Halloween Bingo 2020: The Rest of the Game and Wrap-Up

Sooo, that’s another bingo game behind us already!  Many thanks to our game hosts for successfully moving the game from BookLikes to a new venue and organizing one heck of a game despite that venue’s built-in limitations.  I had a great time and would only have wished I could have participated more throughout the game (particularly in October).

As I had expected, RL started to run major interference by mid-September; and while initially I was at least still able to continue reading (even though I no longer had any time to compose update posts here on WP), by the beginning of October, even reading was essentially a no-go.  Just as well that I had powered through my remaining books by that time … otherwise, this would likely have been the first year in which I hadn’t made it all the way to blackout.

Anyway — here’s my blacked-out bingo card — gained after having had to wait for Doomsday (to be called … on the game’s very last day, at that: could there possibly have been a better conclusion to this year’s game?), with my “virgin” card below and my final spreadsheet at the end of this post:

 

My Master Update Post

 

The Game’s Final Books

… (roughly) in the order in which I read them:

 

Naomi Novik: Spinning Silver


Book 2 in Novik’s series of books updating classical fairy tales (though not, actually, a sequel to Uprooted — this one very much stands on its own ground): essentially, a blend of Rumpelstiltskin, Baba Yaga, and the English / British version of the elf lore, set in a fictional Eastern European country that is, however, very clearly inspired by Russia — down to the use of proper names, titles, and other terms, which are either downright Russian or a sort of pan-Slavic bowdlerization of Russian, Polish, or other Slavic terms.

Novik almost lost me during the initial scene-setting, which struck me as overly elaborate and wordy (she’s clearly her own greatest fan where it comes to the use of descriptive language or, for that matter, even “showing” instead of “telling”); but once the story got going, I was happy enough to come along for the ride, and there were enough innovative elements to keep me interested throughout.  It was probably a good thing that both the source material and the setting were entirely fictional, though (even if heavily borrowing from Russian and pan-Slavic elements), because I’m almost certain that if Novik had aimed for an existing historical setting (as she does in her Temeraire series), she’d have had me wincing at some point or other. — I may go on to read Uprooted or another fairy tale-based book by her eventually, but it’s not a priority, and after this first taste of her writing, I am even less eager to go anywhere near Temeraire.

 

The Medieval Murderers: The Lost Prophecies


This was a reread, which this time around I liked quite a bit better than when I first read it a few years ago.  The Medieval Murderers series of round robins are the perfect books for the “Relics and Curiosities” Halloween Bingo category, as their very concept consists in following one (supposedly cursed or unlucky) item through history, from its first use or appearance at some point in the (typically: early) Middle Ages to the present day (or beyond); so they have become sort of my go-to series for this bingo square.  Yet, in this particular instance I was sorely tempted to change my mind and assign the book to either the “Doomsday” or the “Dystopian Hellscape” square, as it ends with a scary-and-believable-as-hell doomsday scenario set in a post-climate-catastrophe future, with half the world (e.g., all of Africa and India) essentially burnt up and turned into a scorching, uninhabitable desert, and the better part of the rest half-submerged by the world’s oceans after the melting of the polar ice caps.  (It’s also a showcase for not extrapolating too noticeably from the political order at the time of writing, though, as it was written pre-Brexit and more or less takes Britain’s continued membership in the EU as a given … oh well.)

Like in all the books in the series, the individual sections of The Lost Prophecies (which concerns a book of doomsday prophesies compiled by a 6th century Irish monk) can, at heart, stand on their own, even though there are occasional cross-references; particularly, of course, to the “dangerous book”‘s mysterious origins.  Individually and collectively, the book’s various parts take the reader on a journey from 6th century Ireland to medieval Devon, late medieval Cambridge, the Tartar Steppe, rural England in Shakespeare’s times, and, as mentioned above, the doomsday world of the “dangerous book”‘s final prophecies.  As is to be expected in a round robin — and as is typically the case in this series, too — not all of the individual mystery sections are equally strong, and I’ve found my previous likes and dislikes essentially confirmed upon this reread, even if, as I said, I liked the book quite a bit better as a whole this time around.

 

A.S. Byatt: Ragnarok


Ultimately, I decided to go with Byatt’s take on Ragnarök for the “Doomsday” Halloween Bingo square, because let’s face it, doomsday doesn’t get anymore terrifying than in Norse mythology — and I am glad that Byatt, for one, didn’t try to humanize the Norse deities, as so many other authors do in their attempt to make them understandable to modern readers.  (You can easily do that to the gods of Greek mythology — and honestly, that’s one of the reasons why as a child I found them, and Greek mythology as a whole, much easier to understand than Norse mythology; but try to assign human characteristics and motivations to Thor or Loki and you’re instantly missing their intrinsic nature.)  By the same token, I found it intriguing that Byatt herself — as the “thin child” through whose eyes we are witnessing Ragnarök here is, as she herself confirms in the book’s afterword, an only thinly-veiled edition of Byatt’s younger self — was drawn so much to the Norse version of doomsday in her younger years.  Of couse, what with WWII persistently threatening to destroy her own world, on the one hand it’s easily understandable that she would turn to the kind of storytelling that centers on precisely this sort of catastrophe; on the other hand, the thoroughly alien and hard-to-grasp Norse deities don’t seem to be the very first, logical point of identification coming to mind.  All the more thought, however, Byatt clearly put into her approach to Ragnarök, and all the more the whole thing is to the benefit of the reader … even if, like myself, that reader still comes away preferring Greek to Norse mythology.

 

Sharyn McCrumb: The Ballad of Tom Dooley


Just as the Medieval Murderers series has, over the years, become my go-to series for “Relics and Curiosities”, Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad series is my go-to series for the Southern Gothic bingo square.  I’ve enjoyed all of the books from that series that I’ve read so far; none more than The Ballad of Frankie Silver.  This particular entry, while not a complete let-down, was thus a bit unexpected as it is the first time that I could not empathize with one of the major POV characters (which, I find more and more, is kind of crucial to my enjoyment of a book); not least because I thought her character unnecessarily clichéd.  And although McCrumb insists that — like in her other Ballad novels — the essential story is based on historic fact, she seems to have given in to conjecture here more than she usually does, which is something that I find problematic at least if, like here, it involves people who have actually lived, and have been a part of the events described, though not necessarily (or at least not demonstrably) in the way set forth by the author. — Research and faithful narration aside, however, McCrumb can still write rings around many another writer, and her scene-setting and ear for dialogue (both interior and exterior) is as flawless as ever here.

 

T.S. Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats


Original review HERE.

Additional separate post HERE — Macavity, Mr. Mistoffelees & Co. in all their feline glory still very much deserve a post of their own!

 

Michael Jecks: The Malice of Unnatural Death


I’ve been a fan of Michael Jecks’s Knights Templar series for a number of years now, and although he pretty much grabbed me with the opening scene of that series’s very first book (and never mind that that particular book did come across as more of a typical “early” book later on), I keep enjoying how much better the series gets the further it progresses.  I am not reading it in order (though I’ve read enough books at this point to have a fairly solid grasp of the two main characters’ overall story arch) — so far this hasn’t greatly bothered me, but I may find it more difficult to go back to some of the earlier books after having read this particular installment, which, never mind its occasionally gut-wrenching scenes, is a veritable page-turner and darned near perfectly crafted in virtually every respect.  It’s also the perfect Halloween (bingo) read, in that it combines a (medieval) mystery — set in Exeter and the main characters’ nearby Dartmoor home — with apparent elements of the supernatural; concerning, as it does, the activities of a necromancer — an assassin claiming to be in league with the devil and using powers bestowed on him by the devil in order to carry out his murders (in the dead of winter, at that).  All told, this was definitely one of the highlights of my bingo reads this year.

 

Ellis Peters: The Devil’s Novice


Another (re-re-)reread and, not just in its medieval setting, the perfect follow-up to Michael Jecks’s The Malice of Unnatural Death: The story of a young man professing an earnest desire to become a novice at Shrewsbury’s abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul and yet, soon revealing in his sleep that he is haunted by demons that will need to be exorcised before any decision about his future can be made — not just the decision whether he is meant for the cloister at all.

This is one of my favorite installments in Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series; I’ve revisited both the book and the screen adaptation starring Derek Jacobi numerous times … and I confess that petty li’l me always gets an extra kick out of seeing the odious Brother Jerome brought down a peg or three here when he is temporarily rendered incapable of speech.  (And I feel secure in the knowledge that not merely Cadfael but Abbot Radulfus shares that sentiment, so I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it, either.)

