John Sandford is at the top of his game in Stolen Prey

John Sandford is one my favorite crime fiction writers. I have read every one of the novels in his Prey series (see my March 25th review of his 2011 novel Buried Prey), and until now my favorite among them was his thirteenth, Mortal Prey (2002). It is the story of hard-boiled detective Lucas Davenport’s life and death struggle with a beautiful hit woman named Clara Rinker (set in the Soulard district of St. Louis, Missouri). But his newest novel, Stolen Prey (Penguin Group USA, 2012), may just have displaced Mortal Prey as my new number one.

I got the feeling in later years (Rules of Prey, the first Prey novel, debuted twenty-three years ago!) that some of Sandford’s writing had fallen into the formulaic trap that sometimes closes when a writer is expected to produce regularly. If so, he showed his old spark in Buried Prey last year, and in Stolen Prey he is at the top of his game.

While reading Stolen Prey, I was reminded of the game of three-dimensional chess that you used to see on the original Star Trek series, because Stolen Prey is a novel with several dimensions. First, detective Lucas Davenport is mugged at an ATM by a couple of meth-heads and his arm is encased in a plaster cast for several weeks. It’s not often someone gets the drop on Davenport, the rakish, hard-nosed protagonist of the Prey series since its inception. Is he getting old? Well, if you think the meth-heads are going to get away with it, you don’t know much about Lucas Davenport. The search for the meth-heads will involve his old friend Virgil Flowers, and will eventually be resolved in a barn filled with horse manure. Just go with it. It’s entertaining.

But this recurring motif is light entertainment compared with the central mystery, which begins when a family is found dead in their home, the mother and daughter raped and tortured, the son shot several times, and the husband carved up—but not before his fingers are cut off joint by joint.

The murders scream Mexican drug cartel, and we quickly learn that this is precisely who is responsible. The only problem is, no one can figure out why this family, who lived in a wealthy suburb of Minneapolis, was targeted.

The suspects pop up one at a time, and we soon learn that some bright young people with access to computers in the dead man’s company, and in a Minneapolis bank, have noticed large automatic deposits flowing through a business account that no one seems to be minding. It gets a bit technical, and you have to pay close attention. Having no idea that the money is intended for a drug cartel—after all, this is Minnesota—they decide it wouldn’t hurt to funnel some of it into accounts of their own and then, with the help of an Israeli con woman, convert it to gold. Neat, clean, and who would ever suspect?

The gruesome murders make them aware that somebody does miss the money, does suspect, and is now intent on recovering it—and the people who took it. Apparently, twenty-two million dollars is not considered chump change south of the border.

There are several things that you can usually expect from a Sandford novel. He is great at detailing police procedure, including the dead ends, in an entertaining way. In a less skillful writer’s hands you would toss the book aside after a few pages. But he reveals the details the way a skillful stripper reveals what’s under the feathers: you only see what he wants you to see, when he wants you to see it, but your attention never wavers.

Like a serial murderer, Sandford’s novels have a signature. Actually, more than one, but the one that I look for is when someone—frequently a cop—tells a joke. There’s a good one in here—a groaner, but I like groaners. I won’t tell it and spoil the fun. But Davenport’s smart-ass personality is infectious, and I find his comic relief delightful, like when he tells another cop that he is addicted to line dancing, so addicted in fact that his shrink had to put him in a two-step program. Groan!

You need comic relief in Davenport’s world, a dark place where killers use various utensils to take a body apart in a basement, and after packaging it decide to go get some pizza as though they had just finished a household project. A gritty and macabre scene occurs later in which these same killers have a difficult time disposing of the body because they are too short to reach the top of the dumpster and the body is like Jello in its wrappings, squishy and hard to manage. Davenport’s world is a world of darkness and death.

