To disappoint or not to disappoint...

I've often had the experience of starting a book, not particularly enjoying it, and then suddenly being swept up in it. It's always great when this happens. Rather less so however when the book has the opposite effect; and I've read two books this week that have had both effects.

Cassandra Clark's Hangman blind had everything going for it. It was a medieval murder mystery in the Brother Cadfael style. Set later, around the time of the Peasants' Revolt, it features the likeable nun-hermit Hildegard, in the first of the Abbess of Meaux mystery series. It had so much potential, some great characters, what appeared to be a well constructed mystery, a bit of political intrigue, even a tiny bit of love interest. And yet, it didn't work....

My first inkling that there was going to be a problem was when the author kept referring to Richard II as "the Lancastrian king". I know enough about history to know that Richard was no Lancastrian, he was the last of the Plantagenets, and was ousted from his throne, and died horribly, thanks to Henry IV, who was Lancastrian. So the historical background begins to unravel immediately. Now this may be my particular bugbear because I'm interested in history, but worse was to come. (Dedicated thriller readers, look away now).

We have what appears to be an attempted murder, along with several rather nasty murders. And yet Clark weaves all the threads together only to cut them through, and reveal that the murder attempt was an accident; the one murder really was a murder but doesn't appear to matter to anyone, and, hey, the odd unauthorised execution is absolutely fine too. Even odder, one character attempts to fraudulently inherit his brother's estate, and that's fine, the brother doesn't seem to mind in the least; but kidnap said brother's wife, and this is treated as a dreadful crime. I suspect that in spite of the tales of chivalry medieval lords were pragmatic creatures; and the fraud is potentially much more serious than a minor kidnapping. This novel just did not make sense; and I was left feeling so disappointed after a promising opening.

On the other hand.....Martha Grimes' Jerusalem Inn was a pure delight. I picked this up completely by accident. I thought I had read it before, and thought it was another historical mystery. Wrong on both counts! Set sometime around the 1980s principally near Newcastle and Washington, England; this was a complete delight. Richard Jury, the Scotland Yard detective, is spending Christmas visiting his relatives in Newcastle. When he bumps into Helen, a lonely woman, who volunteers at Washington Old Hall, there is a hint of romance; so Jury is understandably upset when he returns to Washington to find Helen dead; and it doesn't appear to be by natural causes....

I thoroughly enjoyed this, and am planning to read lots more Martha Grimes. It has dated slightly, but in spite of that it's a well constructed thriller with enough twists and turns to please even the crime reader who's read it all before. There's a very clever murder method, a good dose of humour, and it reads rather like an Agatha Christie brought up to date. In fact I suspect that Christie is probably one of Ms Grimes' major influences. Martha Grimes is American, which was a bit of a surprise, as the story reads (almost!) as though it's by a British writer with just the odd slip that shows that the writer was probably not originally from these shores. It's a pet hate of mine when a writer writes as though they're a particular nationality and it doesn't sound genuine; that Martha Grimes' characters sound impeccably, if sometimes rather battily, British is a great compliment to her skill as an author. And as a crime novel it's great fun.

If you can overlook some historical defects and its weakness as a crime novel Hangman Blind may be the weekend reading for you, but for a real fun detective story go for a drink with Richard Jury and friends at Jerusalem Inn.


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