 

Alice Hoffman: The River King


This was, incredibly, my first taste of Hoffman’s writing — in hindsight, I’m wondering whether I should have started with her Practical Magic books after all (but then again, I might be wondering about the same thing in reverse — i.e., whether I should have started with this book — if I had).  Either way, I was a bit more underwhelmed than I had expected to be — with this book, at any rate: I”ve always been much less certain that the Practical Magic books are for me, and am even less certain about that now.

This is a murder mystery with supernatural elements set in a New England prep school: I found the main characters and the setting well enough executed, but I suppose I’m just too prosaically-minded to see what the supernatural elements added to the (by and large sordid, but hardly original) story — and Hoffman’s writing at times has a downright manipulative quality that I found more and more jarring the further I progressed in the book.  I also have a serious bone to pick with the ending, which doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for the victims of bullying in this (the real, not the supernatural) world — in a book that clearly aims to send a message, that is just about the last sort of message I’d want to see.

 

Colin Dexter: The Dead of Jericho


Another comfort (re)read (well, its been that kind of year … and fall): It was more or less “six of this, half a dozen of the other” whether I’d use this book for the “Film at 11” bingo square and something from Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series for “Read by Flashlight or Candlelight” or vice versa, but I ultimately decided to go with the more obvious focus on the book as actually written here, simply because this book’s screen adaptation is one of the Morse TV episodes I care somewhat less for than the series as a whole.  The reason is that the screenwriters’ fiddling with the plot (which is present, to some extent, in all episodes of the TV series) in this instance creates a structure that is several degrees more serpentine than the already fairly convoluted plot of the actual book — which in turn, for a number of reasons isn’t my absolute favorite in the series, either, but as a writing exercise it’s still superior to the screenplay.  (No reflection on the cast: John Thaw, Kevin Whately, and Gemma Jones are all in great form.)

Another reason for my decision to pick this book for this particular square was that the audio version is narrated by Samuel West, who does an absolutely phantastic job, as he does for the entire series.

In keeping with the theme of this square, I made this listening experience as comfortable and laid-back as possible; starting while having a bath and finishing in bed — with my obligatory black(ish) Halloween bingo good luck cat by my side. — Thanks again to Lora who agreed to flip this square for my original card’s “Stone Cold Horror” … I’d never have found a horror novel set in winter on my shelves (nor been inclined to read it even if I’d found one, this year being what it is)!  You’ve got to admit … this was the much more “feel good” version:


 

Patricia Highsmith: Ripley Under Ground


This year’s Halloween Bingo buddy read — thanks again to Christine, BrokenTune and Lillelara for the fun of reading this book together!  Somehow, that seems to be the way Patricia Highsmith’s books are enjoyed best … Though I have to say, while I struggled with Strangers on a Train, I’m getting a complete and total kick out of Tom Ripley.  I mean, sure, he’s a psychopath, and it was slightly even more fun to watch him turn into the monster that he actually is in the first book … but it was still eye-rolling good fun to watch his antics in the arts world.  (He also seems to be one of the notable exceptions to the fact that, as a rule, I have to be able to empathize with at least one of a book’s POV characters, see above.  Which is a rule that of course also applies to Highsmith’s books — hence, in part, my response to Strangers on a Train — and c’mon on, you can’t seriously root for a psychopath … or can you?!)

 

Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White


Thank God for writers like Wilkie Collins, who always provide(s) me with enough options to fill at least one horror-related bingo square without having to reach for a spell card … and still read something generally classified as “horror” (or “gothic”) without actually being scared out of my wits and unable to sleep afterwards.  In The Woman in White, it’s all in the psychology: At heart, this is more mystery than what we’d call “horror” today — chiefly concerning, as it does, the identity of the eponymous “Woman in White” and the goings-on in a house that, it turns out, she used to call her home — but one character (the odious Count Fosco) alone provides enough of a creep factor to satisfy the definition as “gothic” three times over, and most of the other tropes of the genre are present as well (mysterious lonely country estate, women in peril, doomed love, fire, etc.) — For those who may have struggled with Collins’s The Moonstone: This is similar in structure in that it, too, has several narrators, but none of them have quite as many idiosyncrasies as does Betteredge, in particular, in The Moonstone; and I also found The Woman in White somewhat more tightly plotted.

 

W. Stanley Moss: Ill Meet by Moonlight

The book I’ve wanted to read ever since I visited Anógia village, high up in the Cretan Mount Ida (or Psiloritis) massif, several years ago: The first-hand account of the WWII abduction of German Major General Heinrich Kreipe near his home in Heraklion, after which Kreipe was marched all the way up the mountain and, ultimately back down again to the southern coast of Crete and, from there, into English captivity in Egypt for the entire rest of the war.  I’ve posted about this before, so by way of background I’ll let that other post say all that is necessary … for purposes of this update, let me just add that “the book itself” is a ripping great read and then some; not just because it’s all true (what need for fiction if reality can write this sort of story?!), but also because Moss’s narrative style is tremendously engaging; affable and charming, understated, and straightforward at the same time. — And for anybody wondering just how fast friends he and Patrick Leigh Fermor (only incidentally his commanding officer in the venture) really were, I’ll give you just one excerpt; straight from Moss’s diary, which forms the backbone of the text, in this particular instance, from their first day in the cave (!) where their little group awaited the arrival of “Paddy” Leigh Fermor and the rest of their contingent:

“To remain here for a few days in comparative idleness will not be unpleasant.  I have with me the books which Paddy and I selected in Cairo to take with us, and among them there is something to suit every mood.  My literary companions are Cellini, Donne, Sir Thomas Browne, Tolstoi, and Marco Polo, while in a lighter vein there are Les Fleurs du Mal, Les Yeux d’Elsa, and Alice in Wonderland.  Then there are The Oxford Book of Verse and the collected Shakespeare which Billy MacLean gave us on our last night in Tara [before starting on the mission] …”

Only a person whom Patrick Leigh Fermor considered a true brother in spirit would find it perfectly normal — even indispensable — to bring (a) any books at all, (b) so many books, and (c) these books of all the books in the world on a potentially deadly mission in enemy territory (as Crete was for the Brits in WWII) … not to mention, consider Baudelaire’s controversial masterpiece and Louis Aragon’s patriotic wartime poems to his muse Elsa something “in a lighter vein.”  (And, of course, this is only one of several passages in the book that literally had me do a double take.)

N.B.: I’ve since found out that above and beyond the passage quoted in my other post, Leigh Fermor actually did end up writing his own full, book-length account of that particular mission, too … guess what went straight into my online shopping basket once I’d made that discovery.

 

J.J. Connington: Nordenholt’s Million


This was a book I instantly knew I’d be saving for Halloween Bingo after I’d read its back cover blurb. And it proved chillingly topical for our times — it sort of describes the combined effect of Brexit (and Trump in the U.S.), venture capitalism, and a rampant, out-of-control biological pest coming together.  (As a minor but significant tangent, also throw in religious fundamentalism.)

In the book’s case the pest is a bacterium that destroys the chemical compounds in which plants ingest nitrogen; in other words, it’s a killer with the capability of destroying the world’s entire food reserve (not just plant-based — animals directly or indirectly (via their prey) feed off plants, too, after all) in the space of less than a year. In the crisis brought about by the bacterium’s spread, a businessman / venture capitalist “relieves” the inept government of the reins of power — first behind the scenes, ultimately overtly — and puts in place a scheme where 90% of the British population (and 99+ % of the world’s population) are condemned to starve, while the remaining 10% of Brits — all of them, of course carefully selected — are put to use in creating a new, utopian society, which alone is in possession of nitrogenated soil and can grow plants.  (When religious fundamentalism takes hold in that community of the “select few”, the leader of the cult is first publicly unmasked as a fraud and then, literally only seconds later, shot dead in full view of the crowd he has amassed.)

I was shocked to see that this book was published in 1923; after having read the first chapters, I’d have expected at the very least that Connington had seen Hitler’s “Enabling Law” and use of the press for propaganda purposes in action, but no … and yet, he foretells them with a frightening degree of accuracy, only on the basis of the British system (which, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the book does include adjourning parliament to avoid inconvenient questions. And yes, at the moment when the crisis hits, the future dictator is an MP himself, too … by way of a sort of lateral activity, with the ultimate aim of furthering his venture capitalist interests). The way in which Connington pretty much foretells everything we saw with Hitler, and everything we’re now seeing with the combined effects of Trump, Brexit, a venture capital-based economic system AND the pandemic is scary to the nth degree … I’m glad he only ever put his ideas into this book and didn’t, himself, set about putting them into practice.

