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Author Topic: Barbara Cleverly  (Read 8157 times)

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Barbara Cleverly
« on: November 02, 2006, 02:08:22 PM »

Nothing in this section, so I'll start something.

Barbara Cleverly writes a series set in India in the 1920s. I jumped on the first one because I love books about the British Raj.  It was a disappointment.  Still she got and gets a lot of buzz, so I tried # 4 yesterday and today; all in all I dipped into it about 5 times and put it down again after a few pages each time.
It's slow.  Excruciatingly slow. With an enormous mass of detail and long-winded conversations.  I finally gave up when the protagonist walked into a room where a minor character was polishing a gun and I had to read three pages of dialogue concerning detail on that particular weapon, complete with description of case, manufacturer's engraved name, number of bullets, anecdotes about its use and usefulness, yet didn't discover until the end that this gun apparently fit into a man's pocket. The purpose of all this escaped me, but, by golly, Ms. Cleverly has made use of every last note of her research on the subject.

There should be some judgment applied to how much historical detail is helpful and how much simply bogs down the story. Even given the fact that some historical mystery fans like a lot of this stuff, it invariably strains the dialogue and narrative, especially when the item turns out to be irrelevant to the story.

And that reminds me of a discussion elsewhere on whether Sansom was wrong by referring to the time of day as 6:30 instead of by canonical hours. Once it was settled that in the late 16th century clocks and bells marked the hours and half hours, one writer still insisted that for the reader's benefit, Sansom should have included an explanation of how they told time -- a sort of infodump for the historically challenged.



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Re: Barbara Cleverly
« Reply #1 on: November 03, 2006, 01:33:47 PM »


I owe something of a debt to Barbara Cleverly since her success was partly what inspired me to try a novel instead of sticking to relatively safe havens of short stories and non-fiction articles.  Oddly, it was my not being particularly impressed by her first novel, like you, that I found inspiring.

That book, The Last Kashmiri Rose, was a finalist for the CWA's Debut Dagger award, and, though it didn't win, it went on to be published.  When I read it, I found the modus operandi of the villain hard to swallow. I also found the sub-plot of a sexy young wife trying to seduce the hero, high-ranking cop Joe Sandilands on temporary assignment from Scotland Yard, into impregnating her profoundly discomfiting.  Other aspects of the writing, particularly the dialog, were unimpressive.  By the time I read it, it was announced that the third novel in the Sandilands series, The Damascened Blade had won a Dagger award.  I figured I could do at least as well as she did, and started on An Obscure Grave.  I haven't equalled her feat.  Although I was a Debut Dagger finalist, too, my book is still unpublished, and I have yet to win a Dagger in any other category.

Despite my being largely unimpressed with Rose, however,  I liked the setting and historical background enough to try the second, Ragtime in Simla, which I found enough of an improvement to encourage me to try Blade, which, as I said, won the Ellis Peters Memorial Dagger for Best Historical Mystery, which I enjoyed quite a bit.

Still, there are things to criticize.  For one thing she gets some of the police procedure (and in this context, this means she is getting some of the historical detail) wrong.

Joe Sandilands, who is described as being in his early 30's, and a veteran of four years of trench warfare, is said to be a commander in the London Metropolitan Police.

Here's the thing.  A commander, a title unique to the Met and not used, as far as I know, in any other British force, is a very high-ranking position at Scotland Yard, ranking between a chief superintendent and an assistant commissioner.  To put it in terms those who are unfamiliar with the UK's police hierarchical structure can understand, a commander is roughly equivalent to a one-star general in the military.  In fact, the rank insignia of a commander in the Yard is identical to that worn by a brigadier in the British Army.  The idea that a man barely 30, particularly one whose police career was curtailed by four years of military duty during the Great War, could have attained this lofty rank, no matter how fast a track he was on, is hard to swallow.

More to the point, however, the rank didn't even exist in the 1920's. It wasn't instituted until after WW2.  And when it was introduced, the Commander of CID was designated as the operational head of the Met's entire Criminal Investigation Department, answering only to the Assistant Commissioner for Crime (the administrative head of CID).  In other words, roughly equivalent to the Chief of Detectives in the police force of a major US city.  This is no longer the case as the Met has continued to expand and reorganize, and there are now several CID officers holding the rank instead of just one, but, just the same, a CID commander still wears a really heavy brass hat.  Although at this time, it was common for the Yard to send out officers to assist provincial and Commonwealth (or was it Imperial in those days?) forces on difficult cases, it's highly unlikely that such a high-ranking officer would be loaned to the Indian Police for such an extended period of time.  Who'd be running things back home while young Joe was tearing around the Indian countryside playing master sleuth?  She should have made Sandilands some kind of middle-management drudge like an inspector or chief inspector.  Certainly no higher than a superintendent.

I'd have bought it a little easier if Sandilands had been a member of the Indian police instead of a loan-out from the "Mother Country" showing the dip colonials how it's supposed to be done.   Still the most recent two books in the series have been set, respectively, in London and France, so I suppose she didn't want to tie her character down to the Raj.

Ms. Cleverly told me (I met her at the 2004 Dagger luncheon; she turned out to be at the table next to mine and was a lovely lady, very easy to talk to) that she wrote the Sandilands books partly because she found the advances in police work, post-WW1, so fascinating and wanted to depict those advances in her fiction, so I think it's legitimate to point out errors in her depiction of police work, though I may be one of the few on this list who'd even notice.

Still, let me reiterate.  I really enjoyed Blade, and had been looking forward to book four, The Palace Tiger.  Your review give me pause, though.  Was the improvement in Ragtime and Blade temporary?

Thanks for getting this category started, Ingrid.
« Last Edit: March 09, 2007, 11:27:58 AM by JIM DOHERTY »


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Re: Barbara Cleverly
« Reply #2 on: November 03, 2006, 05:36:16 PM »

You're welcome, Jim.  I'll probably post now and then here, though I read very little historical fiction.  Most of it makes me antsy.

I can't say I'm at all surprised she got the police rank wrong, though I paid no attention to it at the time. As I said, I was fascinated by the British military system in India shortly before the collapse of the Raj. The plot of THE LAST KASHMIRI ROSE was stupid, but I suspect I'm the only one who noticed she gave away the killer's identity in the middle of the book in the way Sandilands interviewed the man.  I also disliked the affair which did nothing to make the protagonist more attractive. The characters were mostly stock characters. Anyway, that is the only one I read prior to THE PALACE TIGER. I probably won't bother again.

It does make you wonder about awards.

Ingrid (waiting to get hold of the Sansom book: now there's a good historical mystery writer).
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