Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Book I Read in August

I had got into the habit of reading extensively at lunchtime and also in the evening.  However, with my job coming to an end and me being on holiday, my reading rate has fallen away and so, ultimately I only completed one book.

'The Twylight Tower' by Karen Harper
As regular readers know I quite enjoy crime fiction set in a historical period.  The crime genre is often an effective way to explore the attitudes, behaviour and context of the time and place.  This book is the third in the series of nine produced by Harper that feature Queen Elizabeth I as a detective.  Usually things get difficult when the detective is promoted and rises in status away from frontline crime.  Interestingly, Harper has gone right to the top and has the Queen of England, in this story, set in May 1560, involved in the crime.  Harper is a specialist on Tudor England and cleverly weaves together actual people from Elizabeth's court with fictional figures usually working at a lower level.  William Cecil and Lord Dudley, her favourite, feature in this story at the time when Elizabeth was considering distancing herself from Dudley whom many people assumed was her lover.  Dudley's wife died at this time, something this book gives a possible explanation for.

The key challenge I had with this book was that there was a lack of any sense of jeopardy.  It would be challenging to put Elizabeth at risk because we know she survived to old age.  A fictional or a lesser-known character would have been better for the detective role. Yet, Harper's writing is too passive even really to communicate to us, for example, the risk to Elizabeth's standing that involvement with Dudley could have brought. 

As with 'Search the Dark' that I read earlier in the year, another crime novel by an American author set in historic England, there is a lot of toing and froing of the characters and this further reduces the tension.  Yes, Elizabeth's journeys were important but they simply blunt tension when covered too much.  This makes the novel feel too long.  It could have been trimmed and retained the historical detail and had a greater sense of urgency and tension.

Elizabeth is assisted by a number of her servants as her 'plot council' which investigates mysteries.  This device may have worked well in the preceding novels, but here seems rather redundant.  We find out about the suspicions of various servants and their own secrets, but at times this seems simply to be included to add bulk or set them up for greater jeopardy in subsequent novels, rather than moving this story forward.

The genre of the 'comfortable' murder mystery is a long-established one in British fiction and there is nothing inherently wrong in having the queen investigate.  However, if this is to be a genuine crime novel rather than a purely historical novel or romance, then there needs to be a greater sense of tension.  Look at the work of Ellis Peters.  Her books similarly mix fact and fiction and are great at conjuring up the time period, but they are very slender volumes and that tautness brings with it the kind of tension that Harper's work is missing.  I was interested to read this book but have no urge to read the next one in the series.  This contrasts with the revival of Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther historical crime series and given that his books are far longer than Peters's, perhaps it comes down to the nature of the writing and not just purely its length.

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