Wednesday, 21 January 2009

“Death on the Holy Mountain”, David Dickinson

The Lord Francis Powerscourt series of mysteries, largely set in Victorian/Edwardian Britain, fall comfortably into the arena of entertaining light hearted silliness. In general they don't take themselves too seriously, have an engaging cast of characters and an ability to make the reader interested. Perhaps the key strength of the series is that it covers a period that lends itself to over pompous mawkishness with a refreshing tone of humour. Be it a rainy afternoon in London, or in one engaging case, a shady deck on a Greek ferry (with “Goodnight Sweet Prince”) a Dickinson novel can generally be relied on to while away the hours in an eminently pleasurable manner; “Death on the Holy Mountain” broadly adheres to these criteria, if at times becoming a touch too bedded into the author's comprehensive background research.

The central character, Powerscourt, is a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and the series has visited Ireland in the past, but “Death on the Holy Mountain” is the first to set itself primarily there. The Ireland of the period should offer plentiful raw materials for Dickinson to work with, and he draws on many of the obvious candidates such as the faded glory of the rural Protestant nobility, the role of the church in the struggle for independence, and the growing Irish cultural movements. He does, however work on contextualising all of this a touch too much. Great swathes of text devoted to the death of Parnell and his funeral, with a very tangential link to the core plot, and while interesting, serve more to slow down Dickinson's usual pace. Perhaps it's my Irish upbringing suffused with the Irish history of the period, but I suspect leaving some of the historical narrative on the research shelf would have benefitted the book.

The Powerscourt series generally have art and crime related to art as a theme, and “Death on the Holy Mountain” conforms to this, with a series of thefts of ancestral portraits. I do worry however that the threat posed by this lacks a serious level of menace. It doesn't get too much in the way of the story, and reinforces the point that you actively shouldn't overanalyse the plots of these books.

Some of the subplots are, a touch disappointingly, left hanging, in particular a rather engaging adulterous affair conducted by two of the more minor protagonists lacks a satisfactory conclusion. Perhaps in part this helps show the effectiveness of the techniques of 'latent suasion' used in the Irish independence struggle, but stylistically the absence of any real closure in this area disappoints.

None of this should give the impression that this is anything other than a highly entertaining and pleasurable read. The Powerscourt series isn't high literature, but has no pretensions to be so, and is so much the better for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment