An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas

An Uncertain Place (Commissaire Adamsberg, #8)

I loved An Uncertain Place, a clever and also a confusing book. It’s the sixth in Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series in which he investigates a macabre murder. I say confusing because I got a bit lost in the middle of the book, and looking back I think it’s because Adamsberg is not your normal detective – he works by intuition and I simply hadn’t followed his train of thought. With a bit of concentration I was back on track and caught up with him.

I say clever because it is such a convoluted plot, with what I thought could be red herrings, but which turned out to be vital clues. I think the blurb on the back cover summarises the story better than I could:

Commissaire Adamsberg leaves Paris for a three-day conference in London. With him are Estalere, a young sergeant, and Commandant Danglard, who is terrified at the idea of travelling beneath the Channel. It is a welcome change of scenery, until a macabre and brutal case comes to the attention of their colleague Radstock from New Scotland Yard.

Just outside the gates of the baroque Highgate cemetery a pile of shoes is found. Not so strange in itself, but the shoes contain severed feet. As Scotland Yard’s investigation begins, Adamsberg and his colleagues return home and are confronted with a massacre in a suburban home. Adamsberg and Danglard are drawn in to a trail of vampires and vampire-hunters that leads them all the way to Serbia, a place where the old certainties no longer apply.

My thoughts:

This is one of those books that once I begin reading I don’t want to put down. I had to, of course, and it’s not a book to dash through to the end or you’ll miss so much. Adamsberg is a very likeable detective, although he must be a nightmare to work with, as his colleagues find his methods of working just as bewildering and confusing as I do. But they are used to him and trust his leaps of intuition.

The mystery of who left the shoes outside the gates of Highgate Cemetery is a theme throughout the book:

The smell was ghastly, the scene appalling, and even Adamsberg stiffened, standing back a little behind his English colleague. From the ancient shoes, with their cracked leather and trailing laces, projected decomposed ankles, showing dark flesh and white shinbones which had been cleanly chopped off. The only thing that didn’t match Clyde-Fox’s account was that the feet were not trying to get into the cemetery. They were just there, on the pavement, terrible and provocative, sitting inside their shoes at the historic gateway to Highgate Cemetery. They formed a carefully arranged and unspeakable pile. (page 23)

 The scene that confronts Adamsberg on his return to Paris is even more gruesome. Pierre Vaudel, a former journalist who specialised in legal affairs, had been murdered, or rather it looked as though his body had exploded and had been strewn around the room. The only way to identify the body was by DNA. Suspicion falls on the gardener, who reported the death and who inherited all of Vaudel’s property and also on Vaudel’s son.

After a similar murder occurs in Austria, Adamsberg is eventually led to a village on the Serbian/Romanian border, finding himself immersed in the weird world of vampires. Books featuring vampires (with the exception of Dracula) are not part of my preferred reading, but I found this aspect of the book fascinating. Adamsberg, himself, is sceptical and ignores warnings not to start meddling or even visit the tomb of Petar Blagojevic who had died in 1725. Blagojevic/Plogojowitz was said to be a ‘vampyr‘, and the clearing in the wood, where he was buried is known by the locals as ‘the place of uncertainty.’ Adamsberg’s disregard for his own safety puts him in danger of losing his own life.

This book is full of wonderful and unique characters, the plot, as I said, is clever and completely bamboozled me, the settings are easily imagined from Vargas’ descriptions, and the suspense is maintained throughout. It’s a complicated book – one of the most intriguing aspects is the sudden appearance of a man claiming to be Adamsberg’s son. Maybe this is not a book everyone will enjoy, but I think it’s a most satisfying and surreal mystery, and one that I enjoyed immensely.

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (5 April 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 009955223X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099552239
  • Source: I bought my copy
  • My Rating: 4.5*

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017

A Place of Execution by Val McDermid

For years I’ve steered clear of reading any of Val McDermid‘˜s books and the reason is that I can’t stand to watch the violence and torture scenes in TV series such as Wire in the Blood, based on her Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. But then I thought that maybe I wasn’t being fair to judge a writer’s work on films based on the books, and I read Cleanskin, one of the Quick Reads series, aimed at ‘adults who’ve stopped reading or find reading tough, and for regular readers who want a short, fast read.’ I enjoyed it and I’ve been meaning to read one of her full length books ever since.

