How many times over the last year have you read those five words in reference to movies, books, television shows, food, music, clothes…? Heck, I even used it a few weeks ago when reviewing The Remains of the Day. The furor for Downton Abbey has taken over so completely that it is difficult to get away from reference to the show for even a week. Don’t take that as a complaint. I love Downton Abbey. I click on almost every article I see that references it. But, as with many of the moment comparisons, things get labeled Downton even though they only have a passing connection to the show, namely the time and place.
Based on a recommendation of a friend on GoodReads, I searched long and hard at Barnes and Noble for The Passing Bells (★★★). I found it, with the help of a manager, on a remote end cap titled, “The World of Downton Abbey.” Published over thirty years ago, The Passing Bells is the first book in a trilogy that spans the war years in England (1914-1945). It is well written and the characters are interesting but I felt distant from the story. It didn’t engross me like I expected it to. There was little emotional resonance and very little focus on women. Most of the novel is from male characters’ points of view. When women were the focus, it was usually in regards to their relationship with men. Now, I am not saying that is a weakness of the book. As a book about men and their experiences in World War I, The Passing Bells is good, maybe excellent. However, if someone picks this novel up expecting something like Downton Abbey – soapy, with lots of twists, turns and emotions as well as a focus on the gentry during the Edwardian and war-time – you’re going to be disappointed.
My biggest complaint with The Passing Bells is how the author skimmed the era. There was lots of information about a lot of subjects – politics and war profiteering, jingoistic journalism versus truth-telling, white feathers and shell shock, the pointlessness of the war and the ignorance and blindness of the commanders. But, the author didn’t delve deeply into any subject. I wish he would have written a trilogy about these people during this time. Instead, the next two novels move into the twenties, thirties and beyond with these characters and their children. Unfortunately, I am not interested enough in what happens to any of them to read the next two books.
The Return of Captain John Emmett (★★) stared at me from the mystery shelves for months before I bought it. Same time period (just after World War I) and I liked the book cover. As you know, liking the book cover is sometimes all that is needed for me to read a book or stick to one. I also think my love of physical books stems from my love of beautiful or interesting book covers. Yes, book covers are available digitally, but when you “close” your digital book, the cover does not stare at you from the bedside table or coffee table. I take great pleasure is seeing a book I’m reading waiting patiently for me to return. I’m digressing here because I don’t have much positive to say about The Return of Captain John Emmett. The amateur detective didn’t have any particular personality trait that would single him out as a good investigator. As such, he made so obvious blunders any regular mystery reader will catch, prolonging the case and book a good 100 pages. Despite catching his mistakes, the reader won’t be able to figure out the killer or his motivations until the author dumps the info at the end of the novel. Her detective is so inept he has to have the killer tell him absolutely everything, to explain in detail information the detective was never able to ascertain. I am being too hard on the detective. It is the author’s fault.
One thing I did like about The Return of Captain John Emmett; the main character wasn’t sexless. The author and the character were open and honest about his sexual desires. Of course, this is a British man in the 1920s so there is an expected amount of restraint, but that is addressed at all was refreshing.
Set in 1940, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary (★) shares a setting (London) a genre (mystery) and a strikingly similar cover art style to The Return of Captain John Emmett. Though I thought Emmett was too long and the mystery didn’t quite work like I think the author intended, I can’t say it was poorly written, which I’m afraid is my charge against Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. I kept reading it even though I didn’t want to, mainly because I was determined to pinpoint my problem with a novel that should have hit all of my reading sweet spots (plucky heroine, integrating historical figures, the London Blitz). Yesterday, I found it.
“Claire looked at Maggie. Maggie looked at Claire.”
Before I read that, I was willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt. Different writing styles, etc. But, the clumsiness of those two sentences put me over the edge. I am gobsmacked that got past the author, the agent and the editor. I’m gobsmacked the entire novel was published, if I’m completely honest. There is a lack of clarity, depth and, like Emmett above, it commits the cardinal sin of mysteries by not giving the reader enough clues to figure it out themselves and resorting to telling the reader everything. Characters show up with no explanation other than the author needed to get one last conversation in. The three act story structure is completely missing. The ending goes on and on and on. The characters’ attitude toward homosexuality is anachronistic. The chapters are chopped up into numerous short scenes of two or three pages. When and why chapters stopped and started was completely lost on me. It is the quintessential 21st century novel, created for readers who can’t focus for more than two pages at a time.
These three books are each the first in their respective series. I will not be reading any of the subsequent books.
Just to show I can be pleased, I want to point you to two series that are, in my opinion, two of the best historical mystery series going. The first is the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. It is set in England between the wars. While Maisie can frustrate me, and there was one novel in the series I did not like at all, Winspear is an amazing writer. The other series is the William Monk series by Anne Perry. Perry’s attention to historical detail and, despite my disappointment in her World War One series, I think her writing ability is unmatched. Granted, I did not like her World War One series, butWinspear’s next Maisie Dobbs novel will be released in March. It is probably time I picked up another Monk novel. Or, perhaps I will start Perry’s other series.