IYCRMM: Modern mysteries and a modern/medieval satire

If You Could Read My Mind: Today we review three brilliantly rendered mysteries, each deserving of our attention for different reasons. And the fourth novel is a hilarious but pithy satire set in medieval times—but all about today.

Modern mysteries

‘The Twyford Code’ by Janice Hallett

Just as crucial as the plot line for the enjoyment of this mystery novel, is it’s unique structure and form. The novel starts off with a letter from a police detective telling how he sent a professor a box of audio files, transcription of files found on a mobile phone. And what follows this “prologue,” are the files themselves—as it’s through these files that the story unfolds. It’s a labyrinthine journey into the mind of a man who was sent to prison for a crime/murder he didn’t commit and who has now created an oral history of sorts to act as the key to knowing where the stolen goods exacted during the robbery can now be found. But the tale is enmeshed in a parallel story that goes all the way back to this fiendish ex-con’s childhood.

In this narrative strand, there’s a teacher of Remedial English named Miss Iles, who was a beacon of inspiration to her small class but who seems to have disappeared during an unauthorized field trip. If anything, you will admire this novel for the adroit manner in which Hallett has reinvented the mystery novel, and deserves being spoken about as some modern-day Agatha Christie. It’s a convoluted read, with clues, MacGuffins, and false leads literally dumped on our laps, and we’re asked to make educated guesses as to where it’s all leading to. The end chapters devoted to the reveal are magical, as we can look back and see just how intricately constructed and designed this novel has been. Truly engrossing.

‘The Maid’ by Nita Prose

In her very first novel, Nita Prose makes an excellent case for creating her own locked-room mystery and gifting us with a central character who’s both a constant frustration, yet one we love and won’t forget easily. Molly is a chambermaid in the posh Regency Grand Hotel. She’s kind of simple, doesn’t understand nuance, sarcasm, or humor—and has been somewhat lost ever since her grandmother, who raised her, passed away. She takes great pride in her work, as it’s something she’s quite good at, reveling in it’s routine, and welcoming the anonymity it provides. Of course she’s both loved and made fun of by her co-workers. There’s Mr. Preston, the amiable doorman, and her haughty immediate boss, Cheryl. Mr. Snow is the manager. And then there’s Rodney, the barman, who she thinks likes her.

The mystery revolves around Molly doing her regular rounds and cleaning the suite of a rich, long-staying guest named Mr. Black. Mr. Black’s second wife is a trophy wife named Giselle, and Molly has a warm, cordial relationship with Giselle. The mystery begins with Molly discovering the dead body of Mr. Black. The manner in which the police turn Molly into a prime suspect on account of the way she answers and seems to lack the right emotions or reactions upon encountering a corpse. As the room was discovered in a mess, she proceeded to clean up while waiting for the police to arrive, thereby not just contaminating but even eradicating the crime scene. There’s a wonderful deus ex machina in the form of the defense lawyer, Charlotte, and I’ll leave you to discover why she’s a godsend. Wonderful first novel, and gripping read.

Medieval yet modern

‘The Anomaly’ by Hervé Le Tellier

With a premise that comes straight out of “The Twilight Zone” or Netflix’s “Manifest,” one could dismiss this novel as one that’s ploughing familiar territory—and an abused one, at that. But that would be a grave mistake, as there’s definitely something different to Hervé Lè Tellier’s story, and how he turns this Goncourt Prize winner into a meditation about identity, religion, and about much of what we take for granted in our world that keeps us assured and unchallenged in our definitions of reality and existence. Yes, it starts off with an Air France flight experiencing unusual turbulence on its Paris to New York flight, such that when the pilot asks for clearance to land, he’s asked to proceed to a military hangar in New Jersey.

It would seem that three months earlier, the same flight, with the same crew and two hundred-something passenger manifest, had landed at JFK. And so what Lè Tellier puts on the table is an intriguing doppelgänger mystery. It’s not just this flight that was presumed lost—it’s that the flight had already landed, and there are now two sets of the same people in existence. He takes us into the lives of several of the passengers and, of course, we’re waiting for that moment when they encounter their “other” selves. Some can handle it, others make a poor case. I love how what’s also explored are the reactions of people to this “anomaly.” Most telling are the different religions and how they address the issue staring them in the face. A deep novel that belies its scifi premise.

‘The Great Pockes’ by R. B. Taylor

Here’s a satire that smartly comes in the form of historical fiction, but whose intent and target is clear from the get go. Set during the reign of Henry VII, it’s a story that has much to do with courtly intrigue, with the common folk trying to make ends meet, and with a London that’s as dirty, unsanitary, and dangerous as we would expect it to be during this post-Black plague era. When were introduced to Henry, he’s beset by several problems that actually existed during his reign: Tax was a big burden and Henry’s subjects were not happy, the nobles were constantly plotting his overthrow, and his claim to the throne was quite shaky, with the French, Scottish, and rival lords ready to usurp his reign.

So far, it’s a pretty straightforward history lesson, right? But Taylor then introduces a new epidemic, one that could well be spread by fornicating. Roger Bacon, mere surgeon and not an exalted physician, wants to find the cause of the disease, while the physicians claim it is nothing, and the nobles are only worried about how it crimps their lifestyle, and the King’s advisors are fearful what it’ll do to commerce and business... and the collecting of more taxes. At this point, the story closely parallels our COVID-world, and how the government can’t agree, how science is disregarded, and how the people are easily swayed from one opinion to another, ready to accept and live by fake news and opinions that have no scientific basis. Hilarious in parts!