Alexandra Walsh – The Catherine Howard Conspiracy

Title: The Catherine Howard Conspiracy
Author: Alexandra Walsh
Series: The Marquess House #1
Publication Date: March 28th 2019

Whitehall Palace, England, 1539

When Catherine Howard arrives at the court of King Henry VIII to be a maid of honour in the household of the new queen, Anne of Cleves, she has no idea of the fate that awaits her.

Catching the king’s fancy, she finds herself caught up in her uncle’s ambition to get a Howard heir to the throne. Terrified by the ageing king after the fate that befell her cousin, Anne Boleyn, Catherine begins to fear for her life…

Pembrokeshire, Wales, 2018

Dr Perdita Rivers receives news of the death of her estranged grandmother, renowned Tudor historian Mary Fitzroy. Mary inexplicably cut all contact with Perdita and her twin sister, Piper, but she has left them Marquess House, her vast estate in Pembrokeshire.

Perdita sets out to unravel their grandmother’s motives for abandoning them, and is drawn into the mystery of an ancient document in the archives of Marquess House, a collection of letters and diaries claiming the records of Catherine Howard’s execution were falsified…

What truths are hiding in Marquess House? What really happened to Catherine Howard? And how was Perdita’s grandmother connected to it all?

Rating: No reason to behead anyone…(just for a lot of eye-rolling)

There’s two things I need to say about this book:

  1. I started it Sunday morning and was then glued to the pages for most of the day, until I finished shortly after midnight
  2. While being glued to the pages, I also rolled my eyes a lot.

Because this book is essentially The Da Vinci Code with the Tudors. Admittedly, with less awkward prose and without Browns weird well-meaning but utterly condescending sexism. But it’s still a book about an awesome academic who discovers that the story we’ve been told about a historic figure is wrong and then she is hunted by a shady organisation who wants to stop her from making that knowledge public. Only it’s not about Jesus but Catherine Howard.

And that’s where things fall apart somewhat because while an organisation of Vatican assassins who hunt people that found out that Jesus was actually married and had children is stupid, it also has some internal logic. Jesus is pretty important for a lot of people. And so is the image of him as an unmarried man. If we are in parallel conspiracy universe, I can buy that people would kill to keep that a secret.

The Catherine Howard Conspiracy posits that the fact that she wasn’t executed has to be kept a secret because…people would get upset if the Divorced, Beheaded and Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived-rhyme didn’t work anymore? The argument they make is that history is important to people and (national) identity and finding out that history isn’t what everybody thought it is would cause an uproar. And the example they give is Richard III and how everybody thought he was an evil hunchback but then they found his bones, discovered his spine wasn’t deformed and then everybody also went back on the evil bit and accepted that Richard was actually one of the good guys. Which is not what happened. As this clip from a kids TV-show that was broadcast about a year before they found Richard’s bones, shows:

Arguments about how many of the bad stories about Richard are true and how many are made up by people who were paid by the Tudors has been discussed by historians for a long time. Granted, finding the bones has probably brought that to the attention of a lot of people whose entire knowledge about him had come from the Shakespeare play but I seriously doubt that these people were so upset by that revelation that they then voted for Brexit. Or whatever it was the book was trying to convince me off.

There are so many historic figures and events that historians argue about. Because there is no such thing as an unbiased source. We get descriptions from people who have their own reasons for making someone look good or bad, from people who couldn’t believe that women might have an agency of their own or that gay people existed. Or perhaps they even tried to be neutral but wrote about someone who deliberately tried to appear different from how they actually were. And the further back you go, the harder it gets to find a person where historians agree on all aspects of his or her life. Of course, some of these controversies are more well known than others but building a whole book on History is a fixed thing and must never be changed is so ridiculous that I cannot buy at all, not even if it’s just the premise for a light entertainment read.

And that’s a shame because, I really enjoyed the book at first, since I did not look very closely at the cover and it wasn’t immediately obvious that this was a “gripping conspiracy thriller”. There was just Catherine’s story – starting with her time at Henry’s court – and Perdita’s story – who inherits Marquess house and finds papers there that make her doubt the official story. Admittedly, Catherine’s story was a bit too much. Too much making sure the reader really likes her. She’s not the semi-illiterate woman who’s stupid enough to screw around while being married to a guy who already beheaded one wife for infidelity. Instead, she’s incredibly clever, sends complex coded messages, makes sure that she’s not even alone with her own brother once it becomes clear that Henry intends to marry her and is so incredibly kind-hearted that she’s even trying to help the people who’ve been plotting against her. And to make sure we really like her and feel sorry for her, there are several quite graphic scenes where Henry rapes her…have I mentioned that she’s 15/16 at the time of the story?

Now I would like to throw a controversial opinion out there: it doesn’t matter if Catherine was stupid, couldn’t write her own name and screwed the entire court. She was also a teenager who had no choice but to marry Henry. She did not deserve to be murdered. There’s no need to portray her as an angelic creature who saves puppies in her free time to convince me of that.

On the other hand, life is depressing and especially female characters are rarely allowed to be sympathetic and unlikeable and who am I to judge the author for telling a story with more mass appeal?

So, if this had just been a story of angelic Catherine and Perdita who goes on a treasure hunt to discover the truth and the conflict and tension had come from something that wasn’t her being hunted by secret government agencies, I’d have enjoyed this book. (Though I would have still side-eyed all the on-page rape of a 15 year old very hard). But then the story turned into…well The Tudor Code and I could not buy that, not in the way it was presented.

ARC received from NetGalley

Mini Reviews February 2019

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Anna Waterhouse: Mycroft Holmes

This book wants to give us an origin story for Mycroft and show him before he turned into the man we know from the Sherlock Holmes stories but also wants to make sure that we recognise Mycroft as the man from the Sherlock Holmes stories. The result is sadly not a less extreme version of Mycroft but a character that acts like a lovesick teenie in one chapter and in the next fails to take anybody’s feelings into consideration and is such a genius that he can tell how much a body that was dropped into the water weighed, just from the sploshing-sound he heard. It felt like reading about two different characters.
Oh, and feminism makes you evil. I mean, I grant the author that he might have wanted to say something about White Feminism™ but to make that point clear he should have included more than one female character that was relevant to the plot.


Tyler Whitesides: The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn

This book lost itself in too many (repeated) explanations. There are no mages and non-mages in the world of this book, everybody can do magic – provided they have the right grit – powder harvested from dragon dung (yup) – and know how to use it. And the “how” gets explained everytime a character uses some (and they do so very often). In great detail. In very great detail. Now, I vastly prefer fantasy novels that do a bit more explaining than necessary to those that just throw you in the middle without any explanation and by the time you figure out how everything works, you’re halfway through the book. But this isn’t just “a bit more”. This 800-page doorstopper could have been a 600-page doorstopper and I’d still have understood how the magical system works. And another 100 pages could have been knocked off if the narration had replaced the repeated assurances that the character’s feelings had changed, with a few scenes that showed us that.

I also read Without Pretense and you can read my full review over at Love in Panels.

And don’t worry: I still read good books. In fact I recently read a book that was so good, that I’m still trying to figure out how to write a review that isn’t just full of capslock and gifs of cute animals.

Lois Austen-Leigh: The Incredible Crime

Author: Lois Austen-Leigh
Title: The Incredible Crime

Prince’s College, Cambridge, is a peaceful and scholarly community, enlivened by Prudence Pinsent, the Master’s daughter. Spirited, beautiful, and thoroughly unconventional, Prudence is a remarkable young woman.

One fine morning she sets out for Suffolk to join her cousin Lord Wellende for a few days’ hunting. On the way, Prudence encounters Captain Studde of the coastguard – who is pursuing a quarry of his own.

Studde is on the trail of a drug smuggling ring that connects Wellende Hall with the cloistered world of Cambridge. It falls to Prudence to unravel the identity of the smugglers – who may be forced to kill, to protect their secret.

Rating: Jane Austen disapproves

Note: I’m not going to spoil concrete events or the whole solution to this book. But to explain what I didn’t like about this book I have to give away a bit more than I usually do, so read at your own risk.

Austen-Leigh was the great-great niece of Jane Austen, at one point the inspector quotes from Northanger Abbey and at the beginning, I thought The Incredible Crime would end up being “Northanger Abbey but instead of Gothic novels it’s with crime fiction.”

For everybody whose memory of Austen’s novels is a bit patchy: The heroine Catherine loves gothic novels. Her designated love interest invites her to stay with him and his father General Tilney and their home looks like it came right out of a gothic novel. When then people act a bit oddly around Catherine, her imagination runs wild and she’s convinced that General Tilney killed his first wife and is now after her. Of course, in the end, it turns out that things were very different.

