Scoundrels

By Majors Cornwall and Trevelyan, ed. by Duncan Crowe and James Peak.

Scoundrels is a collection of episodic tales about the exploits of Majors Cornwall and Trevelyan, who are members of the Scoundrels Club, which is a cross between a gentlemen’s club and some sort of covert operations agency established by Charles I.

The book is framed by letters between the two protagonists as they introduce different parts of their shared histories and then complain about how each has portrayed the other. If the book has any common themes, they are the cartoon violence that pervades each episode, and the frequent grossness of the action.

Some of this is highly amusing stuff such as Adolf Hitler, Eva Braun, and the Klung Hammer, but a lot of the takes are all derring-do and comparatively little humour. There’s also a lot of casual cruelty.

To be honest, this sort of thing will probably mostly appeal to schoolboys of all ages (e.g. Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg [Are you sure these two are a recommendation? –ed.]). It won’t appeal to people who are apt to foam at the mouth at the slightest provocation (e.g. millennial snowflakes and Guardian columnists).

Overall, I’m inclining to silly OTT romp, but if schoolboy ~ student humour isn’t really your thing, this would be a mistake.

 

The Book of Hidden Things

By Francesco Dmitry.

Four friends, Fabio, Tony, Mauro and Art, have a Pact. On the same day each year, regardless of all other circumstances, they’ll meet in an American pizza restaurant in their hometown of Casalfranco in southern Italy. The Pact is beginning to fray. The previous year, Fabio didn’t turn up, but this year, Art has gone missing – again.

Many years before, when they had gone stargazing as boys, Art went into an adjacent olive grove and wasn’t seen again for another week. When he returned, he was clearly lying about what had happened to him, but also he was different.

Tony, Fabio and Mauro start making enquiries as they try to uncover Art’s fate. This inevitably leads them to the Sacra Corona Unita, the local gangsters, with whom Art had a connection. He once did a massive favour for the leader of the Corona in return for which he’s been allowed to do a little dope peddling, but they are not behind his disappearance.

Just when it seems that Art is probably dead, he reappears. As his friends suspected, this disappearance and the first one are connected. Art claims to have been taken to the world of Hidden Things, and having experienced this once, he has been eager to return to this paradisiacal place, but the only way to access it is to do something extreme such as torturing and sacrificing an animal. He wants to open the gate to the Otherworld again and take his friends with him, but the window of opportunity is closing fast.

When their first attempt to cross over fails, Art runs off, and when Mauro gets home, he finds that his younger daughter, Rebecca, has been abducted. Mauro’s wife, Anna, demands the Corona be called in so that when the men return to the grove, Michele (the Dance Master; the Corona have a profane sword dance to invoke San Marco) is there. He shoots Fabio in the knee, but Tony shoots even with a gun his sister, Elena, supplied even though she said it wasn’t loaded.

The only way out of this is for Art to offer to work for the head of the Corona, and everything is then hushed up. A year later, they meet as usual, but Art is absent, busy being Merlin at the court of the Corona.

Casalfranco is a backwater where people are born and then leave – if they can. But for the four friends, it’s not been all fame and fortune. Fabio is a struggling fashion photographer in London; Mauro is a lawyer in Milan, but not particularly happy; Tony discovers that it’s not his brother-in-law, Rocco, who’s the gangster in the family, but his sister; and the mercurial Art, who is a Renaissance Man, who could’ve achieved so much, is mentally unstable.

The Hidden Things are not just Art’s imaginary world, but also the world around them. Elena’s membership of the Corona is one; Fabio’s relationship with Mauro’s wife is another; Mauro’s unhappiness with life is a third. Casalfranco is a Hidden Thing even in the burning clear light of the south of Italy. By the end of the book, it seems that Art’s Otherworld is probably a delusion, but how he managed to cure the daughter of the boss of the Corona of cancer remains a mystery; and just to twist things further, at the end of the book Fabio walks into the restaurant without the aid of a walkingstick and attributes his mobility to Art. There’s another Hidden Thing – Art’s miraculous healing powers.

Dmitry uses the main characters as narrators of the action. Art’s voice come through his Book of Hidden Things, but the others tell different parts of the story, which sometimes makes it difficult to recall who’s saying what to whom.

Overall, I did enjoy The Book of Hidden Things in which Dmitry clever­ly uses the metaphor of hidden things to reveal what is concealed in and from the lives of the protagonists.

 

The Silent Companions

By Laura Purcell.

