Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

Book Review: These Honored Dead

Book Review: These Honored Dead by Jonathan E. Putnam

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of writing this review.  This review is of an Advance Reader’s Edition, and there may be changes in the final product.

Joshua Speed is the junior partner at the Springfield, Illinois store of A.Y. Ellis & Co, and he has an empty space in his bed for a roommate in 1837.  As it happens, there’s a new lawyer in town who needs a place to stay.  He’s a tall drink of water, and rather an odd-looking sort of fellow, but there seems to be something special about young Abraham Lincoln.

These Honored Dead

Mr. Lincoln’s talents as an attorney are about to be put to the test, as a young woman from a neighboring village is shockingly murdered, and her aunt falls under suspicion.  Speed has his reasons for wanting to protect the older woman, and as more corpses appear, it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary murderer.   Can the team of Lincoln and Speed crack the case, and if they do, can they live with the truth?

This historical mystery is the first novel by Mr. Putnam, who is himself a trial lawyer and Lincoln enthusiast.   The narrative hints at further volumes in the series.  Not being an attorney myself, and certainly not versed in pre-Civil War Illinois law, I cannot speak to the accuracy of the depiction of that aspect.  Suffice it to say that some of the things various characters do would not be allowed in modern jurisprudence.  And Speed is forced to rethink some of his cultural assumptions when he realizes that the laws as they stand may prevent justice from being done.

Many of the characters are actual historical figures, at least one of whom is dramatically re-imagined for the sake of the plot.  Fortunately, they’re all dead so it’s unlikely the author will be sued. There’s a helpful set of historical notes at the end.

The writing is decent, and Speed is biased enough to forget an important clue that will allow astute readers to figure out the mystery before he does.  In the ARE, one section towards the end of the story is printed in a different, and much harder to read, font.

Slavery and the laws of Illinois concerning it are a plot point, as are abuse of the poor and abuse of the mentally ill.

Overall, this is a competent historical mystery, which should appeal to fans of such, and may be of interest to Abraham Lincoln buffs.

Book Review: Riot Most Uncouth

Book Review: Riot Most Uncouth by Daniel Friedman

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

When George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a lad, his father Mad Jack often told him tales of the vrykolakas, immortal beings who fed on the blood of the living.  Now he’s nominally a student of the university at Cambridge, where a young woman has been found murdered and drained of blood.  As both the world’s greatest living poet and England’s greatest expert on vampires, Byron feels that he is the best person to undertake an investigation.  After all, he must also be the world’s greatest criminal investigator!

Riot Most Uncouth

This new mystery novel is loosely based on real life poet and romantic figure Lord Byron (1788-1824).  It blends some actual things that happened (Byron really did have a bear as a pet to thumb  his nose at Cambridge’s “no dogs in student housing” rules) with a fictional murderer on the loose.

Byron makes a fun narrator; he’s vain, self-centered and often drunk enough to miss important details.  On the other hand, he’s fully aware that he is not a good person and is reasonably honest about his character flaws.  We learn the circumstances that shaped him, including his abusive father and being born with a deformed leg–but it’s clear that Byron could have made much better life choices at any time.  Some people may find him too obnoxious as a protagonist.

The neatest twist in the plot is that there are two private investigators that claim they were hired by the murdered girl’s father, who are not working together…and in a mid-book flash forward we learn that the father doesn’t know which of them he actually hired.

Bits of Lord Byron’s poetry are scattered throughout, and are the best writing  in the book.  A word about the cover:  the Photoshopping is really obvious and a bit off-putting.

As mentioned above, Byron’s father is emotionally and physically abusive, there’s a lot of drinking and other drugs, gruesome murders (the corpses are lovingly described), on-screen but not explicit sex  scenes, and some profanity.  Period racism, sexism (Lord Byron himself is especially dismissive of women) and ableism show up in the story and narration.  The ending may be unsatisfying for some readers–Lord Byron has odd standards of justice.

Recommended for Lord Byron fans, and historical mystery readers who don’t mind a protagonist who is more flaws than good points.

Book Review: Dark Waters

Book Review: Dark Waters by Robin Blake

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an Advance Reading Copy, and there may be minor changes in the final product.

Dark Waters by Robin Blake

It is the Year of Our Lord 1741 in the small but bustling English town of Preston.  Attorney and coroner Titus Cragg is shocked but not surprised to find his drunkard uncle-in-law has fallen into the river and drowned.  The coroner’s jury rules it an accidental death, and that seems to be an end of it.

But then a man falls dead under suspicious circumstances just before a hotly contested election is scheduled, and it just so happens that he shares strong political beliefs with the first to die.  Is there a political conspiracy afoot?  Mr. Cragg must unravel the riddle with the help of the young and scientifically inclined Dr. Luke Fidelis before there’s no more room to store the bodies.

This is the second historical mystery featuring the team of Cragg & Fidelis; I have not read the first.    There are author’s notes at the end concerning the politics and monetary system of the time, which enhance the value of the book. The characters are likable, and the plot moves well.

Trigger Warning:  period slut-shaming.

This is good of its kind, and I recommend it to historical mystery fans.

Note:  I have reviewed another book titled Dark Waters; there is no connection beyond the titles.

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