Book Review: Casanova and the Faceless Woman

“However scientific our cast of mind, it always comes down to this, does it not? […] How to get rich and remain forever young. The universal dream of mankind.”

Casanova and the Faceless Woman, by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon (translated by Louise Rogers LaLaurie), is crime fiction set in and around Paris and the Palace of Versailles a few decades before the French Revolution. Its protagonist is Volnay, a serious young man living in frivolous, dangerous times. Granted the title, Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, after he saved the life of King Louis XV, the local police chief does not appreciate Volnay’s incursion into what he regards as his territory.

Volnay works with a disgraced monk who has an interest in and keen knowledge of the latest scientific thinking. He examines the bodies of the dead in an attempt to uncover clues as to how they met their end. This is the age of enlightenment, although there is wider interest in associated gossip, along with wild exaggeration, than in deduction and proof.

The story opens with the discovery of a body – a mutilated young woman. The skin on her face, palms and fingertips has been removed. When Volnay arrives at the crime scene he is dismayed to find it was the renowned philanderer, Casanova, who first came across the victim. Casanova watches as Volnay removes a letter from the woman’s clothing and is then intrigued when the policeman claims it fell from his sleeve.

This letter proves key to the investigation. Influential and shadowy figures are eager to read what it contains as it affects the dissolute and capricious King. His Majesty’s detractors are seeking ways to bring down the monarchy. Others advise caution until those who would grasp power after such a revolution may be put in place.

Casanova regards his involvement in the investigation as another entertainment, especially when a beautiful young aristocrat, Chiara, shows an interest. Volnay is also drawn to the girl and this unlikely trio find they must share secrets if the case is to be solved and the reason the letter is so sought after understood.

Then another young woman is found dead, with her face removed, this time outside a property used by the King to meet with the young girls he favours. Despite the similarities in the victims’ demises, Volnay is perplexed by the differences. With his life endangered from multiple sources, he discovers that trusting Chiara may have been a mistake.

Although this is crime fiction it will appeal to those who enjoy vividly depicted historical fiction. There are sumptuous descriptions of dress and setting, of food consumed and the decadent lifestyles of those who found favour within the Palace of Versailles at this time. Their wealth and privilege may be contrasted with the dangers lurking in the dark and dirty streets of Paris where penury is widespread. Small coins are earned by whatever means necessary to survive, with little loyalty. Death is common and rarely investigated. Punishments are brutal, meted out to those who would not assist powerful figures whose spies are everywhere.

Volnay is an interesting character although I regarded the romantic element of his story an unnecessary distraction. Casanova’s role is well developed – the reasoning behind his behaviour credible even if his performance abilities are overplayed. As I have little interest in dress and lavish furnishings I found the pace unduly slow due to the many details. It also disheartened me to consider the risks people take with their health in order to achieve what is widely accepted as beauty.

“Nothing of all this was real, or true. It was all a carefully maintained illusion.”

Although well written and structured there were too many elements within the story that personally irritated. I grew tired of the lily white skin, rustling silk and gleam of gilt furnishings. I was curious about the science until the unlikely denouement – again, this flight of imagination felt unnecessary (authors are, of course, free to write as they choose).

For those with an interest in the lifestyles of the wealthy the tale offers a colourful portrayal. Centuries later plutocrats are still seeking personal advantage over the greater good of scientific discovery. Aging is rarely regarded as a privilege with outward beauty highly valued. I may well be taking an entertainment too seriously, but I found this tale depressing.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.

 

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Book Review: A Perfect Explanation

“It was the starting that was the joy when no mistakes had been made, when the world was free and open, when nothing was said that needed to be unsaid”

Eleanor Anstruther grew up knowing the family story of how her father, as a boy, was sold by his mother to his aunt for five hundred pounds. These forebears were an aristocratic family whose wealth included large properties in Scotland and London. Children were important as heirs; the family inheritance to be managed and passed on. Although A Perfect Explanation is a work of fiction it was built around facts found in letters, court papers, medical reports and photographs. It offers a fascinating picture of a family bound by gendered tradition, in which truths deemed unpalatable, including parental favouritism, silently festered to the detriment of all.

