Book Review: The Nosferatu Scroll by James Becker

The Nosferatu Scroll begins with a rather strange burial in Bohemia, in 1741.  An aristocratic lady is sent to a remote chapel on the banks of the Vltava River to be buried, rather than being laid to rest in the family vault in Vienna.  In secret, her heart is removed and when she is finally interred, it is beneath a layer of heavy stone.  The inscription that marks her final resting place is plain, and doesn’t elude to her high-born status or family.  It’s as if she has been disowned.

Back to the present, and Chris Bronson, a British policeman, and his ex-wife Angela Lewis, an archaeologist working for the British Museum are holidaying in Venice.  They decide to take a trip out to visit the Isola di San Michele, an island cemetery.  However, when they discover that a two hundred year old tomb has been opened and desecrated, their holiday takes a different turn.  On seeing a diary hidden in the tomb with the remains of a female skeleton, Angela takes it, intent on discovering why it was buried with the it’s writer.

The plot thickens when the bodies of a number of missing young women from the city start appearing in the cemetery, and it’s clear that they have all been killed in the same terrible, ritualistic way.  And then Angela disappears, and it is left to Bronson to find her before she too ends up dead.

The Nosferatu Scroll is a fast-paced, action-filled story.  The historical aspects of the book were obviously well-researched, and the exotic location was vividly brought to life with colourful descriptions.  The plot was filled with twists and turns, some I expected, others I didn’t expect.  And to my mind, the ending of the story was perfect.

One of the highlights of the book was the chapter of historical notes provided by the author after the story, entitled ‘The Real Vampire Chronicles’.  In it he discusses the history of vampire mythology and why he chose Venice as the setting for his book.  I found this just as fascinating as the story itself.

I highly recommend this to other readers of mystery, thriller and, of course, vampire fiction.  It is a very clever, well-written read.

Book Review: The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly

The Poison Tree is a dark thriller of a tale that brings together three people one hot summer…and leaves two dead.

It’s 1997, and Karen Clarke, a university student at Queen Charlotte’s College is coming towards the end of her final year. She is smart and a natural when it comes to languages.  When she comes across a girl scribbling a note asking for a native German speaker for help with translating and accent tutoring, little does she know that her life will never be the same again.

The girl is Biba – Bathsheba – Capel, an aspiring actress and theatre student.  She is everything that Karen is not…popular, extrovert, glamorous, bohemian, over the top…It doesn’t take long for Karen to be drawn into her world, a world of drama, drugs, drink and danger.

Biba’s brother, Rex, is fiercely protective of his sister.  Living in a large, crumbling property in a fashionable area of London, Rex has raised Biba alone.  But even he can’t completely reign in her more excessive behaviour.

Karen’s father has spoken to her at length about everyone having one summer that they remember for the rest of their life, and she knows this is hers and doesn’t want it to end.  But when it does, it does so in a way none of them expect…

This book was a roller-coaster of a read.  Set in both the past – 1997 – and the present – ten years later – the story of what happened that fateful summer is slowly unravelled, but not everything has been laid to rest over time.  In fact, the past has never quite let Karen go…

The change between the past and the present is fluid; there is no jarring in momentum.  The atmosphere and suspense builds as the story moves along, gathering pace until it finally reaches a crescendo in the final pages.  There were a few twists and turns in the story that you can guess whilst reading, but there are others that I did not expect.  I could not put this book down until I had finished reading as I needed to know how it ended.

I recommend this book to those who enjoy dark, evocative stories in a similar vein to Daphne du Maurier’s writing.

Short Story Review: The Price of Light by Ellis Peters

Hamo FitzHamon of Lidyate was a wealthy but aging lord.  He was unpleasant in both character and temperament, and after a small period of ill-health his mind turned more towards the fate that awaited him in the hereafter.

And so he wanted to find the most enduring – and cheapest – way he could to reduce the sins stacked against him.  In the end he decided to present the Benedictine Abbey of Shrewsbury with a pair of beautifully carved silver candlesticks.  He and his entourage, including his wife, her maid and two grooms, go to stay at the Abbey over Christmas, arriving on the eve of the celebration.

As soon as they arrive, the candlesticks are installed upon the altar in the Lady Chapel.  However, come Christmas morning, the candlesticks have gone missing.  When Hamo FitzHamon finds out he is furious and leads the search for the stolen gifts himself.  However, it is Brother Cadfael, the Abbey’s herbalist, whose investigation solves the mystery.

The Brother Cadfael books are one of my favourite book series in any genre, so it comes as no surprise that I loved The Price of Light.  The description provided by the author brought the medieval world to life with such ease and colour, and the characters are not only believable but engaging.  Brother Cadfael, having spent many years out in the world before becoming a monk, is a smart and sensible solver of mysteries, and his sympathy with the poor and the downtrodden makes him a very endearing character.

