For the most part, I will freely admit to choosing mysteries for their quality of Escape. Escape literature gets a lot of criticism, but as has been remarked elsewhere, think about it: who in the world besides prison guards tries to prevent escape? Anyway, escape from the mundane is the goal, not escape from loftier themes or challenging writing.
Escape comes in more than one type of package. An exotic locale is one way to do it, although clearly what may be an exotic locale for me is clearly another reader's backyard, and vice-versa. In any case, mysteries have been written about the city that neighbors mine, but you won't see me reading it, not unless it's exotic in the other way, that is exotic by time. Travel to another time is probably even more fun than skipping to another locale and I personally don't mind if it's via a modern writer detailing the past or a contemporary describing the settings with which he or she is intimate. The alert reader will notice that mysteries set in Ancient Rome skip both time and place.
Kathleen Freeman - "Scandal in Athens".
Revolves around Athenian inheritance law. Nice exposition of Athenian daily life.
Theodore Mathieson - "The Death of the King"
Alexander the Great investigates his own poisoning in the arch manner which must be his alone. Hilarious.
Amy Myers - "Aphrodite's Trojan Horse"
The Trojan War from Aphrodite's point of view. This is exactly how a goddess of love might write it.
Keith Taylor - "The Favor of a Tyrant" in
Archimedes needs to find out why some of his engines are being sabotaged.
Martin Limón -
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,
"Princess of the Red Silk" (February 2001)
The story seems to be vaguely set during the Sung Dynasty (1127-1279 AD) of southern China, but is actually posited in the north, at the Great Wall and the steppes north of it, where the Northern Chin held sway. The detective is the apparently mythical poet, Meng Li, who is on a mission to visit Princess Liao who has been married off to an Orkhan, leader of a tribe of Mongolian nomads. An atypical example in that the nature of the mystery itself is in considerable doubt until quite late. The historical details feel vague, but more competency than mine is needed to judge their accuracy.
In terms of the mystery category, this one is more in the thriller neighborhood. It owes an unacknowledged debt to Gavin Menzies whose book 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America theorized that Chinese ships sailed to the Americas (and Europe and Australia and Antarctica) before the West did. I have chatted with Gavin, heard his lecture and read his book. His best evidence are the maps that seem to show these parts of the world and which pre-date Columbus' first voyage. Unfortunately, however, there is yet to appear any solid archaeological artifact that confirms it. If the Chinese did travel to all of these places, shouldn't there be some sign of it?
How to resolve such a contradiction? My feeling is that we need to question the maps. A date on a map is nothing like a modern computer timestamp, after all. When you make a map you can put any date you want on it. But post-date a map? Whatever for?
Well, it may not be obvious, but there could be several reasons. One could be that having the earliest date would tend to make the map more valuable than its competitors. Another could be that it would help create the illusion that the map was the original work of the cartographer, when the truth might well have been otherwise. And there might be other reasons. Understanding historical artifacts is best left to historians who have the advantage of sustained study of a period, a background that amateur historian Menzies and attorney Terrell do not share.
In any case, acceptance of this theory is requisite to appreciation of this book. In an endnote the author admits to certain additional distortions of reality. Reading the book has revealed more, to be discussed later.
This is a story told in three parts. The first is Ming era China during the expeditions of the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho). The second, smaller section, takes place in age of discovery Portugal a few generations later. The third and most significant portion is set in 2008. What's unusual is that the three stories are not told sequentially, but interleaved, jumping back and forth between time periods. Maybe it's just my German heritage, but I have hated this method of storytelling ever since first encountering it in Ishmael. Not only does it seem a cheap trick, the constant disruption of a story is very offputting. So I resolved to undo it. I noted all of the chapter dates, sorted them on the computer and proceeded to read the novel in strict chronological order. I present this information below so that if you want to you can too. (My girlfriend who is to read this book next says she likes the "out of order" idea so we will see what she thinks of reading it this way – see below.)
For all I know I am the only person ever to have read it this way. Maybe that's why I turned up an error. Chapters 1 and 40 are in fact out of order. A Chinese emperor is already dead in one year and then is shown alive in the next year. One of the hazards of this form of storytelling I suppose.
