Monday, March 29, 2010

The Ravenmaster's Secret

Miss Lemon chanced upon a lively historical adventure whilst rummaging through a library sale on a recent Saturday afternoon. Indeed, once she began reading The Ravenmaster's Secret (2003), by Elvira Woodruff, she found herself instantly transported to the Tower of London, circa 1735.

If ever she felt like she were a prisoner, however, it was only because she could not summon the strength to pull herself away from this enchanting narrative. Not, at least, until she had turned the last page.

It seems the post of Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster has been held at the Tower of London at least since King Charles II issued a royal decree commanding that at least six ravens be kept on Tower grounds. Should the ravens ever leave, the legend goes, "the tower will fall"... and so, perhaps, will  the kingdom.

Ravens themselves have naturally flocked to the Tower long before their royal institution. Proximity of the gallows and access to fresh meat seem to be the major draw for these macabre little creatures.

But Tuck, the raven that's attached himself to 11-year-old Forrest Harper, the hero of our story, is more pet than black portent. As for Forrest, he's small for his age, mostly friendless and, as son of the Tower's Ravenmaster, lives a dull life in what is essentially a prison.  Forrest gets ill at hangings and bullied by the London boys.What's more, he hates to do his chores.

The one friend Forrest does have is the Tower's rat catcher called, appropriately, Rat.  Not the sort of company Forrest's kind parents were hoping for him to keep. Rat, in turn, is terrorized by the ghoulish Tower chimney sweep, who threatens to kidnap Rat and send him climbing. A fate that would certainly spell death.  Not surprisingly, Rat and Forest long for escape -- that is, until a pretty Scottish prisoner comes to stay at the Tower. She teaches Rat and Forrest one of the most important phrases they might ever learn: Dree yier ain weird.

Face your destiny.

What Miss Lemon found so persuasive about this novel are all the small details that give it both texture and suspense. From the harsh smell of lye on washing day to the hole in Forrest's  pocket that might spell loss of freedom for them all, Miss Lemon means it when she says that while reading The Ravenmaster's Secret she scarcely noticed the modern world around her.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Mysterious Mr. Quin

Perhaps one of Agatha Christie's most underappreciated yet nevertheless fascinating characters is the mysterious Mr. Harley Quin.

Always appearing unpredictably and in a dazzling spectrum of light, Mr. Quin's essence is best summed up thus: he comes; he goes. And always, he trails a mystery in his wake.

The task of sorting out the mysterious circumstances signaled by the inscrutable movements of Mr. Quin falls on the shoulders of one Mr. Satterthwaite, a man as preening and with as sharp an eye for the dramatic as his name suggests.

The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930), then, is one of Miss Lemon's favourite collections of short stories, all featuring this bizarre yet eminently likable pair. 

The stories run the gamut from table-turning to ill-fated love. Perhaps the best of the lot are "The Dead Harlequin," in which a painting for sale at Harchester Galleries harks back to a long-ago curse on the house of Charnley, and "At the Bells & Motley," about the troubling consequences of unsolved murder.

In all of these cases, to paraphrase Mr. Satterthwaite, where Mr. Quin is concerned, things happen.  Indeed, with their faint element of the supernatural, these stories are a delightful departure from the usual Poirot and Miss Marple.

But, please, do not tell Mr. Poirot I said so.

Monday, March 8, 2010

When You Reach Me

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious."

So says Albert Einstein in his 1931 essay, "The World as I See It," and Miss Lemon finds she could not agree more.

Neither, it seems, could Rebecca Stead, who so aptly chose this quote as epigram for her 2010 Newberry-award winning novel, When You Reach Me.

Miss Lemon picked up the novel and could not -- absolutely could not -- put it down.

The story is told from the point of view of a twelve-year-old girl named Miranda, living with her single mother in New York City. And her mother has just been selected as a contestant to appear on Dick Clark's The $20,000 Pyramid (a game show, for those who don't know , that was once wildly popular in America).

The notification of her mother's good fortune arrived that day on a postcard, writes Miranda, "Just like you said." It's one of the first of many clues to a brilliant mystery about the ideas of relationships, causality, narrative, and time.

But who told Miranda that her mother would be picked to appear on The $20,000 Pyramid?

It becomes Miranda's task to parcel out the events of the past six months and order them in such a way that will lead her (and the reader of her letter... and the reader of this book) to discover exactly that.

Not a single scene, character, setting, or clue is wasted in When You Reach Me. Not Miranda's childhood obsession with Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time nor the fight she has with her best friend, Sal. She and her sixth-grade friends get a part-time job at Jimmy's sandwich shop, working only 40 minutes over their lunch break -- and that's important, too.

So are The $20,000 Pyramid practice sessions that she, her mom, and her mom's boyfriend, Richard, work up in their living room. After the Speed Round, which her mom seems to have mastered, there is the Winner's Circle, where a celebrity partner will give clues not for a word but for a whole category. For example, tulip, rose, or daisy would be "types of flowers; poetry and the Pledge of Allegiance would be "things you recite."

As it turns out, all of the chapter headings of When You Reach Me could be Winner's Circle categories and perhaps clues, too: "Things That Burn,"  "Things on a Slant," "Things You Hold on To."

Really, it's brilliant.

For those of her readers born in the late 1960s or early '70s, Miss Lemon promises that this novel will resonate. And for those who have ever read anything by Madeline L'Engle or gave more than a passing thought to the nature of time, she promises it will resonate even more.

When You Reach Me is a superbly drawn mystery and more than deserving of the Newberry Medal.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Scent of Fear

Looking at this photograph of Margaret Yorke, one can't help but think that if there's a universal face of a mystery writer, this must be it.  Eyes that miss nothing. An ironic smile that says, 'Of course I know that people are rarely what they seem.'

Both of these qualities are abundantly in evidence within the pages of The Scent of Fear (1980), an unputdownable portrait of a boy who goes badly wrong and whose crimes end up threading together disparate lives in the most unexpected ways.

Indeed, one of Margaret Yorke's most remarkable talents as a writer is her ability to people a village seemingly at random, with character types that run the gamut from well-to-do spinsters and high-flying solicitors to petty criminals and arsonists. Her psychological analyses are as unflinching as they are astute. Best of all, she seems to have perfected the sacred art of showing her readers how or why her characters are lonely and isolated ... or even criminal. Never does she simply tell.

Really, Miss Lemon thinks that Margaret Yorke is one of Britain's most underappreciated mystery novelists. She once said in an interview that she's most interested in writing whydunnits, perhaps because character is what attracts her writerly instincts. If you've ever read A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell, you know of what Miss Lemon speaks.

Character and its motivation are especially well drawn in The Scent of Fear, the same for which is true in Find Me a Villain and  The Small Hours of the Morning. Margaret Yorke has a knack for creating tension by revealing clues to certain characters just a beat too late.

She's also no weak hand behind the mise-en-scene. If you like your mysteries with plenty of tea, sherry and foul weather, you'll certainly like Margaret Yorke.