Category Archives: Historical

MICHAEL DIBDIN. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978).

The word “last” in the title is no mere marketing flourish; it’s an omen of genuine terminality. Something truly ends in this first novel by Dibdin, who later made a mark with his series about Italian police commissioner Aurelio Zen. At the least, what ends here is the aura of boyish innocence that lay draped like a warm, woolly Inverness cape across the imagined world of the original Holmes tales. LastSherlock.png The cozy structures of Victorian life, which had long kept evil within boundaries that the great detective could negotiate with masterly flair, are now crumbling underfoot. Inciting this affront to order are the exploits of Jack the Ripper: In the fall of 1888, an assailant slices a half-dozen prostitutes to death on the dank, narrow streets of Whitechapel, in east London. For Holmes, whose career was on the ascent at that very moment, the Ripper killings present the ultimate crime-fighting challenge. Add in the involvement of Professor Moriarty (this book’s title also plays on “The Final Problem,” the title of the adventure in which Holmes confronts that fabled nemesis), along with the motif of Holmes’s cocaine addiction, and Dibdin has the makings of a tour de force. Sherlockian purists might deem the novel to be a tour de farce, a pastiche that begins competently but then veers perversely from homage to horror. They would not be wrong. But others will appreciate Dibdin’s clever plotting, which recalls Ruth Rendell at her most ingenious and most psychologically acute. Non-purists might also see that this work is finally about Dr. Watson, who of course acts as narrator, and about the good doctor’s abiding affection for Holmes—the Holmes whom posterity knows, and whom Watson knew and loved.


Posted by on May 31, 2013 in British, Historical, Novel, Puzzle


ALAN FURST. The World at Night (1996).

Twice in the span of a few dozen pages, the author refers to Eric Ambler, a novelist who specialized in World War II–era tales of ordinary men thrust into extraodinary service as spies of one type or another—tales, in other words, much like this one. Along with his excellent use of primary research, Furst draws generously from secondary sources for inspiration. Other creative touchstones, in this saga of France during the 1940s, include the novels of Georges Simenon and the films of Jean Renoir. (Each man receives a glancing, telling mention from Furst). It’s a story of Gallic wartime intrigue for readers already steeped in the ways of French culture and in the plot lines of Ambler, of Graham Greene, of John le Carré.

WorldAtNight.jpgJean-Claude Casson, as Furst calls his Ambleresque hero, produces films that are successful enough to earn him a life of high-bourgeois ease in the fashionable 16th Arrondissement of Paris. With a world-weary smile, Casson accepts the round of comfortable compromise that appears to be his lot. But after May 1940, when the Nazi Occupation begins to settle upon his city, he discovers that there are compromises and then there are compromises. When a chance comes to perform an undercover operation in Spain, ostensibly on behalf of British Intelligence, he takes it. But the mission goes awry, information about it falls into German hands, and the Nazis use that information to pressure Casson into becoming a double agent. Alongside such misadventures, a romance takes hold between Casson and a tragically lonely actress named Citrine, who steps into the flickering candlelight of Furst’s imagination as if she were fresh from a story by Guy de Maupassant or a song by Édith Piaf.

Mystique is everything to Furst, and mystery matters very little. The question of who betrayed Casson to the Gestapo spurs no investigation and finds no answer; it’s met, instead, with a “C’est la guerre” shrug. What Furst cares about is the intersection of a certain place, a certain moment, and a certain kind of man. While he explores that territory with real panache (or is “élan” the right term?), he also carries his romanticism a bit too far. The finale, for example—meant to strike a chord that is astonishing yet inevitable—falls short on both counts. The destiny of Casson and the destiny of France have much in common, but they are not identical.


Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Historical, Noir, Novel


C.J. SANSOM. Dissolution (2003).

Life is cheap in the England of Henry VIII—there is widespread pestilence, there is religion-fueled mayhem, there is the unpleasant matter of Anne Boleyn, executed at the Tower in 1536—but even in that death-saturated land, it’s not every day that someone lops off the head of an emissary from the king. Nonetheless, at the Monastery of St. Donatas the Ascendant of Scarnsea, in the year 1537, a royal commissioner named Robin Singleton has found himself on the wrong side of a sword blade. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s imperiously competent and much-feared vicar general, had dispatched Singleton to Scarnsea to negotiate terms of surrender with Abbot Fabian, the leader of the monastery. That move was part of Cromwell’s grand scheme to dismantle the country’s great religious establishments; his aim, in undertaking this “dissolution,” was both to further the cause of anti-papist Reform and to claim the wealth of the monasteries for the crown and its allies. Dissolution.jpgDid one of the monks at St. Donatus decide to strike a personal blow for Counter-Reformation by murdering Singleton? To find out, Cromwell calls upon the investigative talents of Matthew Shardlake, a prosperous London lawyer and a loyal Reform man, who here appears in the first book of a series that follows his journey through the treacherous world where Tudor politics and sordid crime intermingle. Shardlake also happens to be a hunchback, and that condition arguably gives him a distinct angle of view on the rampant cruelty and suffering of his time.