There are many to choose from but I decided to read A Place of Execution, one of her standalone books. The book was made into a 3-part TV drama shown on ITV 1 in 2008, which I didn’t see. It is one of my TBRs.

A Place of Execution

Blurb:

In the Peak District village of Scarsdale, thirteen-year-old girls didn’t just run away. So when Alison Carter vanished in the winter of ’63, everyone knew it was a murder.

Catherine Heathcote remembers the case well. A child herself when Alison vanished, decades on she still recalls the sense of fear as parents kept their children close, terrified of strangers.

Now a journalist, she persuades DI George Bennett to speak of the hunt for Alison, the tantalising leads and harrowing dead ends. But when a fresh lead emerges, Bennett tries to stop the story ‘“ plunging Catherine into a world of buried secrets and revelations.

My thoughts:

This is an excellent psychological thriller, full of tension and suspense, set in the Derbyshire village of Scardale, an isolated community of about ten houses, where everyone is related, a place that had a reputation of being a law unto itself. So everyone could tell Detective Inspector George Bennett the time that Alison Carter left home taking her dog for a walk. But despite extensive searches her body is never found, although they do find her dog in the woodland, tied to a tree with elastoplast wound round its muzzle.

A Place of Execution spans the years from 1963 when Alison went missing up to 1998 when Catherine Heathcote, a journalist decided to write a book about the case. It had Bennett’s first major investigation and he’d been determined to find out what had happened to Alison. The majority of the book is about his investigation and the meticulous searches he and his team carried out until the case was resolved. But why in 1998 after going over the details of the case with Catherine did he suddenly write to her begging her to abandon the book?

The sense of place and time is so well done in this book and the characterisation is so good that I felt I knew these people. Even when the case appears to have been resolved there is something more, something hidden that still needs to be revealed. I had an inkling about what it was but I had by no means guessed all of it. But the clues were all there.

There are many layers in A Place of Execution. The villagers are a close-knit community suspicious of outsiders and reluctant to talk to the police. I realised towards the end of the book that the way that Val McDermid has structured the book allows for a great deal of deception and that things are not always what they seem. I loved it and I shall definitely be reading more of her books.

Paperback, 624 pages
Published February 6th 2006 by Harper Collins (first published June 7th 1999)

Caedmon’s Song by Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson writes the Inspector Banks books, but he has also written short stories and a couple of standalone books including Caedmon’s Song, described as a psychological thriller.

Summary (from Peter Robinson’s website)

One warm June night, a university student called Kirsten is viciously attacked in a park by a serial killer. He is interrupted, and Kirsten survives, but in a severe physically and psychologically damaged state. As the killer continues, leaving a trail of mutilated corpses, Kirsten confronts her memories and becomes convinced not only that she can, but that she must remember what happened. Through fragments of nightmares, the details slowly reveal themselves. Interwoven with Kirsten’s story is that of Martha Browne, a woman who arrives in the Yorkshire coastal town of Whitby with a sense of mission. Finally, the two strands are woven together and united in a startling, chilling conclusion. 

My thoughts

Overall I liked Caedmon’s Song, but I wouldn’t describe it as a thriller, even though the attack on Kirsten is particularly vicious. It is set mainly in Whitby a seaside town in Yorkshire. The ruins of Whitby Abbey, Bram Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula, stand on the East Cliff overlooking the North Sea, with St Mary’s Church and Caedmon’s Cross nearby. I wondered as I began reading whether Martha’s visit to Whitby had any connection to Dracula, but although these places are described as she finds her way around the town they are just incidental to the plot.

Then I began to wonder about the connection between Kirsten and Martha because Robinson drops in quite a few clues early on in the book, which become explicit in the second half of the book. So, the links between them are quite easy to see, which disappointed me at first and lessened the tension. I wasn’t too convinced either by how Kirsten discovered her attacker’s identity and even considering the horrific details of her injuries I didn’t really feel sympathetic towards her as she comes across as rather cold-blooded. But as the narrative developed I began to enjoy the story and to wonder how it would end.

Kirsten considers whether she is a ‘born victim‘ or not, questioning her actions on the night of the attack, and wondering whether she had been inviting destruction. Her conclusion is that she wasn’t at all clear about it, but felt that it was her destiny, that she had been chosen as her attacker’s nemesis. All she knew was that she had to find him and face him. The ending is dramatic, but what would happen next is left open.

In his afterword Peter Robinson (written in 2003 when a new edition was published) explains that he had the idea for writing Caedmon’s Song in the late 1980s after he had written the first four Inspector Banks novels. He had felt he needed a change and wanted to write a novel in which the police played a subsidiary role. Then in September 1987 when he saw Whitby as he approached it on the coast road the idea for the setting and opening of the book came to him:

There lay Whitby, spread out below. The colours seemed somehow brighter and more vibrant than I remembered: the greens and blues of the North Sea, the red pantile roofs. Then the dramatic setting of the lobster-claw harbour and the two opposing hills, one capped with a church, the other with Captain Cook’s statue and the massive jawbone of a whale. I knew immediately that this was where the story had to take place, and that it began with a woman getting off a bus, feeling a little travel-sick, trying the place on for size. (pages 326-7)

I feel a trip to Whitby coming on – a place I’ve been wanting to visit for some years now.

Amazon UK link

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Pan; Reprints edition (1 Aug. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1447225473
  • ISBN-13: 978-1447225478
  • Source : I bought the book
  • Rating: 3*

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017

The Kill Fee by Fiona Veitch Smith

The Kill Fee (Poppy Denby Investigates #2)

The Kill Fee is the second book in the Poppy Denby Investigates series. I haven’t read the first book, The Jazz Files, but I had no difficulty reading this second book as it reads well as a standalone, with enough detail of previous events for me to follow the story.

It is set in London in 1920 with flashbacks to Russia in 1917. Poppy is the Arts and Entertainments Editor at the Daily Globe and whilst she is covering an exhibition of Russian Art at the Crystal Palace a guard is shot and injured and one of the Fabergé Eggs on display is stolen. It’s not just an extremely valuable Egg, one that had been owned by a member of the Tsar’s family, but one that is said to contain a secret that could threaten royal families throughout Europe.

This is reminiscent of the Golden Age crime fiction as Poppy sets about finding who stole the Egg and there are plenty of suspects. The theft is followed by a couple of murders and a poisoning, and a secret passageway as Poppy chases around London in hot pursuit of the killer.

Its an enjoyable read that kept me entertained with a mix of fictional and historical characters and a look at 1920s’ society. I particularly liked the Russian connection and the information about White and Red Russians and the Russian Revolution of 1917 – by 1920 this was coming to a head in the Crimea. The book begins with an episode in Moscow in 1917 as an unnamed man in a bearskin coat enters the house of an aristocratic family to find a scene of carnage. Most of the family have been murdered, but he rescues a small girl, her little dog and her English nanny. How this fits into the rest of the book only gradually becomes clear.

There is a map of 1920s London that helps to follow the action and a list of the fictional and historical characters that I found useful. Fiona Veitch Smith explains in her historical Note at the end of the book how she got the idea for The Kill Fee and how she blended fact with fiction. Apart from a few ‘tweaks’ she has stuck to the historical timeline, as far as she is aware, moving the Russian Embassy to Kensington Gardens seven years earlier than it really did and bringing forward the selling of paper poppies by one year – these were launched by the British Red Cross in 1921. The plotline of the theft of the Fabergé Egg and the exhibition at the Crystal Palace is a figment of her imagination. She apologises for ‘any unintentional errors you may find.’

Well, I did find another anachronism. At one point (page 209 in my paperback copy) Poppy and Daniel are arguing as he drives across London approaching the Victoria Embankment when he had to slow down ‘to allow a family to cross the road at a pelican crossing.‘ I think this must be a typing error as although pedestrian crossings existed more than 2000 years ago, (as can be seen in the ruins of Pompeii), pelican crossings weren’t introduced in the United Kingdom until 1969.

