DONIS CASEY is the author of the award-winning Alafair Tucker Mysteries. The fifth Alafair Tucker Mystery, Crying Blood, will be published by Poisoned Pen Press in the spring of 2011. You can find her:
THE VIRGIN IN THE ICE: THE SIXTH CHRONICLE OF BROTHER CADFAEL by Ellis Peters
I have always loved historical novels. I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood, and would read anything I could get my hands on, but I would always choose a historical novel above any other genre. For me, a historical novel is like a cheap vacation. I love to go to a place and a time and live there for a while.
I discovered English author and scholar Edith Pargeter when I was in my twenties, and she quickly became one of my favorite historical novelists. The day came, of course, when I had read every historical novel of hers that I could find here in this country. Though I’m always happy to reread a good book, I did find myself hungry for any new historical dish by Pargeter. It didn’t take much research on my part to find out that under the pseudonym Ellis Peters, Edith Pargeter had created a fabulous series of historical mysteries featuring a Benedictine monk by the name of Brother Cadfael. The Brother Cadfael mysteries are set in Twelfth Century Shrewsbury, close by the Welsh border, during the long war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud for the English throne. Cadfael may be an elderly monk, but that doesn’t mean he’s innocent of the ways of the world. He gained all the skills necessary to untangle the knottiest mystery during his young manhood and middle age, when he served as a soldier and a sailor in the Crusades. There is little of human nature he hasn’t seen. And since he is also an accomplished herbalist, growing and mixing medicines for the Abbey, he is an expert on the properties of plants and poisons.
Each of the Cadfael novels is a fascinating read, but one of my favorites is the sixth, The Virgin in the Ice. This book stands out not just for its intriguing puzzle and indelible evocation of the Medieval English world, but because the reader learns much about Cadfael’s former life, and how the past has touched the present.
Two noble young people, seventeen-year-old Ermina and thirteen year old Yves, go missing, along with their companion and guardian, Sister Hilaria, following an attack on the city of Worchester by the Empress’ troops. The children’s uncle, newly returned from the Holy Land to serve as an officer in the Empress’ army, asks if he can be allowed to search for them in enemy territory, but the local Sheriff refuses permission.
Brother Cadfael is in the area, at the request of the head of the Priory of Bromfield, tending to a monk who had been seriously wounded in the fighting, and volunteers with several others to search for the children and their Benedictine nun companion. By chance, Cadfael finds the boy, Yves, sheltering from the blizzard with a forester. Yves tells him that they had been safe with a local lord during the battle, but his headstrong sister had run away with a suitor. Equally as impulsive, Yves had left Sister Hilaria at the manor and set out to find Ermina. As Cadfael and the boy are returning to Bromfield, they cross a frozen stream, where Cadfael spots the shadowy form of a woman’s body, frozen in the ice. Fearing that she is Ermina, he keeps his discovery a secret from Yves.
The next morning, Cadfael, his friend Deputy Sheriff Hugh Beringer, and a few other monks, chip out a block of ice containing the body and bring it back to Bromfield Priory, where they lay it in the chapel. As the ice thaws, Cadfael realizes that the young woman doesn’t fit the description of the missing Ermina. The mystery of the woman’s identity is solved when Yves tells Cadfael and Beringer that she is Sister Hilaria, whom he had left safe in their sanctuary. The nun had been raped and murdered, and because of some of the things he said while raving with fever, Cadfael fears that the wounded monk he is tending may have done it.
And where is Ermina? She has left her erstwhile suitor, who she has discovered is a cad, and arrives at Bromfield Priory, saved by an attractive young Syrian-born squire, who her uncle has sent incognito into the king’s territory to find the children.
What follows is a ripping tale of close calls, treachery, and narrow escapes. How seemingly unrelated events eventually weave together to create an amazing, but totally believable tale, is a testament to Peters’ skill as a story teller. She creates haunting images of winter; blizzards and wind like knives, cold stone castles, the beautiful young figure frozen in the ice beneath Cadfael’s feet. Her characters are capable of inhuman cruelty, as well as great acts of kindness and compassion, cowardice and heroism. Actions of a past long gone affect the events of the present, and change Cadfael’s life.
I had never had anything against mysteries, but neither was I a mystery addict in any sense of the word. But Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries rocked my reading world and inspired me to write historical mysteries of my own. Peters’ voice - the very way the books are written - evoke the times and the place with the language she uses. The character of Cadfael himself captured me. He is wise, tolerant, and world-weary, a man of his times. He has a true warmth, and by that, I don’t mean sentimentality or emotion, necessarily. I mean a deep humanity and heart that transcends even his formidable intellect. I want to spend time with him, and that is the secret of a successful fictional character. The setting, 12th Century Shrewsbury, is evoked so strongly that the reader comes away with the sense that she knows what it must have been like to live in that time and place. The Virgin in the Ice contains everything I love about historical novels, as well as a clever, thought-provoking, always surprising mystery.
Jimmy Callaway lives and works in San Diego, CA. For more rays of sunshine, please visit attentionchildren.blogspot.com
LOVERS ARE LOSERS, Howard Hunt
One day, a couple years back, I finished a full shift down at the Sev, came home, and got dumped by my girlfriend.
