Review: Wings in the Dark by Michael Murphy

wings in the dark by michael murphyFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genre: historical mystery
Series: Jake & Laura #3
Length: 214 pages
Publisher: Random House Alibi
Date Released: July 14, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo

Witty and stylish in the classic Dashiell Hammett tradition, Michael Murphy’s latest high-flying Jake & Laura mystery features a Hawaiian honeymoon that’s interrupted when their friend Amelia Earhart is accused of murder.

Hawaii, 1935. Mystery novelist Jake Donovan and actress Laura Wilson are in gorgeous sun-soaked Hawaii, but their best-laid plans for canoodling on the beach are interrupted by a summons from famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart. It seems a local businessman has been gunned down next to her plane. In just days, the famous pilot intends to fly from Honolulu to Los Angeles, making aviation history over the Pacific. But now, without Jake and Laura’s help, Earhart’s flight might never take off.

Trailing a killer, the newlyweds’ sleuthing leads to a jealous pilot, a cigar-chomping female officer of the “Royalist Militia,” and a notoriously disagreeable lieutenant colonel named Patton. With a sinister killer lurking in the shadows, it’s safe to say the honeymoon is over . . . and the danger has just begun.

My Review:

Jake Donovan always tries to convince himself that whatever case he has walked, or in this case been strong-armed, into, it’s always going to be his last. For the good version of last, that he will have given up being a private detective and is now a full-time, and quite successful, author of hard-boiled mysteries.

His new wife Laura Winston is rightfully afraid that one of these cases will be his last, for the bad definition of last, that he’ll get himself killed. At the same time, Laura can’t help but get herself involved as well, partly to protect Jake, and partly because she can’t let go of the adrenaline rush either.

And Laura has plenty of adrenaline in her life already. She is a Broadway actress and Hollywood star. In 1935, the combined incomes of a successful movie star and a best-selling novelist put Jake and Laura into a lifestyle that is both a million miles away from their hardscrabble childhood in Queens, and far from the difficulties of life for so many people during the Great Depression.

A Depression which in 1935 shows no sign of ending.

This time it’s Jake’s career that gets them into trouble, not that Laura’s connections don’t have a hand in it as well.

Amelia Earhart c. 1935
Amelia Earhart c. 1935

Jake and Laura are in Hawaii for their honeymoon. Amelia Earhart is in Honolulu in preparation for her ground-breaking solo flight from Honolulu to California. But all is not smooth flying for the aviatrix, and she calls on her friend Laura and Laura’s husband Jake to investigate a murder that threatens to set back her scheduled flight.

Someone murdered one of Amelia’s Hawaiian backers in her hanger while she was sleeping in her plane. The police can’t decide whether Amelia is the killer or the real target, so Amelia’s influential husband strong-arms Jake into helping with the investigation.

The strong-arming was heavy-handed but very successful. Earhart’s husband George Putnam really was one of the Putnam’s of the publishing house G.P. Putnam’s. He just called Jake’s publisher and threatened to kill the man’s career if he didn’t cooperate.

While Putnam’s methods were very heavy-handed, they were necessary, because the plot to stop Amelia Earhart’s flight reached into some surprising and deadly places – and also struck all too close to home.

It’s up to Jake and Laura to protect Amelia, investigate the murder and find out both what the killer’s real agenda is and stop them before it is too late.

It’s not just the life of Amelia Earhart that’s at stake. This flight, if it is successful, has the potential to continue America’s fascination with and expansion of air travel. If it fails, aviation will go into a depression even deeper than the U.S. economic situation.

If the flight succeeds, Hawaii will become a vacation destination for mainlanders, both assisting and transforming the Islands’ economy. And if the flight succeeds, the U.S. Armed Forces will expand into air power and patrol the Pacific Ocean.

In 1935, there is a lot of interest in the Pacific Rim in stopping that expansion. At any cost.

yankee club by michael murphyEscape Rating B+: If you like historical mysteries set in the 20th century, or noir (kind of noir-lite) or stories where real history and real people are wrapped around a fun mystery, this series is an absolute hoot. Start with The Yankee Club (reviewed here) and take a trip back to a different time, where so much is different, and so much is the same.

Like The Yankee Club, Wings in the Dark is wrapped around some true historical events. Amelia Earhart really was in Honolulu in January of 1935, and this flight, with all its attendant hoopla, did take place. The implications of the flight were as they are in the book. Success meant an expansion of aviation, failure meant that aviation would die a quick and painful death.

We’ve seen this in recent history as well. Every time the U.S. Space Program suffers a disaster, there is a retrenchment and reconsideration, even though all the participants signed on for the risk of being among the first people “out there”.

The times in which Amelia’s ground-breaking flight took place are also an important part of the picture. Hawaii was part of the U.S., but there were still plenty of people alive who remembered the “good old days” of the monarchy. There is still loads of resentment at the way the U.S. managed to take possession of the Islands.

Then there’s the war. The one that hasn’t happened yet, but is certainly looming on the horizon for those who have eyes to see. One of those people with eyes is then Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton, who was stationed in Hawaii in 1935, mostly an exile in disgrace. Patton views the growing militarization of Japan with alarm, and fears that the Japanese military sees the potential rise of U.S. airpower as a threat to their hegemony.

The mystery in Wings in the Dark circles, and sometimes barrel-rolls, around the murder in Amelia’s hangar. At first, it seems like an inside job as well as a crime of passion. Amelia’s female mechanic (and aviation rival) was having an affair with the dead man. But not all of the pieces fit this scenario.

The dead man was an Islander who had thrown in his economic lot, very successfully, with the Americans. The Royalist fringe, including his own brother, were not happy with his plans for more American influence.

Jake is sure there’s more than meets the eye, and when Patton provides scanty but convincing details of a Japanese assassin operating in the Islands, Jake starts to believe that this case is much, much bigger than he thought.

Especially when his old friend, the American agent Landon Stoddard, shows up to stick the government’s oar in this particular choppy water. Whatever is going on, it is way bigger than a simple lover’s spat, no matter how deadly.

This is a case where the “who benefits?” question will have world-changing answers.

The fun part of these cases is always following Jake and Laura, and whomever they drag along in their wake. Any resemblance to Nick and Nora Charles from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man series is strictly intentional. And an absolute blast.


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2 thoughts on “Review: Wings in the Dark by Michael Murphy

  1. The fun part of these cases is always following Jake and Laura, and whomever they drag along in their wake. Any resemblance to Nick and Nora Charles from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man series is strictly intentional. And an absolute blast.

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