Category Archives: Historical crime

They say an ambitious man can make a grand career in the cloister

A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters

Sometimes I put books aside, for emergencies. For when I’m tired, or jaded, or just plain not up to much. It doesn’t mean they’re bad books. Far from it. It does mean though that I expect them to be books that will do most of the work for me. Books that will carry me to their destination.

I first came across Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels in their TV adaptation. It stars Derek Jacobi and if you have the slightest taste for TV detectives it’s well worth checking out. Jacobi is a marvellous actor, and having now read one of the books I can confirm too that he’s a marvellous Cadfael.

Isn’t that just a great cover? So evocative. It even features a scene from the book, and as any regular reader knows it’s not always certain that the cover and the text will have much relation to each other. The paper is also well chosen and generally I’d say for a mass market paperback it’s actually a very attractive physical package.

Anyway, for those unfamiliar with them the Cadfael novels are set in England during the 12th Century. It is a time now known as “the Anarchy” due to a succession crisis between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. The Norman conquest is less than a century past and the nobility are literally a different breed to the common folk. England is a troubled place.

A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first of the Cadfael series, and so carries the weight of what is to come. Peters has to establish her characters, make the reader care about them and introduce a world very different to that we inhabit today. In a deceptively simple novel Peters accomplishes all that and provides a clever and satisfying plot rooted in the customs and beliefs of Cadfael’s time.

Brother Cadfael is a herbalist in a Benedictine monastery. Before he was a monk he was a sailor and a soldier in the crusades. Now “like a battered ship settling at last for a quiet harbour” he spends his days concerned with smaller matters such as cabbage seedlings and the care of the two novices who assist him.

Five minutes more and he must go and wash his hands and repair to the church for Mass. He used the respite to walk the length of his pale-flowered, fragrant, inner kingdom, where Brother John and Brother Columbanus, two youngsters barely a year tonsured, were busy weeding and edge-trimming. Glossy and dim, oiled and furry, the leaves tendered every possible variation on green. The flowers were mostly shy, small, almost furtive, in soft, sidelong colours, lilacs and shadowy blues and diminutive yellows, for they were the unimportant and unwanted part, but for ensuring seed to follow.

No metaphor for monastic life there I’m sure.

One of those novices, Brother Columbanus, is from a fine Norman family and is prone to ecstatic visions. Until recently that has been a source of some exasperation for the abbey, but ambitious Prior Robert Pennant has dreams of acquiring a relic to bring glory and pilgrims to the greater credit of both the abbey and himself. After Brother Columbanus has another of his fits he falls into a stupor and a brother caring for him has a (rather convenient) vision of a saint’s bones going untended in Wales. If Columbanus is brought to the site of her martyrdom he will be healed.

So it is said and so it comes to pass. With further visions coming as if bidden the Prior argues that the saint is calling for rescue just as she herself rescued Brother Columbanus. Her mortal remains are neglected by her own people. What could be more right than that her bones be brought back to England to rest and be venerated in the abbey?

The monks mount an expedition to Wales. They carry with them blessings from powers both temporal and clerical (and, they believe, spiritual). The Welsh villagers however prove reluctant to release the bones of their local saint.

The Prior had never looked holier or more surely headed for sainthood himself. He had always a sense of occasion, and beyond a doubt it had been his idea to hold the meeting here in the open, where the sun could gild and illuminate his otherworldly beauty. It was Cadfael’s detached opinion that he did himself more than justice, by being less overbearing than might have been expected. Usually he overdid things, this time he got it right, or as right as something only equivocally right in itself can be got.

‘They’re not happy!’ whispered Brother John in Cadfael’s ear, himself sounding far from sad about it. There were times when even Brother John could be humanly smug. And, indeed, those Welsh faces ranged round them were singularly lacking in enthusiasm for all these English miracles performed by a Welsh saint. Robert at his best was not exactly carrying his audience.