Elsie Bainbridge, who has been newly married, newly pregnant, and newly widowed, finds herself in an asylum, suffering from PTSD. Dr Shepherd is trying to get her to tell her story, which begins when she went to the Bridge, her husband’s family estate, because of the death of her husband.

There’s something odd about the house such as the garret door which is perpetually locked until Elsie, and her sister-in-law, Sarah, manage to get inside, where Sarah finds two volumes of diaries written by her ancestor, Anne Bainbridge, over 200 years earlier in the 1630s.

Having had two boys, but wanting a girl, Anne resorted to some magic to get pregnant again, but the daughter, Henrietta Maria “Hetta”, was born with most of her tongue missing. She has a certain way with herbs, and takes quite readily to a set of companions bought from a mysterious shop which suddenly appears in the local village of Torbury St Jude.

In Elsie’s time, the silent companions exude a certain malevolence, leaving behind trails of sawdust and splinters in their wake. Elsie loses her baby, various servants end up dead, and even burning the companions, or locking them away doesn’t get rid of them. The only answer appears to be to retrieve the second volume of Anne Bainbridge’s diary.

After a visit by King Charles and his wife, which ended in disaster when the queen’s horse was mutilated, Anne realises that Hetta is evil and kills her, but her blood seeps into the companions, animating them after her death.

Back in the 19th century, Dr Shepherd believes Elsie’s story, but the only problem is that she has no witnesses, and initially, no trace of Sarah can be found till she turns up at the hospital. Just when Elsie thinks her story can be proved, she realises that Hetta has finally found a new host.

On the one hand, this is a very creepy tale of evil wooden figures, fuelled by a homicidal child, roaming around a country estate. It’s certainly effectively done. On the other hand, Elsie and Anne are little more than the same character, with a tendency to be huffy, critical and overly sensitive of others. It’s only later in the book when they aren’t given the chance to be any of these things that they become less annoying.

The book does feel a little clichéd, though, as if Purcell had a film in mind (either as a source or as a destination for her writing). For example, there’s the old trope of the injured main character or the minor characters being mown down with gay abandon or the strangled hope at the end (cf. the ending of Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

Purcell also has that tendency among amateurs to describe words in the least appropriate impressionistic terms. She throws the word “guttural” around a couple of times, without using it appropriately on either occasion. There are also other occasions when she seems to have got a thesaurus for Christmas and indulges in a feast of synonyms, which doesn’t really achieve anything.

While the author can have a chocolate digestive for the horror element of her tale, it’s dry crackers for the rest.

 

Lies Sleeping

By Ben Aaronovitch.

Peter Grant rides again in another tale of police procedural derring-do.

Martin Chorley is planning something big, although it’s never really clear what he hopes to achieve. But basically, his idea is to sacrifice Mr Punch, and there’s a bell involved. For Mr Punch, there is a happy ending when he’s reunited with his daughter.

Lesley May pops up from time to time, but apart from wanting revenge on Mr Punch for ruining her face, her other motivations are never explicitly outlined. She continues to run rings around Grant every time they have an encounter, and even when Chorley has been defeated, she solves the problem he poses for Grant and Nightingale before vanishing once again.

I smell another sequel.

I’m sure I missed a lot of the details, but it did get to a point where I’d lost interest in what was happening. Perhaps, to put it another way, it was a matter of subconsciously wondering when the next noteworthy incident was going to happen. I know, for example, Mr Punch was reunited with his daughter, but I can’t recall how he bowed out and don’t really care that much, and on several occasions, there was some blink-and-you-miss-it event which would only become apparent later on. A 2½-to-3 star (partial) end to the series.

Anyway, that’s the end of Martin Chorley.

 

The Watchers

By Steven Alford.

The Watchers is about the activities of spies and agents during the reign of Elizabeth I when the more fanatical English Catholics sought ways to remove her from the throne so that a more amenable regime might be installed.

Initially, Francis Walsingham and Lord Burghley (William Cecil) ran the equivalent of MI5 and MI6, sending agents to Europe to infiltrate Catholic groups and intercepting Catholics, especially the Jesuits, en­te­r­ing England. After Walsingham’s death, Burghley and his son, Ro­b­ert, took over, but had to deal with the Earl of Essex’s own efforts at intelligence gathering, which meant that the care and attention of the previous era was sacrificed on the altar of quick results.

The English College in Rome seemed to be rather easy to penetrate, and yet in spite of the success of Protestant agents on this front, the story is that they would return to England to betray men who had become their friends. Presumably their fanaticism insulated them from any feelings of regret, and Anthony Munday even ended up being a popular author on the back of his efforts.

These results typically led to the torturing and butchering of one group of religious fanatics by another. But the martyrs seemed, in some cases, to be oddly naive. William Parry seemed to like playing the part of a secret agent, but was also a parasite who got himself tangled up in the world of espionage to his detriment. Quite a few agents, who seemed to think they had Burghley’s protection ended up being convicted in spite of this. Were they trying to play Burghley or did they really believe that they were doing him a favour?

A possibly interesting sequel to this book might be one on how English agents fared on the Continent. Were they successful like Munday and Sledd, or like so many of the Jesuits who sneaked into England, did such spies get caught all too easily and end up being another statistic in the grim catalogue of human rights abuses of a cruel and brutal age?

 

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

By Stuart Turton.

Aidan Bishop wakes up in the body of Sebastian Bell, and jumps from one host to another as he tries to discover the mystery behind the death of Evelyn Hardcastle. Each host has some skill that Bishop can put to use in analysing Hardcastle’s death. If he can work it out, he can leave Blackheath – but only the person who solves the mystery can leave. Bishop promises to help Anna escape as well even though the Plague Doctor who often guides and advises him keeps reminding him that only one person can depart.

As Bishop moves from one host to another, he has to contend with the mysterious footman who tries to kill his hosts.

Eventually, Bishop learns that Blackheath is a prison for the worst of the worst (which is why several of his hosts are rather unpleasant) and that he turned up there voluntarily not to rescue Anna at all but take revenge on his sister’s killer. With a certain amount of sleight-of-hand, he manages to get Anna released as well by solving a different mystery.

This is like a novel-length episode of the overrated Black Mirror. In theory, this is an interesting idea (like Black Mirror), but not well executed (like Black Mirror). The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle ends up rambling well past it’s solve-by date, and when the eponymous mystery is solved, the reader is justified in feeling that they’re done with the book. The rest is an epilogue of no consequence.

The shift in Bishop’s motivation from punishment to rescue might’ve been a little better if there had been some way of having his attitude towards Anna shift while considering the purpose of incarceration, whether it has a positive effect on criminals, and whether the system in the book is any more effective than conventional methods of punishment. (In fact, it seems to be a potential abuse of human rights.)

I’ve also had enough of 1st-person narratives. I can tolerate these once in a while, but I seem to have been reading too many of them of late; and while I don’t think the main character is simply to be read as the author, I have a certain preference for more traditional modes of storytelling.

Full Dark House

By Christopher Fowler.

When elderly detective Arthur Bryant is killed, his partner of 60 years, John May finds that the case is connected to their first case together back in the early 1940s (during the Blitz) when the Peculiar Crimes Unit investigated a series of murders at the Palace Theatre.

After a lot of descriptions of the dark recesses of theatres, our intrepid heroes solve the crimes both ancient and modern.

The End.

The story alternates between Bryant and May in the past trying to find out who’s been knocking off thesps, with May trying to solve his partner’s murder in the present.

Although Bryant likes to get second opinions from spiritualists, Fowler, like Ann Radcliffe, has no truck with that supernatural nonsense, the killer being a rather unfortunate specimen of humanity.

Ultimately, a rather shrug-worthy caper. There are other books in the series to which I might return after I finish reading a wholly different book.

Keeping tech up

DIY laptop feet.

A few weeks ago I happened to bump into a video on YouTube about how to make a DIY speaker stand. My own solution in this case was to put my speakers on boxed sets of DVDs to raise them to approximately ear height.

The idea that you might spend large amounts of money on pointy footed speaker stands to dampen vibration strikes me as ridiculous unless the speakers come without feet of any sort. No doubt if the listener prefers loud, thumpy music, vibration might be an issue, but I’m not so vulgar since the music I listen to is polite and refined.

I have to wonder about ifi’s racking system. As much as I like my ifi gear, an anti-vibration rack for its kit is ridiculous. It’s all electronic. However, if you go so far as to buy it as a system, a rack would be handy to reduce the amount of horizontal space that’d be required for it.

Anyway, I’m straying, but like conversations, one topic can lead to another.

Last weekend when I went to Livat, I went into IKEA in search of some means of elevating the old Acer 5755 laptop. It gets so hot at times that if I have it resting flat on a surface, it overheats and dies. Thus for the past few years, I’ve been propping it up at the front with an old tin of Golden Throat lozenges (a well-known brand here in China) at home, and a pack of cards at school so that the sir can circulate underneath it. I have little faith in laptop coolers (I do have one around here somewhere) and don’t use the 5755 so much that it might need cool air blasting away on it. My question was whether I might find some item in IKEA that I could adapt for my purpose.

I found the answer in the bathroom fittings section. The Skoghall hook is short (about 35mm) and T-shaped with a broad base. It was ideal, but because the thing is chromed, it’s slippery. I went to WalMart and found some rubber feet, 2cm in diameter. They’re slightly broader than the tip of the hook, but that’s not a bad thing.

The laptop sits firmly on top of these feet and is directly usable with a slight amount of awkwardness because the chassis now sits flat instead of being angled. Of course, because I normally use an external keyboard, this is mostly neither here nor there.

Anyway, I’m rather pleased with this simple instance of ingenuity which resolves to some extent a long-standing problem.

Two book reviews

The Angel’s Mark by S.W. Perry.

When Dr Nicholas Shelby attends a public dissection of a baby with deformed legs, he notes that the child seems to have been killed in some Satanic ritual because of a cut in the shape of an inverted cross on the child’s leg. The establishment doesn’t want to know and doesn’t care.

Shelby’s wife is pregnant, but dies giving birth along with the child, and he goes off on a prolonged self-destructive bender, eventually washing up in Southwark where he’s taken in by Bianca Merton, the half-English, half-Italian proprietor of the Jackdaw inn, and local herbalist.

When more bodies wash up with the same cut on them, Shelby and Merton realise that there’s a killer on the loose. He needs to do some research and approaches Lord Lumley, who has a well-stocked library. This brings Shelby to the attention of Robert Burghley, who wants him to spy on Lumley in the hope that his lordship isn’t just a Catholic, but a Catholic conspirator plotting to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. It was a nice idea, but Shelby is a terrible spy and is soon unmasked. He also reveals the whole story about the murders to Lumley and, by chance, discovers the murderer among the man’s entourage.

With some sleight-of-hand, the villain is caught and is tortured into admitting that he’s a Jesuit, thus allowing Lumley to look like a sound chap and thwarting Burghley’s devious plot.

Shelby is a 17th-century Guardian reader, surrounded by the sylphs of virtue signalling as he tries to uncover the mass murderer who’s been butchering society’s less fortunate members in order to find a cure for haemophilia. He’s rather like Hildegard of Meaux in that as the main character, he believes it to be his duty to solve the case even though no one asked him to. The Guild of Grocers is trying to prevent Merton from peddling her cures, and there are pointed references to women becoming doctors and surgeons in good 21st-century style.

I found the use of the historic present a little irritating.

The Angel’s Mark is well enough written, but otherwise fairly standard fare in this genre.

Widdershins by Helen Steadman.

After John Sharpe is brutally physically abused for causing his mother’s death when he was born, he’d tended by the local wise woman, Dora Shaw, until his Uncle James, a fanatical vicar, takes the boy under his wing. Sharpe grows up and marries, but has to rape his wife to get her pregnant, and then blames Dora Shaw and Kirstie Slater for her death and that of their child, causing them to be tried as witches and executed. Sharpe becomes a witch hunter, developing such a reputation that he’s invited to Newcastle to track down and dispose of witches in the town.

Annie Chandler is a midwife, doing nothing more than brew up traditional medicines and help women give birth. Her daughter, Jane, falls for Tom Verger, who’s press ganged into the navy and who then drowns. Jane, who is pregnant, is sent off to a House of Correction, being rescued by Verger’s best friend, Andrew Driver, by marrying him. She survives her own pregnancy and helps her mum take some medicine to Newcastle to exchange for various exotic potions.

They pair of them fall into the hands of John Sharpe, who convicts 17 people (mostly women) of witchcraft. Annie Chandler sacrifices herself to save Jane, who’s only saved herself because Sharpe is exposed as a fraud.

The story is largely alternating, unconnected chapters, eventually culminating in the witch trial in Newcastle. While this is a possible means of constructing a narrative, for some time I wondered where it was all going until it became clear that the Chandlers were going to walk into Newcastle at the worst possible moment, but that wasn’t till quite late in the book. It might’ve been better if the two halves of the narrative had been cleverly interwoven in some way.

Regardless of which part of the story was being told, there was a constant bleakness. Sharpe’s story was one of brutal misogyny (to the point that I seriously wanted to smack him one), but even the Chandlers couldn’t open their front door without some tragedy striking them. It got to the point where Steadman was being profligate with her character’s lives in a way that makes George R.R. Martin look positively caring.

If you enjoy novels involving depressingly extensive human rights abuse, this is the book for you; otherwise, you might want to try something different.

Tombland

By C.J. Sansom.

John Boleyn, a somewhat distant relative of the Lady Elizabeth’s, has been accused of murdering his wife, Edith, by bashing her brains in before sticking her headfirst in some boundary stream with her legs apart. As luck would have it, the woman had been to see the Lady Elizabeth not long before her death.

As a consequence, Matthew Shardlake is dispatched to Nor­wich, accompanied by Nicholas Overton and Toby Lockswood (who has local knowledge), where Boleyn is to be tried. As chance would have it, all the old gang are in Norwich, too, including Jack Barak whose wife, Tamasin, has forbidden him from speaking with Shardlake. Of course, Jack’s too vital an ally for the lawyer not to rope him into his investigation.

The solution to the murder seems to be intractable. For one thing, Edith Boleyn vanished nine years previously, and as a consequence, Boleyn married his mistress, Isabella. Certain local landowners certainly want to see Boleyn dead so that they can acquire his lands to enclose them to graze sheep. His twin sons, Gerald and Barnabas, are certainly vicious psychopaths, and their grandfather, Gawen Reynolds, is a vile, misogynistic sex pest.

Boleyn is tried and convicted by a deeply biased jury, forcing Shardlake to play the pardon which the Lady Elizabeth gave him (along with various injunctions about keeping her name out of the business). Such an application should save Boleyn from being executed, but the instructions to that effect “go missing”, and it’s only through our bent-backed lawyer’s direct intervention that the man survives being hanged.

The investigation into Edith’s murder makes no progress and is derailed for several hundred pages by the Kett rebellion. England has been in a state of uproar with landowners kicking tenants off their land and enclosing it so that they can raise sheep. Because of this, there have been rebellions across the country. Meanwhile, the Protector, the Duke of Somerset, has been conducting a disastrous war in Scotland and generally appeasing the rebels.

When Shardlake leaves Norwich for a time, he gets caught up in the Kett rebellion. Lockswood becomes a high-ranking member of Kett’s entourage, but is not above spreading rumours about Shardlake and Overton (as members of the gentleman class). For a time, Shardlake assists the Ketts with legal matters to ensure their propriety.

In the first battle against the establishment, the rebels are victorious. It is with the approach of the second battle that Shardlake realises who the murderer is, and the murderer realising that Shardlake has guessed, captures him and Overton to use them as part of a human shield of gentlemen. The boys escape and manage to return to Norwich, where they convince they Earl of Warwick that they were only obeying orders.

They then go and confront the other killer, who gets what’s coming to him. Afterwards, Shardlake goes to Hatfield where the teen termagant, Elizabeth, has a hissy fit, throws an ink pot at him, and dismisses him from her service (although Parry assures him that he’ll be serving the girl again soon enough).

Shardlake returns to London where he’s reconciled with Barak’s wife, but has left behind many brave men, women and boys who died fighting for a better life.

I was about 20% or so into the book and wondering why I seemed to have been reading for quite sometime and yet making comparatively glacial progress. Tombland is 880 pages long. Once Shard­lake gets involved in the Kett rebellion, he has little opportunity to investigate the case against John Boleyn and the main plot fades from view, becoming little more than a separate book. When Shard­lake does finally realise the truth, the big revelation is a rather bloodless thing, lacking the drama of “The murderer is someone in this room”.

In a similar vein, the confrontation with the killer’s sidekick is resolved by a third party who also, conveniently, disposes of himself, but by the time the entire affair has been resolved, it’s as if Sansom had run out of steam.

As for the resolution of various problems, I feel that a lot of it was contrived; or cleverly plotted, if you like. At one stage, I was beginning to suspect that Sansom was going to kill Shardlake off, but then he found a way for him to return to the establishment in spite of his clear sympathies for the rebel cause.

Tombland is really two books – Shardlake investigates: The Case of the Inverted Wife and Matthew Shardlake and the Rebels of Mousehold. The latter seems to be an indulgence which contributes little or nothing to what is supposedly the main plot of the book and tends to bury it to the point that any revelations about Edith Boleyn’s killers are met with a mostly indifferent shrug.

Appendix

It’s difficult not to read Tombland as Tom Bland and then expect a picaresque novel about some ne’er-do-well, who’s a decent bloke at heart, but some what undisciplined. [I think that’s the plot of Tom Jones –ed.] Tom Bland would probably be a shorter book. In fact, Tombland is a district in Norwich from the Old English tūmland, which means “empty ground”. Ironically, it was also tomb land, having been used as a burial site during one stage of its history.

 

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.