Subtitled – ‘when Bacon goes bad‘.
Back in those heady green and salad days of my teaching career, I devised a mark-scheme for a favourite class which was, improbably, based on food …
The pinnacle of their creative writing pieces earned the soubriquet, ‘Wagyu‘. This was moist, flavoursome steak, marbled with the most exquisite fat, contributing to a succulent and delicious culinary experience that you didn’t want to end. The steak from The Matrix, for those who know the film.
The nadir? Well, that was the ‘3am kebab‘: difficult to identify the donor species; hitting the spot only when your judgement is utterly impaired; something you might regret, after the event …
Then we have Anna Castle‘s Francis Bacon mystery, ‘Murder by Misrule‘. Imagine, or try to recall without shuddering, your stomach beginning to churn like a fairground ride after two or three bites; your system producing a firework display of warning signals that your brain fails to interpret; viscerally you are regretting – rejecting, actually – something that you continue to eat. Never ignore your stomach: that’s why it’s called ‘gut reaction’! Words almost fail me, but perhaps we’ll call it the ‘on the way to the game burger‘. Practically the only thing that will make you crouch, cramping, in the football stadium’s revolting toilets at half time, adding to the general impression that the cubicle has just been used as scenery in a paintball tournament.
Unusually strong imagery for me, I know; I make no apologies for my depth of feeling after reading this novel. I hated it.
Obviously, this needs a little backing up.
First, I want to defend myself from any charge of literary snobbery. Want to, but perhaps can’t. I’m not an absolute purist, honestly. But I don’t believe it’s too much to ask for: a half-decent story, well told. If you want to make me think, into the bargain, that’s brilliant.
But what sort of book is this? Murder by Misrule is ‘neither fish, nor flesh, nor good red herring‘.
Parts of it read like the type of historical mystery I’ve been immersing myself in this year (for pure entertainment; as an escape from the daily grind). The research is there, extensively so when it comes to descriptions of food and drink, ironically. Except, after finishing it, I’m still not 100% sure whether the villain or villains were identified, let alone apprehended. Nor can I bring myself to go back and see whether I missed these bits through boredom.
Other sections feel like a weak, washed-out pastiche of The Three Musketeers. There’s buckle, but very little swash going on when four young members of Grays Inn, irritatingly and repeatedly referred to as ‘the lads‘, hoof round ‘Merrye Olde London Towne’. They’re straight out of Central Casting’s Great-Great-Great Grandfather, and let me assure you this was the only greatness about them, their secrets and very dull interior lives.
Then there’s the Mills & Boon stuff between Tom Clarady, nominal leader of ‘the lads’ and the limner, Clara Goosens. Cringingly, she too is utterly without depth – just another ‘anti-bimbo’: ridiculously beautiful, great figure, better hair, and coincidentally incredibly talented, too. I sometimes wonder if writers feel they’re striking a blow for Women (capitalisation intended) everywhere by combining beauty and brains. My view is that in an age where appearance is increasingly under the spotlight, and unhealthily so, this sort of character, – they are everywhere, too – does a disservice to all the many wonderful women I know who are marvellously attractive for their intelligence, humour, and talents, regardless of their appearance. They can’t be Feminist icons, Miss Castle, if they don’t look like real women. It’s Clara and Tom’s sub-plot that Anna Castle reserves her most saccharine prose for. Witness below:
A PLAINTIVE MELODY carried by a clear voice woke Clara from a dreamless sleep. At first, she did not know if the sweet music rose from the street or fell down from Heaven. Had she died during the night and woken in her Maker’s golden hall? [a]
This was from Chapter 32, by the way. About 70% in. Long past the point where I had viscerally begun to protest at what I was reading. But like someone raised in a family where food was short, I feel obliged to finish up, to swallow it all, regardless of what it tastes like. I can only think of two books in the last ten years that I have deliberately consigned to the Did/Could Not Finish shelf …
‘What about Bacon?‘ I hear you ask. Good question. He’s peripheral to all the gadding about ‘the lads’ get up to, nominally in charge of the nominal investigation. Were he alive now, he would be like one of those big name artists pleading with Donald Trump not to use their music in his campaigning [b]:
‘Zounds, Goodwife Castle! Have I offended thee?
Alas, with this, thy book, thou ruin’st me!
This being the first ‘Francis Bacon‘ mystery, it feels appropriate to give him the final word, rather than put words into his mouth:
‘Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested’ [c]
This, in few, was a book to be sniffed at, suspiciously, and then carefully disposed of before, repeat – before – tasting. Listen to MY stomach, if not to your own …
[a] Anna Castle, Murder by Misrule, author website
[c] from Francis Bacon, ‘Of Studies’, accessed here