Connnington was, incidentally, a chemist by training, so he clearly knew what he was writing about as far as the scientific elements are concerned.  In fact, he was even prescient enough to foresee the use of nuclear energy — it’s the energy on which his future, utopian cities are ultimately run.  (They also consist of buildings made of other materials than stone or concrete, not unlike the building materials that are actually used today.)

If, in the final analysis, I only ended up rating the book 3 1/2 stars after all, this is based on essentially three reasons, and all of them only truly materialize in the final part(s) of the book — though some of these issues already start cropping up about halfway through:

(1) In terms of social clichés and perceptions, Connington was, alas, very much a man of his times.  There’s no sugarcoating the fact that the book contains some glaringly racist passages (and it’s not unconscious racism, either — he clearly meant every word); and, similarly, his take on women and women’s role in society is … well, let’s say, at the very least problematic.  There’s a distinct element of misogyny; even if it’s not quite as blatant as the racism (and he may even have believed he was doing something “advanced” in expressly giving one particular woman more of an active voice / role in building that utopian society).

(2) Connington, like a fair number of his contemporaries, was in favor of euthanasia — which is a fact I only know because I’ve read Martin Edwards’s two books about Golden Age crime fiction; but even if I hadn’t known this going in, it would have been hard to miss here.  However terrifying the first half of the book, the more the narrative progresses, the more it becomes clear that the author himself doesn’t, fundamentally, seem to see anything wrong with starting from a “clean slate”, as it were, of hand-picked superior human material (although even he does seem to balk at the more horrific aspects of achieving such a “clean slate”).  I haven’t read anything else by Connington yet — except for one mystery short story, that is — and I’m willing to grant that, had he foreseen the extent to which the Nazis took their particular version of a “clean slate”, he, too, would have been horrified.  (He died shortly after WWII; maybe some of his final literary output can provide some guidance as to his thinking once the world had begun to learn about the unspeakable horrors wreaked by the Nazis.)  Still, it’s an unnecessarily jarring feature.

(3) The utopian society ultimately emerging from all the turmoil is presented only in the sketchiest of terms, in great contrast to the description of the destruction of the world as it had been known until then.  Granted, this wasn’t Connington’s focus, but the ending of the book still feels rushed; and I found it hard to envision how, even after the discovery of nuclear energy (for which not one but several scientists knowingly and selflessly sacrifice their own lives … really, Mr. Connington??), the whole thing is supposed to have worked out … especially without the least further social turmoil.  As Connington himself shows, human society doesn’t work like that — and it’s not just the “dumb, gullible masses” (whoever they are) who won’t be pacified by the “bread and games” approach forever.

Still, I am glad that I have read this book — and there were times when, in the first half especially, I very much felt like quoting huge passages verbatim and yelling at people: “Listen to this — and this is from a book published in 1923, for crying out loud!”

 

Julie Smith (ed.) & Various Authors: New Orleans Noir


This year’s final bingo book: an anthology of mystery short stories set in New Orleans, by some of the Big Easy’s best-known crime writers.  As is usually the case with such compilations, some of the entries struck more of a chord with me than others, but taken together, they definitely conveyed an image of how the city just might see itself — or at least, some of of its seamier sides.  In a way, it also proved as fitting a final Halloween Bingo book as Nordenholt’s Million (which I had initially expected to finish last): what I hadn’t known when I picked this anthology — but instantly learned from the introduction — was that this book was put together in support of post-Hurricane Katrina disaster aid.  And in a year largely dominated by a global pandemic, that seems as apt a way to conclude my Halloween Bingo reads as having to wait for the Doomsday square to be called in order to be able to record my full “called and read” card blackout.

 

Previous Status Updates:
Week 1
Week 2

The Medieval Murderers: The Sacred Stone

16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 16 – New Year’s Eve / St. Sylvester’s Day

A Miraculous “Sky Stone”

Book themes for Hogmanay / New Year’s Eve / Watch Night / St. Sylvester’s Day: a book about starting over, rebuilding, new beginnings, etc. –OR– Read anything set in medieval times. –OR– A book about the papacy –OR– where miracles of any sort are performed (the unexplainable – but good – kind).

Well, go figure, this book took me by surprise.  I’ve read enough of the Medieval Murderers round robins at this point to be thoroughly familiar with both the format and the recurring characters — and I’ve seen enough of the participating authors’ writing styles to know exactly what to expect, and to have developed my preferences … or so I thought.  So far, while I’ve liked the series well enough to go back to it again and again, my rating of the individual books has always been a solid 3 1/2 stars — while there were individual sections in each book that I loved (or at least liked a great deal), there was always at least one that I didn’t particularly care for; and more often than not, by the same author — Bernard Knight.

Not so here: In fact, Knight’s entry was one of my favorites. There had been one other Medieval Murderers book — King Arthur’s Bones —  where I’d already noticed that as soon as Knight ditches his very medieval-style macho main series characters I care decidedly more for his writing, particularly if and to the extent that he puts women at the center of his plots and writes from their perspective, as is very much the case here.  But up until now, I’d considered his chapter in King Arthur’s Bones a one-off, because pretty much every other Medieval Murderers entry I’ve seen from him was centered around his main men, with plenty of gruff voices, growling, and repetitive vocabulary.  So Mr. Knight, might I suggest you continue to write about women … or at least, allow that female touch to brush off on your writing about medieval men of the law, too?  It seems to be doing them (and you) a world of good!

The other thing I really liked about this book was the way in which it — consistently throughout all the different authors’ sections — treated the superstitions associated with the meteorite or “sky stone” which it follows from its first appearance in 11th century Greenland to the present day.  Given the magical powers historically associated with meteorites in popular belief, there would have been occasion aplenty to either take the individual chapters down a route blurring and even trespassing beyond the edges of reality (looking at you in particular, Ms. Maitland), or to talk down to the charactes for their adherence to such beliefs; but (again, as in King Arthur’s Bones) the authors thankfully show themselves both too solid historians and too emphatic writers to be tempted into doing either.  As with their entry centering on the Arthurian legend (where the principal question, of course, is whether you believe in Arthur’s historical existence in the first place), in The Sacred Stone there is the repeated suggestion that the “sky stone” might have miraculous / unexplained healing powers and be a force for good — but it is always counterbalanced by the whole series’s central premise; namely, that a malign object’s path is being traced throughout the centuries, from the Middle Ages to the present day — an object that inspires and fosters violence, murder, treachery, and all-out evil; and here, in fact, it is precisely the belief in the stone’s alleged benign powers that brings about the evil acts at the center of each of the book’s individual sections.

I was sorry not to see Michael Jecks as a co-author of this particular installment of the Medieval Murderers series, but, as I said above, there was not a single chapter I would have wanted to do without; my favorites probably being the prologue and epilogue (there are, for once, no author attributions, but even without those I’m fairly confident that both of these were written by Susanna Gregory), as well as the chapter authored by Bernard Knight (easily enough identifiable because a very much aged version of one of his series characters does make an appearance, even though he’s not the central character), and the sections written by two of my longstanding favorite Medieval Murderers participants, Ian Morson and Philip Gooden (in both their cases easily enough identifiable because their sections were written from the point of view of their main series characters). — As an aside, I was also glad to have read an earlier entry in the series, House of Shadows, fairly recently, because it (inter alia) lays the groundwork for a plot line that I am happy to see Morson went on to incorporate into his main series (the Falconer mysteries, set in 13th century Oxford) and which he continues to spin in his entry for this particular book as well.

Final comment: I was tempted to use a different book for the New Year’s Eve / St. Sylvester’s Day square and attribute this one to the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti holiday book joker, as the Sol Invictus cult actually makes a recurring appearance in this book.  (And trust me, I almost fell off my chair when it was first mentioned and I realized it was going to be a theme in one of the sections — and even more so, when it even showed up again in yet another section.) However, none of the book’s sections are set even remotely on this particular deity’s birthday or make reference to that particular day (and there is only the vaguest hint, if even that much, at the connection between Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and Christmas), so “Middle Ages”, “miracles” and Square 16 it is, after all.  (The book would also work for the Hanukkah square, however: It features several main characters who are Jewish — in fact, one entire section is set in the Jewish community of medieval Norwich — and the miracle of light plays a role in more than one section as well.)

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1627366/16-tasks-of-the-festive-season-square-16-new-year-s-eve-st-sylvester-s-day-a-miraculous-sky-stone

Halloween Bingo 2017: Update 3, Part 2 — Catching up on Reviews

 

The “bingo” squares and books read:

  

 

My Square Markers and “Virgin” Bingo Card:

“Virgin” card posted for ease of tracking and comparison.


