Monday, 31 July 2017

The Book I Read In July

'The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives' ed. by Mike Ashley
A combination of factors including not being allowed to read in bed again and watching coverage of the Tour De France has reduced the amount of reading I have been doing.  Consequently I have only got through a single book this month though at 532 pages it was not a short one.  It is the sequel to 'The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits' (1993) which I read back in May.  As with that book, this one, published two years later collects short stories into chronological order, though it stretches further, going back to 35000 BCE and stretching into the 1920s.

Many of the authors who featured in the previous book return in this one.  This does lead to a rather patchy collection and I wish Ashley had selected more on the basis of quality rather than the name of the author.  This is particularly the case with the Ellis Peters chapter, which is not a story at all but an account of a true witch trial involving a duchess in 1441.  It was published first in 1950 and suffers from that contorted, overblown language that some mid-20th century authors fell into using.  It certainly does not show Peters in the best light and should have been excluded.

Among the other stories, there are 29 in total, there were some I liked and others were weak or tedious.  I liked 'Death in the Dawntime' by F. Gwymplaine MacIntyre, set in aboriginal Australia handled very well to get the reader into the culture of the people of the time and their perceptions.  Two authors who featured in the previous book and stand up well in this one are Peter Tremayne with another story set in 7th century Ireland featuring a nun-lawyer, Sister Fidelma and a Judge Dee story by Robert Van Gulik set in the same century but in China.  Of others who appear again, 'The Midwife's Tale' by Margaret Frazer is very good; it features another nun-detective.  S.S. Rafferty's 'The Curse of the Connecticut Clock' featuring Captain Cork is not as good as the story featuring this character in the previous book.  'The Chapman and the Tree of Doom' by Kate Sedley is a medieval one but with a pedlar as the detective and it is bleak but engaging.  'Man's Inherited Death' by Keith Heller featuring a London watchman in 1729 is another with a refreshing perspective.  The story by P.C. Docherty featuring Moll Flanders as investigator in Tudor England certainly has different approaches to solving crime and an unexpected outcome.

There are a number of Roman set investigations, Steven Saylor's featured is not his best but I was pleased to see the return of Wallace Nicholls's Sollius a detective who is also a slave.  The Roman ones from John Maddox Roberts and Mary Reed & Eric Mayer are not bad either.

Some of the stories irritate me.  These tend to come later in the book.  Ashley is a big fan of the work of Melville Davisson Post, the Uncle Abner stories, but to me they are too righteous and constrained.  I prefer the one which precedes the Abner story in this collection, 'Deadly Will and Testament' by Ron Burns which shows how racial legislation weighed against justice in 19th century Virginia.  Perhaps the most pointless story is 'Murdering Mr. Boodle' by Amy Myers set in a 19th century publishing house with a chef-detective who is not a spot on Henry Crabbe.  Edward D. Hoch's 'The Trail of Bells' set in the Arizona Territory in 1887 is well done and has a very different and more violent atmosphere compared to some of these stories.

Overall this is more of a mixed bag than the first book.  The best stories are better but there are a few too many that leave me unimpressed.  I have long read Van Gulik novels but I think I will now seek out those by Peter Tremayne, which as this collection was produced in the 1990s, should be knocking around charity shops and car book sales.

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