Spotlight: Under a Veiled Moon by Karen Odden + Excerpt

Spotlight: Under a Veiled Moon by Karen Odden + ExcerptUnder a Veiled Moon (Inspector Corravan #2) by Karen Odden
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Inspector Corravan #2
Pages: 336
Published by Crooked Lane Books on October 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the tradition of C. S. Harris and Anne Perry, a fatal disaster on the Thames and a roiling political conflict set the stage for Karen Odden’s second Inspector Corravan historical mystery.
September 1878. One night, as the pleasure boat the Princess Alice makes her daily trip up the Thames, she collides with the Bywell Castle, a huge iron-hulled collier. The Princess Alice shears apart, throwing all 600 passengers into the river; only 130 survive. It is the worst maritime disaster London has ever seen, and early clues point to sabotage by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who believe violence is the path to restoring Irish Home Rule.
For Scotland Yard Inspector Michael Corravan, born in Ireland and adopted by the Irish Doyle family, the case presents a challenge. Accused by the Home Office of willfully disregarding the obvious conclusion, and berated by his Irish friends for bowing to prejudice, Corravan doggedly pursues the truth, knowing that if the Princess Alice disaster is pinned on the IRB, hopes for Home Rule could be dashed forever.
Corrovan’s dilemma is compounded by Colin, the youngest Doyle, who has joined James McCabe’s Irish gang. As violence in Whitechapel rises, Corravan strikes a deal with McCabe to get Colin out of harm’s way. But unbeknownst to Corravan, Colin bears longstanding resentments against his adopted brother and scorns his help.
As the newspapers link the IRB to further accidents, London threatens to devolve into terror and chaos. With the help of his young colleague, the loyal Mr. Stiles, and his friend Belinda Gale, Corravan uncovers the harrowing truth—one that will shake his faith in his countrymen, the law, and himself.

Welcome to the blog tour for Under a Veiled Moon by Karen Odden, organized by Austenprose PR. I’m especially excited to be part of this tour as I’ve already read this book and was absolutely thrilled by it. It’s a dark and compelling historical mystery (and so is Inspector Corravan’s first outing, Down a Dark River). If you’re intrigued by this excerpt, take a look at my reviews of Down a Dark River as well as Under a Veiled Moon to see just what a treat is in store for you!

Excerpt from Chapter 2, pp. 8-10 of Under a Veiled Moon © 2022, Karen Odden, published by Crooked Lane Books 

I knocked twice and inserted my key in the lock.

Even as I did so, I heard the twins, Colin and Elsie, their voices raised as they talked over each other—Elsie with a sharp edge of frustration, Colin growling in reply. Odd, I thought as I pushed open the door. Since they were children, they’d baited each other and teased, but I’d never known them to quarrel. 

Colin sat in a kitchen chair tilted backward, the heel of one heavy boot hooked over the rung. He glared up at Elsie, who stood across the table, her hand clutching a faded towel at her hip, her chin set in a way I recognized. 

“Hullo,” I said. “What’s the matter?” 

Both heads swiveled to me, and in unison, they muttered, “Nothing.” 

They could have still been five, caught spooning the jam out of the jar Ma hid behind the flour tin. Except that under the stubble of his whiskers, there was a puffiness along Colin’s cheek that appeared to be the remnants of a bruise. 

Colin thunked the front legs of the chair onto the floor and pushed away from the table. “I got somethin’ to do.” He took his coat off the rack—not his old faded one, I noticed, but a new one—and stalked out the door, pulling it closed behind him. 

I raised my eyebrows and turned to Elsie. She grimaced. “He’s just bein’ an eejit, like most men.” Her voice lacked its usual good humor; she was genuinely angry. 

Jaysus, I thought. What’s happened?
But I’d give Elsie a moment. “Where’s Ma?”

“Went down to the shop for some tea.” She stepped to the sideboard and moved the kettle to the top of the stove. The handle caught her sleeve, pulling it back far enough that I caught sight of a white bandage. 

“Did you hurt your wrist?” 

She tugged the sleeve down. “Ach, I just fell on the stairs. Clumsy of me.” 

The broken window and Colin’s abrupt departure had been enough to alert me to something amiss. Even without those signs, though, I wouldn’t have believed her. I knew the shape a lie took in her voice. 

“No, you didn’t,” I said. 

Her back was to me, and she spoke over her shoulder. “It’s nothing, Mickey.” 

I approached and took her left elbow gently in mine to turn her. “Let me see.” 

Reluctantly, she let me unwrap the flannel. Diagonal across her wrist was a bruise such as a truncheon or a pipe might leave, purple and yellowing at the edges. 

