RogerBW's Blog

Flowers Stained With Moonlight, Catherine Shaw 16 April 2017

2005 historical epistolary mystery, second of Shaw's series. In 1892, a young woman's much older husband has been murdered; her mother brings in Vanessa Duncan to try to get the answers and avoid scandal before the police arrest the widow.

The first book integrated its murder mystery with the three-body problem, which provided both motivation and analogy. Here Fermat's Last Theorem is discussed briefly, but it's only very tangentially significant to the plot; it mostly provides background, and another quest that the modern reader knows is hopeless because the problem won't be solved for another century.

A more serious problem, though, is the title, from a poem by Lord Alfred Douglas (part of it conveniently given as an epigraph). If you know who Douglas was or what the poem is about, you will wonder why it's there; hints in the book reinforce the idea that you might get from that, and since our heroine-narrator is entirely blind to the concept it makes her look stupid not to have thought of it (whether or not it's actually relevant to the solution of the mystery). Without the poem (and the title), the book would not have engendered the feelings of frustration that it does.

Shaw persists in writing this young Victorian lady (and everyone else) in American, most grievously with a reporter who has "a brother-in-law in the police force, in homicide, as a matter of fact". I'm not sure that even American police forces had a homicide division in the 1890s, and certainly no British one did; it might just possibly have had a murder squad, though even this is unlikely. Infelicities of language like this throw one out of the story, and are completely unnecessary; Shaw could just as easily have written "who's working on this murder".

The epistolary style mostly works well, only occasionally tripping up (when Vanessa writes to her sister to talk about the visit she has just made to said sister). Vanessa remains an interesting viewpoint character, and her fiancé is well-written as someone supporting her investigations but also conscious of social considerations, but the mystery itself is relatively simple and not perhaps worth the bulk of words that it takes to get to a solution – especially when the key revelation is done not in person but via a concealed document that Vanessa finds essentially by chance at the narratively appropriate moment.

Occasionally annoying, and light when it isn't annoying, but there's still some enjoyment to be had. Followed by The Library Paradox.

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Previous in series: The Three Body Problem | Series: Cambridge Mysteries | Next in series: The Library Paradox

  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 02:51pm on 17 April 2017

    I am currently suffering with a fantasy part of which is set in the London of George III. (Or at least a London with a George III in it.)

    People say 'Okay' and similar things anachronistic things a lot. I feel my linguistics and philology tutor rotate in his grave a little.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:20pm on 17 April 2017

    To be fair to the authors, I think there are two separate things going on here; some modernisation of language is probably essential for a modern audience (contrast the use of language by e.g. Jane Austen with that by Georgette Heyer), but I think it's possible to draw a line between that kind of "covert" modernisation and the sort of blatant neologism or dialect that will throw a reader out of the story.

    Of course Americans don't necessarily realise that they're committing Americanisms, which is one reason Americans writing books set in England should consult a native speaker. My rates are reasonable.

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