Monday, December 29, 2008

Day of Wrath by Iris Collier

One of the first things I learned as a mystery writer was 'don't kill off pets'. Your readers will never forgive you. Iris Collier did not heed this rule, probably to stir up anger in her readers against the perpetrator instead of her. She used such a heinous crime to illustrate the religious fervor and fanaticism of the early sixteenth century monks to hang on to their monasteries against a king bent on dissolving them. I can't argue with that logic but it's still not a technique I would use.

After reading a number of whodunits set during Elizabeth I's reign, it's interesting to have a mystery set during her father's turn on the throne, Henry VIII. Collier's foray into the medieval mysteries, Day of Wrath, takes place during King Harry's dissolution of the monasteries.

Sir Nicholas Peverell, after a visit to the King, finds a loyal steward has been murdered. Unconvinced it was the work of thieves, he launches an investigation reluctantly assisted by Mistress Jane Warrener, a beautiful local girl with a keen wit and sharp intelligence.

She tells him that she has heard talk of conspiracy and treason against the king and that the steward's death may be linked to something he overheard. Their suspicions grow deeper when the young woman carrying the steward's child slowly wastes away. Although her death is attributed to natural causes, Nicholas and Jane are certain that she was killed because she also knew about the treasonous plot, called Dies Irae, 'Day of Wrath' in Latin.

A neighbor of Nicholas's is arrested as part of the scheme but dies on the rack before identifying the mastermind behind the conspiracy, a man known only as Ultor, the avenger.

The King, well aware of the plot to kill him, decides to visit Nicholas at his home in Sussex. Although Henry is blissfully unconcerned, Nicholas is thrown into a panic at the thought of the king in his home, wanting to go hunting and inspecting his ships at Southampton, while an assassin is on the loose nearby.

And he owes the king a new doublet. One that's green and very expensive.

Nicholas also fears for the Priory in his community. He knows that the King will inventory everything, confiscate anything that's valuable and then turn the monks out. The Prior refuses to believe any of this and insists on showing off the riches of the priory to all and sundry.

Collier keeps the story interesting by peppering it with facts and descriptions of England during the reign of Henry Tudor. But the climax falls flat as the assassination attempt is foiled and the traitor revealed all in one sentence. C. J. Sansom's Dissolution is a more satisfying read. Not that the readers will be disappointed in Day of Wrath. It's still as good as the majority of mysteries out there. Collier inserts a lot of humor into King Henry's conversations with Sir Nicholas, intertwining his talk with the arrogance and snobbery he was known for. Anyone who is a fan of historical whodunits will enjoy Day of Wrath.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Iguazu Falls, Brazil

I now know where the original site of the Garden of Eden from Genesis was. The beauty of Iguazu Falls adequately fits the description of Paradise in the Old Testament. From the first glimpse of the falls as I emerged from the jungle to the last stop at the foot of the largest cataratas, I felt stress washing away downstream in the fast current of water below me.
I have no idea why the sight of falling water is so soothing. Maybe it’s the roar as it crashes to the rocks below. Maybe it’s the foliage that lines the river and falls. Whatever it is, I know I could have stayed in one place and watched its mesmerizing sight for hours. And I probably would have if the rest of my tourist group hadn’t been so insistent to keep moving.
On the upside, as we headed upstream, Iguazu Falls revealed more if its beauty. Around each curve, more cascades were seen.
Two of these South American raccoons came out looking for some food. They were unruffled by the crowds and completely ignored us. Although they look cuddly, they have very sharp teeth which made us decide against reaching down to tickle them on the stomach.

When you thought there was nothing more to see, the head of the falls come into view.

A walkway takes you out over the river to the foot of the cataratas. The spray and the noise are glorious. Where the falls before empty your mind and body of the hassles and stresses of life the main cataratas invigorates and rejuvenates you. It fills the void left by bad vibes with a youthful vigor.

Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

I’ve enjoyed the movie version of Zelazny’s classic work Damnation Alley, but wasn’t surprised to find that there was very little in common between the two.