I looked up. “Who did this?” My voice was hoarse. 

Her eyes, blue as mine, stared back. “Mickey, don’t look like that. It was dark, and I doubt he did it on purpose.” 

“Jaysus, Elsie.” I let go of her, so she could rewrap it. “Who?” 

“I don’t know! I was walking home from Mary’s house on Wednesday night, and before I knew it, twenty lads were around me, fightin’ and brawlin’, and I jumped out of the way, but one of them hit my wrist, and I fell.” 

“What were you doing walking alone after dark? Where was Colin?” 

She gave a disparaging “pfft.” “As if I’d know. Some nights he doesn’t come home until late. Or not at all.” 

Harry’s words came back to me: “Out . . . as usual.” 

I cast my mind back to my own recent visits. Colin had often been absent, partly because he’d been working on the construction of the new embankment, but that had ended in July. So where was he spending his time now? And where had he earned the money for his new coat? 

We both heard Ma’s footsteps on the inside stairs. 

“Don’t tell Ma,” Elsie said hurriedly, her voice low. The bandage was completely hidden by her sleeve. “She has enough to worry about. Swear, Mickey.” 

Even as I promised, I wondered what else was worrying Ma. But as the door at the top of the inner stairs opened, I had my smile ready. 

Ma emerged, carrying a packet of tea from the shop. “Ah, Mickey! I’m glad ye came.” Her face shone with genuine warmth, and she smoothed her coppery hair back from her temple. Her eyes flicked around the room, landing on Elsie. “Colin left?” The brightness in her expression dimmed. 

“Just now,” Elsie replied. Their gazes held, and with the unfailing instinct that develops in anyone who grew up trying to perceive trouble before it struck, I sensed meaning in that silent exchange. But before I could decipher it, Elsie shrugged, and Ma turned to me, her hazel eyes appraising. 

“You look less wraithy than usual.” She reached up to pat my cheek approvingly. “Elsie, fetch the preserves. I’ll put the water on.” 

“I’ll do it, Ma.” I went to the stove, tonged in a few lumps of coal from the scuttle and shut the metal door with a clang. As Elsie sliced the bread, I filled the kettle and Ma took down three cups and saucers from the shelf. 

The tension I sensed amid my family derived from something drifting in the deep current, not bobbing along the surface, driven by a single day’s wind and sun. Something had changed. 

About the Author:

Karen Odden earned her Ph.D. in English from New York University and subsequently taught literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has contributed essays to numerous books and journals, written introductions for Victorian novels in the Barnes & Noble classics series and edited for the journal Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge UP). Her previous novels, also set in 1870s London, have won awards for historical fiction and mystery. A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and the recipient of a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, Karen lives in Arizona with her family and her rescue beagle Rosy.

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Review: Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen

Review: Lavender House by Lev AC RosenLavender House by Lev A.C. Rosen
Narrator: Vikas Adam
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery, noir
Pages: 288
Length: 9 hours and 57 minutes
Published by Forge Books on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A delicious story from a new voice in suspense, Lev AC Rosen's Lavender House is Knives Out with a queer historical twist.
Lavender House, 1952: the family seat of recently deceased matriarch Irene Lamontaine, head of the famous Lamontaine soap empire. Irene’s recipes for her signature scents are a well guarded secret—but it's not the only one behind these gates. This estate offers a unique freedom, where none of the residents or staff hide who they are. But to keep their secret, they've needed to keep others out. And now they're worried they're keeping a murderer in.
Irene’s widow hires Evander Mills to uncover the truth behind her mysterious death. Andy, recently fired from the San Francisco police after being caught in a raid on a gay bar, is happy to accept—his calendar is wide open. And his secret is the kind of secret the Lamontaines understand.
Andy had never imagined a world like Lavender House. He's seduced by the safety and freedom found behind its gates, where a queer family lives honestly and openly. But that honesty doesn't extend to everything, and he quickly finds himself a pawn in a family game of old money, subterfuge, and jealousy—and Irene’s death is only the beginning.
When your existence is a crime, everything you do is criminal, and the gates of Lavender House can’t lock out the real world forever. Running a soap empire can be a dirty business.

My Review:

When Andy Mills meets Pearl Velez in a bar that’s just on the edge of seedy, they need each other – just not in any of the ways that one might expect at the opening of this dark, very noir-ish historical mystery.

