Set in New York City in the 1840s, both books follow bartender-turned-reluctant-police-
Timothy Wilde continues to be a great first-person narrator—emotionally volatile, smart in some ways but amusingly dense in others (and therefore sometimes a bit unreliable), well-read with a poetic streak and fluent in “flash patter,” and good at meeting really interesting people. He’s got a bit of a savior complex that is mostly used to explore how complicated and awful the social issues plaguing New York are—there aren’t any easy answers here, despite Tim’s boundless bleeding-heartedness and the mostly-ineffectual savior complex it gives him. While I’m probably not the right person to give a definitive opinion on all the issues raised with a book with a white protagonist written by a white author that is mostly straight-up about saving black people from slavery, I do think it well avoided most of the common white-saviorey pitfalls, in that Tim certainly doesn’t sweep in and save the day—he screws up a lot, he’s the main player in only one issue of a fairly expansive web of interlocking Things Going On (his job is to find out who killed Lucy Adams), he works closely with a number of well-characterized people of color who often know more than he does, have more resources than he does, and generally have better things to do sit around and be grateful to Tim for his help. Even in the scene where Tim is literally dragged in to be a white savior—namely in Julius Carpenter’s identity trial, where only white people can give testimony—there’s minimal grateful carping, and it’s heavily subordinated to discussing actual issues of plot and observing the ways in which racist laws and restrictions eat away at the people who have to constantly live under them.
Faye also continues to give both an unflinching look at the absolute misery the Irish famine immigrants suffered through, both on their way to New York and the prejudice they faced when they got there—something that tends to get soft-pedaled in a lot of American History courses—and an equally unflinching look at what utter bigoted, nasty thugs some of the Irish could be when it benefitted them, including an interesting portrayal of the NYPD’s first thoroughly crooked cop, an Irishman in league with the slave-catchers. Unfortunately, the degree to which the Irish in the U.S. “earned” respectability through corruption and attacking other immigrant and minority groups is something that’s also frequently ignored in our popular understanding of history.
On a more fun note, we get to see a lot of fun old faces again, and often learn more about them. Bird Daly makes some reappearances, as does the deplorable brothel madam Silkie Marsh. Gentle Jim plays a bigger part, and we get to see a bit farther past Mrs. Boehm’s respectable German landlady face. Julius Carpenter, unsurprisingly, becomes a very major character and brings with him a host of interesting connections involved in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. Also, there continues to be lots and lots of Valentine Wilde, who continues to absolutely steal the show on every page that he’s on and several that he isn’t, because he’s just that over-the-top about everything.
Two minor things did bug me: There is a lot of people “snapping” their heads around when something catches their attention, which is the sort of authorial tic that you don’t notice until you notice it and then it bothered me every single time and made my neck hurt. Also, for some reason all the Irish are either redheads or “black Irish,” which is a specific type of coloring, and like… many, many Irish people are neither of these. Many, many Irish people are “fair” (blonde) or sort of lighter brunette, but I don’t know if we’ve met any “fair” Irish in the whole series thus far. It’s a little weird? Especially since the rest of the series is ridiculously researched right down to the ground.
But those are nitpicks. Overall, I just want the next book to be out ASAP!
There’s little to say about Guards! Guards! that hasn’t been said by a billion Pratchett fans over the years and that hasn’t been discussed to death, accompanied by many pictures of nuns, over at Mark Reads. As for my own personal reactions—I, for one, love everything about this book. I love stuff that has fun with noir, because I love noir-ishness but am bad at taking things seriously sometimes, and I love that we get to really stay in and explore Ankh-Morpork, and I love Sam Vimes as a sometimes-goofy take on Sad Drunk Noir Protagonist Man who is also a genuinely well-drawn and engaging character, even at this early stage. And I love the dragons, both all the nifty stuff about the fancy dragons and the shaping power of belief on the Discworld (I eat that power of belief stuff up with a spoon in books, possibly because I’m a dreadful cynic in real life) and the swamp dragons (or as they are now known as, DRAGON PUPPIES!). And of course, I love the hell out of Lady Sybil, aristocratic badass. In addition to embodying one of my favorite tropes ever, Weaponized Manners, she’s vulnerable without being weak or useless, kind without being soft, and still, awesome without being perfect. In short, she’s Lady Sybil Ramkin, and she has finally shown up!
And then occasionally, someone gives me a book and it looks so awesome and timely and Relevant To My Interests that I actually drop everything and read it next. This is what happened when a friend gave me a paperback copy of Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham, a historical fiction police procedural murder mystery set in 1845 New York. Two very important things happened in New York in 1845: one, the NYPD was formed, and two, the Irish potato famine started, sending waves of destitute Irish flooding into the city, bringing all the misery and social upheaval of rural Ireland with them, and also typhus.
Our protagonist is a young guy named Timothy Wilde, who at the beginning of the story is doing well enough for himself as a bartender, saving up nearly enough money to ask Mercy Underhill to marry him and trying to not get too tangled up with his morphine-addicted firefighter brother Val, who is heavily involved in the Democratic Party machine. Tim and Val are orphans, as their parents had died in a house fire when they were kids, leaving both kids with all sorts of issues and the need to become independent very quickly. Unfortunately for Timothy, another fire incinerates his bar, his house, and all his money, which is how he ends up assigned to Ward Six—the slummiest ward, obviously—as one of the first “copper stars” of the NYPD.
Timothy spends some time breaking up fights and generally feeling miserable until he meets Bird Daly, a ten-year-old “kinchin-mab” (you’ll have to read to find out what that is) who leads him to a horrifying series of crimes involving dismembered children. Timothy, who cares about children more than a lot of people in the mid-nineteenth century, insists upon investigating, and follows a dangerous and convoluted path to the truth, uncovering a lot of sordid secrets about a lot of people along the way—including himself, his brother, and his beloved Mercy Underhill.
The aforementioned sordid secrets are all pulled off really well, both believable and shocking (and not repetitive), in part because the characterization in this book is brilliant. Timothy Wilde is very smart but he is often clueless about certain things that turn out to be rather important, and he’s often—but understandably—misled by his own misunderstandings of people. Valentine is a larger-than-life figure in every way, as you’d hope a guy with a name like “Valentine Wilde” would be, but is surprisingly complex. The secondary characters are hugely colorful, from the sickly children’s doctor Palsgrave to the brash, grown-up-too-fast newsboys. There is literally nobody in this book who is boring, not even Mercy Underhill.
To be frank, I expected Mercy to be boring, because she is the Designated Female Love Interest and they usually are. More so when they are dedicated charitable types—they always come off as squishy, bland, selfless constructs of idealized feminine nurturing whatever. Mercy is none of this. Mercy is a more fully realized character than our narrator has any idea of until about three-quarters of the way through the book. I would love to read a book that was entirely about Mercy Underhill.
One cool thing this book does is that each chapter starts off with a quotation—a standard enough practice these days, and one that I usually enjoy—but instead of being quotes from works of great literature or whatever, they’re all excerpts from letters and news reports and other “nonfiction” pieces of the time. A lot of them are really nasty anti-Catholic propaganda, which I think does a good job of underscoring the degree to which Catholics were considered Definitely Not Christians and to which the Irish were considered Definitely Not White People, which are both things that I think are hard for modern audiences to really grasp—I remember learning in school that yes, every new wave of European immigrants was met with fear and suspicion, but I always kind of assumed that it was only middling-level xenophobia, because the Irish and Italians and other “white ethnic” groups have since become so well-established. But no, the stuff people in the 1840s were saying about Catholics and about the Irish in particular reads today like complete batshit-crazy tin-hattery. Some of the other quotes are about things like the sanitary conditions of New York at the time and newspaper reports on the potato famine. Overall, they’re very well-chosen and really do manage to provide some background, and don’t seem tacked-on at all.
Since this is a big scary sprawling Gothic that took place at an extremely volatile time in New York’s history, I would issue a content/trigger warning for probably every single thing that could warrant a content warning, including graphic murder, child abuse, infanticide, child prostitution, attempted lynching, racism, use of the n-word, fire, gross medical stuff, and probably other things. It’s all handled well, I think, but this is definitely a book for morbid individuals with strong stomachs.
The book club meeting was last Thursday, and I finished the book tonight, so it turns out I missed that book club meeting too. Oh well.