Damnation Alley takes place in a post-apocalyptic nuclear war where most of the earth has been destroyed. Only a few pockets of humanity exist in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Boston. The mid-section of the country is a wasteland, occupied by extremely violent tornadoes, huge bats, Gila monsters the size of Greyhound buses and large, radioactive holes in the ground where the enemy missiles struck so long ago. Planes cannot fly since the atmosphere is wrought with fierce winds a few hundred feet above the earth’s surface.

When a messenger arrives in L.A. from Boston that a deadly plague has hit the city, the nation of California sends the only man who can cross the Alley to take the necessary drugs to the northeast. Murderer/rapist Hell Tanner is the man they need. Zelazny must have started the trend of the lowest, most despicable human being as the only one who can save us all and the world. This theme has been over-used and worn out ever since then. It came as no surprise that of the five men who set out from L.A., Tanner is the only one to make it. His rough and brutal manner is what gives him the ability to traverse Damnation Alley and survive its pitfalls and dangers.

The story is a chronicle of Tanner’s adventures from L.A. to Boston but Zelazny’s writing keeps the reader hanging on to each encounter and wandering what will happen next. Zelazny gives plenty of excitement to the readers’ delight. His description of post-nuclear was America is vivid and frightening. But he does not give much detail about the war or when it occurred. Fleeting references only place it years in the past.

Tanner finally reaches his destination barely alive but he saves the day in a scene reminiscent of Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain. As far as Zelazny’s work goes, Ii still much prefer his Princes in Amber series, but for science fiction Damnation Alley is one of the best I’ve read. He weaves a terrifying and excellent story and certainly head-and-shoulders above many of the other post-nuclear war stories out there.

Deadly Night by Heather Graham

Imagine being the recipient of a grand New Orleans mansion, pre-dating the Civil War. That’s the scenario that opens Heather Graham’s excellent ghost story, Deadly Night. Aiden Flynn and his brothers, Jeremy and Zack, inherit the house upon the death of an aunt whom they never knew existed.

It’s been neglected and in dire need of fixing up. Oh, yes. It’s also haunted. A Confederate soldier, his beautiful wife and his Union cousin still walk the grounds, giving the locals a juicy legend of family betrayal and murder.

Kendall Montgomery, a tarot card reader, lived in the mansion with the again Amelia Flynn until the old woman’s death. Slightly disappointed about not getting the estate, she gladly returns to her apartment in the French Quarter, leaving the Flynn brothers to their inheritance.

Meanwhile, Aiden has found human remains on the property and begins investigating in the face of ho-hum reactions from the New Orleans police department, still reeling from Hurricane Katrina. Flynn, with the help of his brothers, finds a string of mysterious disappearances of young women, dating back ten years. His investigation keeps leading him to Kendall and the jazz bar where her friends play in a band.

Kendall has been experiencing her own strange encounters with the paranormal. She never had any illusions that she could foretell someone’s future by reading tarot cards but, when the death card comes alive and mocks her, she begins having dreams that she is being stalked.

Although they don’t like each other at first, Aiden and Kendall are drawn together as the mystery of the plantation and the disappearance of the young women deepens.

Graham keeps the excitement building as Kendall receives more warnings with frightening and increasing frequency that she is in serious danger. When she moves back into the mansion with Aiden, she is visited by the ghosts of the Flynn ancestors, but are they malevolent or are they warning her of danger?

Graham’s depiction of New Orleans as a dark, gritty and dangerous place does not sugar-coat anything but does the great city justice by painting her as a place of wonder, mystery and magic.

There is a bit of cliché in that Aiden Flynn suspects serious crimes where the local authorities see none. Their excuse is Hurricane Katrina washed up many bodies out of their final resting places and hundreds more are still missing. The bones could be from anyone. It’s easy to see their point of view, but one would think they would be interested in body parts found on land where the flood waters didn’t reach even during the hurricane.

With lackluster response from law enforcement, the story takes a unique twist as the ghosts take matters in their own hands and help Aiden and Kendall solve the mystery but also save Kendall’s life.

Deadly Night is a great haunted house murder mystery for everyone, including those that may not enjoy horror.