Archive for Historical

James R. Benn: Billy Boyle

We sell a TON of James R. Benn titles, often this first one, Billy Boyle. Billy is an Irish cop circa 1942, when he’s drafted. His uncles, who lived through WWI, don’t like the idea of Billy going overseas so they pull some strings, getting him assigned to a “cushy” desk job with cousin Ike (a.k.a. Eisenhower). While I usually dislike historical novels featuring real people, cousin Ike (other than getting Billy over to England) only plays a small part in the story, so I was OK with it.

Billy, fresh from the states, is unsure what to expect. He’s put up at the Dorchester hotel (in an attic room, obviously previously used for servants) and is quickly introduced to the people he’ll be working with. Among them are the glamorous Daphne, a WREN far more capable than her assignments, and a courtly and melancholy Polish Baron named Kaz who has lost his family to the Nazis.

As Billy arrives, the Allies are set to launch Operation Jupiter – basically a plan to get the Nazis out of Norway – when there’s an unexpected suicide, which of course turns out to be murder.

Benn capably sets up a locked room mystery situation – the murder could only have been committed by someone at the Dorchester, which is filled with Norwegian officers. Daphne comes up with a plan to get Billy (and herself) where she needs to go, and she, Kaz and Billy set off to far flung parts of Britain in their quest to uncover a killer. On the way they stop at Daphne’s home, a lovely country estate, where Billy is more than smitten with Daphne’s sister, Diana.

The trio splits up to do their investigating, Billy heading out to speak with one of the Norwegians getting ready to go overseas to take part in the secret operation to liberate Norway from the Nazis. When Billy returns to meet up with Daphne and Kaz there’s a death so jaw dropping that finishing the novel gains even more urgency. Billy, a rookie cop back home, has been elevated to playing a real detective and he’s finding it challenging but, with his Dad’s voice in his head advising him on what to do, he perseveres and discovers the culprit.

A secret operation of Billy’s own puts paid to the murderer, but he’s plagued with the idea that his actions have cost lives. Benn is really expert in highlighting these wartime dilemmas, of which that last is the largest: how to balance the greater good with the cost of some (or many) lives figuring into the equation (I was reminded of the excellent movie about Alan Turing, The Imitation Game, which takes the same thing into account. Benn’s book predates the film by several years).

Benn is a lively storyteller, nicely balancing character, a dash of romance, a well drawn wartime setting and a terrific plot. This is thankfully already a lengthy series, and I can’t recommend starting with this novel more highly.

Candace Robb: A Twisted Vengeance

The second novel in Candace Robb’s Kate Clifford series finds the feisty Kate dealing with her mother moving in next door, bringing along with her some “beguines” or women who live a religious life but not in a convent. They devoted themselves to charitable work. Kate is wary of her Mother’s newfound earnest faith and of her mother in general, and with good reason, as Robb teases out more of Kate’s family backstory throughout the book.

Kate has an assorted household that includes a giant, earless baker and former soldier, Berend, and two wolfhounds who accompany her everywhere. She also has a tumble of children, none of them hers, but all of them with ties to her family. She loves them all and it makes for a busy, active household.

The year is 1399, and Kate lives in York, so she’s right in the middle of a civil war – a conflict Robb does not overly impose on her story, but instead makes it a reason for the uncertainty, violence and chaos that shroud the city. Like a good noir novel, no one can be trusted, which makes Kate’s detective work all the more difficult. I’ve always thought of Robb as an historical novelist, certainly, but she also owes a debt to her fellow West Coaster Ross Macdonald, with his dark look at families and general noir viewpoint.

The book opens with one of the beguines being dragged out of bed and violently attacked – she’s recovering but won’t speak – and somewhere, there’s a man she’s stabbed. When the body count rises, so do tensions, and the central narrative thread lies between Kate and her mother. Their wary coming together is the story of this strong, emotionally moving novel, and the action scenes are pretty terrific too. Kate wields a mean arrow.

Laura Joh Rowland: The Ripper’s Shadow

Laura Joh Rowland is well known to mystery fans as the author of the Sano Ichiro mysteries set in 17th century Japan. She’s also taken on Charlotte Bronte in other novels, and here she creates a new character, photographer Sarah Bain, who lives in Victorian London at the same time as Jack the Ripper. While there are many, many books about Jack the Ripper—the fact that he was never found will always be fuel for speculation—he’s almost like Sherlock Holmes in that the permutations and impressions of his life (and crimes) are varied and plentiful, and the interpretations can range from the dull to the nutty to the creative. Rowland goes for the creative.

She creates a central tent pole character who is interesting, flawed, and human at the same time. Sarah is a female photographer struggling to make ends meet on her own, and has found a path to success taking naughty photographs of prostitutes. The photos were the idea of one of the women, but when the women start to die at the hands of the Ripper, Sarah feels her photographs are the reason why. Interweaving fact and fiction, Rowland of course posits a solution to the crimes, but that is almost a McGuffin. To me the real interest of the novel lay in the characters which Rowland chooses to surround Sarah.

They are a varied and disparate lot, yet they seem to have a common thread—some horrible, painful pasts or innate character traits that make them societal outliers. There are the Lipskys, who Sarah meets when she goes to photograph their dead child; Jews expelled from Russia, their painful past can almost be assumed. There’s young Mick, who cadges his living on the streets but takes a liking to Sarah, who ends up feeding him on a pretty regular basis. There’s the dashing Lord Hugh whose secret is that he prefers men to women; in Victorian London, of course, this was an illegal lifestyle choice that could result in prison. And finally there’s the lovely actress and model Catherine, who has posed for Sarah and who the little band unites around in a kind of protective custody arrangement.

As this group searches for the Ripper, Sarah is afraid to reveal the reason for her alarm to the police, fearing her photos could get her arrested. As she hides this essential fact she becomes a target of the investigation herself and finds a frenemy in one PC Barrett.

As Rowland takes the reader on a tour of many of the seamier parts of London, you can almost smell the city as Sarah and crew take their stations in the fog, protecting prostitutes and hoping to catch the Ripper. Sarah’s lonely present is assuaged by her new band of companions, and it’s the growing friendship between all of them—as little bits of their pasts are teased out throughout the narrative—that give this novel real charm. It certainly felt to me like it was set up for a sequel, and I hope it is, as these are characters I hope to revisit.

Nancy Herriman: No Comfort for the Lost

nocomfortNancy Herriman has taken a very specific time and place and brought it to life. Her central series character, Celia Davis, British born, has served as a nurse in the Crimea. Through marriage, she’s ended up in 1867 San Francisco, as the man she married was a hot blooded Irishman looking to make his fortune in the gold rush. He has vanished – he may be dead, or he may not be dead, but Celia is running a clinic on her own and serving as guardian to her cousin, Barbara, who is slightly crippled as well as half Chinese. In 1867 San Francisco, being Chinese was far more of an impediment than being crippled.

The mystery centers on the discovery of a dead Chinese girl, who, it turns out, was a friend of Celia’s, a former prostitute now working an honest job and living with Celia’s rather unpleasant brother in law. Despite his unpleasantness, Celia is certain he’s not the cause of her death, which despite appearing as a drowning initially, has been found by the coroner to be a stabbing.

Investigating the case is Detective Nicholas Greaves, a Civil War vet with a backstory of his own. That’s a big chunk of backstory, all things considered, to include in a first novel, but Herriman carries it off with aplomb. She’s an engaging and smooth storyteller. I was caught up in her world, even as I was certain there are many more threads involving her characters to be unraveled in books to come.

In this novel her central theme concerns the treatment of the Chinese, who were ardently feared and hated, not only for their different culture, but they were seen as taking “American” jobs. Sound at all familiar? It is eerily so, as Herriman, writing about 1867, could just as easily have been writing about nearly every immigrant wave that’s come to this country. It’s unclear if the death of the young woman was tied to anti-Chinese sentiment or if the reason was more personal – the girl was found to be pregnant.

Herriman weaves a tricky and hard to put down story, and I’d gladly turn the pages of another Celia Davies adventure. Her setting is clearly defined, her sidebar characters are memorable, and her canvas, while wide, is specific and detailed enough to hold your attention. A very nice first effort.

Jonathan F. Putnam: These Honored Dead

thesehonoredThis is a terrific debut novel, set in Springfield, Illinois in 1837. Abraham Lincoln, newly minted lawyer, arrives in town looking for a place to stay. He ends up sharing the bed (a common practice at the time) of one Joshua Speed, who is running the general store in town. Speed and Lincoln became lifelong friends; his brother, James was named U.S. Attorney General by President Lincoln. When this book takes place, however, Lincoln’s presidency is far in the future, though the character traits that assured his greatness are hinted at here.

Speed is actually the main character and that’s as it should be. (I never like novels taking too much liberty with major historical figures.) Lincoln is definitely a part of the story, but he’s more of a background player. Speed is carrying on a romance with a fellow merchant in secret, a widow from a nearby town. While the arrangement suits Speed and he’d like it to continue, she abruptly cuts him off.

Not long after that Speed runs into her and finds she has taken in her niece and nephew as wards; and not too much longer after that, the woman’s young niece is found brutally murdered. Speed is in on the hunt, doing much of the investigative work to clear the woman’s name as she’s suspected of the crime.

A series of deaths find Speed begging Lincoln to defend the person eventually accused of the crimes in the novel (I don’t want to give too much away). They work together quite well, even illustrating how two men with opposing views can be both friends as well as work together. It’s a gentle lesson that’s welcome in today’s political climate.

The mystery part of the novel is pleasantly brisk and suitably tricky. I did tumble on to the solution before the end of the novel, but I didn’t actually care. The real strength of this novel is Putnam’s deft hand at portraying life in 1837 Springfield – a time when Southern Illinois was practically the frontier.

The oncoming economic crash, the hardscrabble lives of the town merchants and farmers, and the vivid portrayal of a community that’s bound together when necessary made this for me a compelling and hard to put down read. I think one of the things that was most interesting to me was the way people shared beds and even plates, as Speed and Lincoln breakfast together and share a huge feast. I was fascinated that there were feral hogs running loose. Putnam even includes an Alexis DeTocqueville style character in the form of a Prussian who comes through town and is forced to stay on for awhile (thanks in part to the hogs.) He’s writing a book about his experiences in America.

Putnam’s portrayal of life on the prairie has an epic feel; and the life depicted in the book has the air of bursting forth and expectancy as a nation takes shape and rumbles to full life. And of course, I can never read enough about Lincoln. Not to be corny, but he’s one of the great things about our country. I was glad to be in his company, as well as that of Joshua Speed. This feels like a series that could have a nice long run.

Tasha Alexander: A Terrible Beauty

terriblebeautyAt this point in Tasha Alexander’s career, now eleven novels in to her Lady Emily series, you’re either all in or all out. I am all in as Lady Emily makes her way around Victorian Europe solving crimes with the help of her dashing husband, Colin Hargreaves. As most loyal readers will know, Lady Emily was widowed in the first novel, And Only to Deceive, falling in love with her husband only after the fact. She ends up mirroring and following his passion for the classical world.

Emily ends up marrying one of his best friends, a true love match, which has produced children and a wonderful series of exploits. In this novel Emily and Colin are on their way to a relaxing vacation at Emily’s Greek villa, partially as an attempt to cheer their friend Jeremy who suffered a trauma in the last novel (The Adventuress), but also an excuse for Emily and her friend Margaret to argue cheerfully about the differences in Greek vs. Roman culture. In happy expectation, they arrive on the island, only to discover that something is amiss.

READ NO FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS.

While this is not technically a spoiler, is revealed on the jacket, and is the incident around which the plot revolves, it was shocking to me that Emily and Colin arrive at the villa to find Emily’s dead husband waiting for them. Apparently, Philip Ashton is not dead and in a series of flashbacks we discover what’s happened to him during the years of 1888-1899. As the past and present threads draw closer, so of course do the suspenseful elements of the story.

To me, however, this book was all about Emily and Colin’s reaction to meeting up with the long thought dead Philip. While the story concerns a number of dangerous characters, after Philip because of an incredibly rare object he may or may not possess, the real emotional heft of the story were Emily’s and Colin’s reactions to meeting Philip again. As civilized human beings some protocols are observed, but what protocol is there when meeting your dead husband, especially one you fell in love with after his death?

This is an especially poignant interlude in Lady Emily’s history, filled with Alexander’s usual bravura hand at adventure, setting and intrigue. With its Greek setting this one reminded me a bit of Mary Stewart’s classic, The Moonspinners, mostly for the setting and the ability of both writers to convey what must be the otherworldly beauty of Greece. Stewart and Alexander are also wonderfully crisp storytellers, and if you enjoy one of these writers but are unfamiliar with the other, I urge you to give the other a try.

I won’t reveal any more about the story other than to say this in an eminently satisfactory read in one of the most enjoyable historical mystery series on the planet.

Maureen Jennings: Dead Ground In Between

deadgroundMaureen Jennings is known far and wide—and deservedly so—for her Inspector Murdoch mysteries, set in Victorian Toronto, But she’s also now written four installments in the equally excellent Detective Inspector Tom Tyler mysteries, set in a tiny Shrosphire village during the heart of the war. One of the books was about Land Girls; one about a munitions factory explosion; one about a hospital for the war wounded. In this novel she has settled deeply into Tom Tyler’s life and his assignment in Ludlow, as he gets used to being divorced and missing the love of his life, who is abroad doing secret war work.

When an old man disappears off a farm and he’s later discovered murdered, the crime brings all kinds of elements to the surface. The farm in question has both a Land Girl on site as well an Italian POW from a nearby camp who helps with milking the cows. The old man had had dementia and was a source of conflict through the family, shaking the fundamentals of the relationship between the working farmer, his wife, and the adult son she’s brought with her into the marriage.

The book begins with Tom sitting through the cases of the magistrate’s court—in 1942 the act of riding a bicycle without a headlight and cursing at the constable were charges brought before the court. Two of the men, obvious poachers, are given to Tyler’s remand and he sets them to work scouring the police station. Two young boys who were forced to leave their native Holland are also before the court for causing a ruckus and possible shoplifting from a local store. They, too, fall under Tyler’s remand.

As the story unfolds, it centers on some British Civil War coins unearthed in a field; the plight of the two young boys; and the developing changes in Tyler’s love life as he attempts negotiating his way through dating. While Jennings’ novels are never light and frothy, she brings enough humanity to her dark stories to leaven them. This one is a dark tale of a country enmeshed in a long and terrible war and the darkness that ripples from it, creating havoc everywhere. Even though the death of the old man is not war related, this is still very much a “war” novel.

Jennings is truly expert at setting a scene, and reading one of her novels is an immersive experience. Looking up from the pages it’s almost jarring to discover your sugar and butter aren’t rationed; you don’t have to line up at the grocers for vegetables; you can turn the lights on after dark. She never is anachronistic, or she doesn’t seem to be; her characters have lives and attitudes that fit the period. In fact, I recently read an Agatha Christie novel where a young woman comes home from the WRENS and the tone of that Christie—actually written at the time of the war—and the tone of Jennings’ novel are identical. I hated for this book to end, and am eagerly looking forward to the next Tom Tyler novel.

Darcie Wilde: A Useful Woman

useful-womanI’ve read other books by Sarah Zettel, a.k.a. Darcie Wilde, but this one is by far my favorite. I loved the setting – (mostly) 1817 London, with a brief prologue in 1812 – and the milieu, to any lover of Jane Austen novels, is a somewhat familiar one, as are the straightened circumstances of the heroine, Rosalind Thorne. Back in 1812, Rosalind comes home dreamily from a dance where she’s almost declared her love for young Devon, only to wake up and find her sister fleeing the house in the middle of the night with their father.

Fast forward to 1817, and the impoverished Rosalind, while maintaining her own tiny household, has lost her mother, Devon is engaged to an old frenemy, and Rosalind’s lot in life is to use her skill set – which now would be seen as that of the efficient event planner or skillful political operative – to secure invitations, make sure the guest lists of balls are correctly populated, and in general, making herself useful to the haute ton, of which she was once an honored member. She has the ear of the highest up and most powerful society matrons as well as the ear of certain members of the press. It’s a useful combination.

As the story opens, society is in an uproar over the possible vacancy on the governing board of Almack’s, a club where many of the important balls of the season are held. (It was the only such club which admitted both men and women). Rosalind is also fielding offers of residence for the “season” – one with Lady Edmund, the mother of the frenemy engaged to Devon; or an offer from her godmother, Lady Blanchard. She ends up accepting Lady Blanchard’s offer, which is immediately complicated when she goes to pick her up at Almack’s one afternoon and not only does she discover the dead body of one Jasper Aimesworth, Lady Blanchard is not far behind. She promptly lapses into hysterics, leaving the capable and practical Rosalind to fend for her.

Jasper is the son of Lady Edmund, as well as a well known gambler and wastrel, but his sister Honoria, Devon’s fiancée, loved him anyway and she asks Rosalind to find out whodunit. Society is reeling – the scandal now attached to Almacks, the death of a prominent son – Rosalind cannot refuse and with her access she has a good chance of finding the answer. Early on she meets the Bow Street Runner assigned to the case and together, they help one another out.

The mystery portion of the novel is clever and the resolution unexpected, but the real delight here are in the characters and setting. Rosalind is a relatable type, a capable woman useful to all, and sensible to boot. Even her reduced circumstances are far more relatable than the grand ballrooms the other characters inhabit. Wilde gives a positively delicious picture of the ins and outs of high society. The book is nicely set up for a sequel, with two possible love interests and another plea at the end for Rosalind’s “help.” How can she say no? And how can any reader refuse to follow her anywhere? This is a completely charming series debut.

Andrew Gross: The One Man

The+One+Man+by+Andrew+GrossThriller writer Andrew Gross has turned his sights to a topic closer to him personally, the Holocaust. While I almost feel I have read, seen and learned everything about the Holocaust, this book provides a fresh look at this hellish time in human history and reminds us that as humans we are capable of devastating cruelty. The balance Gross brings to his novel – a balance between storytelling and what is obviously deeply felt history – is really very well handled. I could not put this book down nor could I stop thinking about it.

Gross takes a simple idea as his central tentpole: what if one of the many thousands of gifted scientists herded into the camps actually held the key to the Atom Bomb? And if that were true, how then could this “one man” be gotten out? Impossible.

Some of the real history laced through the story Gross unspools is sometimes the most unbelievable. There were in fact actually two men who escaped from Auschwitz, and their reports of what was happening circulated at the highest levels of government abroad, up to and including FDR. There was also a man who snuck in and got out the next day with an eyewitness account.

The scheme that takes shape in the book is this: the scientist in question, one Alfred Mendl, is indeed in Auschwitz, merely existing there after the brutal murders of his wife and daughter. In America, a young Jew who escaped Europe at the right time (while leaving his own family behind) has enlisted in the U.S. Army and he’s recruited to sneak into Auschwitz and get Mendl out. This seems impossible.

Gross has many threads to his story; we learn about Mendl’s life, about the young man, Nathan’s; about life in the ghetto; even some about the personal life of one of the Nazi guards. What Gross brings most vividly to life is a depiction of what life inside the camp was like; I was in tears more often than not as I read.

And I read and read. I could not stop reading this very well assembled thriller which takes the impossible and tries to figure a way it might actually be possible. There’s no way to tell a story about the Holocaust that ends well, of course, but for a few of Gross’ characters, the ending is not so terrible. It’s a small redemption, but a welcome one.

I most appreciated the Afterword, detailing some of his research and making clear the bits that were true and the bits he took a bit of liberty with. If you can read this book without your heart in your mouth or finish without a tear in year eye, I’d be very surprised.   This is a wonderful and memorable book, definitely one of the reads of the year.

Barbara Cleverly: Diana’s Altar

51gQbUTiA2LI haven’t picked up a Barbara Cleverly novel in a couple years, despite being a huge fan of the earlier books in this series, which are set in India during the British Raj. Her central character, Joe Sandilands, has since made his way back through Europe and is now back home in London working for Scotland Yard. But enough time had elapsed for me not to compare the books set in India to this one, which is set in Oxford in 1933.

Cleverly has always been a bravura plotter and storyteller; she has twists upon twists and it makes a reader breathless to try and keep up with her facile brain. The opening scene in this novel is a knockout – a young female doctor, bicycling home, is drawn on All Hallows Eve to explore a sinister looking church on the edge of the University campus. She’d been intrigued by a sign she’d seen; but instead of finding some kind of weird cult at work, she finds a dying young man in one of the pews who confesses to his own suicide with his last breath. She’s a doctor so she does her best to save or at least comfort him, and she’s shaken by his death.

Scotland Yard is called in in the form of Joe Sandilands, and the layers of the onion begin to be revealed. In another fabulous sequence, Cleverly establishes that the dead man was a spy for the British government – as is Sandliands. It’s also revealed that the female doctor and Sandilands have a romantic relationship. She’s one of the best characters in the novel and to my disappointment, she was not more front and center though she plays a key role throughout the narrative.

The novel also concerns itself with some goings on at the home of a very wealthy patron of the arts, also a patron the Oxford’s physics department. In 1933, the top project was of course the atom bomb. As Cleverly makes clear (and this part of the book is based on fact) there was a Russian agent working with his British counterparts at the time. The worlds of the arts and science were linked by Oxford social occasions, and the wealthy patron, Sir Gregory Pertinax, is known for having rather scandalous house parties. Joe manages to work his way into Pertinax’s graces and is invited to a party.

The interweaving of the espionage work at the Oxford lab – called the crocodile – and the goings on at the home of Sir Gregory is skillfully done, as is the tracing of Joe’s clever detective work. He’s always a step ahead of this particular reader. I am a firm believer in not reviewing the book I wish had been written – which for me would have focused on the female doctor and her relationship with Sandilands – but once I accepted that I was actually reading a spy novel I settled in for the ride. This is a very well done spy novel and it illustrates a part of 1933 Britain I was not familiar with. There’s a generous afterword at the end that answers some of the questions I had that weren’t answered by the novel itself. I also had to accept that this wasn’t the earlier, almost swashbuckling romantic adventures set in India that lit up the first 4 or 5 novels in this series. There’s still the main swashbuckler at the center of things, however, and Joe Sandilands is a character to be appreciated and enjoyed.