Matters worsen when a powerful local landowner decides to oppose the entire enterprise. The villagers hold him in high regard and look to him for guidance. His objection dooms the whole business. When he is found murdered a question arises – did the saint cause the man’s death that she might be transported to her new home, or was the murder borne of a more earthly motive?

I won’t say more. It’s a mystery novel and to reveal the plot would be a crime in itself. It is though a small delight. I make no claims here for great literature. This isn’t and it doesn’t aim to be. Rather this is a finely crafted classic whodunnit set in an interesting time and place and with a rich cast of characters.

Sometimes I find myself describing a book as being very readable. In a sense of course it’s a bit of a nonsense description. I love Pynchon and had no problems turning the next page of V. Is that very readable? Well, yes, but it’s not a term I’d find helpful to describe Pynchon’s style.

When I say a book is very readable what I mean is that it slips down easily. It doesn’t require work on my part. In wine terms it’s a gamay or merlot. It’s easy drinking.

A Morbid Taste for Bones is very readable. Within a handful of pages I was immersed in Cadfael’s world. It’s reading as escapism, but that’s as valid a goal for fiction as any other. What’s more, it’s good escapism.

Recently Tom of A Common Reader mentioned how the Cadfael novels brought him a sense of calm. I found that a very perceptive comment. Cadfael’s world is somehow immensely reassuring. Yes, there is murder, and there is vanity and ambition and many earthly failings that we will all recognise. For all that though there is an order. By the end of the novel we know that the wrongdoer will be punished. Justice will be done. That which seems inexplicable will be explained.

There’s an unreality to all that. In life things are rarely so tidy. It’s an unreality reflected in Cadfael himself who is perhaps a little too perfect – worldly in his past and practical while yet pious and compassionate in his present. If he has failings they weren’t apparent in this volume.

This isn’t a novel I would recommend to those who aren’t already crime fans. It’s firmly a genre work and while it moves the genre in some interesting directions (in terms of setting) it doesn’t push any boundaries or do anything radical. It’s no He Died With His Eyes Open. For those with a fondness for crime this is an excellent example of a well written cosy mystery. For those indifferent to the genre I’d probably recommend instead the highly accomplished TV adaptations.

For me this was the right book for the time when I read it. I’ll buy the next in the series, and put it aside for when next I need comfort rather than challenge.


Filed under Historical crime, Peters, Ellis

The donkey-boys were having their evening meal

Michael Pearce is a mystery writer, specialising in stories located in colourful places and filled with exotic characters.

Growing up himself in North Africa, he has been most successful with his Mamur Zapt series, the Mamur Zapt being a peculiar position in the 1920s British administration over occupied Egypt, referred to as a political officer and essentially head of the secret police.

Pearce makes one Captain Owen his Mamur Zapt, and his novels are an unusual blend of mystery and police procedural, as the Mamur Zapt investigates a crime or occurence which has political dimensions and the possibility of destabilising the uneasy political situation of 1920s Cairo.

It’s a great idea for a series, Pearce has written sixteen of them to date, the last coming out in 2008, I’ve now read three. The first two, The Night of the Dog and The Return of the Carpet, were both excellent. Highly evocative in terms of time and place, interesting in their depiction of the political difficulties of a very different world as the Mamur Zapt deals with the Egyptian civilian police, disaffected French former colonial interests, local nationalists and religious groups. The third, The Donkey-Vous, unfortunately worked less well for me. Two out of three’s not bad, so I’ll likely give the fourth a try some time, but it will probably be quite some time before I do.

In The Donkey Vous, an elderly Frenchman with family links through marriage to the French president is kidnapped from the terrace at Shepheard’s Hotel, the most prestigious hotel in Cairo and therefore the best known terrace in Cairo. The kidnapping appears to be for money, but despite all the bystanders nobody saw it happen, and such a person taken from such a place cannot help but be political. The Mamur Zapt, reluctantly, is brought in to investigate the disappearance.