Black Kitty:
Read but not called


Black Vignette:
Called but not read

Black Kitty in Black Vignette: Read and Called

Black Kitty Center Square: Read = Called

Current Status of Spreadsheet:

(Note: Physical print editions unless stated otherwise)

 

Books Read / Listened to – Update 3:


Martin Edwards: The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books

The standout read among this batch of bingo books; a tour de force parcours through 50 years of British crime writing (from 1900 to 1950), with sidelights on authors and books published in the U.S., continental Europe, Argentina and Japan.  Martin Edwards is concurrently President of the Crime Writers’ Association and the Detection Club, but more importantly for present purposes, he was the Detection Club’s first archivist: In my first reading status update I compared this book to what it would sound like if you get a walking encyclopedia talking, and to the print equivalent of having your favorite actor reading the phone book, but what could easily have been bone-dry in another author’s hands makes for a more than compelling read in Edwards’s.

Though the “100 books” (in effect, 102) chosen to exemplify the various stages and aspects of British crime writing as it emerged in the first half of the 20th century are the primary narrative vehicle, each section of the book has a short introductory chapter, and it’s these in particular that make your head spin, because they’re jam-packed with references to all manner of crime fiction, from the unduly forgotten to the justly remembered — on average, no less than 20 books per chapter (and in some chapters, over 40). In fact, it is this “cramming” that ultimately made the book a tiny fraction less than a 5-star read for me: I’d either have appreciated more space to explore some of these other books at greater leisure, too, or, as this would probably have blown the book up by the hundredfold, maybe in the end less would occasionally have been more after all.

That all being said, I’m doubtlessly going to refer back to Martin’s book frequently from here on out when exploring the countless new authors, Great Detectives and series I’ve been introduced to, and I’m also OCD enough to have started creating reading lists on Google and BookLikes for all the books mentioned by Edwards (NB: in the Google version, later amplified by the books Edwards mentions in The Golden Age of Murder):

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books & The Golden Age of Murder: List of all books referenced

The BookLikes Breakup:
The “100 Books” Presented

Other Books Mentioned:
Part 1: Chapters 1 – 5
Part 2: Chapters 6 & 7
Part 3: Chapters 8 – 10
Part 4: Chapters 11 – 15
Part 5: Chapters 16-20
Part 6: Chapters 21-24

 



Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights
(Prunella Scales & Samuel West audio)

It’s with no small amount of surprise that I find myself registering a 4 1/2 star rating and a “favorite” check for this audio recording of Emily Brontë’s one and only novel.

Though I didn’t have any doubts that the mother and son team of Prunella Scales and Samuel West would pull off a stellar performance (which they of course did), Wuthering Heights has so far, in my perception, always veered dangerously close to the over-the-top melodramatic, with more than an occasional foray into the very heart of that territory, which is not my line of country at all.  Yet, actually hearing the bulk of the story being told by Prunella Scales in the voice of a down-to-earth Yorkshire woman — Nelly Dean — opened up a whole new perspective for me, and even the high drama of “I am Heathcliff“, “he’s more myself than I am” and “be with me always — take any form — drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! … I can not live without my life! I can not live without my soul!” for the first time came across as totally believable to me — because it wasn’t told in the voice of the novel’s equally tempestuous author (if contemporaneous characterizations are to be believed), but rather, in the voice of a sympathetic friend and surrogate mother, who genuinely cares for the speakers and worries about them but is apt to take a step back from their outbursts and relates those outbursts more in sorrow than in anguish.

The novel’s format doesn’t place Mr. Lockwood’s (here: Samuel West’s) framework narration on nearly the same footing as that of Nelly Dean, so the bulk of the narration is Prunella Scales’s, but I particularly also enjoyed the “handover” moments from the outer framework to Nelly Dean’s story.  They are brief enough moments of dialogue, but in this recording they “clicked” seamlessly, like perfectly matching links of a well-made chain.

So, while of all the Brontës’ novels, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (which I also revisited this summer on audio) will probably always remain my favorite, I enjoyed this particular return to Wuthering Heights much more than I anticipated and will probably revisit it more often and with greater enjoyment than I initially thought.

 


Simon Brett: An Amateur Corpse

An actor and BBC broadcast journalist in addition to being a writer, Simon Brett is one of Martin Edwards’s predecessors as President of the Detection Club.  In the early 1970s he began writing a series of mysteries centering on an actor named Charles Paris; this is the fourth of these books.  Paris is invited to do a “critics circle” live discussion review of an amateur theatre production of Chekhov’s Seagull, but before he even gets to give his talk, the company’s new leading lady (the only professional actor in their midst) is found strangled.

Given that the edition of this mystery which I own is part of a four-book omnibus including the first four installments of the series that I acquired used and dirt-cheap, I may well give this series another shot at a later time; however, this particular novel (written in 1975) hasn’t aged very well and was a rather uncomfortable reminder of all the reasons why I’m really not sorry to have left the 1970s far, far behind (the part that I consciously lived through, in any event) … I don’t think the occasional whiff of staleness emanating from the pages of the book was due to its external condition alone.  I was also less than enchanted with Mr. Paris’s midlife crisis woes and attitude towards women and commitment, and his insufferably arrogant stance vis-à-vis amateur theatricals, however ill-informed or pretentious they may be in turn.

That being said, the writing itself is OK, the murderer’s alibi was cleverly plotted, Paris’s reasons for getting involved with the investigation in the first place (worry about the chief suspect under arrest, the victim’s husband, who is a friend of his, and guilt over having gone along with said friend’s drowning his woes in booze instead of trying to provide some more substantial support) came across as just about credible enough, and some of Paris’s deductions were nicely drawn; even though the final clue was — incredibly — as far-fetched as it was, at the same time, telegraphed narratively from ten miles away, and the ultimate path to the solution was (literally) more a case of stumbling over it than brain work à la Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.  So, as I said, I may well give the series another shot at a later point in time.  It probably won’t be anytime very soon, though.

 

The Medieval Murderers: House of Shadows

The Medieval Murderers round robin series is, literally, one of those products of an idle evening at the pub — I guess that’s what you’ll get when you have five authors of medieval whodunits talking shop over a pint or two (or three …) of ale.  Permanent members of the group, which itself goes by the name “Medieval Murderers”, too, are Michael Jecks (another past President of the Detection Club), Bernard Knight, Philip Gooden, Ian Morson and Susanna Gregory; with Karen Maitland and C.J. Sansom having joined for individual installments of the series.

All but one Medieval Murderers books are moulded on essentially the same template, in that they follow one particular (allegedly) “doomed” or “cursed” object from the (typically: early) Middle Ages to the present day in several separate but interlinked episodes, written by the group’s individual members and typically featuring their “own” individual series protagonists; the sole exception being, so far, The Deadliest Sin, which is modeled on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — themselves also a round robin of sorts, modeled in turn on Boccaccio’s Decameron.

In House of Shadows, the series’s third installment, the “object” whose journey the writers and their protagonists follow is Bermondsey Abbey, a real life monastery founded in the 11th century by Cluniac monks near the banks of the River Thames, opposite the Tower.  The abbey, rich and influential in the Middle Ages, was dissolved under Henry VIII and subequently repeatedly built over; it seems to have been the abbey ruins’ excavation in the early 2000s — in the course of the construction of a huge shopping and office complex now forming part of the newly- and substantially-gentrified Bermondsey and Southwark shoreline — that apparently inspired the premise and opening chapter(s) of House of Shadows.  The authors do go to some lenghts to assure the reader, however, that the events placing a curse on the abbey at the beginning of this book are fictitious (as are the plotlines of the subsequent chapters), and though not inconceivable in the so-called “Dark Ages”, it would indeed be shocking for a medieval house of God to have been carrying such a terrible legacy.

While the individual chapters’ storylines are thus fictitious, again as in many Medieval Murderers books, real, documented historic persons are used in the stories alongside fictitious characters, and the research into details of social and geographical history is solid.  Also as with virtually all round robin efforts (not just by this particular group), the writerly approach varies both in style and in quality, and this installment of the Medieval Murderers series does not necessarily show all of the participants at the top of their game.  Still, it’s enjoyable enough, some of the chapters really are a delight to read, and once more as is so frequently the case, the sum total is decidedly more than its constituent parts.