The tale is told across two timelines – a day in 1964 and the years between the two world wars. The protagonist is Enid Campbell, a society beauty who later eschews company. Although pampered and selfish she regards herself as hard done by. The coldness of parents and their favouring of certain offspring repeat across the three generations featured. Mothers love their sons more than their daughters who are expected to do their duty without unseemly fuss.

Enid is one of three siblings. They were born and raised in the fairy-tale castle of Inveraray in Argyllshire. When her uncle, the ninth Duke of Argyll and husband of Princess Louise, died, Enid’s family had to move to a smaller property on the estate, thereby freeing the castle for her cousin’s occupancy. Enid regarded this as her first lesson in how anything she loved could be taken away. The next lessons were when her beloved brother, her parents’ heir, was killed in the war, and her father, who had always favoured her, died of illness. Enid was left with her domineering mother who she believed preferred her sister, Joan. Enid had married Douglas to spite her mother, an act she was told contributed to her father’s demise. She regretted that Douglas rather than her brother returned from the war.

Enid and Douglas have a son, Fagus, and a daughter, Finetta. Enid struggles with the demands of motherhood and grows to despise her husband while still expecting his support. Their son was born with hydrocephalus but the obvious signs are neither discussed nor treated. The condition makes him clumsy and he suffers a life changing fall while under Enid’s care. As well as the guilt she feels there is resentment as she believes she is being unfairly blamed.

With the young heir now damaged and therefore the inheritance Enid had expected to come her way in jeopardy she decides she must produce another son to prevent Joan being bequeathed their mother’s sizeable estate. The responsibility of providing care for a disabled child and a newborn baby – her daughter is largely ignored – tips Enid over the edge.

The book opens on a day in 1964 with Finetta preparing to make one of her regular visits to Enid who now lives in a nursing home in Hampstead run by Christian Scientists, a belief she turned to in an attempt to cure Fagus. We learn that Finetta has a son and a daughter but the same skewed parenting preferences as her mother and grandmother.

“She’d fed and bathed them both, divorced their father and sent them away to school as soon as possible. They had grown up.”

“Her daughter was a stranger who moved with a stranger’s mood; a thing that passed and left little trace, unlike her son, for whom she felt a love so crushing she could only watch him, constantly, whether he was there or not.”

Finetta is doing her duty towards her mother but takes pleasure in observing the limitations of the life of the ‘almost dead but not dead enough’. She regards any suffering Enid must endure as her just deserts. This visit though will be different as her younger brother, Ian, is to join her – the first time he will have seen their mother in twenty-five years.

Enid feels no gratitude at her daughter’s willingness to visit each Tuesday.

“Enid had done nothing to deserve such loyalty and she resented it. She wanted to be left alone. She didn’t want to have it pointed out that she was still a mother. It was as if Finetta did it on purpose, shoving the reminder of her existence as a punishment from which Enid could not escape, a revenge dripped week by week”

Now an old woman waiting to die, cut off from the wider family she scorned yet craved attention and sympathy from, Enid cannot still the memories of her past actions which caused the breach and led to suffering for all.

The interwar timeline takes the reader through these actions, when Enid had her babies and failed to meet her own and her family’s expectations. Despite the appalling way in which she treats everyone her story is told with a degree of sympathy.

There is darkness and tension in Enid’s perceptions and yearnings. She appears childlike in her jealousies, incapable of loving selflessly. Her feelings of entitlement and perceived lack of understanding lead to her wishing to hurt her mother and sister. She cannot cope with the demands made by her children. Always she wants without being able to give.

I have read many stories of minor historical figures and the troubles they encounter despite their privileged existences. This tale offers much more depth and nuance than is typical. The writing pulls the reader under the skin of each character from where they may view the pain of selfish frustrations. There are truly shocking moments yet they are never sensationalised. Rather there is a balance in the telling that allows the reader to form their own opinions. The complexities of family relationships and the pressures these create offer much to consider.