The reason this book took me goddamn forever to read is 100% due to crazy life hecticness that leaves me no time for reading, and not at all due to the book being not good. I know some people think it starts off slow, but I think it starts off a good kind of slow that I love in procedurals/mysteries/that sort of thing... jumping right into everything being totally batshit and continuing that way is good sometimes, but in a book where the worldbuilding is such a huge part of how the crime is put together, I like the sort of slow frustrated poking around in the beginning. It really picked up a lot at the end, and honestly, I thought the end was maybe even too rushed, so apparently I like slower-paced mysteries than the people in book club who were posting about it.
Our protagonist is a middle-aged homicide detective dude named Tyador Borlú, of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad. Beszel is a vaguely Eastern European post-Soviet sort of city, located in the exact same spot as another city, called Ul Qoma. These cities operate simultaneously by splitting up the area, by street and patch of grass, and in some places "crosshatched," using a variety of colors and mannerisms and all sorts of little signifiers to keep them separate and different. Being in one city but crossing into, or even acknowledging stuff going on, in the other is called breaching, and will bring down a shadowy authority called Breach upon you, and then you may get disappeared. The plot happens when Borlú is called to investigate the murder of an unknown woman, and they finally figure out that she was actually from Ul Qoma. This leads first Borlú and his junior cop buddy, Corwi, and later Borlú and his Ul Qoman inspector partner, Dhatt, into a series of increasingly bizarre conspiracies involving political extremists of both the nationalist and unificationist varieties, a lot of confused archaeologists, and a discredited archaeological theory about a secret third city called Orciny.
As far as police procedurals go, this is SUPER POLICE PROCEDURAL-Y. There is lots of swearing and drinking coffee and complaining about paperwork, and everyone generally being gruff and hard-boiled and cranky. Female representation is fairly low, although not that bad by hard-boiled-detective-story standards--Corwi, the junior cop, is pretty badass when she's around, and never develops any tiresome romantic or sexual tension with Borlú, although she does get relegated to the background in the second half of the book when he goes over to Ul Qoma. The dead girl, obviously, is dead before the story even starts, but even so, she ends up being a pretty fascinating character. The other girl mixed up in this conspiracy also winds up dead, unfortunately. Borlú has two girlfriends, because of course he does, although they both very sensibly stay off-page for most of the book, which I am actually pretty OK with as it means the book features exactly zero sex scenes, which is something I think more non-children's-books should do. Overall it is still a pretty dude-heavy book. That is probably my biggest complaint about it, although it is a half-hearted complaint considering the number of dudely crime books where the women who are there are all terrible and oversexualized. So this is a non-gross dudely crime book, stuffed full of all the fun bits of crime-bookiness, like sharp punchy sentence fragments and always leaving it to the next chapter to tell you what it is that the narrator just figured out that is super important.
If you like police procedurals and noir and all that gritty shit, The City & the City is a fantastic addition to that genre, lovingly squishing in everything that makes a good police mystery a good police mystery into the weird knots and cracks of really fascinating "new weird" worldbuilding. If cranky foulmouthed homicide detectives aren't really your thing, though, I would probably not recommend it unless you're SUPER into urban worldbuilding to make up for it.
Reading along with Mark Does Stuff, I've just finished rereading what might be my favorite Tamora Pierce book, Bloodhound. Predictably, the stuff I thought was the most awesome was precisely the stuff that bored some other people, and the stuff that irritated other people did not irritate me at all, and the few things that I did dislike basically bugged only me.
Whatever. I still think Bloodhound is fabulous. The main plot is about counterfeiting, which I think is amazing because economics are awesome, and it really fits in well with the “doggy books'” exploration of class, being the only Tortall subseries about people who aren't noble (or live closely with the aristocracy) and who live paycheck to paycheck. I also love the exploration of Port Caynn, because port cities are fun, and having Beka, who is so tied to Corus and whose identity is very much bound up in her home and her neighborhood and her people, have to adjust to working in a whole different environment and try on a whole new identity while she's at it.
Pearl Skinner is also a great villain because, in a refreshing departure from the sympathetic genius villains we see so much of, she is thoroughly unlikeable in every way, and she is stupid. And honestly, don't mean and stupid people often seem to rise to the top in the real world? Charisma certainly helps, and the charismatic villain is someone we should all read lots of stories about and learn to watch out for, but there really are quite a surprising number of people who seem to acquire and keep power through sheer assholitude, despite a total lack of ability to actually manage it or to get anyone to like them. And with those kinds of people, having that power seems to further insulate them from having to ever get a fucking clue, and they just get dumber and meaner until, in the real world, they're writing whiny Wall St. Journal op-eds about how those lazy peasants are so meeean and ungrateful these days, just because we crashed the entire world economy to the ground, like that has anything to do with someone being unemployed or losing their house, where do they get these crazy Communist ideas? ...Ahem. Anyway, in Pearl Skinner's case, she's mean and vicious and stupid and irresponsible, and surprise surprise, she'd rather kill herself then actually face up to the consequences of her actions. Also she abuses her minions and kills off co-conspirators until the remaining ones are chomping at the bit to turn on her the second it looks like they might get away with it, which is one of the elementary Evil Overlord mistakes on that list that was popular around these here Internets a few years ago.
There is, of course, more to this conspiracy than Pearl, because Pearl is too stupid to have come up with it on her own; just stupid enough to go along with it.
The bulk of this books seems to be Beka Learning Things, even though she's not in training anymore like she was in Terrier. She learns how to handle her adorable scent hound, Achoo, and she learns about Port Caynn, obviously. She learns more about detective-ing and continues to conquer her shyness and learn the “soft skills” needed in a people-facing job like Dog work. She also learns How To Flirt, which is a subplot of the book that I have very strong but also somewhat contradictory feelings about.
One the one hand, I do appreciate that How To Flirt is presented as stuff Beka must learn and think about, that it is awkward and uncomfortable when she just applies the usual Stuff Is Happening sorts of mental processing to it, and that she has to decide to deliberately employ certain maneuvers that she has copied from other people. I appreciate this because God damn do I hate it when people act like flirting is just a naturally occurring consequence of being older than 13 and like there is no social learning or construction going on. I mean, it's one of my pet peeves when people act like any kind of knowledge is naturally occurring and does not have to be learned, but stuff involving sex and romance pisses me off the most, most likely because if you actually start paying attention and looking at who thinks what and where are you getting your knowledge or basically apply any form of metacognitive or critical awareness, it becomes screamingly obvious that finding two people who actually have the same ideas about How It Works Obviously is next to impossible. And yet most people seem really certain that there is a universally understood Way It Works and apparently no amount of endless miscommunication will convince them that this is actually a confusing and ambiguous subject, and, for all the lip service given to The Importance of Communicating in Relationships, it's next to impossible to get someone to actually identify their expectations and tell them to you in plain English so that you can compare your ideas about How It Works. So I like that Beka is not automagically on the same page as everyone else just by existing.
On the other hand, the text still sort of presents Beka as the odd one out and all third parties as being fully on the same page about what is in the body of knowledge that Beka has to acquire in order to pursue romantic relationships. This is bollocks. Also, I really hate Dale. I never particularly liked him—I thought he was sort of boring and I used to kind of breeze through his sections without thinking about it very much like I do with most other Obligatory Romantic Subplots in fiction—but reading along with the MR community really made me hate him more. This is because in the MR community there was a lot of discussion about who liked what and what wasn't working for whom etc. etc., and generally the only thing that occurred universally was that everyone in the commentariat is a relatively sensible and aware-of-other-persons-existing sort of person and, as such, we all agreed that people's mileage may vary greatly in what they do and do not find sexy or annoying. This, for me, threw into sharp relief how much not a single person in the cast of Bloodhound thinks that anybody's mileage may vary, and Dale is the worst of the lot. It's not that Dale is a bad person. It's just that Dale is a rake, and so I hate him for the same reason I hate most rakes, which is that they get into a particular groove of this is their rakey way of doing things, and they forget that their personal groove is not an immutable law of the universe and human nature. And I realize that having the whole conversation about what individual people do and do not like and what each person's expectations are and etc etc etc all that stuff that most dudes won't even arse themselves to talk about with supposedly serious partners (I say “supposedly” because of the number of times I've seen—and, once, been subjected to—“serious” being assumed out of a certain length of time without any discussion of what it means or whether the other party wishes to take the relationship to some sort of “next level”) isn't fun, and the whole point of being a rake is to just have fun without the serious bits, but the result tends to be self-absorbed, oblivious people who expect pretty members of their preferred gender to just automatically and seamlessly slot themselves into the rake's preferred modus operandi, and apparently they somehow manage to shield themselves from ever even learning that not everyone is guaranteed to be playing their game the way they're playing it, and they act all shocked and confused and surprised like they've never heard of such a thing when one of their marks has some sort of personal like or dislike or quirk or history or, you know, anything. I think they might block it out on purpose because it would require effort to remember. Dale is not only not an exception to this, he's pretty much the quintessential embodiment of oblivious lazy rakish assumption-making. I mean, if a dude in his twenties who's supposedly met oh so very very many ladies in his day tells you he's never met a woman who doesn't like being snuck up on and grabbed from behind in the street at night, that dude is either deeply, deeply stupid, or he's lying and he thinks you're deeply, deeply stupid, because it is wildly statistically unlikely that that is actually the case.