The Price of Light is one of three short stories first published in A Rare Benedictine by Ellis Peters, documenting the early years of Brother Cadfael’s monastic life.  I came across it in The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits, ed. Mike Ashley.

Short Story Review: Miss Unwin’s Mistake by HRF Keating

I rather liked the opening line of this short story:

Miss Harriet Unwin, governess, did not make mistakes.

Indeed it tells us all we need to know about the personality of the central character.

It is Miss Unwin’s last day as governess to Maria, daughter of Mr Dorset Merrimen, a wealthy member of the Worshipful Company of Mercers.  The following day it is her charge’s sixteenth birthday, and Maria, who is quite fond of her governess, insists she attends.  Also amongst the assembled guests are Mr Merrimen’s nephews who will inherit his vast wealth when he dies.  One is tall and charming; Miss Unwin thinks he is the most respectable of the two.  The other is shorter and possessed a moody temperament.  Miss Unwin certainly thinks more highly of one than the other.

After the party, Miss Unwin discusses the evening with Maria, who whilst dressing for bed asks her former governesss if she can go and find a particular book for her to read.

When she gets downstairs, she can hear Mr Merrimen arguing with his nephews over money before threatening to remove both of them from his will.  One of the nephew’s leave, but Miss Unwin can only make a logical guess at which one, and soon after Mr Merrimen is found dead.  But which nephew is responsible?  Only Miss Unwin’s evidence can solve the case but has she got it right?

Miss Unwin’s Mistake is pleasant, quick read, although the ending isn’t hard to guess.  However, that isn’t what makes it charming; rather it is the setting, description and wording.

This short story was found in The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives, ed. Mike Ashley.

Short Story Review: A Byzantine Mystery by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer

John the Eunuch is the Lord Chamberlain to the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian, whose capital Constantinople is in a state of unrest.  The Church of the Holy Wisdom of God which houses a fragment of the true cross has been looted and then set aflame, and the Emperor, naturally wants John the Eunuch to get it back.

A Byzantine Mystery is a good, quick read set in the often overlooked Byzantine period which was refreshing.  I don’t think I have read any fiction set during this period of history before.  The character of John the Eunuch was interesting and engaging, and I would certainly like to read more in this series.

I came across this short story in The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits, ed. Mike Ashley.

Book Review: Wounds of Honour by Anthony Riches

Wounds of Honour is the first book in the Empire series by Anthony Riches.

The years is 181 AD and Marcus Valerius Aquila, an officer in the Praetorian Guards finds himself posted to the outer extremities of the Empire, Britain, for a reason he doesn’t learn until he gets there.  The Emperor Commodus has declared that he and his family are traitors and have been condemned to death.  The only way he can survive is to take up a new name and a new post as a centurion in a unit stationed on Hadrian’s Wall.

But nowhere is safe.  There are enemies among the natives to both the north and south of the wall as well as hidden enemies in the Roman army itself, searching for the traitor.  Marcus Tribulus Corvus, as he becomes known has to prove himself; to justify the risks others have taken, to stay alive and to keep as many of his unit’s men alive when the war comes.

Wounds of Honour is jam-packed full of accurate historical detail bringing the period in which it is set to life in a vivid, almost shocking, graphic – very Roman – way.  The story was gripping, although I found the number of characters a little over-bearing at times as I struggled to recall who-was-who in terms of some of the previously mentioned minor characters.  However this is hardly any criticism and such a minor issue did not detract from the enjoyment of the story at all.

The pace of the narrative seemed to pick up quite dramatically during the second half of the book.  The dialogue and language was colourful and the interaction between the main characters flowed smoothly.  Both the story and the people in it were engaging.

If you like action-packed stories or are a fan of ancient Roman fiction, especially military fiction, I recommend you give this read.  I am looking forward to reading the next instalment in the series to see what lies in store for Marcus and his Tungrians.

Short Story Review: Trunk Call by Marilyn Todd

Trunk Call is set in Rome at the beginning of the first century.  Rufus Vatia, the purveyor of imperial elephants and a man with a mischievous sense of humour, is lying on his deathbed surrounded by three women claiming to his wife.  Being a favourite of the emperor, Marcus Cornelius Orbilio has been sent to determine which of the three wives has the most legitimate claim on his estate after his death, in the hope that a scandal can be avoided.

When he arrives at Rufus Vatia’s home he also finds Claudia Seferius there, who confides in the imperial agent that she knows for a fact that the ‘dying man’ isn’t dying at all, but is playing a practical joke.  So, it comes as a great surprise when Rufus Vatia actually dies, and not by natural means.

But who killed him? Was it one of the three wives?  The rather nervous-looking doctor?  Or Milo the steward, one of the only people granted access to the dying man’s chamber?

Trunk Call was an enjoyable and light-hearted, quick read.  The dialogue was amusing and the characters believable, interacting well together.

This short was found in Murder Through the Ages: A Bumper Anthology of Historical Mysteries, ed. Maxim Jakubowski.