When John Rawlings is asked to investigate an infamous club which is suspected of carrying on some rather shady activities, he is intrigued. The disreputable Sir Francis Dashwood is believed to be involved, as well as other illustrious members of the British aristocracy.
In disguise, and accompanied by his old companion Samuel Swann, John befriends Sir Francis and gains access to his home and family, including someone from John's past, someone whose exceptional beauty still hypnotises him.
I've never been one much for historicals, so I was mildly surprised by how much I enjoyed DEATH IN HELLFIRE. Asked by the blind beak himself, Sir John Fielding, John Rawlings launches himself into the investigation of the notorious Hellfire Club. Worried by the sketchy artifice he has developed to disguise himself, concerned about the rumours of debauchery but more worried about the sinister aspects of the same club, he travels to the home of Sir Francis Dashwood and inveigles himself into the family circle.
His disguise, and position within the household is complicated when he finds that one of the guests of the house is his ex-lover, actress and now wife of Charles, Marquess of Arundel. Charles is a thoroughly unsatisfactory sort of chap, and a fellow member of the Hellfire Club. There are two parts to this story - the investigation of the Hellfire Club, and the suspicious death of two of the guests of the Dashwood household, which occurred around the time of the gathering of the Club that Rawlings is able to get himself invited to.
I suspect part of the reason that I enjoyed DEATH IN HELLFIRE so much was the slightly wry sense of humour from the central character. John Rawlings doesn't take himself or the situations he finds himself in overly seriously, and there is a real wit and charm to the way that he progresses through the investigation, and to a lot of the side characters throughout the book. The writing style can be quite flamboyant but it's very engaging, and the settings themselves aren't too glamourised or, for that matter, overly dire. It also helps that the whole thing whips along at a great pace, without the need for great daring and over the top doings.
DEATH IN HELLFIRE is the 12th book in the John Rawlings series by Deryn Lake - which is a pseudonym of historical novelist Dinah Lampitt.
SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, Edward Marston
The dashing Captain Daniel Rawson - spy, linguist, duellist, ladies' man and career soldier - can charm a woman as well as he can parry a sword. And whether it is extracting information from the wife of a French general or leading his soldiers in a Forlorn Hope, Rawson proves himself invaluable to John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, and the Confederate forces as they had towards the ferocious battle of Blenheim.
SOLDIER OF FORTUNE is the first book featuring Captain Daniel Rawson, although the author has written at least 40 other crime novels, in a range of different groups set in four distinct periods of history.
This book opens with Daniel - the child - greeting his father on temporary leave from battle. Nathan is fighting to depose the King and put the Duke of Monmouth on the throne. The forces of the Duke lose and Nathan is put to death. Daniel and his Dutch mother flee England - to the safety of his mother's native land. Years later, as a young and dashing soldier, Daniel returns to fighting - this time for the Duke of Marlborough and the Confederate forces in the battle of Blenheim.
Daniel is a career soldier and spy - dashing, loyal and unfailingly courageous, he is also extremely attractive to women. He uses that attraction to discover information from the wife of a famous General in his role as Confederate spy. Returning to the battlefield, he is pursued - by Miss Abigail Piper, a beautiful and very wilful young lady he met briefly before leaving for the fight; and somewhat more disconcertingly, by two hired assassins. The General has no intention of allowing himself to be cuckolded without taking his own revenge. Daniel must keep Miss Abigail safe, stay alive himself, fight the battle for the Duke, rid the world of the assassins and dodge the bullet of commitment to just one woman.
Needless to say as you've probably guessed from the description Daniel is a bit of a swashbuckling, all round hero type - leaping from tall buildings, riding horses and fighting pitched sword battles to defend himself, King, Country, the lady, the principle and whatever else needs to be swashed into submission.
To be brutally honest there is absolutely nothing in this plot that can't be seen coming from a very long way away, and these sort of books are not my normal reading fare - but it really did roll along at a good pace, and the swashing was buckled with a certain style. Daniel wasn't so over the top a hero that you didn't want to track him down and thump him with his own sword, Miss Abigail was brave and downright annoying all at the same time, and the lurking assassins nicely threatening - in a predictable sort of a way.
