Friday, 31 July 1998

Michael Innes: There Came Both Mist and Snow (1940)

Edition: Gollancz, 1972
Review number: 94

There Came Both Mist and Snow is another early Appleby novel, one which reads almost more like a spoof of the crime genre.

The story is narrated by Arthur Ferryman, a literary author who goes to stay with his cousin, Basil Roper, at his mansion Belrive Priory. This was originally in the countryside, but is now surrounded by a manufacturing town; the ruins of the medieval priory are now lit up at night by a huge neon sign advertising Cudbird's Brewery.

As often happens in detective stories, Ferryman arrives at the houseparty to discover that vast numbers of mutually antipathic relatives are to be at the Priory that weekend. The non-family guests are rivals attempting to buy out the Priory - which Roper is selling to finance a polar expedition - including Horace Cudbird, owner of the brewery - and Appleby. It is a little bit strange that he is invited, given his non-interest in the question of whether or not Belrive Priory should be sold.

Investigations into the shooting of Roper that occurs are hampered by the fact that it's not clear whether the shots were meant for him or whether he was mistaken for someone else. In the end, every single person possible is accused in turn, and all are mystified except Appleby. Ferryman expresses great delight at the bemusement of his cousin, a detective writer named Lucy Chigwidden. She enables Innes to make his satirical points about the crime genre very easily; this is though, a relatively subtle satire and would be easy to read missing what he is doing.

Thursday, 30 July 1998

William Langland: Piers Plowman (c. 1370-1395)

Edition: Penguin, 1958
Translation: J.F. Goodridge

Although I was able to read Chaucer in the original Middle English with only the help of a (fairly comprehensive) glossary, I'm glad I got hold of Piers Plowman in modern English. Judging by the excerpts given in this book, it is considerably more difficult to read, mainly because it is written in a Midlands dialect which didn't provide the basis for later literary English as Chaucer's language did.

The text of Piers Plowman is considerably more complicated than that of, say, the Canterbury Tales; there are three major manuscripts, known as A, B, and C. This translation is based on the B-text, though appendices give some parts of the C-text (which contains more information interpreted as autobiographical than the other manuscripts).

Piers Plowman is the story of a series of dreams, told in the first person by William (Langland). These dreams show in allegorical form what is wrong with the society he sees around him, and by contrast the perfect society which is to come under the rule of Piers Plowman, who stands for Jesus Christ.

One very sophisticated aspect of the allegory is that the dreams are spaced throughout the life of the narrator, and the nature and meaning of the visions changes as his spiritual understanding matures. Other than that, the book is also notable for the strong criticism of the abuses of the church current in the later middle ages. You need some understanding of medieval theology to get the most from the book, but anyone interested in the medieval world-view should find it fascinating.

Wednesday, 29 July 1998

Paul Harding: House of Crows (1995)

Edition: Headline, 1995
Review number: 92

Another of "the sorrowful mysteries of Brother Athelstan" by P.C. Doherty under one of his other names. The main characters remain the same as in the earlier books, Sir John Cranston, coroner of the city of London, and his friend, the friar Athelstan, doing their best to bring justice to the corrupt world of late fourteenth century England, under the boy king Richard II and the ruthless regent John of Gaunt.

In this novel, Gaunt has called Parliament in an attempt to raise more money through taxes - the principal limit to an English king's power throughout the middle ages was his inability to raise direct taxation without the consent of Parliament. The problem Cranston and Athelstan are given to sort out is that someone is killing off the MPs from the Shrewsbury area, who are opponents of Gaunt.

As usual in these books, the excellence of the medieval London background stands out; the squalor is strongly depicted, as well as the spirituality.

Tuesday, 28 July 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Died in the Wool (1945)

Died in the Wool coverEdition: Fontana, 1972
Review number: 91

A second wartime Alleyn mystery set in New Zealand (following on from Colour Scheme). The idea that Alleyn was in New Zealand as a counter-intelligence officer rather than a homicide department police officer means that some reason needs to be given for him to investigate a murder. In this case, the security implication is a possible link with an engineering design project under way at a remote sheep-station.