At the beginning of The Incredible Crime, Prudence reads a crime novel, laughs, tosses it away and complains about how these novels are always full of people getting murdered in country houses and this never happens in real life. Not much later she visits her cousin – in a country house – and strange things start happening. But are matters really as serious as they seem?

I am not a big fan of Northanger Abbey, due to it parodying Gothic novels and me having read a grand total of one Gothic novel but I think I would have loved an actual NA-with-crime-fiction with a main character who sees dead bodies under every creaking floorboard. But that’s not what The Incredible Crime turned out to be. Before Prudence visits her cousin, she was already approached by an inspector who raised some suspicions about one of the other houseguests. Once she arrives, one of the servants also has some worrying news and finally, Prudence herself witnesses things that go far beyond “people acting a bit odd”. And she isn’t the only one who’s suspicious; apart from the servant who confided in Prudence there’s also the Scotland Yard detective who is quite sure he knows what’s happening, he just needs a final bit of evidence. So, when in the end, things turn out to be very different from what everybody thought, as a reader, I didn’t go “Haha! How stupid of them to jump to conclusions.” but rather “They made perfectly reasonable deductions based on what they knew and saw and it was a one in a million chance that things weren’t what they thought they were.” which doesn’t make for the most satisfying reading experience. To come back to Northanger Abbey: It would be like having a scene in which Catherine sees Tilney with a dagger bent over a lifeless woman and later found out that he’d only given her a thoracotomy.

All of that is polished with an extremely unsatisfactory romance for Prudence. I wasn’t expecting Jane Austen (or Dorothy Sayers) but I had hoped for something better than one that concludes with “And once the woman learned her place she was happy.”

Raymond Postgate: Somebody at the Door

Title: Somebody at the Door
Author: Raymond Postgate

One bleak Friday evening in January, 1942, Councillor Henry Grayling boards an overcrowded train with £120 in cash wages to be paid out the next day to the workers of Barrow and Furness Chemistry and Drugs Company. When Councillor Grayling finally finds the only available seat in a third-class carriage, he realises to his annoyance that he will be sharing it with some of his disliked acquaintances: George Ransom, with whom he had a quarrel; Charles Evetts, who is one of his not-so-trusted employees; a German refugee whom Grayling has denounced; and Hugh Rolandson, whom Grayling suspects of having an affair with his wife. 

The train journey passes uneventfully in awkward silence but later that evening Grayling dies of what looks like mustard gas poisoning and the suitcase of cash is nowhere to be found. Inspector Holly has a tough time trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, for the unpopular Councillor had many enemies who would be happy to see him go, and most of them could do with the cash he was carrying. But Inspector Holly is persistent and digs deep into the past of all the suspects for a solution, starting with Grayling’s travelling companions. 

Rating: 5/5 red herrings

The setup of this story is not that that unusual: George Ransom, a not particularly liked man, shares his train carriage with a handful of people who either have a good reason to want him dead (like the man his wife is having an affair with) or who simply don’t like him much but could very much do with the £120 he was carrying. Not long after he has left the train he’s dead and the money gone.

The way it continues is then not quite as typical. We see very little of the police doing any investigating for most of the book. Instead, each chapter focusses on one of Ransom’s travelling companions and tells us how they got to the point where they are a viable suspect in great detail. For example, the chapter on the German refugee begins with a group of students who discover by chance that somebody is taking money from German Jews who want to leave the country and promises to help them escape but actually betrays them to the Gestapo. They also acquire a list of names and discover that one of the men hasn’t yet attempted to flee and one of the students sets out to save him. We then witness their escape, including several near-misses that had me biting my nails, even though I knew that the man had to be the German that was in the train and therefore had to survive. It was brilliantly written but I also wondered if all of this was really necessary. Red herrings are of course one thing, but each chapter contained so many things that couldn’t even be called red herrings. The above-mentioned students had nothing to do with the murder – and it was almost immediately obvious that they couldn’t have – yet half the chapter was just about them.

Only at the end of the chapter, we see the police discussing the suspect in question and from their conversation, we can see that their investigation has led them to a rough idea of the motive this person has for killing Grayling. But usually, they don’t know as many details as the reader does. At the same time, they’re also trying to figure out how Grayling was murdered which is also far from obvious but then maybe once they have figured that out, the who follows automatically.