You really could see SOLDIER OF FORTUNE appealing to readers who like a bit of romance, high intrigue and maybe a touch of the Errol Flynn's about their escapist reading.
THE AFFAIR OF THE MUTILATED MINK - James Anderson
It's really easy for latter day homages to early 1930's / 1940's arch, drawing room style comedies or take offs to overdo it to the point where it's cartoonish. THE AFFAIR OF THE MUTILATED MINK doesn't overdo it, but on the other hand it doesn't under deliver on a slightly comic (tongue in cheek) murder drama in the realms of high British aristocracy.
The Earl of Burford is a recent convert to the joys of the cinematographic entertainment and he's more than a bit chuffed at the Hollywood crowd arriving. He doesn't even mind the eccentric screenwriter who invites his own secretary along - even though he's an odd sort of a cove. Of course neither the Earl or the Countess are convinced about Gerry's plan of inviting both her suitors for a close up comparison - but who can talk Gerry out of anything. Catching up with the long-lost cousin and her husband, recently returned from Australia are about the only thing that the Countess can look forward to, whilst the Earl is starting to worry about the history of large house parties at Alderley - seems they have a bit of an history. With the arrival of the totally unexpected Great Italian Actress and the equally early arrival of the very effacing librarian; the party is primed and starting to feel the tension rise. Then a death occurs (of course!).
The murder is being ably investigated by local Inspector Wilkins - who has been involved in mysterious deaths at Alderley in the past. He's been doing an admirable job, but in "rides" Allgood of the Yard. Allgood is here to save the day and solve the puzzle, being a master detective and all round genius (definitely a legend in his own notebooks!)
In this mix of characters there are more daring deeds, bad 'uns, nefarious goings on, creeping around in the dead of night, cheating, snooping, lying, ducking and weaving than you'd think possible to fit into 350 pages. It's a nicely complex plot which doesn't ever become overly complicated and there's some fun twists on the standard of the final "everybody in the drawing room" conclusion.
At the end of the day Merryweather saves the day - now you'll have to read the book to find out which day!
LABYRINTH - Kate Mosse
Two young women, born hundreds of years apart, share a bond.
For such a massive tome, the time passes quickly on the read of LABYRINTH. Almost chatty in places for an historical drama, it manages to spin out its tale of holy secrets through the ages in a very comfortable, easy style that invites the kind of coffee and chat it generated during its creation (a six year process). The work in progress of author Kate Mosse on LABYRINTH was live on-line during the novel's creation and spurned a massive amount of interest from the snippets of plot details and historical data that were released en route. Similar has been done with SEPULCHRE, the second standalone work from this author.
The past mirroring the present premise never quite washed with this novel - the modern day scenes read something like a movie-of-the-week thriller and did little to enhance the read. The elusiveness of a plot driver in LABYRINTH was pure frustration - such a long wait for resolution, and when it supposedly came, could it be truly regarded as such? This is a book, perhaps mostly for the ladies, very much written in the melodramatic vein of "the young lady in jeopardy with only her fragile wits and sensibilities", who, of course, somehow manages to find her way through to the truth - delicious, if you are in the mood for such a thing. Those seeking some sort of immensely satisfying historical experience with gratifyingly plausible answers for the past deeds of those pursuing some kind of religious enlightenment - pass on this one.
LABYRINTH is though still an immensely entertaining read as you are caught up in the perils of Alais, her wisdom and bravery, her skills in medieval apothecary, tackling tasks that we assume were mostly foreign to women of her station, British author Kate Mosse shows great affection for her home of Carcassonne and brings the past of the town to bloody glory with her impassioned descriptive narrative. It is quite the love affair of a place, not so much of the story, that dominates this book.
MANHUNT - Christian Jacq
For those unfamiliar with Christian Jacq and his work, he is a leading Egyptologist and author of the bestselling RAMSES and THE MYSTERIES OF OSIRIS series, as well as several novels on Ancient Egypt (a total of around 27 books now I think). MANHUNT is the first in what appears to be a new series - THE VENGEANCE OF THE GODS.
