Finished two books this weekend.
First was The Queen’s Man: A Medieval Mystery by Sharon Kay Penman. I wanted to like this one more than I did. Penman is a noted writer of historical fiction, most (if not all) of which is set in the late Middle Ages during the time of the Plantagenets in England. Most of her books are quite long, which makes The Queen’s Man something of a departure: it is actually quite brief, being a murder mystery set in and around London. Our hero, Justin de Quincy, witnesses the murder of a silversmith who just happens to be carrying a letter to the Queen (Eleanor of Aquitaine) about the whereabouts of King Richard, who has gone missing whilst on Crusade. Justin delivers the letter to the Queen, and she presses him into her service, charging him with identifying the silversmith’s murderer and learning if he was killed for the contents of the letter.
This is an interesting set-up, and one expects a book filled with court politics and intrigue where people are never what they seem, and where the murder of a silversmith is only the tip of a much larger iceberg. We get some of that, but for the most part the book is more pedestrian. It is as if Penman couldn’t quite decide which direction in which to go: was she telling that story of intrigue within House Plantagenet, or was she merely telling a traditional Agatha Christie-style murder mystery that happened to be set in medieval times? The book pulls in both directions, even at the end when the murderers and their motives are revealed. A resolution to a mystery like this should satisfy, and this one doesn’t. Making matters slightly worse is that some of the intrigues uncovered are left unresolved, making clear that the book is intended to be the first in a series of Justin de Quincy’s adventures (and, in fact, one sequel is already out: Cruel As The Grave).
Other plot threads are present for no apparent reason at all: at one point Justin acquires a stray dog as a companion, but the dog doesn’t figure in the story at all, despite the pages Penman spends describing the episode. The silversmith’s family, full of intrigues of its own, is delved into early in the novel but then left behind completely. And then there are certain aspects of the book that ring totally false: Penman is careful to use terms that were the vernacular of the time: phrases like “for certes” and words like “gaol” (instead of “jail”), but then she does things like have one character exclaim “That will be the day!” Maybe they really did use that phrase eight hundred years ago, but once a saying is used as a title for a Buddy Holly song, it probably shouldn’t be employed in a historical novel. Also, I found it hard to believe that a baseborn commoner like Justin de Quincy could so easily gain audience with the Queen of England as he does early in the book. (I could be quite wrong on that point, however.) Reading The Queen’s Man gave me a disjointed feeling; Penman’s characters are well-drawn (especially Luke de Marston, an earthy undersheriff), but the details of the plot never come together into a cohesive whole.
The other book finished this week is Michael Moore’s Downsize This! Random Threats from an Unarmed American. Moore, an author and filmmaker best known for the documentary Roger and Me, presents here a hodge-podge of angry liberalism. I expect that one’s enjoyment of this will be largely dependent on the degree of sympathy to his viewpoints. I found it entertaining, although my main impression was in how odd it is to read political humor from six years ago. This was pre-Monica Lewinsky America, when Newt Gingrich was still a dominant figure in American politics, when George W. Bush was only a freshman governor less than halfway into his first term of office, and when Oklahoma City was still a fresh wound. There is even a chapter on the OJ Simpson trial, which had ended less than a year before the book came out. I did find a lot in Moore’s book to agree with, but as per my avoidance-of-politics policy for this site, I will leave it at that.