Historical Fiction Mystery Fiction
Pulchritudinous: physically beautiful. (Merriam-Webster). Wow! I don’t think I have ever come across this word before. Apparently it was one of the many words that Richard Burton used to describe Elizabeth Taylor when he first met her. It is also a word used by the heroine of this novel – in a sentence no less. It sounds like a medical condition but it is actually derived from the Latin root word “pulcher” meaning beautiful. My spell-check doesn’t even want to let me use it – so wow! So I read this entire book and this is all I took away from it. No, just kidding.
This is actually a compelling, but grim, first novel by a Scottish author named Kaite Welsh. The narrative is drenched in misery, and centers on a female medical student at an Edinburgh university in 1892. Sarah Gilchrist had been a London debutante from a wealthy family when a single night changed the course of her life. She was raped by the son a of a Lord and the response from her family and society was to blame her entirely and to send her to a sanitorium to be treated for hysterics and melancholy. After she was released from the sanitorium , she was ostracized by her immediate family and forced to reside with an Aunt and Uncle in Edinburgh.
She is one of a dozen female students admitted into medical school to the consternation of – well – everyone. She is determined to obtain her medical qualifications but she faces an uphill battle. The Aunt and Uncle with whom she resides can barely hide their contempt for her unladylike obsession and she also receives opposition from the other female students. Two nights a week she volunteers at a woman’s clinic in the poorest, and most downtrodden area of the city. She administers to prostitutes, addicts, thieves, and runaways and begins to realize how grim life can be for a woman with few options in a male dominated world. She has her “aha” moment when she realizes that their crummy life is worse than her crummy life. Eventually she discovers one of the prostitutes she had treated at the clinic, on the slab in her dissection class and she is sure the young lass has been murdered. Sarah yearns to unravel the mystery surrounding this girl but she is hampered by restrictions too numerous to count until she finds an unlikely ally.
The author very successfully captures a sense of powerlessness that would have defined a woman’s life in Scotland one-hundred and twenty-five years ago. The restrictive nature of women’s lives comes through loud and (painfully) clear. There are places in the world today where women live under conditions this prohibitive – or worse. It is heartbreaking but it is something worth taking away from this novel – something to think about.
The Wages of Sin …by Kaite Welsh (2017) Pegasus Books 287 pages
“As far as I’m concerned, you can’t beat a good whodunnit: the twists and turns, the clues and the red herrings, and then, finally, the satisfaction of having everything explained to you in a way that makes you kick yourself because you hadn’t seen it from the start.” page 4
This is the quintessential quote about whodunnits and it expresses exactly how I feel. They’re not just about reading; they’re a game, a puzzle, an experience. My adoration of whodunnits directed me to this novel because it promises, not one, but two whodunnits in a single book. What could be better than that! There has been a lot of buzz around this novel and it even made the list as one of Oprah’s favourites of the year. That said, I typically don’t write about such “High profile” books, mostly because there are about a gazillion reviews out there already – do we really need another? No, yet here I go.
I’ll start by saying that I’ve never read an ANTHONY HOROWITZ book in my life until now, but I am still a big fan of his. But, how can that be? Well, this talented man has written and/or created some of my favourite tv shows of all time. He wrote many of the scripts for the first year of “Poirot”, “Midsomer Murders” and “Foyles War.” I am a Canadian but I subscribe to a special channel so I can receive these programs. And isn’t it nice to watch a show where every single character does not look like a Barbie or a Ken Doll – yeah I’m talking about you American tv. When you read this book you will notice that these shows are mentioned often. The title of the book (within the book) is MAGPIE MURDERS but the publisher complains that it sounds too much like MIDSOMER MURDERS. The novel even contains guest stars (yeah guest stars just like tv) with Agatha Christie’s grandson making an appearance in a couple of the chapters.
The novel begins with Susan Ryeland, the editor of a small but successful publishing house, getting cozy with the intention of reading the first transcript of a novel from her most successful writer. Then we are introduced to the novel – Magpie Murders – and the reader is transported to an English Village circa 1955, and an eccentric detective named Atticus Pünd. This is classic English village mystery literature. Just as the detective is about to gather his suspects and announce the murderer – the novel ends because the last chapters are missing. And…the second mystery begins.
This is certainly an homage to Dame Christie and the other writers of the golden age of mysteries. A modern whodunnit in the old style – you know – no tracking people with cell phones or catching the murderer on cctv. All the clues are there so just get comfortable and enjoy the experience- it really is a fun book.
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, 2016, HarperCollins Publishers, 236 pages
Scottish Crime Fiction
Scottish Island Fiction
This novel has so many of the elements that I love in a book that I was almost certain I was going to love it before I had even read a single page: I wasn’t disappointed. The main character is an oceanographer, working out of Edinburgh, named Cal McGill who has pioneered a program for using ocean currents, weather records, shipping documents, archives, wind speeds and a host of other information to explain the physical origin of items (or bodies and body parts) washing up on a shore. Where did the journey begin? He is also an eco-warrior attempting to bring attention to global warming and a loner who uses a bunch of anonymous beachcombers to feed him information.
Cal’s interest in the ocean was kindled in his youth when he discovered his grandfather had died during World War ll, after being washed overboard during a mission. He has an over-riding interest in discovering all the facts regarding this event. The small Scottish Island that had been home to this branch of his family for generations was abandoned after the war and many pieces of this puzzle just do not fit. This is my favourite plot line because I adore stories involving Scottish Islands. Peter May’s BLACK HOUSE trilogy is tremendous and I recommend it to any fans of this novel.
There is also a subplot featuring a young Indian girl exploited by a prostitution/pedophile ring. A third subplot revolves around the mystery of shoe clad feet coming ashore in strangely diverse locations.
.There is a secondary character – a policewoman named Helen Jamieson- and I hope I see her in future installments. Oh yes, there are already two more installments in this series…yippee.
So here it is in a nutshell.. a crime mystery, an interesting protagonist, and a Scottish Island. What is there not to love?
Published by Penguin Random House
This novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and, although it didn’t win, the nomination will give the novel oodles of exposure. It’s a historical thriller that is a little difficult to categorize but the author himself has said it’s “a novel about a crime rather than a crime novel” That sounds right. The multiple perspective format allows the reader to almost be the detective; taking in the information and sifting through the often contradictory evidence.
This is not a whodunnit since we learn almost immediately that the protagonist -a youth by the name of Roderick Macrae – had readily admitted to the killing of three people in his Scottish Highland crofting community in 1869. But why? Roddy’s advocate (lawyer) tasks him with writing an account of his life and the circumstances proceeding the murders along with details of the actual killings. The resulting narrative is a grim and gloomy representation of a life saturated with hopelessness where the churchy types embrace providence -” it is the will of God”- sort of thinking. The death of his mother and then the wrath of a bully-man add further darkness to an already bleak existence.
Roddy’s personal narrative accounts for over half of the novel but there are other perspectives to consider. The reader is privy to the court proceedings, newspaper stories, medical and coroner’s report, character assessments, and other cronicles. An expert on lunacy examines Roddy and gives testimony that might have been darkly funny if it hadn’t been so disturbing.
Of course nothing is straight forward…and that is the point, I think. Extenuating circumstances — maybe —maybe not!
I found this to be a fascinating and rewarding novel.
HIS BLOODY PROJECT Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae… by Graeme Macrae Burnet Contraband Publishing (2015) 288 pages
SCOTTISH ISLAND FICTION
I adore Scottish Island fiction and I was fortunate to find this novel at my local library. This is a dual-timeline story where both narratives center around a Scottish Island called Findnar (a fictional island) In the modern tale, the reader is introduced to young grad student named Freya Dane, who has just inherited an Island from her recently-deceased archeologist father. Freya had been estranged from her father for many years but she is also an archeologist and she is curious to learn more about his research – and maybe more about him.
The narrative switches back and forth between Freya’s story and the story of Signy – a Pictish girl in 800A.D. The time period is significant because it was a time of conflict between the Vikings, the Picts, and the newly arrived Christian community. Signy’s entire family is slaughtered in a Viking raid and she taken in by the Christian community survivors. She also falls in love with an injured Viking youth left behind by the raiders. This story-line is interesting and I’m thinking that the appeal should be quite timely; especially since tv shows like “The Last Kingdom” and “Game of Thrones” have popularized hairy, tattooed men with swords, and clubs, and berserker warriors. Fun stuff.