Dale also makes Beka sit around and watch while he plays games. This is a practice that needs to die in a fire.
Unfortunately, the book rather comes down on the side of Here Is What Flirting Is, Everyone Agrees On It, You Will Like It Once You Learn Because It Is Fun, Period. Which, sorry, Tamora Pierce, 99% of what you write is pure genius, but that's the most stupid lie about human sexuality I've heard since Cassandra Clare had someone dead seriously describe Jace Wayland as “everyone's type” and had another character use him as a test for whether or not she was a lesbian. I understand it's important to have books for teens that don't shame female characters for being sexual but everyone needs to stop portraying shit as universal when it isn't universal. (This goes double for whoever wrote Blood and Chocolate; I still have a headache from trying to follow the characters' thought processes in that book.)
Luckily, Beka's being unthinkingly groped by Dale is only part of what she spends her time in Port Caynn doing. She meets a lot of characters who are actually intelligent and interesting, from Master Finer, the cranky genius silversmith, to Amber Orchid, a nightclub performer and a transwoman who lives by day as a dude named Okha in a relationship with a gay man (apparently Port Caynn's queer scene doesn't have their terminology sorted out nearly as neatly as the modern world does) and who also gathers information on Pearl Skinner and her court but simultaneously refuses to act as a birdie to her boyfriend, who is a Dog. Amber is a very smart lady and I would read an entire book just about her. Beka also learns a lot about what a really corrupt police force looks like, which I really appreciate—a lot of cop stories show the cops as being pretty unequivocally the good guys, but I feel like the Beka Cooper books do a much better job of simultaneously illustrating how cops can be the good guys and why it is that societies need well-functioning police forces, but also not shying away from the fact that well-functioning police forces are actually pretty rare and difficult to achieve, and at least as often what you get is a bunch of venal bullies with power issues demanding respect without doing much to earn it. (Although even in Port Caynn it looks like none of the corrupt Dogs have been casually choking random civilians to death. Also, can the news go away this week?) And there's a rather heartbreaking bit about one of the Cage dogs in particular, how she left the street beat and became a Cage dog (that's the professional torturers, basically) for the sake of her kids, in order to stay safe so she could raise them without worrying that she was going to die, but the job has inured her to enacting violence upon the helpless so much that she's started hitting her kids.
Also, the action scenes are great. Tamora Pierce has always been fabulous about writing action scenes, but these are extra-great, because they are so visceral and gross and I really get the feeling that with Beka's books she's leaving the “YA” idea behind as anything other than a marketing designation—Beka is an adult and these are adult action scenes. Also, I think it's very important to have violent visceral action scenes in a book that's mostly about money, in order to ground it. So we get the bread riot, a solid punch in the gut to bring home what's really so bad about crop loss and rising food costs, and this is effectively placed at the beginning of the book in and among a lot of conversations about the chaos that could occur from runaway inflation, which is a thing that is basically also all the prices rising, just with different money theory stuff behind it. Also, the climax isn't just, like, smashing up all the counterfeit monies; it involves literal swimming in shit, which I think serves as a nice metaphor for a country being awash in money that isn't even worth shit.
In short, COUNTERFEITING YAY.
Like all the best crime novels, this story actually focuses on two cases, which are related. In a deviation from the usual formula, we actually find out how these cases are related pretty early on: the Shadow Snake, the child murderer who kidnaps small children to extort treasures from their families, has killed the grandson of Crookshank, a neighborhood crime lord who seems to be doing some sort of hidden mining operation involving fire opals, and killing off his diggers. It’s the murder of baby Rolond that kicks off investigations into both of these plotlines.
Beka Cooper is just starting out as a trainee member of the Provost’s Guard, which is basically the city watch/rudimentary police force. She is assigned to the two very best and most well-known and awesome pair of Dogs (as they call themselves) on the Evening Watch, which is the interesting one. These are Mattes Tunstall, the laid-back goofy one, and Clary Goodwin, the hardass sarcastic one. They are both great, great characters as well as great Dogs. Beka, having moved out of Lord Gershwin’s house where her family lives, is also living in her very first own apartment (which is apparently a one-bedroom, as there are other people in her lodging-house but they’re not in her “rooms”, which makes me super jealous! My first apartment was an eight-bedroom. I would love a one-person apartment. On the other hand, apparently medieval apartments do not have kitchens, which would make me sad). She makes FRIENDS!! with a bunch of other Puppies (trainee police) and also some “rushers” (persons on the other side of the law) from Scanra, who are all darlings despite two of them being professional killers. Rosto in particular is like a bizarre mashup of Jamie Campbell Bower as Jace Wayland in the terrible TMI movie and Jamie Campbell Bower as Slutty Playboy King Arthur in that terrible Camelot show. He’d definitely be bad news for Beka but as a character he’s hilarious and weird and there is lots of very bizarre UST between him and Beka and it’s just gloriously awkward.
The journal format seems to have bugged a lot of people, but I have a giant soft spot for journal format books. I also love the extra-old-fashioned language—I remember it throwing me off a bit the first time I read the book, but it’s just so fun! The swears in particular! Every time I read a Beka Cooper book I remember that I have to call more people terrible medieval names like “sarden cankerblossom” in real life instead of just being like “What an asshole” every time someone’s an asshole, but alas, I keep forgetting.
Reading this with the MR commentariat also meant I learned a lot of interesting stuff along the way, including recipes, and that twilsey is a real thing that you can make with fruit vinegar because fruit vinegars are also a real thing. (My foodieism needs serious work. I must become a proper foodie; they know how to have fun. Especially in Paris.) (By the way, does anyone know what you actually do with vanilla butter? I bought some…)
Thumbs up A+ would read again, I freaking love Tamora Pierce.
It didn’t take me so long to finish Farewell, My Lovely because it was bad! Indeed, it was very good, despite the viewpoint character being an asshole. Farewell, My Lovely is told from the point of view of “hard-boiled” (i.e., casually sexist and racist, alcoholic, kind of an asshole but in a quietly grouchy way that makes you like him better than you should) private detective Philip Marlowe, a man who attracts getting concussions like honey attracts flies.
Oddly, Marlowe first gets enmeshed in plot not due to his actual occupation as a private investigator, but just from hanging around on the street somewhere, where he witnesses a gigantic dude named Malloy, on his first day out of prison after an eight-year stint for bank robbery, wander in a bar looking for his ex-girlfriend and promptly shoot the manager upon not finding her there. The police are cranky about Marlowe doing anything except be a witness, which he initially chafes at, but he is distracted in a timely fashion by being hired to be a bodyguard for a rich playboy named Lindsay Marriott, who is buying some jewels back from the thieves who took them in a stickup. Marlowe thinks something is weird but he doesn’t figure out what it is until he goes to the meeting and gets a concussion, and wakes up to find Marriott murdered.
From then on there is a lot of detective-ing and smoking of cigarettes and having people get mad at him, plus a few more concussions, and some dangerous attractive women, because of course. A lot of it is in really old-school gruff forties detective talk; most of the time I could figure out what they were talking about but about ten percent of it all I heard was “I heard you like noir, so I put some noir in your noir so you could noir while you noir” and then I had a mental image of Humphrey Bogart in a greatcoat and fedora.
You’re not giving me one more damn concussion until Lauren Bacall shows up, okey?
