Wolf Hall (2009, Henry Holt, this edition 2015, Macmillan), what? That's not mystery, that's history, you are saying rhymingly to yourself. True, we know how it ends. But we don't really know how it was lived. There is plenty written on Henry VIII and his crowd: those he got along with, those he didn't, and those who, like Thomas Cromwell, he just kept close because they were too useful. Cromwell's reputation is not exactly warm and fuzzy but Hilary Mantel presents him as a pretty complex character, and combined with Mark Rylance's fantastically nuanced portrayal in the televised version, you can't help but find him compelling.
"'Thomas Cromwell?' people say. 'That is an ingenious man. Do you know he has the whole of the New Testament by heart?' He is the very man if an argument about God breaks out; he is the very man for telling your tenants twelve good reasons why their rents are fair. H is the man to cut through some legal entanglement that has ensnared you for for three generations, or talk your sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she will never make. With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep. He can converse with you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate. Nobody can outtalk him, if he wants to talk. Nobody can better keep their head, when markets are falling and weeping men are standing on the street tearing up letters of credit." (84)
Who wouldn't want this guy on their side?
What I liked best was the world Mantel created: deeply described interiors and gardens and art and clothing and street scenes and meals. It helped that I had the meticulously detailed PBS version in my mind's eye, but even without that Cromwell seems to pay as close attention to the running of his household as he does to Henry's fortunes. This brief review can't do this novel justice and I'm probably the only person I know who hasn't read it. But if you are among that group, don't wait!
As presented in Wolf Hall, Cromwell is a thoughtful and often deeply caring individual, even if simultaneously as ruthless and ambitious as history has painted him. Early 20th c. investigator Ian Rutledge is about as far as you can get from the latter, but certainly lines up as equally thoughtful and similarly aware of his place in some grand historical trajectory. World War I veteran Rutledge is up to his usual solid, serious investigative tactics in Hunting Shadows (2014, William Morrow) but his ghostly sidekick Hamish is increasingly diminished. Charles Todd has Scotland Yard send Rutledge to Cambridgeshire this time, to investigate two murders that are apparently unrelated, except for the fact that they were both committed by the same kind of military-issue rifle that was issued to soldiers in France during the Great War. There are some good threads here about the war, including discussion of the isolating role of sniper, as well as sympathetic portraits of several men, in addition to Rutledge, who struggle to live with the emotional legacy of the war. Hamish tags along as usual but doesn't play the same role as in earlier stories. Here we see Rutledge grappling with his PTSD in a real and visceral flashback, during which he hides in a church, knowing that it is coming and desperately seeking a private place to temporarily fall apart. The dreams come less frequently for him now, it seems, and Hamish seems content to just ride around in the back seat occasionally commenting. The resolution of these murders - for of course, they are connected, I'm not spoiling anything by telling you that - is tricky and will require your attention to follow. In fact, the story kind of putts along for quite some time before all of a sudden getting complicated. Stick with it, it is an interesting resolution, but still feels like the story didn't know where it was going, and then all of a sudden the author(s) said "I know! Let's make so-and-so do such-and-such and be related to . . . ."
I don't necessarily believe in signposts pointing to the solution from the beginning, but I don't like an ending that is so surprising it feels tacked on.
Everyone needs a good read for the holidays, and I did dip back into The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries to revisit the Holiday Bogie, one of my favorite, if very short stories in this collection. But what I really enjoyed was Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas, part of Stephanie Barron's imaginative series of Jane Austen mysteries. Yes, you read that correctly. Here, JA is the "investigator" although mostly she just does what Jane Austen did best: observe, comment, and resolve issues. Barron has apparently done an enormous amount of research into Austen's life and times - the sources are, it would appear, abundant and rich - and with this eighth entry into the series, easily creates Jane and her family's world. From her ebullient mother to priggish brother and ghastly sister-in-law, Jane's family are both represented and skewered, perhaps a bit more energetically than we might find in Emma or Pride and Prejudice, but enjoyably so all the same. This story is much your standard country-house murder. Jane and family are invited for part of the holidays to a great house, and shortly afterwards, a murder occurs - then another one! Jane, not quite a busybody but adept at overhearing and picking up signs and interpreting, has a hand in the investigation into the deaths almost as soon as they happen.
Of course what was really lovely about this was the description of Christmas in a Regency-era British great house. From bowls of flaming punch to a massive yule log to a splendid hunt and Twelfth Night ball, everything an Anglophile could want is here and I reveled in it. The book also takes place in 1814-15, which is a rather fabulous time for lavish holidays, just the same period in which Boston Ballet's Nutcracker is set, and kind of around Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. So my holiday season was basically a stage-snowy whirl of wintry Christmas confection (even if if was 70 degrees on Christmas Eve).
Of course, if you live in the 21st c. and are at all human and thoughtful, you might also think about what it took to create and maintain that lifestyle, the toll on the lives of workers and farmers and basically everyone who didn't benefit from inherited wealth or riches earned off the backs of others. Yes, these are the kinds of questions Downton Abbey raises now. Applied to our era, this is why, as was noted online today in a discussion of ridiculously expensive restaurants, Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls. We simply can't live that way, no matter how much we want to. Even if we win the Powerball (est. jackpot at this writing: $1.3 BIllion, that's a B).
I've been far too lax on this blog in recent months, both in content and quantity. Here's hoping I can raise the bar back to previous levels in 2016. Happy new year!