Signy’s story is really quite interesting but I have to admit that I found Freya’s story dull . And her romance – yawn.
THE ISLAND HOUSE Atria Paperback 2012 448 pages
Scottish Island Fiction
“It is a traumatized yet beautiful landscape” p. 70
The Scottish Island in this novel is the perfect choice for a creepy thriller like “The Ice Twins”. Allow me to do a checklist; remote–yes, isolated– very, unpredictable weather–you bet, unreliable communication–no wifi or cell service on this island. If that’s not enough- well, the locals call this Island a “thin place”, somewhere between our world and the next. And this particular Island has been uninhabited for two decades, so throw in a dilapidated old house with lots of drafts and a vermin problem and this is the setting for this chilling thriller.
The “just-barely-functioning” Moorcroft family have quit London and decided to take up residence on this Island off the coast of Skye, after the father (Angus) inherited the land from his Grandmother. They have had a bad couple of years (understatement). It has been just over a year since one of their identical twin daughters died in an accident and the surviving twin, Kirstey (or is it Lydia) has been experiencing behavioural problems. Angus was fired from his job and Sarah (mother) is overwhelmed with grief and guilt. There is also a problem involving the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Somehow, moving to this spooky island is going to help? Is there method to this madness?
The story is told by alternating the points of view between Angus and Sarah. Personally, I was surprised by some of the twists and turns. The author manages to use the eerie setting to great advantage and some of the characters are soooo… creepy.
The author is a travel writer and this Island is based on an island he visited in his youth. There are photos that accompany the text and I can only assume that they are from this same island; Eilean Sionnach. I like the photos – they’re a nice touch.
THE ICE TWINS by S. k. Tremayne
Grand Central Publishing, 2015
My last few blog entries have revolved around mystery series set during (or in the aftermath) of World War 1. I would like to continue that theme with this post about three mystery series that may be of interest to anyone who appreciates historical mystery fiction of this era. All three of these mystery series take place after the war but they all incorporate elements of he war, and in some cases the actual answer to the mystery can be found directly in something that happened during the war. All of the novels on this page feature strong, intelligent women as the main characters
Daisy Dalrymple is a character created by Carola Dunn with her first adventure being “DEATH AT WENTWATER COURT” (1994) and then followed by 20 more entries. The reader will learn early in the first novel that Daisy was the privileged child of an Earl but after the war (and because of the war) her circumstances changed dramatically. Her beloved brother Gervais died during the fighting and was buried somewhere in France. Her father died immediately following the war from the Spanish Flu. The Dalrymple money and estate were entailed and thus it was left to a distant cousin. Daisy’s fiance was a Quaker and a “conscientious objector” but he worked as an ambulance driver near the front and he was also killed. To keep busy (and to make money) Daisy began to write successful magazine articles. Her stories on the” Grand Old Estates” allowed for her to travel. In the first novel Daisy meets an interesting fellow – DCI Fletcher, himself a widower after his wife died from the Spanish Flu. Oh yeah…..and there’s a murder. These novels, although the subject matter can be intense, tend to be more like a cozy and less gritty than some other series of this era.
The next series is actually one of my favourites during this era–the DANDY GILVER series by Catriona McPherson with the first entry being “After the Armistice Ball (2005). This first novel is set among the struggling upper classes, in the aftermath of World War 1. We meet a character named Alex who has just inherited an estate , even though he was a second son. His older brother died in the war. A lot of things just aren’t the way they were meant to be. Dandy and Alex become WORK partners and I just love their witty banter, and the droll insight. They are at their absolute best when their investigations bring them to areas of Scotland where the superstitions and customs may seem ridiculous but they’re brilliant at separating the chaff from the wheat. And the war does figure directly in some of the entries, for example, they have a case that involved a “conchie”–that would be slang for conscientious objector. In one telling but simple scene, Dandy is talking to a woman about her own school age sons and, without thinking she asks the woman if she has sons. She realised her mistake immediately as the woman’s face crumpled in on itself. After the war a person NEVER asked a stranger about their sons. This series has 10 titles.
