Sunday, November 4, 2012

Archaeology Detectives

The Body in the Mound
John Bedell

Archaeology and mysteries have a strong affinity. Both are concerned with clues, solving puzzles based on limited facts, and getting at the truth. Archaeology usually lacks the pure and definitive satisfaction of the mystery novel ending. Despite, or perhaps  because, of this there have been a lot of archaeology mysteries.

Beginning with Agatha Christie classics like Murder in Mesopotamia, They Came to Bagdad, Man in the Brown Suit, Death Comes as the End and others. Christie was actually married to an archaeologist, Max Mallowan, and spent many years helping him with his digs. Supposedly Murder in Mesopotamia is based  on one of the digs they went on together, including a veiled description of the high strung wife of the head of the excavation and famous archaeologist, Leonard Woolley.

Recently there's been lots of  others: Elizabeth Peters' fabulous Amelia Peabody 19th century Egyptology mysteries,  Lyn Hamilton's Lara McClintoch, Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series, Kathy Reichs – Temperance Brennan, and the list goes on. There are a lot. Check out: Digging Death. for a list of a bunch of well known ones. I've read a lot of these. Some are very, very good. Some authors just do not understanding how archaeology works and it shows. Archaeology is collaborative, a group activity, not the work of a single genius, no matter how polymath he might be (Indy!).

Recently I've been reading about the work of acclaimed archaeologists like Sarah Wisseman of the University of Illinois, who writes mysteries. John Bedell, who is also a noted professional archaeologist working in the Middle Atlantic region published his first mystery, The Body in the Mound via Amazon e-books. It came to my attention  last spring and I had to get a copy (e-book) of it immediately. As sometimes happens, I could not put it down and read it in about a day but it has taken me some time to write about it.  I really enjoyed it. This story   falls into the category of accidental detective since the character is pulled into the case by circumstance.

Bedell's hard living and hard digging archaeologist Jack Gordon is running an archaeological survey for a gas pipeline near small Pennsylvania  town called Renovo in Clinton County. The survey is looking for archaeological sites in the path of the pipeline.This is, of course, one kind of work that many archaeologists do to pay the bills and to find cool sites and record them before they are destroyed by  construction. Jack profitably runs his own company (possibly the most fantastic part of the story). 

He is asked by the police to look at a murder victim found in a 2,000 year old  but looted Indian burial mound. The mound is of a type called Adena based on a culture centered in Ohio, who buried their dead with rich and unusual artifacts like copper beads, tubular pipes, exotic stone points, and other items. The body is completely modern but its presence in an ancient mound is unexplained. (Honestly, who hasn't thought of hiding a body in a burial mound?)

Jack doesn't understand what is going on but he needs to find out in a hurry as he  is threatened, shot at, and accused of being the murderer.  What ensues is a pretty gritty (literally) struggle to find the truth and the missing artifacts before he ends up in jail or dead. There's lots of local (Renovo) color and locals. This is a fast moving novel and a lot of fun to read. Local archaeologists can read it without worry! John Bedell does know what he's talking about and it holds up pretty well.   

Jack 1939

Francine Mathews
Jack 1939

As the author of  the Jane Austen mysteries (under the pseudonym Stephanie Barron), I am a huge fan of Francine Mathews. Her Jane Austen mysteries are dead on - using letters, known biography, dialogue from her novels and filling in the blanks left by all that is not known in a most entertaining way.

I also really, really liked her two non-Jane historical mysteries, Flaw in the Blood, which is about Queen Victoria, and The White Garden, about Virginia Woolf's suicide. Both are terrific fun, well researched. Because of Flaw I read up on Queen Victoria, actually an amazing woman;  check out Cecil Woodham-Smith's superb Queen Victoria biography.

