Thursday, October 24, 2013

Review: Letters From a Murderer by John Matthews

When the Ripper murders abruptly ceased after the autumn of 1888, the assumption could only be made that the murderer had either died, gone to prison on an unrelated charge, or left London for new grounds. This novel is based on the latter theory, that the Ripper may have continued his slaughters in 1891 NYC. Investigating is a capable Italian-American NYPD detective and a criminal analyst from London who had worked on the original Ripper case.

Naturally, there have been many comparisons to The Gangs of New York but this novel attracted me after recently being obsessed with BBCA's historical drama Copper, which has it's own comparisons to The Gangs of New York as well. Being a gritty 19th century crime novel set in NYC, I thought this sounded like a good, similar type novel to help wean me through my withdraw after Copper was cancelled even after being hailed as the most popular BBCA show ever. However, that's about where the similarities ended. This novel can’t help but stand on its own.

Being a Ripper novel really set it apart from either The Gangs of New York or Copper. Ripper novels have perhaps been a little overdone and though there have been many theories about the Ripper appearing in America, setting this in NYC provided something new and allowed the author more creative freedom.

One thing really bothered me though, and that was the use of the myth about name changes due to immigration officers who couldn't spell or pronounce foreign names. Any knowledgeable genealogist will be able to tell you why this persistent tale is so false. For starters, immigration officers - even in history - were often multilingual. Do people really think immigration departments in history didn't make use of translators? Secondly, immigration officers worked off written documentation compiled at the port of departure. I don't know why people seem to think that in history, documentation wasn't a requirement for immigrants. Lastly, the incorrect recording of one’s name during immigration does not mean one’s name was forcibly changed. When we see this in genealogy, it's considered an error, not a legal name change. Of course, many immigrants did anglicize their names but it was of their own choosing and typically occurred after the point of immigration.

I have seen this myth appear in several novels but this is the first time I've seen it in historical fiction and frankly, a historical novelist should really know better. I don't expect an author writing a contemporary novel to do historical research but I do expect it of a historical fiction author so to include such a myth just strikes me as sloppy. Of course, I was able to get passed this. It was one sentence in the whole book so I got over it and enjoyed the story as a whole.

There's a lot going on in this novel, there's many twists and turns to keep you guessing and many subplots, both the main characters have interesting back stories dealing with issues unrelated to the Ripper case, so it's not just a simple murder mystery or Ripper-hunt. Supposedly the first in a series, I look forward to the next book from this author.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

CW's Reign

Ad for 'Reign' showing the fictional
'Bash' character and inaccurately
portrayed Dauphin Francis.
I intended this to be a book review blog but after just watching the CW's pilot on Mary, Queen of Scots, I had a few things to say about it. It does contain a few spoilers, I've written it on the assumption of those reading this have already watched the first episode.

The show opens with a teenage Mary living in a convent in France and, after an assassination attempt, is sent to live at the French court, where she briefly had spent some time before when she'd first arrived in France as a child. This of course is inaccurate, the real Mary never lived in a convent, she grew up at the French court after arriving there at five years old. I could excuse this though, it made some sense to introduce the audience to the story at the same time that Mary was being reintroduced to the French court. It means that we learn things about the court as Mary learns them, which helps us empathize with her. Although she knows many of the people at court, she is learning about them as an adult and therefore, in a way, she is new to the court and still settling in. It's a good starting point, even if not true.

When Mary arrives at the French court, we discover that she is betrothed to the Dauphin of France, the heir to the throne, Francis. Understandably for a teen show, it centers on romantic intrigue when Francis is already involved with a random pretty girl at court, complicating his feelings for Mary, while Mary herself finds some emotional refuge with Francis' half brother, the king's bastard 'Bash' (short for Sebastian). Meanwhile, the romantic interest of one of Mary's ladies fills a sub-plot while another of her ladies gets involved with the king himself when he encounters her masturbating after covertly watching a princess of France lose her virginity on her wedding night. While it's true that the consummation of royal marriages often required witnesses, the idea that the maiden Queen of Scotland and her ladies could sneak a peek from behind a screen is pretty far-fetched. Even more far-fetched is the idea that one of them would masturbate in the middle of a stairwell. The scene was heavily edited down and is really only suggestive, you're left not entirely confident that's what she was doing because apparently, the show's producers felt that showing a young woman discovering and exploring her sexuality on her own is more controversial than a teenage girl having an affair with an grown, married man.

