If this isn’t one of the best Christmas reads ever, I don’t know what is (maybe Tied Up in Tinsel, by Ngaio Marsh?). This is a light, funny reissue of a series written in the 40’s about an extremely ditzy socialite who marries a vicar and finds herself very much a fish out of water when she ends up in the English countryside. Imagine her dilemma when the curate is murdered on Christmas Eve – luckily two of her most amusing London pals are on hand to help her solve the crime. There’s more to “Lady Loops” than this precis suggests, though, all of it enjoyable and somewhat indescribable.
Rue Morgue released Joan Coggin’s charming first mystery, Who Killed the Curate?, a few years ago, and has now satisfied Lady Lupin enthusiasts with the second volume, The Mystery at Orchard House. After reading the first book I was an instant convert. Lady Lupin Hastings, a young socialite who marries an older vicar, settles down to life in the country interspersed with visits from her city friends. Like many another gentle British humor classic – Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and E.F. Benson’s Lucia series spring to mind – the humor is almost organic and after a buildup, hysterically funny. I was worried that after the delights of the first book the second one would be a let down, but this is far from the case. It may even be funnier.
This is the third installment of Rue Morgue’s reprints of Joan Coggin’s four mysteries featuring the ditsy yet strangely knowing Lady Lupin. Lupin is no-one’s idea of a curate’s wife – young, glamorous, and titled – but she mostly takes people unawares with her down to earth kindness and capability in most situations, unpleasant or otherwise. This is the most serious of the three novels so far – the other two are delightfully comic, but in this one, Coggin explores a main character with great delicacy and knowledge of the human heart. It reminded me of Josephine Tey at her best. Lupin and her husband, Andrew, meet Penelope when they go to stay at another parish so Andrew can lead the services there for a Sunday. They also meet Penelope’s appealing brother and sister in law, Dick and Betty.
Our book club recently read and enjoyed Jane Casey’s first novel, The Burning, prompting me to turn to her second, The Reckoning. Casey’s series is a British police procedural centered on Maeve Kerrigan, an ambitious, hard working, clueless-about-her-lovelife young woman who may remind readers of Helen Mirren’s indelible Jane Tennison. Though Kerrigan is younger than Tennison, even all these years later, she’s experiencing the some of the same kind of sexism and suspicion ladled on Tennison.
Elly Griffiths has quickly become one of my favorite writers, and we sold so many copies of her first book, The Crossing Places, that she’s obviously a favorite not just of mine but of many readers. A big reason is her main character, the down to earth and very real Ruth Galloway, an archeologist, professor and single mother. But Ruth isn’t the only reason these books are terrific.
Griffiths is a true mystery writer, and she’s become more accomplished at plotting with each book, though all involve connections to history and spirituality of a sort (though a very unconventional sort). This one has perhaps the most traditional set-up – dead museum curator found next to the awaiting to be opened bones of a long-ago bishop.
S.J. Bolton, one of the most original of all contemporary crime writers, has apparently decided to embrace a series identity instead of writing a string of stand alones. Her last novel, Now You See Me, was, for her, her most conventional book. It’s a police procedural set in contemporary London, though she added her own twists to the formula: the story was rooted in Jack the Ripper lore, and she used a gender lens to tell her story, subtly including a female-centric point of view throughout.
Peter Robinson is one of the most intellectual of all mystery writers – and I’m including P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and the late, lamented Reginald Hill in my assessment. One of his recent books, All the Colors of Darkness, was a take on Othello and its theme of jealousy. This novel, while not a part of his now classic Inspector Banks series, is still a thoughtful and compelling novel, based not on Shakespeare, but on the classic film Laura.
While Robinson has forsaken some of that film’s pop sensibility and sense of fun, he has retained its longing for the unattainable. In the film, it’s a portrait of Laura that sets off the longing; in this novel, it’s both the central character’s dead wife, Laura, and the ghost of an executed woman who seems to inhabit the house this man has just bought in the depths of Yorkshire.
When authors mention another author as someone they enjoyed discovering, I take notice. Libby Hellmann asked me on a recent visit who I had enjoyed reading recently and I mentioned S.J. Bolton, and she countered with Elly Griffiths (Libby is also a fan of Bolton’s). Recently Griffiths won the Mary Higgins Clark award and this spurred my curiosity even more, and I could put off reading The Crossing Places no longer. I read it through in a day, with the kind of growing enjoyment that made me wonder “Are there more?” (Yes, one more, and another due in January.) One reason the book is so wonderful – though only one of them – is the heroine, archeologist Ruth Galloway.
S.J. Bolton is a strikingly original writer, and this book, while being something of a change up from her previous three, is no different in its originality. The change up involves moving the story to the big city of London – the other books were in remote areas of Britain – and making it pretty much a straight up police procedural. She carries over a character, Dana Tulloch, from Blood Harvest, but this novel is in no way a sequel. What does remain the same is a very interesting, flawed, central female character, in this case one Lacey Flint, a member of the police force who has the bad luck to have a woman die in her arms in the opening scene. Lacey, it develops, has many secrets, and they are only slowly teased out throughout the book.
Sometimes a great first novel is no guarantee of a terrific second novel. I’m happy to report that Elly Griffith’s sophomore outing, The Janus Stone, is more than a match for her wonderful debut, The Crossing Places. Her central character, archeologist Ruth Galloway, is still living on the edge of a salt marsh in Norfolk, a setting rich in archeological history dating back to the Iron Age. In this novel, the remains are slightly more recent: they are Roman, and some of the uncovered bones are more recent still.