In the end, I can see how this book isn’t for everybody. Especially people who expect a more traditional mystery, where the police uncover clue after about the suspect’s past will likely end up disappointed. But I enjoyed the different stories too much to really care about not getting what I expected. Now not all of them are as nail-biting as the refugee-story (and some of them are a bit heavy-handed where the moral is concerned) but they’re still great and that makes the whole book an enjoyable read.

Serpents in Eden

“The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside… Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.” – Sherlock Holmes

Many of the greatest British crime writers have explored the possibilities of crime in the countryside in lively and ingenious short stories. Serpents in Eden celebrates the rural British mystery by bringing together an eclectic mix of crime stories written over half a century. From a tale of poison-pen letters tearing apart a village community to a macabre mystery by Arthur Conan Doyle, the stories collected here reveal the dark truths hidden in an assortment of rural paradises. Among the writers included here are such major figures as G. K. Chesterton and Margery Allingham, along with a host of lesser-known discoveries whose best stories are among the unsung riches of the golden age of British crime fiction between the two world wars.

I have to say that this book felt much more true to its title than some of the other BCL-collections. There are the Christmas crime collections that often feature stories, where the winter-setting is only mentioned in passing and e.g. Blood on the Tracks, contains stories where parts take place on a train but they could have easily been set somewhere else. But in Serpents in Eden the countryside-setting was an important part of the stories and/or the plots wouldn’t have worked at all or at least very differently in a city-setting.

This collection again features many well-known names and also open with one of them: Conan Doyle. Though The Black Doctor is another non-Holmes story follows the same pattern as his others: a curious case baffles everybody and is solved by nobody. Here we get a murdered country doctor and while it does seem an open and shut case at first, the inquest puts everything on his head. At least until a kind person appears who knows exactly what happens and is friendly enough to explain everything. No sleuthing by anyone required. Like Doyle, Chesterton doesn’t send out his most famous detective in this collection. In The Fad of the Fisherman Horne Fisher solves a case. Sort of. One got the impression that the author rather wanted to talk about politics and also took great care never to use one word when he could express the same thing with five or six.

For golden age lovers, the name Anthony Berkley will also be well-known. His story Direct Evidence is what you’d call solid. There’s a murder, a very obvious suspect, several witnesses who swear they saw him shoot the man and a sleuth for whom this is all a bit too obvious. I’m still not overwhelmed by his hero Roger Sheringham but he has some charm and is beginning to grow on me.

The name McDonnel Bodkin is not quite as well known, which is a shame because I’ve liked all his stories I’ve come across so far. Murder by Proxy, in which Paul Beck has to solve the murder of a highly unlikeable man is no exception. On the other hand, I wasn’t quite as happy with R. Austin Freeman’s The Naturalist at Law even though I’m usually a fan of Thorndyke. And it’s not that it’s a badly plotted story or fails at the scientific aspect. It just rather clearly shows Freeman’s prejudices. And if all you can say is “Well at least the bad guy was just a scary foreign communist and not a scary foreign Jewish communist” it’s not the most complimentary thing.

We also get a story by Leonora Wodehouse, stepdaughter of. But she certainly didn’t need his name to get by because her story Inquest about -duh – a murder-inquest with a surprising twist is brilliant and my favourite story in this collection.

The Genuine Tabard about some thieves who come up with an ingenious idea and fall over a completely unexpected detail was my first story by E.C. Bentley and it was neither overwhelming nor horrible. Similarly, Herbert Jenkin’ The Gylston Slander about a poison pen letter writer in a village was nice but nothing that will make me remember the name of the author. The same can be said about H. C. Bailey’s The Long Barrow in which two private detectives are approached independently by a man and his secretary, both worried about strange things that happen in their vicinity. I must also say that I found the writing style a bit too wordy for my taste.

In the introduction to Leo Bruse’s Clue in the Mustard Edwards talks about how the first novel that features Seargent Beef, who also solves this case, have him outdo caricatures of Wimsey, Poirot and Brown and Clue in the Mustard also has a touch of “See my sleuth? He’s not like the other sleuths! He isn’t posh and he mispronounces foreign words! Look at him being different!” And while I’m always there for non-posh sleuths just “being not posh” isn’t actually a character-trait and so this is just another decent but unmemorable mystery

Two of the stories take a more humorous approach: Margery Allingham’s A Proper Mystery, which doesn’t even feature a murder, just some strange happenings during a farming competition and Gladys Mitchell’s Our Pageant about a murdered morris dancer – because we can’t have a book countryside murders and not have at least one story on morris dancing. Both were very much not my thing. I don’t mind some humour but all these stories had quirky characters for the sake of having quirky characters do and say quirky things.