So I knew that Ms. Mathews really does her research. Jack 1939 is full of unexpected historical facts and surmises about Jack Kennedy and his pre-war European travels. This includes Kennedy family color - stuff about sisters Kathleen and Rosemary, Bobby, Rose, the whole clan. In this sex-tinged spy thriller, future president Jack Kennedy, then a college student, is a spy for Roosevelt and in opposition to his own father, who some would suggest was a Nazi sympathizer before the war.  Young and sickly but incredibly attractive to all sorts of women, married as well as Radcliffe virgins, Jack fights Nazis funding out critical information about Nazi war plans. Really sympathetic to Kennedy, less so to his parents. A really fun read.

Note: this summer and fall, my mystery reading fell off a bit. I read all 5 books of the Game of Thrones series - anxiously waiting for the 6th! Will be catching up with some reviews in the coming days and weeks.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Big dog...

Hound of the Baskervilles

This seemed like an episode from the X-files. Dark rooms, foggy moors, frightened client - is he all he seems to be? Big scary dog, CIA plots, illicit drugs. The meaning of "hound." Sherlock admitting his own insecurities, his feelings (of friendship) for Watson. a bit of a mess, really. At least everyone kept his or her clothes on.

I've read and seen so much new Holmes in and out of canon, really got to get back to Conan. Doyle that is...

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Series reads

Just re-read the first in C.S. Harris' Regency St. Cyr mysteries, What Angels Fear. Holds up great! I really enjoy these, And reading the 2nd in the Flavia de Luce series, The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag. And the latest in the Charles Todd Ian Rutledge series, A Lonely Death Three different Emglands ... Plus Sherlock and Game of Thrones...

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Wild Things

So sad about Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are was a book I loved to read to my daughter when she was small. And I know what it is to give up being king of all the wild things to go back to the place where someone loves me best of all.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Scandal in Belgravia -- last night's Sherlock

Watched last night's Sherlock, the first in Series 2, Scandal in Belgravia. This series, if you don't know, features Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson. These two are soon to be united in The Hobbit, where Freemen is Bilbo and Cumberbatch is Smaug. That should be fun.

Stephen Moffat, who also produces and writes the BBC's 11th Dr. Who, wrote this episode, and produces this new Sherlock series for the BBC. Anyway, last night's was fast paced and a bit hard to follow. I may have to watch it again.

A lot of women with crushes on Sherlock "smart is the new sexy" well duh!, a lot of cell phone and laptop finagling; Watson writes a blog that everyone reads including the Queen, I guess this is to show how much it's updated. Watson is just back from the modern war in Afghanistan, actually a sad commentary on 20th century geopolitics. Irene Adler is a very well-placed sex worker and dominatrix who teases and possibly is even smarter than Sherlock. She is a joy to watch, a lot of fun. Lots of twists and turns. A scandal that will bring down the British government or so Mycroft says. "Jim" Moriarity is genuinely scary. My husband and I enjoyed it. I need to go back and read the original. Before next week...

Sunday, May 6, 2012

What am I if not a "thinking woman?"

I just learned of this list. I have read and reviewed several of these authors (Barron, Bradley, Winspear, and King) but this list (and the comments that follow) seem like a good source for more reading inspiration. Always looking for a good read! And suggestions of Nancy Means Wright's Mary Wolstonnecraft series and Tana French's Irish mysteries sound appealing. To the library! To the e-downloads!

The lucidity of Flavia De Luce

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Alan Bradley

The first in this series about 11-year old accidental detective and genius Flavia de Luce is a whiff of carbon tetrachloride scented fresh air in 1950's England. Flavia is a lonely half-orphaned little girl with two awful older sisters and a grief-stricken father living in a stuffy Agatha-esque village. Flavia tools around on her ancient bicycle Gladys like Harriet the Spy (perhaps not coincidentally the name of her dead mother) or experiments in her sparkling heirloom chemistry lab in the De Luce ancestral pile. She specializes in poison. This book won the 2009 Agatha Award for Best First Novel but for some reason, it took me a while to read it.

It is original, kind of spare and maddening, a tale told (not by an idiot) by a meddling kid/genius. It is also very, very funny.

I am gratified there are now five more in the series!

