Susan Elia MacNeal somehow manages to write about incredibly dark topics – WWII, the Blitz, Nazis – with a non-heavy hand. She visits the darkness but there’s room in the world of her heroine, Maggie Hope, for light. The last novel, The King’s Justice, saw Maggie truly struggling with the many things she’s seen and experienced since the start of the war. It was a crie de Coeur. In this novel, while she’s about to encounter more terrors, she’s out in Hollywood enjoying the sunshine and the availability of food and drink not seen in England since the war began.
This has very quickly become one of my favorite and most anticipated series. Set in London just post war, the main characters are Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge, two opposites who work like clockwork together. Iris is single and Gwen is a widowed mother living with her in-laws, and the two run a marriage bureau called the “Right Sort”. Each book opens with the approach of a client, and that sets off whatever delightful chain of events Montclair has in store for her reader.
Iris and Gwen have expanded their business a bit, and now boast a two-room office suite as well as a secretary. The approach of their first African customer throws them off a tiny bit, but the ladies rally and agree to help find proper, polite Mr. Daile a match. The book opens with a scene in Africa. It’s brief though memorable, as a boat sinks and many are lost. Certainly, you will be thinking to yourself, Mr. Daile is connected to this tragedy. The cagey Montclair reveals no secrets before her time, though. Three books in, I was more than content to leave it in her capable hands and feel certain the link would be made clear. (Reader, it was).
This is the second in Kathleen Kalb’s delightful series about opera star Ella Shane, who is working in New York City in 1899. She and her cousin Tom run an opera company and live agreeably together in a large brownstone with Ella’s parrot, Montezuma. These books have a really vivacious quality, matching Miss Ella’s own. Not only is Ella a working woman in 1899, she sings men’s parts – she’s what was known as a “trouser diva”.
Her first nights tend to be problematic, however. In the first book, as she sang Romeo to her Juliet, Juliet was really dead. In this book, though the stage portion of her new show goes perfectly, when she comes off stage she discovers one of her co-stars in his dressing room, covered in blood, a dead man at his feet. The gentle singer is hauled off to the Tombs and Ella tries to wrap her head around his guilt.
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.
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 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.
I love this series set in 1660’s London, featuring former maid turned bookseller Lucy Campion. London has weathered both the plague and the great fire, and the upheaval finds some women able to take work usually reserved for men. While Lucy is not technically a bookseller’s apprentice, she does everything an apprentice would do. In the 1660’s, bookselling also meant publishing, so Lucy works as a typesetter, a sometime writer of murder broadsheets, which were often sold at public executions, as well as working as a seller. Her intelligence and connections to the wealthy Hargreaves family, her former employer, get her into some places the police cannot go. She’s also torn between two suitors – Constable Duncan and Adam Hargreaves.
This novel will be published December 29.
This novel is more of a village cozy than a war novel, though it’s set at the start of WWII in the tiny British village of Pipley. The heroine, Olive, longs to enlist as a FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), but she’s tethered to home, helping her father with her stepmother, who has MS, as well as with a young war refugee, Jonathon. She also has the responsibility of the family pigeon loft, a fine one, and one her bristly father hopes will meet with the approval of the NPS, or National Pigeon Service.