Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Deadly Brew by Susanna Gregory

Finding a hard back version of Susanna Gregory's fourth installment of her chronicles of Matthew Bartholomew proved to be an impossible task, so I had to settle for the lowly paperback. I soon found out why no hard backs could be found. "A Deadly Brew" is a big step up from the first three novels, which are extremely good books, and no one wants to give up their hardcover editions. Gregory's portrayal of Cambridge in the mid-fourteenth century is very descriptive and detailed, giving the reader an all-too-realistic view of life following the devastation caused by the Black Death, and the struggle to survive.

"A Deadly Brew" takes place during the winter of 1353 when torrential rains have flooded nearby Fens, a hotbed of smuggling, which is even more profitable now that the mild weather has made the waterways deeper and more navigable for larger boats. That in turn has made the thieves and outlaws more brazen and are not only attacking travelers through the Fens, but even houses outside the city walls, before the Sheriff's men can overtake them.

Then three people connected with the University die from poisoned wine. Matthew tries to distance himself from the case, but is soon called to Ely by the Chancellor of the University who has been injured during an attack while traveling through the Fens. Matthew is suspicious of the message and is warned by nearly every one of his friends and family not to go.

Against their warnings, he sets out for Ely. It turns out to be a trap and Matthew barely escapes with his life. Unavoidably, he is pulled into a convoluted plot that involves an elderly nun, who is an important and valuable King's spy, members of the Cambridge faculty, and nearly every merchant in town, maybe even his own sister Edith.

Gregory spins a very complex mystery that takes on several identities as Matthew tries to find out the source and the reason for the poisoned wine and the smugglers. At each turn, he gets frustrated at the criminals' ability to be one step ahead of him. Additional attempts are made on his life but is finally rescued by someone whom Matthew has no reason to trust.

With his unlikely ally, they manage to break up the smuggling ring and the murderers get their just desserts.

This is the best work of Gregory of the first four books so the series promises only to get better. Gregory herself is a Cambridge academic and before that, a coroner's officer, which explains her ability to describe crime scenes vibrantly and bring Matthew Bartholomew and his physician abilities to life. She has now started a new series set in Restoration London, but I hope that she returns to Cambridge and Matthew soon!

(originally published on

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Devil Water by Anya Seton

There is very little to say about Anya Seton’s historical fiction work that is not positive. Published in 1962, after four years of exhaustive research, Seton chronicles the life of Charles Radcliffe, the titular 5th Earl of Derwentwater, the last Scotsman to be executed for the uprising of 1715, to replace Catholic James on the throne and remove Protestant Hanoverian George I (the Pretender as he is referred to by the Catholics).

Charles is reunited with his older brother James, who at the time was the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, and made his home at Dilston. While James is re-settling in his home after 6 years of absence, Charles begins a dalliance with a peasant girl, Meg. Their trysts seem harmless until Meg realizes she is pregnant. Without telling Charles of her condition, she flees back north to family. Blissfully ignorant and very confused by Meg’s sudden departure, Charles beings a formal courtship and engagement with Lady Betty Lee, a match considerably more acceptable than a peasant girl. On the eve of his marriage, Charles is kidnapped and taken by Meg’s father and a friend, Rob, and forced to marry Meg just as she is about to give birth. A little girl is born and named Jenny.

Charles is surprisingly proud of his daughter and wants to take her with him, knowing that she will live more comfortably with him than among her mother’s poor kinfolk. But Meg and her family are done with him and she tells him to leave, never to return upon the threat of being killed if he does.

Reluctantly he leaves Jenny behind. Knowing that he cannot commit bigamy, he confesses what has happened to Lady Betty Lee, who is furious, but is allowed to end the engagement herself, with her reputation in tact.

Charles follows his brother James as they try to rally support for the exiled King James to reclaim the throne. They expect King James to return to Scotland very soon and use that as their basis for gathering supporters. King James never shows up and the rebellion is squashed by King George. Charles and James Radcliffe are thrown into Newgate Prison.