The book is written in first person POV, and the style is really interesting to me—mostly it trundles along in very stark and serviceable prose, sometimes almost police-report-y in its mundanity—“The man did thing X and then thing Y and then thing Z”—and then every now and again a darkly hilarious quip or beautifully apt metaphor suddenly pops up and socks you in the face. It’s a master class in understated, gruff sass.
For all the getting concussed and people dying, this isn’t really a very action-packed book. The middle is a bit, most notably featuring an exciting escape from being drugged and fraudulently imprisoned in a possibly-illegal private rehab clinic, but most of it is Marlowe and various cops and the aforementioned dangerous beautiful women standing around theorizing gruffly and drinking a lot, or questioning old ladies and drinking a lot, or philosophizing about bugs and drinking a lot.
With Marlowe trying to do two things in one novel—the first thing being to look for Malloy’s ex-girlfriend Velma while the cops look for Mallow, and the other is to figure out who killed Lindsay Marriott and why—it is somewhat inevitable that the two cases would wind up being connected, so I was not particularly shocked when this happened, but I admit to finding it quite satisfying and suspenseful figuring out how they were connected. It’s not at all obvious, but it doesn’t rely on hiding important stuff Marlowe knows from the reader until the reveal, either. So I feel it was a structurally sound mystery story.
I will admit that at no point did I get super excited about this book, even though I usually love noiry stuff with gangs and murders and mysteries and drinks, but this may have been a result of me having to read it in tiny drips and drabs of time around a massively increased work schedule and all the prep I needed to do before going to Paris tomorrow (eeeee!). It’s a sharp quiet dark little book about a sharp quiet dark little PI, and I’m glad I read it, although I wish I’d been able to give it the time I suspect it deserves.
The book was The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, by Judith Flanders.
The subtitle is a little misleading as it makes the book sound like it has a stronger thesis than it really does; it’s not really arguing a point so much as dumping lots of fun information on the reader. The book covers about fifty murders that took place in the UK in the nineteenth century. For each one, it describes the murder, gives some historical background about how it fits into general fears of the time or trends in murders (poison panic, burial-club panic, etc.), then discusses how the murder was dealt with in the, um, ‘nonfiction’ press, and lastly discusses instances in which the murder shows up in nineteenth century fiction. There is also some discussion of the development of the police, and particularly detectives, as a professional and cultural institution. The book’s thesis, essentially, is just that the Victorians were SUPER INTO murder, and that the ways in which they were SUPER INTO murder laid the groundwork for modern crime entertainment like murder mystery novels and TV procedurals. I, for one, am willing to accept this argument as being pretty well supported.
I was already familiar with some of the issues discussed here; I had the good fortune to do a short unit on “sensation novels” in undergrad as part of a nineteenth-century British novel course, and a few years ago I read an excellent, in-depth book about the Road Hill House murder and early Scotland Yard, Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. I also remember gawking over the Jack the Ripper crime scene photos at CrimeLibrary like a proper little babybat sometime in high school.
This book introduced me to so many more murders, though, including some really weird ones. I found it fascinating to compare which murders caught the public’s imagination, and which ones didn’t, even when it seemed like they should have—and I was particularly interested to see how the ones that did get turned into entertainment for mass consumption got written and rewritten, with the victims or, sometimes, the murderers getting cleaned up to be more sympathetic, class and political attitudes grafted on to the “narratives”, sometimes narratives being created nearly out of whole cloth from a handful of sensational details (Jack the Ripper may be the most egregious offender in this category), newspapers picking this side or that—the victim, the murderer, the detectives, the family, the press itself.
For me, most of the fun in this book comes from the excerpts of plays, newspaper articles, interviews, etc., particularly the really trashy ones. Trashy Victoriana is very, very trashy; in many cases, it is also quaint and badly spelled. Awkwardly scanned verse abounds (“We beat him dreadfully upon the floor,/We washed our hands in his crimson gore” –from a broadside reporting on murderess Maria Manning). There are a lot of awkward Victorian line drawings of dismemberments and public executions, which have to be seen to be believed. Judith Flanders has an excellent talent for summarizing penny-blood and melodrama plots in a sort of snarkily affectionate tone that makes me really want to read these pieces even though they are clearly laughably dreadful. (I am sure this is partly because I am the sort of person who just purchased a copy of Varney the Vampire.) Flanders is a social historian, and the weird historical tidbits she gives us paints a great picture of just how weird the Victorian era was—excerpts from Punch & Judy shows, magazine advertisements for arsenic soap, and the solidly shameless behavior of the highly respected Madame Tussaud’s waxworks company, who never met a piece of murder memorabilia they didn’t try to buy. I finished this book kind of wishing I could time-travel to the Victorian era but also being really glad I don’t live there, which is just as it should be.
I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in weird history or Gothic fiction.
Snuff is Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld book, and it is a Sam Vimes novel, and it is... rather dark. The title is a pun; the major plotlines involve both a murder and tobacco products. It is also a "such-and-such fantasy species and its place in modern society" book; in this case, it's goblins.
The basic plotline is that Lady Sybil has finally talked Sam into taking a vacation out in the country, at her ancestral estate. Sam is not happy about this, as he is deeply uncomfortable with the country and all the weird ways in which it is unlike the city, being full of green things and farm animals and farmers and such. Lots of the local people--both the common folk and the country nobs/gentlefolk--are suspicious of Sam, and Sam is suspicious right back at them. Sam thinks something Is Up but cannot tell what.
Then, the local blacksmith disappears, and the body of a goblin girl is found brutally murdered. Sam teams up with the local copper, a young and totally unqualified but earnest boy who has the job because his father was a copper and he inherited the badge to solve it, helped along by his assassin-manservant Willikins; Miss Felicity Beadle, writer of many children's books, including several of Young Sam's favorites; an unusually attitudinal goblin named Stinky; and some other wacky characters.
There are also a lot of people who get in the way, mainly because they think goblins are vermin, and that murdering the goblin girl doesn't count as murder, and other bigoted shenaniganry. Meanwhile, back in Ankh-Morpork, Sergeant Fred Colon accidentally buys a cigar with the soul of an infant goblin in it, which causes many weird adverse effects. Eventually this all works up to Vime & co unravelling a crime ring that I'm not going to tell you anything about except that it involves exploiting goblins in terrible ways. And tobacco.
In a small subplot that I probably think is more amusing than other people do due to family history, Lord Vetinari engages in a battle of wits with his archrival, the lady who writes the crossword for the Ankh-Morpork Times.
While this is a police book and most of the police officers involved are men, this book still has some pretty awesome ladies, including the aforementioned writer of children's books who also has a rather amazing backstory involving goblins; Lady Sybil Ramkin being totally awesome and kicking as much ass with her letter-writing as Sam kicks by actually kicking people's asses; a young, musically inclined goblin girl named Tears of the Mushroom, and some brief cameos by Cheery Littlebottom. (I love Cheery Littlebottom.) Also the country police officer's old mum, who I imagine as being played by that lady who plays Cousin Violet in Downton Abbey and Simon Pegg's mom in Shawn of the Dead.
The main Big Themes in this book are slavery, dehumanization, how scary nature is, the ways in which cute small towns can cover up really terrible stuff, religion, bodily fluids, and the usual The Nature of Being a Copper stuff that features in all of the Night Watch books. Somehow this is all wound up in poop jokes (actual clever poop jokes, not ones where the word "poop" is used as a replacement for making a joke), stuff about complicated chickens, and general high-adrenaline wacky hijinks, and it all ties together.
While not as unendingly hilarious as most other Discworld books--Pratchett seems to be getting increasingly serious--it's still a very enjoyable read, provided you are not full up on fantasy that deals with genocide and the banality of evil and other depressing stuff.
Anyway. The Provost's Dog books take place about two hundred years BEFORE the beginning of the Song of the Lioness quartet, and Beka is George Cooper's something-great-grandmother (there are some interesting bits of character backstory that we learn to explain why George still has Beka's last name even though he's descended from her in the maternal line). Tamora Pierce definitely made Beka Cooper's Corus seem like a different time period than Alanna's Corus, including being less socially progressive in a lot of ways (there is still slavery, for instance) although there is less Women Are Super Delicate stuff going on--the Cult of the Gentle Mother is a social influence that is pretty new and gaining power during this series, which I think is awesome, because backlashes/regression, they really do happen. There is also lots of fun with medieval slang! This takes some getting used to, but overall I think it ends up being a lot of fun, particularly the swearing. The swearing is wonderful.