A riveting tale of grown children damaged by the relentless actions of their entitled parents. Well paced and skilfully written, this is a haunting, recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: The Devil’s Half Mile

The Devil’s Half Mile, by Paddy Hirsch, is a crime thriller set in a burgeoning New York in 1799. At this time there were few laws and fewer law enforcement employees. The city was managed by racqueteers who kept a fragile peace through violence and intimidation. A recent state ruling had resulted in the freeing of a large number of slaves who vied with the Irish community for whatever low paid work they could find. The racqueteers ran brothels, collected protection money and guarded their turf through a network of spies and thuggery. Those residents with capital tried to increase their holdings via investments and scams operating through the unregulated stock market which met in busy coffee shops around Wall Street – the devil’s half mile.

Into this powder keg of risk and resentment arrives our protagonist, Justy Flanagan, fresh out of university in Ireland where he learned the law, alongside more practical skills fighting English oppressors. Justy’s uncle, The Bull, is a feared overlord in New York who took the boy in following his father’s suicide. Justy no longer believes that his father took his own life. He suspects murder and has returned seeking justice and revenge.

Justy sails into New York aboard a ship on which his good friend and former comrade in arms, Lars Hokkanssen, is working. On arrival in port he meets an old friend from his childhood, Kerry O’Toole, who has turned to a life of crime. Justy feels a degree of guilt for leaving Kerry to cope while he sought to better himself. He refuses to blame her for what she has become.

Justy locates and questions his father’s old acquaintances to discover for himself who the partners were in the financial scheme blamed for his death. He is aided by Lars but is watched by those who wish to protect their secrets. Violence follows, the death count rises and ideals are compromised. Justy becomes embroiled in sickening plans.

The squalor and brutality of a fast growing settlement are well evoked. The resentments felt by those whose jobs are threatened by a sudden influx of new workers is familiar, as is the timeless greed of those eager to make money by whatever means, including feeding abhorrent appetites. Justy is something of a trope with his high mindedness, skills in killing and moral ambiguity. Threads are set up that suggest a possible sequel.

The author offers plenty of twists as the plot progresses along with an ongoing quandary over who can be trusted. There are rather too many crises and serious injuries fought through as Justy interacts with his enemies. The historical setting is of interest but as a crime thriller I struggled to maintain engagement. A violent story built on a plausible premise but not one for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Corvus.

Book Review: Only Killers and Thieves

“Listen to me now. I’m going to tell you what will happen if we were to let that man live. He will hate us. Not only you and I personally, but all white men.”

“Remember, he will breed also. He will produce a dozen heirs, all with this hatred in their blood.”

“It is laughable, the ignorance of the educated classes, sitting in their parlours and their clubs. The blacks don’t want to integrate. They want us to leave. So either we domesticate them or we kill them”

Only Killers and Thieves, by Paul Howarth, is set on the frontier lands of Central Queensland, Australia, near the end of the nineteenth century. Much of the local area has been claimed by a white man, John Sullivan, whose grandfather first cleared it for the raising of cattle. Sullivan has expanded, taking over settlement after settlement, intent on driving out the indigenous population. To this end he calls on the Native Police Force, employed by the Queensland government, to disperse those who remain. The local force is led by Inspector Noone whose methods are pitiless. He is widely feared.

The McBride family live on a neighbouring settlement. When the story opens the region is suffering a lengthy drought and the teenage McBride boys, Billy and Tommy, are out hunting for food. Against their father’s orders they stray onto Sullivan territory where they observe Noone and his men with captive natives. They are discovered and warned away.

Unlike the cattle kept by Sullivan, which have somehow remained healthy, the McBride livestock are dying. When those that remain are rounded up for selling they do not raise what is needed to provide for the coming year. Tommy watches as his father clashes with Sullivan, who he once worked for. Although the boys are required to help – their father can no longer afford to employ other men – they are given no explanation for the animosity with their neighbour.

All this is set aside when Tommy and Billy arrive home late one afternoon to discover that their parents have been killed. With their little sister grievously injured they turn to Sullivan for help. A native is suspected so Noone is called in. Sullivan coaches the boys in how they should testify thereby making them complicit in the ensuing retribution. Leaving their sister in the care of Sullivan’s young wife they ride out beyond the land claimed by settlers.