The stories themselves have considerable propulsive power. Characters are always trying to get somewhere, to deliver something or to escape. There is a sense of the frantic and of danger to most of their activities. Perhaps that's why in retrospect the mostly calm days of the Chinese sea voyage are among the most memorable.
Here the main character is the map's maker, a man like Zheng He himself, a Central Asian Muslim eunuch, thus a fish out of water in at least three ways. It's too bad that this character's story wasn't longer so as to be able to explore his unique situation, perforce hard for us to understand. In general though, because of the thriller nature of the story, and the fact that each character only gets a relatively small number of pages, there isn't time to make the characters very three dimensional. Perhaps Mara Coyne, the attorney protagonist of the present story comes closest.
This story seems more interested in name dropping, of both exotic locations and famous artworks. There are also some suggestions about modern international politics, especially with respect to China. It also discusses the theory of Western influence on ancient China. Did inventions such as the wheel and writing have to be imported from Iranians or Tocharians by the ancient Chinese? This theory, popular at the University of Pennsylvania, has also been picked up the Pittsburgh-based author. Then there is the Map Thief of the title. Who is the real thief? Just thinking about the answer raises significant questions about ownership, cultural heritage, even the rights of artists for hire.
There isn't much humor here. Thrillers after all are meant to be breathless and it would probably get in the way. Not all of the stories turn out happily either. But at least the book has done a great job in its choice of topic, bringing to the general public some historical questions of great fascination. In addition, it has the page-turning quality that a thriller must have, though with some of the mysteries (particularly in Portugal) the reader is unfortunately way ahead of the characters.
Now a few comments on possible errors:
|Year - Chapter - Page
1420 - 04 - 13
1420 - 06 - 23
1420 - 10 - 40
1421 - 13 - 55
1421 - 18 - 77
1421 - 22 - 96
1421 - 27 - 118
1422 - 30 - 135
1422 - 34 - 152
1423 - 36 - 159
1423 - 40 - 173
1424 - 01 - 3
1424 - 44 - 187
1424 - 46 - 194
1425 - 50 - 209
1425 - 55 - 226
1425 - 59 - 238
1496 - 08 - 33
1496 - 12 - 52
1497 - 16 - 72
1497 - 20 - 89
|Year - Chapter - Page
1497 - 25 - 111
1498 - 38 - 165
1498 - 42 - 181
1499 - 48 - 202
1500 - 53 - 218
1500 - 57 - 233
1500 - 61 - 245
2008 - 02 - 5
2008 - 03 - 8
2008 - 05 - 18
2008 - 07 - 26
2008 - 09 - 35
2008 - 11 - 45
2008 - 14 - 60
2008 - 15 - 66
2008 - 17 - 75
2008 - 19 - 81
2008 - 21 - 92
2008 - 23 - 100
2008 - 24 - 104
2008 - 28 - 124
|Year - Chapter - Page|
2008 - 29 - 130
2008 - 31 - 139
2008 - 32 - 142
2008 - 33 - 147
2008 - 35 - 156
2008 - 36 - 114
2008 - 37 - 162
2008 - 39 - 169
2008 - 41 - 177
2008 - 43 - 183
2008 - 45 - 190
2008 - 47 - 198
2008 - 49 - 205
2008 - 51 - 211
2008 - 52 - 214
2008 - 54 - 222
2008 - 56 - 230
2008 - 58 - 235
2008 - 60 - 241
August 16. 2010 comments from my girlfriend, who happens to be Chinese:
Overall I liked this book; otherwise I would not have been able to finish it during just a recent two day trip.
I think the author knows a lot about the imperial court life in old China – or maybe it is all well known? I would not expect a foreigner to know those details of daily life, e.g. the ranks of the people in the imperial court, their desires, their fears, even how they eat, sleep and rest. So I saw a grand picture of the Emperor meeting with Admiral Zheng and his crew. It was so detailed and so grand that makes the Portugal part very plain. Maybe things in China were just much more grand than any of those European countries at that time – at least I'd like to think so. Isn't it true that the Forbidden City is the largest imperial court – I still remember how disappointed I was when I saw Buckingham palace.