These books are big compared to the earlier ones, clocking it at around five or six hundred pages apiece. This is good, as it allows a lot of room for elements of Literary Fantasy, such as listing delicious-sounding foods, describing what everyone is wearing, and talking about going to the bathroom. Also the aforementioned swearing.
On a more serious note, there are also BIG CRIMINAL CONSPIRACIES that Beka and her partners have to unravel because they are AWESOME MEDIEVAL COPS. And many of them are ladies! I cannot even deal with how many awesome lady cops there are in this series, from bit characters like Desk Sargeant Kebibi Ahuda to Beka and one of her partners, a veteran Dog named Clary Goodwin, who is just awesomely cranky and completely zero-bullshit. Goodwin especially shines in the second book, where she and Beka go to Port Caynn to try and unravel a counterfeiting conspiracy. (Tunstall is sadly at home in Corus with broken legs in this one.) There is also another lady knight, Lady Sabine of Macayhill, because it would be cruel for Tamora Pierce to give us a whole series without any awesome lady knights. There are some pretty cool nonmilitary women as well, like Beka's friend Kora the hedgewitch, and Serenity, who runs a lodging house in Port Caynn and just keeps randomly being awesome.
Beka, in addition to being a policewoman, is also a sort-of mage; she doesn't have the Gift, but she has the ability to hear the spirits of the dead when they ride on the backs of pigeons (pigeons are the messengers of the Black God, apparently), and she can also listen to dust spinners, which apparently hold bits of conversation and want to dump them off on somebody else (it makes more sense in the book).
I don't want to go into the plots because it'd be hard to say much of anything without giving it all away, but the basic premises are: In the first book, there's a possible serial killer who kidnaps small children for ransom and kills them if the parents don't hand over their prized possessions, plus someone is hiring crews of diggers who then mysteriously disappear; in the second book, somebody is producing large quantities of counterfeit silver coins and they seem to be coming out of Port Caynn; in the third book, somebody has kidnapped the heir to the throne and hidden him as a slave, plus the realm's mages are in a big snit.
I really do have a lot to say about these books but I don't really want to end up writing another 8-page review. Maybe someday I will go back to school and do a paper on Pierce! That would be the best paper-writing experience I think I could ever have.
Miss Evie O'Neill is an outgoing seventeen-year-old flapper from Ohio with a magical ability: she can read objects. After she gets in trouble by using her ability and ruining some local hotshot's reputation at a party, Evie's parents decide to punish her by sending her to live with her weird bachelor uncle Will, who is the curator of the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult... IN MANHATTAN. Evie's parents are not so bright, methinks. Evie pretends to be sad and goes off to MANHATTAN IN THE TWENTIES, which is so fabulous I had to put it in all-caps. There, she meets a number of other bright young things, many of whom also have magical powers: Theta Knight, a Ziegfield Follies dancer, who can apparently kill you with her brain (although she has only done this once)! Sam Lloyd, a dashing young con man/pickpocket who is searching for his mysteriously disappeared mother and can make people not see him! Mabel, the daughter of some really famous union organizers, who dresses terribly and is goofy for Jericho! Jericho, Uncle Will's assistant at the museum, who is a total Strong Silent Type and generally is no fun at all until you learn more about his awesome steampunky secret which is so awesome I will not tell you what it is (but it is super steampunky)! Memphis Campbell, who I shouldn't be listing this late in the list because he is actually probably the second most viewpointy viewpoint character, but who Evie doesn't hang out with that much; he is a numbers runner in Harlem and an aspiring poet and he used to be able to heal but can't anymore, so he looks out for his clairvoyant younger brother instead! And a bunch of other people, because this is a big sprawling fabulous ensemble cast sort of book.
Anyway, Evie and her hip friends are flappering it up in Manhattan, but unbenownst to them, a different bunch of bright young things have accidentally summoned an evil spirit named Naughty John! Naughty John starts killing people in gruesome and very occult-y ways, removing parts of their bodies (turns out he eats them), staging them in particular positions, and marking them up with strange symbols. Uncle Will is brought in to consult on the case, and Evie and Jericho (and occasionally the others) decide to help him. Evie also capitalizes on this opportunity to tell a sleazy reporter what a hip and happening place the Museum is and all that jazz, to drum up some business out of this Pentacle Killer scare. Evie & co's research brings them into the scary world of the Pillar of Fire church, the KKK, the eugenics movement, and the Christian fundamentalist eschatology cults of the Great Awakening period. (An eschatology cult is one obsessed with preparing for, and in some cases bringing about, the Apocalypse/Rapture/Judgement Day/whatever. The particular cult they have to deal with is of the "bringing about" sort.) It is also full of wacky Gothic novel business like houses that are kind of alive, summoning and banishing evil spirits, decoding wacky religious texts, digging into the history of decaying aristocratic families to uncover their sordid secrets, disappearing parents, people with multiple identities, a comet that only comes by once every fifty years, a pair of clairvoyant old cat ladies, a repeated creepy song... all that good stuff that is partly cheesy but can also still scare the pants off you, four hundred years after the gothic novel was invented, if done properly. Libba Bray always does it properly, making this book REALLY REALLY FUCKING CREEPY in addition to being really really fucking funny and cute, which it accomplishes largely with Evie's gin-fueled Wacky Hijinks and a glorious helping of twenties slang. Twenties slang is unendingly awesome. I am planning to use more of it from now on, and am thrilled to have learned a bunch of new terms, like "embalmed" for "drunk" and "jake" for "fine" or "okay."
There are a bunch of serious social-justice-y themes in here, as there always are in Ms Bray's work, although they are not quite as much at the forefront as in Beauty Queens. While the main issues explored are the dangers of tribalism and religious fanaticism, the book also touches on race relations, abortion, sexual abuse and domestic violence, eugenics, economic instability, homelessness, and a bunch of other sociopolitical issues that have changed a bit since the twenties but are still relevant. Libba Bray writes from an unapologetically progressive viewpoint and rarely descends into preachiness, usually following up any Serious Moral Points with plenty of sparkles and stuff blowing up (and, in this book, gin and twenties slang).
I strongly recommend this book to anyone else who likes YA fantasy half as much as I do, and in particular I recommend that you read it quite soon while it is still Halloween season! It is a good Halloween season book. If you are in New York drinking gin, that is even better.
Mastiff is about the slave trade. One of the things I really liked about this book is that the slave trade in Tortall is not based in scientific racism about the inferiority of black people to the degree that it drowns out all other considerations, so we get to look more at every other aspect of why slavery is wrong and has always been wrong and is horrible than I think most USians are really used to. It avoids the boredom that would be inevitable with a thinly-veiled American History Redux, and I also think it ends up making a sort of companion piece/apology for the Aly books (known in my head as "Tamora Pierce's Guide to Being a White Ally with Specialized Helpful Knowledge in an Anti-Colonial Revolution Without Being a Total Asshat About It"), which talked a lot about colonialism but really soft-pedaled on the main character getting sold into slavery, if I recall correctly.
This version of slavery has a lot more to do with class, right of conquest, the desperation of poor parents with too many kids in economic downturns, and--in a Very Timely Fashion--the nasty results of having a small class of people with inordinate amounts of power and money who are exempt from the rules. The slave trade, in this book, is a tool used by Tortall's 1% (nobles and mages) to aid them in their plot against the Crown, and their anger at the Crown comes from the threats of being held to even the tiniest amounts of accountability or responsibility (sound familiar?). In this case, the Crown has, for apparently two or three years now, been mitigating some of the privileges of the nobility to gratuitously exploit their commoners (for example, during the food shortage a few years before, the Crown allowed people to buy grain directly from the Crown storehouses, instead of selling from the storehouses only to the nobility so the nobility could sell it to their vassals at incredible markups). The final straw that led to the mages getting on board with treason was the horrible, shocking, deeply insulting proposal that magecraft be treated like a craft--subject to licensing and regulation. (My currently very #occupied brain was all like "MAGES=EXECUTIVES AT LARGE FOR-PROFIT BANKS AMIRITE?!?! I SEE WHAT U DID THAR") So they kidnap the Crown Prince (who is four), sell him into slavery, and cast some sort of weird spell on him so that every pain that he feels the King and Queen feel too.