Andy needs a purpose, and Pearl needs to give him one. Pearl needs an experienced detective that she can trust to investigate the recent death of her wife. And she knows that Andy is both experienced and trustworthy because he just got fired from the SFPD for being caught with his pants down, literally, in a police raid on a gay bar. His career is over. His life feels like it’s over, because all he’s been doing for the past 10 years is living his job and doing his best to keep his secrets. Now he has no secrets, no job, no apartment, no friends and nothing to fall back on.

He’s planning to throw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge once it gets dark enough – and once he gets drunk enough. At least that’s the plan until Pearl steps into his life with something that looks like it might BE purpose. And might give him the opportunity to help someone one more time.

Or hurt them worse than he ever imagined – depending on whether the case Pearl wants him to investigate turns out to really be a case. And depending, of course, on whodunnit.

So Pearl whisks Andy off to Lavender House, the beautiful home that the late soap magnate Irene Lamontaine and her wife Pearl created for themselves and their entirely queer family. A place where all of them can safely be themselves – as long as no one reveals their secret to the outside world.

Irene’s death might have been an accident. She might have lost her balance and fallen over the railing she was found under. But the fall wasn’t that far and Irene was healthy and energetic in spite of her years. The fall shouldn’t have killed her.

Between her family’s secrets and her family’s money there are plenty of motives for murder. It’s up to Andy to navigate the family’s murky relationships while not letting himself be seduced by living in the first place he’s ever known where he can finally be his authentic self.

Because Lavender House is a kind of paradise, and it’s up to Andy to find the snake in the garden.

Escape Rating A+: There are so many ways to approach this story, and all of them work. Frankly, the story just works. It had me from that opening scene in the bar and didn’t let go until the bittersweet end. To the point where, as much as I LOVED the audiobook, I read the last third as text because I simply had to find out how it ALL worked out.

I was pretty certain I knew whodunnit – and I did – but that wasn’t the most important part of the story. Still, I was glad to be vindicated.

But I did absolutely adore the narrator, Vikas Adam, whose performance definitely added the plus in that A+ Rating. I’ve fallen under his spell before, as he is one of the primary readers for Jenn Lyons’ Chorus of Dragons series, and he’s every bit as good here. To the point where I had to triple-check the credits for the audio. I expected him to do a terrific job with voicing Andy – and he certainly does – but he managed to not sound like himself AT ALL while voicing most of the female characters. I did that triple check because I kept thinking there was a female narrator working with him. But it was all him and it was fantastic.

The story is both a mystery and a heartbreaker, and the hard parts were that much harder to listen to because the narration was just so good.

Lavender House is being promoted as a gay Knives Out – and it certainly is that from the mystery perspective. (The comparison works even better now that it’s been revealed that private investigator Benoit Blanc is also gay.) At least on the surface, it seems as if the Lamontaine family is every bit as wealthy as the Thrombeys, and just as dysfunctional and eccentric. It’s just that the causes of some of the dysfunction at Lavender House can be laid directly at the feet of the 1950s and the circumstances they are forced to live under.

The mystery in Lavender House is fascinating, but it feels like the bleeding heart – sometimes literally – of this story is Andy’s journey. And in some ways the two parallel each other more than I expected.

At the heart of the murder – and at the heart of Andy’s journey, is a story about finding a purpose for one’s life. Andy begins at his lowest ebb because he’s just lost his and doesn’t know how to replace it. He’s lived for his job and now it’s turned on him because of an innate part of his being. Investigating Irene’s death gives him that purpose – even as it forces him to confront all the ways that he stifled himself in order to hang onto that job.

At the same time, all of the tensions at Lavender House, along with most of the motives and dysfunction, also have to do with purpose. For the staff, it’s a VERY safe place to work. But for the family it can sometimes be a gilded cage. Not because they can’t actually leave, but because they have to hide their real selves from the world when they do. And if they have no purpose within the house, as is true for two members of that family, they also have no way of making one outside it.

In the end, the solution to the mystery of Irene Lamontaine’s death was a catharsis but not a surprise. The case does come together just a bit suddenly at the end after a lot of often fruitless digging into scant clues and overabundant motives. But the investigation does hold the reader’s interest well, even when it delves into the angst in Andy’s head as much as it does the death that kicked things off.

But Andy’s journey from pretending to be ‘one of the boys’ at the cop shop through closed doors and literal beatings from his former colleagues to the realization that even if he can’t remain in the paradise of Lavender House that he can have a good and fulfilling life – if not always a totally free or completely safe one – as a gay man in 1950s San Francisco, with all the potential for pain and heartbreak and joy, is one that will haunt me for a long time.

Reviewer’s Note: Also that cover is just really, really cool. It’s almost like that damn dress that was either blue and black or white and gold. The more I look at it the more I see. Not just that it’s a silhouette, but there’s a face. And the rabbits. And eyes. So many facets – just like the story it represents.

