The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits, Mike Ashley, ed

>> Sunday, January 27, 2008

TITLE: The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits
AUTHOR: edited by Mike Ashley

PAGES: 564

SETTING: Varies wildly. From Ancient times to 1912, and the settings range from Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa to North America. I think the only ones not represented are Latin America and Antarctica (and doesn't that say a lot about how important we are to the world?)
TYPE: Historical mysteries.
SERIES: Some of the stories are.

REASON FOR READING: I saw it in the library and it looked interesting.

MY THOUGHTS: Just as the locales and the time periods vary wildly, so does the quality of the stories.

At the beginning, I got worried because I noticed that in every single one of the stories the crime-solving seemed unbelievable and forced, especially the introduction of the detectives. Say, someone was asked to solve a crime because they were foreigners and therefore either impartial (His Master's Servant, by Philip Boast) or trained in logic (The Judgement of the Gods, by Rob Reginald). Hmmm, really? In all of these the setting was fascinating and well done, but I wasn't that impressed by the stories themselves.

Things got better when I got to Ancient Rome. I loved Cupid's Arrow, by Marilyn Todd. This story is part of an ongoing series about Claudia Seferius, a former prostitute who married a rich old man and is now herself very rich and a widow. Claudia is a fantastic character, and the references to past events, as well as a relationship with an aristocratic "policeman" (sorry, can't remember the term used for him here, but that's what he was), with whom she seems to have quite a bit of history, left me wild to read the rest of her books.

I also liked The Spiteful Shadow, by Peter Tremayne. It's set in Celtic Ireland, and features Sister Fidelma, who I understand has had quite a few other adventures. It was a neat little mystery, with a young woman who hears voices and is accused of having murdered someone because those voices told her to.

Which other stories were good? I liked The Witching Hour, by Martin Edwards, about a trial for witchcraft and a clerk determined to prove the accused's innocence. And I also enjoyed The Abolitionist, by Lynda S. Robinson, set in Virginia at the eve of the American Civil War. It's about the murder of the son of a socially prominent family, a man who's an abolitionist and insists on confronting slave owners about the evil of their ways. This was one of the very few stories in which I felt a true sense of tragedy, and the ending was fantastic.

And that was it, the rest were either bad or mediocre. For some, the setting compensated for mysteries that were not quite good enough, like The Serpent's Back, exploring the underbelly of 18th century Edinburgh, or Botanist at Bay, in Australia at the time Botany Bay was a penal colony.

A few I couldn't finish. For instance, The Dutchman and the Wrongful Heir, by Maan Meyers. In this case, the fascinating setting, in 17th century New Amsterdam (now New York), right after it passed from Dutch to English control, didn't compensate for a majorly boring story. Also Footprints, by Jeffery Farnol, which I abandoned as unreadable after a couple of pages in which I cringed every time the main character opened his mouth because the dialect was just painful to read.

Quite a lot of stories I didn't like at all, like If Serpents Envious, by Clayton Emery. This one's set in Colonial America and concerns two slaves accused of murdering their master. Every single character in the story was evil and unpleasant and horrible, except for the detective.

And there were a few bad stories right after this one, so maybe I should conclude that historical American settings don't do much for me. The Uninvited Guest, by Edward Hoch and Benjamin's Trap, by Richard Moquist were mysteries so humdrum that I felt I'd completely wasted the time I spent reading them. As for the story by Melville Davisson Post featuring Uncle Abner, I intensely disliked the judgemental bent of the detective. The Abolitionist is the only exception. I also disliked The Gentleman on the Titanic, by John Lutz, where the intrigues and counterintrigues of British and German agents become mind-numbingly boring.

Something I noticed and that I don't like at all is having real historical characters as detectives. Mary Reed and Eric Mayer use Herodotus, Cherith Baldry has Geoffrey Chaucer, Sarah Hoyt features Henry the Navigator (a Portuguese prince) and Benjamin Franklin detects in Richard Moquist's story. And in each of those stories, having this particular historical figure as the detective added absolutely nothing. It was just a gimmick, and gimmicks piss me off.

How about having a real historical figure in the story, but not as the detective? Well, I can like it or not, depends on the story and on whether it adds something. In Jean Davidson's Death in the Desert, we had the Queen of Sheba, and that was key to constructing the background of the story. In The Jester and the Mathematician, by Alan R. Gordon, OTOH, having mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci there was pointless, and it made the story feel silly.

MY GRADE: A C+, but I appreciated discovering a few authors I'll be reading again.


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