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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stefanie Pintoff has very quickly established her series about Simon Ziele, set in 1906 New York City, as one of the most enjoyable and compelling historical mystery series around. This third book in the series is as complex and enjoyable as the first two, though it’s slightly different as it uses politics rather than a more personal intertwining of relationships (family in the first one, theater in the second). But it’s all personal, as things turn out, and while the story begins with anarchists, it ends in a completely different place.
Maureen Jennings, well known and respected for her wonderful Inspector Murdoch novels set in Victorian Toronto, has changed things up and moved ahead in time to WWII. Her new novel is set not in Canada, but in Jennings’ native Britain. The setting is a tiny town in Shropshire, the time is just after the “Phoney War”, as Britain teeters on the edge of an apocalypse. Within the town is an interment camp for Germans living in Britain, who have been rounded up as a “precaution.”
Having owned a bookstore for almost 20 years, the number of authors I’ve seen go in and out of print are a number almost too high to count. Often, talent and skill have little to do with publishing success, as the number of out of print authors that I personally feel are excellent writers is also a high number. Jeanne Dams is one of these. She’s the author of the popular (for our customers, anyway) Dorothy Martin mysteries, that were dropped long ago by her publisher, but she was writing another series at the same time, featuring a Swedish maid in 1905 South Bend, Indiana. This series, too, was dropped, but found another home with Perseverance Press, which could be another word for Jeanne’s tenacious writing career. While the Dorothy books had a larger audience, I’ve always been a big fan both of Jeanne and of her series set in South Bend.