The Lucas Davenport we see these days is much tamer than when we first met him in the early 1990s. He now spends his time with his wife and three children instead of nailing his female partners on the desk in his office. One of his children is high-school-age Letty, whom we first met in his fourteenth, Naked Prey (2003). Davenport and his wife Weather, a successful Minneapolis surgeon, adopted Letty after Davenport rescued her from frightful circumstances.

Now Letty is a normal teenager and, if we did not know she was adopted, we would swear that she was every bit her father’s child. She has the same cool, calm approach to life, and is unflappable in a crisis. Davenport takes her to the shooting range with him, discusses his cases with her, and we see a bond developing that may be key to extending the Prey series into the radar of yet another generation. In Stolen Prey, Letty will figure frighteningly in one of the most surprising denouements of any of Sandford’s novels to date.

Stolen Prey will involve you, shock you, and leave you wanting more. That triadic formula is perhaps the most recognizable of John Sandford’s signatures.

Copyright Isaac Morris (4/5)

Meaning is what children’s books should convey — not agendas

Consider this fable that I just made up.

There was a family that lived in a cave and the mother and father loved and watched out for their children. The mother worked with each of her children and showed them how to fashion a ring of gold (gold was plentiful around these caves—work with me here, okay?) and when the children grew and left the cave she gave this ring to each of them to cherish—and to pass on. These children, remembering the love that they experienced in the cave, took the rings and fashioned more with their own children and when their children left they gave the rings to their children. And so on. But as you might expect, one of the children lost theirs and had no ring to pass on. So they didn’t bother any more. Then another. So that, in time, the families who knew the joy of sharing this beautiful experience together grew fewer in number, though the resources were still abundant all around them. It was a dark and stormy day.

Image Source: Enoch Pratt Free Library web site, Baltimore, MD.

I won’t be publishing this anytime soon, for obvious reasons. But here’s the point: the rings of gold are what the parents give their children when they read with them, and encourage them to read.

I still remember the thrill of laying in bed reading a book that my mother bought for me. Of course, she had spent many nights reading to me before I was able to read for myself. Those memories aren’t as crystal clear as are the ones where I read to my own children and grandchildren, and I can tell you how much it meant to be able to have them experience laughter, sadness, and love—and to talk about it with them afterward.

For laughs, I will never forget the series of books by Harry Allard about the Stupid family, Stanley Q. Stupid, Mrs. Stupid, Buster, Petunia, and their dog named Kitty. These include The Stupids Step Out (1977), The Stupids Have a Ball (1984), and The Stupids Die (1985). In one book, I remember how the family passed in front of a mirror and Stanley scolded the kids for staring “at those people.” Oh, and did I mention that the dog, Kitty, drives the family car?

Naturally, some people find these books offensive, so you don’t hear much about them any more.  Politics and political correctness have smeared themselves all over our children’s reading materials leaving a sticky brown bovine film. Read some of the comments abut the Stupids on Amazon and you will see what I mean. Like this one:

My preschooler loves this book, but she doesn’t know the actual title. We replace ‘stupid’ with ‘silly’. It seems more appropriate that way.

Or this one:

My 7 year old recently brought this book home from his school library. I found it very offensive, because I think it teaches children that it’s funny to call others “stupid”. I cannot think of a circumstance in which it is appropriate for a child or an adult to use this word towards another person. I was so upset that I wrote a note to the school librarian.

We all have our opinions, and I truly respect that. But the way I see it, and as Forrest Gump would say, “Stupid is as stupid does.” I remember laughing out loud with my daughter at Allard’s books and the memories will go with me to the grave.  If you want to laugh with your kids or grandkids, check these out. They’re just silly. That’s all they’re meant to be.

For getting kids to understand how love works, there is no better book than The Giving Tree (40th Anniversary edition 2004, HarperCollins), by Shel Silverstein. This has been around since 1964, and the concept is simple. A tree loves a little boy, and the little boy takes all the tree has to give, even finally cutting the tree down to build a house. But when the boy is an old man, all he wants is a place to rest. The tree offers its stump. It continues to give. Children respond to this story, feeling sad for the tree, but I believe this story plants a seed in their minds about what true love is.