MANHUNT is the story of a conspiracy. The killing of all but two members of the Guild of Interpreters is the start - it seems they have all been killed to keep a plot (for or against Ahmose) hidden. Kel is a convenient scapegoat to be blamed for the killings and he must escape the inquisitor Judge Gem and prove his innocence. Unfortunately, despite his talent with languages, he is not immediately able to translate the coded papyrus. Kel has to rely on the help of his friend Bebon, the actor; Nitis, the priestess; and a donkey called North Wind to escape the authorities and find the key to translate the papyrus.
MANHUNT was the first disappointing book I've read by this author. The style of the dialogue is extremely formal, but it's the same for everyone, so it's very hard to pick which character is which, and therefore give them some context in what is obviously an elaborate societal hierarchy. The formality is also delivered in staccato timing which, combined with the actions of Kel, give the whole thing a stop / start / rushed feeling. Kel escapes the authorities time and time again by simply running away - no-one in authority ever seems to recognise him anywhere, even people who have seen him multiple times before, yet his friends or supporters never seem to have any trouble.
Unfortunately most of the characterisations in MANHUNT seem pretty weak, probably also because many of their motivations are underwhelming and, frankly, some of the behaviour just downright odd. The stand out character is the donkey - North Wind, but even then, his behaviour is fabulously interesting, but there's absolutely no reason given for anything he does.
The other problem is that, even allowing for the idea that this is the first book in an ongoing series, the ending of the book just stops, seemingly with nothing much resolved. Okay there's a cliffhanger there to lead you into the next in the series, but it's too abrupt, and there's too much unresolved in the first book. It's dangerously close to disingenuous.
What does work well is the insights into Egyptian rituals and practices, including some useful footnotes explaining some elements of the book. Don't let MANHUNT put you off Christian Jacq's books. Hopefully the second in this series, The Divine Worshipper which is due out around April 2008, will live up to the standard of the other series by this author.
BLOOD OF DREAMS - Susan Parisi
Starting off with the elaborate building of Laudomia's life as the youngest sister of two very self-important merchants in 1700's Venice - BLOOD OF DREAMS is part historical novel, part passionate romance, part Gothic tale of death and the occult and part mystery. Laudomia is destined to be married off, she lives her life seemingly tightly controlled by her brothers and their mindless and rather shallow wives. But she also has a more secret existence. Starting off with roaming of the streets of Venice with only an old servant for company, at a party held by her own family, Laudomia finds herself deeply attracted to the glorious, but risky Estavio. But whilst they pursue their passionate, and secret love affair; the madness of Carnevale acts as cover for a vicious killer, driven by a different sort of madness - to steal the dreams of others.
BLOOD OF DREAMS leans heavily on the great, Gothic and elaborate in the style of the story telling, the characters themselves (everyone is just ever so slightly over the top), the atmosphere of brooding and decadence, and in the events and happenings everywhere in the book. Mixed in with romance is lust; with murder and intrigue - occult; with obsession - drugs and addiction. The style of the book is very luscious, almost over the top in the descriptions of the characters, their costumes, the world they inhabit. Venice itself is dark and brooding and dangerous, Carnavale is the excuse that lots of people have to step outside the boundaries of accepted behaviour.
The point of BLOOD OF DREAMS is probably not the mystery, or the romance, or the occult, or any one particular element. It is one of those novels of a style that you either love or hate, but if you're a fan of this sort of book then BLOOD OF DREAMS should be a must read.
CITY OF SPIES - Simon Levack
CITY OF SPIES is the third book in the Aztec series set in Mexico in 1517. Tetzcoco is the second largest city of the Aztec realm, a bustling town full of poets, artists, merchants and commerce. It is also the centre of a fight for the Aztec throne and its streets are full of spies and assassins stalking each other and killing violently.
Yaotl is an ex-priest, now slave, who finds himself in Tetzcoco being sold for sacrifice by his master Lord Feathered-In-Black. He is rescued when bought by his old lover Tiger Lily, in town on a mission of her own. Yaotl then finds himself trying to return the favour of rescue when Lily is accused of the murder of a powerful merchant. Yaotl, his son Nimble, Lily's father Kindly and a young Mayan girl Little Hen, all combine to rescue Lily with a combination of lawyerly talking, spying and manipulating of their own.
