Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Combination Plate 5: CJ Sansom, Steven Saylor, Colin Dexter, TV's Peter Gunn

C. J. Sansom's Revelation
An historical judicial detective tale,
The detective: Matthew Shardlake
Setting: London, during the reign of Henry VIII, immediately prior to his marriage to his sixth wife, Catherine Parr.

This is the fourth book in the series which features Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, who is hunchbacked. One of the strengths of the book is that it portrays the problems Shardlake faces in a society that is less sensitive than ours, although ours really isn't that sensitive. He is frequently insulted and jeered at by others, some of whom are enemies or at least angered by him, while others are simply passing strangers who see nothing wrong in calling him "crookback."

Sansom does an excellent job of portraying the confusion raging at that time, without appearing to be lecturing the reader. He skillfully includes the issues and controversies of that period and makes them a part of the story. The religious and political conflicts permeate almost every aspect of Shardlake's work, and it's hard to say which would be worse at this time: being accused of treason or being accused of heresy. Both charges are employed to settle old debts or as part of a power struggle. A whisper in the right place about doctrinal differences or a suspicious meeting with the wrong person could lead quickly to a visit to the Tower, torture, a show trial, and a summary execution.

In the midst of this turmoil, a friend of Shardlake's has been murdered. But, this isn't just a case of a robbery gone wrong or perhaps a case of revenge (he was a lawyer also), but one that has possibly a political connection involving Catherine Parr, whom Henry is wooing at this point. Moreover, there were possibly some religious issues here also, along with the bizarre manner of his death.

A second and a third murder quickly occur. Shardlake is contacted secretly by a number of powerful figures in Henry's court and asked to get involved, even though he has publicly sworn off any cases involving anything to do with politics or religion. The first three books in the series explains his reluctance to get involved. What puzzles Shardlake and others is the lack of any connection among the victims. It's almost as if they were chosen at random. What makes it even more frightening is that the murders seem to follow a pattern of events specifically outlined in the Book of Revelations. Shardlake and the others disagree as to the person's sanity and some wonder if the killer is possessed by the devil. Today we would nod knowingly and deduce the existence of a serial killer.

Overall Rating: a great work, 5/5.

I would recommend reading them in sequence, even though it's not absolutely necessary. The works in order are Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, and Revelation.


Steven Saylor's The Triumph of Caesar
An historical private professional tale
The detective: Gordianus the Finder
Setting: Rome, 46 BC, at the beginning of the reign of Julius Caesar as Dictator, just after he has consolidated his control by defeating all other claimants

This is the tenth book in the series depicting the cases of Gordianus the Finder, a private investigator whose work takes him frequently among the most powerful figures in Rome. The first novel began with a summons from Sulla the Dictator (82 BC to 79 BC). Each of the subsequent novels moves the reader a few years forward until we reach this novel in 46 BC. the historical background of the period takes the reader through the events that brought about the the dissolution of the Roman Republic and the establishment of Caesar's dictatorship.

Saylor, like Sansom, provides a wealth of details regarding the people, customs, conflicts of the times, but he does it skillfully by making it a part of the story. Too often, writers simply drop in historical details and make me feel I'm getting a lecture. Sansom is too good a writer to do that.

Gordianus insists he is retired, but one does not simply ignore a summons from Calpurnia, wife of Caesar and the most powerful woman in Rome. She is having bad dreams, and her haruspex, one who foretells the future by searching for omens in the entrails of sheep, has diagnosed a threat to Caesar. As Gordianus was in Egypt at that time (see The Judgment of Caesar for details), she hired another investigator. This investigator reported learning something important but was murdered before he could investigate further or even give her any information as to the threat.

Gordianus again insists he's retired, but he changes his mind when he discovers the murdered man was a friend of his, Hieronymus the Scapegoat of Massilia, who had saved his life some years past (for more information, see Last Seen in Massilia). Gordianus doesn't believe in dreams or the ability of sheep's entrails to foretell the future, but his friend was murdered. He will investigate his friend's murder and ignore warnings provided by sheep's entrails.

