Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Seventh Sinner by Elizabeth Peters

The Seventh Sinner
by Elizabeth Peters

Publisher: Mysterious Press / HarperCollins Publishers ebook
Format: Paperback (well loved) and ebook   
Published: March 1st 1989
Copyright: 1972
Pages: 256
Genre: Mystery - cozy?
Source: personal copy
Well, usually I would include the blurb from Amazon or the back of the book, but in this case I think it is much better to just read the story rather than build up expectations - the blurb gives away too much so my advice is to skip it and plunge right in. In very short summary, Jean is an art historian and student fellow at the Institute for Art and Archaeology in Rome. The titular Seven Sinners are all student fellows at the Institute and as the book begins they are in the throws of working on their applications for retaining their fellowships for the next year. Needless to say, there is a murder but the stupid blurb tells you who right away. It is better to just read and figure it out for yourself.

Here is the first bit (I did this for Book Beginnings/Friday 56 last week too):

Jean would never forget her first encounter with Jacqueline Kirby. It was years before she was could think about it without blushing all over. An acquaintance which begins with assault and battery, however inadvertent, can hardly be termed auspicious. 

There was some slight excuse for Jean's behavior. All morning she had been working, or trying to work, in the Institute library. There were distractions. First and omnipresent was the siren call of the city outside the dusty library stacks. ...

As much as I enjoy the rest of the books with Jacqueline Kirby (there are three more), this first book holds a special place in my heart. The book is unusual because it is told from Jean's point of view rather than that of the protagonist that becomes the lead for the remaining books - so in essence we are experiencing the story from the point of view of one of the potential victims (and pseudo Watson) while Jacqueline is the detective. It makes for an interesting reading experience.

The sinners, for the most part, all have very distinctive personalities and voices.  They all have lives outside the main storyline, which is wonderful - too many books I have read of late are so protagonist centered that it feels like all of the other characters switch off when they are not in direct contact.  It is weird.  Here there is a developed three-dimensional world - so much so that it seems to carry on after the story ends. I have always wondered what became of Jean and the other sinners.  It is too bad that Barbara Mertz (the author's real name) passed away last year and will never be able to tell us that story.

Another thing that make the book such a pleasurable read for me is that Barbara Mertz was an archeologist (her non-fiction books on Egypt - Temples, Tombs & Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt and Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt are very good and the scholarship still stands up for the most part) so the book is filled with interesting tidbits about the history and archeology of Rome.  It never feels like an info dump though - it is all naturally laced in as the characters talk about their work and share their expertise with each other. I would love to have had the chance to be a student like Jean - heck I would still love to do something like that.

It certainly isn't a perfect book, the ending - well it isn't disappointing, but it might not be as realistically convincing as you might like - but I have never found anything else quite like it and I re-read it when I am sick or feeling depressed.  I find the story very vivid.  So for me it is a five claw book.

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