Florence Rubrick was an MP and the wife of the owner of the station. She went missing in the middle of the shearing season, and was later found in the middle of a compressed bale of wool sent down to the buyers. This gruesome method of disposing of the body is completely incorrectly shown in the picture on the front of this edition, which shows a clearly recognizable body lying among some loose wool; as described in the book, the body had been put through an extremely powerful press. I suppose the publishers couldn't show that, but I find the cover pictures of other Ngaio Marsh novels in the same edition not very good; they're basically photographs of (models made up to look like) the body and are often inaccurate or emphasise details carefully hidden in the narrative so that important parts of the solution to the mystery are given away.

The investigation is conducted in a rather unusual way; each of the members of the family in turn talks about their idea of what Florence Rubrick was like. Alleyn also has the notes on the inconclusive police investigation that was ended before a possible espionage connection was suggested. However, he is handicapped by the death of Florence's husband since this original investigation.

All in all, this is another excellent member of the series.

Monday, 27 July 1998

Hanif Kureishi: The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1998
The Buddha of Suburbia coverReview number: 37

The Buddha of Suburbia tells the story of the adolescence of Karim Amir, who considers himself "an Englishman born and bred - almost". He is growing up in south-east London during the seventies, son of a mixed Asian-English marriage. Through Karim, Kureishi explores his major theme of what it means to be Asian in Britain, and has a fertile ground for the subsidiary themes of divorce, sexuality and class membership.

His father is moving more towards an Asian heritage which is not really his own - he comes from a rich Hindu background, and he is exploring Buddhism and setting himself up as a New Age guru with the help of his (upper middle class English) lover Eva. He is the Buddha of the title. Karim is desperately infatuated with Eva's son, Charlie; he has the glamour of being a singer in a rock band, albeit only a minor one. As punk becomes fashionable, Charlie re-invents his sub-Roxy Music image and becomes famous; the Amir family disintegrates and Karim begins to grow up.

The Buddha of Suburbia is a knowingly trendy read, which I enjoyed quite a bit.

Friday, 17 July 1998

Robert Markham: Colonel Sun (1968)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1968
Review number: 90

I don't think that the existence of this book is terribly well-known. It's a James Bond book written in the late sixties, and is not by either Ian Fleming or John Gardner, who was licensed to continue the series by the Fleming estate. In fact, Robert Markham is a pseudonym used by Kingsley Amis, of all people, a big fan of Ian Fleming.

Bond goes to meet M at his home in Surrey, and is surprised there by a gang of thugs who have kidnapped M and want to take James as well. Escaping from them with a superhuman effort, he returns later to find clues pointing to Athens. Knowing these to have been planted by his attackers, Bond decides he has to put his head into the trap in order to be able to save M from them.

The kidnapping is part of a complex Chinese plot to sabotage a conference of Middle Eastern countries taking place on a remote Greek island; the conference is run by Russians without the knowledge of the Greek government. The idea is to attack the conference with British-made weapons and then leave the bodies of Bond and M to make it look like a British attack, causing a loss of esteem for British interests and embarrassment for the Russians.

The book is exciting, and Amis-as-Markham has rather more of a sense of humour than Fleming. I would say its standard is at least on a par with the majority of Fleming's own novels, and better than the worst of them (such as The Spy Who Loved Me). The tension drops a little bit in the middle, which describes what is basically a short cruise in the Aegean, perhaps more exotic to readers in 1968.

In the end, I felt the book reminded me rather more strongly of Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise series than the Fleming Bond books. There is a slight tendency towards "pornography of violence" in that series and here; there is an extremely unpleasant torture sequence conducted by the half-mad Chinese Colonel Sun on Bond to test the theory of the Marquis de Sade that torturing another human being would make him feel like a god. (He later admits that it made him feel evil and ashamed, which is perhaps better than expected from this genre of fiction.)

Thursday, 16 July 1998

Alexandre Dumas: Twenty Years On (1845)

Edition: Blackie & Son
Also translated as: Twenty Years After
Review number: 89

Twenty Years On is the less well-known sequel to the immensely popular Three Musketeers. This particular edition is an old one, from a time when the translator would either wish to remain anonymous - after all, Twenty Years On is not written in Greek or Latin and is translated into simple prose - or would not be considered important enough by the publisher to receive a credit. This is why no credit is given above for the translation, which is a good one.

