When the weather starts to turn cold, it seems like perfect time to start enjoying a well-written thriller or two. To me, one of the happiest ways to spend an afternoon is to bundle up on the sofa, have a pot of tea nearby and settle in with a book or two. A new line of mysteries has been appearing in my book catalogues lately, under the tagline of 'Felony and Mayhem,' and what titles I have read from the series have been pretty good. So far.
That is, until I reached The Library Paradox, by Catherine Shaw.
Told through the eyes of Vanessa Weathrburn, in the form of her journal, this story combines quite a few elements and plotlines, with a mathematical puzzle at the center. A noted professor at King's College in London has been murdered. The body and weapon, however, were in the man's private study - and that was locked from the inside. So who murdered Ralston?
As the story unfolds, and Vanessa uncovers the man's associates and students, it appears that there were quite a few people who wouldn't have minded seeing Professor Ralston dead. For the professor had been assembling and writing about anti-Semitism, and being a very vocal one at that. Most of all, he appears to have been researching the canard of 'blood-libel' - the particularly disgusting notion that blood from Christian children was needed to bake the matzah consumed at Passover. Among his papers Vanessa finds a list of events that chronicled deaths of children, and the resulting violence against Jewish communities. At the bottom of the list, and underlined, is a recent murder - that of James Wilson, a young child who was found with his throat cut.
Two men from London's Jewish community were tried for the crime, with one of them being hanged, and the other sent to prison. Now the survivor is about to be released from prison, and Vanessa wonders if Ralston had anything to do with the sending of the Gad brothers to their fates. Along the way, she finds that Ralston may have been involved in another anti-Semitic case - this time in France, and that of Alfred Dreyfuss, an officer in the French army who was disgraced and imprisoned on Devil''s Island but maintains that he is innocent of treason and betraying his country.
To solve the murder, Vanessa has to thread her way through a London society that expects women to be quiet, and staying at home, not trying to find a killer. She also has to work her way through London's Jewish community, which views her with suspicion and fear that the outside world may turn on them for Professor Ralston's death.
I have very mixed emotions about this book. I enjoy a good historical mystery, and there is very little historical fiction out there that has Judaism as an essential plot to the story. And while Vanessa spends an awful lot of time mooning over being separated from her children during the story, and engaging in long conversations that eventually have nothing at the center of them, she's still an engaging and somewhat interesting character.
But there are some problems with this rather overburdened novel. In addition to the murder, the Dreyfuss case, and the theme of anti-Semitism, Shaw adds in a problem that is based on logic - the Library Paradox, where a dead man is apparently murdered in a room that can only be accessed from the inside. Yes, it's a puzzle to be found in mathematical puzzles, and was developed by Bertrand Russell. The problem in the novel is that once the reader gets through the first fifty or so pages, we know how Professor Ralston dies, if the reader is paying close enough attention. What made it worse was having to wade through the other two hundred and fifty pages of dense prose to find out that I was right. Not only that, but the story itself drags and plods along for nearly two hundred pages before the action starts to pick up and the meandering stops.
Another historical fact is that of Alfred Dreyfuss, a judicial case that captured attention worldwide, and spurred anti-Semitic hatred for decades. It's one of the uglier stories out of European history, and Shaw spends pages getting into such violence and unreason. So too with the blood-libel, and frankly, that made me sick at heart (and to my stomach) to read. While she does use Judaism somewhat effectively here, it would have been nice to see her use something else as a cornerstone of her story. The rhetoric used was inflammatory, and downright hateful, and I was ready to throw the book through the wall and give up on it then and there.
Sadly, if the author had less two dimensional characters, and had perhaps decided to keep the anti-Semitism down to a dull roar instead of a howling, I might have found this to be more enjoyable. I enjoy mathematical problems, and a book involving Jewish characters usually will capture my attention. But this mystery was predictable and over-wrought, and I doubt that I will pick up another novel by Catherine Shaw in the future.
This appears to be part of an ongoing series of mysteries: The Three Body Problem and Flowers Stained by Moonlight. Given that I wasn't too happy with this one, I doubt that I will bother with the other two books in the series. That's too bad, as it does look as though Shaw is familiar with the Victorian period, and especially with mathematical quandaries, but I found myself loosing interest in Vanessa and her story throughout the book.
At best, it's a three star read. It's average, and I only recommend it for those who really enjoy this sort of thing. Somewhat recommended.