 

Review: Under a Veiled Moon by Karen Odden

Review: Under a Veiled Moon by Karen OddenUnder a Veiled Moon (Inspector Corravan #2) by Karen Odden
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Inspector Corravan #2
Pages: 336
Published by Crooked Lane Books on October 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the tradition of C. S. Harris and Anne Perry, a fatal disaster on the Thames and a roiling political conflict set the stage for Karen Odden’s second Inspector Corravan historical mystery.
September 1878. One night, as the pleasure boat the Princess Alice makes her daily trip up the Thames, she collides with the Bywell Castle, a huge iron-hulled collier. The Princess Alice shears apart, throwing all 600 passengers into the river; only 130 survive. It is the worst maritime disaster London has ever seen, and early clues point to sabotage by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who believe violence is the path to restoring Irish Home Rule.
For Scotland Yard Inspector Michael Corravan, born in Ireland and adopted by the Irish Doyle family, the case presents a challenge. Accused by the Home Office of willfully disregarding the obvious conclusion, and berated by his Irish friends for bowing to prejudice, Corravan doggedly pursues the truth, knowing that if the Princess Alice disaster is pinned on the IRB, hopes for Home Rule could be dashed forever.
Corrovan’s dilemma is compounded by Colin, the youngest Doyle, who has joined James McCabe’s Irish gang. As violence in Whitechapel rises, Corravan strikes a deal with McCabe to get Colin out of harm’s way. But unbeknownst to Corravan, Colin bears longstanding resentments against his adopted brother and scorns his help.
As the newspapers link the IRB to further accidents, London threatens to devolve into terror and chaos. With the help of his young colleague, the loyal Mr. Stiles, and his friend Belinda Gale, Corravan uncovers the harrowing truth—one that will shake his faith in his countrymen, the law, and himself.

My Review:


Drawing of a collision between the Princess Alice and Bywell Castle

What happens Under a Veiled Moon is a series of real, historical tragedies. Well, the tragedies themselves, including the Sinking of the SS Princess Alice and the Abercarn mine explosion. But the causes of those disasters were thoroughly investigated at the time. While there was plenty of blame to go around – and did it ever go around – the plots that Inspector Corravan eventually ferrets out are not among them.

But it does blend those real disasters with a fascinating story about the power of the press – its use and particularly its misuse – to change minds and inflame emotions.

Corravan, Acting Superintendent of the Wapping River Police, opens the book by rushing to the scene of an explosion on the river. The SS Princess Alice, a passenger steamer, was rammed by the coal barge SS Bywell Castle near the south bank of the river. The Castle emerged from the collision with minimal damage, but the Alice broke in three and sank almost instantly. (It sounds like it would be the equivalent of an automobile accident with a double-semi crashing into a Smart Car only with more passengers in the tiny car.)

Between 600 and 700 people died in the wreck, and it is still the greatest loss of life of any British inland waterway shipping accident ever recorded.

It takes days to recover everything that can be recovered, including the bodies. The city is reeling from the shock, and everyone official is looking for someone to pin the responsibility on. And that’s where things get interesting, as well as downright confusing, for a whole lot of people – especially Inspector Michael Corravan.

Someone – actually a whole lot of rich and influential someones – seems determined to blame the disaster on the pilot of the Bywell Castle. A man who can’t seem to be found in the wake of the tragedy. And who just so happens to be Irish. Which shouldn’t matter. But is made to matter very much in the press – and is linked, step by painstaking step in those newspapers – to a recent railway disaster, to a mining disaster that occurs in the aftermath of the wreck, and finally to gang warfare in Irish immigrant districts and a three-year’s past terrorist bombing claimed by the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

It starts to look like an organized effort to blame the Irish for everything currently wrong with the state of Britain – for reasons that do not seem apparent on the surface. Until Corravan, with his roots in the Irish community, his position in the police and his relationships with a surprising number of very helpful and intelligent people – begins to see a pattern.

An insidious pattern that began in a shared tragedy but seems determined to end in a shared explosion of one kind or another – even if the conspirators have to engineer it for themselves.

Escape Rating A+: I think that Under a Veiled Moon is an even better story, both as historical fiction and as mystery, than the first book in the series, Down a Dark River. And I loved that one. This one is so compelling because what happens under that veiled moon takes place at the intersection of power corrupts, the ends justify the means, and there is nothing new under the sun. And it’s absolutely riveting from beginning to end.