This is a vivid evocation of a bloody period in Australian history. It is also a story of family and the challenges faced by pioneers. With their parents dead the teenage boys are left in a precarious situation. Sullivan and Noone offer them a type of protection but it costs the boys dear. Billy looks up to the wealthy Sullivan as a success his father could never hope to emulate. Tommy sees things differently.

Rarely have I read such a powerful account of the racial oppression and abuse perpetrated by those at the forefront of white man’s empire building. It is vivid and disturbing yet never overplayed for effect. The reader is not spared the graphic detail yet the account remains nuanced and balanced. The inhumanity is sickening, and based on fact.

Although a work of historical fiction the story is written as an adventure and a thriller. The tension throughout makes it a compelling read. Each character is rounded and believable, earning their place in the narrative and adding to the readers depth of understanding. Even the most horrifying of actions are portrayed with explanations, the skewed personal justifications for brutal acts of terrorism.

An impressive debut and a timely exploration of the potential impact of dehumanising an entire people. This is an engaging and satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One.

Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Jane Seymour

Six Tudor Queens: Jane Seymour – The Haunted Queen, by Alison Weir, is the third in a series of specially commissioned books which together tell the story of Henry VIII’s wives, from their point of view. Each instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised account based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. The author is a well regarded historian and explains at the end of each book why she presented key moments in her subjects’ lives the way she did. Jane Seymour served both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn as a maid-of-honour during the turbulent years when the latter replaced the former as queen so there is a degree of overlap in the first three books in the series. Jane left little written evidence of her life and thoughts so the author has constructed a tale based on interpretation and informed invention.

The story opens when Jane is ten years old and attending a lavish dinner at her family home, Wulf Hall in Wiltshire, to celebrate the marriage of her elder brother, Edward, to Catherine Fillol. The match is regarded as a good one by both families and within a year they have had a child. By then their initial happiness has soured for disturbing reasons. Jane’s mother gave birth to ten children but not all survived into adulthood. The precariousness of life, at a time when doctors could offer little more than herbal infusions as remedies, plays a key role in the ongoing narrative. The coming years bring outbreaks of devastating plague to England as well as the tragedies of royal babies not carried to term. The fecundity of the Seymours may well have been part of Jane’s appeal to the king when he grew disillusioned with Anne Boleyn.

The timeline jumps forward to when Jane is eighteen years old. She wishes to be a nun but does not cope well with the hardships required by this life so returns home. Her siblings are making their way in the world and she starts to look beyond Wulf Hall which is no longer the happy, family home of her childhood. She is pleased to be granted the opportunity to serve at the royal court in London.

Jane soon discovers that court life is a hotbed of intrigue and gossip, the factional rivalry an unwelcome contrast to the peaceful existence she associates with Wulf Hall. Anne is approaching her zenith and Jane accompanies Katherine when she is required to leave Henry and his palaces as the royal marriage is annulled. Jane is a staunch supporter of the church so is appalled by the ecclesiastical reforms being proposed and managed by an increasingly influential Cromwell. When Katherine is stripped of her household in an attempt to force her to comply with the king’s wishes, the Seymours insist that Jane not waste the costly court place they provided. She is required to return to London and serve Anne.

Jane is witness to the distress caused by the new queen’s miscarriages. Despite Anne’s suffering, Jane despises her for what she has done to Katherine. When Henry starts to take notice of Jane she chooses not to reject his advances as she does not consider him lawfully married. In this she is encouraged by her ambitious brothers and a growing band of supporters eager to do away with Anne and reinstate Katherine’s daughter, Mary, in the succession.

The bare bones of the story are, of course, well known. In many ways the plot is slow moving as Jane’s participation and influence on key events are minor until close to the end of her life. What this enables is a detailed portrayal of life in Tudor England from the point of view of a noble but peripheral family rising through the echelons of the royal court. Clothes, food, and the day to day preoccupations of sixteenth century, privileged women are vividly presented.

