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Please begin with an informative title:

The past two weeks have been very trying.  The roof of the family room started leaking after 20 hours of rain.  One of the toilets continued to run long after it should have shut off.  And worse, we ran out of cleaning fluid for the self-flushing litter box that took six weeks to be finally accepted by all four cats.  Naturally that meant bringing in the clumping clay litter box from the patio while waiting delivery of the cleaning fluid so I could begin the six weeks training period all over again.  Which only seems a small thing if you have never had to clean litter boxes for four cats.  Or tried to change their litter box routine.

And in addition to my miserable cold, my husband has been laid up in bed with a severe pulled muscle in his back. (Which is actually a good thing when the alternative, and our concern, was metastatic prostate cancer.)   Even still, it has been a physically and emotionally exhausting stretch of time, with one problem after another demanding an immediate solution.

But instead of reaching for chocolate, which every molecule in my body was screaming for, I picked up a couple of books on cruising.  And murder.

I love to cruise.  I especially love transocean cruises that provide days on end of nothing but sea and sky.  We once took a Transpacific cruise to Hawaii with three other couples over Halloween.  We all dressed as cast members from Gilligan's Island and received an ovation as we entered the dining room while playing Iz's recording of the theme music from the show.

One year we left New Jersey, headed for Dover into a spring storm with winds up to 60 knots.  The Captain asked that ladies not wear heels to that night's formal dinner.  Some of my friends ignored the edict, wearing stilettos with their long gowns.  My husband and I settled for dinner in the casual venue instead.  

But I loved the rocking of the ship.  It was the Celebrity Constellation, 91,000 tons, 965 ft long, 105 ft wide and a draught of 26ft.  With a max occupancy of 2034, she was only carrying about 1400 people that week, including our group of about 16.  

Life onboard a cruise ship at sea develops its own rhythm; days filled with as many or as few activities as desired.  Enrichment classes and napkin folding (although I always seemed to miss that one).  Afternoon wine tasting and cabin crawling arranged by members of our own party.  Dressing for dinner and dancing, or a show in the evening.  And then it starts all over again the next day.

The living room of our cabin had floor to ceiling windows that curved out from the side of the ship in a graceful semi-circle. We would start each day with perhaps our only healthy meal, a breakfast of fruit and cereal, watching the ocean endlessly pass by under a limitless blue sky. Known as the Celebrity Suite, it had a bedroom that allowed no daylight inside which was perfect for the occasional afternoon nap.  For a week or two we would live well beyond our means, travelling the world without a map.

I need to cruise again.  It has been over a year since we took a quick Caribbean cruise, but almost five since we have crossed an ocean.  I miss the sea.

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Mediterranean Grave, by William Doonan, BookYear Mysteries (USA), 01/03/11, 288 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0983135401

It was while looking at what was new on Stop You're Killing Me, that I came across this intriguing description of a character by author William Doonan,

Henry Grave, an 80-something investigator for the Association of Cruising Vessel Operators:   
Grave Passage (2009)
Mediterranean Grave (2011)
Since I am married to a man who is 84, and am desperate for a cruise, it took me all of about two seconds to decide to download one of these cozy mysteries. (Given the choice between downloading a copy of the second book of the series for $2.99 and paying $22.95 for a paperback copy of the first, I didn't dither.)

Henry Grave is the 84 year old senior investigator for the Association of Cruising Vessel Operators who has been sent to investigate a murder onboard the Vesper, an older cruising yacht that is in the middle of a themed Mediterranean cruise.  A WWII vet and survivor of a POW camp, Henry lives at Rolling Pines, "a community of active seniors" in Pennsylvania and in his spare time manages a semi-professional roller derby team, "currently in second to last place."  He falls deeply in love on every cruise but is willing to flirt with any female who comes within range.  He also has a fondness for vodka tonics, frequent naps, and food.

Having clearly seen better days, the Vesper, equipped to accomodate 188 passengers, is only carrying 90 passengers, most of whom are looking for "spiritual renewal." The ship had as its featured guest, a "world famous guru and best-selling author. . . His latest is ‘Healing the Hurting Human Heart.’” (I only mention this for Limelite since I could not remember the name of this imaginary book within a book for last Tuesday's Best Books Never Written diary.)

The ship was carrying a valuable Minoan cup known as the Pasiphae Vessel from its place of discovery in Alexandria to Athens for restoration.  An Egyptian federal agent was assigned to accompany it on its journey.  But the agent is killed and the cup has disappeared.  Henry Grave's job is to find the cup and the murderer.

During the course of the search and the cruise, wonderfully strange characters are introduced and examined by this charming, seemingly befuddled gentleman with his fondness for the ladies and vodka tonics.  It was good fun, and included some laugh out loud moments that surprised me.  

Some of the details of shipboard life make it obvious that the author, William Doonan, has spent time on cruise ships.  According to his own website, he

is a writer and anthropology professor in Sacramento, CA.  He has spent years working as an archaeologist, and years lecturing on cruise ships, traveling the world and speaking on issues as diverse as the Trojan War, piracy in the Adriatic, and the peopling of the Americas. And he loves a good mystery!

It was a perfect antidote for my distressing condition although I did have a few issues with Doonan's depiction of men of a certain age, especially his claim that they tend to nod off unexpectedly.  My husband had never done so although he does enjoy flirting with young women, but only in the nicest possible way.  

One afternoon as my husband was resting on the examining table in his doctor's office while we were waiting for test results to come back, I started reading this book to him.  I thought it would take his mind off of his pain and help to pass the time.  Even though in pain, he chuckled at the appropriate places.  However, a few pages into the third chapter I happened to glance up at him, and sure enough, he had fallen asleep.  So perhaps Doonan does know 84 year old men better than I do.