We get to know Corravan a bit better in this one. We learn a lot more about where he came from and how he got to be who he is now that he’s in his 30s. The underpinnings of this one, the involvement with the Irish community in London and the various hopes and fears about the possibility of Irish Home Rule set alongside the prejudice and resentment of Irish immigrants really exposes some of what he keeps hidden in his heart.

And he’s just old enough to see his own past and resent his own errors of youth and judgment – and we like him the better for it.

At the same time, the mystery plot is deep and dark and downright frightening. Not just because it’s so easy to see how it might have happened then, but because we can all too clearly how its happened before – for real – and very much how it’s happening again.

It’s also a very smart puzzle with a whole lot of moving parts, most of which don’t seem to fit in the same jigsaw because honestly they don’t. Watching the way that the square peg red herrings are retrofitted to slot into the available round holes makes the mystery that much harder to solve.

I did recognize that the long arm of coincidence couldn’t possibly be as long as it was being made to appear, but the how and why of it is so steeped in the history of the time that it made the revelation and resolution that much more riveting.

This is a series that I seriously hope continues. It combines elements of C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr series with Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series along with her William Monk  series. It deals with the issues of its day and the influences of the wider world on its London microcosm with the same depth as St. Cyr while focusing on a character who works for his living as a “copper” as do both Pitt and Monk, at a time period where the world is changing at an ever increasing pace to the one we know. There’s also a bit of an irony there, as Corravan is an Irish police inspector while Pitt ended up being Head of Special Branch, an office whose remit was to deal with terrorism – particularly that sponsored and/or perpetrated by those agitating for Irish Home Rule.

An issue that I expect Corravan to get caught in the middle of, again and again, through the hopefully many future books in this compelling series.

Review: A Fox in the Fold by Candace Robb

Review: A Fox in the Fold by Candace RobbA Fox in the Fold (Owen Archer #14) by Candace Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Series: Owen Archer #14
Pages: 256
Published by Severn House on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Owen Archer suspects an old adversary is on his tail as he seeks to solve the mystery surrounding a dead body found on the road to York.
October, 1376. Owen Archer is summoned by sheriff Sir Ralph Hastings regarding a stripped and bloodied body discovered on the road north to York. Could it be connected to an attack on a carter and his labourers who were transporting stone destined for St Clement's Priory? The carter fled, but his men stayed to fight and are now missing. Is the victim one of them?
At first Owen believes the catalyst for murder and menace in York is the arrival of the political pariah William Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester. But he soon suspects that a formidable and skillful adversary from his past has arrived in the city, thrusting him and his family into grave danger, and his investigation becomes a race to uncover the truth before his old nemesis destroys all he holds dear.

My Review:

This latest entry in the Owen Archer series is wrapped around Archer’s past. The past when he was a captain of archers for the Duke of Lancaster and was betrayed by one of his own men. A betrayal which resulted in the loss of his left eye and set him on the path readers’ found him on in the first book in the series, The Apothecary Rose.

In other words, in a peculiar way Owen owes everything he has to this betrayal and the man who arranged it. Owen has succeeded beyond his own wildest dreams, becoming a respected officer and landowner, the confidant of kings and princes, with a beautiful and intelligent wife and several wonderful children by birth and adoption.

Owen has it all – just as it seemed he did, in an entirely different way back when he was still a soldier. And the same man who tried to take it all away – along with Owen’s life – back then has followed him to York to try again.

But this time Owen has hostages to fortune. It’s not just his own life on the line, but the lives of his wife, his children, his friends and his colleagues. He has a lot to live for, and a lot to fight for.

All he has to do is finally get the fox Reynard out of his fold of the city of York without losing anyone he holds dear along the way.

But the case is complicated – as nearly all of Owen’s cases are complicated – by the machinations of the high and mighty. Reynard may be acting on his own, determined to finally best the man he has both envied and hated for all these years.

Or he might be in the pay of someone determined to bring disaster on Owen and on the city of York for political reasons of their own. If Reynard has an influential patron, Owen’s case may be much, much harder to solve.

And possibly even more deadly, and with even more dire consequences than he ever imagined.

Escape Rating A-: Owen Archer is caught on the horns of multiple dilemmas when this story opens, and he barks up more than a few of the wrong trees before he finally realizes that not just all of the cases that confront him are one but that the instigator of those cases is not at all who he thought it was.

And his confusion and split attention does lead to a bit of the same on the part of the reader until Owen finally manages to focus his one eye on the true threat to his city and to everyone that he holds dear.

What makes the Owen Archer series so fascinating, at least to this reader, is the way that the mysteries he faces touch on both the big and the small. By big, I mean the roiling politics of his time, and by small, I mean the everyday crimes that are the bread and butter of all mystery stories.