Twenty years after their adventures recovering the queen's diamond from the English Duke of Buckingham, the four companions (d'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis) have separated. Political events have moved on; the old king, Louis XIII has died, and so has the powerful Cardinal de Richelieu. The queen, Anne of Austria, is ruling the country as regent for her son Louis XIV, with her favourite, the unpopular Cardinal Mazarin. Civil war rages in England, and looks to be about to break out in France as well. It is impossible to avoid taking sides either for Mazarin and the queen, or for the party opposed to them, known as the Frondeurs (from which historians named these disturbances the "Frondes"). Porthos and d'Artagnan end up on the side of Mazarin, Athos and Aramis on the other. Both pairs return to England, the former to negotiate with Cromwell and the latter to aid king Charles I.

The complicated plot also involves the son of "Milady", the duplicity and avarice of Mazarin, smuggling the young king and his mother from a hostile Paris, and many other historical incidents into which the fictional characters are skilfully woven. But Dumas manages to prevent the historical detail from interfering with the sense of the period he creates and from the interest and amusement derived from the characters of the musketeers and their servants. (The portrayal of the relationships between single gentlemen and their servants, which must have been a close one for many such pairs, is something which comes across very strongly.) Dumas is helped by the fact that this is a sequel, using characters already established for the readers in the first book and needing only a reminder to renew the acquaintanceship. That fact doesn't prevent admiration for the success he has made of this aspect of the novel.

The reason it is less well-known, I feel, is to do with the comparative lack of action rather than any change in the quality of the writing.

E.E. "Doc" Smith: Triplanetary (1948)

Edition: Panther, 1973
Review number: 88

This, the first of the Lensmen series, is a real classic of science fiction. In common with Smith's Sklyark series, it set far wider horizons for SF than readers were used to; not just interplanetary, but interstellar and intergalactic in scope.

In many ways, the series defines science fiction as the genre it is considered to be by outsiders: it is not great literature, but it is exciting; it uses space travel and the idea of war in space; it is more interested in technology than people.

Triplanetary itself is really a prologue to the main part of the series, and consists of two major parts. The first explains the background to the whole series, a huge war of mental power between the evil Eddorians and the benevolent Arisians, carried out through the history of an oblivious humankind on Earth. Smith takes five defining events: the fall of Atlantis (through a nuclear war), an attempted coup in Rome against the Eddorian-controlled Nero, the First and Second World Wars, and, finally, a nuclear Third World War. In each of these periods he tells part of the story of the two families who will be of immense importance later on, and who will produce the two people who are the culmination of the human genetic pool, Kimball Kinnison and Clarissa MacDougal.

The second part, which was originally published as a magazine story, takes up the tale after civilisation has been rebuilt with the covert help of the Arisians. Mankind is beginning to reach out into the solar system, setting up colonies and fighting a war with the Adepts of North Polar Jupiter, only to face a new menace. The Nevians are the ampibious dominant race of their planet, many lightyears distant from the sun. The planet is desperately short of metals, and a spaceship sets out to try to obtain more - say from an asteroid. Instead, they find the ships of the Triplanetary Service (Earth, Mars and Venus in alliance) at war with the fleet of a surviving Adept; from ships and men every atom of free or combined iron is taken.

This means the death of every person in the fleet, and is followed by the same action taken against the Earth city of Pittsburgh. It is up to one man to save the human race, one of the three captives taken alive by the Nevians as zoological specimens.

I've always enjoyed the Lensmen series; they're something to read on an evening when half asleep.

Wednesday, 15 July 1998

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Candle in the Wind (1969)

Translation: Keith Armes, 1973
Edition: Penguin, 1976
Review number: 85

This play, whose original title translates as the New Testament quote The Light Which is in Thee, was written about the same time as the novel First Circle, in the early sixties. (As the Bible verse is quoted in the play, it seems rather perverse to re-title it.) It is set, unusually for Solzhenitsyn, in a fantastic world, a scientific dystopia rather like George Orwell's 1984 or Zamyatin's We.

The plot is concerned with the morality of institutionalised brainwashing. Alex, who's past is based closely on that of Solzhenitsyn himself, has returned home; he had been wrongly imprisoned for a murder he did not commit, and was released when the truth was finally discovered. He meets his cousin Alda on his return, and gets involved in the academic life of the town. This is polarised as far as he is concerned between the music of his uncle Maurice (who seems to represent the disappearing past) and the psychological research of Radagise. He is developing a method to ensure the stability of the personality, which he tries out on Alda at Alex's suggestion. The problem is that this stabilisation amounts to brainwashing; she is no longer the same personality.