# 9 Maisie -- Elegy for Eddie

Jacqueline Winspear
Elegy for Eddie

For fans of Maisie, the latest brings us just a little further toward World War II and further in the saga of Maisie, whose many virtues have been repaid by inheriting a fortune, running a successful business, and dating her former employer, a viscount no less. Although I enjoy this series, I can't bring myself to like the self-righteous but self-denying Maisie. Despite her outrageous good fortune, she can't bring herself to enjoy anything and bosses everyone around. It's a bit hard to take.

Other characters like her assistant Billy and his troubled wife Doreen, friend Priscilla, and her dad Frankie are more interesting.

I have to admit the recreation of the between the wars setting with England still reeling from WWI is fascinating. It makes it a little easier to understand those who would have appeased Hitler to keep the peace. Winspear does a great job of invoking the tensions of the class system and the vanishing rural fiefdoms during this time when the old world is being swept away. Her dad's world of horses is ending forever with the rise of the motorcar. Winspear does a great job of capturing the oughts (1900s) to 30s time of "lost forever" worlds and drastic social change.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Gods of Gotham

The Gods of Gotham
Lyndsay Faye

I reported on Faye's Sherlock mystery Dust and Shadow in a recent post and found it very fine, if Sherlock did seem a bit too high strung. And Sherlock is hot!

I just finished her more recent Gods of Gotham and I found it excellent. Fans of the Alienist and Gangs of New York will find it familiar territory. Descriptive and enchanting but also horrifying as Irish children working as prostitutes are apparently being murdered and cut apart. It's set during a time when Irish immigrants flood into the city in the wake of the potato famine, threatening "Americans," with their strange religion and different ways.

Tim Wilde, a bartender and burn victim, takes up the copper star of the new police force. Gods is a great read if you like thick atmosphere and historical settings and language, such as its use of the "flash" thieves cant or slang, and the dark visions of the city in the 19th century. Having read a little of that history and about the archaeology of the 19th century Five Points slum, I know Ms. Faye's research is meticulous and rich. She also brings to life a fascinating cast of characters, both real and fictional, from the real police chief Mattson to the fictional Wilde brothers, Mercy Underhill, Bird Daly, Mrs. Boehm, the child newsboys and child prostitutes, and the wild assortment of "copper stars" the early NYPD of 1845. This is very good stuff.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sherlock is coming in the US

Pbs will be airing Season 2 of Sherlock starting May 6 at 9 pm.

Sunday, May 6, 2012 at 9pm SCANDAL IN BELGRAVIA Picking up from season 1's gripping cliff-hanger, the whip-smart dominatrix Irene Adler (Lara Pulver, True Blood) takes on Sherlock in a game he is ill-prepared to

Sunday, May 13, 2012 at 9pm THE HOUNDS OF BASKERVILLE Sherlock and Watson track a gigantic hound to Baskerville, where the military is conducting top-secret experiments. But whether demonic or dubious, something is stalking the moors...

Sunday, May 20, 2012 at 9pm THE REICHENBACH FALL Stealing the crown jewels is just a prelude for the unhinged criminal mastermind, Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott, Lennon Naked), when he poses the diabolical and inescapable "final problem" to Sherlock.

Can't wait! I'll be watching with a pipe full of shag, a rather fine brandy, and a soup├žon of 7% solution to round the corners.

More new reads...More Sherlock...Deb Crombie...Amelia Peabody...

Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson by Lyndsay Faye (2009) No Mark Upon Her by Deborah Crombie (2012)
Gallows View by Peter Robinson (1990)
Amelia Peabody's Egypt: A compendium by Elizabeth Peters, Kristen Whitbread and Dennis Forbes (2003)

Lyndsay Faye's new and highly acclaimed novel The Gods of Gotham is set in 1840's New York during the early days of the police force in that city. A future read but I wanted to read her 1st novel, Dust and Shadow,  more Sherlockiana (see some of my recent blogs). I read her novel with a map of London and a "Ripperology" website at my side. Her novel is well-researched and enjoyable. It is tightly plotted but as in all of the recent Sherlockiana novels, Downey/Law movies, and the BBC TV series (2nd series airing in the US in May), they are interested in giving Sherlock a lot of emotions, sometimes a wife or girlfriend, and perhaps more physicality than is canonical. Now I need to re-read the originals to see what is or is not canon.

