Archive for Historical

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!

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.