The real Francis and Mary
The other two major inaccuracies I spotted were the introduction of a fictional character, Bash, and the portrayal of Francis. I don't mind storytelling involving fictional characters, even some of the best historical fiction authors make use of them, such as Sharon Kay Penman and Bernard Cornwell. It allows the storyteller greater creative freedom and often creates additional sub-plots, giving the story a more complex and multi-dimensional feel. The danger zone of fictional characters in a historical story is when they get too involved with the main historical characters. If taken too far, it becomes unbelievable that a historical figure had quite so much involvement with someone who never existed, unless there is a good reason they never appeared in the history books despite being a pivotal player. We'll see if 'Reign' goes down that path or not but for now, I can understand why they've created a fictional bastard of the king and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers (historically, Diane had no children by the king, only two daughters who could not have been the king's since they were born around the same time he was). Not only does it involve Diane more in the family politics but Bash also serves as an alternate love interest for Mary, which I guess is practically a necessity when your target audience is teenage girls. In reality, though there's no speculation that Mary was ever involved with a king's bastard, for the sake of a good story, Mary would have been in a prime position to find love elsewhere than with her fiance, not because he was already sleeping with other women, or because he felt it politically unwise to marry her, as the show would have you believe. No, in reality the reason would have been much simpler, though admittedly also much less sexy, because the historical Francis was an underdeveloped, sickly little boy. Already a year younger than the developing and tall Mary, Francis' growth was stunted by his health problems and made the age difference between them seem even greater. Though by all accounts, Mary got along with and cared for Francis, it was probably more as a little brother than as a passionate lover. So it's not unreasonable that a fictional story would speculate on Mary finding love elsewhere, I just don't fully understand the need to make Francis a healthy, handsome, strapping young man when he was anything but. Apparently, everyone in this TV show must be attractive and I find it difficult to believe that today's young women are quite so vain that they couldn't appreciate a well portrayed, if unattractive, character. A beautiful young queen and a handsome forbidden bastard evidently isn't enough, pretty much the entire court must be good looking. Even Diane, who as a mistress of the king you might except to be beautiful, is played by an actress in her 30s when in reality she was 20 years the king's senior and approaching 60 by this point.

Scene showing some of the more inaccurate dresses
Appealing to modern young women brings me to my next complaint, the costumes. Apparently, the CW believe that today's teenagers won't be interested in anything even remotely resembling historically accurate costumes. Strapless dresses? Really? Need I say more?

Another romanticized element of this is how much time Mary conveniently gets to spend alone, which of course allows her to have private conversations with Francis and Bash. For the very reason that, in the show, Mary's reputation was nearly ruined when a young man is found in her bed, she equally would not be able to spend so much time wandering around on her own, running into handsome and dashing young men who, of course, fall hopelessly in love with her. In this way, it is more like a fairy tale than history.

While the show might appeal to many for purely entertainment purposes, it's unsurprisingly an epic fail on historical integrity. Still, I can still the appeal as a guilty-pleasure and I support any mainstream entertainment that encourages people, especially young people, to develop an interest in history. If this show gets young women wanting to learn more or picking up books, even novels, about Mary Stuart or French royalty, I hope it runs for a very long time. Perhaps, in that way, it will do for young people what The Tudors did for so many adults, a show that I admittedly loved and that partially sparked my own interest in royal history, despite it's own numerous inaccuracies. Sometimes, a story doesn't have to be historically accurate to be enjoyable and let's hope 'Reign' proves this to be true. I, for one, will continue to watch it if only to see Torrance Coombs' alarmingly beautiful blue eyes again. I never said I was above a bit of eye candy...

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Review: Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World by Alison Weir

UK Release Date: November 7, 2013
US Release Date: December 3, 2013

I was thrilled to receive this as an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley because I have a lot of respect for Alison Weir, her history books being so detailed, comprehensive, and extensively cited. I was particularly curious to see what she had to say about Elizabeth of York, a woman who always seemed an elusive figure to me. Was she just a pawn in the final acts of the Wars of the Roses? How did she really feel about her uncle? About her husband? Who did she think responsible for the disappearance and presumed death of her brothers? There are so many questions surrounding her and I was eager to read Weir’s take on these questions. And she didn’t disappoint, while there have been other dedicated biographies on Elizabeth of York, none are as extensive as this and Weir tackles many of the common questions about Elizabeth without hesitation. Of course, she’s limited by how little is known about Elizabeth and Weir often can only make suggestions or put forward theories but she is always clear when doing so.

It’s worth mentioning that Weir was writing this while Richard III’s remains were being discovered which means she was able to incorporate new conclusions from this. Apart from Langley’s book on the dig, Weir’s is the first I know of to include this, which made it all the more intriguing.

Naturally, the period covering the Wars of the Roses is the most fascinating but it’s definitely a must read for anyone interested in the Wars of the Roses or Tudor history.

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