Archive for Reviews – Page 2

Deanna Raybourn: A Treacherous Curse

The third novel in Deanna Raybourn’s delightful Veronica Speedwell series finds Veronica busily at work with her buddy, Stoker, sorting donated artifacts for a proposed new museum sponsored by their patron Lord Rosmorran. They live on his estate and Veronica is also able to pursue her own passion, butterflies. Set in 1888 London, the whole country is in the grip of Egyptology, as fabulous artifacts and tombs were frequently being unearthed by wealthy British who brought them back to England for display and sale.

Veronica and Stoker are not immune to an interest in Egyptology, and when Stoker’s former wife appears to be at the center of a controversy with a missing husband as well as the missing diadem of an Egyptian princess, Veronica is keen to solve the puzzle and save Stoker’s reputation, which has only recently recovered from a beating. Their queries take them first to the leader of the expedition, Sir Leicester Tiverton and his family – his second wife, his difficult adolescent daughter, Figgy, and a family hanger on, Patrick Fairbrother, an assistant to Sir Leicester in their expedition.

The luckiness of Sir Leicester’s find – an Egyptian princess in a sarcophagus – is his crowning achievement; the missing diadem, a sour note. Also a sour note is an apparent curse – the god Anubis “appeared” on the dig, driving out the workers, and “causing” the death of one of the expedition’s members as well as the disappearance of another. only giving grist to the curse. As Veronica and Stoker pursue their enquiries and “Anubis” continues to appear, the curse appears to have followed the Tivertons to London as they prepare for an exhibit of their excavations.

Raybourn is a pro, and she populates her novel with an array of delightful, memorable characters and she’s aces at putting together a good plot. One of the stand out parts of the book is Veronica herself, an intrepid adventuress who lives outside the bounds of Victorian convention.

While presently this seems to be the year of the empowered woman, mystery novels have offered the empowered woman a home from the start – beginning with Christie’s Miss Marple through Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone to Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan. The thread in historical mysteries is especially strong. Characters like Amelia Peabody, Hester Monk, Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily, Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy – these are all intelligent and fearless women. They may often have male companions but they are perfectly well able to get the job done themselves. Veronica Speedwell fits in nicely with this company.

Along with Veronica herself, the book is a total blast. The story is nimble and interesting and full of adventure – a fire! A balloon! a trek through a sewer! – and through it all Veronica and Stoker live to investigate another day. I enjoyed the denouement and was sorry to close the cover, and really, what more can you ask for in a good read? I await more adventures with great anticipation.

Ragnar Jonasson: Nightblind

The follow up to the excellent Snowblind, Nightblind finds Jonasson’s main character, detective Ari Thor, married with a one year old son and in line, after five years, to the top spot at the police department. Set in the Icelandic town of Siglufjorour, a former herring capital, the town is enduring leaner times and is in general quiet. Just like St. Mary Meade (or Cabot Cove)… the comparison is apt, because while these novels are set in Iceland, the structure is that of the classic detective novel, and Jonasson, the translator of 17 Christie books into Icelandic, has obviously been greatly influenced by the Queen of Crime.

Snowblind was almost a locked room mystery as the tiny town was cut off completely from the rest of the world by an endless blizzard; in this novel, it’s the darkness that’s emphasized as, with the winter solstice, Iceland endures weeks with daylight lasting only from around 11 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m. The darkness preys on the characters in different ways, but ultimately, it’s the darkness of the soul that Jonasson is more concerned with.

As the book opens, Ari Thor’s superior officer, Herjolur, has been shot for no apparent reason outside of a house where drug deals are known to happen. With Herjolur out of the picture, Ari Thor’s old superior officer, Tomas, comes back to town to help with the investigation. The two have a comfortable working relationship and set to work interviewing Herjolur’s family and various other town denizens, one of them a cousin of Tomas’, long drug involved, who helps point them in the right direction.

Ari Thor’s marriage to Kristin is uncomfortable and with a one year old at home, both of them working full time, exhaustion and time never seem to come together to allow the two to discuss their problems. Ari Thor senses something is amiss (and indeed Kristin is pondering an affair with a fellow doctor) but he’s not sure quite what it is. This general sense of unease and malaise (he’s recovering from the flu) pervades the novel. Ari Thor’s complicated family situation is just a part of the picture.

As the investigation tightens, taking the two detectives in surprising directions, the author also laces through the story excerpts from a journal written by an inmate at a mental hospital. It’s unclear who this person is, but Jonasson is a skillful writer who tends neatly to all of his story threads. This book is as delightful as the first, with its tight plotting, memorable setting and characters, and heartbreaking moments. Jonasson is truly a new writer to treasure.

