Holmes and Watson provide the template for this very satisfying historical thriller from Kerr (The Grid, etc.), with Sir Isaac Newton acting as great detective and one Christopher Ellis serving as narrator. It's 1696, and a series of murders are plaguing the Tower of London, where the middle-aged Newton has recently assumed (as in real life) the position of warden of the royal mint, with the younger Ellis (again as in real life) serving as his assistant. Like Holmes, the cold and cerebral Newton relies on rationalism the scientific method to solve the crimes, while Ellis, quick with sword, pistol and temper, brings the emotional counterweight provided by Conan Doyle's Watson. The murders are accompanied by esoteric clues, most notably encrypted messages and alchemical references, that spur Newton to their resolution as forcefully as does his intense sense of duty, for the killings seem to involve not only a plot to disrupt a recoinage necessary to continue England's war with France, but also a conspiracy to commit religious genocide against a backdrop of incessant tensions between Catholics and Protestants. The mystery elements of the novel provide a sturdy spine for the book's main flesh: its robust recreation of life at the end of the 17th century. Ellis's fluid narration sets the tone, illuminating a London beset by pestilence, poverty, whores and ruffians, noblemen grave or foppish, opium dens, brothels and grisly executions, and a bright array of historical figures including, in the role of blackguard, Daniel Defoe. There's an erotic/romantic subplot involving Ellis and Newton's niece, but the main focus is on the two leads. Both are well drawn, though Newton, ostensibly the novel's center, is less compelling than Ellis's full-blooded youth. That disparity, and an overly complex plot, are the drawbacks of what is, withal, a most gripping and well-appointed entertainment. (Oct. 1) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
In the second book of Voigt's "Tillerman family" cycle, Dicey and her younger brothers and sister settle in with their grandmother on a stark homestead by the Chesapeake Bay. Their mother remains unresponsive in a Boston psychiatric hospital. Dicey is confused about where she fits into the family now that Gram has taken over responsibility for the youngsters, but she soon learns that the family still needs her resourcefulness and solid good sense. Dicey and Gram steady one another as each reaches out, breaking Tillerman tradition. Gram is a hard, proud woman who has lived to regret her isolation and the scattering of her children. Gram makes overtures to town folk and her world expands. Dicey tries to remain aloof at school, but neither Jeff the musician nor the forceful Mina relents until Dicey allows them into her circle of caring. In her spare time, Dicey is restoring a derelict sailboat, meticulously sanding down layers of old paint. Metaphorically, her emotional defenses wear away as she slowly opens to hope, friendship, expressive writing, and finally to an acceptance of her mother's death. When Gram and Dicey bring her mother's ashes home, the broken family is nearly healed. Written in fine, spare prose, this outstanding Newbery Medal winner belongs in every school and community library collection. Readers will be eager to pick up the rest of the series. 2003 (orig. 1982), Aladdin/Simon and Schuster, Ages 10 to 14.
There have been many mysteries featuring famous historical figures as protagonists, among them Elliot Roosevelt's crime-solving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Stephanie Barron's investigative Jane Austen, and Karen Harper's sleuthing Queen Elizabeth I. Now comes Sir Isaac Newton and his assistant, Christopher Ellis (also an actual person). It is 1696 in London, and Ellis has been hired to help Newton in his job as Warden of the Royal Mint. Ordered by the king to find and prosecute counterfeiters whose false coins threaten the war-shaken British economy, the two men get more than they bargained for when they uncover a much more dangerous conspiracy. Plot devices such as secret coded documents, the pseudoscience of alchemy, and a string of strange murders make for an exciting read. Using as backdrop the Tower of London, the Royal Mint, Bedlam madhouse, and Newgate Prison, the ever-versatile Kerr, author of sophisticated science-based thrillers like The Second Angel and Esau, weaves a rich tapestry of interesting characters and period details. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/02.] Fred Gervat, Concordia Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY