Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Cambridge’

Infamous Cambridge spy Guy Burgess had a cameo earlier this year in Joseph Kanon’s Cold War novel Defectors, but he practically steals the show in John Lawton’s excellent new Inspector Troy tale, Friends and Traitors (Grove/Atlantic, library e-book). It’s the eighth book in the crime series where history regularly meets mystery as Scotland Yard’s Frederick Troy dodges bombs in World War II London (Black Out), or protects Khruschev on a 1956 UK visit (Old Flames), or is tangled in the political scandals of the  early ’60s (A Little White Death).

In this entry, Lawton plays the long game, beginning with police cadet Troy first meeting Burgess at a family dinner in 1935. Both his Russian emigre/press baron father and his older brother warn him that the charming Burgess is bad news, “queer as a coot,” a notorious gossip, a possible spy. Still, Troy is intrigued by Burgess, who keeps showing up at various venues and times before, during and after the war. Then in 1951, Burgess and Donald MacLean defect to the Soviet Union, and their betrayal, along with that of Kim Philby, upends the British intelligence community for years. And that’s still the case in 1958 when a sad and pathetic Burgess approaches Troy during a family trip to Europe and says he wants to return to England. The ensuing imbroglio in Vienna results in the shooting of an MI5 agent, and Troy must defend himself against charges of murder and treason. All of this plays out in a string of atmospheric set pieces and charged exchanges of dialogue among the well-drawn cast of friends, family, lovers and spies.

The Troy books can be read out of order as stand-alone thrillers, but you run the risk of finding out the fate of characters and cases featured in other stories. Sudden death and reversals of fortune mark Troy’s complicated professional and private life, but that just makes the series all the more rewarding.

In 1939 Prague, with the Nazis on the doorstep, a woman named Otylie hopes to save her most treasured possession — an inherited musical manuscript of unknown authorship — by tearing it into three pieces. One movement of the sonata goes to her best friend Irena, the second goes to her husband in the Resistance, and the third she keeps for herself as she flees the country. Some 60 years later, Meta, a young musicologist who trained as a concert pianist, chances on one of the sonata’s movements and sets out to find the missing pieces and reunite them with their rightful owner. She also must prove the manuscript’s authenticity and perhaps discover who authored the haunting composition.  Bach? Beethoven? Maybe Mozart or Salieri?

Bradford Morrow details Meta’s daunting quest in his new historical novel The Prague Sonata (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), and I do mean details.  The premise is fascinating, the characters interesting, the plot hopscotches in time and place — Prague, London, New York, Nebraska. But the pace is uneven, the transitions often jarring, and the narrative so weighted with detail that it tested my will to read on. Students of music and history may well be enthralled, and I was at times because Morrow is an accomplished storyteller.  (I love Trinity Fields, thought The Forgers was clever and entertaining). But, at least in this case, too much of a good thing was still too much.

Nicola Upson’s detective series featuring real-life mystery writer Josephine Tey just keeps getting better as she artfully mixes history and fiction. Fear in the Sunlight played out against the set of an Alfred Hitchcock film, while London Rain‘s backdrop was the 1937 coronation of King George VI. In the seventh book, Nine Lessons (Crooked Lane Books, digital galley), Upson draws on the real-life crimes of the Cambridge Rapist, although she has him terrorizing women in 1937 Cambridge. Josephine is house-sitting for her lover, actress Marta Hallard, who is away on business. The tension and unease in town and at the colleges is palpable as the attacks on women escalate to include murder.

At the same time, Josephine’s great friend, Scotland Yard detective Archie Penrose, is investigating a gruesome murder in a London graveyard. The trail eventually leads him to Cambridge, a college choir and a long-ago death. What makes this second story especially chilling is the discovery that the London murder is tied to a series of ghost stories by M.R. James, who taught at Cambridge. The vengeful killer takes cruel delight in replicating disturbing details of James’ spooky tales. Then there’s the big secret that Josephine is keeping from Archie that could profoundly alter their relationship.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

joylandThe ghosts of summer past haunt Stephen King’s beguiling coming-of-age novel Joyland (Hard Case Crime, purchased paperback), set in a North Carolina coastal amusement park in 1973. For rising college senior Devin Jones, working at the park means wheeling the popcorn wagon and running rides, hearing the fast-paced pitch of the carnies — “time to take a little spin, hurry hurry, take a ride upstairs to where the air is rare” — and little kids squealing at the sight of Howie the Happy Hound Dog doing the Hokey-Pokey. The sweat pours down his neck when he is “wearing the fur” in the melting heat, but a shiver runs down his spine in Horror House, where a pretty girl was viciously murdered a few years back. Dev, nursing a broken heart, is intrigued by the stories of her pleading ghost, especially after hearing details of the crime from his landlady and the strange behavior of his buddy Ted who saw “something” on the ride. Add in a pragmatic fortune teller whose prognostications have a way of coming true, old-timers who know more than they tell, a sick little boy with supernatural sensitivity and a beautiful mother, and Dev’s got a summer he’ll remember the rest of his life.
Joyland reads like the memoir of a mystery as Dev looks back; the atmospheric narrative is laced with nostalgia and an older man’s musings on mortality and friends gone by. But King grounds his characters in reality and tethers the dialogue and details to the time. Take it for a spin. Enjoy the ride.
oceanlaneNeil Gaiman’s hushed new fantasy The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow, review copy) is a dream of a book, one that leaves you unsettled and staring at shadows, trying to remember…
The nameless narrator is attending a funeral when he takes a break and drives down the English country road where he lived as a child. The house is no longer there, but the landscape is familiar enough for him to recall when his bookish 7-year-self was caught in a mysterious battle between good and evil. He remembers his parents and sister, the cherry-faced opal miner who boarded with them, a nasty governess called Ursula, and the neighbors down the lane — Lettie Hemstock, her mother and her grandmother. They are old-fashioned, and it turns out, immortal. Their magic is somehow mixed in with the pond that Lettie calls her “ocean,” and when something monstrous buries its way into his heart, the Hemstocks’ secrets come to his aid. But then the hunger birds descend to rip the world to pieces.
So yes, it’s a dark dream, but one tempered by Gaiman’s lovely writing and imagery, plus a suitable ever-after of an ending.
shininggirlsSomething seriously creepy stalks Lauren Beukes’ genre-bending The Shining Girls (Little, Brown, digital galley), a serial killer with a whopper of a secret — he can travel through time. In 1931 Chicago, Harper Curtis stumbles from Hooverville into a house that turns out to be a portal to future eras. Inside the house are the names of his future/past victims and anachronistic souvenirs he will take from one murdered woman and leave with the disemboweled corpse of another. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that; Beukes’ explanations tend toward the vague but all credit to her for keeping track of Harper’s victims, “the shining girls” he spots in one time and returns to kill in another. Only Kirby Mazrachi, first spotted in 1974 as a 6-year-old, survives Harper’s attack in 1989, and in 1992, while working as an intern at the Sun-Times, she begins to connect the mind-boggling dots with the help of a cynical sportswriter.
The tricky narrative jumps around from Kirby hunting Harper, to Harper hunting victims, to victims unknowingly living out their last days or hours. Not for the faint-hearted.
bellwetherHow did I miss Benjamin Woods’ The Bellwether Revivals (Viking Penguin, digital galley) when it came out in hardcover last year? Now available in paperback and e-book, this British academic mystery — a cross between Brideshead Revisited and A Secret History — is so my cup of tea.
Oscar Lowe, bright, bookish and working as a health care assistant, is drawn by organ music into the chapel at King’s College, Cambridge, and thus into the privileged world of the Bellwethers. He’s taken up as almost a mascot to medical student Iris Bellwether, her musically gifted brother Eden and several of their friends. But his love affair with Iris is threatened by Eden’s increasingly bizarre behavior, underscored by strange musical therapy experiments.
Readers know from the beginning that something terrible happens involving at least one body and Oscar waiting for the police, but the trip from there to the end is still suspenseful, strange and lovely.

Read Full Post »