 
Sketches of medieval Bermondsey Abbey
(Sources: Wikipedia (left) and South London Guide (right))


Bermondsey Abbey ground plan (source: British Library)


Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (attr. — formerly attr. John Hofnagel): A Fête at Bermondsey (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Bermondsey Abbey excavations and memorial plaque
(sources: Wikipedia (left) and London Remembers (right))

The sacred taper’s lights are gone,
Grey moss has clad the altar-stone,
The holy image is o’erthrown,
The bell has ceased to toll:
The long-ribb’d aisles are burst and shrunk,
The holy shrine to ruin sunk,
Departed is the pious monk;
God’s blessing on his soul!”
Sir Walter Scott: Bermondsey

Bermondsey Abbey history and excavation (YouTube)

 
Bermondsey shoreline today (photo mine)

 

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
(Bernadette Dunne audio)

Terrifying women all around with this one — Shirley Jackson delivers every single time when it comes to sheer psychology-based horror (and so, for that matter, do her characters).  You’re barely ten minutes into the story, and you’re already supremely uneasy — and boy, does this ever have a slow, peeling-away-layer-by-layer burn ending in a gigantic dynamite fuse.  There’s no way to write about this book without instantly giving away spoilers, so I … just won’t, even though most people here are probably already familiar with the story anyway.  Truly masterful storytelling, in any event; truly unsettling social commentary and, in the audio version I own, also truly masterfully rendered by Bernadette Dunne.  I started listening to this one night when I really should have gone to bed much earlier — and ended up finishing the complete audio in a single sitting; there was no way I could have stopped, even though ultimately it was solely due to my being crash-and-knocked-out tired from entirely unrelated RL exertions that I was able to sleep afterwards at all.

And finally:

… an audiobook extravaganza, though in the case of the Edgar Allan Poe, Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie books (see below), I do own paper copies of the respective novels, too, and have read them before; this was strictly in the spirit of revisiting them in a different medium.  (Hah.  So much for “I’m going to use this square to do something about those books on my mystery TBR that I can’t fit into any other bingo square, because clearly something needs to be done about reducing that stack” …)


To start off — well, let’s be honest, how could I possibly not use an audio collection entitled Murder Most Foul for this particular square?!

This is a collection of eight short stories by different authors, read with great aplomb by five well-known British actors.  It starts of with Bluebeard’s Bath by Margery Allingham — read by Patrick Malahide –, a “non-Campion” twist on the black widow trope (the twist being, as the title implies, that here it’s a black widower), which derives most of its suspense from the fact that it is told from the murderer’s perspective.– 4 1/2 stars for this story individually; it’s one of the strongest of this lot.

Next is Wilkie Collins‘s Who Killed Zebedee? (read by Derek Jacobi), which concerns the death of a lodger in an apartment house, and a would-be accidental amateur sleuth’s attempt to clear the woman with whom he is infatuated from the suspicion of murder. (3 stars, individually — Collins himself could do better, and the story doesn’t really measure up to the rest of this collection, either.)

The third story is An Alpine Divorce by Robert Barr (read by Brian Cox), where a married couple that has come to secretly hate each other’s guts vacations in the Alps … with starkly differing notions as to how those vacations are supposed to end, and with a deliciously-executed evil twist at the end. — Easily 4 stars.

Barr’s story is followed by Edward Hardwicke‘s reading of Arthur Conan Doyle‘s The Speckled Band: Although overall I prefer the Derek Jacobi and Stephen Fry readings of the Holmes canon, it’s always a true pleasure, too, to have a story narrated by the actor who was Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Holmes for the better part of my personal “Sherlock Holmes to end all Sherlock Holmes” series, and certainly nobody nails Holmes’s occasionally strident tone as well as the man who was at the receiving end of that very tone for a considerable amount of time (even though in real life Brett and Hardwicke got along like a house on fire, and when Brett’s illness reared its ugly head, Hardwicke was the first to be protective of him). — I already own several collections of Sherlock Holmes stories read by Hardwicke, and this reading nicely complements those collections. (5 stars — this is a stand-out even in Conan Doyle’s amazing body of work.)

The next story is probably my favorite of the lot — next to the Holmes entry, obviously, and with Allingham’s offering not far behind: P.C. Wren‘s The Perfect Crime (read, again, by Brian Cox), which is based on the explicit premise that yes, “there is in fact such a thing as the perfect crime: I know, because I have committed one.”  As in Allingham’s story, the chief element of suspense is derived from the fact that the story is told strictly from the murderer’s perspective, and again similar to Allingham’s story, the plot is constructed so as to slowly and deliciously peel away layer by layer, with a slow burn that ends in a supremely devious final twist. — 5 solid stars as well.

The final three stories (like Wilkie Collins’s) are made of weaker stuff than the three highlighted above in particular:

Sapper‘s Thirteen Lead Soldiers (again read by Edward Hardwicke) is a story from the “Bulldog Drummond” canon whose crucial twist turns, as the title implies, on a collection of toy soldiers that one participant of a secret meeting of high-ranking international diplomats (to which Drummond has been invited at Scotland Yard’s suggestion in an effort to highten security) has made for and gifted to the hosting nobleman’s son.  This is both a “whodunit” and a “howdunit” — where Drummond manages to foil the murderer’s intentions to rather lasting effect — and though I didn’t care enough to try and unravel every last detail of the solution in advance, both “whodunit” and the basic outline of “howdunit” are fairly easy to work out. (3 1/2 stars, individually.)

Algernon Blackwood‘s First Hate (read by Derek Jacobi) is based on the contention that, just as there is such a thing as love at first sight, there is also such a thing as purely instinctive “hate at first sight” — quod erat demonstrandum by way of an “around the fireplace” narration of just such an encounter, with a competition for the hand of a woman thrown in as a sideline (or as a more plausible motive?  I couldn’t make up my mind which was which, and ultimately didn’t care), and with an ending high up in the Canadian Rockies — where the story moves from its London beginnings — that for all practical purposes amounts to cold-blooded murder dressed up as self-defense … unless you buy into the central premise, which I manifestly don’t.  (Jacobi doesn’t seem to, either; this is definitely not one of his most convincing narrations, and coming from someone who’d willingly listen to him reciting the phone book, that should tell you something in and of itself.) — 2 1/2 stars, because I’m feeling generous and because Blackwood still knows how to tell a story, even if it’s a supremely implausible one.  Also, um, Derek Jacobi.

Finally, Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Markheim (read by Jack Shepherd) is highly atmospheric and skillfully constructed until about its halfway point (or shortly thereafter): It starts with a customer’s (the eponymous Markheim’s) visit to a pawnbroker’s store on Christmas Eve and the exchange between the customer and the pawnbroker, which after a short while ends in murder.  There’s a nice, slow build-up to the murder itself (which build-up even includes an adroitly-executed slight of hand), and a further slow burn while the murderer is rifling the shop and trying to cover his tracks.  However, then we literally get a deus ex machina appearance that radically changes the state of play, and unfortunately that was the point where Stevenson lost me. — 3 1/2 stars, chiefly for the story’s first part; a writer of Stevenson’s caliber shouldn’t have needed (or even explicitly sought) any deus ex machina, and certainly not this one; not even in a story set on Christmas Eve.

 

Edgar Allan Poe: The Dupin Stories — The Murders in the Rue Morgue / The Mystery of Marie Rogêt / The Purloined Letter
(Kerry Shale audio)

I debated using this for either the “Locked Room” or the “Classic Horror” bingo square, but there was compelling competition for both of those, and anyway, I already knew the stories and chiefly bought this CD for Kerry Shale’s narration: Ever since I first listenend to his audio versions of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle, I’ve been on the lookout for further recordings featuring him.

Edgar Allan Poe is credited with having created the first professional detective in C. Auguste Dupin — a fact that, unsurprisingly, doesn’t go down particularly well with Sherlock Holmes when mentioned to him by Dr. Watson — and in fact, Dupin and Holmes share a number of traits and abilities, including their disdain (benevolent or not) for the professional police, their reliance on “trifles” (apparently unimportant details), and their rather astonishing ability to deduct another person’s silent, unvoiced thoughts by “reasoning backwards” and then thoroughly startle the other person by explicitly responding to those very thoughts.  But while Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories rely on Holmes’s fully-rounded character, as well as action and plot development as much as on Holmes’s deductive methods and invite the reader along on the investigation, Poe’s “stories of ratiocination” — once Dupin has been (or considers himself) called on  to help solve the case — are almost exclusively a rendition of Dupin’s own thought processes and reasoning.  This, to me, makes them somewhat more monotonous and consequently somewhat less easy to follow than Conan Doyle’s (even with a splendid narrator like Kerry Shale).

The Murders in the Rue Morgue is one of the earliest locked room mysteries in the history of crime fiction; together with the even earlier Mademoiselle Scuderi by E.T.A. Hoffmann (which however is more “impossible crime” story than locked room mystery in the strict sense), and with Gaston Leroux’s Mystery of the Yellow Room, it pretty much laid down the template for this particular mystery subgenre.  Its solution is as, um, colorful as some of Dupin’s conclusions, however, and it requires a healthy portion of suspension of disbelief — here, too, both Conan Doyle and Leroux did better, and so did E.T.A. Hoffmann.