James is tried and convicted for his part in the Rebellion, although most of the rebels are acquitted or released. A year later, James is beheaded. Charles is also convicted, but the Lady Betty Lee, who has never fallen out of love with him, comes to his aid. She takes Jenny, who has re-entered Charles’s life now that Meg is dead, in to her household. She is also able to get reprieves from the Princess of Wales, knowing that the princess’s father-in-law George I, will be most annoyed.

Charles is well aware that the stays of execution will not continue, especially not after King George returns. Charles escapes with the help of Lady Betty Lee and his manservant, and goes into hiding. He takes Jenny and returns to Dilston, which has fallen into ruin since James’ capture and execution.

Jenny’s heartthrob Rob who appears throughout the book, when Charles first met Meg, when Charles is forced to marry Meg and when Charles escapes from Newgate, travels with them. He takes Jenny to visit the place of her birth. Her grandfather has deteriorated in health and mind, since Meg’s passing.

Charles cannot stay long in England and sails to exile in France, while Jenny remains with Lady Betty Lee. Jenny befriends a young girl, slightly older, whose family is returning to their home in Virginia. Having learned that Rob is now there as well, Jenny sails to Virginia with her friends, against the will of guardian Lady Betty and her father. Rob was convicted of murder, while saving Jenny from certain rape.

Eventually, she locates Rob and buys his freedom since he is an indentured servant and an escaped criminal. They marry and settle on a large parcel of land about 100 miles west of Richmond on the James River.

Here, like her earlier work “Katherine”, Seton moves very quickly forward in time. Up to this point, Seton separates sections with only 5 or 6 years. Now in Virginia, Seton skips ahead 11 years for a short section, and then another 9 years. Soon, Rob and Jenny have been married for 20 mostly uneventful years. They had a son who did not survive and this has become a source of pain between them.

When Jenny learns that her father has been recaptured in England and faces certain execution, she flees back across the Atlantic. She and Rob exchange hateful parting words as Jenny leaves.

She spends as much time as she can with her father, even taking a job at a local tavern to earn her keep. All of her friends she left behind in England, including Lady Betty Lee, have died, with the exception of her father’s faithful servant.

Jenny soon accepts the fact that she is pregnant again with Rob’s child, but refuses to believe there is any future for them now, after their painful parting.

Unbeknownst to her, Rob has followed her to England to patch things up. He finally catches up with her just as Charles is executed. The story ends with Jenny recovering from the shock of seeing her father beheaded to find her beloved husband, whom she is happy to see, standing over her. They reunite.

Like “Katherine” Seton has crafted a well-written story based on extensive research. In a note Seton, stated that she had spent 4 years researching this story, and remained scrupulously true to the facts, from England to Virginia. This story is somewhat of a genealogical study since Ms. Seton is a descendent of the Snawdons, Meg’s family.

I am not a huge fan of historical fiction but Ms. Seton was such a magnificent story-teller, one cannot help but to enjoy her novels. She can describe people and settings clearly without overloading the reader with details. She can make you tremble in fear at an upcoming execution and then make you fall in love. Her depiction of the characters in the story is her best talent. Mid-eighteenth century people leap off the page with their passion, anger and love. Unfortunately, Miss Seton passed in 1990, but her works continue to carry her into immortality.

(previously published on

A Play of Dux Moraud by Margaret Frazer

The second series following Joliffe Ripon and the band of performers is a bit of a let-down, which disappointed me since Margaret Frazer is one of my favorite authors. Set in fifteenth-century England, Joliffe’s Lord Lovell sends his performers to one of his feofees, whose daughter is soon to be married as a wedding gift. The daughter Mariena was betrothed earlier but her fiancĂ©, hearty and hale, took ill and died suddenly. Lord Lovell has reason to believe that all may not be well at Sir Edmund Deneby’s household. Joliffe is instructed to find out what he can.

The rest of the book is a slow moving story with Joliffe asking many questions but getting few answers. There was little suspense in any of Joliffe’s experiences. Even the “accidents” Mariena and her younger brother add little to the sense of mystery. Unfortunately, these few events were all there was for any intrigue, and did not entertain. Joliffe spends most of his time pondering the same questions over and over, that we heard from Lord Lovell at the beginning of the story.

The final solution is revealed, but it is rather unsatisfying, since we are already given a strong sense of what may come through Joliffe’s musings. There are very few surprises at all through out the book.

Although the book was disappointing, Frazer still tells a great story, bringing fifteenth century England to life, with historical facts as the backbone of the novel, embellished with Frazer’s own brilliant imagination.

Her Dame Frevisse is far better than what we’ve seen of Joliffe so far. As she develops this character and his friends, perhaps this off-shoot of Frevisse will improve.

(previously published on

Ashes of Aries by Martha C. Lawrence

In Martha C. Lawrence’s fifth Elizabeth Chase novel, “Ashes of Aries”, our favorite San Diego psychic private investigator is called in to assist in finding the kidnapped son of a local telecommunications executive, a man who turned his company Starcomm into a multi-million dollar industry.

During her meeting with the missing boy’s parents, which takes place shortly after being handed the case, Elizabeth smells smoke. A quick search of the huge place reveals nothing amiss. She doesn’t realize it until afterwards that the smell of smoke was a premonition. Later that day, the whole neighborhood goes up in flames, killing the Starcomm exec and his wife, who become trapped in their car inside their complex by closed iron gates. The fire knocked out power in the area and the gates’ controls did not work, blocking the unfortunate couple’s escape.

Chase’s parents’ home is nearby. In her panic to see if her parents and house are safe, Elizabeth ventures into the flames. She encounters a firefighter named Zev, from whom she feels strange vibes that she can’t explain.

At the same time, she meets Randy Twain, a television reporter, who had tried to interview her at the executive’s house that morning. His photographer was filming the blaze and is now stranded, needing evacuation. Elizabeth agrees to help Twain’s photographer if Zev will give them permission to enter the fire zone, which he does with great reluctance.

They rescue the photographer Jane but the three of them barely make it out of the fire zone alive. Although she doesn’t get to find her parents, she soon finds them alive and well at a nearby Red Cross station, unhurt, much to her relief. A television at the station is broadcasting live reports from a news helicopter and she sees her parents’ house, still standing and undamaged. She also sees a news clip of the burning car in which the Starcomm exec and his wife perished.

Her psychic power warns her that the fire was no accident and the exec was the intended victim. Arson investigators find proof that shows she was right. Now, it’s a murder investigation.

Elizabeth continues to receive images of Scooby-Doo, a favorite of the kidnapped child, and concludes that he is still alive. Unfortunately, she cannot shake Twain, the reporter, who has discovered who she is and has correctly speculated her role in the investigation.

Soon there is another suspicious fire, which destroys part of the Starcomm building and a nearby apartment complex. After the blaze has been extinguished, Elizabeth’s power leads her to a fireproof safe in the burn zone, which contains a note threatening more fires. Unfortunately, it does not reveal any more clues to the kidnapped boy.

The tone of the letter leads Elizabeth to believe that radical environmentalists may be behind the fires to protest Starcomm’s urban assault on the landscape. But kidnapping is not their forte.

A third fire breaks out. This time the firefighter Zev dies from burns he received when his fire truck was overrun by the inferno. Chase realizes then that the weird vibes she received from him were premonitions of his death, instead of any involvement in the kidnapping and arson.

Getting more anxious than ever to find the boy and convinced he is still alive, Elizabeth uses her powers and some good ol’ footwork to locate a house where she knows the boy is. Detectives are called in to search the house, but it takes Elizabeth’s clairsentience and her Rhodesian Ridgeback’s nose to find the boy, well-hidden in a crawlspace behind a closet.

