His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae by Graeme Macrae Burnet. A historical epistolary novel about a triple murder in rural Scotland in 1868. The vast majority (I'd guess 85%) of the novel is the 'memoirs' of the murderer, written while he was in prison, which explain his life story and the circumstances that led to him doing the deed. Another 10% are newspaper reports of the trial, with the final 5% consisting of statements from witnesses and the medical report on the bodies.
All of this is fairly straightforward and, though well-written on a sentence by sentence level, there's nothing to make it stand out from the herd. Usually when I read about historical crime, the author uses the specific incident in question to illustrate some larger point about society or history or the treatment of the victim or whatever, any reason to make it worth rehashing a terrible crime. (Most of these books have been non-fiction, but I would argue that being fictional just makes it all the more important to have a reason for the gore.) Burnet does not do that. I suppose there's vaguely an acknowledgement that it sucked balls to be a tenant farmer in the 19th century, but I'm pretty sure that's a point anyone literate already knows, and which Burnet does not expand on or add depth to in any way. Near the end of the book there's an attempt to question the nature of sanity (the trial hinges not on the question of guilt, but on if the murderer was aware of the consequences of his actions), but not in a way that's particularly compelling or unique. It's certainly not enough to justify the preceding hundreds of pages.
In short, this isn't a terrible book, but there's nothing outstanding or memorable about it, and I am absolutely astounded that it's been nominated for the 2016 Man Booker prize. I'm all for genre writing getting more literary attention, but there's so many better books than this!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
The Seance by John Harwood. A historical novel set in late Victorian England, which makes excellent use of all the best Victorian horror tropes: the ghosts of monks, creepy suits of armor, seances and spiritualism, hypnosis, mysterious paintings, handsome suitors of uncertain origin, secret passageways, swapped babies (or at least the terrifying possibility of unknown parentage and hidden real origins), and, of course, the biggest and best-known of them all, the haunted gothic mansion.
The plot is a bit of a story within a story: in the 1880s, we have Constance, the only surviving child of the Langton family. Her mother has been lost in grief ever since the death of Constance's younger sister twelve years ago. Constance stumbles upon the idea of helping her mother heal by taking her to seances, despite Constance's own knowledge that they're nothing more than frauds; this seems to go well at first, but ultimately has terrible consequences.
Meanwhile, Constance inherits Wraxford Hall and a bundle of papers written in the 1860s, telling the story of Eleanor, the then-mistress of the Hall, and her husband's abuse. Shortly after these papers were written, Eleanor, her husband, and their infant daughter all mysteriously disappeared in the same way as a previous owner of the hall. The popular opinion is that Eleanor murdered her husband and child before running away, but Constance is determined to clear her name – even if it means she herself must travel to Wraxford Hall and explore its grounds.
I have such mixed feelings about this book! The middle was fantastic – absolutely gripping, such a page-turner that I stayed up until 3 a.m. desperate to see what happened next and how the mystery would resolve. The writing does a fantastic job of being reminiscent of the Victorian style without losing the benefit of actually being modern. The characters are well-sketched and compelling (with surprisingly sensitive attention to the plight of women in a world where they have very few options, given that the author is male), the setting is deliciously creepy, the tension is incredibly well-done.
But here's the rub: the ultimate solution to the mystery didn't work for me. It's a frequent problem in stories – especially horror stories – for the question to be more compelling than the answer, but this was more than that. The ending felt too pat to be satisfying at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I came across traces and clues that simply didn't fit; not red herrings and not plot holes, but what I suspect are the traces of earlier drafts, when there was a different resolution. I don't know if that's actually what happened, of course, but the more time I spent puzzling over why it didn't work, the more flaws I saw, right down to the very structure of the book (the seances with Constance's mother in the beginning don't match well to the later parts of the book, characters abruptly drop out of the narrative without explanation, Constance leaps to conclusions that don't really make sense given what she knows, etc). And yet for all these problems, that middle section was some of the most compelling horror I've read in ages.
Ultimately I'd still recommend it, but oh! If only it had gone through a few more rounds of rewriting. It could have been so good.
