This is the probably the most mixed review i've had to give a book in quite a while. Anyone who follows my reviews knows that i'm not overly difficultThis is the probably the most mixed review i've had to give a book in quite a while. Anyone who follows my reviews knows that i'm not overly difficult to please - I simply like to be entertained when I read a story, however right up until the last page I was set to give this one only 2 stars, possibly my first 2-star review for the year.
So first, the bad:
I expected a lot from this book as I'd seen Doherty praised, a lot, in mystery lover circles, and historical crime novels - particularly those set in middle-age England - are among my favourite story indulgence. This was however his first novel, so perhaps I am being overly harsh, but for such a short book it really draaaags.
The central story of Nightingale Gallery is quite a clever little locked-room mystery, with a few Christie-like flourishes and an entertaining cast of characters. However, the key to a good, entertaining historical mystery is to have a complex, well research setting as a background to the story itself. Background being the key word. Whilst you expect the setting, differences in culture and law and the like to play major parts in the story, Doherty indulges himself in this novel, showing off his research in endlessly tedious and pointless scenes.
As an example, one long extended scene over quite a few pages simply has the main character walking from one place to another, and describes the route he takes (street by street) and everything that happens along the way. The story doesn't benefit from this scene at all - nothing that occurs has any relevance to the story itself, it is just an excuse for the author to play with his historical toys for a while, forcing us to watch as he does so.
Maybe i'm not the target audience for this novel, but I am familiar with history in broad strokes, and some parts in detail. I read works of historical non-fiction and find them quite entertaining, and I have read many works of historical crime fiction, because as I said before they are one of my favourite indulgences.
The point is, I already know that in the 14th century, London's streets were paved in shit. That it smelt bad, that people were poor and unhealthy, that the rats were numerous enough to form their own union for better wages and so-on. Had that entire lengthy multi-page love letter to his research notes been entirely omitted and replaced with "Athelstan spent the morning pushing through the crowds to X", the story wouldn't have suffered in the slightest.
In fact, if you remove all of the indulgent padding, what you're left with is closer to a short story than a full novel, and probably would have felt tighter and more satisfying if it had been one. If the setting material had instead been crafted in smaller chunks, with more subtlety, maybe it would have made a nice novella.
Unfortunately, the mystery section fell flat for me as well. Although it was, as I said previously, a clever little mystery - Doherty, at least in this book, doesn't "play fair" as fans of Dame Christie would know it. Instead, he uses the annoying little tricks and smirks at the reader to try and build up tension. Letters get read by the characters that "suddenly explain things", but their contents are not revealed to the reader. The protagonist, while meditating, "suddenly realises what he saw and what it means" but this realisation isn't presented to the reader until later chapters. One of the major telling pieces of evidence that gives away the murderer is a wood carving that is described in quite a lot of detail, however the single most important detail of the carving is withheld from the reader, for the protagonist to dramatically reveal in the final scenes. The details are withheld, of course, because if available to the reader the mystery would be no mystery at all - the answer is obvious. Which then leads to the obvious question; What took them so long to figure it out? There are no real twists in this story, the only surprises come from things that were noticed or told to the sleuths but never to the reader.
The reason I gave this book three stars instead of two, can be narrowed down to a single quote on one of the last pages:
"A moment later Athelstan header him roaring to Cecily the courtesan that he didn't care how pretty her arse was, she was to get out of his saddle!"
For all its faults, there is a certain amount of charm in the book, primarily in some of the colourful characters. They are not always believable - it may be that i'm just coming off "Lamentations" by Sansom, whose portrayal of the real terrors of life in the final years of King Henry VIII are a work of claustrophobic genius, but I find it very difficult to accept characters or relatively low station (or in the case of Athelstan, _very_ low station; a dominican parish priest isn't that much up the social ladder from a mendicant) feeling perfectly nonchalant in close quarters with the Regent of England, and his charge the young king. Doherty, who spends pages describing how ordure builds up in the alleys, doesn't even have his main characters bow to the most powerful men in the land. As Athelstan the dominican friar happily gives his Poirot-like rambling accusation story, he speaks to these lords as equals.
For this reason among others, Athelstan, the main protagonist, is probably one of the least sympathetic characters in the book. It was disappointing, I expected Susanna Gregory's Bartholemew, but I got a cardboard cut-out that doesn't quite fit instead.
And after all that, i've actually talked myself back down to two stars after all. I will try more novels in the series, to see if they improve over time, but I doubt i'll ever be back to re-read Athelstan's first steps.
TLDR; -- Not a terrible book, but when your alternative choices include Susanna Gregory's Bartholomew stories, Candace Robb's Owen Archer stories, Ellis Peters' Cadfael stories and C. J. Sansom's Shardlake series - i'm not sure why you'd bother. ...more
A strange notice in the paper, advertising a murder before it takes place. A woman standing to inherit millions, and the people who would inherit if sA strange notice in the paper, advertising a murder before it takes place. A woman standing to inherit millions, and the people who would inherit if she were to die prematurely. A small village, with fascinating characters. Once again, classic Christie, class Marple.
I've noted in previous reviews that the Miss Marple mysteries are very different from the Poirot's, and that as well as exploring small village life and humanity through that lens, each often seems to have particular themes in mind. This one certainly does, the theme being the change in village life, post-war. In particular, the change in demographic that led villages that were previously populated by generations of the same family who all knew each other from childhood to the grave, to suddenly become populated by expatriates and relocatees, people whose history was only know as they presented it.
With this as the key theme of the novel, it's not surprising to find that a large number of the cast aren't what they same. Some are under assumed names, have hidden pasts, and some have stolen the identities of others. A mixed cast where no-one is what they seem, and where even knowing and expecting this, the final identity of the murderer can still come as a surprise....more
The moving finger is interesting as it is billed as a Miss Marple novel, and indeed Miss Marple does play a significant role in solving the mystery, bThe moving finger is interesting as it is billed as a Miss Marple novel, and indeed Miss Marple does play a significant role in solving the mystery, but more than two thirds of the story is over before she makes her first appearance.
As with all Christie novels, the real star of the novel are the people and the place, living and breathing as real as fiction people can ever be. The core puzzle of the novel involves a series of nasty anonymous letters being sent out to everyone in a village, and the deaths that result. Is it a spiteful writer, taking out their hate on the world at large? Or is something more sinister at work.
There isn't much to say that I haven't already said in earlier Marple books, Similar themes on the evils of village life and human nature abound, and she does what she does with a panache i've never found in another mystery author....more
A particularly clever and twisty, if nasty, mystery involving two deaths and the usual gang of fascinating characters, including several of the villagA particularly clever and twisty, if nasty, mystery involving two deaths and the usual gang of fascinating characters, including several of the village characters from the previous two books, Sir Henry and of course, Miss Marple herself.
From the first Miss Marple book, I loved her. But it was in this one, the second book and a short story collection at that, that I really fell in loveFrom the first Miss Marple book, I loved her. But it was in this one, the second book and a short story collection at that, that I really fell in love with the character. So calm, so humble, and with a gentle smile as she reveals the twists and turns that "she's just sure they have seen as well."
The core conceit of the book revolves around a couple of dinner parties, in which the attendants amuse themselves by telling the unusual situations that have been in or observed, and challenging the others to solve the mystery. The characters telling the stories are themselves as amusing and well-drawn as those in the mysteries they tell - a particular favourite being Miss Marple's nephew, a writer of "particularly clever books" who is very impressed with himself, quite obnoxious, and sure that his aunt, stuck in a village all her life, couldn't possibly know anything about capital-L Life.
It is through these stories that Sir Henry, ex-chief of Scotland Yard, comes to hold great respect for Miss Marple, something that leads to her invitation into other mysteries, and allows her a certain sway above what is usual for a simple elderly village spinster, whose opinions would normally simply be ignored by those who "know better". A clever device for enabling her involvement in future crimes as well, I suspect in the following books to see a fair bit more of Sir Henry.
Likewise, the dinner parties mentioned are quite an entertaining way to present the core short mysteries, and in a way that doesn't necessarily require Miss Marple's attendance at every strange event.
Needless to say, and to the astonishment of the other guests, she unerringly solves every mystery - even the one that has yet to occur! - each time relating the crime back to a parallel event, some village scandal or village resident that just happens to point to the correct solution.
Highly entertaining, Agatha Christie doing exactly what she always did best. ...more
I am a huge fan of Agatha Christie, in particular the Poirot novels and stories, and it goes without saying that she was, and still is, the grand mastI am a huge fan of Agatha Christie, in particular the Poirot novels and stories, and it goes without saying that she was, and still is, the grand master of the art of the puzzle mystery. Each story and crime made up of interlocking events, motives and clues, all combining by the end into a finished tapestry with no loose ends or threads of any kind.
Where Christie really excelled however was in building these puzzles out of very real, living, breathing people, each of which a study in character whose story is fascinating and unique, some exotic, some exciting in richness of their very banality.
This was the first Miss Marple mystery I have read, and it was a shining example of exactly the sort of thing she was best at. A small village, teeming with entertaining characters, an interesting and very relatable narrator, an intricate and well written murder at the center - and of course, Marple herself. A marvelous old biddy with an eye for detail as sharp as Poirot or Holmes, a mind like a steel trap and an excellently dry sense of humour.
There is a reason that Christie ranks high even now amongst fan of crime fiction, and that her books, some 80 years or more after publication, remaining best sellers. Plain and simply, she was, and still is, an entirely entertaining storyteller. ...more