Book Review: Nine Lessons

Book Review: Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson

A churchyard in a village not too far from Cambridge in England has one too many bodies in its graves.  The victim, a respected organist, was entombed alive, and odd details about the scene make it clear that this was murder most foul.  Detective Chief Inspector Archie Penrose is called in from Scotland Yard to investigate.

Nine Lessons

One of the clues brings DCI Penrose to Cambridge itself, where the victim was a student at King’s College before World War One.  As it happens, Penrose’s good friend, mystery writer Josephine Tey is in town, house-sitting for her very good friend Marta.  The days are turning chill as Armistice Day approaches, but there’s something else that is bringing fear to the university town–a series of sexual assaults on young women.

This is the seventh in a series of mystery books starring a fictionalized version of author Josephine Tey.  For starters, in the books this is her actual name, rather than being a nom de plume  for Elizabeth MacKintosh (1896-1952).  The real author is perhaps best remembered for her 1951 novel, The Daughter of Time, in which a hospitalized police detective amuses himself by investigating the supposed murder by Richard III of his nephews.  But this story is set in approximately 1937, as it’s mentioned that Alfred Hitchcock is loosely adapting one of Tey’s books into a movie.

But Mr. Hitchcock is only mentioned; the primary literary influence here is M.R. James, once Dean of King’s College, and famous for his chilling ghost stories.  The murderer seems to be taking inspiration from those stories, and all the victims were once in the King’s College Choir (which sings the Nine Lessons and Carols from whence the title derives.)

The subtitle on the cover is “some wounds never heal”; Inspector Penrose and some of the other characters are still carrying the scars from the War, while others are dealing with more personal wounds.  Another theme of the book is kindness, given, withheld, found in unusual places and the devastating effects if kindness is taken away.

An important subplot is the romantic relationship between Inspector Penrose and his current (and former) lover Bridget.  She’s been keeping a large secret from him that Marta (and thus Josephine) have learned about.  Keeping this secret is a betrayal, but it’s not theirs to tell.

There’s a lot of glowing description of Cambridge’s architecture.  I’ve only been there one day many years ago, so cannot speak to the accuracy of the descriptions, but the author lives there so presumably knows what she’s talking about.  The author deliberately moved some 1970s events into the 1930s to fit them into this novel.

The murder mystery part of the book wraps up several chapters before the end, allowing the other plotlines to take the foreground.  The ending is bittersweet at best; criminals have been found and taken off the streets, but the wounds they caused remain.  (Content warning: rape, suicide.)

Some bits made me cry, but then I’m the sentimental sort.  Recommended to fans of historical mysteries.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through Goodreads Giveaways for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Here’s a video of the King’s College Choir and the Nine Lessons:

 

 

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name.  And some that were written under a pen name.  The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher.  The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in.  She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.

“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess.  It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut.  Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family.  However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.

Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other.  But in fact her ambitions are even higher.  And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal!  This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction.  On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited.  And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.

One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.”  At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank.  This worked out about as well as you’d think.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba.  Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman!  She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it.  They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel.  Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust.  Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.

Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when  Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.)   Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge.  But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type.  This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.

“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain.  Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives.  We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.

The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family.  He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.

Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot.  He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene.  Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.)  Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.

This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.

“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story.  The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide.  Love triangles abound as a result.  Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again.  He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes.  It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family.  Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?)  Who will die, and who will get married?

There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.

Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.

The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references.  While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.

Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.

 

Comic Book Review: Ghosts #1

Comic Book Review: Ghosts #1

ghosts

After the Comics Code  was revised in the 1970s, DC Comics had a small explosion of horror anthology titles.  One of these was “Ghosts”, which had the gimmick of being almost entirely allegedly true ghost stories.  Even as a teenager I realized that these “true” stories were bull, but it still managed to have some nice chillers, and it’s a great title for an anthology comic.

So to keep the trademark on that title, DC’s Vertigo imprint has come out with a “Ghosts” anthology just in time for the holiday season.  There’s nine stories, a mix of veteran comics creators and newcomers.

The story of greatest interest to me is ” The Boy and the Old Man” by Joe Kubert, the last story he wrote and penciled.  Because he died before he could ink it, DC decided to run the story with only the addition of legible lettering.  The story itself is fairly straightforward in the classic ghost tale style.  I enoyed it a lot.

Also good are most of the other stories by such folks as Rufus Dayglo, Amy Reeder and Gilbert Hernandez.  The stories that didn’t come off so well were “Bride” which just left me baffled as to the message it was trying to convey (it felt like it had been chopped down from a much longer but more meandering story); and “Run Ragged”, which features the Neil Gaiman-created Dead Boy Detectives, but is not by him, and is only the first chapter of a continuing story.

This book is “suggested for mature readers”: there’s some gruesome violence, partial nudity, sexual situations and four-letter words, but not in every story.  This would make a good holiday present for horror fans and the more grown-up comic book reader.

 

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