Thursday, June 27, 2013

Murder as a Fine Art

     Murder as a Fine Art, by David Morrell, is part historical novel, part mystery, part thriller, and wholly enjoyable. It contains real people--essayist Thomas de Quincey--and fictional counterparts, like his ahead-of-her-time daughter, Emily de Quincey. The atmosphere of fog-shrouded Victorian London in 1854 is researched down to the last weapon and sewer detail, and we are steeped in the atmosphere of that time with tidbits like the 37 pounds of clothing women wore with their corsets and pantaloons. But, most importantly, Morrell has based his plot on a real set of ghastly East End murders called the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811. If you look on the internet you can even hear a folk song about those murders.
 It is 1854 in the East End of Victorian London and a series of murders has occurred that exactly duplicates the Ratcliffe Highway murders forty-three years earlier. Unfortunately for Thomas de Quincey, his writings described those murders down to the smallest detail and now someone is using them as a blueprint for murder. De Quincey wrote the memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater which was so scandalous that everyone read it. Now he becomes the major suspect in these 1854 murders.
     The killer seems to be using de Quincey's essay, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, as a manual for the killings. (De Quincey's essays influenced such classic mystery writers as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, and Edgar Allan Poe.) This sets up a superb plot involving two intrepid Scotland Yard detectives, de Quincey, and his daughter, Emily. They struggle to prove his innocence and find the real killer. Time is of the essence because the vicious murderer is set to strike again.
David Morrell is known for his Rambo novels and his thrillers, but he has taken a totally new turn in writing historical fiction. However, his research is meticulous and the reader feels like she is in the streets of London dashing through the fog; watching the police department of that time; seeing the work of fledgling detectives; speaking to the prostitutes who know the streets; learning about the opium trade, whalebone hoops, and corsets; visiting prisons with horrible living conditions; and seeing how the lower classes live. All of this is told in dramatic style and is never pedantic.

     The point of view is actually one that is prized by Victorian novelists: an omniscient narrator who can give us background on the details of the plot. And Morrell does this in a masterful fashion. Obviously, this was a deliberate choice on his part to echo the books of that time. It reads like spun silk.
     I have always liked novels with "spunky" heroines who figure out how to solve problems head on. Murder as a Fine Art has one of the best in the form of Emily de Quincey. She took off her corset, wears bloomers so she can keep up during the chases, and does not act at all in appropriate Victorian female style. While others raise their eyebrows at this behavior, her father supports her unflinchingly. She is ahead of her time. She acts in defense of her father and literally saves the day on many occasions because she uses her wit, feminine wiles, and intuitive empathy to figure out what has to be done. She is a wonderful creation.

   In short, this is an entertaining read, a page turner,
and a book you won't be able to put down.


Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Bookman's Tale is for Book Lovers

I picked up The Bookman's Tale by Charlie Lovett at the library and had no idea it would be one of the best books I've read in a long time. It reminded me of People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Her novel is about a book that was saved through many centuries by people of various religions and cultures who loved beautiful books. The Bookman's Tale is a love story about books as valuable in themselves: their beauty, history, bindings, and covers. It is a novel of suspense and intrigue that traces both a literary mystery and a personal mystery down the centuries. I could not put it down!

Peter Byerly, a young antiquarian book dealer, leaves
North Carolina in 1995 for a cottage in Kingham, England, hoping to escape the grief of being suddenly widowed. He finds a book about Shakespearean forgeries in a small bookstore in Hay-on-Wye, and a painting falls from the pages. It is a Victorian watercolor of his recently deceased wife. How could this be? The painting appears to be from the late 1800s and she just died--young--in 1995. He searches for the answer and ends up in the literary hunt of a lifetime.

The novel moves back and forth seamlessly between three time periods with smooth plot connections. Lovett is an expert when it comes to structure and transitions.

In 1995 England, Peter is tracking down the Victorian
painting. In doing so, he stumbles onto yet another mystery about the identity of the writer of Shakespeare's plays. [Yes, much debate has gone on over the centuries about that.] Peter finds a copy of Pandosto written by Robert Greene in the 1500s with notes in the margins by none other than the Bard himself. Shakespeare based his play, A Winter's Tale, on Greene's romance. If this copy of Greene's work is authentic, Peter may have stumbled onto one of the greatest finds in literature: a connection proving that Shakespeare did, indeed, write the plays attributed to him. He becomes obsessed with proving the authenticity of the book.

In 1983, Peter and Amanda--his future wife--meet at a college in North Carolina. Peter is socially introverted, totally unsure of himself, but definite about his love of books. He works in the Special Collections area of the college library and learns how to mend sadly broken books. He loves every aspect of their history. The learning curve ensures that he will understand the worth of an antiquarian book that connects to Shakespeare. In these 1983 passages, Lovett details Peter and Amanda's shy and unfolding love story and courtship. After her death, Amanda appears to Peter in brief moments, but the paranormal aspect of the plot is minor.

The third set of passages is from Southwark, London, in 1592. In these pages we see the robust drinking lives of Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, Robert
Greene, and Shakespeare himself. Peter follows these clues through an unscrupulous, fictional 1500's bookseller, Bartholomew Harbottle, who is a link in the mystery of Pandosto and Shakespeare.

Before all is done, Peter chases the Pandosto manuscript and the painting through London, the countryside, tombs, and dark passages, trying to evade a present day murderer who is also searching for Pandosto. On his quest, Peter uncovers some truths about his own early life and also that of his wife.

Charlie Lovett
The characters are vivid, the structure of the plot is amazing, and the focus never leaves the hunt. Lovett's pacing is spot on and I had a tough time putting this book down. I found the ending a bit contrived, but the story was so exciting I could forgive Mr. Lovett for that.

        If you are a book lover, a Shakespeare enthusiast, a reader, a book collector, or a mender of books, you will love The Bookman's Tale.