This book is such a fun read, which is odd as the subject matter is difficult. Set in 1914 Fiji, at the time a British colony, the rollback of slavery in Britain made it difficult for colonies to obtain workers for their sugar cane and other plantations. The solution (a fairly short lived one) was to import Indians as indentured servants. The workers signed up for a set time – five years – and then were free. Ultimately, about half returned to India; about half stayed in Fiji. That’s the setting.
This is the second installment in the charming Island Sisters series, set in Britain’s Scilly Isles. Sisters Evie and Margot have taken over an old hotel and are managing it for the owner, though they are on the hook for repairs, which are turning out to be massive. As the book opens, they are a few days out from their grand re-opening, and they are working full tilt to get everything ready in time.
Because the books are set on the tiny island of Treggarick Rock, accessible only by boat and at certain times because of high or low tide, every story is going to be essentially a locked room mystery. Because the décor of the hotel calls back to the 30’s, this adds a decidedly golden age feel to the proceedings.
Golden age detectives are the perfect characters to provide a continuation of a series. Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot – all have such well established character traits, and yet do not especially develop or change – that they can be taken by another writer and made fresh. Sophie Hannah is obviously familiar with Poirot and obviously loves him, as every reader does, despite his quirks.
Hannah also manages the feat of showing, not telling, Poirot’s cleverness and intelligence as he unravels a tricky case. Like the great queen of crime herself, Hannah’s unraveling is only tricky from a certain angle, from another (Poirot’s) it’s more straightforward. The telling is all in the angles. This is a feat of sheer storytelling power.
I was a huge fan of Sarah Stewart Taylor’s Sweeney St. George series, published in the early 2000’s. Sweeney was an expert on gravestone iconography, and the books were beautifully written, thoughtful mysteries. Stewart Taylor has been away from mystery fiction since 2006, and this return feels more polished, more pointed in its narrative drive – it’s a step up. I’ll say up front it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
It’s not a total departure from the Sweeney books – the passion is there, the love of history is there, but it’s more focused. It follows the story of Maggie D’Arcy, who, as an adult, is a homicide detective on Long Island, but who, as a 20 something, lost the cousin who was like a sister to her. The cousin, Erin, had left the states for Ireland, and hasn’t been heard from since 1993. There are other young women who were killed (and discovered) in the same area, and Maggie and the rest of her family are pretty sure Erin is dead, but they’d like to know.
Jane Langton died last month, just short of her 96th birthday. Through 18 mysteries, her characters Homer and Mary Kelly studied transcendentalism while solving crimes. Langton wrote about the power of nature, art, and kindness. Her protagonists were often besotted with the natural world, or with art, while her villains and comically-awful annoyers were out of harmony with those worlds.
Though Langton hid clues and unveiled solutions, as the genre requires, her voice and presentations were utterly distinctive. She stitched plots together with quirky observations. A World War II-era University of Michigan alumna who studied astronomy and art history, Langton had prodigious powers of invention and spun plot complications from nuggets such as soil chemistry, the water table under a Boston church, and a flooded town under a reservoir. Her line drawings of the settings accompany most of the series, and the settings are integral to the stories.