None of this affected my enjoyment of the book as the world of London in the 1920s came to life and the complex plot and fast pace kept my brain ticking over, keeping track of the different sub-plots and characters. The kill fee in the title refers to the money offered to Rollo, the Daily Globe owner and editor-in-chief, to stop him from publishing the story concerning the theft of the Fabergé Egg.

My thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for my copy of this book.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Lion Fiction (16 Sept. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1782642188
  • ISBN-13: 978-1782642183

This is my 10th book for the Mount TBR Challenge.

Mount TBR: Checkpoint 1

It’s time for the first quarterly check-in for Bev’s Mount TBR Challenge (TBRs for this challenge must be books you’ve owned prior to January 1, 2017). Here are my answers to her questions:

  • How many miles (books) up the mountain are you?

I’m still climbing Pike’s Peak, so I’m behind if I want to reach my target of 48 books, ie reach the top of Mount Ararat, as I’ve only read 9 books (see this page for details). I’ve been sidetracked by reading new-to-me books so far this year! 

  • Post a picture of your favourite cover so far

All the Light We Cannot See

  • Title Scrabble: See if you can spell a word using the first letter of the first word in the titles of some/all of the books you have read so far. Feel free to consider “A,” “An,” or “The” as the first word or not as it helps you with your word hunt.

My word: Tablet:

T –The Dead of Jericho by Colin Dexter (Morse)
A –All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
B –The Buttonmaker’s Daughter by Merryn Allingham
L –Last Seen Wearing by Colin Dexter
EThe Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
TThe Gathering by Anne Enright

 

The Gathering by Anne Enright

The Gathering by Anne Enright is her fourth book. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2007.

The Gathering

Blurb:

The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan gather in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam. It wasn’t the drink that killed him ‘“ although that certainly helped ‘“ it was what happened to him as a boy in his grandmother’s house, in the winter of 1968.

The Gathering is a novel about love and disappointment, about thwarted lust and limitless desire, and how our fate is written in the body, not in the stars.

I’m sorry to say that I think The Gathering is one of the most dreary books I’ve read. It’s a dark and disturbing novel about a dysfunctional family. I didn’t enjoy it, which is a shame as it’s a book that’s been on my shelves since 2008 and one I chose to read this month as part of Reading Ireland Month, an event to ‘˜to celebrate the wealth and breadth and general awesomeness of Irish cultural life.’ 

It begins:

I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me – this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.

The narrator is Veronica Hegarty and it is through her eyes that the Hegarty family story is told as they gather at her brother’s wake in Dublin. Liam, an alcoholic, had committed suicide by putting rocks into his pockets and walking into the sea at Brighton. The characterisation is fantastic and I had no difficulty seeing the people in my mind’s eye; the descriptions of their appearance and personalities are strong and detailed.

But how reliable is Veronica’s memory? She mixes up memories of herself and her sister for example and there is quite a lot that you have to read between the lines. There aren’t many certain facts, for example how much truth is there in Veronica’s account of the early years of her grandparents’ married life and of their friend Lambert Nugent? She relates episodes that I’m sure they wouldn’t have told their granddaughter. At one point Veronica does say:

It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams. It is time to call an end to romance and just say what happened in Ada’s house, the year that I was eight and Liam was barely nine.

It takes a long time before Veronica finally gets to say what happened and even then there is ambiguity. Veronica cannot stick to a chronology and describes events haphazardly just as they come to her mind. A stream of thoughts just pour out of her – which is all very well because that is how the mind works.  But I found it made the text disjointed as it moved swiftly backwards and forwards.

As the blurb says it is about ‘thwarted lust and limitless desire‘ and the focus is on the body, on death, on sex and sexual abuse, on alcoholism, on insanity and on secrets and betrayal, but not much about love. At times I found it depressing or boring.

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (20 Mar. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099501635
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099501633

When I finished The Gathering I wondered about the other books that were listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 – were the other books equally as depressing? This is what the judges thought about The Gathering:

Judges applauded The Gathering for its controlled prose, sentence by sentence. They were impressed by its figurative language. They wondered at how unflinching Enright was in the face of what was pretty grim, unappealing material. Would the subject matter deter readers? asked one judge. Was that a literary question? asked another.