The house belongs to a disgruntled employee who blames Starcomm and its executive for the death of her father. Unfortunately, she is not home at the moment.

In a rare instance of talking to a stranger, the rescued boy gives Elizabeth a clue to his kidnapper’s whereabouts.

She is going to burn down Elizabeth’s house.

A close watch is kept on Chase’s place while she evacuates to her parents’ home. Too late doest Elizabeth realize that the arsonist does not know she has a separate address from her parents’ house, which is actually the intended target.

Elizabeth sees a fire in a shed behind the house, getting dangerously close to a propane tank. As she attempts to battle the flame, the arsonist attacks her, knocking her unconscious and tying her up. Elizabeth is about to become PI flambé but her mother intervenes, saving Elizabeth and the family home from fiery destruction.

Although this is Lawrence’s fifth novel, it is only the second one I’ve read. I started with her fourth, “Pisces Rising” after finding it in a bookstore and was intrigued by its premise. I was hooked. Before I finished “Ashes of Aries” I had purchased her first three novels on-line.

“Aries” seems to have Chase relying on her powers more and applying them to her case more so than in “Pisces”. Of course, in “Pisces” Elizabeth was investigating a murder, whereas here, she was trying to locate a missing child.

When Elizabeth applies an ability known as ‘remote viewing’ to locate the kidnapped boy, Lawrence clearly makes her own knowledge and opinion of the government’s project to study this talent known. That the government now denies such research does not deter Ms. Lawrence from discussing aspects of the program.

When Lawrence’s Chase receives premonitions, she does not try to explain them if she does not understand them herself. This is what sets Elizabeth far above other ‘psychic detectives’ who are shams. Apparently, Elizabeth has been perceived as such, but has grown thick skin.

My favorite part was how Elizabeth finally tracked down the boy. She had a vision that included a trail, a white picket fence and a K-Mart. She hopped in her truck and scoped out each K-Mart in the San Diego area until she found the area and subsequently the house and boy.

I like Elizabeth’s boldness and confidence in her powers. Anyone who applies them to private investigating would have to be, but Lawrence portrays her without cockiness or arrogance. She is a girl who has a job to do and she does it well while caring for her dog and cat and parents.

I also like Elizabeth’s shaman instructor, the mysterious Sequoia, who’s powers surpass hers but is training her to better her powers and how to use them.

Because of these aspects of the two novels I have read, Elizabeth Chase has become a source of inspiration for me and the psionic detectives that I have developed, since they possess similar abilities. However, Ms. Lawrence has an enormous advantage over me in that she has fashioned her books based upon her own psychic experiences. I have had no such experiences, so the events and powers that my officers encounter are purely my own wild imagination.

In “Aries”, Lawrence pulls Chase into the supernatural realm, while visiting the reporter Twain’s house. Elizabeth has an uneasy feeling upon entering his home and he explains that people have thought it to be haunted. She soon has a vision of a body in a bathtub, tells him his house is definitely haunted and bolts. My experience with the supernatural is much more limited that with the psychic phenomenon.

I may not be qualified to write for either genre, but I find the psychic or paranormal fascinating and will continue to write; agent, publisher or no.

In the meantime, I will continue to follow the beautiful Lawrence’s work.

“Ashes of Aries” is a great read!
(previously published on

Our Lady of Darkness by Peter Tremayne

Tremayne continues his phenomenal series based on sleuth Sister Fidelma, a religuese and dalaigh in seventh century Ireland. She has been summoned back to Ireland from a pilgrimage as her friend and companion Brother Eadulf has been accused of murder. When she arrives at the castle of the kingdom bordering her brother’s, she finds that Eadulf has not only been convicted of raping and strangling a young girl, he is sentenced to hang the following day. Working quickly, Fidelma finds more than a few breaches in the law and the manner in which court was held.

Late that same evening, Fidelma argues for an appeal. The youthful and unfriendly king and his spiritual advisor, a long-time adversary of Fidelma’s, will deliver their decision the following morning. During the night, Eadulf is rescued from the abbey’s prison and whisked away to a place of sanctuary. He is soon told that he is free to leave the fortress by someone he has never seen before. Curious and suspicious, Eadulf walks out of his sanctuary only to find it is an attempt to murder him. He barely escapes with his life.

Fidelma is suspected by everyone to be an accomplice to the escape but she has no idea of his whereabouts. She continues her investigation and finds more deaths and disappearances surrounding the abbey and its quay on the river. A certain merchant seems to be at the center of the mystery, but when Fidelma finally locates him, the Abbess Fin is standing over his dead body with a bloodied knife in her hand.

Meanwhile, Eadulf heads east to reach the shore and find passage back to Saxony. His desire to see Fidelma overrides his need to escape and he heads back to the abbey. He encounters a blind man living alone. The blind man has heard of Eadulf but believes his story. He directs Eadulf how to return to the abbey by a circuitous route, stopping at a small monastery where he can have sanctuary before returning to the abbey.

On his way, Eadulf finds two captured girls, who tell him a tragic story of being sold by their dirt-poor fathers into slavery. Convinced that this is part of the mystery surrounding the abbey and the girl he was convicted of murdering, he takes them with him to the Yellow Mountain monastery. He thinks he is safe in the monastery but is rousted in the middle of the night by the young king and his hunters who had been lodging nearby. The King pronounces that Eadulf shall hang at dawn, but he is saved at the exact moment of his execution. One of Fidelma’s men has returned in the knick of time with one of the highest authorities in the five kingdoms of Ireland, the Brehon. They all return to the abbey where Eadulf is reunited with Fidelma.

She argues her case efficiently and with a precise detail to the situation and the knowledge of the law. She not only proves Brother Eadulf’s innocence but that of another Brother who was accused, convicted and executed for a murder he did not commit. It is a sordid tail of buying young girls from poor families and shipping them off to lives of slavery, in which the abbey played an important role. Fidelma exposes the mastermind behind the crimes.

Having saved Brother Eadulf from the gibbet, Fidelma is unsuccessful in convincing him to return with her to her brother’s kingdom of Cashel. Instead, he convinces her to return to Canterbury with him.

As usual, Tremayne takes the reader through a dizzying whirlwind of action, non-stop events and a complex story full of clues, which do not fall into place until Fidelma’s closing arguments. Tremayne also embellishes his stories with rich details of ancient Ireland its lands, cities and cultures, inserting many of the actual terms from the language of that era. Tremayne is the pseudonym of Peter Berresford Ellis, who is an expert on ancient Ireland. He relies heavily on this knowledge to bring seventh century Ireland alive and easily visualized by the reader.

The story switches back and forth between Fidelma’s point of view and Eadulf’s. We see and feel Fidelma’s fear and agony worrying about the fate of her close friend as she desperately tries to save him. Her intelligence, quick wit and temper give her the edge in every argument, but she continues to face opposition. Through Eadulf, we find that he has matured and is becoming as shrewd as Fidelma through his confinement, escape, recapture and near execution. He keeps his wits about him, a far cry from the earlier novels where he appeared to be mainly a mental punching bag for Fidelma.

As a result, this novel becomes a fast-paced, page-turner as we fear for Eadulf, a character we love, during several near-death experiences. There is no shortage of excitement, close-calls and strange events for him or Fidelma, as all lead and contribute to the final solution. Tremayne wastes no words on anything that detracts from the mystery. There isn’t even a backstory. Fidelma does not have many red herrings thrown at her, because everything has a place in the end. The reader has all the clues that Fidelma discovers but delivered in such a manner that they only make sense when the good Sister finally assembles them.

This is probably Tremayne’s best work since Suffer Little Children”, the third Fidelma mystery. Its excitement keeps the reader glued to the pages until the very last word.