This particular mystery at first looks small, a dead cart driver and a missing load of building stones. At first, the biggest part of the mystery seems to be where the stones might have gone. How, exactly does one “fence” or whatever the medieval term might have been, a load of building stones?

But, as with so many of Owen’s cases, the simple opening leads to some dark and twisty alleys – in the streets of York, in Owen’s past, and in the political upheaval yet to come.

King Edward III is going to die in less than a year, after 50 years of ruling England. His Prince of Wales has predeceased him, and his country is going to be left in the hands of a child who will rule (badly) as Richard II. As the old king falters, the jockeying for position on a regency council has already begun – and friends and advisors of the dying Edward are in danger of losing their places and perhaps even their lives in the coming storm.

Owen believes that King Edward’s former Chancellor has brought bad luck to York when he arrives in the midst of what seems to be a pilgrimage of atonement. And he has, but not in the way that Owen thinks. But Owen saw the man as a ‘bird of ill omen’ in A Choir of Crows and is reluctant to change his mind – especially as death has followed in the man’s wake yet again.

Instead, someone from Owen’s past has taken advantage of the visit to strike Owen down one more time. But this fox operates in the shadows, and Owen doesn’t sense the true nature of the threat for almost too long.

So, as with other entries in the series, this mystery begins small but unfolds large – while forcing Owen to look back at who he was and who he is. It gives him the chance to understand that what he once thought would break him was the making of him after all.

One of the things that I love about this entry in the series is the way that it both reflects back on earlier books in the series, particularly the first book, The Apothecary Rose, and the more recent A Choir of Crows while also casting a reflection on events in its period that reflect the present. If historical mystery is your thing, and you haven’t yet walked the streets of Owen Archer’s medieval York, I highly recommend starting this series from the beginning with The Apothecary Rose.

I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, whenever it may appear, because I expect it to cover an event that we’ve just experienced – in pomp and circumstance but diluted actual impact. In our own time, the Queen is dead, long live the King. In Owen’s time, the King will be dead, and the realm will be in for one hell of a mess.

Review: Marple: Twelve New Mysteries by Agatha Christie et al.

Review: Marple: Twelve New Mysteries by Agatha Christie et al.Marple: Twelve New Mysteries by Naomi Alderman, Leigh Bardugo, Alyssa Cole, Lucy Foley, Elly Griffiths, Natalie Haynes, Jean Kwok, Val McDermid, Karen M. McManus, Dreda Say Mitchell, Kate Mosse, Ruth Ware
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Series: Miss Marple Mysteries
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow & Company on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A brand-new collection of short stories featuring the Queen of Mystery’s legendary detective Jane Marple, penned by twelve remarkable bestselling and acclaimed authors.
This collection of a dozen original short stories, all featuring Jane Marple, will introduce the character to a whole new generation. Each author reimagines Agatha Christie’s Marple through their own unique perspective while staying true to the hallmarks of a traditional mystery.

Naomi Alderman
Leigh Bardugo
Alyssa Cole
Lucy Foley
Elly Griffiths
Natalie Haynes
Jean Kwok
Val McDermid
Karen M. McManus
Dreda Say Mitchell
Kate Mosse
Ruth Ware

Miss Marple was first introduced to readers in a story Agatha Christie wrote for The Royal Magazine in 1927 and made her first appearance in a full-length novel in 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage. It has been 45 years since Agatha Christie’s last Marple novel, Sleeping Murder, was published posthumously in 1976, and this collection of ingenious new stories by twelve Christie devotees will be a timely reminder why Jane Marple remains the most famous fictional female detective of all time.

My Review:

Unfortunately, Agatha Christie isn’t writing any new Marple stories, or for that matter any new Poirot stories. But she was the creator of the iconic “little old lady” amateur detective Miss Jane Marple and will be credited as such for as long as Miss Marple is read. And this collection of new Marple stories from the pens – or computers – of Dame Agatha’s successors in mystery is certain to keep Miss Jane Marple of St. Mary Mead in the minds and hearts of readers for another generation.

I have to confess that personally I prefer Poirot to Marple. It’s not so much about either of them as it is about the way they are treated and the world that surrounds them. Both are just a tad eccentric, a bit of an exaggeration in Miss Marple’s case while a huge understatement in Poirot’s, but because of both their respective genders and the times in which their stories are set Poirot’s eccentricities are considered a mark of his genius while Miss Marple is often disregarded and disrespected, sometimes even after she solves the case.

