Monday, August 3, 2015

Mystery and Suspense!

Sir John Fielding was a real person, the man who created the first London police force in 1750 with his brother Henry. Although blind, he served as magistrate in London after his brother's death and continued to develop some of the methods modern police forces still use, such as keeping files of criminal records.

Journalist Bruce Alexander Cook, writing as Bruce Alexander, began a series of mysteries featuring the "Blind Beak of Bow Street" and the young orphan he begins to train as an investigator and lawyer, Jeremy Proctor. Blind Justice was published in 1994 and followed by nine other Sir John Fielding mysteries before Cook's death in 2003. Rules of Engagement was partially complete, and Cook's widow Judith Aller and writer John Shannon finished it and used it to finish the series as well, publishing it in 2005.

Lord Lammermoor has leapt to his death from the Westminster Bridge and the coroner has ruled "death by misadventure." But his good friend, the Lord Chief Justice, can't accept the ruling and asks Sir John to investigate, which he and Jeremy do. They find themselves following a shadowy trail through those who follow the science of Anton Mesmer and trying to crack open secrets hidden in the highest levels of English society.

The mystery has Cook's usual ear for period dialogue, careful research and old-world touches such as addressing the reader directly now and again. The resolution following, which is probably the part undertaken by Aller and Shannon, has some of the flair but not the flow of the rest of the novel. But the pair are to be thanked for offering some resolution for the characters rather than leaving them hanging, and they do a better job than many might.

All eleven volumes are delightful reads, full of historical detail, Georgian features, fun characters and twisty mysteries. Rules doesn't sit at the top of the heap, but it is a satisfactory and proper conclusion to the Fielding series which leaves readers in the way it should: Sad the show is over but very very glad they came.
John Gilstrap's tales of Jonathan Grave, a former super-secret commando and currently an off-the-books rescuer of hostages and the like, can be frustrating. Gilstrap's great at creating main characters that you like and want to read about, and in 2015's Against All Enemies, he even gives some depth and dimension to his villain. He writes great action scenes, crisp dialogue and funny buddy bickering.

But he also can be very talky and Enemies has that quality on 10,000 candlepower display -- his heroes actually share many of the views of the villains who want to overthrow the government but their commitment to the rule of law and their ability to spot the flaw in the overthrow plan keep them on the side of the good guys. Which they tell us, over and over again.

So when Grave and his main partner, Boxers, track down a former colleague who's gone rogue, and find he's less of a problem than the people he was seeking out, they have to suss out the proper course of action even though it won't necessarily be the legal one. That lets them lecture various and sundry characters, including each other, on why what they're doing is right.

Gilstrap also throws in some left turns in a couple of characters for what seems to be no real reason other than he can, which jars the narrative and actually leaves a sour taste on what should be a much more satisfying finale. More than once, Grave and Boxers have provided a high-octane and satisfying thrill ride, but with Against All Enemies, as with too many of the series, there are enough stumbles to make you wish someone would have tinkered with the motor a little bit more.
Technically, 1971's The Throne of Saturn is a thriller or a science fiction novel and not a mystery. But if you've ever read author Allen Drury's 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Advise and Consent, you might just scratch your head about how both books could come from the same brain.

In the late 1970s, satellites discover that the Soviet Union is well along in a planned manned mission to Mars. Under presidential pressure, NASA steps up its own planned Mars mission and under even more pressure, selects an astronaut crew based on public opinion. This puts Dr. J.V. Halleck, then America's only black astronaut, on the mission, as well as press darling and astronaut-disliked Jazz Weickert. Veteran Conrad Trasker and Pete Balkis complete the crew. Sabotage and racial tension continually threaten to derail the mission, and when the crew start testing equipment on the moon, all of these problems boil over in a deadly climax.

Drury's style in both books is pretty straightforward and unadorned, what you might expect from someone whose beginning years as a writer were spent reporting. His energetic anti-Communism remains as well, and his attention to the sordid details that underlie the public lives of well-known people. In Advise, those well-known people were politicians, while in Throne, they're astronauts and NASA personnel. Perhaps that's one source of Throne's problems: The idea of a seamy soap opera going on behind the scenes of the players on the Washington, D.C. stage stretches no credulity -- especially in a post-Clinton, post-Sanford age. But placing astronauts and bureaucrats in the same costumes is a much looser fit, and Drury puts as many love affairs, unrequited love affairs and extramarital affairs into the later manuscript as the former.

Halleck is a bizarre caricature of a black activist; it's difficult to believe operating at his level of permanent outrage would qualify for the astronaut program or be the only African-American astronaut, especially given Drury's conjecture of a permanent U.S. manned space station. The mission commander has the hots for Halleck's wife and actually conducts an affair with her, the wife of his subordinate officer. And the heavy, heavy hand with which Drury writes his politicans and protestors makes them cartoons as well, and not in a good way. While his own political thinking helped Drury give a focus to Advise, it only hamstrings Throne. The cover describes Throne as "A Novel of Space and Politics," but in truth it should be a "A Novel of Space, Unrealistic Politics and a Lot of Ridiculous Peyton Place Retreads."

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