A Book Blog.

Category: historical novel

The Devil’s Hunt by P C Doherty

PC Doherty, according to the “blurb” on the book jacket, studied the reign of King Edward II for his doctorate and now he is putting what he learned to good use! The novel is one of an on-going series, set in medieval England, not far removed from Ellis Peters’ better known Cadfael series. Though it concerns a slightly different era; the 14th century rather than the 12th.  As with the Cadfael books, there is a civil war going on in the background, which gives the murders an interesting context.

Doherty’s detective is Sir Hugh Corbett, a minor Norman landowner and the former clerk of the King’s Secret Seal. While he would far rather stay at home to govern his people, watch his small daughter grow up and take care of his pregnant wife, the King commands him to solve some mysterious deaths in the academic world of Oxford University. There is also the matter of the “Bellman”, an anonymous dissident who writes treasonous letters and pins them on the church door. Oxford is a filthy, dangerous place to live in, where the students wear rags and carry daggers and the merchants carry swords. Sir Corbett faces peril on all sides as he clashes with a contingent of Welsh students keen to rake up past grievances, and he is threatened by the Bellman.

PC Doherty’s style is perhaps less rich in period detail than it could be; a cut-price Ellis Peters. Yet he can tell a good story. The one unconvincing note is the seemingly sudden conversion of Corbett’s bodyguard Ranulf from a swaggering bully-boy to a possible candidate for the priesthood. Perhaps the groundwork for this was laid in previous novels, but it seemed to come on rather suddenly and without reason, more than halfway through the story. It takes the attention away from the mail plot, which is perhaps the author’s intention. But it is not very convincing and the novel would have been just as good without the addition of this piece.

“The Devil’s Hunt” is not always as satisfying as some other detective fiction, and Ellis Peters is still the better medieval murder writer, but it is enjoyable. A page turner!

Presumption by Julia Barrett

Presumption is a sequel to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, written by Julia Braun Kessler and Gabrielle Donnelly as ‘Julia Barrett’. At the end of Miss Austen’s 17th century novel, Elizabeth Bennet married Fitzwilliam Darcy. It was obvious to Gentle Reader that married life was not going to be plain sailing for two such strong-willed characters, and so it runs out in this novel. “Presumption” is written in the same formal yet witty style as Miss Austen’s and it is to their credit that Kessler and Donnelly never allow 20th century attitudes or language to spoil the story. By contrast, Georgette Hayer’s enjoyable Regency novels are set in the same period, yet they could not have been written by anyone but a more modern author.

Presumption is a little disappointing however. The authors seem to have been unable to think of a story based around Elizabeth and Darcy. Instead the story revolves around Darcy’s younger sister Georgiana. In “Pride and Prejudice”, Georgiana is narrowly rescued from a disastrous elopement with a distant cousin, Whickham, and now there is more trouble for the Darcy family. Georgiana has vowed never to loose her head and her heart again. But one Captain Haywood begins to woo her with determination, armed with Lord Byron’s verses. Meanwhile, her brother’s architect, Leigh-Cooper, adds to her confusion.

In the original, pride and prejudice was owned in equal amounts by the haphazard Bennets and by the noble families of the county. In this version, the upper class residents presume that, having married beneath him, Darcy is doomed to a life of scandal and despair. Both novels use the uniquely British class system and all of Jane Austen’s sharply portrayed examples are included in the modern version. They haughty lady Catherine de Bourgh, the obsequious Mr Collins and Elizabeth’s hysterical mother are all so well drawn that it is easy to “see” them as they were in the old Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier film. The novel is an enchanting homage to Jane Austen’s wit and skill.

The American Boy by Andrew Taylor

I picked up this book thinking, oh, a Richard & Judy recommendation. It’s probably very good, but the fact that they recommended it is enough to turn me off. But I decided that that was a silly prejudice and bought the book anyway. And I’m glad I did!

The premise is, that it is 1819 and the 11-year-old Edgar Allen (Poe) has been taken to London by his foster parents. While his father conducts business, Edgar is sent to a boarding school for boys in Stoke Newington. While there, he makes friends with a boy, Charles Frant,  who closely resembles him in manner and features. This connection becomes a catalyst for a horrible crime and although young Edgar is not a major part of the proceedings, he is there in the background.

The story is told through the eyes of a teacher at the school, Thomas Shield, who is fascinated with Charles’ mother. He becomes part of the horror that strikes at the Frant family and also the unwitting detective who pieces the lies, secrets and betrayal together to solve the crime at the centre. There is lots of period detail, but it never overwhelms the story, which has plenty of twists and turns.  I really could not put this book down and I sat up until 3 o’clock in the morning to finish it. I just could not go to sleep until I had finished it!

Someone should make a movie of it, they really should. Especially with the fascination in the UK for TV series’ set in that time. (And it was funny to think that while Edgar Allen Poe was a schoolboy in England, my little cottage in Wales was being built!)

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