Monday, April 14, 2008

The Murders of Richard III, by Elizabeth Peters

Another audio book by the prolific writer of the Amelia Peabody series. This one is set in the present day--or the time that was present when the book was written in 1975--and features a different detective. Jacqueline Kirby is a middle-aged reference librarian from the US, who is visiting London and meets up with her old friend Thomas, who is a Ricardian--a person who believes that the real Richard III was not the monster depicted by Sir Thomas Moore and William Shakespeare, but was instead a decent and honorable king unfairly slandered by the Tudors who defeated him at Bosworth Field in 1485.

History, as we know, is written by the winners, and the legend of the malevolent crook-backed king persists to this day. The most heinous of his alleged crimes is the murder of the two young princes in the Tower of London, his nephews Edward V and the Duke of York, who were 12 and 10 at the time they disappeared. Thomas tells Jacqueline that a letter has appeared that seems to clear Richard of his crimes, and it is to be reviewed by his Ricardian Society over the weekend, and then revealed to the press on Sunday. Would she please join him at the house party and authenticate the document?

Admittedly, this is a hard book to get through for a light read. Jacqueline goes to the house party, which in good old Agatha Christie fashion has one each of everybody staying the weekend: the wealthy homeowner, the enormous and overbearing dowager, the scrawny drunken lady novelist, the army colonel recently back from the Middle East, the ingenue and her fiancee, the Harley Street doctor, and the obnoxious small boy. This crew has gathered for the weekend and each has adopted the persona of a character from Ricardian history. The story gets complicated at this point, since so many of the characters from this time have the same names, and some of those names overlap with the names of the people playing those characters. It becomes no small feat to remember who is whom, both their contemporary selves and their assumed roles.

Things begin to get ghoulish as a series of "pranks" occur. One character, portraying Richard's brother George, the Duke of Clarence, is hit over the head and comes to bound and stuffed into an empty wine barrel--mimicking the alleged murder of the duke in a "butt of malmsey." Another guest, portraying the unfortunate Duke of Buckingham (who was beheaded by Richard) is found unconscious on the floor, his head covered by a cloth the color of the carpet and a mannequin head placed some distance away.

Various characters are drugged, poisoned, and before long it becomes apparent that pranks are being pulled by an insider. Who? and why? Are these recreations of the murders of Richard III supposed to be funny, or are they going to turn fatal?

Personally, as a fan of the era, I enjoyed the role playing by the characters, as well as the earnest discussions about the relative morality of Richard III versus Henry VII. Heavily salted with what I can only assume is real historical scholarship, the book offers a pleasant history lesson about a period that is not well known. It also ably adapts the conventions of Agatha Christie to a more skeptical age: why would so many different people gather at a country home, and why would they not leave as soon as things got grisly? And who, except a psychopath, would try to kill people according to a theme?

Certainly, the characters are paper thin, and I found them difficult to keep them distinct from each other. Which one was the doctor? Or was he the military man? confusion can be distracting. On the other hand, Peters delivered some real chills, as well as an interesting exploration of the end of the Wars of the Roses.

Peters acknowledges Josephine Tey's book "The Daughter of Time," which is an altogether better book on the subject of Richard III's innocence, but if you have the time, why not read them both?

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