Archive for Historical

Nancy Herriman: Searcher of the Dead

Searcher of the Dead by Nancy HarrimanAs Nancy Herriman proved with her books set in 1860’s San Francisco, she is an able and entertaining storyteller, no matter what the era. She’s changed her setting to Elizabethan England, and given readers Bess Ellyott, a widowed herbalist living with her brother. She’s fled London after the suspicious death of her husband and finds herself attempting to comfort her distraught sister, who insists her husband is missing.

As Bess and her brother try to calm their sister Dorothie, they must wait to look for him, as there’s not only a curfew in place, it’s very foggy. When morning comes and her brother-in-law is nowhere to be found, her brother Robert, Dorothie and Bess all set out to search and unfortunately find the man hanging from a tree. A ruling of suicide was devastating; not only could the body not be buried in a church graveyard, all the property of the dead person was confiscated by the crown, and as suicide (or felo-de-se) is in fact the verdict of the coroner, Dorothie sets down to a glum watch as her household is dismantled.

Like any detective worth her salt, however, Bess is not only certain she saw something proving murder on the dead man’s neck, she’s willing to break curfew and dig him up to prove her point. She’s helped out by the local constable (who seems to be sweet on her) and together they set out to prove that the death was murder, not suicide. She’s undertaking all of her investigations while her brother is out of town, and she’s in charge of the household.

Suspicion seems to fall on a local Catholic family, especially as there seems to be some kind of mysterious Jesuit lurking in their woods, and when Bess is called to attend to an injury suffered by one of their servants, she is able to do a little detecting while she’s binding a cut. Her volatile sister is little help, and her niece, infatuated with the scion of the Catholic house, is torn, but Bess and the constable work well together to piece together a solution.

Part of the interest and charm of this novel comes from the time period, and from Herriman’s exploration of customs and mores different from our own. She’s also adept at creating a vivid setting and then in filling that setting with interesting, believable and fleshed-out characters, something that adds depth to any novel, and it certainly does to this one. Moreover she sets a brisk pace for herself with lots of action and twists of the plot. This is an excellent start to a new series.

Laura Joh Rowland: A Mortal Likeness

A Mortal LikenessThe second novel in Laura Joh Rowland’s Sarah Bain series, this one has no need to establish character and setting. It just takes off. Sarah, a photographer, is now working with her friend Lord Hugh as a private detective with a minimal amount of success so far. As the book opens, the two are on the trail of an adulterer, who they follow to the Crystal Palace in hopes of catching and photographing him in a compromising situation. This part of their scheme goes well, and the two take off when the man spots them and chases them off.

When Sarah goes home to develop the photographs, they have clear evidence of wrongdoing for the man’s wife to take to court, but Sarah notices a man in the background who appears to be her long-lost father. She can’t help but return to the Crystal Palace the next day to look for him, but when she gets there she finds the couple has not only been murdered, but they seem to be somehow tied to the kidnapping of baby Robin Mariner, the son of the powerful Sir Gerald Mariner.

Sarah and Hugh decide to take their information to Sir Gerald rather than the police (a sticky wicket, as Sarah’s beau is a policeman) and Sir Gerald hires them on the spot to come to his home and see if they can solve the crime. He suspects a family member, not an outsider, despite the evidence of a ladder outside the nursery window the night of the disappearance.

The two are also required to sign a confidentiality agreement, so Sarah leaves for Sir Gerald’s without telling her policeman boyfriend where she’s headed. She just tells him she’s “visiting a friend.” They also leave in the lurch young Mick, a homeless boy who has recently moved in with them. They give Hugh’s valet with instructions only that Mick should continue to attend school.

To say Sir Gerald’s household is dysfunctional is an understatement, as it’s filled with resentful adult children from other marriages as well as his new young wife (mother of Robin) and her sister, Tabitha, as well as a psychic Lady Alexandra keeps around to help her communicate with Robin. Sarah and Hugh are resented by Sir Gerald’s butler who is loath to give them any inside track on the inner workings of the household.

As they begin their investigation they are hampered in their efforts by a serious fire in their rooms and the death of a member of the household. Rowland is adept at creating a setting, and she’s created some very sturdy and interesting characters to center her series on. Mick of course shows up halfway through the proceedings.

The family dynamics of this story make this very much a psychological mystery, and the resolution is both surprising and creepy. Rowland also left a nice fat juicy thread to pursue in the next book – Sarah still has not found her missing father. There is plenty to discover and relish in this very enjoyable book.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Tasha Alexander: Death in St. Petersburg

I love Tasha Alexander – her books are all so delicious in every way, but this one may be my absolute favorite. Lady Emily accompanies her husband (who is on an espionage mission) to Russia, where she is just supposed to be enjoying herself and having a little vacation. Ha! The book opens with a dead ballerina in the snow. Lady Emily is present at the discovery of the body, and of course, she’s drawn into the investigation.

I’ll say up front I’m a freak for Nicholas and Alexandra, ballet, Swan Lake and Faberge eggs – all converge in chapter one and I couldn’t have been more happily sucked in to this story. It follows the rise of the dead dancer, Nemesteva, and her best friend, Katenka, as they begin ballet school at the Imperial Theatre school as young girls.

For Nemesteva everything comes more easily; for shy Katenka – a technical expert who has a hard time expressing her emotion on the stage – not so much, but the two girls are the stars of their group. Threaded into the story (at a far remove) are real life figures like Carl Faberge and choreographers Petipa and Ceccheti. They make the whole more believable in a way they would not have if they had been up front, involved in the plot, characters.

Emily is asked to look into the dancer’s death by a clearly grieving Prince who was obviously having an affair with Nemesteva and wants her killer avenged. Emily agrees somewhat reluctantly – she has few Russian contacts – but in her typical fashion she tracks down Nemesteva’s friends and colleagues and begins to piece her life together.

The two strands of the story draw slowly together – the story of the ballerinas begins slightly in the past (the main story is happening in 1900) and as they converge and the strands of the mystery become clearer, the suspense amps up as well.

Complicating matters is a “ghost ballerina” who appears in different locations and then instantly disappears, causing everyone in St. Petersburg to assume that it’s Nemesteva’s ghost, seeking revenge. I mean, swoon! A ghost ballerina! I could not have loved this book more and was so sorry when I finished it. Lady Emily of course saves the day in her inimitable way, and I am already eagerly anticipating her next adventure.

Rhys Bowen: On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service

Note: if you aren’t completely up to date on the Lady Georgie series, this review does contain some spoilers. If you skip it, rest assured this installment is just as much fun as all the others.

Rhys Bowen’s Lady Georgie series is about the most fun you can have “between the covers.” Ever since the publication of Her Royal Spyness (2007), Bowen has trod the delicate line between humor, character development and great plotting to provide one of the more completely enjoyable series in the mysterious universe. Lady Georgie, for the uninitiated, lives in 1930’s London and is 34th in line to the throne. She’s impoverished but does get assignments from the Queen to do a little “family” spying – at the time, Queen Mary’s greatest worry was the Prince of Wales’ relationship with Wallis Simpson.

By this installment, Georgie is engaged to the dashing Darcy and happily spending time with him at the family castle in Ireland when he’s called away on a mission (he is a spy). At loose ends, her troubles are apparently over when she gets a pleading message from her dear friend Belinda who is waiting out an unwanted pregnancy in Italy. She stops by the Palace on her way to Italy to have tea with Queen Mary and request a release from the line of succession so she can marry Darcy (he’s a Catholic and he’s Irish). When the Queen finds out where she’s going, she quickly asks Georgie to join a house party at a villa near her friend. The Prince and Wallis will be attending, and the Queen wants to know if Wallis has obtained a divorce.

A good bit of the humor in the books comes from Georgie’s troubles with her maid, Queenie, who is hopeless at ironing, hair, make-up – all the things a ladies’ maid at the time was supposed to be an expert at. But there’s something endearing about Queenie. She’s found a berth with a cousin of Darcy’s in the kitchen and it seems to be suiting her, so Georgie takes off, maid-less and unchaperoned (to the Queen’s horror) to the continent.

Arriving in Italy, it takes some time for her to track down Belinda, who has taken up residence in a Swiss clinic. Georgie eventually makes her reluctant way to the house party, which is hosted by an old boarding school friend who has married really well. The house party appears to be made up of wildly disparate people, including several German officers (it’s 1935 and Hitler is in power), as well as Georgie’s mother. Never very maternal, her mother is nevertheless strangely delighted to see Georgie and asks her to help her out of a spot of blackmail.

Of course, there’s a murder as well as a frighteningly efficient ladies’ maid named Gerda who is on loan from the mistress of the villa. The light tone is kept throughout and as is usual with a Lady Georgie book, I was often laughing aloud as I read. All is resolved at the end and it seems we happy fans have a wedding to look forward to in the next installment, and possibly three of them. If you want to know who the other two weddings belong to, you’ll have to read the book!