The author uses a combination of local words and "Anglicised" versions of place and people's names which makes for some quirky outcomes, and they, and an overall tone of tongue in cheek humour make CITY OF SPIES a great fun book. Yaotl is a fabulous character, irreverent, willing to take some risks, observational and reactive - there's nothing in the idea of a slave working his way into high offices and appearing alongside all stratas of a hierarchical society that clashes, mostly because of the fabulous, fearless, even larrakin behaviour of Yaotl.
The book also gives a wonderful sense of Aztec society - from the layout of the hierarchies, to the nature of their housing, the functioning of the society and the justice system - the whole thing combines to give a really involving feeling of being in that place. In fact, I think it's that sense of being from the time that really makes CITY OF SPIES.
The first chapters of the book take a little getting used to - the elaborate names and places, as well as the rapid fire commencement of events may throw you a little until you get into the swing of understanding how the language works. Once you've got into the swing of it you're drawn into Aztec society very deftly. The only minor quibble is that it might be better to start at the first book in the series as there is obviously a lot of back story to Yaotl that is intriguing. I know I'm going back to read the first two, first chance I get.
TAMBURLAINE MUST DIE - Louise Welsh
Playwright, poet, and spy Christopher Marlowe is a man who doesn't much care about the consequences of anything that he does. He's dissolute, reckless and playing a dangerous game. London is a grimy, insular, frightened place – with the plague and war threatening, strangers are treated with great suspicion and the shadowy Privy Council run by Ministers who "cared enough for high office to profit from death".
The story begins in May 1593 when Marlowe is summoned from the home of his patron to appear before the Privy Council immediately. He is accused of being an atheist and recruiting others to his cause. His play Tamburlaine is known as an atheist tract and somebody calling themselves Tamburlaine is using references to the play in posters, bills and other materials scattered around London. So called friends of Marlowe have been quick to accuse. Marlowe must find the mysterious Tamburlaine and prove himself innocent, but, alas, history records that he was dead in a house in Deptford on the evening of the 30th May – 3 days later.
TAMBURLAINE MUST DIE is a fictitious account of the events that led from the charging of Marlowe to his death by stabbing. The known facts of the death of Marlowe are that he did die, stabbed in that house, lying on a bed. What is not so clear is the real truth of the events. As the author mentions in an addendum to the book, "The coroner's jury accepted the killer's claims of self-defence ... Marlowe's killer was awarded a pardon." "The flaws in the jury's decision have been well established ... The official account rests on the unreliable testimony of three rogues and is therefore unsafe."
Christopher Marlowe's fate is the subject of much ongoing debate worldwide, as is the ongoing conversation about whether he is or is not the true author of many of Shakespeare's works – and goodness knows this book (and this reviewer) are not stating an opinion one way or the other on that. TAMBURLAINE MUST DIE is Louise Welsh's fictional tale of the days leading up to Marlowe's death. The writing is deft, lyrical and very readable. The setting feels authentic, the characters beautifully grotesque, their actions startling, their sex lives varied to say the least. The book is very descriptive, almost picturesque even though there is very little charming or picturesque about 1500's London, the Privy Council's machinations or the life of a dissolute artist surviving by the kindness of patrons and friends. .
VISIBILITY - Boris Starling
VISIBILITY is the fourth book from Boris Starling. It is set in 1952 in London in the middle of one of the last great, lingering pea-souper fogs.
VISIBILITY could be a reference to the fog which is all pervading and dictates all of the action and events in this post-war thriller. When biochemist Max Stensness is found drowned in early in the evening, in the middle of the fog, Herbert Smith, ex-MI5 and now member of Scotland Yard's Murder Squad gets the case because it's probably going to be an uninteresting one, and the rest of the murder squad are very unwelcoming and suspicious of Herbert's background.
VISIBILITY could also be a reference to Hannah, the underwater diver called on to search the location where Stensness's body is found. Hannah is Hungarian, blind and a refugee from the Nazi concentration camps.
VISIBILITY could also be a reference to the world of espionage. When Herbert gradually reveals more about the victim he finds that he is back looking at the world of spies, informers, the CIA, the KGB and MI5, despite the fact that he's now looking at it from the point of view of a murder investigation.