Jane is depicted as somewhat gauche but aware of the risks she is taking in becoming involved with Henry. Her loyalty to her family is key in the decisions she makes. Having witnessed how ruthless Henry could be to his wives she is aware of the precariousness of her position. Although wishing to promote the causes her supporters espouse she is mostly circumspect in her dealings with the king who has little patience with any who will not bend as he wills.

The author has chosen not to ascribe Jane’s death to the traditionally accepted puerperal fever. Her reasoning for this is compelling. By this time Henry was approaching fifty, suffering from leg ulcers and putting on weight. The couple’s supposed love for each other is shown to have serious caveats. It seems unlikely that the life Jane dreamed of would have been possible even had she lived.

Although the truly historic events are the same in all three of the books so far released in this series, the changing points of view provide new perspective and depth. This is an accessible and well structured account of a queen who, despite providing Henry’s longed for prince, is rarely granted as much attention as her predecessor. It provides an intimate window into the rarefied yet ruthless Tudor world.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: The Last Hours

The Last Hours, by Minette Walters, heralds the welcome return of a highly regarded author who has not published a new novel in more than a decade. In discussing why, she said:

 “To be honest, I got to the point where I was beginning to be so stressed out and needed a break. I’m a very slow writer, and then I get stressed out with publicity and the whole business of getting a book out. And then it’s people’s expectations. I suddenly felt that I needed a life.”

Unlike her previous work this new book is historical fiction. In talking about her change of direction the author admitted she had grown tired of the genre where she made her name:

“I love to innovate and, while it pleases me greatly that I’ve helped create the genre of psychological crime fiction, I’d be going against my nature if I didn’t look towards different horizons,”

The Last Hours is the first in a proposed two part series set in and around Dorset where the author now lives.

 “Each time I leave my house, I know that somewhere beneath my feet is a plague pit,”

It offers a captivating and chilling account of life as it would have been for lords and serfs in England, 1348, living in fear of a wrathful god and facing a virulent plague that kills victims within days.

The story opens on a hot summers day in the demesne of Develish, Dorsetshire. The lord of the manor, Sir Richard, is setting out on a journey to seal the betrothal of his fourteen year old daughter, Eleanor, to Peter of Bradmayne, the son of a neighbouring lord. Eleanor is unhappy with this choice of husband and blames her mother, Lady Anne, for not securing a more congenial match. She takes out her anger on their indentured serfs, particularly the handsome bastard son of a bondsman, Thaddeus Thurkell.

Sir Richard and his entourage travel to Bradmayne where their host plies Sir Richard with copious quantities of food and drink as he tries to relieve him of the promised dowry. Sir Richard’s Norman fighting men stand guard while his Saxon bailiff, Gyles Startout, observes what is happening beyond the manor’s boundary wall. The villagers are restless and prevented from entering. After several days their unrest turns to fear. There is news of a deadly sickness spreading from the port of Melcombe. While only the peasants are dying few seem to care but when Peter of Bradmayne takes ill the Develish men flee.

Lady Anne had long worked behind her cruel and selfish husband’s back to improve the lives of their serfs. When she hears of the sickness she recognises the danger and acts in all their interests. The entire village moves into the manor which is protected by a moat. Food is stockpiled and the bridge is burned. None know if any inside already carry the plague.

As time passes fear of sickness is only one of the challenges Lady Anne must overcome to maintain order. Food distribution must be carefully controlled and the boredom of people used to days filled with hard labour assuaged. Eleanor meanwhile is appalled that her mother has taken to dressing plainly and working with their serfs. Lady Anne has promoted Thaddeus to the role of steward and Eleanor does not feel he pays her the respect she considers her due. Believing herself above common law she seeks out vile entertainments.

Beyond Develish, villages are being wiped out by death or abandonment. Travellers pose a danger as food is scarce and symptoms of the plague take days to show. There are also lords travelling with their fighting men eager to acquire, by whatever means, anything of value left in the chaos. Lady Anne must use artifice and the loyalty of her people to keep them safe. With each success and acclaim for the brave, Eleanor grows more bitter and unhinged. Lady Anne recognises that they cannot live in this way for long, that some must venture out for news and supplies or her people will starve.

