Sunday, July 18, 2010

English Country House Mysteries Rise Again: Dolores Gordon-Smith, A HUNDRED THOUSAND DRAGONS

If you haven't yet seen the film "Lawrence of Arabia" in the Peter O'Toole incarnation, don't read this yet -- go rent the film first.

Because Dolores Gordon-Smith's take on postwar England and its wounded heroes does much more than bring Lord Peter Wimsey out of the closet and into the person of aviator Jack Haldean. In this fourth Haldean mystery, A HUNDRED THOUSAND DRAGONS, Gordon-Smith also re-writes the poignant and magnificent historical myth of Lawrence that O'Toole portrayed so brilliantly.

Haldean isn't crippled by Lawrence's inability to bond with the people he was born among. His good friend Arthur Stanton, about to marry Jack's cousin Isabelle, knows something of what the Great War has broken in Jack. And as the three friends attempt to untangle a murder in an English country house, they find that there are good reasons to mistrust visitors with German accents, if they happen to also be unscrupulous, violent, and manipulative. And when the criminal types decide to manipulate the Arabs as well, Jack is caught in the midst of exactly the sort of situation a man with his internal scars ought to avoid.

Meticulous and logical, you can't say Jack rushes in where angels fear to tread. Even when invited to theorize by police Superintendent (and Jack's friend) Ashley, Haldean stays calm and measured:
Jack paused to arrange his thoughts. "I think there was a murder," he said eventually. "I think the murderer concealed the body under a rug [blanket] and drive to the Hammer Valley. I think the murderer positioned the car against a tree and subsequently set fire to it."
And when Ashley invites him to go further and put a name to the criminal, Jack makes it clear that the evidence only supports a guess at this point. He's an ideal sleuth because he doesn't get ahead of the facts of the case.

Yet the trembling of Jack's hands betrays his agitation, and for him to take on the challenges of flying a small plane and confronting well-armed evil will cost him dearly.

Gordon-Smith spins a good tale that's perfect vacation reading: drenched in period costume and language, authentically exotic at times, and very, very English in its pacing and heroism. Well done, indeed; here's a series to gather and set on the shelf for those long winter afternoons, as well as during this milder season's rainy interruptions to outdoor adventures.

Oh yes, wondering about those "hundred thousand dragons"? Well, Jack's thinking poetry; after all, the mastermind he's after is self-styled "Ozymandias," that dreaded "king of kings" of the "antique lands." And in fact, it's through poetry of a sort that he figures out the most significant clues.

PS: Here is my favorite photo of Dolores Gordon-Smith. And I really like her blog!

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