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.

Magazine Review: Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue

Magazine Review:  Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow

Conjunctions is a literary journal published twice a year by Bard College.  Each issue contains essays, short fiction, poetry and less classifiable writing on a given subject, with this issue being about death.  Literary journals tend to have a connotation of pretentiousness, and death is one of the primal subjects, so I approached this 2008 issue with a bit of trepidation.

Conjunctions 51

The issue starts strong with an essay entitled “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies” by Sallie Tisdale.  It’s a stomach-churning but very informative look at flies, Buddhism, and the Buddha nature of flies.  The ending piece is “Andalucia” by H.G. Carrillo, the story of a writer mourning his artist lover, who has died of AIDS.

In between, the most memorable pieces are Joyce Carol Oates’ “Dear Husband”, a chilling suicide note; and “St. Francis Preaches to the Birds” by David Ives, a not-quite-working comedic play about the saint’s encounter with vultures.  Several of the pieces caused me to shed a tear.  Sadly, as I cannot make head or tail of the appeal of modern poetry, I feel unable to comment on whether any of the poetry was good.   Two pieces are illustrated with photographs, the only visual art in the issue.

With forty pieces altogether, this is a thick volume that takes some grit to get through.  I understand that the Oates story is in one of her own anthologies, so if noir fiction is your thing, you might want to check that out.   The rest is a mixed bag; see if your library system has a copy of this or other issues so you can see if Conjunctions is something you want to subscribe to.

“I am merely departing”–Lucius Seneca.

TV Review: Michael Shayne

TV Review: Michael Shayne

Michael Shayne is a private detective who works out of Miami.  He was created in 1939 by Brett Halliday (pen name of David Dresser) for the novel Dividend On Death.  He went on to star in a long-running book series (the later ones produced under the Halliday house name by other authors), several movies,  a radio show, and the television series in 1960.

Michael Shayne

In the TV series, Mr. Shayne (Richard Denning) is a bit older (he’s a widower) but still in fine physical shape.  He has a close (but not too close) relationship with his secretary Lucy Hamilton (played in the episodes I have by Patricia Donohue.)  Unofficial assistants of Mr. Shayne are Tim Rourke (Jerry Paris), a newspaper reporter who exclusively covered Shayne, and Lucy’s college-aged brother Dick Hamilton (Gary Clarke) who was invented for the show.

Mr. Shayne’s contact on the police force  is Lieutenant Will Gentry, who usually backs Shayne all the way, but is quick to turn on him when things look bad.  (He’s an amalgam of the books’ Gentry, and a more hostile cop who showed up sometimes.

I watched three of the hour-long episodes.

“Shoot the Works” has Michael Shayne called into the case by one of Lucy’s friends, whose husband was found shot dead, but packed for a trip to France with two tickets.  Also, $100,000 in bonds is missing.  Was the murder due to the deceased cheating on his wife, or was it purely for monetary gain?  Dick gets to show off his talent with the bongos, not that anyone else in the cast is appreciative.   Content warning for spousal abuse.

“Murder and the Wanton Bride”  features a client who dies with no identification except a matchbook with an appointment with Michael Shayne–that neither Michael nor Lucy knows anything about!   The trail leads to a health spa, and Lucy must go undercover to help discover just what’s actually going on there.  It’s a tangled web, helped not at all by a conniving woman (Beverly Garland) who’s manipulating everyone around her.

“Murder in Wonderland” has an accountant murdered in a cigar store while telephoning Michael Shayne.  He works for the mob, and supposedly was carrying a coded list of illegal business contacts, but all that’s found in the man’s briefcase is a copy of Alice in Wonderland.   While the police try to figure out how the code is concealed, Lucy is kidnapped in an effort to force Mr. Shayne to steal the book for an unknown person.  The accountant’s daughter seems very bitter and hostile, does she have something to do with his death?  Or is an even younger girl the real key?

The hour format allows these episodes to actually have a little mystery in them, with twists and turns.  The cast is good, even if some of the attitudes are dated.  This is some fine television viewing for the private detective fan.

Book Review: Deathless

Book Review: Deathless  by Catherynne M. Valente

Marya Morevna is not like the other girls in Saint Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad.   She sees the husbands of her sisters while they are still birds.   But times are changing in Russia, now the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics.   The People have no time for magic, and Marya does not see the bird that becomes her husband.   A pity, for this husband is named Koschei, and now she is snared in his story.

Deathless

Koschei the Deathless is a famous figure in Russian folktales, the sorcerer who has cut out his own heart, his death, and hidden it so that no man or thing can kill him.  In tale after tale, he falls in love with a beautiful woman, but she is in love with Ivan the Fool, and they find Koschei’s heart, no matter how well guarded.  There are variations to the tale, but they all end the same way.

This version is written by the author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Boat of Her Own Making, and is set against the background of Russian history in the first half of the Twentieth Century.    The fairy tale creatures of Russian folklore have taken on new forms to match modern times.  Even Baba Yaga makes an appearance.

Marya is a complicated character.  Despite the rather disturbing courtship style of Koschei, Tsar of Life, she genuinely comes to love him, and helps him in his war with the Tsar of Death.  And yet she finds herself irresistibly drawn to her Ivan when he appears.  Marya wants to avoid the fate the story has for her, but makes decisions that drive her farther down that road.

Given that the non-graphic sex scenes dance on the line between rough sex and spousal abuse, I do not recommend this book below senior high level.  There’s also some very dubious consent that may trigger some readers.

For those who might be interested in Russian folklore, and fans of tragic romance.

Book Review: Burqas, Baseball and Apple Pie

Book Review: Burqas, Baseball and Apple Pie by Ranya Tabari Idliby

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

Burqas, Basevall, and Apple Pie

A fairly large percentage of the Goodreads giveaways I enter are for my favorite genres  or books by authors I have heard are good.  But I try to every so often pick a book a little outside my comfort zone.  You can’t widen your worldview if you don’t stretch your mind every so often.  And so this book.

Ranya Tabari Idliby is one of the three authors of The Faith Club, here speaking about her own examination of what it means to be both American and Muslim in the present day.  This is perhaps harder than it should be, as there is a vocal minority in the United States that believes that Muslims cannot be truly American, as their ancestors believed one could not be Catholic and truly American, or black and truly American.

She writes of her family history, how her father lived in America for many years and she chose to emigrate from Kuwait and become a naturalized citizen.  And how her children were born American citizens, but on the day her daughter started kindergarten, 9/11 happened, and America’s attitude towards Muslim people harshened overnight.

This shook the author into really examining her faith; she’d grown up Muslim because her parents were, and had to attend religion classes, but never really thought about what it meant.  How could her supposed co-religionists believe that killing hundreds of people in terror acts was at all supported by Islam?

Some subjects covered in this book include the diversity of Islam (there’s no Muslim Pope, despite the Saudi Arabians’ attempts at defining their version of Islam with its Seventh Century cultural values as the “one true Islam,”) the anti-woman doctrines of certain strains of Islam,  the meaning of fatwa,  conflict between being patriotic to America and wanting to support the athletic efforts of fellow Muslims, false pictures of American Muslims being propagated by media and interreligious  marriage.

If you have been wondering where the moderate and progressive Muslims are, here is one of them.  Quite a bit of what Ms. Idliby has to say is sensible and worth looking at.  One possible weakness of the book is that it is very of the “now” and is likely to become dated very quickly.

There are photos in the middle, but the ARE did not have an index or bibliography.

Recommended to people interested in current events and progressive Islam.

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