Personally, I feel this is a dumb plan on their part ("THE KING AND QUEEN ARE ENGAGING IN ~CLASS WARFARE~ BY TREATING OUR INDUSTRY LIKE IT'S AN INDUSTRY OR SOMETHING AND GENERALLY BEING INSUFFICIENTLY APPRECIATIVE OF HOW MUCH BETTER AND DIFFERENT SOME CLASSES OF PEOPLE ARE THAN OTHERS. LET US INCREASE THEIR SYMPATHY FOR THE PLIGHT OF THE MOST OPPRESSED GROUP OF PEOPLE IN OUR COUNTRY BY LITERALLY MAKING THEM PHYSICALLY SYMPATHETIC, AND HAVING THE CROWN PRINCE LITERALLY WALK SEVERAL HUNDRED MILES IN THEIR SHOES. THIS WILL TOTALLY GET THEM ON OUR SIDE") (I exaggerate; they were quite past trying to convert the King at this point, but man did this plan leave them no room for a Plan B if the deposition didn't work out) but it provides one hell of an awesome adventure for Beka (newly bereaved, wherein "bereaved" means "feeling guilty that her fiance died right as she was planning on breaking up with him"), Tunstall, a weird mage named Farmer Cape (in my head, Farmer Cape is played by Charlie Hunnam), the Lady Sabine, and, of course, Achoo and Pounce. A completely Lord of the Rings amount of plot is devoted to running and running and running, but the periodic escapades that break up the running from the running are actually very plot-building and cumulative and not episodic at all. Yeah, I know that's really vague. The lack of episodic-ness (episodicity?) means I'm not comfortable telling you any of it because it's all spoilers.
The other major Specter of Modern Politics that I may be making up but which I could not avoid seeing anyway is the rise of the Cult of the Goddess as Gentle Mother, which I found very interesting and awesome in previous books both for the hilarious "Uh, yeah, suuuure" reaction from the cast of professional female badasses like Beka and Goodwin, but also for its portrayal of another historical fact that most Americans are stubbornly unaware of, which is that social progress does not only ever move forward (Sidenote: Martin Luther King, Jr. has the most amazingly stinging rebuttal of the fallacy of thinking that the passage of time itself has magical socially progressive properties. I have concluded that the "I Have a Dream" speech is completely overrated, and that "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is exhibits A through Z on Why Martin Luther King Jr. Was A Total Badass). In this book, the Cult of the Goddess as Gentle Mother gets about as suddenly louder and more reactionary as the rise of our current crop of "Government So Small It Fits In Your Uterus" Congressional Republicans. And in many instances, its portrayal is as cartoonishly hilarious as a Republican Presidential candidate debate. Lady Sabine in particular kicks delicate silk-skirted butt in manipulating the tropes and values of the Gentle Mother cult to serve the ends of the Hunt.
In other news, this book has more references to excretion than the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series thus far. It even includes a discussion about what law-enforcement lifestyles allow for different levels of comfort and utility in keeping what sorts of objects in which body cavities (apparently, if you are a runner, everything chafes eventually). While reading, I kept thinking "Man, Tamora Pierce's YA books have gotten a lot less Y and a lot more A since Alanna: the First Adventure." This is fine with me, as I am much older than I was fifteen years ago as well (otherwise I would be Edward Cullen), but I kind of have to wonder if someone picking up Alanna at the same age I did and then reading all of Pierce's opus in a month (which is how I tended to read things back then) would maybe have an experience less like my own joyful discovery of Pierce and more like my slightly traumatizing discovery of the Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles in eighth grade.
As Alyssa points out, this book also does a fabulous job of illustrating the learned helplessness, fatalism, and slow poisoning of the mind that happens to people who live under and around ubiquitous oppressive systems for long periods of time, and its effect on people who really are totally morally against this sort of thing, or really do hate living under it. I am afraid I cannot discuss this any further without giving away major, major huge spoilers, so you should probably go read the book. And you should read Terrier and Bloodhound first, if you haven't already, because books are better when you know what's going on.
Last weekend I went on a splurge I couldn't quite afford and bought, among other things, the fourth and fifth Thursday Next books. They are several kinds of awesome.
The fourth book, Something Rotten, has a lot to do with politics, and it's really depressing how much of it seems to come off as satire on current American politics, despite the explanations for it being completely absurd. The plot revolves around Yorrick Kaine, a fictional character escaped into the real world, and his peculiar powers of mind-control, which allow him to get the British Parliament to pass all sorts of crazy measures, like “instituting a tertiary health-care system where we only treat people who are already sick, instead of having universal preventive care.” Because when you are a British author like Jasper Fforde, not having the government provide universal preventive health care is THE WACKIEST AND MOST HORRIBLE THING YOU CAN THINK OF. I kind of wish the US's current barbaric political actions were the result of something so simple, and that we could fix it by sending some of our politicians to whatever dystopian novel they escaped from (The Handmaid's Tale, probably).
Depressing political allegory aside, Something Rotten is hysterical. Thursday has to take Hamlet out into the Outland (what the book people call the real world), where he watches several adaptations of Hamlet and frets a lot about readers thinking he's an indecisive twit. Yorrick Kaine is in the middle of whipping up some serious anti-Danish sentiment in England, which causes assorted hilarious things to happen about Hamlet being Danish, and Thursday gets put in charge of confiscating Danish literature (which she, like all the other LiteraTecs who take this sort of thing seriously, try to smuggle into the Socialist Republic of Wales instead of actually handing over for burning). Thursday's dad, the time-traveling rogue ChronoGuard agent, keeps dumping historical houseguests at Thursday's mom's house while he tries to stop Admiral Nelson from getting killed back in eighteen something. A thirteenth-century prophet reactualizes, and Thursday ends up in charge of Swindon's croquet team because one of said prophet's predictions is that if Swindon doesn't win the croquet championship, there will be a nuclear war, but if they DO win, the Goliath Corporation will be destroyed. Landen gets uneradicated (yaaaaaaay!), and continues to be really dorky and awesome. I don't even remember the other twelve plotlines, but Thursday kicks ass in all of them, usually holding a two-year-old baby. (His name is Friday.) I still do not know what happened to Landen's books when he was eradicated. Also, there are Shakespeare clones, which is important because a lot of weird crap is happening to Shakespeare's works in the Bookworld, because the Bookworld is so unnecessarily complicated that books can change after they're written, which is why there is Jurisfiction. Sometimes Jurisfiction doesn't fix things; for example, they apparently didn't ever fix the unexplained departure of comedy from the once-hilarious Thomas Hardy novels. (Being a big Thomas Hardy fan and sort of a nerd for depressing rural England novels in general, I laughed my ass off at this.)
First Among Sequels takes place fifteen years later. Thursday is in her fifties; she and Landen have three kids (or possibly only two), the oldest of whom is sixteen and being too lazy to join the Chronoguard (as is his destiny); several terrible books have been written about her previous adventures, but her celebrity status has been reduced to Z; and she is working at a carpet store as a cover for continuing to work for SpecOps, which is also a cover for still being a Jurisfiction agent. Also she smuggles cheese, sometimes. In this version of 2002 at large, there is such a sensible government that the nation is suffering a stupidity surplus; people's attention spans are becoming too short for them to read very much; and the Goliath Corporation is starting to become a nuisance again. I cannot even begin to describe the plots, but I will tell you that there are three Thursdays (the regular one, an evil one and a hippie one), several Fridays of various ages and from various timelines, and some special guest hauntings by Uncle Mycroft. One of the plots involves the Chronoguard and Friday's destiny and something about time travel not being invented yet; another is about classic works of literature going “interactive” and basically being turned into reality TV, but in the actual books, meaning the originals would change. (Making reality TV shows based on works of classic literature could actually be fucking hilarious and if I were in charge of a TV network I would totally do it. But that is not what was happening.) There is also a lot of crazy crap about Bookworld geography, which left me with lots of unanswered questions. Like, do the books physically move their place in the Nothing if they are reclassified? Where do books that are classified under multiple genres go? How do you get from one language's Bookworld to another's? I am very curious here!
I really cannot recommend this series highly enough, especially to people who are big literature nerds and who like absurdist pseudo-technology and textual innuendo.
The sixth book, One Of Our Thursdays Is Missing, has just come out in hardcover, but alas, I cannot afford hardcover right now. This is sad, because Jasper Fforde leaves a mega-shit-ton of loose ends untied up at the end of First Among Sequels, and I want to know what happens with the Minotaur and the serial killer (it kills characters from series!) and Aornis' mindworm and the plot device Thursday bought for Landen's novel and and and...