Dissolution owes more than a little to the model of The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. Like that best-selling tome, which opened the way for countless medieval mysteries that have followed, Sansom’s novel offers a minutely observed look inside a cloistered realm that typifies its era in many respects but also stands apart as a world unto itself. In each case, the rivalries and resentments that inevitably arise within an (almost) all-male population—a population marked by an imperfect commitment to celibacy and a sometimes warped commitment to the Christian faith—serve up lots of raw material for intrigue, secrecy, and misunderstanding. Shardlake and his protégé, Mark Poer, also resemble Eco’s heroes, John of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, in seeming just modern enough to bridge the gap between the mind of the Middle Ages and the sensibility of readers today. Sansom even includes a throwaway reference to one of the main plot points in Eco’s opus. (Brother Gabriel, the monk in charge of the library at St. Donatus, takes a book from the library’s collection and says to Shardlake: “Reputedly a copy of Aristotle’s lost work On Comedy. A fake, of course, thirteenth-century Italian, but beautiful nonetheless.”)


But Sansom‘s work is a superbly crafted whodunit with special qualities of its own. In a departure from the standard pattern, Shardlake rather that Poer narrates these proceedings, and he comes across less as a “great detective” than as a Watson-like figure: His voice, like his personality, is smart and stolid, yet oddly ingenuous. His response to the events that he witnesses is earnest and occasionally naïve—an attitude that plays an integral part in the story that Sansom aims to tell. Shardlake isn’t just a creature of his time; he’s a man formed by his time. Unlike many period mysteries, this one doesn’t treat the past as a static backdrop. Instead, readers gain a visceral sense that the English Reformation was a fluid process whose ultimate meaning and impact were far from certain. For Shardlake, a deepening of insight into that historical moment comes in tandem with an epiphany that lets him solve the murder puzzle. “This new world was no Christian commonwealth; it never would be,” he notes.

It was in truth no better than the old, no less ruled by powers and vanity. … And then I realized that blinkered thinking of another sort had blinded me to the truth of what happened at Scarnsea. I had bound myself to a web of assumptions about how the world worked, but remove one of those and it was as though a mirror of clear glass were substituted for a distorting one. My jaw dropped open. I realized who had killed Singleton and why and, that step taken, all fell into place.

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Posted by on May 1, 2013 in British, Historical, Novel, Puzzle


THOMAS H. COOK. Places in the Dark (2000).

Cook specializes in exploring the spaces that exist within one particular kind of “dark”—the darkness of the human heart, a metaphysical region where desire and memory go into hiding, and where dangerous schemes of deliverance are born. Exactly what Dora March may be hiding from is the secret that hangs longest and most provocatively over this novel, an unapologetically gothic affair set in a Maine town called Port Alma during the Great Depression. PlacesDark.jpgComing seemingly out of nowhere and bringing little more than her cryptic beauty, Dora enters and eventually turns upside-down the lives of Cal and Billy Chase, scions of a prominent local family. The contest that Cook shrewdly limns between Cal, a gloomy soul of classical temper, and Billy, a true-blue romantic, provides a powerful narrative substructure. Sibling love and sibling rivalry drive the story, which opens in the aftermath of Billy’s violent death and starts with a quest by Cal (who serves as the tale’s first-person narrator) to find Dora, who fled town immediately after the murder. As usual in a novel of this type, the key to understanding the recent past lies in a more distant past, and Cook puts forth several possible keys that might unlock the mystery that is Dora March. Cook’s failure to make the most of those possibilities is the only flaw in an otherwise elegant plot. In the end, we discover where Dora came from, but not what compelled her to travel across a continent to the storm-battered, love-forsaken world of Port Alma.

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Posted by on April 5, 2013 in American, Historical, Noir, Novel


TOM BRADBY. The Master of Rain (2002).

This Chinese Wall of a novel, which rolls on for 509 pages before laying its last brick, yields something less than the sum of its many, many parts. And Richard Field—or, rather, Bradby’s overweening reliance on the character Richard Field—is to blame. Field, the disgraced son of a suicidal failure and now a Special Branch agent, has come to Shanghai in 1926 in order to find redemption, and Bradby keeps the reader at Field’s side for every step of that quest. We’re with Field as he surveys the luxury apartment where Lena Orlov lies dead, her lingerie-clad body rent with brutal stab wounds. We’re with him as he navigates the phalanx of banks, trading houses, and other institutions of Western power that line the Shanghai Bund. MasterRain.jpg We’re with him as he prowls the squalid streets where wizened old men pull rickshaws by the light of red paper lanterns. The scenery, at every turn, is compelling; it’s the company that starts to wear thin after a while.

