What ho! Two clever novels from Britain

Book Reviews: "Mr. Chartwell," by Rebecca Hunt. Dial Books, $24. "The Janus Stone," by Elly Griffiths. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26

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As "The King's Speech" grabs the movie prizes, it's trendy to be English. Here are two young British writers with novel approaches to their new novels.

"Mr. Chartwell" by Rebecca Hunt (Dial Books, $24).

Thirty-something Rebecca Hunt seems too young to invoke the life of Winston Churchill as the spark for her first novel set in 1964, as Churchill's final hour approaches.

The British legend was 89 in the summer of '64, and in Ms. Hunt's version, a bit too spry and twinkly for such an old, brandy-soaked gentleman. What she does seize upon is his name for the depression that afflicted him -- the "black dog."

The pooch is anthropomorphically converted into Mr. Chartwell, a massive dark canine with a huge drooling tongue and nose for disgusting stuff to eat, yet who walks on his hind feet and speaks fine English. (Churchill aficionados will immediately realize that Chartwell is the name of Sir Winston's country estate.)

The mutt (unseen to most people) answers an ad for a lodger at the London home of young widow Esther Hammerhans, clearly another target for the black-dog mood. Her place is near the government buildings Churchill frequents.

His real name is Black Pat and gradually we learn that his "job" is to dog Churchill into preparing for his death.

Black Pat wants to gnaw at Esther as well, as she mourns her late husband, a suicide. She's wavering, but in an improbable meeting with the hero of World War II, teaches her that "We will never surrender."

Written in a preciously cute style with stock British characters, "Mr. Chartwell's" novelty wears thin pretty fast, but Ms. Hunt doesn't seem to notice. Readers will, unfortunately.

"The Janus Stone" by Elly Griffiths (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26)

The key to most British crime novels is the setting. Here, it's Norwich, the major town of Norfolk on the southeast coast of Britain, sprinkled here and there with Roman ruins.

Elly Griffiths apparently wants to be the English Kathy Reichs, the syntactically challenged author of the "Bones" series about a forensics anthropologist forever digging up human remains.

Ms. Griffiths has created Ruth Galloway, a university archaeologist forever stumbling over bones in those Roman ruins.

She's a plucky, plump single woman living alone near the ocean, providing plenty of wet atmosphere to invoke.

When the bones of a female child are unearthed in a construction site, Ruth swings into action, impelled by the thoughts about her own unborn child.

Because the father is also involved with the case, the story grows more and more dodgy with every new bone.

"The Janus Stone" is a fast-paced conventional thriller with threats and danger at every turn of the page.

Ruth, however, is in need of more character to distinguish this book from its many calcified cousins.

Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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