This seems almost unbelievable, but it’s been 51 years since Tony Hillerman published his first Joe Leaphorn novel, The Blessing Way. The books are now such revered classics I was hesitant when I picked up Anne Hillerman’s first book, thinking there was no way she could continue the work of her father. But Ms. Hillerman has made the series her own. The central character is neither Joe Leaphorn or Jim Chee, but Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito, giving the series an entirely new flavor.
I love this vibrant, lively, insanely readable series, a series that takes unexpected turns with its characters but still hews to the traditional norms of historical mystery fiction. The first book in the series, A Death of No Importance, was a fabulous origin story, where ladies’ maid Jane Prescott takes on the nouveau riche Benchley family in the first decade of the twentieth century. The books are set in New York City and the Benchley girls are viewed as rich upstarts, and Jane’s special charge, Louise, is shy and gauche and seems to fit in nowhere.
Murder at Wedgefield Manor is the delightful second book in Erica Ruth Neubauer’s series set in the 1920s, featuring the adventurous American World War I widow Jane Wunderly. After solving a mystery in Egypt in the first book, Murder at the Mena House, Jane, her matchmaking Aunt Millie, and Millie’s secret daughter Lillian arrive at Wedgefield Manor, the English country estate of Lord Hughes, who had been Millie’s lover years ago. Quite possibly, Millie and Hughes are rekindling their romance. Lillian is the product of their brief affair. Lord Hughes and his wife had adopted Lillian and raised her as their own, and as far as Jane knows, Lillian is not aware of the fact that Millie is her mother–a fact that Jane had uncovered in the course of her investigation in Egypt, where she met Lillian for the first time.
This is a favorite new series. The books feature Mercy Carr and her military dog, Elvis, who have come home to Vermont to nurse their wounds (and their PTSD) after losing the love of both their lives, Martinez, in Afghanistan. Both have reacclimated to a degree, though Mercy has a hard time with trust and tends to hold herself back when it comes to relationships. While Mercy is slightly on the outs with her perhaps boyfriend, game warden Troy, her life is a full one. She’s taken in a teenage mother, her baby, and her boyfriend; she has a tight relationship with her grandmother, Patience, a vet; and she and Elvis are now working as a complete team.
This is the third book in the “kinship” series, set on the outer edges of 1920’s Ohio (Chillicothe is the big city), and each book centers itself on a different woman, though the central character is always Sherriff Lily Ross. Lily became Sherriff after the murder of her sheriff husband and the first book was her story, as well as the story of labor organizer Marvena, now one of Lily’s best friends. The second novel was about her friend, schoolteacher Hildy, and this book follows the story of Fiona, who is married to the series bad guy, George Vogel.
Character is key in almost any book. This was brought home to me recently when I read and really enjoyed The Unusual Suspect by Ben Machell after having encountered several other true crime books that simply didn’t satisfy. The trend today is to serve up an unsolved mystery and slather it with internet speculation and/or trial transcripts. there may be a few satisfying crime books, fact or fiction, where you never find out who dun it, but it’s certainly very few. I won’t name names, but if you write a book about say, a person who evidently either killed themselves or was murdered in a flamboyant fashion, it’s important to know their character to decide which of the two were more likely, something a journalistic “just the facts” approach doesn’t provide.
Tasha Alexander writes one of the most reliably entertaining series in mystery fiction – every book has a complex plot, often a dual timeline, a bit of romance, plus the reader gets to go on some armchair travel and learn a bit of history to boot. In this latest Lady Emily outing, her dishy husband, Colin, takes her to Florence, along with her friend Cecile, for cover, as he works on something so secret for the Crown that he can’t even tell Emily.
It’s 1903 and they’re staying at Colin’s newly discovered daughter, Kat’s, home in Florence, and merely reading the descriptions of Florence will make you long not just for armchair travel but for the real thing. Emily and Cecile are folded into Colin’s work by a circumstance beyond his control – when they arrive at the villa, one of the workers plunges to his death from the top of the villa and is discovered by one of the maids. Emily and Cecile think they can do better winkling out what really happened to him, and of course, they are correct.
This book is adorable in the best possible way. I usually hate it when real people are used as the detective, and in the case of this novel “the detective” is one of the most famous people on the planet, Queen Elizabeth II. But SJ Bennett has real affection and reverence – in the nicest way – for her majesty and the actual detecting is mostly done by the Queen’s Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi, a British Nigerian who shares the Queen’s affection for horses and would do anything for the “boss.”
This is a slightly different book for Lauren Willig, as it’s more straight up history than romance or mystery. It’s about a group of women, Smith College alums, graduating right before WWI, who form a relief unit and head to France to help the victims of the war in the French countryside. They set sail for Paris in the summer of 1917, with ideas of what Paris will be like wildly out of sync with wartime Paris. One girl is planning to buy her trousseau.
The two central characters are Kate, a scholarship girl at Smith who has been working as a French tutor, and Emmie, a wealthy daughter of a politically active suffragette. The two had been best friends at Smith – Emmie’s sweet goofiness balanced by Kate’s practicality. Kate wears a pretty big chip on her shoulder, though, and it often gets in the way of the friendship. When they arrive in Paris, everything is topsy turvy.
Confession: this is the first Charles Finch book I’ve read. I’m not sure why as it falls in my reading wheelhouse – I love historical novels and Finch is covering a period of history I enjoy reading about. I’ve certainly devoured books by Tasha Alexander, Deanna Raybourn, Dianne Freeman, Maureen Jennings and Anne Perry. Finch takes a comfortable seat beside these writers, and his detective, Charles Lenox, is an appealing Englishman, covering the London streets of the 1870’s. This is a later book in the series and Lenox is comfortably married to the glamourous and capable Lady Jane, he’s settled in his career, but he has always felt a yearning to travel.