If Miss Marple had half of Poirot’s foibles she would have been locked up in a lunatic asylum. Men were allowed to be over-the-top, even to his degree, without being thought to be insane. Or hysterical as she would have been. Certainly, few would have taken her remotely seriously, discounting her because of her age and her gender.

While Christie got around some of the restrictions on women at the time by making Miss Marple an independent woman past a certain age who had outlived any male who might have had authority over her, the authors of this collection have taken that a step further by setting all of their stories rather later in her “career’, meaning that she already has a well-earned reputation for solving murders and has garnered a circle of influential friends in high places – at least among the police.

So she doesn’t face quite as much disrespect and disregard as she would have earlier. (It’s been decades since I read her first outing, A Murder in the Vicarage, so I just picked up a copy so I can read it again and see if memory and supposition are correct.)

One of the stories in this collection (The Second Murder at the Vicarage by Val McDermid) takes the reader back to that very place where Miss Marple solved her first case), while Miss Marple’s Christmas by Ruth Ware takes us back to St. Mary Mead for a traditional Christmas gathering Marple style, as Miss Marple finds herself solving a case of theft instead of indulging in the Christmas pudding.

Escape Rating B: For the most part, these stories were enjoyable as I read them but weren’t quite long enough to really dig into the mysteries. They also don’t feel remotely like ‘fair play’ mysteries as the detection and investigation seems to hinge a great deal on Miss Marple’s comparisons to people and situations in St. Mary Mead that we don’t know about. Her leaps of logic and inferences about human nature do give the reader an “A-ha!” moment when revealed but I never felt like I had enough to follow her trail.

I still had a good time reading this collection, and wouldn’t mind – AT ALL! – to see another collection like this one or something similar featuring my old friend Hercule Poirot. Alternatively, several of the authors in this collection of Miss Marple stories would make excellent candidates for writing a series of NEW Marple novels just as Sophie Hannah has taken up the task of writing the New Hercule Poirot series that began with The Monogram Murders.

Anyone who loves Miss Marple or is looking for a trip back to the Golden Age of mystery will enjoy this collection – and hope for more!

Review: Back to the Garden by Laurie R. King

Review: Back to the Garden by Laurie R. KingBack to the Garden by Laurie R. King
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, thriller
Pages: 336
Published by Bantam on September 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A fifty-year-old cold case involving California royalty comes back to life--with potentially fatal consequences--in this gripping standalone novel from the New York Times bestselling author of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series.
A magnificent house, vast formal gardens, a golden family that shaped California, and a colorful past filled with now-famous artists: the Gardener Estate was a twentieth-century Eden.
And now, just as the Estate is preparing to move into a new future, restoration work on some of its art digs up a grim relic of the home's past: a human skull, hidden away for decades.
Inspector Raquel Laing has her work cut out for her. Fifty years ago, the Estate's young heir, Rob Gardener, turned his palatial home into a counterculture commune of peace, love, and equality. But that was also a time when serial killers preyed on innocents--monsters like The Highwayman, whose case has just surged back into the public eye.
Could the skull belong to one of his victims?
To Raquel--a woman who knows all about colorful pasts--the bones clearly seem linked to The Highwayman. But as she dives into the Estate's archives to look for signs of his presence, what she unearths begins to take on a dark reality all of its own.
Everything she finds keeps bringing her back to Rob Gardener himself. While he might be a gray-haired recluse now, back then he was a troubled young Vietnam vet whose girlfriend vanished after a midsummer festival at the Estate.
But a lot of people seem to have disappeared from the Gardener Estate that summer when the commune mysteriously fell apart: a young woman, her child, and Rob's brother, Fort.
The pressure is on, and Raquel needs to solve this case--before The Highwayman slips away, or another Gardener vanishes.

My Review:

“We are stardust, we are golden” begins the chorus of Joni Mitchell’s song, Woodstock, from which the title of this book is taken. If you’ve been hearing the words in your head, as I have, the earworm is probably from the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young cover of the song, which has become a Classic Rock staple in the intervening, OMG 52(!) years.

At the time, the 70s did seem golden, but as SFPD Inspector Raquel Laing is forced to look back at the summer of 1979 – before she was even born – what she sees is a whole lot of naivete through a haze of pot smoke. By 1979 the counterculture movement was already in the rearview mirror.

But during that summer of 1979, so long ago and in many ways so far away, someone placed a dead body in a hole that was about to be filled with concrete, and there it has sat for over 40 years.

Waiting to be uncovered.

The Gardener Estate was once one of the palaces of California’s rich and famous. Then it was turned into an almost equally famous commune by a disaffected heir. So many years later, it’s a tourist attraction, known for its eclectic history, its beautiful gardens, and its collection of feminist artworks by a once-and-future famous artist.