I was looking forward to Deb Crombie's new novel and it did not disappoint. There is a ripping mystery involving rowing, posh Henley rowing clubs, and the power hierarchy and sexism at the Met (London Police). Detectives (and new spouses) Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James must combine work and family life as they try to make a good life for themselves and their children while solving dastardly, complex crimes (try that, Ann Romney!) and navigating the tricky waters of the Yard politics. 

In my last blog, I discussed Peter Robinson's latest Before the Poison. I wanted to read his Inspector Banks series, starting with the first, Gallows View. Since the first, he's written a lot of this series, 20 books or so. In the first, Banks and his family have just moved to small town in Yorkshire, where a peeping Tom, angry local feminists, a gorgeous psychologist, and a nasty sociopathic youth gang lead to all kinds of crime - including murder. The small town is full of interesting characters - like an updated Miss Marple would find in council flats and posh new estates. It's good stuff.

Last, Amelia Peabody's Egypt is a fun companion to Elizabeth Peters' archaeological mysteries set in 1880's to 1920's Egypt. It is great fun reading about the actual investigators like Flinders Petrie and Howard Carter and puts some more meat on the bones of Peters' backstories of Egyptology, fashion, suffrage, and espionage. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Recent reads

Before the Poison, Peter Robinson, 2011
When Maidens Mourn, C.S. Harris, 2012

I had never heard of Peter Robinson, the author of an U.K. police procedural series featuring Inspector Banks,,
when I saw Before the Poison at my local library.

I was drawn to the cover with its enigmatic picture of a woman in a '50s style dress. This novel is a stand-alone, the story of Chris, composer and ex-pat. Brit. come home from living in the U.S. He's recovering from the death of his wife and buys a house in Yorkshire in a deserted spot only to discover it's the house of a woman hanged for murdering her husband after the war. A story perhaps similar to Ruth Ellis, a real life hanged murderess played by Miranda Richardson in a movie some time back. Chris gets pulled further and further into the story of the dead woman and whether or not she killed her husband, and if she did, why.

The setting is atmospheric and well drawn, the post war history skillfully recreated. The dialogue is well written and Chris is an appealing and sympathetic protagonist. The plot is so complex I kept reviewing it in my mind and it really keeps you guessing. This was a great find; I will be looking for the Inspector Banks series.

I love the series by C.S. Harris about the wolflike nobelman, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, who investigates crimes during the English Regency period. They are wonderfully well researched, written, and hard to put down. Harris, the pseudonym for Candace Proctor, a historian of the French Revolution, writes a series that is part police procedural, part thriller, and part romance. They are written in a serial fashion so plenty of questions are left at the end of each one. Ongoing plot lines involve Sebastian's mysterious mother, his family, and his relationship with his new wife Hero, daughter of his enemy Lord Jarvis. They are no regency romances; the stories are much darker and more mysterious.

When Maidens Mourn, the latest, does not disappoint. Sebastian and Hero, an excellent wife for him, become closer while solving the mystery of the death of young female antiquarian friend of Hero's. The archaeology sub plot is cool and the story satisfying. Can't wait for the next one!

Communication Breakdown

Sara Paretsky

The new V.I. Warshawski novel is quite a wild ride from beginning to end. V.I. must rescue a group of teenage girls when their ritual worshipping of a fictional raven girl (kind of a twilight-like fictional series) at a cemetery turns deadly. As usual, V.I. must risk her life and livelihood and those of all of her friends to cheese off a bunch of people. There are some right wing media types who are completely despicable, including making up lies about a holocaust survivor. V.I. does not pull any punches. Those to the right of center are either evil or corrupt. The more liberal tend to be idiots and hypocrites. Altogether I found it quite enjoyable and fast paced, if a bit predictable and far too simplistic.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

More tales of Sherlock....

