Thursday, September 29, 2011

By Hook or By Crook

Welcome back, good readers, to the scene of the crime! As part of my 100th post celebrations, I’ve lined up a series of crossover reviews with other bloggers, readers, etc., and today, blogger extraordinaire TomCat joins me from his blog Detection by Moonlight.

The first question, of course, was what to review. Perhaps a book by John Dickson Carr? But then again, I read Carr only every once in a while now, to delay the inevitable day when I read all his known work. I haven’t read much Margery Allingham, but although I enjoy her work, TomCat most emphatically does not. Well, there’s always a book by Paul Halt—er, wait a minute… TomCat doesn’t know French…

And then TomCat came up with a great idea, which can be traced to the Puzzle Doctor’s recent reviews over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel. Earlier this year, this rogue mathematician wrote an exciting and enticing review on Paul Doherty’s Nightshade, and several other reviews followed. I went down quickly without much of a struggle, eagerly lapping up The Devil’s Domain before leaving for Spain. TomCat succumbed to temptation as well, reviewing The Horus Killings and The Anubis Slayings, novels from Doherty’s Ancient Egypt series starring Amerotke, Chief Judge of Thebes.

I had yet to be initiated into Doherty’s Ancient Egypt series, so The Mask of Ra, first in the series, seemed like a good book to review (particularly after the Doc’s enticing review on his blog—again, it was TomCat’s idea). What is the secret behind Doherty’s work, so that several bloggers have expressed admiration for it in recent weeks? How do his characters hold up? Can he spin another impressive impossible crime set in the past? All this and more will be answered today!

Thank you for joining me today, TomCat!

***

Patrick, hartelijk dank voor de introductie!

Oh no, don't worry about me. That cacophony of gurgles, bubbles and coughs wasn't a whiff of decay expelling from a pair of diseased lungs, but merely a salute to Patrick in my native tongue. It's really great to be part of this personal mile stone since I didn't notice mine until it tipped its fedora in passing. Opportunely, it was a critical assessment of John Dickson Carr's Fire, Burn! (1957), so I was able to delude myself into believing that I subconsciously had awarded myself with a little treat to mark the occasion.

This may be interpreted as a subtle, but cheap, plug to draw attention to my own, less than stellar, juncture in the blogosphere, but that post actually ties-in neatly with this review – especially the opening paragraph in which I noted how Carr rarely is acknowledged as a pioneering novelist in the field of historical fiction. I've never been able to gauge the reason behind this criminal negligence, since his historical romances reflect a genuine love for both history as well as detective stories and his atmospheric prose summoned the spectral memories of the centuries that slipped away in the mists of time, but at least his pen was picked up by Paul Doherty – a historian who draws on his professional knowledge when weaving tangled webs, studded with impossible crimes, and set against the backdrop of erstwhile civilizations. You don't have to able to explain miracles to grasp why so many of our fellow mystery enthusiasts are so heartily embracing Paul Doherty.

Off the bat, I have to admit that The Mask of Ra (1998) is not the best entry in this series, but that's mainly because it had establish the main characters and set-up events that will play a big role in the two succeeding books, The Horus Killings (1999) and The Anubis Killings (2000) – in which Judge Amerotke solves a spate of brutal killings, some of them committed in sealed environments, with political strife and war brooding in the background. But here's the interesting part of this crossover review... Patrick's completely new to this series.

***

The Mask of Ra opens circa 1479 B. C. and we’re quickly plunged into an exciting scene, as assassins come to the future tomb of Pharaoh Tuthmosis II and desecrate it, bringing along a witch and getting her to say a magical spell which will apparently block the Pharaoh’s journey to the west upon his death. A few guards are killed in the process and, the spell being complete, the witch’s throat is cut.

