THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER
By Mary Lawrence
Kensington Books, 2015
290 pages, $15.00
The city of London in 1543 is a teeming stinkhole of filth and pestilence, death and debauchery, hunger and abuse, where people care little for each other and look out only for themselves. Medicine is superstitious quackery and public health is nonexistent. And in this diseased soup of unwashed humanity, Bianca Goddard plies her knowledge of herbs, potions and tinctures as a purveyor of “Medicinals and Physickes.”
“The Alchemist’s Daughter” is the debut novel by Limington author Mary Lawrence, the first book in the planned Bianca Goddard mystery series set in 16th century Tudor England. And Lawrence proves herself to be an excellent storyteller with this grim tale of murder, mayhem and medicine.
The murder mystery is a solid plot, but best is Lawrence’s vivid, graphic portrayal of London’s poverty and plague, the cramped alleys and lanes jammed with people and filled with human waste, offal and rats feeding on everything.
Bianca creates her strange medicinals in a filthy room in London’s squalid Southwark slum, her reputation ruined by her alchemist father’s treason against the king. When her friend, Jolyn, dies horribly in Bianca’s room, she is accused of murder. To deny the hangman, Bianca must figure out what killed Jolyn and why, and her investigation leads to Jolyn’s wealthy, arrogant suitor, an unsavory home for single women, a ship full of dead bodies and a poxed criminal eager to steal or kill for a coin.
Bianca is aided by an adoring silversmith apprentice and a randy street vendor, but the constable and hangman are close behind, everything observed by the disgusting Rat Man of the Thames. This is a gritty, authentic tale, but not for the squeamish.
Lawrence joins the good company of C.J. Sansom and his 16th-century London mystery series featuring hunchback English lawyer Matthew Shardlake.
REAL POLITICAL TALES: SHORT STORIES BY A VETERAN POLITICIAN
By Neil Rolde
Polar Bear & Company, 2014
175 pages, $12.95
Folks have long suspected that politics is just bad theater, and now award-winning author Neil Rolde proves it.
Rolde is a respected public servant and former state legislator who has written a dozen nonfiction books and one intriguing political novel, “O. Murray Carr.” This is a collection of 10 short stories, all fiction, but based on Rolde’s own political experience in state government. His well-crafted writing always entertains and educates, and this collection certainly does both.
However, if Rolde thought these stories would make readers feel all warm and fuzzy about politics and politicians, he may be disappointed. Instead, he reveals just how petty, self-serving and officious politicians can be, who focus more on power than on people.
The stories describe the political process of state government, in the house and senate, the real power of committees and lobbyists, campaigning, debating opponents and who really answers all those letters to the governor.
“The Real Legislative Process” tells how an elderly freshman representative is introduced to the nasty world of political backstabbing and deceitful promises, and how slick, oily lobbyists can manipulate legislators. In “The Liberal” a legislator finally understands how procedural rules are skillfully used to promote or kill a bill, and why open discussions and debates are merely window-dressing (decisions are often already made beforehand, behind closed doors). One of the best stories, “Fishman,” explains the Electoral College and how state delegates are selected.
Other stories poke fun at stuffy veteran career politicians, tell of hilarious pranks that often backfire, how politicians expertly use the media to promote themselves or embarrass their opponents and how arm-twisting, veiled threats and payback deals produce results in a tight vote.
The unstated message here might be: When a politician says “No problem,” he means for him.
Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.