been able to love her. If she’d been hard and unapologetic, I’d have been able to hate her. Either would have been better than the flimsy, waffling character who never does develop enough to know what she wants. The events are interesting, but the character is not, because she drives very little of it. Most of the story happens to her, rather than being things that she does.

In Conclusion:
I enjoyed most of the read, at least until it became predominantly about who was sleeping with whom. The setting and the story are far more full and real than the characters, though. I do not feel that Circling the Sun is an accurate representation of Beryl Markham, who was fascinating and sharp and awful.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review – The Last Moriarty – Charles Veley

The Last Moriarty
Charles Veley
ISBN-10: 1477829725
287 pages

Description:
A lovely young American actress from the D’Oyly Carte Opera Troupe comes to 221B Baker Street on a cold November morning, desperately seeking assistance from Sherlock Holmes. Inexplicably, Holmes agrees to help, even though the Prime Minister of England and his cabinet need Holmes to solve a murder case that could threaten a high-stakes meeting with John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan. The clock is ticking. Holmes will need all his physical and deductive powers to preserve innocent lives and prevent political and economic chaos on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet even Holmes cannot foresee how much the ultimate outcome will depend on a mother’s sacrifice, a daughter’s hopes, and on the true identity of the last Moriarty.

The Premise:
A meeting between captains of industry is threatened. Men connected with the upcoming meeting keep turning up dead, and all signs indicate that a criminal organization on par with the defunct Moriarty gang is responsible. Possibly even the successor of the Moriarty gang, as Colonel Sebastian Moran has escaped from prison, and he had help.
Into the mix is thrown a young actress, Lucy James, whose ties to this shadowy organization grow ever more perplexing and sinister as she enlists Holmes’s help to hunt for her true parents. At the same time, both Miss James’s plight and the murderous plot begin to shed light on Sherlock Holmes’s past.

The Good:
The writing is lovely, and amazingly faithful to the source. It’s very rare to find pastiche that really has the sound and the feel of Conan Doyle’s writing. Watson’s voice is authentic, and at no point was I drawn out of the story by awkwardly modern – or awkwardly Victorian – language.
It is also very well researched, with that strong sense of place that is so essential to mystery and to Holmesian mystery particularly. Well researched without being a treatise on Victoriana. Some works have a tendency to lift passages straight from textbooks, but all of Veley’s references feel natural.
I have to mention the cover, as well. I love the cover. Love it.

The Bad:
Much of the story was, sadly, predictable, and the foreshadowing heavy-handed. Certain twists were not so much hinted as laid out. Nothing ever really surprised me, and the mystery was thin.
I would also have liked more sleuthing, more of the hunting and connecting that ought to characterize Holmes stories. I’d characterize this one more as suspense than mystery, which I suppose is all right, but wasn’t what I was expecting.

Worth Noting:
Veley’s Holmes is an emotional sort. I am not one of those who thinks Holmes should always be an emotionless machine – he shows himself in Canon to feel strongly, though he generally keeps his feelings under tight control. In the context of Veley’s storyline, I feel that the little displays of affection, distress, and concern were entirely appropriate, but I do know that many aficionados would take issue.

In Conclusion:
I enjoyed this one. I finished it in two sittings, which has been an increasingly rare occurrence for me. It did not blow me away, but the end hints at a coming sequel, and I will certainly look for it when it arrives.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.