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

D.E. Johnson: Detroit Breakdown

Sometimes when an author is writing an historical series, his or her rhythm gets so in tune with the time they are writing about, that the story they are telling takes on the tone of the actual time period.  D.E. Johnson’s third novel set in 1912 Detroit takes on a gothic feel and the whole tenor of the story is enriched by it.  The first two books were set inside the automobile industry, this one takes the scion of the electric car company, Will Anderson, and sets him inside the gigantic mental hospital known as Eloise. read more

Eleanor Kuhns: A Simple Murder

Winner of the new contest set up by the Mystery Writers of America and Minotaur Books, this is an unusual novel in its setting and time period, but in every other way it is an absolutely classic traditional mystery.  Set in a Shaker community in Maine in 1796, the main character is a traveling weaver and former soldier searching for his runaway teenage son.

The Shakers were a “charismatic Christian” sect formed as an offshoot of the Quakers, sharing some of their more advanced concepts like equality between the sexes and pacifism.  Because the Shakers didn’t actually reproduce, they have now practically died out. However, back in the 1700’s the communities were vital ones, as they took in children (and other lost souls, no questions asked) via adoption or abandonment.  In this way, the main character’s son, David, has come to be a part of the Shaker community. read more

Tabish Khair: The Thing About Thugs

“Stories, true or false, are difficult to escape from…Especially the stories we tell about ourselves.  In some ways, all of us become what we pretend to be.”

This exquisite little volume would be a lovely addition to the library the narrator describes as belonging to his Indian grandparents.  Their dusty old house was a treasure trove of books and as the narrator discovers, of stories.  His own story is elegantly told but complicated and layered – you have to pay attention, though the light shines brighter about midway through the book when certain narrative identities are confirmed. read more

Rhys Bowen: Hush Now, Don’t You Cry

For pure entertainment value, Rhys Bowen simply cannot be beat.  Whether it’s her light and funny Lady Georgie mysteries set in the 30’s, or her “flagship” series featuring Molly Murphy, her skill as a storyteller is almost unmatched.  I’d compare her to such different authors as Harlan Coben or Michael Connelly, in that once you pick up a Rhys Bowen book, if you’re very lucky, you won’t have to look up until you’re finished with it.

Molly, for the uninitiated, is an Irish immigrant who came through Ellis Island in the first book, which was set in 1900.  Now ten books into the series, Molly has had her own private detective agency (though the fate of her agency is up in the air), and she has at last married her long time suitor, New York City police detective Daniel Sullivan (see the last book, Bless the Bride).  Daniel has asked Molly, now that they are married, to settle down and give up her private detective agency.  So far his plan isn’t working out too well. read more

A.J. Kazinski: The Last Good Man

Thanks to Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, the axis of the mystery universe has shifted.  Where American readers used to feel as familiar with the streets of London and the interiors of British country houses as with the streets of New York or LA, they can now feel familiar with the streets of Copenhagen, Stockholm, and many other Scandinavian locations. It’s been a slow seepage, but our international fiction section had to claim its own fixture a few years ago, with steady sellers like Cara Black, Colin Cotterill, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbø and Arnaldur Indridason taking pride of place, and with the advent of the Stieg Larsson trilogy (those books actually have their very own special store location) the lust for foreign fiction has just exploded. read more

Wesley Stace: Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

Every so often someone will come into the store, look around stupefied, and say something along the lines of You mean all these books are mysteries? I usually point out that we could fill several bookstores our size with completely different mysteries, and the truth is that Aunt Agatha’s, crowded as it may appear, represents a mere drop in the vast ocean of mystery.

Since the defining era of Holmes and Poirot, the big fishes of these waters have been the series sharks, gobbling much of the available attention and profits with the continuing adventures of a single character or school of characters swimming their way through a number of books. But there are other currents in the genre, rising from the dark depths of the ghost story and the gothic, solitary self-enclosed novels where the seemingly placid surface of everyday life grows slowly menacing and powerful riptides and unpredictable squalls appear. In a way stand-alones are even more unpredictable than series books because in the former no character is guaranteed survival in order to play a part in a future installment – anyone can be killed – or be a killer. read more

Graham Moore: The Sherlockian

This was a blast of a read, one that can be enjoyed by the non Sherlock Holmes fan as much as the devotee.  While Laurie King’s Mary Russell books focus on a young girl meeting Holmes as an old man, this novel focuses on a young Sherlockian in the present who is on the lookout for the Holy Grail of any Sherlockian: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s missing diary.

While Laurie King’s books are set firmly in the past, Moore instead alternates chapters.  One plot thread is set in the present, and focuses on Harold, the newest member of the Baker Street Irregulars.  The other thread is set in Victoria’s London, and features Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, sick to death of Holmes, is instead trying to write “realistic” fiction after killing Holmes off. read more