Jade del Cameron is another strong female character written by Suzanne Arruda with the first entry of the series called “THE MARK OF THE LION”(2006) Jade was an ambulance driver during WW1 where her pilot boyfriend downed his plane very near to where she was working. His dying wish was for her to travel to Africa and find his illegitimate brother. In truth I found this to be more of an “African Adventure series ” rather than a “WW1” series but an interesting read all the same.
I am very excited about my next blog post–I will be combining two of my favourite elements of fiction. I love fiction about Scottish Islands, I have written many blogs about this subject in past posts. And I also love World War 1 fiction so I am going present some Scottish Island fiction set during World War1.
A book in my series featuring fiction novels with Scottish Island Settings.
The year is 1979 and the Fleming family are living in Bonn Germany where father Nicky is a diplomat. When he dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances mother Letty relocates her family to her childhood home on an Island in the Hebrides. Letty and her three children are trying to come to terms with his death but the bizarre and unexpected nature of his demise make it more difficult. The youngest son Jamie is convinced that his father is still alive so he leaves maps for his father to find . At the same time a grizzly bear has escaped from his keeper and was last seen on the Scottish West Coast. Young Jamie is convinced that the bear is somehow connected to his father.
This book is many things. There is a mystery–certainly we want to understand more about the father’s death especially since he was in diplomatic service during the cold war–so was it an accident? suicide? or maybe murder? It is the story of the family members, different personalities with different relationships with Nicky, trying to understand this death. The eldest daughter Georgie has always been the responsible one but she knows something that she doesn’t want to know. Middle daughter Alba is consumed by hate (for everything but mostly for Jamie). Young Jamie is a very special child; at eight-years-old he can neither read nor write but he processes an almost magical thinking that endears him to some and alienates him from others.
And there is the search for the bear…..
Very interesting; In 1980 a bear did escape from his trainer and spent 4 weeks on an Island in the Outer Hebrides. More information in the book’s epilogue.
I thought this book was very unique – perhaps a little slow at times – but worth it.
An Oprah pick in 2011.
It has been some time since I posted on my blog so I will start with a book that I read very recently and then I can tackle some of the books I have read during my absence. “The Other Child” is a psychological suspense novel written by an author named Charlotte Link who is hugely popular in her native Germany but not well known in North America. I think this might change. I have read novels in the European/Scandinavian genre before but I have a confession to make– I tend to get bogged down with the proper names; those impossible combinations of vowels and letters (and little dots) that form the names of people, places and even street names. My poor brain just stumbles over these unfamiliar words and the resulting confusion really puts a damper on my reading experience. Well my poor brain was happy with this novel. Not only does it take place in England but people have names like Dave, Chad and Leslie. Yeah.
This is a suspenseful, multilayered double murder mystery with a thread going back to World War ll. The reader is introduced to the characters before their connection is known. This is one of those novels where very little should be divulged to the new reader so I will take my advice and say no more about the plot. I do think this would appeal to fans of psychological suspense fiction.
This is a novel that sent me on an emotional roller coaster ride. It is primarily the story of a girl named Grania who becomes deaf, at age five, after suffering through scarlet fever. Her mother refuses to accept Grania’s deafness but her grandmother (Mamo) is relentless in teaching her to read and speak. The description of Mamo’s patience and commitment is truly memorable and Grania’s progress is inspiring. She is nine years old when the family makes the difficult decision to send her to a special boarding school for the deaf. She must leave her small-town Canadian home and live in another city without her family. Although she is heartbroken at first, she eventually excels in the deaf school. The first 1/3 of the book tells the story of Grania growing up, meeting a man named Jim Lloyd, and getting married.
Their marriage takes place in 1915 and soon Jim is heading to Europe to be a soldier in WWI. The novel describes the horror of his existence as a stretcher-bearer on the front lines in France. Grania moves back with her family and lives through the difficult war years in her home -town, assisting the war movement and the family. Both Jim and Grania witness tragedy and death in their respective locations. Despite the separation, there is a deep devotion between them.
I won’t describe the novel anymore except to say it is very moving. My own grandfather, who died when I was very young, was a stretcher -bearer in WWl and I did not know or understand that he lived through such horror. It impressed me, and it distressed me.
This is a very fine story about commitment and devotion.
HarperCollins Publishers (2003)