Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book Review: CIRCLE OF SHADOWS by Imogen Robertson + My Historical-Mystery Reading Rules


England, 1784. Harriet Westerman is an adventurous well-to-do widow, mother and detecting enthusiast. She and her companion Gabriel Crowther, anatomist, forensic specialist and reclusive but wealthy older gentleman (he has spurned his family title), are off to the Duchy of Maulsberg.
CIRCLE OF SHADOWS is the unlikely duo's first foray into crime solving on the Continent, having heretofore concentrated on crimes closer to home.

Westerman and Crowther are the stars of a historical mystery series which in my view, rises head and shoulders above most others for these fairly simple reasons: the author's writing talent, sleight of hand research ability and gift for vivid characterization and plotting. The series is four books along - at least in this country, though I understand that the schedule here lags behind the British pub. dates. My local library doesn't even have the entire series on their shelves.

Additionally, these are the only mysteries I've read which are set during England's Georgian era. That adds to their uniqueness. But this wouldn't have been enough to get me interested in reading these books if the writing weren't so damned good. There are many popular historical mysteries which just, for one reason or another, don't hold my interest no matter how many times I've attempted to read them (mostly due to friends' recommendations), but Imogen Robertson fixed my attention from the first paragraph in her first book and I've been hooked ever since.

Now for a brief interruption:

Yvette's Rules for Historical Mysteries:

1) Location. Location. Location. As a reader (which makes me a kind of time traveler) I must WANT to travel back to where the mystery is. It's up to the writer to make this happen. And usually, it must happen quickly. If it's England, we're already a couple of steps ahead of the game.

2) Very important: The dialogue should not be anachronistic in tone, it must sound as if people of a particular time are speaking though not to the point where it becomes pedantic. The writer is speaking to a modern ear after all.

3) If a specific actual event, place, person or thing is used in the story, the dates must be accurate unless we've been informed beforehand that the author switched things around for some purpose. However, that purpose must make some sort of sense. This applies too if the writer is including characters created by another author and transplanted.

4) The writing style of a historical mystery should appear - in sentence cadence, for instance - not only as if it were knowledgeably written, keeping the era in mind, but also as if it were effortless. The behind the scenes nuts and bolts of research should not be apparent and obviously, the work should be approachable enough so that the modern reader/mystery-lover/history maven, can jump right in. Above all, it must NEVER be written in the present tense. In fact, nothing should ever be written in the present tense except maybe blog posts. (I'm guilty of that.)

I admit that I might have read one or two books written in present tense - but only rarely, in my opinion, does it ever work. The talent must be prodigious. There should be a reason for telling a story in this way, not merely the fashion of the moment. I have never read a historical novel written in the present tense and probably never will.

5) When it comes to history I'd always assumed that everyone shared my enthusiasm. (History was my favorite topic in school.) But to my consternation I've found that this is not always so. I know, the mind boggles.

Obviously you don't have to be a historian to read a book set in the past. But the truth is that there are always things it helps to know (even just generally) or at least have an interest in - points of reference and whatnot - the more you know, the quicker you can acclimate. I don't want a history lesson while I'm reading a mystery. (I read non-fiction for that.) I want the author to assume that I know a little something about the era, the setting or the events or else I wouldn't be there. The thing must be, first and foremost, a murder mystery.

Those are my rules and by gum they've always worked for me. Yeah, I know, I know, rules are meant to be broken. But when it comes to historical mysteries I can be pretty strict. I want a comfortable but intriguing setting. I want wonderful characters. I want suspense. I want mystery. I want knowledgeable writing. That's about it.

Author Imogen Robertson meets all of my criteria.

Okay, back to CIRCLE OF SHADOWS:

The Duchy of Maulsberg is a small German state roiling with poisonous intrigue, spies and more than its fair share of shadowy behind the scenes political chicanery. What's more, Maulsberg is currently preparing to celebrate the up-coming betrothal of their duke to a princess of a neighboring state. The marriage is to be a typical if formidable combo of lands and power - though the Duke brings rather less to the mix than is commonly known. But amid the pomp and circumstance, there are first some very nasty murders to be dealt with. The authorities, naturally enough, are eager to quell speculation, sweep the matter under the rug and quickly hang the most likely suspect.

Unfortunately, the most likely suspect this time is Daniel Clode, the brother-in-law of intrepid sleuth Harriet Westerman. An attorney and agent of the Earl of Sussex who happens to hold Duchy of Maulsberg bonds, newlywed Daniel had been traveling abroad with his wife, Harriet's younger sister Rachel.

During a masquerade ball at the castle, Daniel, raving incoherently, was found in a locked room with his wrists cut. Also in the room, the dead body of the Duke's current mistress. Daniel doesn't remember anything about the crime or even how he came to be in the room. It's obvious he has been drugged. But how gratifying for the Duke's investigators to have a foreigner conveniently on hand to blame for the murder.

When Harriet, back in England, receives a hysterical letter from her sister, she and Gabriel Crowther must travel to the continent to save the condemned Daniel and, as it turns out, solve several horrific murders in the process. While in Maulsberg hobnobbing with the German aristocracy, Harriet once more crosses paths with the diabolically clever spymaster Manzerotti, this time a special 'guest' of the Duke of Maulsberg. Manzerotti is a famed castrato opera singer renowned for his physical beauty as well as his magnificent voice. He is also the man Harriet blames for her husband's death.