The next day, I finished a full shift down at the Sev, came home, and found out that up until recently one of my best friends had been sleeping with another ex of mine.
The next day, I didn’t have to work. I sat and read Lovers Are Losers in one sitting.
They say a liberal is just a conservative who hasn’t been mugged yet. I hold that the inverse is true: a conservative is just a liberal who’s been crushed by the bleakness of humanity, the futility of it all.
The hero of Lovers is Christopher Powell, and, in short, he’s pretty much a prick. Well, that’s a little unkind. Let’s put it this way: Powell is a hard man living in a hard world, a hard man who became that way in order to protect the good things in his life, which he can mostly count on one hand. Only thing is his world isn’t hard because of, say, racial inequality or economic stratification or even existential misgivings. No, it’s more to do with the evils of marijuana cigarettes, pre-marital sex, and even (gasp!) lesbianism.
It’d be less than honest for me to say that I didn’t have a chuckle or three at this ham-handed, early ‘50s white-bread morality which pervades the novel. And perhaps I was in an impressionable state of mind when I first read it, but this sort of outlandish lunkheadism on the part of the protagonist (and, it’s fairly safe to assume by extension, the author) was not as invasive or distracting as it could have been. For one thing, it was at least more subtle than Mickey Spillane’s stuff or Isaac Asimov’s, wherein the black characters all speak strictly in Old Plantation (“Yassuh, boss, I’s gwine ta shine yo’ shoes up real nice!”). For another, it is consistent throughout the work, so even if the characters are somewhat two-dimensional, all of them remain equally so. Give a hack like John Irving the same cast, and he’ll see to it that all the male characters are sympathetic and all the females are evil, evil, evil.
But what strikes me the most is simply the well-orchestrated, hardboiled-as-all-hell prose:
“Powell whistled. ‘I’ll bet you were hard to get, Carmen, really hard. Like catching a cold.’”
“[H]er red, half-open mouth was like a fresh knife-wound.”
“‘Thanks a lot,’ Johnston said. ‘Mind telling me how you got them?’ ‘Illegally,’ Powell said and hung up.”
Say what you will, but any guy who can come up with analogies and dialogue like that, the kind I’ll stack up against Chandler or Halliday any old time, a guy like that can have all the obviously right-leaning heroes and chicken-hearted commie villains he wants. Hell, Paradise Lost and The Last Temptation of Christ are two of my favorites, and I’m half a Satanist. It’s all in the delivery, folks.
And of course, Hunt was something of an expert on both conservativism and losing. About twenty years after the publication of Lovers Are Losers, Hunt’s first wife died in a fiery plane wreck, just months before he got sent to prison for almost three years for his direct involvement in the Watergate scandal. Understandably (somewhat so, at least) embittered by this, Hunt however never seemed to waver from his basic white male Republican outlook on life in America until he died a couple years back, right around when I was discovering this book. But given all the horseshit that you, me, and Howard Hunt have had to go through in our lives, one thing remains perfectly clear to me:
A lover is just a loser who hasn’t lost yet.
DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King
There are certain books you open up with a feeling of coming home. I'm not sure how many times I've read Stephen King's Danse Macabre but it's probably five or six times all the way through. And numerous times when I've opened it to read a specific arc or chapter. I started reading it when I was going through my latest series of radiation sessions and, as always, it made me happy. It's just one of those books.
Ostensibly the book deals with the traditions and tropes of horror fiction, movies, television, radio and comic books. But in the course of discussing horror from its inception to 1981 when the book was first published, King gives us a cultural, intellectual, and sociological overview of both our society and his own life. You're propelled through the book quickly because King has stocked it with so much information, discussion and smart-ass asides. The section on the terrible movie Robot Monster makes me laugh out loud no matter how many times I read it. And yes, there's even a picture of the guy in the gorilla suit and diving helmet. And I still can't believe that Elmer Bernstein, one of the truly great composers of movie music, wrote the music for it.
One of the pieces I was especially taken with this time--maybe because I'd just finished rereading Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury and Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser--is King's comparison of Bradbury-Dreiser. Huh? But he makes his case very well--I imagine King was a hell of a good teacher--noting that he's not saying they're alike in theme or style but in the way they frequently overplay their hands.
King has some occasional fun with science fiction fandom, remarking on its frequent complaint that science fiction novels rarely get much respect from the mainstream press. But as King points out, science fiction reviewers can be pretty savage on their own writers. I remember as a teenager not liking Damon Knight's reviews because of their meanness and, in the case of Richard Matheson, what I felt to be envy. According to Knight Matheson was a hack who could do nothing right. I'd say Richard's had a pretty good run despite Knight's opinion of him, wouldn't you?
The final segment, Horror and Morality, could stand alone as a lecture worthy of a semester's study if you coupled it with reading six or seven of the novels King mentions his discussion of horror's relevance to the culture at large.
Stephen King's written a lot of books. This is one of his best. It demonstrates that he's not only a first-rate storytellert but a first-rate thinker as well.
Steve Lewis/Dan Stumpf