Essentially, this is then a locked room mystery. Ok, the locked room is a crowded terrace facing an exceptionally busy street in the heart of a major city, but the point remains the same, there’s no way that the crime in question could have occurred at such a location.

The problem with the novel, however, is a simple one. Outside the terrace is a stand of donkey-boys, boys who hire out their donkeys to tourists. The kidnapping could not have occurred without them witnessing it, Captain Owen after initial interviews is convinced that they are lying when they plead ignorance, so is Mahmoud, investigator for the Parquet, the Egyptian justice ministry and a friend of Captain Owen’s.

As the donkey-boys won’t talk, Captain Owen, Mahmoud and others spend the next couple of hundred pages making fairly fruitless investigations into a seemingly impossible crime before they find a way to get the donkey-boys to open up, along the way running into problems with rival bidders for public works contracts, army sensitivities to the potential involvement of sectarian groups, and political infighting and gamesmanship. The trouble is, all this depends on one assumption, that the head of the secret police and the Egyptian investigator, both operating in 1920s Cairo, wouldn’t simply have the boys rounded up and beaten until they told everything they knew. If they did do that, however, the novel would last about 30 pages.

Pearce is good at bringing 1920s Cairo to life, the book is filled with descriptive passages, indeed every other page comes with another rich and exotic description (possibly too many, a friend of mine abandoned the book around page 50, having overdosed on them). Here Captain Owen visits an influential member of Egyptian society:

Owen walked in past the two eunuchs, named according to custom after precious stones or flowers, across a crunching gravel courtyard where cats dozed in the shade of the palms and in through a heavy wooden outer door. When he came to the inner door which led directly into Samira’s apartment he stopped and called out “Ya Satir – O Discoverer” – (one of the ninety-nine names of God), the conventional warning to ladies that a man is coming and they must veil. He heard scrambling inside and as he opened the door saw a female slave disappearing up the stairs to “warn” the Princess. He realized he must be the first male guest to arrive.

Here we have a typical street scene from the novel, from in front of the Shepheard’s terrace:

The street was brimming. As well as the usual hawkers of stuffed crocodiles, live leopards, Nubian daggers, Abyssinian war-maces, Smyrna figs, strawberries, meshrebiya tables and photograph frames, Japanese fans and postage stamps, sandalwood workboxes and Persian embroideries, hippopotamus-hide whips and tarbooshes, and Sudanese beads made in Manchseter and the little scarabs and images of men and gods made for the Tombs of Pharoahs but just three thousand years too late; as well as the sellers of sweets and pastry and lemonade and tea who habitaully blocked up the thoroughfare; as well as the acrobats and tumblers, jugglers and performing ape managers; as well as the despairing arabeah-drivers and the theatrical donkey-boys and the long line of privileged vendors stretching the whole length of the terrace – a swarm of Albanians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Georgians, and Circassians had suddenly arrived in front of the hotel to show off their boots.
They were very proud of their boots and had come along, in traditional national dress with a few props such as guns, daggers and swords, to exhibit them to the tourists to be photographed.

Lavish description is of course much of the point, fans of historical mystery novels read them as much – perhaps more – for the sense of time and place as for the mystery itself. The ability to lose oneself in another country, another period, is much of the draw. Where it becomes problematic is where, as here, the plot is insufficiently robust so that one is left with little but the period flavour.

The novel also contains several scenes in which Owen tries to question locals, and ends up in a meandering and gently humorous conversation as his desire to be direct and the Arab custom of arriving at conclusions circuitously and with much discussion come at odds, in a form of mild culture clash. I would quote one, but by their nature they tend to be protracted, and can extend over several pages. They’re well enough written, though I did struggle slightly to tell any of the Arab characters (other than Mahmoud, the policeman) apart by their dialogue since they are all prone to much the same sorts of pleasantries and asides.