The story that stands out somehow is Ethel Lina White’s The Scarecrow which is neither a whodunit nor a howdunit nor really about any other question. It’s about a woman who has been attacked by a man before and the man was arrested for it but now has escaped. Now she’s alone with her frail mother on a farm, far away from other people and we have a perfect set-up for a thriller. I’m not a big fan of thrillers but have to admit that parts were quite gripping. At the same time, White’s background in scriptwriting showed quite clearly and I think the plot would have worked better on TV or radio with some appropriately eery music and other creepy noises.

Anthony Rolls: Scarweather

Title: Scarweather
Author: Anthony Rolls

John Farringdale, with his cousin Eric Foster, visits the famous archaeologist Tolgen Reisby. At Scarweather – Reisby’s lonely house on the windswept northern coast of England – Eric is quickly attracted to Reisby’s much younger wife, and matters soon take a dangerous turn. Fifteen years later, the final scene of the drama is enacted.

I picked this book up, knowing it was a crime novel. In a crime novel, there is usually…well a crime. A character in that novel obviously doesn’t know what kind of book they’re in. So if they learn that a person disappeared it’s realistic that they will accept ‘He went for a swim and drowned’ as explanation and not suspect foul play. But as a reader that’s still rather frustrating because you know that it isn’t going to end with the solution “It was an accidental drowning and nobody else was involved.”

It’s bearable if the character only needs a bit longer than the reader to discover that fact but Farringdale doesn’t need a bit longer. He needs the whole book and then he only gets it after someone explains it to him. Because he is the first-person narrator of this story but the actual investigator is his friend Frederick Ellingham. He describes himself as ‘the Watson’ and even without that direct shout-out it wouldn’t have been difficult to guess the inspiration for this story. Ellingham is incredibly clever, has a vast knowledge in several fields and leaves Farringdale in the dark about his suspicions because of reasons.

But there are also a fair number of differences. For one: Holmes had charm. And charisma. Ellingham has neither and while Farringdale keeps telling the reader what a great man and friend he is but really I never saw anything of it. He’s condescending and doesn’t seem to trust Farringdale at all. But far more importantly: Holmes frequently makes it clear that he doesn’t think somebody should be lett off just because he’s rich or influential. Ellingham, meanwhile, knows that someone is doing something illegal (not murder but still something serious) and from the way he tells it, it seemed to me that he would have had no problem proving it. Still, he decides not to do it because *drumroll* the man has a reputation and is such an important scientist. (As a side note: he’s an archaeologist, a profession Ellingham mocks throughout the whole book, essentially saying that they only make up stuff as they go along and that there’s no proper scientific reasoning behind their claims).

Farringdale, meanwhile, isn’t exactly a Watson, either since Watson had, you know, some brains. But when I said that he has no idea what’s going on until Ellingham explains it to him at the very end, I wasn’t exaggerating. He watches Ellingham come back repeatedly to the scene of the disappearance, act oddly in a myriad of different ways and witness a series of strange events. Then Ellingham even alludes that there might be something fishy going on but he remains convinced that it was all a tragic accident and a series of incredibly strange coincidences.

And since he doesn’t think there is anything wrong, he never does any investigating. So what we get is a mystery novel, told from the POV from someone who doesn’t even know that there is a mystery and who keeps talking about things that make you scream “DON’T YOU SEE WHAT’S GOING ON THERE? IT’S SO BLOODY OBVIOUS!” And then, when things are explained to him in words with as few syllables as possible he almost faints from shock while most readers will go “I am shocked that gambling is going on in this house that all my suspicions turned out to be true.

Who would have expected that?”

Now, I don’t claim that I loved every single British Crime Library Classic I read so far but at least in most cases, I can see that others might enjoy them. So far there have been only two where that wasn’t the case: I really can’t see how anybody would find something enjoyable in Scarweather and The Secret of High Eldersham. They’re just plain bad…and the ending of Scarweather also offers an absolutely horrid moral about how reputation is more important than everything else.