Simone St. James: An Inquiry into Love and Death

This is a fun mix of romance, mystery and a cracking good ghost story.  I enjoyed the fact that the author unabashedly buys into the whole ghost paradigm – there’s not an ounce of irony here, which serves to make her ghost far more scary. Set just after WWI, the main character is a young woman at Somerville College, Oxford, part of an illustrious group of women who were the first to get a university education at Oxford.  In real life their numbers included Dorothy L. Sayers and Vera Brittain, author of the classic memoir of WWI, Testament of Youth. read more

Loren D. Estleman: The Confessions of Al Capone

Loren Estleman has written a lot of books, but many of them have been in one or another of his excellent series, so when he writes one that isn’t, it’s news. Actually The Confessions of Al Capone more resembles one of his westerns or Detroit novels than an Amos Walker effort because it’s a historical saga that uses a fictional character to portray a period of high lawlessness and great social change, seasoned with the presence of actual figures and events.

confessions_of_al_caponeThe set up is typical masterful Estleman – a low level F.B.I functionary, Peter Vasco, is one day brusquely summoned to the highest level of power, J. Edgar Hoover himself. Peter assumes he’s going to be canned, but in fact he learns that Hoover has groomed him for a long cherished ambition, to once and for all learn the secrets of Al Capone. Scarface is greatly diminished in 1944, in exile in Florida, having been paroled from his tax evasion prison rap, riddled with syphilis and waiting to die. Hoover’s plan is masterful, if manipulative, and Peter is uniquely equipped to carry it out. He’s an almost priest, having left the seminary just short of graduation, and thus equipped to travel down to Miami, masquerade as a padre and hear the addled Al’s final confessions. His entree to the tightly controlled Capone household is his own father, once a driver for Capone in Chicago and now a fishing boat owner in Fort Lauderdale. Peter’s relationship with both his father and the church for which he’s to pose as a father is conflicted, so there’s a lot of soul searching involved with his pursuit of Capone, but he’s also glad, in these war years when Al’s racketeer colleagues have turned to black market profiteering, to be able to do something to help the war effort. read more

Susan Elia MacNeal: Princess Elizabeth’s Spy

This is a totally charming book, and MacNeal is deservingly nominated for both an Edgar and a Dilys this year (and probably an Anthony and an Agatha, though I am not always the best predictor).  Set during WWII, this is the second book in the Maggie Hope series.  Featuring a fledgling spy (Maggie) fresh from Churchill’s office and spy school, she was an abysmal failure at the physical aspects of her training, presenting a conundrum for her handlers.  She tells a friend it was terrible, like gym class every day, and if there aren’t a lot of readers nodding their heads in recognition over that comment, I’ve misjudged the mystery reading public. read more

Sam Thomas: The Midwife’s Tale

This fascinating little volume, set during England’s Civil War in 1644, is surprisingly zippy. I love historical novels but I have to say “zippy” is not always the applicable word. It’s unusual also in that it’s written by a man but features a female protagonist, and not just any female, but a midwife, the most female of all professions.

Any concerns you might have about not being very knowledgeable about Oliver Cromwell’s revolution to understand the story can be set aside – while this setting is the book’s backdrop, Thomas’ main concern is character and plot, just like any other able novelist. His central character, Bridget Hodgeson, is a wealthy and well known midwife in the city of York, a city being besieged by rebels but still in the hands of the King’s forces. read more

Rhys Bowen: The Twelve Clues of Christmas

This is another fun entry in Rhys Bowen’s delightful Lady Georgie series, about the travails of a young woman in the 1930’s who is 35th in line to the throne.  There are references to “Great Grandmother” Victoria and the horrors of Mrs. Simpson.  My favorite in this series, A Royal Pain, involves Queen Mary’s request for Georgie’s help in quashing the romance between Mrs. Simpson and the (then) Prince Edward.

The tone of these novels is lighter and funnier than Bowen’s Molly Murphy series, but like that series, the action revolves around a strong female lead.  Georgie is impoverished and forced to eke out a living in various “lady like” occupations, none of them very remunerative.  In this novel she is rescued from the gloom of her ancestral Scottish castle by an ad asking for a hostess at a country house party. read more

Maureen Jennings: Beware this Boy

Jennings has a note at the end of this novel about the source of her title – it’s from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “…most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom unless the writing be erased.”  Jennings skills as a novelist are somewhat similar to Charles Dickens skills, so this is an appropriate quote in many ways.  Her Dickensian talents lie in her ability to create an entire universe within her pages, bulging with characters, none of them – from the central character of Tom Tyler down to a briefly met matron in a bomb shelter – forgettable. read more

Tasha Alexander: Tears of Pearl

“Constantinople was like an exotic dream full of spice and music and beauty—the scent of cardamom blew through the streets like a fresh wind—but at the same time, it had a distinct and surprising European feel.”