In fact, this book has so much of my favorite stuff in it, because the case it is about involves so much of my favorite stuff, that I was like five chapters into the book when I realized I had read about this murder before. One of the sources I used for a paper I wrote for my Women Writer's class last year on "Female madness and criminality in Jane Eyre and Lady Audley's Secret" was a chapter from a book called Victorian Crime, Madness and Sensation, which I have sort of wanted to read in its entirety one of these days, but buying actual srs bsns academic books costs lots of dollars. Anyway, the chapter I used was on "Murder, Gender and Popular Fiction in the 1860s" and directly tied three popular sensation novels, including Lady Audley's Secret, to the Road Hill House murder and subsequent borked-up investigation. And I dimly recall being like "Man, that sounds like a fascinating case; I should learn more about it some day."
Anyway, the Road Hill House murder basically is a 1860s sensation novel except real. One day, totally randomly, three-year-old Francis Saville Kent was found suffocated, stabbed in the chest, and stuffed in the privy with his throat cut open. Abduction by a stranger was quickly ruled out, leaving the shocked Victorian public with a scenario that upset nearly all of their most cherished beliefs about family life. Who, in this quiet, middle-class, comfortable Victorian household where these sorts of things are not supposed to happen, had murdered the boy? And how far into the privacy of an outwardly respectable family home should the investigation be allowed to go? Some people suspected Mr. Kent, and some people suspected the governess, and some people suspected Mr. Kent and the governess, who must have totally been having an affair, especially because the current Mrs. Kent was actually his second wife and she had been the governess to the kids of his first wife (who was ~mad!~), and Jane Eyre had come out about a decade earlier and shocked the hell out of everybody and I don't think they were quite over it. Some people suspected the shoemaker who found the boy's body, either as being involved with the governess or because he was married to the daughter of the washerwoman who something something I don't even know. Some people suspected the children of the first wife, especially Constance, who was WEIRD, dontchaknow, she once dressed up as a boy and tried to run away and join the navy! Also one of her nightgowns is missing! This was the theory of the titular character, anyway, and I am not kidding when I say "character" even though he was a real person.
DETECTIVE-INSPECTOR JONATHAN WHICHER was one of the very first Scotland Yard detectives, and he was generally considered the shiniest, most awesome, detective-y-est detective on the force. He arrived on the scene two weeks late, got along very badly with the local police who had comically little idea what the fuck they were doing (no, seriously, they lost evidence and got themselves locked up by accident and one of them once thought he found ~a clue!~ but it turned out to be
This book also features lots of hilarious newspaper clippings from hilarious Victorian newspapers, many of which involve helpful suggestions like "If you look in the dead boy's eyes, you should be able to see an image of the murderer, because he/she/they were the last thing he ever saw!" This theory was dismissed as unhelpful not because it was pseudoscience but because the boy had been asleep, duh, even though the coroner believed that he had woken up. The author also keeps time by intermittently telling us what had happened in the latest installment of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, which was being released in serial at the time the murder and investigation happened. As a total dork who has read The Woman in White, and adored it and wrote a paper on it, this was one of those things that made me feel like Summerscale must have been writing this book just for me.
I feel like I haven't sufficiently covered the degree of sheer wacky involved in this case, but... you get the idea, no?
The heroine, Thursday Next, is a literary detective. In this world--an alternative history version of 1985 Britain where the Crimean War is still going on and literature is taken very, very seriously--literary detectives are a Special Operations department. They are largely involved in stuff like stopping unauthorized editions of books from being circulated and investigating literary scams (like forged first editions, and people pretending to have discovered Shakespeare's lost play, Cardenio). People in this world go to performances of Richard III like it's Rocky Horror--audience cast members, props, audience participation lines, costumes, the whole thing.
In the first book, The Eyre Affair, Acheron Hades, the world's third most evil man, steals the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, goes inside it and kidnaps Jane. It's up to Thursday to restore the novel and defeat Acheron. Somehow this turns into a ridiculously twisty plot involving vampire-hunting, Thursday's time-traveling father (who technically doesn't exist), ending the Crimean War, Very Deep And Sad backstory involving old boyfriends and Thursday's dead brother, Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft, William Wordsworth being a lech, and bookworms. This book is probably best if you've read Jane Eyre.
In the second book, Lost in a Good Book, there are more or less three plots: one involving her time-traveling father and the Earth turning into unidentifiable pink sludge sometime in the future, one involving Thursday's husband Landen getting "eradicated"--meaning someone went back in time and killed him off very young, so their whole history together now only exists in Thursday's memory--and one involving Cardenio and the literary police agency inside the books. They're called Jurisfiction, and they sort of reminded me of The Protectors of the Plot Continuum. Thursday gets apprenticed to Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, and it's awesome. I cannot even begin to describe how awesome it is.
In the third book, The Well of Lost Plots, Thursday is basically attempting to hide out in the subbasement where unpublished novels live, in this particular case, living in a really bad unpublished crime thriller. She is determined to get her husband un-eradicated somehow, especially because she is somehow--despite his now never having existed--still pregnant with his child. There is a lot of really crazy world-building about the Bookworld and how it is run; I think Jasper Fforde may have had a little too much fun with that, actually. But there is still plot, and as usual, it's multiple really crazy plots. The main ones are Thursday trying to save Caversham Heights (the terrible crime thriller draft she's living in) from getting reduced to text, Thursday trying to stop Acheron Hades' little sister from erasing her memories, and something involving several murders and a proposed new story operating system called UltraWord(TM).
One of the things about this series that (a) I really liked and (b) I was very pleased that I didn't even realize until like halfway through the third book because they didn't do that awkward nineties "HEY LOOK HOW PROGRESSIVE WE'RE BEING GIVE ME A COOKIE" call-out thing, was the gender reversal of the Damsel in Distress/Women in Refrigerators tropes. Landen is pretty cool, but he's not really a very big character most of the time, and is rarely involved in the action-action (like, the time-traveling and shooting people and jumping in and out of books action). He's mostly influential in just the emotional subplots, mostly involving the Crimean War and Thursday's brother in the first book, and in the second and third books he only exists in Thursday's memory for most of it. His entire function is basically just The Love Interest, and therefore terrible things happen to him in order to spur Thursday on to do stuff about it. Eradication puts him sort of midway between being In Distress and In The Fridge--eradication is a particularly nasty sort of murder, since it erases the whole life before it. On the other hand, because it is dependent on time-travel, it can, theoretically be undone through time travel as well, making him not permanently murdered--just in need of being rescued from being murdered. But because he is already dead, he really can't do anything to help himself: it's all up to Thursday. (The memory of Landen is occasionally useful in the memory-related drama, but also can't do that much to stop himself from being forgotten.) I am trying to think of other stories where there are male characters whose only function is to help the female lead mature emotionally and then get his arse in trouble so she has to get all mad and rescue him, and I am failing. Any suggestions?
The thing I'm most interested about in Landen's eradication hasn't been addressed, though, which is: since Landen is an author, when he gets eradicated, what happened to all the books he wrote? Jasper Fforde, I really hope you address this later!
Anyway, other things this book series has that I love:
-Lots of references to classical literature
-Lots of text-based humor: footnotes, misspellings, characters referencing the exact wording on the page, and lots of fun with speech tags. I never knew speech tags could be that amusing!
-Really strange alternative history
-The ultimate book-nerd fantasy of being able to jump into works of fiction, somehow without turning into a lot of wankish Mary-Sueing
-Plot points where you totally know where they are going to end up, but where the author manages to keep you guessing all the way to the end about how in Jane Austen's name they're going to get there. These are fun to read and really, really, really hard to write. I get so excited when people pull it off.
-Kickass old ladies (Thursday's grandma; Miss Havisham)
-Metafiction, especially lampshade-hanging. This is a book about books, and they talk a lot about book tropes and plot devices, sometimes when they're happening, and at one point a plotsmith even lampshades lampshade-hanging.
This is very much a word nerd's series, and a literature nerd's series. I would strongly recommend it for anyone who is a big dork about that sort of thing.
In related news, don't forget what's coming out in March!
(I would embed this but I seem to be having problems.)
As Thursday said, JANE EYRE IS FOR ALL TIME.
