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.

 

Book Review: The Sculthorpe Murder

Book Review: The Sculthorpe Murder by Karen Charlton

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

The Sculthorpe Murder

The year is 1810, and Bow Street Runner Detective Stephen Lavender has been called from his native London to Northamptonshire.  It seems that an elderly man, William Sculthorpe, has been robbed and murdered.  The most likely suspects are a gang known as the Panthers, whom the local authorities have been unable to put their hands upon.  But when Lavender and his friend Horse Constable Ned Woods investigate at the request of a wealthy noblewoman, they find clues that suggest otherwise.  Most notably, the testimony of Sculthorpe’s son Billy who actually saw the murderers.  But he’s an unreliable witness who talks about “dark elves”, so has been mostly ignored.

This is the third Detective Lavender mystery, and I have not read the previous volumes.  According to the author’s notes, her main character is loosely based on the life and activities of a real Stephen Lavender, who was an officer of the Bow Street magistrates.  Likewise, this book’s case is based on one Mr. Lavender actually solved, though Ms. Charlton took liberties with even the bare bones account provided by historical records.

Billy Sculthorpe has Down syndrome (called “cretinism” in the story because Dr. Down hadn’t even been born yet, let alone started studying the condition.)   Lavender quickly realizes that despite his moderate mental disability, and a vivid imagination fed by spooky stories his recently deceased Mum had told him, Billy is a talented artist and has a good memory.  Billy’s testimony leads the detectives to discover clues about William Sculthorpe’s actual past and other possible motivations for his murder.

The sleepy village of Middleton and its surroundings turn out to have many dark secrets that get turned up by the murder investigation, multiplying the number of suspects.  There are even ties back to London, which allows Lavender’s love interest Magdalena and other city-bound characters to make an appearance.  Meanwhile, Constable Woods finds his own past catching up with him.

As often happens with historical mysteries, Stephen Lavender as the protagonist is perhaps just a little too enlightened for the times he’s living in, believing in religious tolerance and treating the women in his life with respect for their intelligence and opinions.  Woods is a bit more believable as a person of the early Nineteenth Century, but not so much so as to make him unsympathetic.

I found the solution to the mystery satisfying; genre-savvy readers will spot one of the murderers very early on, and clues as to how it was done are abundant.  Much of the last part of the book is Detective Lavender negotiating just how  many of the crimes he’s uncovered must come to light, and which must face justice of a more subtle sort.

Possible trigger issues:  There’s some discussion of spousal abuse and animal abuse in the backstory, including the fact that it was even more difficult to get out of an abusive marriage in the Eighteenth Century than it is today.  There are some slurs hurled by less sympathetic characters towards Billy because of his condition, a bit of slut-shaming, and anti-Catholic slurs.

Recommended to fans of the historical mystery sub-genre.

Book Review: Second Street Station

Book Review: Second Street Station by Lawrence H. Levy

The “historical mystery” sub-genre is the intersection of the mystery and historical fiction genres.   Pick a time period in the past (there’s no minimum gap requirement, but it’s best to pick one far enough back that everyone involved is conveniently dead), research it, stir some real life people and events into a fictional murder, and voila!  Many such have become well-loved mystery series.

Second Street Station

This particular volume is set in Brooklyn (still a separate city from New York at the time) in the 1880s.  The combination of a  high-profile murder case and political pressure from women’s groups results in Chief Campbell of the Second Street Station police to hire Mary Handley as Brooklyn’s first female police detective.  As Mary investigates the Goodrich murder, she must battle not only sexism, but the power of wealthy men who have dark secrets, and an unsuspected enemy from her past.

This story is very loosely based on a real life murder case, so don’t Google ‘Mary Handley” if you’re going to read this book, as it will reveal a huge spoiler.  However, a lot of extra plot has been added around those bare bones to make this a novel.   It is kind of fun to watch Mary being all competent and smart-mouthed (the author’s background in sitcom writing shows in her ready witticisms).

Mary Handley has very 21st Century attitudes, while the “bad guys” have more period-appropriate 19th Century prejudices.  This sometimes makes it feel like the writer is trying to appeal to modern readers more than trying to present an authentic feel to the story.  One glaring example is that Mary just happens to befriend a Chinese immigrant family whose father just happens to be a jujitsu master and teach Mary his skills.    Why a Chinese immigrant is a master of the traditionally Japanese art of jujitsu is never explained.

Remember what I said about the real-life people being conveniently dead?  This is important as Thomas Edison gets a “historical villain upgrade”, being even more vile (probably) than he was in actual history.   That’d be a clear case for libel if he were still around.  Oddly enough, one of the plot elements here reminded me of the Milestone Comics title Hardware; those familiar with that series will spot it too.

A lot of space is devoted to cocaine, still legal at that point, as Mary interacts with the Pembertons, inventors of Coca-Cola.

There is also a character referred to as “Bowler Hat” after his favorite headgear.  He is important to Mary’s life in several ways, mostly negative, though it’s clear from early on that he’s not involved in the murder she’s investigating.

In addition to the expected violence and some consensual sex, there is a gratuitous rape scene.  I was not pleased.  Mary’s also a bit of a potty-mouth.

All in all, the story is fanciful and readers should not think about it too hard lest it fall apart at the seams.  It’s diverting, but flawed.