Reading a Tasha Alexander book is simply pure pleasure. Four books into her series about Lady Emily Ashton—widowed in the first novel, now happily married in the fourth—she’s managed to keep her historical formula fresh by changing the location with each book. In the last, Lady Emily was in Vienna; in this novel, she’s in Constantinople visiting harems. Emily and her new husband, Colin Hargreaves, have made the journey to Constantinople on the Orient Express—a lavishly described journey that has one little hiccup in the form of Sir Richard St. Clare. Emily and Colin join Sir Richard for dinner one night, and he tells them his sad story—he lived a life of roaming adventure with his young family, until his wife was murdered and his young daughter kidnaped. His son is still living but Sir Richard’s desire to find his missing daughter has never dimmed. During the course of the dinner, Sir Richard passes out and must be removed from the dining car. The next day, he discovers some papers have been stolen, and Emily has a hard time forgetting his plight, though Colin does his best to get her to try. read more

The Changing Face of Historical Mysteries: Jane Austen, Victorian England & WWII New York

When we opened the store in 1992, Ellis Peters was finishing a long run with Brother Cadfael (the series was written between 1977 and 1994), and Anne Perry was deep into her “Pitt” series, which she began in 1979, though her Monk series didn’t begin until 1990. But as far as historical mystery went, those two ladies were pretty much it. And then, almost growing up with us as a business, came writers like Sharan Newman (her first Catherine LeVendeur novel came out in 1993), Candace Robb (the first Owen Archer novel in 1993), Margaret Frazer (Dame Frevisse made her debut in 1992), Kate Ross (Cut to the Quick was published in 1993) and Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series hit the streets in 1994. I have grown fond over the years of both the books and the people behind Dame Frevisse, Owen Archer and Catherine LeVendeur; happily, there’s a gigantic medieval congress in Kalamazoo every May and the authors began to trickle over to Ann Arbor and Aunt Agatha’s back in the mid 90’s. read more

Tasha Alexander: And Only to Deceive

This is a pleasant, luscious historical novel set in 1880’s London with a slightly unbelievable, though enjoyable, heroine. Emily Ashton, the recently bereaved widow of the fabulously wealthy Viscount Ashton, has at last achieved independence from her parents as well as financial independence; the bad news is, she’s trapped in the confines of Victorian mourning for two years. Emily is mourning a husband she barely knew, and the constraints of wearing black and keeping away from society might really drive her crazy if she hadn’t stumbled into her husband’s love of Greek culture – both its sculpture and its poetry. As Emily applies herself to learn Greek after discovering the poetic joys of The Iliad in translation, she becomes more and more drawn into the world of her dead husband. She had known him mainly as a hunter, but when she finds his journals and discovers his matching passion for Homer (and the eternal question, which man is more to be admired, Hector or Achilles?) she begins to not only understand her dead husband, but to fall in love with him as well. Philip, Viscount Ashton, had died of a fever while hunting in Africa; crawling out the woodwork are two of his closest friends, the dashing Colin Hargreaves, and the more socially acceptable, though impoverished, Andrew Palmer. Emily is drawn to both men, but independent enough – and by the middle of the novel, genuinely grieving her husband enough – to hold them both at arm’s length. read more

Tasha Alexander: Death in the Floating City

While I am weary of Anne Perry and can’t read another sentence by her, I am infatuated with Tasha Alexander’s delicious books set in Victorian England.  Featuring Lady Emily, wife of the dashing Colin Hargreaves, she and her husband get around the continent solving crime puzzles on behalf (secretly) of her majesty’s government.  They make a good team, as Emily can go where Colin cannot, and vice versa.

In this outing Emily and Colin are in Venice to help a childhood frenemy of Emily’s, Emma Callum, find out who has murdered her father in law and framed her missing husband for it.  Emma has married well – her husband is an Italian count and they live in a magnificent Venetian home – but she seems strangely unhappy.  Putting her old feelings aside, Emily promises to investigate. read more