Pearce’s Cairo is a place filled with good natured people, good natured though perhaps slightly scheming Frenchmen, good natured but perhaps overly suspicious British soldiers, good natured but overly garrulous and emotional Egyptians, good natured but traditionally minded Greeks, a good natured but forgetful retired elderly Englishman who may have seen something and his good natured but excitable daughter. Everyone is basically a bit of a good egg, save one young army officer who comes across as a bit stupid and a bit bigoted, but even he does no real harm.

That’s fine, the word “cosy” is actually used for a certain subgenre of the mystery novel, but I did start to long for an elderly Flashman to show up and give them all a good kicking.

And that’s about it, I struggle to say a great deal more. Pearce knows his stuff, his 1920s Egypt is a convincingly real place, it’s just the people and their ubiquitous niceness that lets down ultimately both the realism and the plot. Fans of historical mysteries would likely enjoy the first two a great deal, I certainly did, but here the plot depends on the niceness, which brings it to the foreground and makes it evident how incredible it actually is.

On an unrelated note, Planet of Slums continues to be a good but slow read, I’ll be trying to break the back of it this weekend so I can stop feeling guilty about it’s unfinished status.

The Donkey-Vous


Filed under Crime, Historical crime, Historical fiction, Pearce, Michael

I believe that any young railman aspires to the footplate

As a rule, I give a lot of thought to what I choose to read. I read reviews, I read a few pages in the shop if possible, I give thought to what the novel is about and whether it is likely to be something that will interest me. As a result, it’s quite rare these days I read a novel and find it a disappointment.

Rare, but not unknown. Because of course I also try new writers or revisit writers I have not previously got on with, it’s important I think not to be too locked in to one’s existing tastes. Most often when I try a new writer I’m pleased with the result, Sam Selvon was new to me and I thought a wonderful discovery. Andrew Martin unfortunately I didn’t take to so well.

The novel in question is The Necropolis Railway, a historical crime novel by Andrew Martin, the first in what appears to be a very successful series. The novel is set in 1903 in the world of the railways, with the protagonist Jim Stringer being a young and idealistic railwayman come to London to work as an engine cleaner with a view to one day reaching the heady heights of a driver.

In choosing to read this book now I made two basic errors. Firstly, I have no interest in steam trains, therefore choosing a book clearly written around a love for them was not perhaps my best choice. Secondly, it is not best advised to read a book set in a fog-bound and freezing winter London while enduring high temperatures on the London tube. The real world surroundings work entirely counter to the atmosphere the novelist is seeking to achieve. In a sense then, I didn’t give this book a fair shot and that’s a shame. However, I don’t think I’d have taken to it anyway, though perhaps simply as I am not its target audience.

Without giving plot details away, which can be particularly important in crime fiction, Jim Stringer gets his start on the railways due to an introduction by a director of the board of the London and South Western Railway. On his arrival in London he rooms in a run down lodging with an at first unfriendly landlady and a ever increasing pool of rainwater on his room floor. His colleagues to a man seem to loathe him, for reasons slightly unclear at first but seemingly connected to the disappearance of the boy who held his new post before him. Jim has been attached to the Necropolis railway, a dedicated service to a vast and declining mass graveyard outside London whose commercial rationale has been undone but which continues regardless.

From there we get the usual series of murders and a vast array of possible villains, with our naive young hero struggling to tell friend from foe and suffering isolation as a result.

The book contains a wealth of railway and steam train information, as you might expect really. If you have any interest in such matters, this book will deliver on that front. It is plainly well researched and I felt quite confident in the author’s depiction of the steam train world. The author also did something very clever with language, the book is narrated by Jim Stringer and opens with a tone reminiscent of boy’s own fiction, slightly pompous and a bit oblivious to the complexities of the world. Jim is an unreliable narrator, but not very unreliable, it is often plainer to us what is going on around him than it is to him and it is clear we are intended to be able to see what Jim himself occasionally misses.

As the book continues, Jim matures and as he does so the language slowly changes. Swear words are introduced into the text, more slang creeps in (authentic period slang as best I could tell), essentially the narrative voice of the novel develops as Jim develops and that I thought was both unusual and interesting.

London itself is well evoked, period oddities such as kicking gangs, the peculiar language of the prostitutes of the day, the heirarchies of the railway men and their particular privileges, all of this is brought to life without falling into the trap of interrupting the narrative for exposition. Jim’s London is easy to picture (when you’re not sweating on the tube anyway) and feels like a real place and that verismilitude for many fans of historical crime is a critical issue and central to their enjoyment of the work in question.

Unfortunately, much else didn’t work for me. The plot is moderately complex, but I guessed the broad outlines of the outcome fairly early. More seriously, the endgame of the novel depends hugely on coincidence and protagonist stupidity. Jim puts himself in danger, is saved by blind luck (albeit previously flagged blind luck to be fair), his nemesis reappears (that really isn’t a spoiler, you can’t fail but see it coming) and Jim is saved again by a huge piece of chance. Really for me a deus ex machina. Again, the device is set up in advance, but it’s still within the world of the narrative an extraordinary piece of good fortune. Then, once all is resolved, Jim encounters a clue to wider implications again through a totally random encounter. The end part of the novel contains no fewer than two massive coincidences and one extraordinary stroke of luck to reach its conclusion, and for me that was just too much.

In some ways one might argue that my expectations were wrong, that this isn’t a crime novel at all (as it is marketed) but rather is a pulp novel, a potboiler in which extraordinary coincidence and thrilling escapes are all par for the course. The novel does work better on that analysis, but I don’t think the rest of the novel quite takes that approach being far more a work of formulaic historical crime. As such, the elements didn’t gel for me and I left the novel with a feeling of dissatisfaction.

Perhaps ironically, on finishing I found myself wishing Andrew Martin had written a novel about a young railwayman making his way up the ladder in turn of the Century London, and left out murders and shocking crimes entirely. I suspect it might have been a more interesting novel for that, though equally it would not have sold as well.

In terms of Victorian crime (I appreciate Necropolis is actually Edwardian crime, but there are many similarities, I’ll go into the differences below), I found that I preferred the work of Lee Jackson with his wonderful website Jackson also has a series now, with a recurring detective, and I’m not persuaded his work has improved for that (but the market seems to demand it) but I thought his plots less predictable and his characters more interesting. Moving further afield, I also found myself thinking about the novels of Charles Palliser and particularly his extraordinary novel The Quincunx in which he plays with the structure of the novel itself as a tool to reflect the events within the text. Palliser though is I think probably the best contemporary writer for the evocation of the Victorian world, and so is perhaps a harsh point of comparison.

Bizarrely Martin is not the only writer within the steam train related historical crime microgenre. Edward Marston, an author I haven’t read, also now has a series set this time in the 1850s again about steam train related crime. Clearly there is a market for these books, but given my lack of interest in the subject matter and the slightly formulaic feel to it all I don’t think I’m it.

All that said, if someone reads this blog entry who does have an interest in the period, who is happy to approach this not so much as a crime novel but as a fun potboiler with chance escapes and so on and who feels like a light excursion into the Edwardian world then they could do a lot worse. Martin evokes the period well, he uses slang in a way that is comprehensible but credible, he does spend a fair bit of time addressing the growing power of electricity and its implied threat to the steam age (in this sense the atmosphere is not at all Victorian) as well as of the rise of a newly self organising labour class, and these elements add interest. A fan of the period will find much to enjoy, and plainly many have, but while I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of reading more at some stage in the future at the present moment I have no particular plans to do so.

That said, in the unlikely event Martin wrote a novel set in this world but free of the strictures of adhering to the historical crime subgenre template, then I might well change my mind and would give that a fresh chance. I suspect, however, writing any such novel would result in Martin being deluged with letters from disapponted Jim Stringer fans and accordingly it’s probably for the best if he does no such thing.


Filed under Crime, Historical crime, Martin, Andrew