Murder on the Leviathan, by Boris Akunin, trans Andrew Bromfield, Random House (USA), 04/27/04, 240 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1400060511

I knew when I read The Winter Queen that Boris Akunin was an author of rare talent.  I raved about his ability to transport the reader to the Russia of the Czars in a wonderfully florid style. Included in that diary was Akunin's explanation of why he was writing 16 books in the Erast Fandorin series:

"One is that I counted 16 subgenres of crime novel. And each of my Fandorin books represents a different subgenre. Another is that I counted 16 types of human character[s] in the world. And each of those books is addressing one of those [psychological] types."
The Winter Queen was the International Conspiracy.  The second book in the series, but for some reason the third published in the US, was the Turkish Gambit, a Spy novel.  The third book was Murder on the Leviathan, a good old-fashioned cozy mystery.

And it was set on a cruise ship!  How perfect for my landlocked state!  And after two weeks of waiting on my husband hand and foot, murder was sounding better by the hour.  (But only to take my mind off of my labor, of course.)

The 1878 Paris murder of English Lord Littleby was particularly heinous, resulting in not only his death, but also the strange deaths of seven members of his household staff, and two children related to them.  There was no sign of violence on the bodies of the staff members, and most of them were found sitting around a table in the kitchen, but Lord Littleby had been beaten around the head with a blunt instrument.

Although he possessed a large collection of valuable antiquities, only a single statue of Shiva was stolen, along with a silk scarf perhaps used to conceal it.  But the statue was fished out of the Seine almost immediately, leaving Gustave Gauche, the Investigator for Especially Important Cases with few clues to follow.

Gauche is well named, and reminded me of Agatha Christie's description of her own character, Hercule Poirot as a "bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep."  Having found a whale shaped golden pin in Littleby's clenched fist, presumably ripped from the murderer's clothing, Gauche determined that is was used to identify the first class passengers and officers of the Leviathan's maiden voyage from Southampton to Bombay.  Detecting the single passenger or senior officer lacking this golden bauble seemed an easy task to Gauche and so he boarded the ship at Southampton, sure he would have his criminal by the the time the ship reached LeHarve.

And so we begin our cruise on the largest ship of the day, offering first class accommodations so lavish and comfort so great that passengers would have no need to bring their own valets and/or maids.  Nor would they be expected to take meals in a large dining hall, but in small salons of about ten people.  It was in the Windsor salon that Gauche, with the assistance of the ship's Captain, was able to assemble his most likely suspects.  

They included the Englishman, Sir Reginald Midford-Stokes, an erratic baronet, scion of a wealthy family, travelling to some "god forsaken Oceania,"  Mme. Renate Kleber, a young, pregnant wife of a Swiss banker traveling to join her husband in Calcutta, M. Gintaro Aono, a Japanese nobleman who claimed to be an officer in the Imperial Army of Japan, a Mlle. Clarissa Stamp, a "typical Englishwoman, no longer young, with dull colorless hair and rather sedate manners," a specialist in Indian archeology, Anthony F. Sweetchild and the ship's chief physician, the Italian M. Truffo and his English wife of two weeks.  Also at the table was the first officer of the Leviathan, M. Charles Renier.  

When the Leviathan reached Port Said, a Russian diplomat, with a shock of white hair and a slight stammer joined the party, eventually informing Gauche in response to his unsubtle questioning about the absence of his whale emblem, "I do not wear it because I do not wish to resemble a janitor with a name tag, not even a golden one."

Soon items turn up missing, and then passengers turn up dead.  It is clear that the murderer is among our party in the Windsor salon.  But who?  And how many will die before the murderer is uncovered?

The story is told in the alternating voices of the passengers, through their diaries, letters and private thoughts as each chapter is written from a different point of view.  None of them from the perspective of our intrepid Russian diplomat, Erast Fandorin; we only see him through the lenses of the other travelers.  But he is essential to the solution of the mystery.

Clearly written in the style of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle Murder on the Leviathan is a cozy mystery reminiscent of Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express. But it is ingeniously updated, as Akunin exposes the national and racial bigotry of that era and those writers and handily refutes it.  It is the kind of book I had to occasionally put down, just to marvel at how well he was handling this genre and how much he was improving it all while poking gentle fun at its conventions.

The characters are beautifully drawn, the plotting is perfect and although it seems to slow a little in the middle, the mystery is resolved just when one can hardly stand the suspense.  For we all know that there is another shoe to drop somewhere, we just aren't sure whose shoe it will be and how far it will fall.

Akunin does such a wonderful job of re-creating this style and actually enriching it that I wish he had chosen Jane Austen to emulate.  What a different book Death Comes to Pemberley would have been had he been the one to write it!  

If you enjoy an intelligently written, complex, cozy mystery, Murder on the Leviathan is one you should not miss.  Whether you consider it a parody of the genre or a simple cozy, it is a pleasurable read.

It is Netroots for the Troops fundraising time again, and a team has been set up for Readers & Book Lovers Group members.  Last year we were one of the top two groups to contribute to the effort and we are hoping to uphold that standard this year with a goal of $3000.  If you wish to contribute to the effort, please use this link.  

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 3:00 PM The Magic Theater ArkDem14
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
SUN 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29
MON 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUE 8:00 PM Readers & Book Lovers Newsletter Limelite
TUE 10:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
WED 8:00 PM Bookflurries: Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life aravir
FRI 10:00 PM (first of month) Monthly Bookposts AdmiralNaismith
SAT 11:00 AM (fourth of month) Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
SAT 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid
Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by lundi channel, DKOMA, and Community Spotlight.

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