Emily Littlejohn: A Season to Lie

I read many, many, mysteries, in the neighborhood of two a week, enjoying many of them and loving fewer. When I pick up a novel like this one by Emily Littlejohn, I am forcibly and joyfully reminded of the reasons I love this genre so much. This is simply a wonderful mystery, and even better, it reminded me of another series by another favorite writer of mine, Julia Spencer-Fleming.

Littlejohn’s novel is set in a little Colorado town—one that’s on the “B” ski resort list (unlike the “A” list Vail or Aspen), and happy with that status. The setting, as in Spencer-Fleming’s novels set in upstate New York, is practically a character, as Detective Gemma Monroe drives along the treacherous mountain roads, hemmed in by trees and snow.

Gemma is just back from maternity leave when she and her partner (she’s on the graveyard shift) get called out to the local private school on a suspicious prowler call. The Valley Academy, remote and gated, requires the two cops to split up in a raging blizzard and look for anything out of place on the quiet campus. They find something: a dead man, stabbed in the gut, out in a blizzard with no coat. He turns out to be a famous author who has been teaching a few classes at the academy incognito.

Preserving the crime scene as much as possible in a blizzard, the two find a note stuffed in the dead man’s mouth: “This is only the beginning.” They think they may be looking for a serial killer. As they begin to unravel the man’s life, they get drawn into the culture of the school where other things seem to be happening, one of them a form of bullying so cruel and so sneaky that the kids affected are completely traumatized by it.

The underlying theme seems to be fairy tales—the bully at the school is known as “Grimm” and the cottage where the dead man’s best friend lives seems like a witch’s stone house at the edge of the forest. Gemma even encounters a local construction guy, who may have mob ties, quoting Yeats’ poem The Stolen Child to her while she’s at lunch:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand 

While this all sounds creepily fey, Littlejohn has grounded her clever mystery in the details of ordinary life. While Gemma is delighted to be back at work, she still misses and loves her baby, and her boss has set aside a room for her to pump breast milk. I can’t imagine another genre of writing where such a telling detail of a woman’s life would be included, and that’s just another reason I love mystery novels. They tend to illuminate woman’s lives incredibly well.

Along with fairy tales, Gemma is herself struggling with what it means to be a grown up, embracing what’s beautiful in life along with the other parts of life that aren’t so lovely: distrust, fear, aging relatives, murder. It gives the book a real heft.

With the rich array of believable and interesting, fleshed out characters, a memorable setting, a clever mystery, and an underlying theme that adds a creepy intensity to the whole novel, this book and this new series is a real stand out.

C.M. Gleason: Murder in the Lincoln White House

C.M. Gleason is well known as Colleen Gleason, the writer of the Gardella Vampire Chronicles, as well as some romance and some mystery themed novels featuring vampires. As C.M. Gleason she’s veering into straight up mystery territory, but her long experience as an ink-stained wretch (my term for a professional writer who works all the time) has commented her skills in terms of narrative and character development. While she’s new to the mystery genre, she’s not new to writing, and it certainly shows in this assured first mystery.

She’s also not new to writing historicals as some of her other books have been set during the regency and Victorian periods (among others) so her way of setting the stage is also assured. This novel opens at the inaugural ball of Abraham Lincoln, and Gleason is able to get across the feeling of crowded Washington at the time, full of both southerners and Unionists. The uncertain tenor of the time is illustrated by Lincoln’s having to sneak into town for his inaugural to avoid an assignation plot, and the assassination threats from the start meant he had a Pinkerton agent with him at all times.

While Lincoln is a character in the novel, the main character is Adam Quinn, the nephew of Lincoln’s great friend Joshua Speed, and a boy whom Lincoln has known since babyhood. Because of that comfort level, it’s Adam Lincoln turns to when there’s a murder during the inaugural ball. While Gleason may be new to mysteries she’s certainly adept at setting up a classic situation where all of Adam’s deductive reasoning skills come to the fore as he investigates the crime.

This is certainly a set up for a series as Adam is quickly surrounded with an able cohort – a black Doctor who steps up and does an autopsy; a penniless Irish boy Adam takes under his wing, and who comes in useful as a messenger; and a reporter discovered at the crime scene. The reporter later turns out to be a woman in disguise, and to add to her interest, she lives at the Smithsonian with her uncle, the first Smithsonian “secretary.”

Adam himself has lost an arm in an altercation with pro-slavers back home on the plains, so it’s clear where his sympathies lie. (They are somewhat sorely tested by an attractive Southern belle he meets at the inaugural ball.) One of his most interesting characteristics, though, is his skill as a tracker, learned from a Native American back home. He translates these tracking skills to investigating murder, with great result as he employs his observation of footprints, dirt smudges, and information gleaned from the autopsy of the dead man, a well known Abolitionist. I thought that was a great hook and a believable one. I hope Gleason makes even more use of it in future novels.

This is a well told story, engaging in its setting and characters, and a fun read. I also loved this detail, unknown to me: our great president Lincoln was also the one who began calling the president’s mansion “the White House.” I look forward to more of Adam’s adventures in the lively and unsettled world of 1861 Washington, D.C.

Lauren Willig: The English Wife

If you are a fan of great writers of the recent past like Mary Stewart or Daphne du Maurier, Lauren Willig is the writer for you, truly putting the romance part into romantic suspense. A clever mystery, a tragic romance, unforgettable characters—several of whom are dead—Willig has all the elements of romantic, gothic suspense in her story and she runs away with them.

Set at the turn of the 19th century, from about 1894 to 1900, Willig sets her story slightly in the past as well as in the present, so she’s sticking to the twin narrative pattern that is her trademark. She takes the story of the meeting of humble Georgie, an actress in London at a time when stage folk were not so revered, and the fabulously wealthy American, Bayard VanDuyvil, or simply Bay.

It’s obvious to the reader though not so much to Georgie that Bay is enamored—Georgie can barely bring herself to hope that she can elevate herself out of her hardscrabble life simply by falling in love. Even as she cautions herself against fairytales, she finds herself a married woman enjoying a Paris honeymoon before she can believe it.

In the present, the book opens at a ball at a lavish home in New England, with the head of the household found dead—a dagger through his heart—during his housewarming costume ball. His wife is nowhere to be seen, and the work of the novel is to match up these two stories as of course the dead couple are Bay and Georgie.

Doing the detective work is Bay’s bereaved and somewhat mousey sister Janie, who enlists the unlikely help of a common—gasp—journalist. Janie’s mother could not be a bigger snob (she looks down on the Vanderbilts) so Janie is on her own, somewhat hindered in her investigation by her cousin Anne, who long ago stole Janie’s fiancée. Anne is now separated and living with the VanDuyvils.

The story of Janie and the journalist, Burke assumes center stage, interspersed with the story of Bay and Georgie and how they ended up dead. To tell much more would be to give away too many details of this clever, sinuous, elegant story that has a gasper of an ending. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Andrew Gross: The Saboteur

While not as emotionally engrossing a novel as last year’s The One Man, and not even really a crime novel, this story really can’t be beat. As most of it is true, unbelievably enough, what Gross has done is to tell the story of some incredible WWII heroes while giving it an emotional center in his main character, Kurt Nordstrum, apparently based on the actual historical figure of Kurt Haukelid. Gross adds some romantic and personal elements to give depth to the character, and the story turns on his actions, but this story is so rocket powered it’s hard to stop reading, and just as hard to believe it’s true.

Set in 1943 Norway, a country occupied by the Nazis and helped by Norwegians known as Quislings (still a term for a traitor), all Kurt has to do to prove his bona fides to the like minded is to say he’s fighting for the King. When he’s asked to get a certain microfilm to the proper channels in the UK, he figures the only way to do it is to actually go to the UK (a near impossibility in wartime), so he and his friends hijack a Swedish freighter and force it across the ocean. That is unbelievable yet true incident #1 (look up the Galtesund). This spawns the central portion of the book, as the evidence smuggled across proves the Germans have an almost impregnable facility in Norway producing enough heavy water to make an atomic bomb.

Kurt and a team train for months to be airdropped into the Norwegian countryside, tasked with destroying the heavy water tanks. This mission, and their training, described in detail, form the central portion of the book. Gross has fictionalized it but again, this is an incredible slice of history, and if you aren’t rooting for this little band of brothers and maybe wiping a tear from your eye, there’s something the matter. Read the afterword as there are even certain small details that are true.

The last section concerns the bombing of a ferry carrying the store of heavy water to Germany. If you aren’t familiar with the history – I wasn’t – I won’t ruin it for you. Settle in and be amazed. Gross is also excellent in portraying the heartbreaking costs of war as well as the sheer heroism of the far from ordinary patriots fighting it. Seems like a lesson to savor for us all.

Carrie Smith: Unholy City

With her clear prose and careful gaze, Carrie Smith has quickly become one of my favorite authors. British or American, I love a police procedural, and some of my favorite authors of all time include Lillian O’Donnell, Leslie Glass, Barbara D’Amato, Lynn Hightower and Lee Martin, all authors of the American police procedural. These writers feature a female cop as the central protagonist and from O’Donnell on forward, all have encountered, in their different ways, varieties of sexism and discrimination. Unfortunately, the history line beginning with O’Donnell’s The Phone Calls in 1972 to Carrie Smith’s 2017 Unholy City hasn’t changed all that radically.

Claire Codella, Smith’s main character, is a cancer survivor who is given crap assignments by her boss through a combination of jealousy (she made a name for herself with her first big case) and a tendency to think she’s too “weak” to do her job, thanks to her illness. While the details of Codella’s work environment and relationships give the books a welcome heft, they are not the main attraction. As with all the other writers mentioned, the story is the thing, and Smith is a top-notch storyteller.

With each novel she’s taken a look inside different pockets of Manhattan – schools, the theater, ritzy old age homes – in this novel she tackles the church, in the form of a venerable old Episcopalian outpost, St. Paul’s, complete with its own crematorium, graveyard and back garden. Into every garden, unfortunately, a little rain must fall and in this novel it takes the form of the corpse of one of the parishioners. The body of one of the more outspoken vestry members is found by another parishioner after a vestry meeting, and all hell breaks loose, in the most Episcopalian sense of the word.

Good Episcopalians all, the members of the vestry and even the rector herself are hiding or holding things inside, which unfortunately, results in a spate of deaths. Because of the set-up Smith has created more or less a locked room murder, as the only people who could have done it were all at the vestry meeting or connected to the church in some way. A group of homeless men sleeping at the church for the night are quickly ruled out, and it’s up to Codella and her boyfriend Heggerty (the lead on the case) to sort things out. Smith is a brisk and clear storyteller but she also has a good grasp of character and a deft hand at portraying it. This is a very enjoyable read, both as a police novel and as a detective novel. I continue to look forward to whatever Smith comes up with next.

Jane A. Adams: The Murder Book

This book hits the ground running and invites you, as a reader, to keep up, plunge in, and take off along with it. Set in the British countryside in 1928, the setting is one I’ve rarely read about, and the characters, gypsies and the hard-working poor, ones rarely focused on. There are two threads to the story, and it took me awhile to figure out where the author was heading and what she had in mind.

The book opens with the murder of little Ruby Fields, whose mother is a prostitute. When she hears sounds that don’t seem right she breaks into her mother’s room and is killed as more or less collateral damage. Ruby’s mother is killed too, as is a third man whose identity is not disclosed until about halfway through the book. The local police, sure there’s a mess afoot as some of Mrs. Fields’ customers were of the propertied class, call in the “murder detectives” from Scotland Yard.

The two Scotland Yard men, Henry Johnstone and his assistant Mickey, arrive and take control of the investigation, starting with the bodies, who have been found in a shallow grave in the back yard of the building where Ruby and her mother lived. As I read, I kept forgetting it was set in 1928 – it seems at times to have been set in 1828 – but then the detectives gather evidence like hairs, bloodstains, and fingerprints, and pass a woman in a cloche hat on the street, and I remembered.

The other thread concerns the community of gypsies, specifically Ethan, Helen and Frank. Frank and Helen have long been promised to one another by their families; but love finds Ethan and Helen and as the two men work on the same farm, and the community is tiny, feelings run high. When a tragedy occurs on the farm the murder detectives are called in to that case as well, though the farmer and landowner doesn’t exactly hold with out-of-towners stepping in to resolve matters best handled by themselves.

There are two halves of the book. The first part mostly concerns the investigation into Ruby’s and her mother’s deaths, and this half showcases the careful and intelligent detective work of Henry and Mickey. Henry seems careful, methodical, and responsible. When they are working, Mickey has to remind Henry to eat, and that serves to make him more human. Throughout, we get a look at Henry’s own “murder book,” notes he keeps during each case. They help the reader to know how his mind works.

The second half of the novel, concerning the crime at the farm and detailing the lives of the incredibly hard working poor who made things work, showcases Henry as arrogant, thorough, and only out for a solution, little caring about the people involved. He gets his man in the case of Ruby and her mother; the ending of the other thread, while in no way ambiguous, is incredibly heartbreaking.

The uncomfortable meeting of the present and the ways of the past – in place for generations – is beautifully described toward the end of the novel: “He was an outsider here in an even deeper sense that in the market town. He had come to realize that Elijah Hanson had called him in only for the look of things… had there been a way of taking care of this business themselves, the community would have done so. He found it unsettling – not their suspicion, which was really commonplace enough – but the sense that he was not really needed, that his version of the law was a mere veneer. Civilization applied as a thin whitewash to the village walls.”

That’s the essence of this book. The law, in the form of London murder detectives, had come to the countryside, but the country dwellers are resisting change and the ways of the past have such a strong pull. I’ve seldom read a novel that was more unsentimentally heartbreaking, and the illumination of the British countryside in 1928 was totally fascinating. This is a lovely little murder book.

Peter Robinson: Sleeping in the Ground

It’s been awhile since I checked in with Inspector Banks, but he’s still the mellow, food, wine and music loving guy he’s always been, if a bit more consumed by melancholy and examining the past. As the book opens he’s just attended the funeral of a long-ago girlfriend, and he’s called in when a sniper shoots up a wedding party, killing the bridal couple and several others. The shooting is realistic enough and ripped from the headlines enough to be disturbing, though the British cops in this book mention that shootings of this type are practically an American epidemic.

While this isn’t a book about gun laws or gun control (that would be an earlier novel, Bad Boy), reading between the lines doesn’t take much. The shooting is horrific enough and speaks for itself.

The crime itself is spectacular, and early on, Banks and crew appear to find their man, an apparent suicide. To Banks, though, something seems like it’s not quite right and he’s sure the man had at the very least an accomplice. As he goes delving into the past lives of the wedding party looking for clues, he’s also looking at his own past life and meeting a new possible love interest, Jenny Fuller, back from the past. Longtime readers of this series will certainly remember this attractive profiler who left early on. Her return (for me) is a welcome one, and it seems it is for Banks as well.

These novels are the very definition of British Police procedural, and if that’s your taste (it happens to be mine) there really can never be enough Inspector Banks novels to suit me. The police work winds its way to a conclusion with a pleasantly surprising windup. While the story is pleasantly surprising, the aftermath for the characters in the drama is not, and Robinson leaves you thinking, as he does in all his novels, about the aftermath of crime. As I feel aftermath is the main topic of the modern detective novel, these books couldn’t be more on point. This is a series and a detective not to be missed.

Victoria Thompson: Murder on Morningside Heights

It’s been awhile since I checked in with Thompson’s midwife character, Sarah, and I was a bit surprised to find her married, wealthy, and an unwilling lady of leisure. Like her sister character Molly Murphy, the leisured life is not going to suit her for too long, and she’s in on Frank Malloy’s first case as a private detective. This series is set in turn of the century New York. Malloy had been a policeman; at the time, the police were far more likely to investigate a case involving a reward. Malloy, knowing the ins and outs of the police department, is almost a step ahead as he works on his own.

As the book opens, he meets the grieving parents of a young woman killed at the Normal College in Manhattan, where she had been a teacher. There is no apparent motive for the crime – the young woman had been stabbed to death in a gazebo on the peaceful campus – and everyone is agreed that the dead Abigail was exceptional in every way. Undeterred, Malloy heads to the school determined to interview Abigail’s students, colleagues and the two lady professors she shared a house with. Helping him to unwind things is Sarah, who some of the ladies are more willing to talk to than they are to the gruff Malloy. The two ladies Abigail had lived with – Miss Winters and Miss Billingsly – seem to be divided on their view of Abigail: one liked her (Miss Winters) and one disliked her (Miss Billingsly). Helping to clarify matters is the maid Bathsheba, successfully approached by Malloy on a wash day.

One of the things highlighted by a novel set in the past is the different way people were treated at different times – at the time, it was puzzling to many of Abigail’s friends that she preferred to work and study rather than marry (married teachers could not get jobs).

It was also considered odd and slightly scandalous for single women to room together. The attitude toward pay is also different: women were paid far less than men because it was felt they did not need to support a family (sadly, still an attitude in The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 70’s). Somehow Thompson never makes the discovery and description of these differences tedious, she instead makes them interesting.

Thompson is a vivid and brisk storyteller; I had forgotten how quickly I breezed through her books and found reading this one to be every bit as satisfying as the first several I devoured. I did miss Sarah’s job as a midwife, but it looks like that skill may be making a return. The mystery part is tricky and I didn’t figure out the motive – there’s a giant red herring used to great effect. Thompson remains one of the more enjoyable reads in mystery fiction.