We follow Gordianus as he tries to decipher Heironymus' notes and retraces his steps, hoping to learn what Heironymus learned that caused his death. As he does so, Gordianus encounters some of the most powerful and significant individuals in Rome at that time: Caesar, Calpurnia, Marc Antony, Brutus, Cicero, and Octavius (Caesar's heir whom we know as Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor).

Heironymus himself gives Gordianus the clue, but neither Gordianus nor I figured it out until the end of the book. Maybe both of us should retire.

Overall Rating: 5/5 again. This is the tenth book in the series, which also includes two collections of short stories. This novel, as do all of the others, stands alone, but I would recommend reading the others to get the full extent of the background and also because they are good reads.

Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse,
The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, DVD
The detector: Inspector Morse
Police procedural tale
Setting: Oxford, UK, contemporary

While Dexter wrote some thirteen "Inspector Morse" novels, the TV series has televised over 30 episodes, most of which are "based on characters created by Colin Dexter." This production, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, is based on the novel of the same name by Dexter. As usual, the TV versions have toned down Morse's character somewhat. He's not as cranky nor does he drink as much in the TV versions as he does in the novels. Sgt. Lewis comes across much as he does in the novels, long-suffering, patient, and occasionally irritated by his short-tempered and patronizing superior officer.

This story is based to some extent on Colin Dexter's own past. Nicholas Quinn is becoming quite deaf. He is employed by a syndicate that monitors the testing for Oxford University. Dexter, like Morse, was at Oxford and became a teacher until his increasing deafness made that impossible. He then took a position as a monitor for examinations, much as did Quinn.

The relationship between Morse and Lewis and Morse's loneliness are recurring themes throughout the series. The novels and the TV dramas are independent, and there's no real reason for being concerned about the chronology, except for the last two novels--Death is Now My Neighbor and The Remorseful Day. Colin Dexter announced that he will end the series and subsequently published The Remorseful Day, in which it is clear the series has ended. He made sure that there would be no Reichenbach Falls possibility in this series.

Overall Rating: an enjoyable read, lighter in scope and complexity than the works by Sansom and Saylor.

Blake Edward's Peter Gunn,
a TV Series from 1958 to 1961, now on DVD
Private professional
The detective: Peter Gunn
Setting: an unnamed waterfront city, contemporary at that time

This was a 30 minute TV show that had 114 episodes during its life span. As it was only a 30 minute show, the plots had to be relatively simple and easily solvable during that short period. The attractions were the characters and the relationships among them that developed throughout the show, and the theme music, provided by Henry Mancini.

The detective is Peter Gunn, who is the epitome of "cool." He is always laid back and in control, regardless of whose hand held the gun. He is also, as best as I can remember, one of the first of the well-dressed action heroes. In a recent episode, he is looked up and down by a young lady who comments on his very expensive shoes, his $200-300 suit (late 50s, remember), and his gold cigarette lighter (late 50s, remember). There probably are others, but the ones I remember best also started around the same time: Patrick McGooham as secret agent J0hn Drake in UK's Danger Man, also known as Secret Agent in the US (1960-2 and 1964-68), and, of course, the Sultan of Sartorial Splendor, Patrick Macnee as John Steed of The Avengers (1961-69)--the bowler and the brelly will do it every time.

The love interest is provided by Lola Albright who plays the nightclub singer Edie Hart. Hope Emerson does a marvelous job as Mother, the owner of Mother's, a small nightclub where Edie sings, Peter hangs out, and much of the action begins and frequently ends. Hershel Bernardi turns in an excellent performance as the patient and long-suffering Lt. Jacoby, of the local police force. I don't know if he's the first one, but Jacoby apparently has no first name. In fact, in one episode, a charming young lady, obviously on the make, asked him what his first name was. He looked at her for brief period and responded "Lieutenant." Several nights ago, I watched Inspector Morse as he responded to a woman who wanted to know what his first name was. His response? "You can call me Morse." While I finally learned Morse's first name, I still don't know what Lt. Jacoby's is.

Overall rating: nostalgia plays a role here, for me anyway. Historically, Gunn is one of the first of the well-dressed action heroes. And for some great jazz, listen to the theme music by Henry Mancini, which made the Top 40 for a few months, at least.

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