A visiting general sees the potential this has to serve the state: a race of docile subjects can be created, ready to do whatever their rulers require of them. Alda is eventually shocked out of her bland mind-state by the death of her father. The really shocking thing, though, is that she wants to return to the stabilised condition; life is so much easier without worrying emotions and responsibilities. The horror this gives Alex is, I think, a large part of the point of the play.

Thus the theme of the play is the battle between individualism and the kind of corporate identity required in the modern totalitarian state, just as it is in the more famous dystopias already mentioned. I'm not sure that Candle in the Wind would work terribly well on stage, and on paper it's shortness means that it can't compete with a novel for examination of the issues in any depth. But it's well worth a read, for characterising the kind of person - whom I suspect to be in the majority - who would rather give up their personal freedom of choice to live an easy life.

Monday, 13 July 1998

John le Carré: The Tailor of Panama (1996)

Edition: Coronet
Review number: 87

As the acknowledgements at the end of The Tailor of Panama, this book owes a large debt to Grahame Greene's Our Man in Havana. Le Carre says that ever since he read that book, he's been fascinated with the idea of the fabrication of intelligence information, which is the central theme of both novels.

Harry Pendel is the tailor of the title; he runs an exclusive gentleman's tailor in Panama City. His past is not the past that people think; the tale he tells of his apprenticeship to his partner Braithwaite in Savile Row, his immense gratitude to one who saved him from being led into a life of crime in the East End by his wicked Uncle Benny, are all fabrications.

Into the life he has built up for himself, which is seriously endangered by a rash investment in a rice farm, comes British diplomat Andrew Osnard. Osnard is actually a spy sent out to gain intelligence about the future of the Panama Canal after its return to Panama from US control on December 31, 1999. He knows the truth about Harry's past - the fact that Braithwaite never existed, the fact that far from being saved from his Uncle Benny, Harry took the blame for a crime he committed and went to prison.

The attraction of Pendel for Osnard is that a tailor has some sort of confidential relationship with his clients, and Pendel & Braithwaite's client list includes most of the rich and powerful men in Panama. Harry promises important intelligence, unwilling to admit that he doesn't have the influence he is expected to have. In the end, his inability to admit his own unimportance leads him to fabricate intelligence, which Osnard then further manipulates for his own ends - he aims to defraud British intelligence by inflating his costs, and makes the made-up intelligence fit in with the things that are not known in London using the convenient list of intelligence items that London would like to know.

As far as the two of them are concerned, everything works out fine until Harry is asked to recruit other people as spies; combining a list of fictional people with some of his friends causes Harry to lose control of what he is doing.

There are not really likeable characters in this book; everyone is deeply flawed. I always find South American settings difficult to empathise with. Aside from that, The Tailor of Panama is well-written, and demonstrates le Carre's flexibility as an author of spy stories (unlike Len Deighton, who seems to be having a great deal of difficulty putting the Cold War behind him).

Thursday, 9 July 1998

Peter Green: Classical Bearings: Interpreting Ancient History and Culture (1998)

Edition: Thames and Hudson, 1998
Review number: 86

Classical Bearings is a collection of (independently written) essays on classical history and literature arranged more or less chronologically by subject. The range of subjects within these fields is quite large, from Mycenean history and Homeric literature to the early Roman Empire.

Although now a senior academic, Peter Green first made his name by a strong attack on the parochial world of the classics scholar, and his work is still extremely critical of the academic fashion. His views are always original and based on an understanding of not only the particular issue at hand but of the whole of the Greek and Roman scene - though particularly the Greek.

Every article is worth reading, and all contain interesting insights. This is partly because of the vast range of knowledge which Green has, and which is a consequence of the way in which classics used to be taught.

Wednesday, 8 July 1998

Thomas Pynchon: Gravity's Rainbow (1973)

Gravity's Rainbow coverEdition: Jonathan Cape, 1973

Twenty-five years on, this book is something of a classic of the underground hippie scene, though perhaps not on the scale of Pynchon's earlier V. It's written in a complex stream of consciousness style, which is quite hard to read until you begin to get into it; I'm not sure that I understood much of what was going on even when I got to the end of the 760 pages. It's not really about understanding what's going on; Gravity's Rainbow presents an experience which is not intended to be completely assimilated.