Soon afterwards, Pharaoh Tuthmosis II returns to Thebes triumphantly and is carried through the city on a palanquin. At the end of the journey he is reunited with his wife (and half-sister) Hatusu. Suddenly, Pharaoh drops to the ground and begins violently convulsing, apparently the result of a snake bite. In confirmation, a snake is found on the barge Pharaoh rode in on; it is killed and Captain Meneloto is put on trial for negligence. But something just doesn’t add up—if Pharaoh was bitten on the barge, why did the poison take so long to act? If he was bitten on the palanquin while he was carried through the city, why didn’t anyone notice? More deaths soon follow as a veritable bloodbath ensues, while the royal circle is divided into two factions: one supports Hatusu, the other the Grand Vizier Rahimere.

Statue of Hatchepsut (Hatusu);
an attempt was made to remove
her from historical records
***

I think it's essential here to emphasize to readers who have yet to journey back into time with this writer as their personal tour guide that “a veritable bloodbath” is not an exaggeration on your part – and that these stories are plotted according to the same principles employed by Atilla the Hun for purging villages. This makes it almost unfathomable that these books never landed Paul Doherty a gig as a scenarist on the Midsomer Murders.

Anyway, the body count in The Mask of Ra soars dangerously close to the sun god’s golden chariot, but the only death that really matters here, plot-wise, is that of Pharoah Tuthmosis II – which I experienced as disappointing after having read the richly plotted The Horus Killings and The Anubis Slaying. On those occasions, Doherty firmly grasped half a dozen plot strands in each hand instead of just tying one around a bloody, but simple, court intrigue with a war thrown in for good measure.

Nevertheless, it's a fascinating introduction to the characters and neatly showcases Doherty's strengths and weaknesses as a writer. We've already mentioned his love for history that simply oozes from the pages, but he also possesses the most important attribute a mystery writer could have: pure, unadulterated imagination. The highly original premise of the impossible snakebite is a prime example of this. Doherty came up with a situation that could've only happened in the ancient world and cleverly exploits the absence of modern forensic science to further the plot, which, by it self, is deserving of a considerable amount of praise.

On the other hand, there's his tendency to sparsely divide a few meagre clues over several hundreds of pages and the fact that he normally holds so many plot strands that it's impossible deliver on all of them with equal satisfaction. But the latter wasn't the case here.

***

I find Doherty’s plot construction really rich; stuff happens on every page and he keeps you compulsively turning the pages, wanting to find out more. The Mask of Ra contains some brilliant scenes, like a night time encounter with predatory wildlife. Doherty can be thrilling (like in the opening scenes) but he can also sit back and develop characters calmly without losing focus. Unfortunately, I found the solution to the impossible crime really underwhelming. It really doesn’t hold up to the originality of The Devil’s Domain, as the “howdunnit” is rather disappointing. At the same time, the motive Doherty ascribes to his killer is brilliant and largely makes up for any disappointment about the impossibility.

There was one strange thing, though: I thought Doherty was setting up for the next book with a plot thread about impossible thefts from undisturbed tombs. After all, you never got specifics of any tomb robbery, so it seemed like a reasonable assumption. But out of nowhere, Amerotke solves that mystery and explains it, leaving you unsatisfied because, well, you never knew that the way the thief did it was possible!

I agree with you that Doherty’s imagination is fascinating, but I’m particularly attracted to his books by his passion for history. He lovingly crafts his characters, situations, settings, and crimes; here, he fits the entire plot around the sudden death of Pharaoh Tuthmosis II, who indeed died suddenly in real life. He manages to make the political turmoil that followed this death sound interesting, which is no mean feat. I feel like I learned more about Ancient Egyptian society by reading this book than I did in three weeks of a dull course in high school. Doherty makes this fascinating civilisation come alive— you feel like you’ve walked down the streets of ancient Thebes with Amerotke.

***

You can argue about the firmness and fair play of this book all you want, but as you said, it's brimming with exciting events, colorful characters and witnessing the reconstruction of one the most fascinating civilizations that populated the past. The result is very similar to that of the soft boiled mysteries penned by Rex Stout in that even a bad or average effort is elevated by the sheer readability of the overall story. My favorite scene is probably when they explored the underground complex, where Amerotke uncovers the truth behind these mass murders, and comes across the army of the hanged – which gives the reader a bizarre sense of Grand Guignol in ancient Egypt. But also the battlefield scenes, in which they have to thwart an invading army, makes for gratifying reading.

