Some forced inactivity has allowed quite a bit of uninterrupted reading this week, and some self-indulgence over the actual choice of books. At the beginning of the week, I finished Dissolution by C.J. Samson. This is a detective story set in 1537, the period before the wholesale closure of the monasteries. The protagonist is Matthew Shardlake, commissioner of the Vicar General Thomas Cromwell, who has been sent to the monastery of Scarnsea on the Kent coast, to investigate a grisly death and an act of desecration. Inconsistencies may have been found in the monastic accounts and the previous investigator has been beheaded. A mad Carthusian, a black physician and a lovesick assistant all frustrate Shardlake's attempts to find the murderer. The story unfolds at a pace which allows time for atmospheric description and some historical background, while a note at the end questions the received wisdom that the monasteries were so corrupt that dissolution was the only answer. Shardlake is convincingly drawn, with attitudes and values that ring true for the historical period, his physical frailty lending credence to his feelings of isolation, while his thoughtful unravelling of the strands of the mystery engages the sympathy of the reader. Compared to the historical mystery I wrote about recently, this book wears its research lightly, yet without leaving unanswered questions.
Diamond Dust by Peter Lovesey is a relatively quick and straightforward read and, perhaps, given its subject matter, oddly unengaging. Peter Diamond, a brusque and middle-aged detective, head of the murder squad in Bath, has featured in a series of books by Lovesey, solving mysteries in a matter-of-fact way and usually worrying his superiors with his forthright approach. The book opens with the successful conviction of a member of a crime family for the murder of his prostitute girlfriend. Shortly afterwards, Diamond is called to the scene of a shooting to discover that his wife is the victim of what looks like a professional hit. Despite his grief, and dissatisfied with the official investigation - the officer in charge is, inevitably, hidebound and unimaginative - he sets about conducting his own investigation. Unfortunately, Diamond's grief is not something that the reader has much experience of - it's described, but not felt. Even the usual empathy triggers - the hungry cat waiting for attention, the inadequate meals - don't really have the necessary effect and at the end, when the murderer is uncovered, it is more a case of tidying up loose ends than the catharsis it should be.
Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett - well, I expected this to be an absorbing read and indeed, most of it went by in one sleepless night. The world seems to divide into those who are amused by Pratchett and those who aren't and, obviously, I am in the former camp. His later books unswervingly tackle big issues with a deliciously dark humour, and this one is no exception, even though it is one of the Discworld books aimed at a younger audience. Tiffany Aching is a trainee witch who inadvertently catches the attention of the Wintersmith. It's not easy for a personification of nature to fall in love and, while the Wintersmith struggles with the question of what it is to be a man, Tiffany wavers between her conviction that she must put a stop to it all and her sneaking pleasure in being showered with ice roses and snowflakes. The senior witches, including the wonderful story-weaver Miss Treason, the redoutable Granny Weatherwax and the irrepressible Nanny Ogg, watch events unfold and occasionally try to nudge things in the right direction, abetted and hindered by earnest witches-in-training, various animals and most of all, the Wee Free Men. Pratchett's great talent, I think, is to make his Discworld characters completely relevant to today's world - whether they are zombies, witches, nightwatchmen or trolls, they apply their talents or limitations in a truly human fashion. The stories they tell themselves may seem archaic to us (most are, after all, Discworld variants of our fairytales) but the characters conform to predictable patterns and follow the well-worn paths to disaster or success as we all do. And as with his adult books Pratchett doesn't flinch from the fact of death - he sees "the skull beneath the skin" and takes much pleasure in detailing its myths and rituals. And in my new role as chicken-herd, I very much enjoyed the appearance of the chickens!