If a publisher is going to send an anglophile like myself a book titled “Mrs. England,” well, I’m going to read it. I was not disappointed, and I was instantly immersed in the story of Norland nanny Ruby May, a 1904 graduate of the now famous school (the nannies trained there are hired by royal families today). In 1904 the school was new, and the idea of any training or learning about childcare was a novelty, as were the distinctive uniforms the Norland nannies wore (and still wear to this day.)
A Fatal Overture is the third in Kathleen Marple Kalb’s wonderful mystery series set in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, featuring opera singer Ella Shane, a mezzo soprano “trouser diva,” known for singing male roles. Ella, the daughter of an Irish father and a Jewish mother, grew up in a tenement on the Lower East Side and was orphaned at an early age. The trauma of finding her mother’s body, frozen to death in their tiny room, has never truly left Ella. After being raised by her aunt on her father’s side of the family, Ella found a mentor, a famous opera singer, who discovered she had a great voice, and so, by the time the series begins, Ella has also become famous. She owns her own company and lives in a brownstone on Washington Square with her cousin Tommy, the son of the aunt who brought her up. Tommy, a former champion boxer, is a closeted gay man who manages her career and helps her fend off unwelcome admirers.
This is the kind of book you read with a lump in your throat. Jess Montgomery’s portrayal of 1920’s Ohio is so deeply felt, so evocative, so redolent of history and memory and shared experience, that to read one of these books is to be completely immersed, while at the same time feeling all of the human experience. Montgomery covers it all – birth, death and everything in between. This novel seemed to me to be the most focused of her books plot wise, and that seemed to give this story an extra intensity.
I really, really love Molly Murphy. For me these books are an inhale – as in, when one is available, I don’t look up from the pages until I am finished reading. Molly came to readers through Ellis Island in 2001 (for Molly, it was 1901), and the books kept appearing until 2017, when I was afraid the series had come to a natural end. Starting her adventures with “The next morning I sailed for America with another woman’s name”, Molly proceeded to shove her way into reader’s hearts as she made her hardscrabble way through New York City, finding work as a lady private detective.
This is the second book in Delany’s series set in the Catskills in the 50’s. While the Catskill resorts that served so many families back in the 50’s and beyond are now gone – even the great Grossinger’s is a ghostly version of itself – Delany nevertheless manages to make the area come alive for the reader. She doesn’t dip into the pure historical novel category. Instead, she provides period details that set the reader where she wants them to be, and she somehow manages to invoke the feel and atmosphere of a very specific place and time. The fact that a Canadian writer who, I am thinking, did not spend her childhood summers in the Catskills, is able to do this with such virtuosity is one of those mysteries of the writer’s art. The time period is close enough that with a little bit of yearning and nostalgia you are right back there with her.
Through now 24 novels, Charles and Caroline Todd have provided their readers with excellence, pure and simple. The first novel in the Rutledge series, A Test of Wills, is a classic, and the rest of the series, elegiac, carefully plotted, and richly characterized, have all been solid and worthy reads. Sadly, this is the last novel written in collaboration with Caroline Todd, who passed away in 2021. She leaves a huge legacy.
In this novel, set in 1921, Inspector Rutledge has been called in from Scotland Yard to look at a case in Essex. He goes where he’s sent by his higher ups, but he is puzzled to be looking in a case that seems to involve a ghost. No-one is better than the Todds at setting up a disturbing premise that sticks in your mind as you read, wondering what’s going on. Twenty-four books in, I was pretty comfortable waiting to discover the solution.
A Counterfeit Suitor is the fifth in the Rosalind Thorne series of Regency mysteries by Darcie Wilde (a pseudonym for Sarah Zettel). Rosalind is a gentlewoman living in reduced circumstances after her father–an alcoholic, gambler, and forger–left England to escape his debts and avoid criminal charges for forging promissory notes. He had taken Rosalind’s sister Charlotte to Paris with him, while Rosalind and her mother stayed in England. Her mother has died since these events took place, a few years before the beginning of the series, and Charlotte has become a courtesan. To support herself, Rosalind solves problems for gentlewomen in trouble, to avoid family scandals. Usually, that means investigating murders with the help of her love interest, handsome Bow Street Runner Adam Harkness.
After we closed the store and my reading was slightly less proscribed by authors visiting or the latest new thing, I realized that one of the genres I truly love is historical mysteries. The range is so wide – in story telling style, in time period, in characters, and the armchair history lessons always, always add to my reading enjoyment. The fact that the books are set in the past makes the detective rely much more on old fashioned, golden age style sleuthing methods, another attraction, as far as I’m concerned. Thanks to Mystery Scene Magazine as well as my own reading, I find I read pretty widely in this subgenre. Here are my 10 favorites this year. One of them I liked so much it’s on my all around top 10 list (stay tuned!)
The most towering figure in mystery fiction is Agatha Christie. She created and influenced countless plots and tropes, and invented iconic detectives. Surely no mystery writer can set a pen to paper without feeling in her debt. Re-paying this debt with her impressionistic Death at Greenway is Lori Rader-Day, a writer known for multiple point of view novels and indirect storytelling. Her style could not be further from Agatha’s, but – there’s still that debt to be paid.
The book is set during WWII at Mrs. Christie’s summer home, Greenway, in Devon. During the war the Mallowans (for that was Agatha’s married name) lent their house to a war nursery – or to children evacuated from London, cared for by nurses. Rader-Day has chosen to focus her story on Bridget Kelly, a failed nurse in training, who takes up the war nursery job out of desperation.
Poor Lady Georgie. She’s at last married to Darcy, in residence at a lovely estate, and all she wants is to have a happy family Christmas at her new home. A typical wish for any young bride, but Georgie seems to have left her planning late, and her invitations are unfortunately declined as all and sundry seem to have made other plans. Luckily Georgie’s grandfather is able to come, and sadly for Georgie (but happily for the reader) her brother and sister in law, Binky and Fig, also plan to make an appearance.