Oh, but even Silverstein is criticized. Why? Because the tree is abused. Apparently, the conceptual distinction between giving something to someone and having something taken from you forcibly escapes some people. Perhaps they should have been read to as kids.

Allard’s and Silverstein’s books are children’s classics (or, in Allard’s case, guilty pleasures), but don’t forget the other classics. We have a children’s version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at home, and one of our grandchildren loves to have this read to him when he comes to spend the night. Afterwards, he and his Nanny talk about it, and he asks questions like, “Why do people treat Jim (the runaway slave) like that?” Questions like that need to be asked by adults, and books like Huckleberry Finn can start that process when they are young.

Of course, as has been well publicized on more than one occasion in recent decades, the political correctness crowd has been after The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for a long time because it uses the “n-word.” Let’s see: a boy who lives in the 1840s in Missouri, a slave state, narrates it and he uses the “n-word?” How odd. But the book is perhaps one of the finest examples of how a human being can approach others with an appreciation for the humanity underlying our diversity that has ever been written. Yeah. That’s in there too. Talk about missing the forest for the tree.

The upshot of this is that parents’ involvement in our children’s education is critical to a child’s success in life. If we think we can just skate by and let the schools do it, then we are just . . . well, stupid. For one thing, all the kids will be reading are books that pass the “sniff test” of the political correctness crowd, and they may get books with agendas instead of books that have meaning. You don’t have to be educated, or even that bright, to pick up a book and read to your child. You are spending time with them, the most precious thing you have, and you are planting seeds that will pay off later in life. And you are keeping the gold in the family.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

The Family Corleone: An offer I should’ve refused

In May of 1972, I chose to spend finals week reading a novel instead of studying. You see, by then I was a senior in college and I had learned how to study smart. I went to class, took notes, and tried to make sure I understood the material. When finals rolled around, I figured I either knew it or I didn’t. So I relaxed—unlike some of my peers who missed classes, were always copying my notes, and spent finals week cramming and taking uppers.

The novel I read was The Godfather by Mario Puzo. It was—and remains—one of the most fascinating books I have read. Judging by its continued success I am not alone in that evaluation. Puzo told a compelling story of the family Corleone, raised the curtain on a culture that had done its level best to remain in the shadows, and ignited a cultural phenomenon. The 1972 film version, which I still think of as one of the greatest movies ever, made film history.

For some reason, publishers and filmmakers didn’t want to leave well enough alone. It probably has something to do with money. Like Oliver Twist, they’ve never stopped wanting more. But the results—with the possible exception of Godfather II, taken in part from the original novel—were disappointing. As for the subsequent novels, they were downright forgettable. I quit reading The Sicilian after fifty pages, and I can’t even remember The Godfather Returns and The Godfather’s Revenge. I think I made it through one of them all the way – but I’m not even sure of that.

Okay, so how was it a good idea—given the mediocre results of other published “sequels”—to do a “prequel?” But that is precisely what the Puzo family did. To write the story, which is based on a screenplay written by Puzo before his death, they hired Ed Falco, Director of Creative Writing at Virginia Tech. He is a good writer. The subject is clearly one that still fascinates. But enough is enough.

The Family Corleone (Grand Central Publishing, May 2012) is disappointing for many of the same reasons the sequels were. There simply is no need to “fill in the gaps” in the original story. The details of what happened to Michael Corleone in Sicily, other than those we learned in the original novel, aren’t that important. So The Sicilian didn’t add much if anything worthwhile to the original story. It was the same with the other two sequels by Winegardner. The magic just wasn’t there any more.

