Review of “The King’s Evil” by Andrew Taylor

Note: There are necessarily spoilers for previous books in this series.

The third book in this historical crime fiction series is again set in 1660s London. The first book began in September 1666, during London’s Great Fire. The second book was set eight months later, and this one shortly thereafter. London is still recovering from the Great Fire, and the city is surrounded by refugee camps of dubious sanitary quality. The city itself isn’t much better. Moreover, many children are afflicted with scrofula, a common disease in that era. Scrofula, which presents as lumps on the neck, is a condition in which the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis causes symptoms outside the lungs, including inflamed and irritated lymph nodes in the neck. As the website Healthline points out:

“Historically, scrofula was called the ‘king’s evil.’ Until the 18th century, doctors thought the only way to cure the disease was to be touched by a member of a royal family.”

At that time, both the kings and queens of England and the kings of France claimed the divine gift (divinitus) to cure by touching or stroking the diseased. Modern scholars believe that the practice most likely originated in France with Saint Louis IX (r. 1226–1270). The fact is, the disease often went into remission on its own, giving the impression the touch of the monarch had cured it. This choice of disease to “cure” by monarchs was supremely clever; it helped bolster belief that the sovereign had been appointed by God. Thus, those afflicted with scrofula sought an audience with the king or queen to receive a laying on of hands.

The frequency of the use of the ritual reached its climax during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685) who plays a major role in this book series, as do his healing rituals for scrofula. The King is not merely in the background, but rises to the level of a supporting character.

Charles II performing the royal touch; engraving by Robert White (1684)

The main cast consists of James Marwood, a government employee, and Catherine “Cat” Lovett. They got to know each other in part because both were the offspring of men involved in the Fifth Monarchists plot. This was a regicidal movement perpetrated by an extremist Puritan sect which wanted to rid the world of earthly kings and bring on the rule of Christ, as predicted, so they believed, in the Book of Daniel.

Now both fathers are dead but James and Cat remain in contact, usually involuntarily. That is, Cat gets accused of crimes and James gets assigned to find her and resolve the crimes. In this book, Edward Alderley is found dead in a well in the mansion of Lord Clarendon. Cat hated Edward; he had tormented and raped her. She was known to have been at Clarendon’s estate, because as an architect’s assistant, she was helping to redesign the grounds of the mansion. Thus she had means and motive. James wanted to protect her, but he also wanted to know the truth of what happened.

His task was complicated because Lord Clarendon had powerful enemies in the struggle for the king’s favor; any of them could have been involved in the murder to make Clarendon look bad. There were also some documents missing from Clarendon’s property that could affect the succession to the throne. Clearly, it is crucial that they be found. Somehow, everyone is counting on Marwood to figure it all out without getting killed himself.

And there is more: Marwood and Cat also need to figure out how they feel about each other.

Evaluation: The story in this book may seem a bit confusing if read as a standalone rather than following the first two thrillers in the series. As with the other books, there is a great deal of fascinating historical information woven into the story. I always enjoy murder mysteries that teach me something in addition to providing a page-turning diversion.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by HarperCollins, 2019

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Review of “Making Friends with Alice Dyson” by Poppy Nwosu

I’ve always been so impressed with the young adult books that come from Australian authors. Maybe Americans only see the best of them, but this adorable and touching story certainly meets the high standards set by others I have read.

Alice Dyson is a self-described nerd who doesn’t socialize much except with May, her best friend since childhood. As the story begins, however, Alice suddenly is who everybody is talking about after a video was posted of her dancing in the street with classmate Teddy Taualai. Teddy is the subject of many negative rumors in the harsh social climate of their high school: he is “dangerous”; he is “the school’s delinquent; a “waster”; the kind of boy who always sits at the back of the class.” Except, it isn’t really true. No one has ever given him a chance.

After Alice irrationally attacks Teddy over the viral video (how, after all, could he have taken it if he was in it?) they next become allies in ferreting out the real culprit, then somewhat reluctant friends, then something more than that.

If this sounds simple and predictable, it is anything but. For one thing, Alice is not like the other teens in her school, obsessed with popularity and inclined to be mean and underhanded to achieve it. She considers the approval of her peers to be a shallow, transient, even absurd desire. She is conscientious, loyal and thoughtful, and has a secret dream for her future that requires a great deal of perseverance and bravery, qualities Alice has in abundance. She doesn’t want to be noticed, and she doesn’t want any interruptions from a social life. But to realize her dream, she comes to understand that she must accommodate unexpected changes in her life, as well as the feelings of others, and adapt as best she can. When you love, whether it involves family, friends, or a partner, your life is no longer just your own, and your decisions need to take others into account. But rather than diminishing you, love gives you a new kind of strength and a deeper kind of happiness.

As for Teddy, he is not the “bad boy” so common to young adult novels who is appealing to the girls in spite of, or because of, his reputation. His first inclination is always to take care of the others in his life. His bad rep was unfairly bestowed upon him, and is something he has had to live with along with the hurt and loneliness that went with it.

As you plunge into their fictional world, you just want to embrace and protect both of them.

Evaluation: Alice and Teddy, each from families that make their lives challenging, are endearingly awkward, earnest, and beset by fears, but also full of hope and goodness. I loved the characters and the way their relationship evolved, and I loved the way the author did not push Alice or Teddy into stereotypical outcomes, but let them mature and structure their futures without compromising what was important to them. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Walker Books US, a division of Candlewick Press, 2020

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Review of “The Lewis Man” by Peter May

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

The Lewis Man is the second installment of a trilogy featuring Fin MacLeod, a one-time Edinburg detective. This book opens with an omniscient narrator telling the reader that the body of a man has been found buried in the peat on the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost of the Outer Hebrides. Several other bodies like these have been discovered in Northern Europe where there are large peat bogs. The bogs have the unusual property of preserving bodies remarkably well, for hundreds if not thousands of years. Even the skin is preserved although it is darkened by the peat. Sites where “bog bodies” have been found have become popular tourist stops.

The Tollund Man was discovered in a Denmark bog in 1950 with skin so well-preserved, the wrinkles on his face are still clearly visible. FLICKR/CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the characters looking at the dead body asks, “What shall we call him?” Having been discovered on the Isle of Lewis, he becomes “the Lewis Man.” A preliminary examination indicates that he was probably murdered by several stab wounds to the chest and by a vicious slitting of the throat. At least one other peat body nearby had shown signs of murder, but since carbon dating ascertained it was several hundred years old, the police had no interest in it. But in this case, an autopsy on the body revealed a tattoo of Elvis Presley, indicating that the murder was relatively recent, and the culprit, or culprits, may still be alive.

The narration of the book switches abruptly from omniscience to the first person ramblings of a man named Tormod with Alzheimer’s disease.

The omniscient narrator returns and we are introduced (reintroduced if you read The Blackhouse, the first book of the trilogy), to Detective Sergeant Finlay (Fin) Macleod of the Edinburgh police force. He grew up on Lewis but left it 18 years before. Now his marriage is breaking up after 16 years, largely because of tensions arising from the hit and run death of his son Robbie. Fin returns to his boyhood home of the Isle of Lewis, which just happens to be where the bog body was discovered. Because of Fin’s background as a big city detective, he gets involved in the investigation of the murder of the Lewis Man.

The author continues to alternate the stories of Tormod and Fin. Tormod is quite confused about the present, but his recollections of his past are lucid. We gradually learn that Tormod was a Catholic orphan from the mainland who was sent with his brother to the islands to become virtual slaves to dour and uncaring foster parents. During Fin’s investigation of the murder, we find out how Fin and Tormod are connected, as their lives now intersect once again.

Both Fin’s and Tormod’s stories are interesting in themselves, involving as they do the very quirky background of the outer islands. As was true of The Blackhouse, the book moves along through the power of excellent writing and an interesting resolution of the crime under investigation. But as was also the case with The Blackhouse,, the author has a surprise in the concluding chapters where the genre shifts from detective police procedure to thriller. The denouement provides not only a satisfactory solution to the murder, but a heart-pounding culmination to some unexpected dangers.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Quercus, 2014

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Review of “Who Speaks for the Damned” by C. S. Harris

Note: There are necessarily spoilers for previous books in this series.

Background:

The Sebastian St. Cyr historical crime fiction series began with the first book set in 1811, the year that George, Prince of Wales (known by the public as “Prinny”) began his nine-year tenure as Regent of the British Monarchy. (A prince regent is a prince who rules in the place of a monarch who is still the titular king but has been deemed unfit for any reason, such as age, or physical or mental incapacity. In this case, the Prince of Wales was standing in for his father George III, thought to be mad. On the death of his father in 1820, the Prince Regent became George IV.)

“Prinny” mostly elicited “sentiments ranging from contempt to disgust.” He was “endlessly self-indulgent, notoriously dishonest, and reviled. . . .”

“A Voluptuary Under The Horrors of Digestion”: 1792 caricature of the Prince Regent in England by James Gillray

The Regency Era is a popular setting for fiction. For one thing, these were very interesting times historically. Most of Europe was at war, for and against Napoleon, depending on the year. America declared war on Britain in 1812, adding to the drama. Social mores were in an uproar as well: the rights of both women and slaves were being debated everywhere. And the conflict between the classes, especially in England, proved to be rich fodder for romantic plots. [You may also wish to consult my post on “An Introduction to the Regency Era.”]

In this 15th book in the series, it is now 1814, and Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, the main protagonist, is in his early 30s, married, and with a 16-month-old son. In the first book, he was suspected of a murder he did not commit, and had to become something of a Sherlock Holmes to find the real murderer to save his own skin.

In subsequent books, Devlin was consulted on murders that involved the nobility, because he had an entrée into the upper level of society that would have been denied to the regular police. He agreed because the thought of anybody stealing away someone else’s life was an abomination to him, especially after the traumatic instances of unjust murder he witnessed in the army. He still felt guilt over these deaths, even though he could not have prevented any of them. He retained a fierce commitment to the pursuit of justice.

Devlin is aided by the counsel of his friend, the surgeon Paul Gibson, who serves as a Watson to St. Cyr’s Holmes, as well as by Sir Henry Lovejoy, now a “Bow Street Runner” (detective) who has become a friend of Devlin’s. Devlin also asks his young horse handler Tom, a former street urchin, as well as his valet, Jules Calhoun, to do reconnaissance work for him. Each has an entrée into the lower levels of society that Devlin can’t even manage in disguise. And in an increasing capacity, his wife, Hero, helps him in his investigative work.

The story begins, as usual, with the discovery of a murder victim. This time it is a friend of his valet’s, who brings the matter to Devlin’s attention. Devlin would have heard of it in any event; Nicholas Hayes, the victim, was a member of the aristocracy – the third son of the late Earl of Seaford. Nick was presumed dead after having been convicted of a murder 18 years before and sent to Botany Bay in New South Wales, one of several notoriously bad convict settlements established in Australia. Britain had been sending convicts there since 1788. Hayes improbably managed to escape and fled to Canton, where he lived for 15 years. Now he had come back to London where he would surely be put to death – and indeed, upon his murder he had been, although not by any lawful process. Why had he returned and who killed him?

There are plenty of suspects as usual, most of them also members of the nobility. Furthermore, Hayes brought a young, half-Chinese child with him named Ji, and now the child, possibly the actual heir to the Earldom, is missing. Both Sebastian and Hero are distraught with the thought of a child alone on the streets or captured, and either way in grave danger. It is critical that Sebastian figure out what is going on and where Ji is, particularly as more people related to the case are killed and Sebastian and his wife are attacked as well.

Discussion: In this series, many of the aristocracy are despicable characters: haughty, entitled, hypocritical, and contemptuous of the masses of poor who barely eke out a living while the upper tier of society carouses and parties. Harris juxtaposes the egregious attitudes of these rich, entitled people with those of her empathetic protagonists, making their differences stand out in stark relief.

In this particular installment of the series, the author also integrates the sordid history of the East India Company into the plot. The East India Company eventually – but not yet when this story took place – was excoriated and dismantled because of its ignominious mistreatment of Indians who were in its power; its use of slave labor; the company’s promotion of the opium trade to enrich themselves at the cost of the lives of so many non-whites; and its actions leading to the starvation deaths of millions of people. (See, for example, accounts of how that happened here and here.)

Evaluation: I love the recurring characters in this series and their evolving interactions. In addition, one always learns a great deal of well-researched history about this fascinating and horrifying period, with a number of crimes thrown in to add tension and interest.

The author does an excellent job smoothly filling in background from previous books, but I believe readers would derive more enjoyment from the books by reading the series in order.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2020

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Review of “When the Ground is Hard” by Malla Nunn

This 2019 winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for young-adult literature is set in 1960s Swaziland [officially renamed in 2018 to the Kingdom of eSwatini]. Adele Joubert, 16, attends the Keziah Christian Academy, a school for mixed-race students the author based on one attended by her mother, aunt, and grandmother, and which the author herself attended before emigrating to Australia when she was fourteen.

The world of Keziah is a microcosm of the country itself, rigidly divided by color (and gradations of color), wealth, and social status. In an interview, the author explained:

“I needed to write about what was actually important in our experience. . . . The caste system, for people like me who were multiracial, was microclassified.”

You had to find your own way, she clarified in the interview, by importing whatever powers you could.:

“Those with money were considered a cut above and given fawning respect while poverty was treated as a self-inflicted injury. Light skin was preferable to dark skin. The laws made that clear. But even then, being a light-skinned biracial person meant that you were second best when compared to the white ruling class.”

In the novel, Adele lamented that white people, classified as “European,” were “the kings and queens of everything.” Her mother told her to be grateful for the European genes in her that gave her curly but not kinked hair, and green eyes. Indeed, these traits helped confer social status on Adele.

Adele’s father, who was a white engineer, lived with his white family in Johannesburg. He did call Adele and her mother every week however, and visited them occasionally. He also provided the money for Adele to attend Keziah.

Location of eSwatini within Africa

Adele had a best friend at Keziah, Delia, who was one of the “pretties,” the most popular girls. Popular girls even had a cadre of “pets” – younger female students who admired them and catered to them. But this year, Adele found that Delia was no longer interested in her; her place in Delia’s circle was taken by Sandi Cardoza, a new student from a wealthy family whose parents were married, which granted her higher status than other girls, certainly more than Adele. Adele also learned she would no longer be rooming with Delia; rather, she would be thrown in with Lottie Diamond, a “reject” who was half-Jewish, quarter-Scottish, and the rest pure Zulu, and who was from an impoverished background. Lottie had worn-out shoes, a faded school uniform, and actually spoke her mind instead of saying only what was expected. Adele felt humiliated and furious to have been dumped, and to be stuck with “a girl from the bush.”

Adele could not complain, however; the system was set, and the administrators were harsh and punitive. Complaints or infractions earned the girls unpleasant work details and/or physical punishments. Students reflected the system by engaging in physical fights of their own to settle insults.

Adele had some solace; her father gave her a [used, of course] book to take with her to school: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. She started reading the book, and Lottie did too – at first surreptitiously, and then, after Adele found out, they started to read it together, alternating reading it aloud to each another. In this way, as well as in their shared status as rejects and victims of vicious gossip and nasty pranks, they began to bond. A fire and a death at the school cemented their relationship further.

Adele learned much more from living with Lottie than she did from lessons or from anyone else at the Keziah Academy. Lottie never compromised herself and her integrity in order to be accepted; acceptance was never really an option for her in any event. Adele, having internalized what society taught her was most valuable, faced great hurdles in overcoming her beliefs about race and class, and to behaving in a way that she knew in her heart was both more honest, and morally superior to how she had lived before.

Evaluation: This excellent and moving story has so much to offer in terms of a view into other societies and other ways of understanding the world. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2019

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