I'm pleased and honored to share this review written by mystery author James Lincoln Warren. James is
The review was posted on Goodreads.
By James Lincoln Warren
Crime fiction is primarily a literature of human behavior under extreme
moral pressure. At its worst, it is sensationalist and emotionally
shallow at one extreme, and escapist and emotionally inauthentic at the
other. But at its best, it is a contemplation on the power of evil
acting upon both the innocent and the culpable, the dangers and rewards
of shadowy compromise on the one hand and moral inflexibility on the
other, and the confused morass of human motivations and interactions.
historical crime fiction, by changing its cultural context to another
time, compelling the reader to compare the past with the present,
benefits by limning these issues against an ethical background that
starkly contrasts with the familiar. In 18th century England, a
pickpocket could be hanged for stealing a handkerchief, but human
trafficking was perfectly lawful.
By their nature, historical mysteries provide the reader with two complementary insights.
first is an awareness of how differently people behaved in the past
than they do today, conveying how much our attitudes have evolved over
time, and stimulates meditation regarding our ethical evolution our
time, good and bad.
The second, and to my mind, more important,
is an awareness of how much people remain very much the same, and how
much their existence is governed by their essential humanity,
irrespective of the wider circumstances. Crimes and sins may change, but
love, hate, hunger, greed, and compassion, to name just a few
characteristics, are eternal.
As are certain themes—the themes explored by Nancy Bilyeau.
her new novel, The Blue, Bilyeau revisits several of the dominant
themes she explored in her well-received earlier trilogy featuring
Joanna Stafford, a displaced young nun in Henry VIII’s England, but sets
the drama in 18th century England and France, during the Seven Years’
War. Like the Stafford novels, The Blue is a first-person narrative (but
in present tense) told by an artistically gifted young woman frustrated
by the restrictions placed upon her in the society in which she lives.
Along the way, there are other similarities: discussions on the nature
and abuse of power, the major and minor tragedies attending religious
intolerance, the role and purpose of art, the loneliness of exile, the
pitfalls of overweening ambition, the need for painstaking discretion to
avoid peril, the challenges of keeping a pure conscience, the pain of
imprisonment (both literal and figurative), and romantic love as a means
It may seem on the surface that The Blue is a
reiteration of the story told in The Crown, The Chalice, and The
Tapestry. Even the similarity of all the titles may seem to indicate
that the books are all one of a piece. But this is misleading.
Strafford was a nun who had to learn how to live out of the cloister as
a layperson against her will. Genevieve Planché, the protagonist of The
Blue, is a third generation English Huguenot, a staunchly anti-Catholic
Calvinist, who knows exactly how to thrive in her community as far as
she is allowed to do so, but dares to dream of a more fulfilling
existence. Joanna lost her vocation, but Genevieve is looking for how to
enter hers: she longs to be a serious painter in oils, an occupation
closed to women. (The first celebrated female portraitist was still a
generation away: Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was only three years old
when The Blue takes place, and was a scion of Paris salon society
rather than a middle-class member of an iconoclastic sect.)
the title has a secondary meaning from its literal one. Crowns,
chalices, and tapestries, while powerful symbols, are tangible things.
The color blue, however, is an abstraction, tangible only to the eye,
and was at the time the most sought after tincture in the spectrum. A
rich, enveloping, royal blue—although there was Prussian blue available
at the time, it was not considered entirely adequate—a blue that was
just beyond the reach of art. Like Genevieve’s ambition, it was an
artistic goal fraught with barriers and obstacles.
Genevieve’s quest is directed squarely at canvas, the primary medium for
this color to which Bilyeau directs our attention is fine porcelain:
delicate, fragile, sublime, formed through a metamorphosis of rough
clay, God’s earthly material for creating Man, into something altogether
precious and celestial, the paragon of taste and elegance.
Something that leads beyond simple avarice. Something that leads to obsession.
That singular theme is something new in her work, and imbues her story with an even greater psychological depth.
Bilyeau has given us a world of industrial espionage and international
intrigue, high art and low cunning, profound love and intractable
hatred, rational discourse and irrational behavior, all for the love of a
color, painted in deft strokes both fine and broad. The Blue is a
[Full disclosure: this book was provided to me by the
author’s publicist at the author’s request. I moderated Nancy Bilyeau’s
first appearance in a panel at a mystery convention, Bouchercon XLIV in
2013 in Albany, NY. The topic was historical mysteries.]