In Falco’s prequel we meet again the old standbys: Vito Corleone, Pete Clemenza, Tessio, and a seventeen-year old Sonny. Eleven year old Michael plays little part, and Tom Hagen figures into the story only a little. We do learn how he became consiglieri. Yawn. Prohibition is over, and the Five Families are trying to adjust to the new economy, which soon leads them to go “to the mattresses” (a phrase I first learned in the original, but which was too predictable in this “prequel”). We learn how Luca Brasi (who could barely stammer “May their first child be a masculine child” — a real monster who would eventually “sleep with the fishes”) came into the family. Yawn. There is a shootout in a small Italian eatery, after which they clean up the bodies and the owner brings out more food. There are the requisite references to the size of Sonny’s schlong (one girl calls it a “monument”). Getting bored yet? Oh, and the climax? Remember the baptism scene in Godfather I, during which the members of the five families were blown away? In Godfather II, all of Michael’s enemies go down in a collage of scenes—including Michael’s brother, Fredo. In Godfather III (the worst of the three films that had absolutely nothing to do with the original novel) there was this opera which was badly in need of a singing fat lady. There’s a climactic “event” in The Family Corleone, too: a parade in which Vito and his family are walking with the mayor of New York (unlikely). During the parade, Irish thugs employed by Vito’s arch-enemy Giuseppe “Joe” Mariposa attempt to assassinate him. Yawn. Saw that one coming.

I’m sorry, but the only reason I didn’t stop reading after the “first fifty” (as is my custom when I find a book unreadable) was that I spent $14.99 for this book on Kindle (price set by the publisher). That and the fact that, never having forgotten the impression made on me by Puzo’s original and the motion picture that followed, I kept reading and hoping that maybe, just maybe, I would hear the sizzle again. All I got was another steak that wasn’t anywhere as good as I remember the first one to have been.

It’s not Falco’s fault, no more than it was the fault of Mark Winegardner’s or even of Puzo’s (who wrote The Sicilian). Since The Godfather raised the curtain on the mob of the forties and fifties, we have had a whole new crop of bad guys presented to us, like the wise guys in Goodfellas (based on Wiseguy, by Nicholas Pileggi) and of course the true sequel to The Godfather, The Sopranos. We are much more savvy about the mob following the conviction of John Gotti, the mystique is gone, and the mustache Pete’s just don’t cut it any more.

The Family Corleone is well written. The problem is, I just couldn’t get myself to care.

Rating (1/5)

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

A few chuckles and some advice for writers

Women loved him, most men hated him (especially those whose wives he bedded), but his poetry still lives in our hearts.

Lord Byron–aka, George Gordon (1788-1824)) was a man I probably wouldn’t have liked, but I always loved his poetry. I chanced upon an old copy of his masterpiece “Don Juan” (pronounced so as to rhyme with “true one”) at the Our Town Books in Jacksonville, Illinois and began re-reading it.

Byron lived at a time when men and women of intelligence communicated cleverly with rhyme, a method far superior to tweeting but no less self-serving. There was intense competition among poets for an audience, and a public eager to snap up the best of them. Byron was a favorite.

Byron’s epic poem is a satiric slant on the legend of Don Juan, the rake whose amorous adventures at once shocked and delighted the reading public. The trick to enjoying it is not to read it too seriously. When you do, you will find yourself at times laughing out loud.

Consider this tidbit from Canto II, ii: Don Juan, at the age of 16, has just been found in bed with a twenty-something woman who is married to a man of 50. After the scandal, his mother, Dona Inez, ships him out of town to continue his education. His tutors find themselves faced with a prodigy—in more ways than one:

A lad of sixteen causing a divorce
Puzzled his tutors very much, of course.

After the scandal passes, Dona Inez starts a school for young men to help them avoid the moral lapses of her son. Byron writes (Canto II, x):

The great success of Juan’s education
Spurred her to teach another generation.