The main plot concerns the German wartime rocket development, and one of the major themes of the novel is the psychic effects the idea of the rocket had and has upon people. The main character, Tyrone Slothrop, has a particularly strong connection to the rocket, one noticed by British intelligence when they discover that the map on the wall of his office detailing his sexual conquests exactly matches the mathematically random (and therefore unpredictable) scattering of V2 impacts across London but a few days in advance. (I think it is this scattering which gives the novel's title, but this is not made explicitly clear.) The connection between his sexuality and the penile nature of the rocket is clear. As the war comes to a close, Slothrop is selected for a mission to discover what has happened to the rocket serial number 000000, which has disappeared. This rocket is rumoured to be some kind of super-rocket, something really special. As Slothrop's search goes on, he beomes more and more obsessed with the rocket, to the point of dressing up as the character Rocketman. He becomes a mythical figure in the Zone, which presumably refers to the American zone of occupied Germany. If the structure of the book leads to comparison with Ulysses, the obsessive nature of the search is like that of Moby Dick; both these novels are name-checked in the quoted review on the back cover.

There are independent deviations from the main plot, mainly taking the form of short (often ribald and obscene) anecdotes or fables. My favourite among these included the German spa resort of Bad Karma; the woman with a speech defect unable to pronounce umlauts, so pronouncing a warning about a "cute burglar" as "lift screwer" and inspiring an engineer who overheard her with the name for his new invention, the helicopter; and the story of Byron the immortal lightbulb.

Altogether, Gravity's Rainbow takes some getting into; it helps distinctly if you have some knowledge of engineering mathematics. It is not a novel for the prudish, but for those who are not and who are prepared to make the effort it is very worthwhile.

Robert A. Heinlein: The Rolling Stones (1952)

Also entitled: Space Family Stone

Edition: Gollancz, 1969

This is one of Heinlein's earlier novels. Like many of his other books of the period, this one is aimed at the young adult market. It tells the story of the Stone family, who leave their comfortable home in Luna City (on the moon) to see the solar system, travelling to Mars and then to the asteroid belt.

It is a story of exploration and the principal interest is in Heinlein's use of a fairly ordinary family - rather at the upper end of the intelligence curve as Heinlein heroes tend to be - in his portrayal of the different ways people will respond to the challenges of the extreme environments which exist on other planets. (It was written at a time when rather less was known about the solar system, Mars in particular, and the conditions are in fact more extreme than those used in the novel. The mathematics of chaos were completely undiscovered, and they would have changed the way he wrote about the asteroids; no mathematics could prove their orbits to come from an exploded planet.)

Aside from the outdated science, the major criticisms I have of this book are sociological. Each community - Luna, Mars and the asteroids - closely mirrors some aspect of small-town American life. This is not intended by Heinlein to make some sort of critical point; science fiction novels criticising contemporary society were not his forté. It has more to do with a lack of imagination; he has simply projected the technological advances in which he is really interested - it's really a "Hey, wow! Spaceflight" novel from the days before Sputnik - against the social background easiest for him to portray and for his audience to understand. Mars is the only place he really has criticisms of, and that is to do with the obsession with commercial gain and taxation he considered more typical of the slightly larger community. It was not until Stranger in a Strange Land that Heinlein broke out of this, and wrote a book truly worth reading by an adult audience.

Tuesday, 7 July 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Colour Scheme (1943)

Edition: Fontana
Review number: 82

This novel marks something of a return to form for Ngaio Marsh. After a sequence with hackneyed plots and stereotyped settings (mainly upper-class house-parties), she comes up with something rather different. This is reflected in the title of the novel; instead of the word "death" being prominent in a phrase with little to do with the plot, we have a subtle hint toward what's actually going on.

Although there must be about five earlier Alleyn novels which are written and set during the war, this is the first to take notice of the fact. It's set in New Zealand, which often seems to be an indicator of the best of the series, at a volcanic spa resort.