Lion in the Valley by Elizabeth Peters. A temporary pause in my horror read for Amelia Peabody #4! (I've been reading this series with my mom, which is why my progress through the books is so staggered and random.) Amelia, her husband Emerson, and 8-year-old son Ramses return to Egypt for an excavation, but before they can even reach their site Kalenischeff (a minor bad guy from the previous book) is murdered, with the blame falling onto Enid Debenham, his girlfriend/an heiress/a young Englishwoman Amelia is convinced could never be guilty, despite the fact that she's never even met Enid. The Emersons therefore adopt Enid as part of their party, along with a young Englishman going by the name "Nemo" who is busy pretending to be an Egyptian beggar and destroying his life through opium addiction – at least until Amelia makes reforming him her current pet project.
The mystery of Kalenischeff's murder doesn't actually get much page time, to the extent that it's hardly fair to call this a "mystery" novel, rather than whatever genre "madcap antics plus parody of crime tropes" is. The majority of the plot is taken up with the Emersons' efforts to keep Enid and Nemo hidden from the police, and Amelia's determination to investigate the bad guy from the previous book, whom she has nicknamed the M.C. (Master Criminal) since she still has no clue as to his real identity. The Master Criminal seems equally obsessed with her, sending her presents, visiting her in disguise, and doing everything he can to catch her attention – in short, he's in love with her. Amelia remains oblivious to this until they finally meet face to face, in what is absolutely the most hilarious scene in the book – though there's a lot of competition. I particularly liked this one, when Ramses realizes he's developing a crush on Enid:
A hideous premonition crept through my limbs. I had not failed to observe the tolerance with which Ramses permitted Enid to pet and caress him. It was a liberty he did not allow strangers unless he had some ulterior motive, and I had naturally assumed he had an ulterior motive with regard to Enid—that, in short, he hoped to win her confidence by pretending to be a normal eight-year-old boy. Now, hearing the earnest and anxious tone in his voice, I began to have horrible doubts. Surely it was much too soon – But if Ramses proved to be as precocious in this area as he had been in others.... The prospects were terrifying. I felt a cowardly reluctance to pursue the inquiries I knew I ought to make, but the traditional Peabody fortitude stiffened my will.
"Why did you allow Enid to embrace you today?" I asked.
"I am glad you asked me that, Mama, for it leads me into a subject I am anxious to discuss with you. I was conscious today of a most unusual sensation when Miss Debenham put her arms around me. In some ways it resembled the affectionate feelings I have for you and, to a lesser extent, for Aunt Evelyn. There was, however, an additional quality. I was at a loss to find words for it until I recalled certain verses by Mr. Keats—I refer in particular to his lyric poem 'The Eve of St. Agnes,' which aroused—"
"Good Gad," I cried in agonized tones.
Emerson, naive creature, chuckled in amusement. "My dear boy, your feelings are quite normal, I assure you. They are the first childish stirrings of sensations which will in time blossom and mature into the noblest sentiments known to mankind."
"So I surmised," said Ramses. "And that is why I wished to discuss the matter with you. Since these are normal, natural sensations, I ought to know more about them."
"But, Ramses," his father began, belatedly aware of where the conversation was leading.
"I believe I have heard Mama say on several occasions that the relationships between the sexes were badly mishandled in our prudish society, and that young persons ought to be informed of the facts."
"You did hear me say that," I acknowledged, wondering what had ever possessed me to say it in his hearing.
"I am ready to be informed," said Ramses, his elbows on the table, his chin in his hands, and his great eyes fixed on me.
"I cannot deny the justice of the request," I said. "Emerson—"
"What?" Emerson started violently. "Now, Peabody—"
"Surely this is a matter more suitable for a father than a mother."
"I will leave you to it, then." I rose.
"Just a moment, Papa," Ramses said eagerly. "Allow me to get out paper and pencil. I would like to take a few notes."
A fantastically funny book, without much concern with realism or logic. This series continues to be one of my favorites.
What are you currently reading?
Monstrous Affections by David Nickle. A book of short stories by one of my favorite horror authors.
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