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I’m back from New Zealand and–totally by coincidence–I’m hosting a New Zealand author. As readers of this blog know, I’m a Dickens fan. I can’t get enough of his quirky characters, dark settings, twisty plots and–yes!–even his social preaching. One of my favorites, Little Dorritt (reviewed here) features a debtor’s prison which is just as much a character as its human inhabitants. That’s why I was so pleased to score a copy of The Raven’s Seal a historical mystery written in the style of Dickens. The author Andrei Baltakmens is a Dickens scholar and plants an eighteenth-century prison in the heart of his novel. The gaol (jail for us in the US) broods over the prose and lurks in the background infusing the story with its dark presence. From the first paragraph:

The Old Bellstrom Gaol crouched above the fine city of Airenchester like a black spider on a heap of spoils. It presided over The Steps, a ramshackle pile of cramped yards and tenements teeming about rambling stairs, and glared across the River Pentlow towards Battens Hill, where the sombre courts and city halls stood. From Cracksheart Hill, the Bellstrom loomed on every prospect and was glimpsed at the end of every lane.

Many thanks to Andrei for providing a guest post on eighteenth-century crime and punishment and to his publisher Top Five Books for providing a giveaway copy (details at the end of the post.)

Early-Modern Crime (and Punishment) in The Raven’s Seal

by Andrei Baltakmens

My novel, The Raven’s Seal, is a historical mystery set in and around a fictional eighteenth-century prison, the Bellstrom Gaol. The gaol is a commanding presence in the novel, presiding over the equally fictional city of Airenchester. But of course there would be no gaol, and no mystery, without crime and punishment, and though the Bellstrom dominated my imagination for a long time, the history of crime in the early-modern period (roughly 1500 to 1800), particularly under the Black Act, makes for a fascinating background which occasionally peeks through into the mystery. (more…)

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Details on giveaway at the end of the post.

Outlaw cover

Cover courtesy of St. Martin's Griffin

As a kid, I fell in love with Robin Hood. Errol Flynn swashbuckling through the forest all clean and pretty. The collected stories I read over and over again. The 50’s TV show (written by blackballed Hollywood writers with a decided anti-McCarthyism bent) with the stirring theme song:

Robin Hood, Robin Hood
Riding through the glen.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood
With his band of men.
Feared by the bad, loved by the good.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.

Okay, it’s more stirring with the music. (You can listen here.) Growing up, the legend of Robin Hood was everywhere as the ultimate hero who stood up for the little guy against evil oppressors: corrupt sheriffs and greedy churchmen. We all knew the stories of loyal Little John, the strong right hand man; tipsy Friar Tuck; Will Scarlet, handy with a sword; Alan A-Dale the minstrel; and the chaste, beautiful and smart Maid Marian, Robin’s enduring love. After stirring adventures, good King Richard arrives in time to pardon the outlaws, give them lands and titles and join Robin and Marian in marriage.

It’s an iconic tale of good vs. evil and happily-ever-afters that attracts artists back to the theme over and over. Numerous books have updated the story or tinkered with the timelines. Directors have put their own stamp on the story from the Mel Brooks’satirical “Men in Tights” to the most recent Ridley Scott entry, where yeoman Robin is responsible for the Magna Carta. It’s very hard to bring something new or fresh to the story.

Which brings me to Outlaw by Angus Donald. (more…)

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