The truth behind the seemingly impossible manner in which the Pharaoh traveled towards the Far Horizon was indeed under whelming, but only because the gist of the solution was too easily anticipated by this experienced reader. However, I have to be lenient in my judgment here for the reasons previously stated. But I'm glad you brought up the impossible nature of the tomb robbers, which I for some reason or other completely forgot, but which perfectly illustrates what I meant about him not always delivering on all the plot threads with equal satisfaction. You find a similar situation in The Anubis Slayings, in which he introduces the enigmatic problem of the mysterious demise of a Mitanni warlord in a room with the door and shutters locked and fastened from the inside, but it's not mentioned again until the end where it is explained away in a slipshod manner. Luckily, the plot also included another impossible murder and a theft from a locked and closely guarded chapel and that one received more than enough exposure – as well as providing the reader with a satisfying explanation.

What's perhaps the most interesting feature of this book is the fact that Doherty was, more or less, successful at covering a large terrain within genre. The impossible murder of the primeval monarch, bloody intrigue at the court and a gang of bloodthirsty assassins made for a nice mixture of the traditional whodunit with the cut-throat attitude of a savage thriller – presented as an action packed historical romance. How successful this blend really is depends on the individual reader, but I, for one, am willing to overlook its shortcomings. Also, you have to allow a writer to establish his characters during a first outing.

***

That’s another of Doherty’s strengths— he can create a fairly complex character without lingering too much on it. I liked his characterization of Hatusu, who becomes more and more obsessed with the idea of power as the novel progresses. I like the way he portrays her clandestine relationship with a man named Senenmut. He can make a character seem menacing with apparent effortlessness.

And then there’s Amerotke, a man devoted to finding the truth at all costs (hence his devotion to the goddess of truth, Ma’at). He is sitting trial on Captain Meneloto, who he believes was at one point his wife’s lover. Although he believes in truth and justice and being impartial, the man who could be his wife’s lover is entirely in his hands. Temptation and a gnawing seed of doubt about his wife’s fidelity are knocking at the door, and he has to fight himself not to open that door. But it’s all very subtly done, doubling the effectiveness. Amerotke doesn’t monologue about his position or symbolically compare himself to a wounded dove he encountered in the recesses of chapter 3, and yet he manages to be a complex character nonetheless. Someone give Doherty an award!

***

I bet you had an uncomfortable moment, though, when Amoretke started to reflect on his wife's (in)fidelity, but what a relief, for both of us, that Doherty effortlessly sidestepped the pitfalls the lion's share of modern hacks nowadays stumble into. But what I like best of all is that he's able to comment, through Amerotke, on ancient Egyptian society without sacrificing the authentic feel of the stories. The judge is presented as a very human character, with all the flaws that comes with it, who, in the privy of his own minds, thoroughly dislikes executions and becomes a skeptic where the religious ceremonies that form the bedrock of his society are concerned, but it's presented in such a way that's believable that an educated man of that era could've harbored those thoughts – without becoming preachy and showing off our modern superiority over these "primitive" races.

One of the reason why, up until now, I have not been a veracious reader of historical mysteries (except for Robert van Gulik, Bertus Aafjes and John Dickson Carr) is that a lot of the writers are historically incorrect by insisting on being political correct and endow their characters with 21st century values and opinions – thereby completely missing the point of historical fiction.

All in all, this is an engaging, if somewhat thinly plotted, historical detective story, in which you have to forgive the author for doing a better job at kick-starting a new series rather than setting-up a complex, maze-like plot – but you only have to read the succeeding novels to understand that this was merely a premonition of things yet to come. If you can accept that, pick up this book first, but if you really want to know what Doherty is capable of doing, I recommend you begin with The Horus Killings and The Anubis Slayings.