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt was Poe’s response to a widely-publicized real life murder case in New York: Poe transposed the events to Paris and, through the voice of his fictional detective, set forth what he believed to be the solution of the case; dissecting, in the process, the various competing theories advanced by the newspapers writing about the murder — the only material that Poe himself had to go on.  (Despite its notoriety and the public hunt for the killer, the real life case of the murder of Mary Rogers still remains unsolved.)

The Purloined Letter, finally, is easily my favorite among the three Dupin stories: Like it would frequently be the case with his famous London colleague half a century later, our Paris detective is called on by a high government official (the Prefect of Police) with a request to assist in recovering a document which, in the wrong hands, might wreak all sorts of political havoc.  The solution to the case relies on both a rather brazen attitude by the culprit, which Dupin divines, and on an oversight that, I very much hope and trust, should not happen to any well-organized modern police force.  Dupin’s deductive process is sound and fun to watch, however, and we’re also invited in on a bit more of the chase than in the other stories.

 

Agatha Christie: Endless Night
(BBC full cast dramatization)

I said not so long ago that (barring Christie’s overwhelmingly abysmal final books) Endless Night isn’t exactly my favorite book by her and that I probably wouldn’t revisit it anytime soon — then this CD crossed my path for a song during a recent book store browse, and I figured it had to be karma, so here we are after all.

I’m still not exactly enchanted with the story (let alone its narrator and protagonist), though, and if there is one thing that this audio adaptation makes clear it is that this is a story that does not easily lend itself to the transformation to another medium — too subtle, nuanced and slow is the burn up to the final climax.  That said, the adaptation’s cast handles the material very well, and the script avoids the pitfalls that some of the novel’s incidental elements would undoubtedly create in less expert hands.  So, if you just want to know what happens in this novel, this is a decent enough introduction — just don’t expect the depth of the written original.

 

Dick Francis: Knockdown
(Tim Pigott-Smith audio)

I love horses and used to be an enthusiastic horseback rider throughout my entire school years, and I also love mysteries, so Dick Francis’s books were a natural go-to choice for me once upon a time.  Having revisited a Dick Francis novel after many years, though, I find that this, too, hasn’t weathered the passage of time particularly well, even though it’s still a pleasure to go horse trading with Mr. Francis and have him share his experience of life on and off the racetrack — and Mr. Pigott-Smith is another audio narrator who has once more solidified his hold on my attention.

Knockdown is the story of Jonah Dereham, an ex-steeplechase jockey turned bloodstock agent who gets into trouble when he takes a stance against a de-facto syndicate exploiting a gap in the rules of trading for purposes of profiteering at their clients’ (the horse owners’ and breeders’) expense.  The book doesn’t start out as a murder mystery — there’s plenty of assault and battery, arson, and other assorted violent behaviour (as well as, obviously, greed, extortion and [near-]fraudulent machinations), but the murders — several of them in quick succession — only happen once the profiteering racket’s chief organizer is beginning to feel the hounds closing in on him, with Jonah at their forefront.

 



 Ngaio Marsh:
Artists in Crime (Benedict Cumberbatch audio)

Overture to Death (Anton Lesser audio)

Death and the Dancing Footman (Anton Lesser audio)

Surfet of Lampreys (Anton Lesser audio)

Opening Night (aka Night at the Vulcan) (Anton Lesser audio)

Finally, my audio extravaganza consisted of a five-volume foray into Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn series, next to Agatha Christie’s, Dorothy Sayers’s, Margery Allingham’s and Patricia Wentworth’s one of the major Great Detective series of the Golden Age; taken together, these five writers are unquestionably the era’s “Queens of Crime.”  (I own print versions of all of Marsh’s novels, too, and pulled those in addition to the audio recordings.)

Of the five novels revisited, Death and the Dancing Footman had previously been my favorite novel and it continues to be so; it’s a slightly wacky country house locked-room mystery (so would also fit these two squares) where a group of guests with previously-existing antagonisms are invited to a house party … with predictable effects; and it certainly doesn’t help that the house is snowed in and thus locked off from its surroundings.

Death and the Dancing Footman is an intra-series sequel of sorts to Overture to Death, which is set in the village closest to the manor where Death and the Dancing Footman is set in turn, with the vicar from Overture to Death briefly making a reappearance as Alleyn’s and his wife’s host in Death and the Dancing Footman.

Marsh’s writing particularly shines where it focuses on characterization, and there are two settings — in addition to country house mysteries — ideally suited for this: village settings and the theatre. Overture to Death is a nice example of the former, Opening Night (published as Night at the Vulcan in the U.S.) of the latter. In Overture to Death, village jealousies and intrigues culminate in a rather cleverly-constructed “murder by piano” (with a built-in service revolver) on the day of the opening of the local amateur theatricals’ latest production. — Opening Night is set in London’s West End, at the (fictitious) Vulcan Theatre, which had already been the setting for Marsh’s second Alleyn novel, Enter a Murderer; and it concerns the “death by greasepaint” of an actor who has made one enemy to many in a cast of bickering performers; plus an idiosyncratic and irrascible playwright.  (The actor manager of the Vulcan is rather obviously modeled on Laurence Olivier — and he is not the only leading actor appearing in Marsh’s novels with whom that is the case.)  As Marsh herself was, first and foremost, a highly-reputed theatrical director who had built an especially solid reputation for her productions of the plays of William Shakespeare, this particular milieu was second nature to her, and consequently her portrayals of actors and the world of the theatre are a special delight to read — and a character’s aptitude at quoting Shakespeare is a near-infallible indication that he is likely one of the “good guys.”  (Obviously, Alleyn himself speaks Shakespeare fluently.)

Opening Night is, again (and very losely speaking), an intra-series sequel of sorts to Surfeit of Lampreys (in the U.S., published as Death of a Peer), where the death of the wealthy Lamprey family patriarch brings Alleyn into an investigative encounter with the dead peer’s quirky, chronically impoverished family — one of whose sons, as a result of the encounter, eventually seeks employment with the Metropolitan Police and returns as P.C. Lamprey in the later novel.

Artists in Crime, finally, is the novel where Alleyn meets his wife-to-be, the feisty, self-assured painter Agatha Troy.  Again, as Marsh (in addition to being a director and writer) was also a trained painter she could speak from experience when writing about Troy, who would become one of the series’s greatest assets and a great complement to “the nice detective” Roderick Alleyn.

Of the audio versions I listened to, I preferred the four read by Anton Lesser to the one by Benedict Cumberbatch (Artists in Crime): While Lesser clearly knew and appreciated the material, Cumberbatch did bring his considerable talent to bear, but it was rather obviously “just a job” to him and he knew nothing about the series.  This showed most obviously in his pronunciation of Alleyn’s name: Marsh had named her inspector for Elizabethan actor Edward “Ned” Alleyn, the star of the Lord Admiral’s Men (the chief competitors of William Shakespeare’s King’s Men), whose name was pronounced ALLen — and Marsh was adamant that this was how her inspector’s name was to be pronounced as well.  Anton Lesser knew and respected that — Cumberbatch didn’t, and to a fan of the series, it was seriously jarring to hear him saying All-EYN over and over again, particularly given the frequency with which the name appears.

 

Next Reads:

and


Angua!!

 

Books Read / Listened to – Update 1:



Terry Pratchett: Equal Rites



Wilkie Collins: Mrs. Zant and the Ghost
(Gillian Anderson audio)

 



Martin Edwards / British Library:
Miraculous Mysteries – Locked-Room Murders and Impossible Crimes

 



Agatha Christie: Mrs. McGinty’s Dead
(Hugh Fraser audio)

 

Books Read / Listened to – Update 2:



Donna Andrews: Lord of the Wings


Ruth Rendell:
The Babes in the Wood

& Not in the Flesh

 


Robert Louis Stevenson: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

 


Cornell Woolrich: The Bride Wore Black

 Raymond Chandler:
Farewell, My Lovely

  The Long Goodbye

The High Window

 

The Book Pool:

Most likely: Donna Andrews: Lord of the Wings

Alternatively:
* Diane Mott Davidson: Catering to Nobody
* One or more stories from Martin Greenberg’s and Ed Gorman’s (eds.) Cat Crimes
* … or something by Lilian Jackson Braun




Most likely: Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights
(audio return visit courtesy of
either Michael Kitchen or Prunella Scales and Samuel West)

Alternatively:
* Wilkie Collins: The Woman In White
(audio version read by Nigel Anthony and Susan Jameson)
* Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey
(audio return visit courtesy of Anna Massey)
* Isak Dinesen: Seven Gothic Tales
* Carol Goodman: The Lake of Dead Languages
* … or something by Daphne du Maurier