Byron takes potshots at men he sees as having lesser intelligence, namely Wordsworth, Coleridge, and a lesser known poet named Robert Southey ( Canto I, ccv):

Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthy:

But Byron also has a lesson for those of us who like to think we can write. I have always said that if I couldn’t produce something that was worth people’s time and money, I shouldn’t presume to expect it. Byron apparently feels that more writers in his day—presumably some of his peers he held in low regard—should have a similar philosophy (Canto I, ccxxi):

But for the present, gentle reader! And
Still gentler purchaser! The Bard—that’s I—
Must with permission, shake you by the hand,
And so—“your humble servant, and Good-bye!”
We meet again, if we should understand
Each other; and if not, I shall not try
Your patience further than by this short sample—
‘T were well if others followed by example.

Verses taken from “Don Juan, by Lord Byron.” Edited by Leslie A. Marchand. Riverside Press, 1958

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

Ray Bradbury (1920 – June 5, 2010) “We are a democracy of readers.”

“We are a democracy of readers” Bradbury in 1995. UPI file photo.

Ray Bradbury will probably be remembered most for his 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, a book about a fireman. Not the kind who puts fires out, but the kind who burns books. But Bradbury’s fingerprints are all over our shared culture, especially if you are numbered among baby boomers who grew up watching horror and sci-fi B-movies. In fact, horror mogul Stephen King acknowledged his debt to Bradbury on his website the day after Bradbury’s death. “Ray Bradbury wrote three great novels and three hundred great stories,” King said. “One of the latter was called ‘A Sound of Thunder.’ The sound I hear today is the thunder of a giant’s footsteps fading away.”

But Bradbury was more than just a sci-fi / horror sort of guy. In second grade, I was introduced to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick when my mother took me to see the movie starring Gregory Peck and Richard Basehart: the screenplay was written by Ray Bradbury. In college, I read a novel called Dandelion Wine, written by Ray Bradbury. In 1983, I took my children to see Something Wicked This Way Comes, a movie based on a book by Ray Bradbury.  I knew him, though I never met him.

What follows is a review of Fahrenheit 451which was written for this blogsite in March of 2012 by John Paul Jaramillo, a professor at Lincoln Land Community College. I believe it is an appropriate homage to Bradbury, whose most famous novel carried a subtle warning about censorship and society and reminded us that we are a “democracy of readers,” and that “we should keep it that way.”

Fahrenheit 451 and Banning Books

Review by John Paul Jaramillo

The inspiration for Ray Bradbury’s classic novel came from a simple walk alongside a friend. He was asked by a policeman what he thought he was doing out late at night, to which he replied, I am putting one foot in front of the other. The anger from the incident motivated the young writer to create the short titled “The Pedestrian” and later more stories following a lone man simply walking in a motorized, fast paced society, which grew into his ‘dime novel’ Fahrenheit 451.

Bradbury is a visionary of the highest sort. As purely a visionary as George Orwell or Aldous Huxley. And Fahrenheit 451 is a warning, a message to Americans concerning the oppression of intellectual thought. A vision of a world where firemen—government agents—become “censors, judges, and executioners.” Their rules are simple:

1. Answer the alarm swiftly
2. Start the fire swiftly
3. Burn Everything.
4. Report back to firehouse.
5. Stand alert for other alarms.

Bradbury’s vision is of a future where intellectual thought and also critical literacy have been suppressed. It is a place where the individual lacks the literacy to engage in the democratic process, and where complex topics such as ethnic identity have been discouraged. Bradbury’s Captain Beatty lectures Montag, arguig vehemently in favor of burning books:

You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and the cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator.”

My students at the Midwest community college read these lines and argue that Bradbury is against a culture of overt political correctness and censorship, while I argue the point is much larger. Montag’s critical literacy builds through the course of the novel and the man’s fall serves as Bradbury’s example of the individual becoming aware of the greater world and the failing sense of humanity and empathy.