***

You’ve hit the nail on the head about 21st century writers letting modern values interfere with a portrayal of the past. Isn’t the point of historical fiction to portray a historical era, not to comment on our modern society? To be sure, sometimes points can apply to a historical society as well as our own, but forcing modern values in there makes everything seem anachronistic and rather silly.

I think I might have to disagree with you here—The Mask of Ra seems like a fine starting point in this series, though I can only judge from this book. Doherty does a fine job introducing all his characters, and the political turmoil is fascinating; you’d probably get references to this power struggle in other books, but it’s great to see it played out like a game of chess between two grandmasters. While the impossible crimes may be underwhelming, he more than makes up for it with the overall plot, which keeps you turning the pages. Overall, I give The Mask of Ra 3 stars out of four—it’s an excellent read, but the solution lacks the originality of The Devil’s Domain and is thus somewhat disappointing.

 Patrick's Rating: 3/4

***
Well, it's definitely a fine introduction to the characters, but as you advance in the series you'll see that Doherty orchestrated better stories with this cast of characters. That being said, I think 3/4 stars is fair enough.

TomCat's Rating: 3/4

I have a question for you, Patrick: during this recent splurge of Paul Doherty reviews, I noticed how, outside of this closely knit community, his books are rarely earmarked as locked room mysteries. Not by publishers or reviewers. I know that the reading audience of historical detective stories don't always overlap with those of GAD stories, but now I wonder if this means that they are unaware of the concept of a sealed room – and only view it as yet another mysterious element to the puzzle. Maybe I am way off, but it sometimes feels as if a large chunk of the people who read (and write) mysteries/thrillers/crime novels are oblivious to the genre's history.

It also reminded me of the press release (or was it just an article) billing the last Jonathan Creek television special as a supernatural cop show. But like I said, maybe I am way off here. What do you think?

***

I remember that presser: The Judas Tree was apparently (if I remember correctly) a “supernatural detective drama”. I think this is a symptom of a general trend we’ve seen towards seriousness. Think of comic book movies, for instance. Back in the 90s, they were a kid-friendly, lively affair (and many haven’t aged well). This kind of approach is strongly frowned upon nowadays, and the dark approach films like The Dark Knight or Iron Man take is strongly preferred.

It seems that you just can’t have fun anymore. When’s the last time you read a book which treats alcohol as lightly as Craig Rice does in her series of books? No, no, no: alcohol can’t be fun! If alcohol is mentioned, it means the main character must be struggling with alcoholism, and (if possible) is haunted by visions of his dead wife (or, even better, dead homosexual partner who was killed after being brutally assaulted and possibly raped).

The Internet has also changed things considerably, as nobody has to look so deeply for information anymore. Unfortunately, odds are that the information you get a hold of is somehow wrong. (God bless Wikipedia, but at the same time, people writing those articles sometimes must have gotten their qualifications by collecting flaps off cereal boxes.) You have no idea how many times I’ve had to correct people who tried to lecture me on detective stories. For instance, did you know that every mystery before WWII took place in an isolated country house cut off by a snowstorm, with the butler always being the culprit? Did you know that Agatha Christie broke all the rules of fair play regularly, which resulted in her being looked upon by fellow mystery novelists with disdain? Did you know that Sherlock Holmes was an alcoholic who was regularly arrested by the police for drunkenness and was occasionally beaten up by Lestrade? Well, I’ve had to correct people who held those illusions dear to their hearts, and occasionally, I didn’t succeed.

***

I think the leaning towards the gritty darkness of Batman and Watchmen has more to do with intellectual laziness than anything else. The dark, brooding tone worked well for the caped crusader and rejuvenated the franchise, but somehow everyone assumes to have stumbled on a blueprint for success – not realizing that not every single fictional character is cut from the same molds as Batman and Rorschach. That's why I hold very little hope for the Spider-Man reboot. On a side note, Iron Man and Wolverine were the most boring superhero movies I have ever seen and the reason why I didn't storm the theatres to see X-Men: First Class or Thor.