So, it was the language they liked and I can see what they found to applaud there.  But I also thought that I had found the unappealing material a deterrent.

They concluded:

Enright’s novel had the support in depth and range other titles were not able to muster. It is, perhaps, a book people admire rather than immediately warm to, and this admiration won the day for her. Admiration for the unflinching ferocity of her vision and her skill with figurative language, admiration for the way in which she conveys feeling in carefully modulated prose which, sentence for sentence, matches anything being written in English today. Together we were happy to award her the prize on that basis. It was a collegiate decision. That is how it should be for the Man Booker.

Again I can see where they are coming from, but I prefer books that I can warm to as well as admire and I’m sorry but I just couldn’t warm to The Gathering, although I can admire its skill.

The other books on the shortlist were:

  • Darkmans by Nicola Barker – a book about love and jealousy and also about invasion, obsession, displacement and possession, about comedy, art, prescription drugs and chiropody.
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid – it traces the life and love of Changez, an idealistic young Muslim man who leaves Pakistan to pursue his education in the US.
  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones – a tale of survival by story set in Bougainville in 1991, a small village on a lush tropical island in the South Pacific where the horror of civil war lurked. Mr Watts introduces the children to Mr Dickens’ Great Expectations.
  • Animal’s People by Indra Sinah – ever since he can remember, Animal has gone on all fours, the catastrophic result of what happened on That Night when, thanks to an American chemical company, the Apocalypse visited his slum.
  • On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan – It is June 1962. In a hotel on the Dorset coast, overlooking Chesil Beach, Edward and Florence, who got married that morning, are sitting down to dinner in their room. Neither is entirely able to suppress their anxieties about the wedding night to come.

They sound mainly a depressing bunch of books. I read On Chesil Beach,  in 2007 and didn’t blog about it in detail. As I remember it, it is a sad book too, but I loved it. I have Mister Pip waiting to be read.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See

Synopsis:

A beautiful, stunningly ambitious novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II

Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six. Her father builds a perfect miniature of their Paris neighbourhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. But when the Nazis invade, father and daughter flee with a dangerous secret.

Werner is a German orphan, destined to labour in the same mine that claimed his father’s life, until he discovers a knack for engineering. His talent wins him a place at a brutal military academy, but his way out of obscurity is built on suffering.

At the same time, far away in a walled city by the sea, an old man discovers new worlds without ever setting foot outside his home. But all around him, impending danger closes in.

Doerr’s combination of soaring imagination and meticulous observation is electric. As Europe is engulfed by war and lives collide unpredictably, ‘˜All The Light We Cannot See’ is a captivating and devastating elegy for innocence.

I have just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I’m not going to write a review but want to jot down some thoughts:

  • It began well and I liked it straight away – see this Friday post.
  • There are three story lines – that of Marie-Laure, of Werner, and of a diamond that has magical powers.
  • But my overall picture of the book is of a blur, of confusion as it moved not only between characters but also backwards and forwards in time and I couldn’t work out the time sequence. I kept going back to the contents list to try to work it out was I in 1944 when the book began or in 1942, or 43. Had I met this character before in the future, or in the past and where was I -in France, Germany, Vienna or Russia? How did the characters relate to each other? I was hopelessly puzzled for quite a large portion of this book. For a while the fog in my mind cleared and I thought I’d got it, only to find a few chapters later I was lost again.
  • So I gave up trying to work out dates; places and people became clearer to me and I did (I think) follow the story, but it wasn’t easy as Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s time-lines were so fragmented.
  • The writing in parts is beautiful, great descriptions giving me some insight into what it was liked for ordinary people from both sides during the 2nd World War and what it must be like to be blind.
  • I liked all the detail of the model of Saint-Malo that Marie-Laure’s father made to help her find her way around, models of the buildings and roads.
  • The title refers (I think) to the how the brain, which is enclosed within the scull – ie in darkness – is yet full of light, brimming with colour and movement. And also to the light transmitted by radio wavelengths; light caught from the sun within plants and within gem stones such a diamonds; light beyond our ability to see it within the electromagnetic spectrum.
  • I was glad to get to the end. I think it is over-long, and very slow. But overall, mainly because of its descriptive prose; the way it conveys what being involved in war is like; and the character of Marie-Laure, I liked it and gave it 3 stars on Goodreads.