A Study in Sherlock
Edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Kinger
Bantam Books
"Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon"

If nothing else, the recent edited volumn of stories by 16 noted mystery writers such as Margaret Maron, Jan Burke, Lee Child, Laura Lippman, Dana Stabenow, and several others "inspired by the Holmes Canon" inspire one to go back and read the originals. I first read Holmes as a teenager and it is time to re-read the collection. I wasn't sure if I would like these stories but they are wonderful, although all are very different.

I'd be hard pressed to pick my favorites. Some feature Holmes in a new story such as the ones by Alan Bradley, Thomas Perry, S. J. Rozan, and Neil Gaiman. Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson solve a mystery without Holmes in Maron's story, while Conan Doyle is the subject of Todd's story. Others such as the ones by Jacqueline Winspear, Dana Stabenow, Gayle Lynds and John Sheldon, Jan Burke, Lionel Chetwynd, Tony Broadbent, Lee Child, and Philip and Jerry Margolin, are about detectives inspired by Holmes or using similar methods of observation and detection. Some are set in the Victorian era, some in the early twentieth century, and some are contemporary. It is also good to read these stories by Burke, Maron, Lippman, and Winspear, whose detective novels I've read avidly but whose stories are featuring other detectives and in some cases other eras. I particularly enjoyed Winspear's story about the inspiration of a young detective.

As I said, it is difficult to pick any favorites since they were all so good but if I pressed I'd say that Neil Gaiman's semi-steampunk sci-fi Holmes story set in part in China, and Dana Stabenow's epistolary blog-novel set in modern Alaska are my absolute favorites of the collection. But I liked them all. I was disappointed that there was no story by Laurie King herself but it is a wonderful collection. I will be looking for stories by Alan Bradley, the Margolins, Lionel Chetwynd, ad Gaiman, all of whom I had never read before and really loved their stories. I did not read the graphic Holmes story by Colin Cotterill since that didn't appeal to me but might appeal to other readers.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

One for the Money movie

Well, I saw the movie on Friday with a group of Trenton oriented historians, historic preservation folks, and fans. We liked the movie pretty well - enjoyed the repartee, handsome muscular men, and Sherry Sheppard as Lula, in particular. The movie was shot not in Trenton but in Pittsburgh, which led to some very disconcerting scenes of abandoned steel mills and mountains in the background. Also the houses and streets were mostly pretty wrong for the 'burg. They did use a number of stickers, props, wall maps, signs, and local references that gave a little flavor. I thought Katherine Heigl was just fine as Stephanie Plum despite being almost universally panned by critics. My fellow movie goers thought she was too pretty but pretty good. The movie is light and enjoyable if not the greatest detective film ever, not quite the disaster it was made out to be.

House of Silk

House of Silk
Anthony Horowitz

This book is is a new Sherlock Holmes mystery authorized by the Conan Doyle estate. Sherlock is hotter than ever. I saw the latest in the muscular version of Holmes and Watson depicted by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law on Christmas Day and really enjoyed its non-stop action. Jared Harris, skilled playing an evil genius from his work on Fringe makes avery effective Moriarity. Even better is the modernized version presented by the BBC and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The first series was on last year and the next is being shown in the UK at present and we'll see it in the U.S. in May. Laurie King's wonderful and well-received Mary Russell- Holmes mysteries featuring the young intellectual wife of Holmes and Study in Sherlock are also well worth it for the hungry Holmes fan.

House of Silk is very good and not at all revisionist. It does feature some of Holmes irregulars and focuses on the terrible mistreatment of poor children during Victoriam times. Holmes has come upon a secret so heinous it threatens to bring down the government and he continues to pursue it despite being warned off by his brother Mycroft. It is very atmospheric with a sinuous well-draw plot.