Monday, 25 May 2015

Murder & Mystery in the Ancient World: reviews of Danger in the Wind & The Marathon Conspiracy

Product Details 

Writing historical crime fiction has many challenges, as I know from writing Victorian Murder Mysteries. The challenges of writing crime set in the Ancient World must be even greater. To do the vast amount of research required and have a mastery of ancient texts is daunting enough, but this research has to be incorporated seamlessly into the narrative: lifestyle, geography, history, politics, all have to form the background without the reader ever thinking 'oh no, here comes another dreary info dump.'
Having accomplished this, there is the problem of making the attitudes of the past accessible and acceptable. In the Ancient World, one of the main sticking points is slavery. The only way to make your Roman or Greek protagonist credible is for them to accept the attitudes and culture of the time, although in deference to modern sensibilities, the hero or heroine always treat their slaves well. (In Rosemary Rowe's case her hero is actually a freed slave.)
I enjoy the lighter historical crime fiction, such as that delivered by Lindsey Davies, Rosemary Rowe and Jane Finnis. I was delighted to discover a series that was new to me, set in Athens, at the time when democracy was a new concept, and immediately put Gary Corby's Nicolaos series on my 'buy and read list.'

I have included two of the most recent book reviews that I have done for books by Corby and Finnis, although I would urge new readers to start at the beginning of the series.

As far as I know, Jane Finnis was the first author to create a female Roman detective. Finnis chose to set her Aurelia Marcella series in Roman Britain, in Finnis' native Yorkshire, far distant from the political hub of Rome and this sense of being in an outpost adds to the sense of danger.. Aurelia is an innkeeper, running a mansio for travellers, although because she is a woman, the deeds are in the name of her twin brother, Lucius. He is a Government Investigator, as is Aurelia's lover, Quintus, and between them they manage to involve Aurelia in many dangerous plots; not that Aurelia needs any help to find danger, she is very skilled at finding murder and mayhem for herself.

Danger In the Wind
by Jane Finnis.
(ISBN 978-1-59058-892-5)

It is 100 AD and Britannia seems to be settling down under Roman rule.  Aurelia Marcella, innkeeper of the Oak Tree Mansio, situated not far from York, is more concerned with domestic matters than political.  Her twin brother, Lucius has returned from the south, bringing with him the girl he intends to marry.  Vitellia is beautiful, rich and sweet-natured but Aurelia thinks she lacks the intelligence and force of character to make her brother a good wife.  To add to Aurelia's troubles her cousin Jovina invites her to visit her for her birthday party, a pleasant social invitation, except the last paragraph begs Aurelia to come and help her because 'there is danger in the wind.'  Jovina and her soldier husband are stationed in Isurium, an undistinguished fort further north and Aurelia has not seen her for some years.  On the same day a traveller is brutally murdered while staying at Aurelia's mansio and he proves to be a soldier, also stationed at Isurium.
Lucius is an investigator for the Emperor and he discovers that Eurytus, the Emperor's tax collector and the most hated man in Britannia, is also due to visit Isurium and there are threats of native uprising in the area.  Lucius, as Head of the Family, forbids Aurelia to go to Isurium.  He should have known better.  Aurelia is not a woman who would allow anyone to dictate to her in such matters and she heads straight up north to Jovina's aid.
Events in Isurium escalate alarmingly and Aurelia finds herself in a web of passion, greed, jealousy and political intrigue, which swiftly leads to violence and family tragedy.  As Aurelia struggles to prove the innocence of a kinsman accused of murder and to prevent native unrest erupting into a full-scale rebellion, she is grateful for the help of her brother Lucius and Vitellia, who proves not to be as lacking in spirit as Aurelia feared.  Above all, Aurelia is glad of the presence of her lover, Quintus Antonius Delfinus, a senior Imperial investigator, with whom Aurelia has shared many adventures.
Danger In The Wind is the fourth book featuring Aurelia Marcella and, as a series it gets better all the time.  The honest, witty and direct voice of Aurelia recounting the story; the warm (and at times mischievous) characterisation; the historical detail, which transports the reader to that time and places without ever becoming intrusive and the fast-paced who-dunnit style of the Aurelia books make them all page-turners.  I  read Danger In The Wind in less than two days.

As soon as I read the first lines of Gary Corby's The Marathon Conspiracy I was hooked. I love the ingenious way he weaves historical characters and fictional characters into a funny and gripping narrative. Corby's next Nicolaos and Diotima book Death Ex Machina has just been published and I am looking forward to reading it.

The Marathon Conspiracy
by Gary Corby
(ISBN: 978-1616955359 )

Nicolaos wants to take time off from investigating and concentrate on the preparations for his wedding to Diotima, his partner in investigation. Life is tricky enough with both sets of parents set on their own agenda and bickering to get the wedding celebrations run their way, without Nico's boss, the great Athenian statesman, Pericles, sending for him to investigate a somewhat unusual situation. 'Pericles didn't usually keep a human skull on his desk, but there was one there now. The skull lay upon a battered old scroll case and stared at me with a vacant expression, as if it were bored by the whole process of being dead. I stood mute, determined not to mention the skull. Pericles had a taste for theatrics, and I saw no reason to pander to it.'
The skull belongs to Hippias, the last tyrant to rule Athens. The Athenians had fought the great Battle of Marathon to get rid of the hated tyrant and thought he had died in Persia. What are his remains doing outside the city walls, discovered by two girls who attend the Sanctuary of Artemis, the Ancient World's most famous school for girls? The political fall-out of who amongst the Athenians now in power might have been a traitor and secret supporter of Hippias causes danger and unrest. One of the girls who discovered the skull is killed and the other disappears. When Nico and Diotima go to the Sanctuary of Artemis to investigate they realise that somebody is willing to kill them to prevent them discovering the truth. It is a race against time for Nico and Diotima to solve the historical mystery, the present day killing and abduction, unmask the Athenian traitor, not to mention managing to attend their own wedding.
This book is great fun. It is the fourth in the series but, from the first page, it is totally accessible even for those who have not read the earlier Nico and Diotima novels. Although it is very funny and moves at a great pace, it never makes the mistake of trivialising the murder of the young girl and the scenes with her distraught mother are beautifully handled. I wholeheartedly recommend this book and intend to read the others in the series.


