Monday, September 17, 2012

{review} variations on the great game

A mound of unreviewed books teeters precariously on the edge of my desk, their teeter aided by one of my little helpers who also likes to sit in judgment on my desk.


Here are three vaguely themed on the Great Game - espionage. 

Mary Stewart Airs Above the Ground (1965)

(This is the cover of the copy from my university library, 
donated by a former Professor of English).

Yes, I have been guilty of suggesting that all Mary Stewart books are alike. But, don't get me wrong, the reliable alikeness of their travel-mystery-romance is the drawcard. Airs Above the Ground did not start prepossessingly: I don't particularly like books about horses (except the Jill books by Ruby Ferguson: but that was way back in my 'pretend my bicycle is a horse' pre-teens, so that doesn't count...); I'm not particularly keen on blushing youths in adult books; there were also a fair few jibes aimed at plumper women. Stewart heroines do not carry a spare ounce, of course. My private theory is that declining cream cakes explains why they often feel weak enough to express thoughts of the sort of "it helps occasionally to be made to feel that it is little short of marvellous for anything so rare, so precious, and so fragile to compete with the tough world of men." [Short pause while I barf into my rubbish bin]. Interestingly, this heroine - Vanessa - is a veterinary surgeon, although she dumped a career for marriage. Anyway - anyway - the plot soon starts barrelling along with mistaken identities, circus performers, dancing horses (Xenophon gets a look-in!), jewels, castles, the Cold War, and a lot of treacherous Austrian mountain scenery. There's even some sex. 


Kim Newman Anno Dracula (1992 [2011])


Anno Dracula is a Victorian 'Great Game'/fantasy/alternative history/thriller novel with a vampire twist. It's 1888 and Queen Victoria is married to Count Dracula. Vampires live openly in the community, and to get ahead in the new administration it is almost obligatory to undergo the transformation (as Inspector Lestrade has done). Those who disagree with the new movement have been sent to prison camps. Among their number is Sherlock Holmes, which provides a neat excuse for his absence from the scene during that most horrendous of crime sprees, the Jack the Ripper killings. This book cleverly blends history, alternative history and fiction. It is also very funny if you like Victorian in-jokes and references. Dr Jekyll and Dr Moreau are conducting experiments together (though Dr Jekyll is acting rather oddly); Professor Moriarty (obviously) heads up a huge criminal organisation with the aid of Raffles; Dr Seward, still pining for Lucy, runs a hospital/refuge for the East End poor with the assistance of our nearly 500 year old heroine Geneviève Dieudonné; Basil Hallward is sketching the vampire Prime Minister; everyone dreads the possibility that Tennyson might remain Poet Laureate for "dreary centuries. Egads, imagine Locksley Hall Six Hundred Years After"! Ruddigore was written to entertain vampires. Rupert of Hentzau, Joseph Merrick, Madame Corelli… This is a book with an excellent sense of history and of humour. In sum: hero-spy Charles Beauregard (of the Diogenes Club) and vampire-heroine Geneviève set out to sort out the Jack the Ripper crimes, but their investigation will bring them up against the greatest of ancient evils, Count Dracula himself. It's the first of a series in which its long-lived protagonists work on cases throughout the 20th century. Fun, but really perhaps a bit long. Annoying pedantic note: I suspect that, along the lines of anno domini, Anno requires the genitive of Dracula (which I'm guessing is Draculae); but I can see that's not so perky. 


P. D. Martin Body Count (2007)
P. D. Martin Hell's Fury (2012)


Body Count is procedural rather than espionage, but I'll squeeze it in. The heroine is an Australian behavioural analyst and cop in the serial killer unit at Quantico. I overestimated my ability to deal with women being kidnapped, raped, murdered and dumped, so this serial-killer book with an E.S.P. twist (the first of a series) didn't work for me. Personal judgement only here, obviously - it's an interesting concept. I have also read P. D. Martin's Hell's Fury, which I liked a lot more. The heroine of Hell's Fury is a real toughie who has survived a horrific experience while spying for the CIA. I thought the plotting of this book was well done, notably the slow revelation of the heroine's ordeal set against her struggle to rehabilitate herself. She is strong, clever and determined never to be a victim again, and her world is one where justice matters. This was a solid spy-action-mystery story. I found some of the dialogue a little stilted in places, but I'm keen to read the next one in the series (don't think it's out yet). P. D. Martin is an Australian author

If you liked these: well, my favourite espionage story set in a circus in the Cold War is Alistair McLean's Circus; the most memorable vampire book I've read recently is Florence Marryat's The Blood of the Vampire {REVIEW}; and for decent CIA stuff it has to be anything by Charles McCarry. Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has recently caused me to remember my resolution to re-read Helen MacInnes too.


  1. Interesting post. Can I recommend Aly Monroe as a spy author. She is a present day author writing books in 1950s London and they are very good.

    I like Mary Stewart for some books are much better than others. 'Wildfire at Midnight' is my favourite but I will look out for this one.

    I've tried a PD Martin and she didn't really do it for me but I know she is very popular.

  2. Thanks, Sarah, for that recommendation - I will definitely keep an eye out for Aly Monroe. Love a bit of retro spycraft!


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