Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Attack of the Killer Cucumbers

The Butcher of Smithfield: Chaloner's Third Exploit in Restoration London (2008)

Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew books are entertaining if slight medieval murder mysteries set in and around 14th century Cambridge University. More efficient than inspired, they're the kind of books you buy to take on holiday and then leave in the hotel for the next guest.

They pass the time enjoyably enough, but you're unlikely ever to want to re-read them, basically.

What they're definitely not is Patricia Finney style medieval spy novels, Smiley in Elizabethan times, with richly described historical detail, intricate and logically consistent plots and a cast of finely sketched characters moving around a wholly believable world.

Which is why I should have suspected Gregory's second series of historical detective novels might be a bridge too far for the author - and for the reader. The Thomas Challoner books are set immediately post the restoration of Charles II, with the eponymous hero a spy for the Earl of Clarendon - a position he formally held under Cromwell's government. It's a promising set up and an interesting and relatively unexplored period, but where in the hands of a Finney or Martin Steven I'd expect something deep and layered, here the prose is at best workmanlike and - more importantly - the central puzzle has so obvious a solution that the failure of Challoner to spot it for several hundred pages serves only to make him look an idiot.

An incredibly straight-forward and obvious anagram turned ludicrous co-incidence, a scattering of clues so completely telegraphed that they may as well have been written in a different font to the rest of the text and a tendency to change the intelligence of each character from page to page in order to shove the story onwards, made this a real struggle to read.

Add in a habit (admittedly slightly less pronounced than in the Bartholomew novels) of devoting paragraph after paragraph to pointless and unconnected historical data which serves merely to highlight that the author has done some background reading, and this is a book - and I suspect series - to avoid like the mysterious and poisonous cucumbers which kick off the mystery (that's not as interesting as it sounds, incidentally).

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