As well as the family that runs the resort, the principal characters are four visitors; one, Maurice Questing, has been there for some time and is suspected by the family of being a spy responsible for light signals sent out to sea causing the sinking of ships leaving a nearby port; the next two to arrive are the famous actor Geoffrey Gaunt (who seems from the roles he has famously played to be based on Laurence Olivier) and his secretary Dikon Bell; and lastly Sebastian Falls, a sinister character who might be the person who murders Questing.

The plot is interesting, and the means of death extremely unusual (and unpleasant - falling into boiling mud). The spy motif and the spa setting make Colour Scheme slightly different as crime novels go; and Ngaio Marsh's usual good writing make it well worth reading.

C.S. Forester: A Ship of the Line (1938)

Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 81

Re-reading A Ship of the Line is like encountering an old friend; it must be getting on for twenty years since I last read any of the Hornblower series. I was prepared for the book not to appeal, or not to match up to the other Napoleonic navy novels I've read in the meantime.

I was more impressed than ever, and it has become clear why Forester set the standard that every historical naval writer has had to live up to since. He does not ignore the more unpleasant aspects of the English navy of the 1800s, as more trivial writers have done. Hornblower's world is one of poverty, deprivation, violence, ignorance, severe cruelty, seasickness and sudden death. There may be heroism and compassion, but these are not the true reality of life at sea. Hornblower is not the all-perfect action hero of writers like Jeffrey Farnol and Dudley Pope; he has distinct flaws which are made clear to the reader throughout the novel. And the novel itself does not end with a triumph, but with the capture of Hornblower and his ship by the French.

All this raises Forester from the pack in this small genre, and means that he will continue to be read when many of the other authors are gone and forgotten.

Wednesday, 1 July 1998

P.C. Doherty: The Devil's Hunt (1996)

Edition: Headline, 1996
Review number: 80

This is the seventh Hugh Corbett mystery, part of the series set in England during the reign of Edward I. This particular novel is set in Oxford, where Corbett is sent by the king to investigate the serial murder of the masters of Sparrow Hall, a small foundation forming part of the University and the mysterious proclamations of "The Bellman", who calls down curses on the king in the name of his old enemy Simon de Montfort.

When Hugh arrives in a city full of memories of his own youth, he discovers that Sparrow Hall is involved in other suspicious activities: students from the hall are believed to be part of a satanic coven meeting outside the city and ritually murdering beggars.

In this rather unpleasant situation, Hugh sets to work. The king is unconcerned about the murders themselves, just about the activities of the Bellman. He fears that proclamations in the name of Simon de Montfort might spark a rebellion, even after many years of Edward's rule.

The book is typical of the series, which I like in general because it conveys a much more accurate reflection of the medieval period than many members of this genre - in particular, the Ellis Peters' Cadfael books, which present a heavily romanticised and modernised version of the twelfth century, with Cadfael a twentieth century detective in thought and word and deed. The level of violence is quite high, and the investigation proceeds slowly enough to allow several more murders to take place before Corbett knows what is going on. I prefer, as detective stories, the Brother Athelstan mysteries written by Doherty under the name of Peter Haining.

Lindsey Davis: Last Act in Palmyra (1994)

Edition: Century, 1994
Review number: 79

The sixth in Davis' Falco series about a first century private detective. Falco combines several investigations into one trip. Firstly, he's asked by the imperial household (the customer who expects to pay no fees) to take a look at the state of Nabatea, independent but only just over the edge of the empire. An old friend, the snake-dancer Thalia (now circus entrepeneur), asks him to look for a missing protege of hers, the water-organ player Sophrona; she is missing somewhere in the Decapolis, the Roman province north of Nabatea.

Falco travels to Nabatea with his "high class girlfriend" Helena, trying to pose as tourists. When they arrive, Falco discovers a body on one of the holy mountains; it is one of a company of travelling actors. Falco and Helena join the troupe, as they are told by the authorities that they need to leave Nabatea anyway. Falco takes over the dead man's position as writer, adapting classic Greek plays for contemporary audiences, and at the same time investigates the murder.

The whole plot, after some amusing digs at today's contemporary theatre (even then, managers were moaning about the imminent demise of live theatre) and the classics, comes to a climax in the Decapolitan city of Palmyra.

Once again, Davies produces an interesting and amusing dective story, and one which doesn't lay quite such an emphasis on the unsanitary aspects of ancient life as some of the earlier novels.