Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I Read Books: India Black

I Review The Book

India Black by Carol K Carr is an adventure novel set in 1876. The eponymous protagonist, India Black, is the madam of a brothel who finds herself caught up in an espionage plot (hence the series name, Madam of Espionage).

It is fast paced and amusing. Several historical characters turn up showing slightly more disreputable faces than the history books tend to emphasise. This is not unexpected in a plot that revolves around ridiculous political skulduggery, 19th century European politics at the down-and-dirty level and also prostitutes. The book declares it is not that sort of prostitute's memoir, although it does get quite bawdy (mostly by implication and the strategic use of telling details).

There's quite a lot of people getting captured and tied up, a briefcase of secrets to keep out of the hands of various parties (that turn out to not be quite as vital as might be thought) and some actual history going on if that's what you want. India Black has a distinctive voice; witty, a little world-weary, cynical and self-interested, and wanting just a bit to show these fine gentlemen that she may be a woman and a prostitute, but she can get the job done.

Period hats and clothes are described appropriately, but are not the main focus of the novel.

I have, of course, some nits to pick, most of which are quite unfair. If you're not interested, then skip to the end where I have my recommendation.

I Pick Nits

It is, of course, not written in actual Mid-Victorian English, and thank goodness for that. Mostly the vocabulary, phrasing and slang are suitable, using words and phrases appropriate to the period but in a streamlined 21st century manner. Only once was I jarred out of the book by a poor choice of word: "The tobacconist's shop was only a few blocks from Lotus House..." is not something that a Londoner would say, even today. Blocks are for rationally designed cities, not maze-like London.

(Exactly where Lotus House is located does not seem to be defined, which is probably wise)

Later there is a long coach chase in the snow from London to the channel ports. Now coaches were widely used at this time, especially for short trips and across the countryside. Nevertheless long distance travel would more usually take place by train.

This is not precisely a problem. The pursued are spotted in a coach driving out from Greenwich, apparently on their way to Dover. Knowing they are being pursued, it would make sense to avoid railway stations. Yet I'm not convinced. Here are the lines:

"I followed 'em as far as Greenwich. I'd say they're 'eadin' for Dover."; and

"I jumped off when they got near Greenwich. I figured they was on their way to the coast."

Now they inform their agents at Dover (and presumably the other channel ports - see later) to watch for the pursued, so it does make sense to follow them. And when they do follow them and they stop to change horses at inns, the horses are terrible, as you'd expect when long distance posting is dying due to competition from the railway. And finally it turns out that (SPOILERS) they're not leaving from Dover, but from a small fishing/smuggling village somewhere nearby. So that bit makes sense.

Except the assumption of Dover is odd; leaving London via Greenwich why could they not continue along the Thames estuary and catch a boat, from Gravesend, Chatham or Ramsgate? If they turn to go to the south cast, they might as easily depart from Folkestone, or if they want to go out of their way end up in Deal, which would be a good candidate for smuggling/fishing, although it was (and is) somewhat larger than the place described.

(For that matter, although it is night and winter and snowbound, they find that Kent is very rural, with country inns and hamlets. Presumably the people they are pursuing are avoiding the main highways and major towns of the county. Exactly how they know to follow this path rather than the direct route through (probably) Dartford, Rochester and Canterbury is left unanswered.)

(Exactly where the smuggling/fishing village might be located is a bit of a puzzle too; I can't tell if they are on the north, south or east coast of Kent.)

Anyway, this is completely unfair of me; the author apparently lives in Missouri in the 21st century and her version of 19th century London and Kent is superior to most who write in that setting. Adding more explanation of why they're travelling by coach or how Vincent knows they're going to Dover would simply have given me more and different nits to pick. I am interested rather than aggravated, which is probably a good result.

I Sum Up My Thoughts

Buy This Book: For an amusing, clever 19th century adventure-thriller with good research but not too much consequence
Don't Buy This Book: If you find melodramatic chases, farcical break ins and people continually taking each other prisoner and making cutting remarks are of no interest. Also if you insist on the geography of Kent being absolutely accurate and important to the plot.
And One Other Thing: The name of the author: Carol K Carr. It's quite fun to say.

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