Unexpectedly forced to work with her nemesis, Harriet and Crowther are swept up in court intrigue at an especially 'iffy' time when even the hint of scandal could put the kabosh on a very beneficial state marriage. Murder can hardly be allowed to interfere with matters of this monumental importance. Therefore the investigation must be carried out in a hush-hush sort of way - nothing new for Westerman and Crowther.

Question: How was it possible for the duke's mistress to drown inside the castle, in a dry locked room?

Ah, my friends, this is one of many questions which will be answered as Westerman and Crowther's investigation turns up more grisly deaths - deaths which have passed for 'accidents' - gone unnoticed as murder.

Author Imogen Robertson has peopled this particular book with an especially interesting group of characters. Besides the Duke (who is apparently more than just another aristocratic flounce) and the mysterious castrato, we are also introduced to a set of ruthless spies, some 'pie in the sky' revolutionaries, a mad alchemist or two, and an Arab duo who excel at creating incredible automatons of great beauty. There is more than enough court intrigue, deadly secrets and chicanery to sweep everyone up, especially those not quick-witted enough to step nimbly out of the way.

By the time the truth is known (much of it unpalatable) Harriet Westerman and her friend Gabriel Crowther are more than ready to congratulate the Duke and head back to England, relatives and friends in tow, ready for whatever new mystery awaits them.

23 comments:

  1. Crowther and Westerman.

    Yvette. you probably know, Circle of Shadows, and Island of Bones.
    Anatomy of Murder, and Instruments of Darkness.
    The first two, it seemed are currently available. But not sure of Anatomy and Instruments. Certainly, I may take the plunge and venture straight onto The Island of Bones. :)

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  2. INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS is the first in the series, Dave and I really do recommend reading that because it sets up the characters in a very vivid way. But if you can't find it, go ahead and pick up ISLAND OF BONES - why not? :) I love this series.

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  3. Yvette, I picked up INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS on your recommendation and loved it. I have read the following three as well and can't wait for the next. I agree, if possible, Dave should start with the first one.

    mjoy

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  4. Hi, mjoy! So glad to hear from you and that you enjoyed these books. I love them. Well, you knew that. Coincidentally I've been reading some non-fiction which takes place during this time of German states and Frederick the Great, etc. Fascinating stuff.

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    1. P.S. My comment applies to Circle of Shadows. Meant to add.

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  5. This looks like a really great book! I am addicted to this genre. I just finished reading another great political mystery/thriller, "No One Can Know" by Adrienne LaCava http://adriennelacava.com/ The story plot takes place during the 1960's (during the time of the JFK assassination). It is full of multiple POVs with differing perspectives on 1960’s issues. I needed something new to read. Can't wait to check this series out!

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    1. Same here, Ashley. Your recommend looks interesting. I'll be checking that one out as well!

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    2. I hope you'll enjoy this series, Lance. Thanks for dropping by.

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  6. This is a great list of criteria for historical mysteries. I'm not a great reader of this genre, mostly have read Ariana Franklin/Diana Norman's first two books, and a few others, including from Australia.

    I have given a friend the first two books in this series, which she loves. And I am drawn to The Paris Winter. Are you going to read that?

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    1. If you liked Ariana Franklin's writing, you should like Imogen Robertson too, Kathy. As for THE PARIS WINTER, I'm probably going to read that. Yup.

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  7. Well, this sounds utterly fantabulous - thanks Yvette, and given that I would mostly concur with your rules I shall definitely get this and then pass it on to my Mum (you'd liek yer a lot) - by the way, ever ready any Dorothy Dunnett? She wrote historical novels as well as mysteries through rarely comcined but her Lymond series starting with GAME OF KINGS is incredible.

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    1. You're welcome, Sergio. I think your mom will love this series. But begin at the beginning if you can with INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS. I have Dorothy Dunnett on my list - high up there - ready for the beginning of the year, I think. :)

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  8. I'm with Sergio: Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond series sets a high standard for historical novels.

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    1. I think I'm going to love them too. :)

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  9. This is a great review. I was already planning to read the series, because my husband owns the first two and liked the first one a lot. But this seals the deal. Plus I love the rules for reading historical novels. I like historical mysteries a lot. Thanks very much for the detailed review.

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    1. Thanks, TracyK. You're very welcome. I hope you're going to love this series as much as I do. Your hubby has great taste in reading. :)

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  10. New to me, Yvette! I'm pinning this and will be looking for it at my library!

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  11. A wonderful series, Peggy. See if you can find INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS to read first. That will set you up nicely for the rest.

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  12. Great post, Yvette, though I'm not familiar with Imogen Robertson's work. I share your enthusiasm for history. You know, it was my favourite subject too (along with geography) and it still is, except I enjoy reading more about historical events like wars, revolutions and that kind of thing, minus the dates; never could remember them in school.

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    1. You would probably enjoy the non-fiction I'm reading now, Prashant. CATHERINE THE GREAT by Robert K. Massie and A DISTANT THUNDER The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman. That second book I have on audio. Ah, dates. It's funny - a few of them actually do stick in my mind even after all these years.

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  13. Maybe when I'm no longer burnt out on mysteries, I will give these a try.

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    1. You really should. I suspect you'll love them.

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