Saturday, October 22, 2005

Famous “Real” People as Sleuths

We had a very fascinating meeting last night, writes Jeannine. The topic was quite broad – famous “real” people as sleuths, from Elizabeth I to Elvis.

It was a good sized group, and many members had read more than one qualifying title (and some of us only part of one qualifying title). I took three pages of notes. We talked a LOT.

So here we go:
  • Quality of Mercy by Faye Kellerman was our first title. Kellerman is known primarily for her Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus mystery series (and for being married to Jonathon Kellerman), In Quality of Mercy, however, she departs her series for an historical whodunit starring Shakespeare and explores the world of the “conversos,” Spanish Jews posing as Anglicans in Elizabethan England, who practice their faith in secret to escape the Inquisition. The violence of the Inquisition is fairly graphic, but the history is well-researched, and the characters – including Shakespeare – are well developed. It was recommended as a good read for all.
  • The Eleanor Roosevelt mysteries by her son Elliott Roosevelt were quite popular, and various titles were brought up by at least 4 members. The first was Murder in the Red Room, which the reader found informative, with well-constructed characters and an overall good mystery. Another member read Murder at Midnight, but didn’t like it. She said the characters were okay, but she didn’t care for the White House setting or the story itself. On the other hand, two other members read Murder and the First Lady and Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom and enjoyed them immensely. Both loved the “inside” details of the White House and the times, the warmth and wit of the characters, and especially how Elliott shows his mother in such a great light.
  • Murder in Macedon by Anna Apostolou, starring Alexander the Great, was one of the clunkers of the night. Apostolou is a pseudonym for "an unknown author" (actually, Paul Doherty), and our member said “I wouldn’t put my name on it either.” The history was good, but the action was graphic and the story downright boring.
  • the Ben Franklin mysteries by Robert Lee Hall was another popular series. We had four read at least one in the series – two enjoyed it very much and two were unimpressed. The ones read were A Case of Artful Murder and A Case for Christmas Murder. The two that enjoyed it were fascinated by the historical detail and little known personal background on Franklin, that the author “put you into the place.” One member, however, did not like how the author put Franklin’s young illegitimate son in the place as a spy – you just don’t do that with children….
  • Speaking of spies, well, intrigue anyway, we have Lucrezia Borgia and the Mother of Poisons by Roberta Gellis. The member who tried to read this said it was well-enough written, but she just wasn’t in the mood. She was the first (but not last) to mention that having the main detective an historical person was a problem, spoiling the character development for her and leaving the characters somewhat flat.
  • the new Beatrix Potter series by Susan Wittig AlbertA Tale of Hill Top Farm and A Tale of Holly How was another series that popped up repeatedly. The first member who discussed the books said they were “nice” stories, gentle cozies with the flavor of the English countryside. She also thought the necessary research was a neat way for the Texan author to take a vacation to Britain. The other readers of this series had some trouble with the animals talking (to each other, not to people). One member didn’t care for the first one, then enjoyed the second one much more (yes, she too noticed how she read the second one after NOT liking the first…). The other member felt the narration was a little awkward introducing the characters, but found it interesting that A Tale of Hill Top Farm (see map below) was one of the few mysteries that did not have an actual murder. It doesn’t get any cozier than that. When the readers of this series were asked how it compared to Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series, Watership Down, and the Redwall series. They decided it was most like Watership Down, and that “Redwall is for children, so it’s much more violent than an adult mystery.” Why am I laughing?