A book for Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge, a book I’ve owned since 2016.

My Friday Post: All the Light We Cannot See

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

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This morning I began reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (one of the TBRs on my Kindle) and already I think I’m going to like it very much.

It begins:

Zero

7 August 1944

Leaflets

At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.

A dramatic opening, immediately alerting me to the danger that is to come.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

Friday 56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

All day Marie-Laure lies on her stomach and reads. Logic, reason, pure science: these Aronnax insists, are the proper ways to pursue a mystery. Not fables and fairy tales.

Synopsis:

A beautiful, stunningly ambitious novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II

Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six. Her father builds a perfect miniature of their Paris neighbourhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. But when the Nazis invade, father and daughter flee with a dangerous secret.

Werner is a German orphan, destined to labour in the same mine that claimed his father’s life, until he discovers a knack for engineering. His talent wins him a place at a brutal military academy, but his way out of obscurity is built on suffering.

At the same time, far away in a walled city by the sea, an old man discovers new worlds without ever setting foot outside his home. But all around him, impending danger closes in.

Doerr’s combination of soaring imagination and meticulous observation is electric. As Europe is engulfed by war and lives collide unpredictably, ‘˜All The Light We Cannot See’ is a captivating and devastating elegy for innocence.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

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Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourite authors when I was a child and I particularly loved Brother Dusty Feet, about a boy who joined a group of strolling players set in Elizabethan England. I bought The Eagle of the Ninth in a library book sale several years ago because I remembered my love of Brother Dusty Feet and had meant to read it well before now. I got round to it this month and thoroughly enjoyed it, so it’s one of my TBRs for Bev’s Mount TBR Reading challenge.

The first half of the book tells of how Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young Roman officer arrived in Britain as a centurion and was injured in a battle and then, unfit for duty, was discharged. Some years earlier, sometime in 117 AD, the Ninth Hispana Legion, led by his father had marched north from its base at Eburacum (York) into the mists of Northern Britain to deal with a rising among the Caledonian tribes and was never heard of again – their Eagle Standard was also lost.

Marcus then sets out to discover the truth about his father’s disappearance, what had happened to the Legion and if possible, to recover the Eagle, and thus to redeem his father’s honour. For an Eagle standard taken in war meant so much:

To the Outland tribes it must seem that they have captured the god of the Legion: and so they carry it home in triumph, with many torches and perhaps the sacrifice of a black ram, and house it in the temple of their own god to make the young men strong in war and help the grain to ripen.

If trouble were to break out again in the north, a Roman Eagle in the hands of the Painted People might well become a weapon against us, owing to the power it would undoubtedly have to fire the minds and hearts of the Tribes. (pages 121 – 122)

He disguises himself as a Greek occulist, and with his freed ex-slave, Esca, travels beyond Hadrian’s Wall. The rest of the book is about their search through the wild borderlands north of the Wall in what was then the province of Valentia and over the Northern Wall (the Antonine Wall), into Caledonia, along the shores of Loch Lomond to the base of Ben Cruachan overlooking Loch Awe.

Rosemary Sutcliff was a wonderful storyteller, bringing Roman Britain to life  in beautifully descriptive prose, so vivid that it’s easy to picture the scenery and the characters. It’s a powerful adventure story, full of detail particularly about Marcus and Esca – their friendship and courage in the face of danger and hardship. There is plenty of suspense as they fight their way through mountains and bogs, pursued by the hostile tribes. It’s also a novel about honour, duty and love.

She based The Eagle of the Ninth on two facts. First, the disappearance of the Ninth Legion. And second, the discovery of a cast bronze figure of an eagle found in the Basilica of the Roman town of Calleva, near Silchester. The eagle’s original wings are missing and its origin is unknown. Although it was not a legionary eagle, it inspired Rosemary Sutcliff to write her book.

File:Silchester eagle.JPG
Silchester Eagle Cast in Reading Museum

There is a map at the front of the book showing the route Marcus and Esca took and some of the places described, including Trinomontium (Melrose), Luguvalium (Carlisle), Segedunum (Wallsend) and Borcovicus on Hadrian’s  Wall (Housesteads Roman Fort) and the Northern Wall.

I loved all the detail of the mix of peoples living in Britain, their religious beliefs and ceremonies and their social and cultural background. It’s described as a children’s/YA book but I think it’s suitable for adults too – the writing style is certainly not simplistic and the vocabulary is extensive.

It is quite simply a gem of a book.

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; Revised edition edition (7 Oct. 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192753924
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192753922
  • Source: my own copy

About Rosemary Sutcliff (1920 – 1975), born in Surrey

At the age of two she contracted Still’s disease and spent most of her life in a wheelchair. At 14 she left school having made little progress in anything except reading and went to an art school, specialising in miniature painting, becoming a member of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters just after the Second World War. She wrote very many books, both fiction and non-fiction, and won several awards.

Two Inspector Morse Mysteries

I’ve got rather behind with writing about the books I’ve been reading so this post is on two of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books, both are books from my TBR list. Colin Dexter wrote 13 novels in the series and I’ve been reading them out of order – just as I come across them.

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The second book in the series is Last Seen Wearing, first published in 1976, in which Morse investigates a cold case. Two years previously schoolgirl Valerie Taylor had disappeared during her lunch hour from the Roger Bacon Comprehensive school. Her body had never been found and the case had been shelved but recently her parents had received a letter telling them she was ‘alright’ and they were not to worry.

Morse isn’t please when he was instructed to investigate Valerie’s disappearance but then is interested when he guesses that she is dead.  In fact he is convinced that she is dead. But throughout the novel he keeps changing his mind, coming up with theory after theory about what happened to her. Lewis meanwhile, who is assisting Morse, is sure that Valerie is still alive.

There are plenty of suspects, the headmaster of the school, the second master, the French teacher, one of her boyfriends, her mother and her stepfather all come under Morse’s scrutiny. It is a complicated investigation made even more so when the second master is found stabbed with a nine-inch kitchen knife.

I haven’t read the first book in the series, Last Bus to Woodstock, in which Morse and Lewis first work together, but this second book shows their working relationship is a good one and they have several lively discussions. Lewis whilst admiring Morse sees him clearly, noting that he always had to find a complex solution.

I was puzzled throughout and like Morse I kept changing my mind about it all and at one point I had the solution – as had Morse – but had then changed my mind. Of course, by the end of the novel Morse had it all worked out correctly.

The Dead of Jericho: An Inspector Morse Mystery 5

The Dead of Jericho is the 5th Inspector Morse book, first published in 1981. Colin Dexter wrote 13 novels in the series and I’ve been reading them out of order – just as I come across them. Years ago I watched the TV series of Morse. The Dead of Jericho was broadcast in January 1987, the first of Dexter’s books to be televised. I must have watched it but as it was so long ago I had completely forgotten the details.

Jericho is an area of Oxford, described in the book as a largely residential district consisting mainly of two-storey terraced mid nineteenth century houses and bounded by the Oxford Canal.

Morse met Anne Scott at a party and was immediately attracted to her. She gave him her address but thinking she was married he didn’t contact her until six months later when, being near where she lived, he impulsively called at her house at Canal Reach in Jericho. There was no reply, but the front door wasn’t locked and he stepped inside and after calling out Anne’s name and getting no reply, he closed the door behind him as he stepped out onto the pavement and left. Later that evening an anonymous phone call directed the police to Anne’s house where she was found dead. Apparently she had hanged herself.

Morse is assigned to the case and has to decide whether her death was suicide or murder. And when the police realise that Morse had been in the house that day he comes under suspicion for a while. There are various suspects and Morse as usual constructs theories which fit all of them, leaving Lewis to put him on the right track.

In both books Morse shows various aspects of his personality. He is clever, loves the opera,  and solving puzzles, particularly crosswords – he can do The Times crossword in under ten minutes. He is not a happy man; he is sensitive, melancholy, a loner and a pedant. His meanness comes out in the pub where he gets Lewis, on a much lower salary, to buy all their drinks. And in both books he is attracted  sexually to women.

Both books qualify for Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge, being e-books I’ve had for over two years.