One by one the candles in the big house were extinguished. Outside the trees whispered anew, their branches stirred by a soft breeze that bore with it the promise of more rain.
Once more Guy de Montpellier had gone to London to look for Selene, his lady of songs, and flowers, and stars. And each night he went, a woman died.
It's been over two months since I wrote a wholly new review post here at EA. In many ways, Elizabeth Redfern's historical potboiler The Music of the Spheres (2001) is a capricious choice with which to end the drought, given that I didn't really like it very much. But it strikes me, as I write this, that it should make for an interesting companion piece to what I plan to write about later this week: Temeraire, Naomi Novik's giddily enjoyable fantasy about Napoleonic dragons.
If Temeraire does, essentially, no more or less than we might expect given the type of story it is (well, okay, the undertones of dragon/human slash were one thing I didn't see coming...), but manages to do it wonderfully well, The Music of the Spheres is a masterclass in muddle: a Jack the Ripper-lite serial killer tale in the garb of something more mannered and metaphysical. The setting is late eighteenth-century London - very much to my taste, which is why I picked it up - and the plot takes in astronomy, bureaucratic spies, murder mystery, and refugees from Revolutionary France. Our protagonist is one Jonathan Absey, a Home Office official whose job it is to secretly monitor mail sent between England and France. In the paranoid climate of the 1790s, the British government does not trust the refugees, both for the effects they might have on homegrown radicals and for where their loyalties might truly lie:
"The magistrates say they have these places under surveillance; but it seems to me that too many refugees of most dubious allegiance are congregating in some of these inns. They lament their exile, and their state of poverty; but my guess is that some of them are not what they seem - they're primed with good French gold, gold of the kind that the wretched people of their own country never see: coins that fly as if by some witchery across the sea, from the secret vaults of Paris to London itself. Gold to buy secrets. I guarantee, Absey - find yourself a quantity of these golden coins, these louis d'or of the Republic, and you will have found a spy. These refugees are sending back vital knowledge of our military plans in God knows what diabolical ways, straight to their heathen masters in Paris; and we look at letters."
Each chapter is headed by a snatch of poetry or an excerpt of political theory, which - here is where my doubts began to set in - range from the stunningly obvious (Blake on the dehumanising vicissitudes of London life as a prelude to scenes of a suitably-buxom and ill-used tavern wench in the wrong place at the wrong time) to the downright out of place (Johns Locke and Milton were important writers, yes, but in entirely the wrong century, and their inclusion just smacks of 'anything early modern will do').
If all this creates an impression that the book is not nearly as thoughtful as its presentation would suggest, the rest of the execution bears it out. The prose is fine, but occasionally clunky in its efforts to sound formal and of the time, and prone to overstatement and cliche (someone's fair hair is described as being like "spun gold", fear is compared to "cold fingers", etc.). This, for example - hardly the most subtle introduction of Plot Significant Information ever - is quite representative:
An innocent enough occupation, indeed, and yet it was one which for Jonathan held unwelcome associations. He happened to have a half-brother, called Alexander Wilmot, who loved to watch the stars. But Alexander had other, less acceptable preoccupations, and all in all he had brought Jonathan nothing but trouble.
Guy, whom we met up in the header quote, seems to be particularly guilty of overwrought phrasings in his personal writings, and while I realise the character is not firing on all cylinders, I couldn't help but roll my eyes at passages like, "Ah, the bright stars of the night. Almost they obliterate the clear white pain. Yet still two-faced Medusa laughs from behind the clouds, demanding homage. Homage, Medusa, or a sword, a blade sharper than death itself." Things like a character who is blindfolded at the time observing "'Yes,' nodded Ralph, his scarred face dark with anguish" really ought to have been picked up by an editor.
We also get treated to a beautiful example of that archetypal lazy thriller plot device, whereby the scheming villain delivers carefully vague indications of his villainous scheming From The Shadows (his identity remaining plot-conveniently masked throughout the scene, despite the viewpoint character both knowing who he is and conversing with him):
"I did," said Crawford quickly, "in exactly the way you suggested. He has been thoroughly discredited, sir. No one will ever listen to anything he says again. [...] But Absey is stubborn. He's still asking questions."
"He has no actual proof of anything, though? You've taken care of that?"
"He has blundered dangerously close to the truth on more than one occasion. But I think I've dealt with almost everything..."
The man leaned forward, his eyes narrowed. "Almost?"
"There is a girl, a flower seller. She is a crucial witness."
Then the man said, "Deal with her."
The story itself, stripped of its historical trappings, is really nothing we haven't seen before, and by the end the whole thing collapses into the sort of risible Dead Bodies Everywhere melodrama that really only works in The Duchess of Malfi. Or Hamlet. Just. After a thorough sexualisation of a major female character's death* (lingering descriptions of her white throat being unwittingly offered up and then throttled, etc.) that, of course, is not present in the men's murders, the villain is, of course, impassive and, well, evil:
"You have killed them all," whispered Alexander. [...]
"All of them," [he] agreed. There was still no flicker of emotion on his beautiful face. "Now it's your turn, master mouse. Killing you would be a pleasure."
[* Not entirely surprisingly, the women herein are all either angels or whores, and any woman who is in any way a sexual being dies as a result of it. I'm sure this was intended as a portrait of the time and of what women had to do to survive, but really: a) 'what women had to do to survive' would be more convincing if some women actually, you know, survived, and b) how hard would it have been to give, say, Abney's wife a bigger role and more complex characterisation?]
Still, there is some excellent characterisation to combat the drag factor of the plot: Abney is a largely dislikeable man, but - vitally - he is interesting. He is haunted by the murder of his daughter, who may have fallen victim to the same killer who does for our buxom tavern wench in the Blake-headed chapter, but whose death was never properly investigated because the circumstances led her to be deemed just another whore. Abney is very convincingly both a man of his time and a man suffering considerably from frustrated grief and repression (and, as things progress, from a lack of sleep and physical punishment on a film noir level). Even when he treats everyone around him abominably, and gradually jettisons all reader sympathy, it's hard to look away from him, or to stop rooting for him. His sensitive astronomer of a brother, Alexander, also works well, even if he seems to have been written as gay primarily to give him an extra layer of vulnerability in these harsh times.
Elements of the period are used very nicely: given the mood of intense political paranoia and repression (with 'national security' concerns leading to kneejerk reactions against reformers and radicals, for neither the first nor the last time), this is an inspired setting for a murder mystery/conspiracy in which. Redfern evokes the atmosphere, and the institutional indifference to individual suffering, very well. I found the astronomical speculations in which certain characters were involved to be fascinating, a neat insight into both the individuals concerned and (aspects of) the contemporary worldview - that wonderful mixture of superstition and rationalism, fatalism and infectious curiosity:
All across Europe, ever since Herschel's discovery, astronomers had been searching the skies for another planet, united in the belief that if an undiscovered heavenly body did exist, then it had to lie in the disproportionately large gap between Mars and Jupiter. [...] [T]he mean distances of the planets from the Sun formed a remarkable numerical sequence, with one number in that sequence conspicuously missing in the gap between Mars and Jupiter.
Sadly, the novel doesn't really do anything with this, other than establish it and use it as an excuse for Alexander to get embroiled in exile household of the de Montpelliers.
File under interesting but flawed, I think; despite some interesting touches, my overriding impression by the end was of a lurid sex-and-death potboiler thriller (which isn't, really, particularly explicit for all its characters' rhetoric of depravity) in wigs and corsets. Disappointing.