The story went well, especially in the Chinese section. The present day story is also all right. But the Portugal part is a bit weak. The way that the author combined these three sections together is clever; readers can raise questions which later get answered. I know you think it is unbelievable that the Admiral Zheng asked Zhi to take a such a great risk in order to pass the map to later generations. But there is a critical difference between Chinese culture (or Asian – because it applies to the Japanese as well) and western culture. When a great cause is the reason (in this case, the discovery of another continent), the value of human life can be diminished and a life can be sacrificed. Even now, when we believe that the benefit of the country is above our own benefit, we are supposed to give in our own benefit. Well, at least, this is what we are taught in our generation.
It is interesting that these two mapmakers from China and Portugal both had a woman in their minds and they were trying to work it out for that beloved one. I think the author can do better in this part. I don't like the endings for either of them. It seems that the author just wanted to rush to the end of the story. That Portuguese guy's behavior did not show a good flow – maybe I misunderstand it. Why should people think that de Gama would have less credit if he was barely following somebody's map? I think either way he was a brave guy and he deserves credit because he did bring Portugal into success as well as achieve his goal – spreading worship of Christ. But of course I hate the way he treated the local people – maybe he did not die in a good way anyway. So a group of fundamentalist were behind it in the present life story – sounds like another DaVinci Code.
If this story is true – I would only feel ashamed that the Chinese emperor at that time decided to close the door. Meanwhile I am proud that at least some Chinese like Zheng he and Ma Zhi were willing to sacrifice their lives to pass this knowledge to those who deserved it. I would be happy to see that Portugal was smart enough to grasp the opportunity that history gave to them. So Portugal in those years were the real winners, while the poor Chinese were such losers – and probably since then they have never been able to be really strong again.
Alan Gordon -
13th century Italy and Illyria.
It must have been noticed that in some ways the fool, Feste, of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (my favorite of his plays) tends to act at the author's behest to move the plot along, or perhaps stands in for the author, so wise and wide is his perspective. This must have inspired the idea that Feste may have been more than he seemed; thus, the conceit of this one is that there existed a highly organized international fools guild, and not only that, that they are secretly spies, detectives and all around do-gooders. OK, put that together with beloved characters from the play and one would seem to have a great idea for a book, full of fun, jokes and that special brand of wry profundity which Feste is so truly wonderful at. Sadly, this is not that book. One of the most important characters is killed off practically on page one. Then the rest of them are hardly recognizeable, mostly being rendered as degenerate, two-dimensional ciphers. Maybe the author hates the play? But then why choose this setting, which after all does depend on the readers knowing the play (an important reference to yellow cross-gartered stockings, for example). The jokes aren't really there either, though there is a lot of tiresome, endless detail which never goes anywhere, such as all the business about the horse. And it all ends up with that oh-so-clichéd drawing room resolution where the detective (Feste) reveals whodunit all and how and why. A solution which is quite preposterous by the way and shows little to no understanding of the personalities of Shakespeare's characters. As to historicity, the boring, researchy kind is there, recounting this or that historical fact, but in terms of the medieval point of view, when they start worrying about things like obesity and alcoholism (another thread that goes nowhere), they sound just like 20th-century yuppies. There's forensic work which is totally anachronistic and no bothering to make an excuse for it. The ending seems more interested in setting things up for a sequel than in bringing the reader to a satisfying cadence. It does deserve credit for moving right along and not getting overly murky, but overall this was a great idea sadly squandered.
Sheri Holman -
A Stolen Tongue
15th-century journey from Italy to Jerusalem and the Sinai.
I'm not entirely sure that this fictional recounting of a pilgrimage led by the German monk Felix Fabri really counts as a mystery. There is suspense and uncertainty, but certainly no conscious "detection". The depiction of the period works well, although some may feel it veers unnecessarily to a modern vogue for the grotesque. Some of the characters and therefore the resolution may leave something to be desired for some readers.
Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) -
A Morbid Taste for Bones
12th-century Britain. Wonderfully-detailed.
Peter Tremayne - "The Poisoned Chalice"
Continuing character Sister Fidelma investigates murder in Rome in 664. A clever story, but is there a glitch? Hint: who is the first to drink wine normally in a Catholic mass?
Fifteen very entertaining locked-room style mysteries about the same detective, the amateur Dr. Sam Hawthorne, set in quaint, small-town, Connecticut during the 1920's and '30's appear in Diagnosis Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, published by Crippen and Landru.
Other entertaining entries in this series show up in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine: "The Problem of Crowded Cemetery" (May 1995), "The Problem of the Enormous Owl" (January 1996), "The Problem of the Miraculous Jar" (August 1996), "The Problem of the Enchanted Terrace" (April 1997), "The Second Problem of the Covered Bridge" (December 1998), "The Problem of Annabel's Ark" (March 2000).
"The Problem of the Black Cloister" appears in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2007)
The "fake" country accent used by the doctor in the earlier episodes is thankfully absent from the later ones.
Nicholas Meyer -
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.
Sort of a deconstruction purporting to tell us Holmes' secret history. A bit too much the first time around, might deserve a second reading.
Dashiell Hammett - all the novels and as many of the short
stories as I can find including
The Adventures of Sam Spade,
The Big Knockover,
The Continental Op,
The Dain Curse,
The Glass Key,
The Maltese Falcon,
Woman in the Dark.
See the new (1999) collection of little-published material:
Same comment as for Chandler except to wonder why neither of these two giants of the genre were ever given the Mystery Writers of American Grand Master award. See my Checklist of Dashiell Hammett Fiction.
William F. Nolan -
The Black Mask Murders.
The setting is California 1935 and the detectives are Dashiell Hammett (narrator), Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner (of Perry Mason fame), all working together to solve a case on behalf of their boss, Black Mask publisher Joseph Shaw. The premise is preposterous -- since wouldn't these renowned writers simply hire a real detective to do this dirty work? -- and one wants to read the book in the style of Hammett, but I have to admit it is still great fun to imagine what each thought of the other and how they might interact. Enhancing it all are visits by other luminaries like Ernest Hemingway and Ben Hecht as well as tie-ins with The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and other works which can only be spotted by the alert and informed reader.
The Marble Orchards
The three writer-detectives reunite in 1936 in a story as told by Raymond Chandler revolving around the death of his wife's ex-husband. It is a bit strange to have the 52-year old Dashiell Hammett and the 48-year old Raymond Chandler jumping through windows and generally chasing about like this (the question of age is carefully swept under the rug by the way), but still great fun. The legendary Hollywood Vampire Queen, Carmilla Blastok, plays a large role in this one.
Sharks Never Sleep
Erle Stanley Gardner of Perry Mason fame is responsible for the narration of this one, set in 1937. A character similar to Bing Crosby appears to be a heavy while the story takes the Black Mask Boys to spectacular movie sets, Spanish-era estates, sleepy Baja villages, Santa Barbara, Carmel and Palm Springs. There are cameos by race car driver Barney Oldfield, actor John Barrymore, John Weismueller, Black Mask editor Joseph Shaw and others.
Exotic by Locale
Stefanie Matteson - Murder on the Silk Road.
This cozy is sort of a special case of China, being set in the Silk Road town of Dun-huang in the far west of the country, a place steeped in history, pre-history and art.
Roger L. Simon - Peking Duck.
Kind of a fun story about tourists to Peking, but getting somewhat dated in terms of its politics.
James Melville -
The Chrysanthemum Chain.
More of a look inside Japanese life from a foreigner's eyes than a mystery, but interesting and well-done from the former perspective.
Roger L. Simon - California Roll.
Kind of a fun story about Silicon Valley, Japan and geopolitics. Strains credibility in places, especially vis-à-vis technology.
Gash's treatment of the narrative is unorthodox. Again, the unlettered narrator permits his descriptions to believably wander abruptly, much like the proverbial rooster on the manure pile. In Gash's very capable hands, this keeps the reader hopping, always a bit puzzled, but engrossed. It can also serve as fuel for humor when one subject is taken for another, for example when we think Lovejoy is lusting after his latest conquest and we find out it's really the antique over her shoulder that's the actual source of his passion.
Some of the books seem more successful than others, perhaps the author lost interest in some of them or perhaps it's simply very difficult to keep repeating oneself so many times.
Ruth Rendell -
Speaker of Mandarin.
The Three Junior Investigators.
Enjoyable youthful adventures.