Candace Robb: The Apothecary Rose




Most likely: Simon Brett: A book from a four-novel omibus edition including An Amateur Corpse, Star Trap, So Much Blood, and Cast, in Order of Disappearance

Alternatively:
* Georgette Heyer: Why Shoot a Butler?
* Margery Allingham: The Crime at Black Dudley
(audio version read by David Thorpe)
* Carol Goodman: The Lake of Dead Languages
* Minette Walters: The Shape of Snakes




Most likely: Something from James D. Doss‘sCharlie Moon series (one of my great discoveries from last year’s bingo)

Or one of Walter Mosley‘s Easy Rawlins mysteries

Alternatively:
Sherman Alexie: Indian Killer




Terry Pratchett: Carpe Jugulum




One or more stories from Martin Edwards’s (ed.) and the British Library’sMiraculous Mysteries: Locked-Room Murders and Impossible Crimes




Most likely: Agatha Christie: Mrs. McGinty’s Dead
(audio return visit courtesy of Hugh Fraser)

Or one or more stories from Martin Edwards’s (ed.) and the British Library’s Serpents in Eden: Countryside Crimes

Alternatively:
* Carol Goodman: The Lake of Dead Languages
* Josephine Tey: Brat Farrar,To Love and Be Wise, orThe Singing Sands
* Georgette Heyer: Why Shoot a Butler?
* Peter May: The Lewis Man
* S.D. Sykes: Plague Land
* Arthur Conan Doyle: The Mystery of Cloomber
* Michael Jecks: The Devil’s Acolyte
* Stephen Booth: Dancing with the Virgins
* Karen Maitland: The Owl Killers
* Martha Grimes: The End of the Pier
* Minette Walters: The Breaker




One of two “Joker” Squares:

To be filled in as my whimsy takes me (with apologies to Dorothy L. Sayers), either with one of the other mystery squares’ alternate books, or with a murder mystery that doesn’t meet any of the more specific squares’ requirements.  In going through my shelves, I found to my shame that I own several bingo cards’ worth of books that would fill this square alone, some of them bought years ago … clearly something needs to be done about that, even if it’s one book at a time!




Isabel Allende: Cuentos de Eva Luna (The Stories of Eva Luna) or
Gabriel García Márquez: Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold)




Most likely: One or more stories from Charles Dickens: Complete Ghost Stories or
Sharyn McCrumb: She Walks These Hills

Alternatively:
* Wilkie Collins: Mrs. Zant and the Ghost
(Gillian Anderson audio)
* Stephen King: Bag of Bones




Terry Pratchett: Men at Arms




Obviously and as per definition in the rules, the second “Joker” Square.

Equally as per definition, the possibles for this square also include my alternate reads for the non-mystery squares.




Most likely: Cornell Woolrich: The Bride Wore Black

Alternatively:
* Raymond Chandler: Farewell My Lovely or The Long Goodbye / The High Window
* James M. Cain: Mildred Pierce
* Horace McCoy: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
* David Goodis: Shoot the Piano Playeror Dark Passage
* … or something else by Cornell Woolrich, e.g., Phantom Lady or I Married a Dead Man




Most likely: Ruth Rendell: Not in the Flesh orThe Babes in the Wood (audio versions read by Christopher Ravenscroft, aka Inspector Burden in the TV series)

Alternatively:
* Carol Goodman: The Lake of Dead Languages
* Sharyn McCrumb: She Walks These Hills




Most likely: Peter May: Coffin Road

Alternatively:
* Stephen King: Bag of BonesorHearts in Atlantis
* Denise Mina: Field of Blood
* Carol Goodman: The Lake of Dead Languages
* Minette Walters: The Breaker
* Jonathan Kellerman: When The Bough Breaks, Time Bomb, Blood Test, or Billy Straight
* Greg Iles: 24 Hours




Most likely: Sharyn McCrumb: She Walks These Hills

Alternatively:
* Karen Maitland: The Owl Killers
* Greg Iles: Sleep No More




Most likely: Margery Allingham: The Crime at Black Dudley
(audio version read by David Thorpe)

Alternatively:
* One or more stories from Martin Edwards’s (ed.) and the British Library’s Murder at the Manor: Country House Mysteries
* Georgette Heyer: They Found Him Dead
* Ellis Peters: Black is the Colour of My True-Love’s Heart




Most likely: Something from Terry Pratchett’sDiscworld / Witches subseries — either Equal Rites or Maskerade

Alternatively:
* Karen Maitland: The Owl Killers
* Shirley Jackson: The Witchcraft of Salem Village




Most likely: Antonia Hodgson: The Devil in the Marshalsea

Alternatively:
* Rory Clements: Martyr
* Philip Gooden: Sleep of Death 
* Minette Walters: The Shape of Snakes
* Ngaio Marsh: Death in Ecstasy
* One or more stories from Martin Edwards’s (ed.) and the British Library’s Capital Crimes: London Mysteries




Most likely: Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (audio return visit courtesy of Sir Christopher Lee)

Alternatively:
* H.G. Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau
* … or something by Edgar Allan Poe




Most likely: Something from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Alternatively:
* Robert Louis Stevenson: The Bottle Imp
* Christina Rossetti: Goblin Market
* H.G. Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau




Most likely: Jo Nesbø: The Snowman

Alternatively:
* Val McDermid: The Retribution
* Denise Mina: Sanctum
* Mo Hayder: Birdman
* Caleb Carr: The Alienist
* Jonathan Kellerman: The Butcher’s Theater
* Greg Iles: Mortal Fear




Most likely: The Medieval Murderers: House of Shadows
or Hill of Bones

Alternatively:
* Sharyn McCrumb: She Walks These Hills
* Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House
* Stephen King: Bag of Bones
* Carol Goodman: The Lake of Dead Languages
* Michael Jecks: The Devil’s Acolyte




Ooohhh, you know — something by Shirley Jackson … if I don’t wimp out in the end; otherwise something by Daphne du Maurier.

 

The Medieval Murderers: House of Shadows


The Medieval Murderers round robin series is, literally, one of those products of an idle evening at the pub — I guess that’s what you’ll get when you have five authors of medieval whodunits talking shop over a pint or two (or three …) of ale.  Permanent members of the group, which itself goes by the name “Medieval Murderers”, too, are Michael Jecks (a past President of the Detection Club), Bernard Knight, Philip Gooden, Ian Morson and Susanna Gregory; with Karen Maitland and C.J. Sansom having joined for individual installments of the series.

All but one Medieval Murderers books are moulded on essentially the same template, in that they follow one particular (allegedly) “doomed” or “cursed” object from the (typically: early) Middle Ages to the present day in several separate but interlinked episodes, written by the group’s individual members and typically featuring their “own” individual series protagonists; the sole exception being, so far, The Deadliest Sin, which is modeled on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — themselves also a round robin of sorts, modeled in turn on Boccaccio’s Decameron.

In House of Shadows, the series’s third installment, the “object” whose journey the writers and their protagonists follow is Bermondsey Abbey, a real life monastery founded in the 11th century by Cluniac monks near the banks of the River Thames, opposite the Tower.  The abbey, rich and influential in the Middle Ages, was dissolved under Henry VIII and subequently repeatedly built over; it seems to have been the abbey ruins’ excavation in the early 2000s — in the course of the construction of a huge shopping and office complex now forming part of the newly- and substantially-gentrified Bermondsey and Southwark shoreline — that apparently inspired the premise and opening chapter(s) of House of Shadows.  The authors do go to some lenghts to assure the reader, however, that the events placing a curse on the abbey at the beginning of this book are fictitious (as are the plotlines of the subsequent chapters), and though not inconceivable in the so-called “Dark Ages”, it would indeed be shocking for a medieval house of God to have been carrying such a terrible legacy.

While the individual chapters’ storylines are thus fictitious, again as in many Medieval Murderers books, real, documented historic persons are used in the stories alongside fictitious characters, and the research into details of social and geographical history is solid.  Also as with virtually all round robin efforts (not just by this particular group), the writerly approach varies both in style and in quality, and this installment of the Medieval Murderers series does not necessarily show all of the participants at the top of their game.  Still, it’s enjoyable enough, some of the chapters really are a delight to read, and once more as is so frequently the case, the sum total is decidedly more than its constituent parts.

