book log: 76) Edward Marston – the Queen’s Head

First of the Nicholas Bracewell mystery series, set in a theatrical company in Elizabethan London. Bracewell is the bookholder for Lord Westfield’s Men, a responsible position in its own right even without the additional tasks taken on by Bracewell. Bracewell finds himself with an unexpected task of the worst kind when his friendĀ  and colleague, actor Will Fowler, is called in a tavern brawl. Bracewell is determined to find the killer, but has other equally urgent matters to deal with, not least of which is ensuring nothing goes wrong with the performance of a new play before the Queen herself. Jealous rivalries both within the company and with another company aren’t helping matters…

It’s an entertaining romp, but unusually for Marston, there were a couple of elements that could be problematic for many readers. They’re historically accurate, but nevertheless they need flagging up. One is the portrayal of one of the senior actors as having a taste for pretty boys, and this being tolerated as long as he leaves the company’s apprentices alone – which he doesn’t. Given other things he’s written I don’t think Marston intended this, but it does come over as equating “homosexual” with “pedarest”. The other is that the book does get into the head of characters with the strong anti-Catholic prejudices one might expect in this time period.

book log: 70) Edward Marston — The Amorous Nightingale

70) Edward Marston — The Amorous Nightingale

Second in the Christopher Redmayne historical mystery series, set in London just after the Great Fire of 1666. I’d previously read only the fourth in the series, so I’m going back now, and am pleased to find that this one’s just as enjoyable. Young architect Christopher Redmayne is asked to do a service for the King — to find the King’s favourite mistress, the acclaimed singer/actress Harriet Gow, who has been abducted and held for an impossibly large ransom. Redmayne’s friend, the Puritan constable Jonathan Bale, initially refuses to help on moral grounds, but finds that he too has a personal stake in the crime, because Harriet’s maid is the orphaned daughter of friends of his. The two men have to use their separate network of social connections to hunt down leads as fast as possible, in a situation where secrecy is vital.

As ever with Marston’s historical novels, this is a competent, enjoyable, midlist novel which I probably won’t keep but am glad to have read. I don’t know enough about the period to know how accurate his historical detail is, but the world-building is good, and the plot mechanics work well. I think the characterisations are a little deeper and thus to me better in this series than in the Railway Detective series. And as I’ve found with his other books, while the lead characters are male, he has good secondary female characters. I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series.

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book log: Edward Marston — Railway to the grave

51) Edward Marston — Railway to the grave

Seventh in the Railway Detective series, about a Victorian detective inspector specialising in railway crime in the early days of the railways. As usual with this author, enjoyable pulp fiction that I won’t bother keeping but am glad to have read. In this one a retired Colonel commits suicide by walking into an oncoming train. Tarleton’s wife went missing a few weeks earlier, and is presumed murdered. The case might have come to Robert Colbeck in the normal course of events anyway, but there is a personal link — the dead man was a friend of Colbeck’s superior officer, from Tallis’s days as an army officer. Tallis wants his dead friend’s name cleared, and the person responsible for both deaths found. Colbeck has to persuade Tallis to leave the investigation to him, because Tallis is far too emotionally involved to do a good job.

The series in general tends to fairly cardboard characters, and Tallis has been something of a stock stereotype in spite of being a regular character, but Marston has finally begun to flesh him out a little in this book.

I’d note that the author tries to reflect period mores and attitudes in his historical mysteries, and this does mean that some of the characters’ reactions to various plot developments are not likely to sit well with much of my friends list. Colbeck himself is a broad-minded and humane man, but that simply means that he gets to clash with people who aren’t, such as the local rector who has no intention of allowing a suicide to be buried in hallowed ground.

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Book log: Edward Marston — The Frost Fair

Book 75

I bought this because it was by the same author as the Railway Detective series, which I’d found enjoyable at the “read once” level. This is the fourth in the Restoration series, a mystery series about architect Christopher Redmayne and constable Jonathan Bale, set in Restoration London in the years following the Great Fire of 1666. I haven’t previously read any in this series, but found that this worked well as a standalone, with enough backstory worked in to be able to follow who people were.

A naked corpse is found frozen into the sheet of ice that has covered the Thames, and the most obvious suspect is Christopher’s rake of a brother, who wakes up after a drunken night to find himself arrested and flung into Newgate. Christopher is convinced of his brother’s innocence, not just out of family loyalty but because he is only too aware of his brother’s vices — and violence is not among them. His friend Jonathan, on the other hand, is convinced of Henry’s guilt, and not just because the Puritan Jonathan disapproves of Henry’s lifestyle. The evidence at the scene is all too damning. But both men feel that justice will not be done unless the matter is properly investigated. And investigate they do, following parallel lines of enquiry and sharing their information. Along the way there’s some excellent world-building about the re-building of the world of London after the Great Fire. I don’t know the period well enough to say how accurate it is, but Marston has created an enjoyable picture of a culture that is both alien and familiar.

I think I like this one a little better than I did the Railway Detective series, possibly because rather than in spite of coming in part way through the series — there’s far less overt info-dumping in this one than in the first Railway Detective book I read. I’d be happy to read more of these, although I’m not going to rush out looking for them; in part because a quick look at the blurbs on the author’s website suggests there is very little character arc development through the series for the continuing characters and their lives outside the mystery-solving, something I found rather frustrating in the Railway Detective books.

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