Here are capsule reviews of some detective and historical fictions.
Farthing, Jo Walton.A country-house whodunit set in a slightly alternate universe where Britain has made peace with Hitler and is sliding toward Fascism, and where about half the men are gay—a rather odd combination, but it mostly works because our detective is likable and isn’t guaranteed to win. The book, like so many from the Oughts, is full of the fear and loathing that pervaded the Bush years, though I think it’s also a fantasy of a world where Britain still matters and America is irrelevant…in your dreams, Jo.
The second in the series, Ha’-Pence, is based on the Mitford family (if you know who they are) and revolves around a version of Irish history that I should find fascinating but don’t. The third volume descends to the bathos of having the Queen come to the rescue. No, really, the Queen. Despite this, Walton does not spend a lot of time shilling for the British caste system, unlike a depressingly large number of English writers.
From Doon with Death and The Babes in the Wood, Ruth Rendell. It’s not often I get through two whole mystery novels by the same writer, though I admit it may be quite a while before I read a third. Rendell can write actual paragraphs in English, which is a rare mercy in the genre; she also has a gift for caricature, especially when it comes to snobs and bounders. Sadly, she doesn’t seem to like women much, and it is hard to take her Inspector Wexford seriously. When Wexford’s daughter is beaten, bound, and locked in a closet by her enraged and deranged boyfriend, he leaps into rare macho action, arriving at her house unarmed and with one colleague, also unarmed. He delivers a punch to the much larger and younger abuser, then gives him a ride back to his apartment.No arrest is made, no report written in case he turns up again, no-one suggests to the daughter that she could file charges or get a court order or anything. I know police fiction isn’t reality, but this is surreal, and suggests that Rendell is utterly clueless about the seriousness of such crimes.
The next Rendell novel I tried began with a bemused conversation about those crazy women’s libbers—what do they want?—and I had to give her a rest.
The Great Stink, Clare Clark. Historical novel about the building of the London sewer system, featuring a hero with a serious self-mutilation problem. More fun than that sounds…the historical atmosphere is nicely done, and that is a substantial achievement. Also, the London sewers transformed the city from a pestilential death-pit into a place where people might live long enough to be killed by the coal dust.\
Bring Out the Bodies, Hilary Mantel. The second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, it also won the Booker, though I think the Booker for Wolf Hall made more sense, since this book doesn’t add much to the very memorable portrait of T-Crom. In BOTB he orchestrates the downfall and judicial murder of the Boleyns at the whim of his master Henry VIII. Henry is a lot like Robert Barratheon, while Anne Boleyn and her brother George appear to be based on Cirsei and Jamie Lannister. I know that’s so wrong, but I can’t help the impression.