This is a broad, sweeping tale that transports the reader back to a time when few serfs would ever venture beyond the demesne in which they were born. They were property whose purpose was to be worked for the benefit of their lord. Even the gentry were tied to those ranked above them. The church was feared and sickness regarded as punishment. Lady Anne is way ahead of her time in understanding the need for cleanliness and in questioning the edicts of the clergy. She recognises that serfs who survive the plague will be few yet required to till the land. Ownership will, for a time, be in flux.

The various characters’ lives are presented in a manner that is relatable. Differences to today may be great but there are many parallels. The writing is masterful and consistently engaging. The author has lost none of her abilities to enthral her readers.

I have read many fictional accounts of plague ridden England but the breadth and depth of this one truly impressed. It offers more than fictionalised social history, it is high quality entertainment. I am already looking forward to its sequel.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Allen & Unwin.

Author quotes taken from this article: Minette Walters announces first book in decade – and retirement from crime fiction | Books | The Guardian

 

Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Anne Boleyn

Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession, by Alison Weir, is the second in a series of specially commissioned books each of which tells the story of one of Henry VIII’s wives from their point of view (I reviewed Katherine of Aragon, here). Like the first, this instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised story based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. As the author explains at the end, “The scenes in this novel are imagined, but they are not improbable.”

The story of Anne Boleyn has been told many times and from many directions both in books and on film. Each offers a slightly different take on a woman for whom relatively little personal historical detail remains. There are portraits, poetry, letters from the king, and occasional mentions in writing by her contemporaries. These have been woven into the various accounts with which those who have an interest will be familiar. All of this is to say that I was already aware of much of the story being told over these five hundred pages. I needed some fresh angle to hold my attention.

The story opens at Anne’s childhood home of Hever Castle in Kent when she is twelve years old and learns that she is to be sent away to serve at the court of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands. Anne is delighted by this news, especially as she is gaining preferment over her older sister, Mary. Her only regret is that she will be separated from her beloved brother, George.

Anne spends the next nine years serving in royal courts around northern Europe where she perfects her French language, manners and dress, and learns to play the game of courtly love. She is influenced by the scholars who visit with her mistresses, many of whom espoused enlightened views for the time on the role of women and the church. These views did not preclude the court gentlemen from attempting to have their way where the ladies were concerned. This is presented in what felt a very modern voice.

When war between France and England is threatened Anne returns home where she is found a place at the court of Queen Katherine. Here she falls in love but is thwarted. She is also noticed by Henry who starts his pursuit of her affections.

It took around seven years for Henry to find a way to marry Anne. This period is covered in around two hundred pages during which I struggled to maintain engagement. Naturally Anne changes over this difficult period in her life. She has chosen to eschew the love of others for the potential power of a match with a king.

There are other events to consider, especially those affecting her family. Anne’s regard for George is tested and her increasingly arrogant behaviour gains her enemies. She appears to do little of note while waiting other than call down vengeance on those who will not actively support her cause.

Once Anne is pregnant the story picks up pace although her inability to bear a living son is well known. As Henry seeks his entertainments elsewhere Anne becomes a solitary figure, widely disliked and with her hard fought for power on the wane. Anne’s enemies may now treat her as she did others.

Facing death, Anne takes on a piety that had not previously been obvious. I suspect this is not unusual. I balked at the portrayal of Anne’s decapitation. The Author’s Note at the end, especially on this, was interesting to read.

The author, a respected historian, offers new angles to consider in a number of areas which I will not spoil by detailing. She is an accomplished writer and the story flows. What it lacked, as far as I was concerned, was enough new material to maintain my interest. Given the book’s length, in places I needed more.

For fans of historical fiction this is a carefully researched and nicely written addition to the story of Anne Boleyn. I put my sometimes less than positive response above down to the number of other accounts of this queen that I have both watched and read. I do still look forward to the remaining instalments in this series. I know less about their protagonists.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.