Monday, 18 May 2015

Everybody Hates Critics, but I'm a Reviewer... Honest Guv!

'From my close observation of writers... they fall into two groups: 1.) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.' Isaac Asimov.

Recently, on Facebook, I read two entries by authors who were devastated by nasty reviews of their books and were doubting the validity of their work. There was nothing I could do to help, except send encouraging messages and urge them not to quit. I'm sure they won't. At least I hope not. Nobody who loves writing should give up because of a stranger's ill considered, or possibly spiteful, words.
That set me thinking: why would anybody take the time and trouble to write a really nasty book review? For that matter, why take the time and trouble to read an entire book that you despise? I suspect that very few of these reviewers are employed to do the job, so why read and review something that gives them so little pleasure?
I suspect that many of these 'reviewers' are getting mixed up with the old-fashioned role of the critic, the two words have been interchanged a lot. Traditionally the critic was employed by the media to review a book/ film/play/concert/piece of artwork, but, as the title 'critic' suggests, the most popular critics are often those who, in a fluent and derisive way, are nasty about several aspects of the work they are reviewing. Amongst creative people, the popular perception of such critics is that they are embittered by their own creative failure. As Robin Sharma puts it: 'Critics are just dreamers who got scared and gave up.'
When writing a review, the reviewer should remember that they are exposing not just the book and its author to public scrutiny and judgement, they are exposing themselves as well. Ego trips, spite and jealousy, or simple showing off, will all be obvious. They should also remember that, in the crime genre, critics are one of the categories of people that frequently end up as murder victims and their killers often claim it was 'justifiable homicide.'
I write crime novels: Police Procedurals and Victorian Murder Mysteries, and I've just completed a cosy/comedy crime book. So I've been on the receiving end of reviews, although I admit I've been fortunate so far. The worst star rating I've had on Amazon was a 3 star and the reviewer was perfectly civil, and that is far outweighed by the numerous 5 stars and occasional 4 stars I've received.
I'm not saying an author should ignore all but fulsome praise, just evaluate it and work out what the reviewer is actually saying and whether, even if it's said crassly, they have a point the author can learn from. When I receive feedback of any sort I consider it carefully. Sometimes a reviewer will put their finger on a weakness that I can amend, at least in future books.
'In my reviews, I feel it's good to make it clear that I'm not proposing objective truth, but subjective reactions.' Roger Ebert. 
I review books for Mystery People and the thing that I try to keep in mind, and hope the readers of the reviews do too, is that this is my opinion, not some great Everlasting Truth carved in stone.

Deciding which books I review for Mystery People has an element of luck in it from the start. The editor, Lizzie Hayes, sends a list of books that have been submitted to her, and her team of reviewers race to email her in order to ask for the ones they fancy. There are often books by authors I know and admire, which makes things easy, but the choice of others are a matter of a lot of luck and a little judgement, (done at high speed before another reviewer beats me past the post.) Sometimes books are not as exciting as I hoped but, as a rule, they are interesting, and occasionally, I've discovered an author whose work I love. Most notable of my new finds in the last year is Gary Corby, whose fabulous mystery series is set in Ancient Greece.

My reviewing process is basically the same for any fiction book that I review.
Having read the book I would:
1.) Write a brief account of the central characters, state whether it is contemporary or historical, mention the location and outline the start of the plot. I am careful not to put in any spoilers and will use the 'blurb' on the book's back cover to guide me as to how much the author wants revealed.
2.) Comment on any outstanding features, such as a fabulous title.
3.) Include any facts, such as whether it is the 1st book in a series, or the 101st.
4.) Write about my reaction to the book, making sure I put in all the positive points (e.g. lively characters, clever plot, satisfying ending, but not giving the ending away.) That doesn't mean I ignore anything that is less than positive, but, unless it is a glaring, factual error, I make it clear that this is my opinion. After all, I could find a character irritating that many other people love.
5.) I include any information that the reader might find useful, (e.g. exceptionally small print, which is hard to read.) I have been known to suggest that, in my opinion, readers should start at the beginning of a series; although, in other cases, characters and situations are are so clearly drawn that I feel the order of reading matters a lot less.
6.) I sum up, often suggesting the readers who would potentially enjoy the book.
7.) I provide the information readers would need: ISBN or ASIN number and publisher.

I would try to match the style of my review to the over-all tone of the book and, if appropriate, use a brief quotation from the book to show the style and quality of the writing.

For me the important thing about reviewing is to offer positive but honest feedback and to share information about books so that other people can seek them out and enjoy them too. And of course, to let authors know that some reviewers enjoy their work and admire what they do, and are happy to say so.