  • Our next member was reading things other than our strict criteria and got lucky. She read a collection of short mystery stories (at least they were mysteries…) by various authors, The Mysterious North, all set in Alaska. And guess who she found as the lead in one story? Yes, a “real” person, Dashiell Hammett. The story is set during World War II and Hammett has a bar and brothel in Alaska and deals with murder, MPs and the black market. She wasn’t impressed – with Hammett, that is. She said all the stories in the collection were good, and including such authors as Sue Henry, Dana Stabenow and John Straley.
  • Cut to the Heart by Dianne Day, was, finally, a title that someone really liked. It features Clara Barton as a Union nurse in 1863, and is more an excellent historical novel than mystery, though there is a rather nasty surgeon up to no good (grafting limbs a la Frankenstein). The reader said she is a teacher who has always wanted to be a nurse, and discovered that the new person next to her IS a nurse and always wanted to be a teacher. So as a girl she had read all those biographies of Clara Barton, and was amazed at how much was left out of those children’s books. The men are just falling all over her in this version.
  • George Baxt, our next author, was read by two members. The first reader had always been fascinated by Dorothy Parker, so she read The Dorothy Parker Murder Case. She no longer is enamored with Dorothy Parker. She found Parker extremely tiresome and the entire Algonquin Roundtable were too full of themselves. Our other member had read numerous qualifying titles for our theme, and felt The William Powell and Myrna Loy Murder Case was by far the worst. It was nothing but name dropping, gossip, talking and drinking martinis. No depth, no plot. At this point several of us were wondering if it might be the author who is tiresome, not Dorothy Parker.
  • Next is Cannelloni and, no wait, that’s Canaletto and the Westminster Bridge by Janet Laurence. The reader of this one was quite pleased with it. She said it was a very good historical novel about a painter she had never heard of in which the mystery – a murder – is only incidental to the main story. Canaletto leaves Venice for London so he can paint the Westminster Bridge, but is waylaid at arrival by ruffians and rescued from the river by a young woman. And so on. She says it starts with a bang and keeps going.
  • If you still have cannelloni on your mind, this next one will wipe it right out of your memory. I read The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. Well, I started it. It has marvelous reviews, is extremely well written, with a very literary subject matter. Our detectives will (eventually) be Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and few other compatriots. Longfellow is translating Dante’s Divine Comedy from Italian to American English, and the other gentlemen meet with him every Wednesday night to discuss the translations, thus the Dante Club. Some of the Harvard elite are having fits over this, because Italian is a live language and therefore not Classic, and therefore simply not done. Which makes the Dante Club the only ones familiar with Dante’s Inferno. Only ones except a murderer. This sounds terribly safe and high brow, doesn’t it? I wish. The murders (evidently patterned after Dante’s levels of Hell) are beyond graphic. I read Cornwell. I read Reichs. I’m fascinated by forensics. I watch all 3 CSIs and only occasionally flinch. But this was too much. I made it through the first murder (first chapter) with it’s oh so special maggots. But when the second murder was equally horrendous and I knew there were more to follow, I kinda lost interest. There are a few images left in my head now that I could really have lived without. You have been warned. Anyone makes fun of me, I’m reading passages to you at lunch.
  • Now we just have to lighten up. And we can. A brave reader tried out an Elvis Presley mystery by Daniel M. KleinBlue Suede Clues. She said it was very lightweight and entertaining. She was glad that she had read the 2nd in the series, however, because when she read the first, Kill Me Tender, she was unimpressed and would never have read another one. She didn’t make it past the first chapter of Dante Club either.
Oh boy, only one more page of notes.
  • Bertie and the Seven Bodies by Peter Lovesey was another lightweight but enjoyable title. The Bertie of the title is Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the son of Queen Victoria. Bertie is a firm believer in deductive reasoning, always uses it in his investigations, and is always wrong.
  • We have more royalty. Stepping back in time a bit, we come to Elizabeth I. Karen Harper has a series that features Elizabeth I of England (we have a member of the Scottish Society in the group, I have to be very careful. Our Elizabeth II is their Elizabeth I). But I digress. Three members read books in this series, the two that listened to it (Davina Porter reading, highly recommended to us) enjoyed The Poyson Garden and The Tidal Poole. The one who actually read the book (with print and pages and stuff) did not like it. We’re not sure if there’s a deeper meaning in this or not. The ones who liked it, really liked it and said there was a complex murder and complex characters, clever attention to detail, and excellent development of Elizabeth’s character. And both found this a wonderfully painless way to learn history.
  • The Mysterious Strangler by Peter Heck (right) features Mark Twain as sleuth and is set in Florence and deals with three paintings discovered that may have been painted by Raphael. The reader has been to Florence and said the description was quite accurate and added to her enjoyment. Both recommended, and light.
  • The Jane Austen series by Stephanie Barron also came highly recommended by the club member who has read all of the series, and says they are full of good interesting detail and show good research.
Decorations and food were kept fairly simple. Pictures of famous people were matched with the cover of one of the mysteries they star in, set with a biography of that person. Refreshments were “celebrity food”: Washington’s apples, Paul Newman’s salsa, and cookies by the Keebler Elves (with a few other yummy things we haven’t thought of clever names for).

Please stop by for one of our meetings. You don’t even need to have read the book, just bring questions.