Oh, and don't even get me started on people whose knowledge of the genre starts and ends with a few Agatha Christie novels, but think they're in a position to lecture me on the genre and its history – when they can't even differentiate between a closed circle of suspects and a locked room mystery or stop their eyes from glazing over when Christianna Brand, Kelley Roos, Anthony Boucher and Baynard Kendrick are mentioned.

One questions remains, though.

We've been blogging for the better part of a year now, but thus far we've not seen a single award come our way – in spite of churning out a perfect ratio of quantity and quality. Heck, we've even been contacted by authors and publishers who complimented us on our work and how we're even better than the folks who get paid to write this stuff professionally, but are we awarded for this? Just check your pockets, Patrick, and tell me if there's an award there, because there isn't one in mine!

***

Actually, I’ve noticed my pockets have gotten considerably lighter since I started the blog! Still, I can hardly complain. Since firing up the crime scene, I’ve read quite a bit of books and discovered several things. I have survived a Mickey Spillane novel, started reading mysteries in French for fun, and discovered that imagination did not die in the Golden Age after all, but has been continued by authors like Peter Lovesey, Paul Halter, Paul Doherty, Bill Pronzini, and the late William DeAndrea. (Do you realize he’s the only one I’ve named off the top of my head who has no P in his name???) I write this blog because I love doing it. If you look through my blog posts, you’ll find a record of enthusiasm, disappointment, excitement, and occasional dismay… but through it all, I’ve tried to take my love of mysteries and transfer it to the written word. While an honorary Edgar would be nice (nudge, nudge), I doubt I’d be able to make the journey to pick it up! Though I would love to go to Bouchercon one of these days…

***

Yeah, maintaining a blog that keeps golden age mysteries and neo-orthodox detective stories in its crosshairs comes with a price-tag, but as you noted, it reaps a profit that you can't put a price to – not if you are a genuine fan anyway. During this odyssey, I encountered a score of new authors and reacquainted myself with even more of them, most of these writers were already mentioned, and writing rambling extensively about them furthered my understanding and enthusiasm of the genre. And you know how contagious enthusiasm is within the confines of this community and how futile the efforts of my immune system are when it tries to resist it.

This upcoming week, I expect a cargo of Paul Doherty novels, The Red Slayer (1992), The Slayers of Seth (2001) and The Spies of Sobeck (2008), a smattering of impossible crime stories by Herbert Resnicow (who's shamefully neglected even among my fellow fans) and two surprises – one of them a locked room mystery that's rarely, if ever, mentioned as such.

So as everyone can see, we're clearly suffering here and deserving of some appreciating. I'm not asking for an Edgar or Agatha, but just a small token that would, for example, allow us to pick freely from the catalogues of Crippen and Landru or the Rue Morgue Press.

But before everyone gets the wrong impression, I'm not addicted to this stuff. I-I can stop buying and reading detective stories whenever I want! I'm not a slave to it.

* nervous twitches *

A-are you going to finish that mystery, Patrick, or can I have it?

***

Now, now, TomCat, naturally I’m going to finish… and if we end up having to wrestle to the death, I have the advantage of having survived a Mickey Spillane novel. ;)

Thanks a lot for joining me today, and hopefully the readers back home have enjoyed this collision of two blogs. Until next time, I will be right here at the scene of the crime…

3 comments:

  1. Patrick, you've done an excellent job thus far with hurdling us all together to write these crossover reviews! It really brings a community together and we're all looking forward to the end result of your other collaborative projects in the days to come.

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  2. Congratulations to you both for an excellent review and discussion - I'm sure the well-deserved awards are in the post.

    Sergio

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  3. Thanks for the interesting review of the first book from Paul Doherty's fascinating series set in ancient Egypt. It has been a few years since the most recent book in the series, and I hope Doherty has more stories lined up.

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