Anyway, this blog gets devoted to books, movies, TV shows, vampires, and Nightwish videos. Not necessarily in that order. Particularly not today. Today the order is:
Vampires (also books)
The first book of 2011 for me was Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, which is about Dracula. Specifically, it is about Vlad Tepes, known as "the Impaler," a Wallachian prince in the fifteenth century who was nasty even by princes-in-the-fifteenth-century standards. It's an amazing combination of really well-researched stuff about Eastern European medieval history and Vlad Tepes, and more modern elements of a vampire story. It also has many of the tropes that are particularly near and dear to my heart, including:
-kickass ladies (Helen Rossi is the main one; also the narrator and Aunt Eva are pretty cool)
-vampires that actually are really scary and drink blood
-lots and lots of churches
-WACKY LIBRARY HIJINKS
I am so not kidding about the wacky library hijinks. The basic plot of the book is that Dracula really does not like people researching him and trying to find his tomb, so the people involved in researching him keep getting attacked by vampires in university libraries and stuff. It's amazing.
The book is very much in the nineteenth-century-novel tradition of being long and deliberately paced, although it has avoided most of the ways in which long and deliberately paced nineteenth century novels suck; namely, the plot does show up fairly near the beginning of the book. (If you've read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which you should, you'll have an idea of what I mean by "stylistically very nineteenth-century except not bad.") It also uses my favorite framing device EVER, which is "giant packet of documents format." I don't know if this format actually has its own name or if it is considered a derivation of epistolary format (which I personally tend to think of as "a letter or packet of letters from one character to another, or a letter correspondence between two characters only"), but it is the format used in some of my favorite nineteenth-century novels ever, like The Woman in White (which is framed as a police "case file" for the mystery), and is--something which I find particularly delightful and most people probably don't care about--also the format used in Bram Stoker's Dracula. (The book even copies his notice about all the documents being put in the order that makes the most sense.)
Anyway, if you like vampires, history, books about books, and stories about scholars being all action-hero-y, you should drop whatever you're doing and read this immediately.
My second book of 2011 was tammypierce 's Bloodhound, the second book in the Beka Cooper series. This is Tamora Pierce trying her hand at pseudo-medieval police procedurals. The awesomeness potential of combining all the awesomeness of pseudo-medieval fantasy stories with all the awesomeness of cop shows will not be lost on anyone familiar with Terry Pratchett's Night Watch subseries of Discworld books, and I am glad to say that Tamora Pierce does not waste this potential. Beka is a hilarious narrator; her magic powers are cool and creepy but she's still a clever and resourceful heroine in her own right, not in any way a passive cipher for "wouldn't it be cool if I had those powers; I wouldn't have to ever try to be an awesome person in regular ways again" fantasies (I am looking at you, Bella Swan... and 90% of pulp fantasy). This series takes place a century or two before the Song of the Lioness series starts, and the differences between the two settings are fascinating--similar enough to be definitely the same place; different enough to show a marked change in history and social progress. The really interesting thing to me about the Beka Cooper series is the way in which it clearly demonstrates that sometimes society "progresses" in ways we think of as "progressive"... and sometimes it backlashes. In Beka's world, slavery is still legal in Tortall, something that has been outlawed in most of the Eastern Lands by the time Alanna shows up (although not in Carthak or the Copper Isles, which always have fascinating imperialism/colonialism storylines). However, gender roles are much freer in Beka's time--Bloodhound hints at the emergence of a "cult of the Gentle Mother," a sort of Victorianesque angel-in-the-house type of thinking that Beka mostly ignores but makes the reader, if the reader has read all the other Tortall books, go "NOOOOOO NOT THAT IT IS GOING TO RUIN EVERYTHING" and what's really interesting is, that is kind of true. The Victorians were much more restrictive than a lot of times and places in history before them, for all that the Victorian era was relatively recent. Beka's world still has lady knights as a matter of course (a bit rare, but perfectly legal and definitely in existence), as well as female police officers, female heads of organized crime syndicates, female mercenaries, and gender-neutral public bathhouses. And for most of the book, this is presented as completely normal. Pretensions towards femininity, and the apparently "new" idea of female modesty (a passing mention of nobles "starting to" have sex-segregated bathhouses), are luxuries of the very uppermost classes.
Pierce's books, looked at in the order they're written rather than the order they take place in, are actually a pretty solid case study in phases of feminism (and probably most social justice movements in general, these just happen to focus on women):
Song of the Lioness Quartet: very much Wave 1: "I can do the same things the boys can do, and you're wrong to tell me I can't." Dealing with very blatant (including "enshrined in law") issues of being restricted from doing things on the basis that girls are lesser and can't do the cool stuff. Straight-up fight-the-patriarchy. (Also crazy plot about necromanced dukes and throne-stealing and stuff! Man, I need to reread that series.)
Immortals Quartet: Deals with women and power that's not been coded specifically masculine. Daine has animal magic, something that is pretty rare in the Tortall books, but a lot of the aspects of "wild magic"--including its first manifestation of "talking to animals," and particularly "I have a pony and I can talk to it and it's my best friend"--are, out in this universe, basic Disney Princess powers. The Immortals quartet revisits "feminine" coded tropes and instead of eschewing them for being feminine, it develops, expands and explores them to create story in which "talking to animals" magic is the first stage of seriously crazy powerful magic that results in shape-shifting abilities and saving the world from horrible things that want to suck it into the Chaos Realms. It's also seriously deromanticized--Daine's animal magics result in her spending time running around the woods thinking she's a wolf, and stuff like that.
Protector of the Small is the book for what happens when you've stopped being specifically barred from stuff because you're female, but you're still facing non-legal hurdles: Kel gets put on probation for a year for no reason whatsoever, and, while only a few seriously cranky old misogynists will flat-out argue that she shouldn't legally be allowed to be there, she is very much not welcome. She is othered, alienated, judged extra harshly, doubted and singled out, etc., and has to deal with all of that. This is also the first series where Pierce begins talking substantially about other social justice issues, such as homosexuality.
The Trickster quartet deals somewhat less with femininity and a lot more with colonialism. Intersectionality is very important. There are some interesting scenes between Aly and her mom that have some parallels to issues of intergenerational/"waves"-of-feminism conflicts, though. But mostly: racism, colonialism, class warfare! These are all important things for feminists to know about, since gendered power is only one facet of a dominance-based social order and all the other types of power dynamics all play off each other in weird ways. (In a word: kyriarchy.)
And then we get Beka Cooper, where we have: NORMALIZATION. Where we get to stop invoking stereotypes (and stereotype threat) altogether; we get to stop saying "Prove you can do what the boys can do" and it's just portrayed as perfectly normal that you can, why would you bring up the idea that you couldn't? Beka doesn't have to be the groundbreaker or the pioneer or the martyr For The Cause. The Provost's Dogs are predominantly made up of male-female pairs, but Beka spends most of Bloodhound with Clara Goodwin as her partner (Tunstall's injured for a good chunk of the book), and... they fight crime. They are allowed to focus on fighting crime and having an awesome adventure trying to break counterfeiting rings and shit instead of having their gender made a focal point of every page. This series also introduces (who I think is) Pierce's first transgender character, Okha. (Okha's awesome, btw.)
The one downside to this series: The language is a little different than the other books, in that it takes place two hundred years earlier and as such the "medieval" street slang is two hundred years more medieval. If you ever laugh at modern American authors using terms like "lads and lasses," be prepared to bust a gut over "lads and gixies." It's actually a fascinating set of vocab (cove, mot, spintry, doxie, bardash, honeylove, looby, pox, murrain... God they are so much fun to say) but it definitely starts to remind you of the awkwardest people you run into at Ren Faires.
I am afraid I gotta let you guys down on this one. I've had Scarface sitting around for a week. I'll watch it soon!
Castle is awesome, as always, and the latest episode, Nikki Heat, was no exception. Watching somebody make Beckett uncomfortable is way more fun than it should be; I usually love that Beckett is all cool and in control and basically awesome in every way, but seeing other sides of her definitely humanizes her a lot. And uncomfortable-Beckett is really, really funny because Stana Katic just does everything about the character so well. Also: Ryan and his girlfriend are so adorable I almost cried. Also also: I forgot Esposito's first name was Javier and for some reason I found it really jarring to hear Ryan call him that, probably just because mostly he never does.
I Wish I Had an Angel is one of my favorites.