Clinging to one man’s feverish point of view works well enough in a taut noir piece, and plainly Bradby is striving for a noir effect: Field’s partner in crime-solving, an American named Caprisi, never says, “Forget it, Dick. It’s Chinatown,” but you keeps expecting him to. Yet this bulky saga—a tale of imperial corruption and sexual predation, of arrogant English businessmen and desperate White Russian exiles, of stern Scottish policemen and cagy Chinese natives—cries out for the use of multiple perspectives. As viewed through Field’s angry, humorless gaze, scenes of potential richness and variety come off as drab, repetitive, and all too similar to scenes from other stories about dashing, alienated Brits in exotic foreign lands. (Influences on Bradby clearly include, along with the American tough-guy tradition, both the British high tradition of Conrad, Maugham, and Greene and the British low tradition of Sax Rohmer and Ian Fleming.) Among his other heroics, Field manages to rescue from seeming doom a tragic Russian beauty named Natasha. But he’s powerless to give life, all on his own, to a thriller of such epic magnitude as this one.

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Posted by on February 28, 2013 in British, Historical, Novel


UMBERTO ECO. The Name of the Rose (1980).

Eco, a renowned literary scholar, brings to this début work of fiction the sensibility of an unapologetic polymath. The result is a novel that brims over with the fruits of his wide-ranging research—and with signs of his brainy, manic ambition. It’s at once a faithful pastiche of the mystery genre and a bravura performance that gleefully transcends the boundaries of genre. NameRose.jpgThere is room here not only for seven violent deaths, all taking place at a secluded abbey located high in the North Italian mountains (the structure is ancient even in 1327, when this chronicle takes place), but also for a discourse on the social and political history of heretical sects, for a psychological and theological examination of the Inquisition, and for a survey of European high politics in a time of two popes and one Holy Roman Emperor, who (as the old witticism goes) was neither holy nor from Rome nor much of an emperor. Two figures stir this bubbling cauldron of ingredients into a coherent narrative. The first is a shadowy murderer who apparently takes his cue from the Book of Revelation. The second is a Franciscan Inquisitor whose forensic methods anticipate scientific criminal-investigation techniques by half a millennium. This proto-sleuth bears the none-too-subtle name William of Baskerville, and he’s accompanied by a Dominican novice whose own cognomen, Adso of Melk, carries a trace echo of the name Watson.

As Conan Doyle does in the Sherlock Holmes tales, Eco in The Name of the Rose turns the quest for knowledge into an engine of drama. Indeed, the question of knowledge (Is it a matter of reason, or of revelation?) lies at the very core of this opus. In the case of Adso, the knowledge that eludes and addles his mind is carnal, and he devotes much of his time at the abbey to exploring the mysteries of love and lust. But he also finds time to watch William’s quest unfold. (True to his Watsonian model, he narrates this adventure.) The man from Baskerville acts as a hound of truth—truth in its modern form as a quality that is lodged in nature and amenable to human scrutiny. Dead friars pile up at a rate of one per day before William at last finds the pivotal clue deep in the center of the abbey library, a maze-like structure that looms as a veritable labyrinth of turpitude. In the end, a resolutely medieval darkness hangs over the story. Even so, William’s feat of detection offers a narrow sliver of light and, perhaps, the promise of further enlightenment yet to come.


Posted by on January 17, 2013 in Historical, International, Novel, Puzzle


JAMES ELLROY. Clandestine (1982).

In a strong, clean prose style that occasionally borders on being overwrought, Ellroy constructs a fast-moving, complex private-avenger saga that falls just short of being overcooked. The author, in this second of the monumental L.A.-based crime novels on which his fame rests, is plainly forming the contours of a powerful private mythology, and yet his debt to the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald is equally evident.Clandestine.jpg A tough-sensitive hero-narrator who has an uneasy relationship with the forces of official order, and an all-too-easy way with women. A cast of female characters who are lonely, needy, and (ostensibly) doomed. A child of uncertain paternity whose safety and future hang in the balance. A Southern California landscape in which every sunlit vista ends in disillusionment and death. A story line whose trail of blood and tears leads back to a gothically imagined Midwest. Ellroy incorporates those classic elements into a tale set in the early 1950s—the very moment when Chandler and Macdonald were putting the finishing touches on a classic genre. Here, the memory of that golden era has congealed into a mix of nightmare and nostalgia, providing an apt, cartoon-like backdrop for melodramatic action. (Unlike the world of noir fiction, this world includes no shades of gray. That which is dark is solid black; everything else appears in the blinding primary hues of Fifties-era Technicolor.) For Ellroy, a connoisseur of hyperbole, it’s never enough to let well-enough alone. Like his hero, the once-and-future cop Fred Underhill, he is obsessed by “wonder,” by an apprehension of the beauty that lies hidden on the far side of life’s horrific extremes.

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Posted by on December 26, 2012 in American, Hard-Boiled, Historical, Novel