Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What and So What

The initial tales of Dr. Thomas Silkstone, an American anatomist studying under a brilliant mentor in London in the years following the Revolutionary War, were entertaining and interesting mysteries. Silkstone was on the leading edge of the study of the human body, and learning from that study what might have happened to the now-departed soul under investigation. Author Tessa Harris made a good blend of culture clash -- Americans weren't on anybody's friend list in England for some time after 1776 -- with the dawning of modern forensic science and issues pressing in England in that time to make crisp, clean mysteries featuring well-sketched characters.

But even though the fourth book, The Lazarus Curse, dealt with the issue of slavery in England before it was outlawed, it also started taking a silly turn with a daytime-drama-level complication in Thomas's relationship with the Lady Lydia Farrell and her eeevil family patriarch Montagu Malthus. Volume 5, Shadow of the Raven, heads even deeper into those weeds and more or less smothers its potentially intriguing social commentary and mystery.

The Eeevil Sir Montagu wants to enclose the area around his ward's manor estate and prevent the common people from using it as they have for centuries as a source of food and income. Many wealthy landowners did this in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, causing much misery among the poor. A surveyor examining the land has been shot, and Eeevil Sir Montagu is quick to suspect and blame the villagers. But Thomas is not so sure, nor do his investigations support that claim. His newfangled science is no match for the plotters' machinations, and innocent men may die if he can't find the flaw in the scheme. His attentions are distracted, though, by the plight of Lady Lydia and Eeevil Sir Montagu's even more eeevil schemes to drive a wedge between them. There are forged papers, secret murders, faked deaths, last-second catastrophes, and so on.

In short, Shadow of the Raven is full of Dickensian melodrama, but without anything like Dickensian skill. It makes for a pretty dull slog, and leaves hope that it's a one-time swerve from the road instead of a new path for Harris to take. If not, then it may be time to part ways with and wish Dr. Silkstone and company the best of luck on their journey -- based on the wringer Harris is putting them through, they will need it.
Robert Knott's been so-so in continuing Robert B. Parker's Western lawmen, Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. His first outing, Ironhorse, was fair but overlong and really had nothing in it that suggested any motives behind using Parker's name and characters other than those associated with Putnam's cash flow. His second, Bull River, was flat-out lousy. For his third, The Bridge, he wobbles back up a little, with a narrative that holds together a little better than River but still offers nothing any "Longarm" or "Lonestar" paperback couldn't bring to the table at less than half the price.

A roaring storm leaves Appaloosa buried under snow, making it all the more urgent that lawmen make it out to the Rio Blanco Bridge construction site, where there is reported trouble and lost communication. Appaloosa's sheriff and deputies head out first, but their continued absence means Territorial Marshals Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch will need to find out what happened at the bridge, what happened to the sheriff and who was behind it all. The presence of a traveling road show with a mysterious fortune teller who seems to have bewitched Everett complicates matters considerably.

Again, although Bridge is better than River, it doesn't have to do a lot to cross that bar. Knott doesn't seem to know how to weave the fortune teller into the mix without leaving himself a realistic out, and that gives Bridge an X-Files or Twilight Zone quality that Parker's worlds pretty much can't accommodate, unless we're planning on moving this series into the realm of magical realism Westerns. He includes that absolute laziest of tropes, a Venial Clergyman (something Parker did all too often himself), and presses him into service as a way of letting Everett mock the particular style of faith the man claims to follow. The endgame is pretty shaky and not very firm, and leaves a lot in the air. It's not a cliffhanger where a reader can say, "I wonder what's going to happen!" It's more like a fizzle that prompts, "Does anybody here know what just happened?"

Probably at least a dozen authors have taken on the pen name "Tabor Evans" to write one of the 400-plus books in the "Longarm" series. If Knott is going to keep cranking out Cole and Hitch books that make people say, "Yeah, Virgil and Everett. So what," maybe Putnam ought to give one of them a call.

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