My students also argue that the dangers in Bradbury’s book are the past. Like Nazi fascism and Russia’s authoritarian state. But as I write this post, Mexican American students in Arizona labeling themselves librotraficante, or book traffickers, prepare to embark on a week long road trip from Houston to Tucson where they will distribute banned books from their truck. Tony Diaz, a Houston Community College professor and founder of the nonprofit Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, devised the book-toting caravan with others in response to the dissolution of the Mexican-American studies program at the Tucson Unified School District, reports Hispanic Business.com. They argue the conservative school district has engaged in semantic games in their assertion they have not banned such books as Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement by Arturo Rosales and Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire—texts that touch young Latino lives closely. These are also titles that conservative forces believe are un-American and have also banned from classrooms. Perhaps the dangers of Fahrenheit 451’s imagined world remain alive and among us no matter the government and prove the strength of Bradbury’s vision.

The wisdom of a novelist or writer is so often hype, but in Bradbury’s work I return again and again to find pleasure in the reading and pleasure in the principles on literacy. “We are a democracy of readers,” Bradbury argues in an online NEA interview, “and we should keep it that way.”

John Paul Jaramillo is an Associate Professor of English in the Arts and Humanities Department of Lincoln Land Community College. 

Stephen King falls into the rabbit hole in “11/22/63”

Stephen King’s latest book, “11/22/63” is surprising. As I began reading it, I remarked to myself that it told the story of an average guy whose life was unhappy, who then stumbled onto a sense of mission or purpose in his life, then went on to find happiness in another town with another woman. Just a normal story about normal people. Different from what I have come to expect from Stephen King.

Well, except for the part about how he steps into a time tunnel in the pantry of his friend, a dying restauranteur, and finds himself smack in the middle of 1958. There’s that.

But isn’t this about the Kennedy assassination? Yes, and No. It provides an interesting premise, but this is a story of a life. A life not unlike the lives many of us have lived, particularly those who lived through the 50s and 60s. In fact, it occurred to me that a lot might be lost on readers who were born in, say, the past 20 years. It is, on one level, a nostalgic trip back to a time when root beer tasted like root beer, teachers were dedicated to changing their students’ lives for the better, gasoline sold for 20 cents a gallon, and the music on the radio made sense to young people in love and didn’t use four letter words. It will be a strange universe to younger readers, no doubt, but one to which many of us baby boomers find ourselves visiting more often in treasured, if sometimes exaggerated and expurgated, memories. We forget that  it was also a time when “colored” people weren’t allowed to use public restrooms and were, instead, directed to the creek behind the gas station to do their duty. We prefer to focus on the poodle skirts and malt shops and the Friday night hop. Who wants to remember how awful we were to people who weren’t just like us?

As for the Kennedy assassination, who hasn’t wondered what our lives would have been like today had someone intervened on that fateful eponymic day in Dallas, Texas? Would we have gone on to lose our national integrity over that war in southeast Asia? Would we have surrendered our national identity to long-haired musicians who popularized drug use and displaced the Elivises, Dions, Sam Cookes, and the other strait-laced-by-comparison denizens of the music world (did Lee Harvey Oswald somehow lead us to Marilyn Manson)? Would Jack have left Jackie for Marilyn Monroe?  Would Bobby Kennedy have waited a few years before running for president had his brother served two terms? Would he have lived to run at a later time?

These are fascinating questions. But the book makes it clear that the law of unintended consequences makes such simple questions much more complex, that the butterfly flapping its wings across the continent can, if set off course by even the slightest breeze, bring about entirely different results. Everything involves a trade off, but the difficulty comes from being able to imagine what those might be when the possibilities are endless!

King doesn’t engage in tangential wanderings in this book, as he has sometimes tended to do in the past; he does allude to his novel IT when he finds himself in 1958 in Dallas; it becomes the basis for a book his protagonist claims to be working on as a cover for his real mission–stopping the assasination of JFK by Oswald and changing the world for the better. Or so he thinks.

But remember, this is a Stephen King novel. Will he accomplish his mission, and will the butterfly of the past be blown off course enough to send us hurtling into a future that might be even worse?