 
Sketches of medieval Bermondsey Abbey
(Sources: Wikipedia (left) and South London Guide (right))


Bermondsey Abbey ground plan (source: British Library)


Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (attr. — formerly attr. John Hofnagel): A Fête at Bermondsey (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Bermondsey Abbey excavations and memorial plaque
(sources: Wikipedia (left) and London Remembers (right))

The sacred taper’s lights are gone,
Grey moss has clad the altar-stone,
The holy image is o’erthrown,
The bell has ceased to toll:
The long-ribb’d aisles are burst and shrunk,
The holy shrine to ruin sunk,
Departed is the pious monk;
God’s blessing on his soul!”
Sir Walter Scott: Bermondsey

Bermondsey Abbey history and excavation (YouTube)

 
Bermondsey shoreline today (photo mine)

Abbey Weekend

 

I spent yesterday and this morning near Maria Laach abbey, a gorgeously-maintained, fairly important (Romanic) Benedictine abbey (founded in 1093) on the shores of a volcanic lake a little less than an hour south of Bonn, celebrating my mom’s birthday and reading my “haunted houses” bingo book — which just happens to be set in medieval Bermondsey Abbey on the banks of the Thames opposite the Tower (founded in 1089 and erstwhile a rich, Cluniac house of major consequence as well, but dissolved under Henry VIII, variously built over, and now vanished under the major new Bermondsey shopping and office complex). Book review to follow as part of my next bingo update!

Bermondsey Abbey

 
Sketches of medieval Bermondsey Abbey
(Sources: Wikipedia (left) and South London Guide (right))


Bermondsey Abbey ground plan (source: British Library)


Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (attr. — formerly attr. John Hofnagel): A Fête at Bermondsey (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Bermondsey Abbey excavations and memorial plaque
(sources: Wikipedia (left) and London Remembers (right))

The sacred taper’s lights are gone,
Grey moss has clad the altar-stone,
The holy image is o’erthrown,
The bell has ceased to toll:
The long-ribb’d aisles are burst and shrunk,
The holy shrine to ruin sunk,
Departed is the pious monk;
God’s blessing on his soul!”
Sir Walter Scott: Bermondsey

Bermondsey Abbey history and excavation (YouTube)

 
Bermondsey shoreline today (photo mine)

 

Maria Laach


Maria Laach Abbey (painting by Fr. Lukas Ruegenberg, OSB)

 
Maria Laach Abbey (photos: mine)
Bottom row: the tomb of the abbey’s founder, Heinrich (Henry) II,
first Count Palatine of the Rhine


The lake and our hotel’s garden, next to the abbey



Souvenirs!
(Chiefly enlarging my bookmark, magnet, and Rosina Wachtmeister collections…)

Merken

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1599073/abbey-weekend

The Medieval Murderers: King Arthur’s Bones

King Arthur's Bones - The Medieval MurderersPicking Over Royal Bones

Royal births, weddings and burials have fascinated us ordinary humans since time immemorial; and while people’s proprietary interest in the fate of the world’s rulers is easily understandable in societies where those rulers wield supreme power – including the Europe of yesteryear – the fascination is no less noticeable in today’s world, where the discovery of royal remains such as those of Richard III, Alfred the Great or the last Romanov Tsar and his family are still apt to make considerable headlines.

But while in today’s world the identity of the august personage who may or may not have left behind the earthly remains uncovered under a Leicester parking lot, in a clearing in the midst of a Russian wood, or in a forgotten storage box in a Winchester museum can be determined (or at least narrowed down) by science, tools such as those of forensic anthropology and DNA analysis were not available to those making comparable discoveries in centuries and millennia past.

Enter, thus, the Rosetta Stone of all British historical lore: King Arthur himself and the fate of his bones – assuming, that is, that he ever lived at all. If William of Malmesbury’s history of Glastonbury (ca. 1130) and Chronicle of the Kings of England (1125), Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1136) and Gerald of Wales’s book On the Instruction of Princes (ca. 1193) are to be believed, Avalon – the place of Arthur’s burial – is modern-day Glastonbury; and indeed, an 1191 excavation in the cemetery of Glastonbury Abbey uncovered an oaken coffin as well as, below a stone, a leaden cross with the inscription “His iacet inclitus Arturius in insula Avalonia” (commonly translated as “Here lies King Arthur buried in Avalon” or “on the island of Avalon”). The coffin contained the bodies of a large man and of a woman with golden hair, which was still intact, but crumbled away upon being until touched.

Arthur and Guinevere?


Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Arthur’s Tomb (1855)

The fifth entry in the Medieval Murderers mystery “round robin” series, King Arthur’s Bones, takes the 1191 Glastonbury discovery as its premise and from there embarks on a wild ride, at the heart of which is a story that shows its authors to be conversant not only with the major elements of Arthurian lore but also with the recurrent elements of all historical conspiracy theories: A (truly or apparently) at least partially unexplained fact, event, or series of events, and two or more factions with opposing interests, one or all of whom stand to gain from suppressing or manipulating the truth. Indeed, to a certain extent all of this series’s books are based on this sort of premise: it is therefore probably only logical that the authors should eventually also have tackled the Arthurian legend, even if Philip Gooden, in his entry for this book, has William Shakespeare ponder the same topic and come to a contrary decision. – As in virtually all books based on such a premise, a historically-minded reader’s enjoyment depends as much on the respective writers’ skill as it does on the reader’s own ability to suspend his or her disbelief (or willingness to regard the back story as fiction from the outset). That said, as in previous installments of the series, the authors nevertheless also prove themselves to be sound enough medievalists and historical writers to go to great lengths to document the demonstrably existing historical bases of the book’s individual episodes, down to the recorded names of localities, streets, persons, and major events used as the various episodes’ backdrop.

Like all of the Medieval Murderers “round robins,” the book follows its eponymous titular object from the Middle Ages to the present day; in this instance, from Glastonbury to medieval Wales (which predates even Glastonbury and Tintagel as the root of Arthurian lore and where King Arthur was / is hailed as mythical protector, believed never to have died at all but merely to be asleep in a mountain cave), then to Abbey Dore in Herefordshire (just east of the Welsh border), then to Devon and Cornish Trevenna / Tintagel (though the latter “off stage,” as it were) and finally to London: Shakespeare’s city, then the 19th century territory of spies, Bow Street Runners, Resurrection Men (bodysnatchers) and self-declared Egyptologists, and finally the modern day excavation site of Bermondsey Abbey, where a previous installment of the series (House of Shadows) had already featured one rather gruesome discovery, and where the team of archeologists working on the site now discovers the bones of a large man who must have died in the 6th century, inside a wooden box likely dating from the late 12th century, which itself is locked inside a 19th century metal coffin. (Yet, even taking all the rest of the story for granted, whether or not the very bones that were excavated in Glastonbury are the same bones that also make an appearance in the chapter set during Shakespeare’s time is left somewhat ambiguous; based on the information given in the chapters immediately preceding and succeeding, this is at the very least doubtful: a conspiracy theory loop within a conspiracy theory narration, thus.) Along the way, there is plenty of murder and mayhem; medieval battles, accusations of fratricide, blackmail, treachery, as well as the Knights Templar, King James I’s (in)famous Beasts in the Tower, and a mysterious sect of “Guardians” charged with the protection of the bones.

The Medieval Murderers series is a joint effort of Susanna Gregory, Bernard Knight, Michael Jecks, Ian Morson and Philip Gooden, with Karen Maitland joining the group from the sixth installment on (The Sacred Stone). While the books frequently, though not always, involve the main characters from the respective authors’ individual series, in King Arthur’s Bones the only series characters featured are Michael Jecks’s ex-Knight Templar Sir Baldwin Furnshall (Keeper of the King’s Peace) and Philip Gooden’s Nick Revill, a junior player in the King’s Men, William Shakespeare’s company. In some instances, for me this worked to the book’s advantage – while I like the doses of medieval forensics usually presented by Bernard Knight, overall I could get into the chapter authored by him here much quicker and, to me, it read more fluently and with greater variety than those in previous Medieval Murderers books; the absence of recurring characters who continually seem to be growling or otherwise ill-humored, while displaying few other distinguishing traits, doubtlessly had something to do with this. On the other hand, I have a particular fondness for Susanna Gregory’s 14th century Cambridge physician Matthew Bartholomew and his sidekick, Michaelhouse College’s Senior Proctor William, and I missed them in this book; even though given the book’s storyline as a whole, I’ll grant the authors that the omission makes sense. Ian Morson, finally, seems to be at home in whatever period and milieu he touches – the episodes authored by him are almost always among my favorites, and that was definitely the case here, too.

Overall, this is one of the series’s stronger installments, eminently readable – and an enjoyable twist on Arthurian lore and historical conspiracy theories.

Feasting at King Arthur’s Court (British Library MS Royal 20 D iv.)
Feasting at King Arthur’s Court (British Library MS Royal 20 D iv.)