VISIBILITY finally could also be a reference to the events surrounding the end of the war and the dissipation of all levels of Nazi party members.
The design of the plot of this book intertwines a lot of historical components - setting the place and the time for the book squarely in a world still dealing with the fallout of the Second World War. Herbert Smith is an interesting detective character, having been forced from MI5 and feeling the effects of a life as a spy which has made him a very lonely, conflicted man. He has a complex and difficult relationship with his mother, currently hospitalised with chronic respitory ailments, exacerbated by the fog. Hannah is a lively, interesting, exciting character, who despite suffering dreadfully at the hands of the Nazi's is not a victim. She's a really strong, capable, independent woman and her blindness is not a disability.
The only minor criticism is that the final outcome is a twist of historical fact which is an approach that can be confronting - what is actually the truth and what did you read in a fiction book? Other than that small, probably personal quibble, this is a good, paced, interesting and involving book with some very engaging characters.
AMONGST THE DEAD - Robert Gott
Failed Shakesperean actor and would-be private investigator Will Power's unique detective skills are, once again, in demand. The Japanese army is rampaging through the islands of the South Pacific and Australia's front line of defence is a top-secret, crack division of men embedded deep in the tropical wilderness of northern Australia. But something is threatening their vital, covert mission: one of this elite corps is a murderer, preying on his comrades, one by one.
AMONGST THE DEAD is the third novel in Robert Gott's William Power series. William is an "aspirational" but failed Shakespearean actor, turned Private Investigator who finds himself in very unusual circumstances in the Top End of Australia during World War II in AMONGST THE DEAD.
William and his brother Brian are called upon by Australian Military Intelligence to find out the truth behind the suspicious deaths in a crack, very secret squad. William, of course, thinks, that they need him for his superior powers of detection, and because they are to be infiltrated into the squad as part of an entertainment troupe. The North Australia Observer Unit (or Nackaroo's) are a small group of soldiers and their Aboriginal assistants who patrol the Top End of the country, watching for any sign of the Japanese invasion from the Islands of the South Pacific into the Australian Mainland. Intelligence believes that the deaths of three Nackaroo's were highly suspicious, but the level of secrecy of the NAOU means that they cannot trust the investigation to just anybody, and when it comes to somebody stroking his ego, William will volunteer for just about anything.
William is not sure if it helps or complicates the investigation when they discover their third brother - Fulton - is a member of the suspect squad. The inclusion of the entertainment troupe is further complicated by the fact that William's Shakespearean recitation is not exactly the entertainment most appreciated by the troops and that doesn't help William's overall mood, somewhat strained already by the persistent rain, mould, heat, mud, long days walking through the Top End bush, encounters with Crocodiles, Dengue Fever, and murder.
AMONGST THE DEAD has a lovely comic twist with William Power undoubtedly being one of the most over-developed "theatrical" egos doing the rounds. He is, unfortunately, also a bit of a twit, which means that his concept of solving the deaths of the soldiers and two more deaths in the squad after he and Brian arrive, seems to involve a lot of blundering around, an awful lot of shooting his mouth off at the most inappropriate times and an enormous chunk of the investigation feeling well sorry for himself. He also, alas, can't see the woods for the trees, and when he is ultimately accused of killing the two men who died after he arrived, rather than see the wood for what it is, he's too busy feeling righteously indignant followed by madly accusing everyone else around him, to really see what's going on.
Of course, the point of AMONGST THE DEAD is that William doesn't really solve anything - he's the method by which other people sort out a mess that has to be sorted out. But the book doesn't suffer at all from this variance from the norm in crime fiction - if anything it adds a different dimension. In William you have a "hero" that you can truly laugh at - that you just want to sidle up to and whisper "dear me, old chap, put down the Shakespeare script, have a peek over the chip on your shoulder and I suspect you'll see something to your advantage". Having said that - he's marvelously awful - you just can't disagree with Shane Maloney's quotation on the press release. "Literature has had its share of heroes, heroes of many kinds: classic heroes, super heroes, accidental heroes, flawed heroes, anti-heroes. And now, at last, it has a dickhead hero".