Disclaimer:  I received this book from Blogging for Books on the premise that I would read and review it.  No other compensation is involved.

Book Review: Flying Colours

Book Review: Flying Colours by C.S. Forester

This is the third book in the Horatio Hornblower series as they were originally written, but the eighth in internal chronology.   For those of you who somehow have not heard of these books or their media adaptations before, Hornblower is an officer in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars period, rising from midshipman to admiral over the course of many years.

Flying Colours

Flying Colours is a bit of a departure from the usual for the series, as Captain Hornblower isn’t at sea for most of it.  At the end of the previous novel, Ship of the Line, he was forced to surrender to the perfidious French, and can only watch from a distance as the British Navy finishes off the French ships he had wounded.  Things are going poorly for Napoleon at the moment, and a propaganda victory would be nice.  Thus Hornblower, his crippled first lieutenant Bush, and coxswain Brown are to be transported to Paris for a show trial and execution.  (Hornblower had flown false colours at one point, which he considers a legitimate gambit, but it is treated as a war crime by the French.)

Halfway through the journey, the coach gets stuck during a blizzard, and Hornblower comes up with an escape plan.  The immediate plan succeeds, but our heroes are still deep in enemy territory, and it is many miles to the sea.  Now three unarmed men, one missing a leg, in the middle of winter, must somehow elude capture and reach the coast.

Hornblower is a layered character.  Skilled at seamanship, naval tactics and exciting the loyalty of his crews, Horatio is also crippled by self-doubt and a perceived need to prevent anyone from realizing just how “weak” he really is.  This means that  he has trouble making friends, particularly influential ones, and easily makes enemies.  He’s also careful not to let it be generally known that  he’s a “freethinker” which puts him at odds with more religiously-minded fellow officers.

More problematically, Hornblower is very class-conscious due to his humble beginnings, and this causes him to be rather classist at inopportune times.  And his relationships with women are difficult.  During this novel, he’s married to one woman who’s expecting his child, in love with the Admiral’s wife and has an affair with a third woman.  Horatio knows full well that his behavior is inexcusable, and this fuels his self-doubt even more, but doesn’t stop him from having adulterous (as far as he knows) sex.     At the end of the book, he reflects that if it were a romance novel, his gaining everything he thought he wanted would be a happy ending, but it has all turned to ashes in his mouth.

Once our heroes reach the sea again, there’s a small-scale but exciting battle–C.S. Forester is considered one of the best at describing these.

Overall, very well written and it’s no wonder that this is a much-beloved series.  Recommended to those who love tales of the sea and Napoleonic Wars buffs.

Book Review: The Black Spider

Book Review: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf

It is a beautiful day in rural Switzerland, sunny and warm–a good day for a christening.  As the guests digest the first part of the feast, one of them notices an anomalous piece of wood built into one of the window frames.  The infant’s grandfather tells the tale of a cruel feudal lord, a bold woman, the devil…and a black spider.

This tale of terror was written in 1842 by Swiss pastor Albert Bitzius, who wrote under the name of Jeremias Gotthelf.   This is a new translation by Susan Bernofsky.

The Black Spider

As is common with stories of the time, The Black Spider takes its own sweet time to get started.  It begins with a long description of a farm family  and their neighbors getting ready for the christening and the subsequent party; if nothing else, it’s a window into the customs of rural Switzerland in the Nineteenth Century.  Eventually a chance remark leads into the main action of the story.

It seems that this valley was once under the control of the Teutonic Knights, and the master of the castle makes unreasonable demands of the peasants.  At last he asks the impossible, and the farmers despair.  A mysterious stranger offers to help them out, and it sounds too good to be true.  This dark-skinned and red-haired stranger is of course the Devil, and he’ll help them out in exchange for one unbaptized child.  They cavil, and it is the bold wife of one who finally agrees, the deal sealed with a kiss on her cheek.

The Devil is as good as his word, helping move a forest from one mountain to another.  But this is a horror story, and a deal with the Devil never ends well.  Soon a child is about to be born, and the black hickey on Christine’s cheek begins to grow and sprout “legs” like a spider, reminding her to give the Devil his due.  Naturally, the villagers decide that they don’t want to give a baby to the Prince of Darkness

Christine is thwarted once and again, and the black spider appears for the first time, bringing disaster to the valley.  Now Christine’s own sister-in-law is fast approaching her travail, and this time the villagers are convinced it might be a good idea to give over.  The ensuing events release the full power of the black spider.

The monster is finally sealed by the self-sacrifice of a pious woman, but the story isn’t over yet.   An impious jerk releases the black spider once more, and the valley is nearly depopulated before it is put back into the wood.  Now only the piety and faith in God of the farm family keeps the creature confined.

The horror of the tale is enhanced by the framing; a sunny day of happiness and feasting, and the grandfather’s matter of fact telling.  (There are a couple of spots where he’s clearly embellishing, however–he describes more than one scene where there were no survivors to give details.)

There are a few things that might not sit well with modern  readers; Christine is essentially punished for having more gumption than was proper for a woman.  There’s a certain amount of classism; servants must be firmly controlled.  And while God’s power is effective against the black spider, it’s really noticeable that no Heavenly intervention comes to help the peasants against their overlord–it only steps in to directly thwart the powers of Hell.

Recommended to horror fans who don’t mind a leisurely pace and strong religious themes.

 

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