Frankly, I think this is one of the best books King has written, but then he has grown and matured and, like many of us who are growing older,he is plumbing new depths in his understanding of the world and his place in it.

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012 (originally posted December 2011)

A King to die for

We recently witnessed the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee with its fireworks and flotillas and once again we marvel at the adulation that most in England offer up to royalty. Well, Hilary Mantel’s recent novel, Bring Up the Bodies (Holt, Henry & Company, Inc, 2012) , is evidence that such fascination with things royal extends to history, and this is especially the case with the Tudors. Mantel’s novel deals with the downfall of perhaps the most storied of Henry VIII’s wives, the beautiful but mercurial Anne Boleyn.

Bring Up the Bodies is a sequel to Wolf Hall (Picador, 2010), in which we see history through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who would go on to become Henry VIII’s master secretary. Bring Up the Bodies takes place in a more compressed time period (and you don’t need to have read Wolf Hall in order to appreciate it). We witness events through the eyes of Cromwell, a man who is dedicated to King and country—right or wrong.

Anne Boleyn has been the subject of many historical accounts, novels, and motion pictures, and it seems that we can’t quite make up our minds about whether she was a witch, a whore, or an innocent victim of political intrigue at a time when one man of questionable moral character was at England’s helm.

The story is familiar by now. Henry had given England a pax Anglica, an extended period of peacetime, but his wife of twenty years, Katherine of Aragon, could not present him with a male heir. He sought to put her aside, the Pope of Rome would not permit it (for political, not moral reasons—Katherine’s nephew, Charles, was Holy Roman Emperor), so Henry broke away from Rome and made himself head of the church in England. He divorced Katherine, and married Anne Boleyn (with whom he had been consorting to one degree or another for some time). The ugliness of this whole affair is over by the time the novel begins—and good men have died for opposing the King, including Catholc bishop John Fisher and Thomas More, both of whom would be sainted by Rome. Now Anne is Queen, and all is well in the best of all possible kingdoms.

Not quite. Anne is unable to produce a son, and her meddlesomeness is wearing on not only Henry but also Cromwell, and as we soon see Cromwell is not a man to mess with. Henry is bored and frustrated and looking for a way out of this marriage because he has set his sights on another young woman, Jane Seymour. Cromwell’s job is to make things go the way Henry wants, and Anne’s days are numbered.

Actress Natalie Dormer played Anne Boleyn in Showtime’s potboiler series “The Tudors.” Image source: Flickr

I do not like Cromwell, at least the Cromwell who is the focus of Bring Up the Bodies. There is no question of his intelligence, his mastery of intrigue, and his ability to maneuver through dangerous political conversations. His ability to deal with Henry—a man whose ability to rationalize whatever behavior he chooses to engage in is incredible (somehow, he is always the victim)—explains perhaps why Cromwell was as powerful as he was. But, as the search for a way out of the marriage continues, it becomes obvious—at least in Mantel’s telling—that Cromwell is not above using the search for Anne’s lovers to settle old scores. Five men will die before Anne’s head is separated from her pretty shoulders, but why they died might surprise you.

If you ever wondered why we have a Bill of Rights in our constitution, Mantel’s rendering of the process whereby “evidence” is obtained to condemn Anne Boleyn will make you appreciate the fact. Rumor, innuendo, and forced confessions were all compiled exhaustively and what is really horrifying is that, by the time the trial took place, those charged with sending her and her “lovers” to the gallows were yawning, so accustomed had they become to senseless slaughter in the reign of their peace loving king.

One of history’s greatest mysteries is whether Anne Boleyn ever “tupped” anyone but Henry at the Tudor court. But even if she did, her death was a far greater travesty. And, if Mantel’s suggestion that 4 out of the 5 men who died did so not because of their involvement with the queen but because they had offended Cromwell, then whatever you do don’t throw out that Bill of Rights.

This is a great summer read, especially if you are inclined to the historical –or if you are inclined to lose your head over stories about the royals!

Rating (3/5)

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris