Franklin, Ariana The Serpent's Tale, G.P. Putnam's sons, 2008, 371 pp
Hoag, Tami, Alibi Man, Bantam Books, 2007, 351 pp.
I haven't blogged for a while. And I haven't reviewed any books for a while, either. In both cases, this lack has a lot to do with the fact that I'm furiously writing the final book of my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece. Also, I don't usually dip into the mystery genre. But these two books are interesting, both of them for reasons related to that selfsame book.
I have already reviewed Mistress of the Art of Death, the first in what appears to be a series of mysteries by Ariana Franklin, the pen name of the historical fiction writer Diana Norman. This series is set in 12th century England, during the reign of Henry II, who also appears as a sort of "agent of change" in both books. It is shortly after the killing of Thomas Becket, the famous archbishop of Canterbury. In this one, Ms. Franklin has added Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was Henry's wife. She isn't portrayed quite as one might expect her to be, which, depending on one's point of view, is fortunate or unfortunate. Another character, famous in her time, appears iin the book, but she is very, very dead by the time she appears. This is one Rosamund Clifford, who was the "other woman" as far as Eleanor was concerned. Rosamund was later known as "Fair Rosamund", and Eleanor is supposed to have been so jealous of "Fair Rosamund", that she poisoned her. But again, Franklin doesn't portray "fair Rosamund" the way most of us would probably picture her. She is short, blonde, and needs to lose a lot of weight. On the other hand, Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar is portrayed exactly as you would expect the protagonist in a mystery to be portrayed --- as an "outsider". But on the other hand, this outsider is just a little different from any "outsiders" you might expect in a mystery. She is a woman in a "man's profession"(she is what would now be called a medical examiner), she was trained in this art in Sicily, which allowed women doctors then, she is an orphan, rescued and raised by a loving pair of tolerant Jews, with the help of a Muslim with a fine singing voice, and though she was born and raised in Sicily, she ended up in England, more or less at the command of Henry II, who always seems to need to have his problems solved by someone else. Also, she has fallen in love with a man who is now a bishop, and supposedly out of her reach. They have even had a child together. Their ongoing relationship, whatever that may turn out to be, is probably going to be the "glue" that holds this series together. It is also highly entertaining.
Without going much into plot details(I can say that it reflects a number of things that were going on at the time, plus a large dollop of Franklin's imagination), I think this is shaping up to be a highly entertaining series, and very readable. Franklin/Norman really knows her business, though there are some places that strike me as being somewhat anachronistic. People who are "purists" about the "medieval mindset", and know this period well, may be annoyed at times by these anachronistic touches. Overall, though, I feel that Franklin has done her job well, and the book is likely to be very satisfying to most mystery lovers.
Tami Hoag's Alibi Man is, like The Serpent's Tale, also the second in what is likely to be an ongoing series. It is entertaining and satisfying, but, being set in modern Florida --- the Palm Beach area --- and among some very, very rich, and often unpleasant, people, it is entertaining in a much "darker" and grittier way. Alibi Man, and its predecessor, Dark Horse, is also set in the horse show world. The reason for this is, that Hoag herself seems to have decided to compete as a dressage rider in that world. Which means she knows, or has learned a lot about horses. For the record, I have to confess I picked up this Hoag book because it was set in this world, and, as my own book features horses(and Siamese cats, among other things), and I know next to nothing about horses and their behavior. Which is a distinct disadvantage if you're going towrite about them. There are other parallels as well, though I think in some ways, Hoag is a better mystery writer than Franklin, at least at the moment. The kind of clues and "red herrings" that mystery fans expect when they read in this genre, are much more subtle in Hoag's books than in Franklin's. To be fair, though, Hoag has been writing mystery and crime novels longer than Franklin/Norman has, and The Serpent's Tale is a lot more subtle in this, than Mistress of the Art of Death was.
On the other hand, like Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, Elena Estes is an "outsider". And she, too, is an orphan, adopted by a wealthy lawyer and his wife as a kind of "to do" project. She has rejected the lifestyles of the rich and famous, however, and she was, for a while, a cop, but got into trouble when she was on an assignment and one of her partners accidentally got killed. Now, she hangs around horses, but ends up trying to find out why people get killed. And she, too, has an on-again, off-again love life, though she is far edgier than Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar. In the second book, Hoag reveals that her relationship with her parents is not a loving one.
Again, without going into plot details, there is still another set of parallels, and that is that in both book, some kind of sexual obsession is the pivot on which the plots end up turning. This is a fairly common motivation in mysteries, but one might expect such things in a contemporary setting, but not in a medieval one. Or at least not so much in a medieval one. But in their edgy way, Hoag's efforts at portraying the horse show world and the "filthy rich" types who generally inhabit it, are satisfying. One gets the sense that there is a certain subtle moralism here --- a kind of warning against envy of the lives of the rich and famous. Because people who are that rich, whether or not they are "famous" are often not very attractive personalities. And because they are so rich and are so used to having a great deal of power, some of the feel as though they can do anything they please. Hoag is at great pains to emphasize this aspect, in both her books, but especially in Alibi Man, which also has crude, but understandable members of the Russian mafia wandering in and out of the proceedings. It is an almost "Hogarthian" warning to the rest of us, about the cost of these lifestyles.
I enjoyed both of these books greatly, and have no trouble recommending them to others who might be interested. Unless a reader is of the type that reads iin only one genre, I can almost(given that readers' tastes vary widely), guarantee that they will be fast-paced, enjoyable reads. I look forward with pleasure to more from both these authors, and I don't often say this about any author.