It’s one of those artworks, a statue built from found objects showing the three faces of Eve, that has been hiding the grave. As the statue starts toppling, conservators rush in to save it – and to prevent it from falling on any of those tourists who keep the place afloat.

And that’s where Inspector Laing comes in. She’s working on a cold case that has just become much too hot for several police departments in Northern California. A serial killer operating in the 1970s, who was not only never caught but was never even recognized as anything more than an urban legend.

But “The Highwayman” as Michael Johnson was called was more than real enough for cancer to have caught up with him, and for his need for care to have uncovered his secrets. Now he’s dying, time is running out fast, and Laing has a burning need to get the details of all his victims so that closure can be provided to the families who have been waiting for so many long years.

The body under the Eves might be one of the Highwayman’s victims. It might help close this biggest of cold cases. But it might just open Pandora’s box on a brand new fresh one. It’s up to Laing to find out which. Before the clock runs out. Or before new bodies start piling up.

Escape Rating B+: I pickled this because I adore the author’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. While I certainly knew going in that this book was not a continuation of any of her other series I also knew that I’d get a taut and compelling mystery under the investigative eye of a complex but hyper-competent detective that would weave its way around a fascinating cast of characters.

And so it certainly proved. I’ll also confess that the earworm drove me absolutely bananas for the longest time, as the recognizable line from the song that forms the title of the book is obviously not the song’s title. Without a bit of google-fu I’d have gone completely batty by now.

The story is told in two timelines. The 1970s past and the 2020s present. I was in high school, college and graduate school in the 1970s, so old enough to remember but not quite old enough – or at least not brave enough – to be part of the counterculture movement. Still, the 1970s part of this mystery rings very true.

In the here and now, Laing’s career is hanging by a thread. She’s on probation, working the cold case files with her mentor, while the powers-that-be decide what to do with her and her tendency to bullheadedly follow a case out past the bounds of not just propriety but even straight out into questions of illegality.

Her sister has fingers in some very murky corners of questionably sourced information on the dark web. Using her sister to get information relevant to her cases is a good way to get the case tainted beyond the ability to prosecute. But sometimes she can’t resist because there are crimes that are just so dirty that the ends do seem to justify those means.

Laing is afraid that the Highwayman’s buried victims may be one of those cases, and much of Laing’s part of this investigation is wrapped in her questioning of herself about just how far she should go.

But what makes this story so compelling are the questions about the past. She may not know who was buried under that statue but she does know when it happened. The Eves were raised at the end of the summer of 1979, after a commercially successful folk-rock festival that literally tore the community apart. Thousands visited the community that one event-filled day. In the aftermath, several members of the community left.

As she interviews the remaining community members, a picture begins to emerge of those final, fraught, frantic days. A picture that brings 1979 back to life in all of its rainbow-tinted, drug-hazed glory. And tragedy.

While I came to this for the mystery investigation, what kept me turning pages was the nostalgic recreation of an era that was already gone even at the time it happened. (If this part of the story appeals to you as well, take a look at Lady Sunshine by Amy Mason Doan.) The reader is right there with them, seeing the dream, knowing just how soon it’s going to die. It’s not a surprise that the commune failed. It’s a surprise that it lasted as long as it did. It’s also telling that a big chunk of the reason it lasted was the money that came from the Estate. That they all thought the Estate was a tainted capitalist enterprise that they shouldn’t be benefiting from showed how shaky the foundation really was.

And yet it is clear from the survivor’s recollections that the brief period was the high point of their lives, and that they look back with teary-eyed nostalgia.

But the hand pulling back that curtain of nostalgia isn’t as clear as those memories. Laing is interesting, but it doesn’t feel like we got enough of her to really know her. In contrast, one of the things that makes Mary Russell so compelling is that her character is sharp and distinct from the very first page of her very first adventure in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

Laing is a very insular character, as is Holmes. But she doesn’t have enough of a foil, at least not yet, to allow us to see her in fullness through another’s eyes. So far, at least, she reads more as a vehicle than a character. Howsomever, the way that Back to the Garden ends does leave the door wide open for a sequel. If this turns out to be the start of a series, we’ll get to see where Laing’s penchant for obsessing over her cases leads to next.

One final note, as this story’s title teased me with its call back to Joni Mitchell’s song, the story itself evoked pieces of other books as well. I mention Lady Sunshine by Amy Mason Doan as both books have that same sense of looking back at the 1970s through golden-tinted lenses of nostalgia. The state of the Gardener Estate, its checkered history and the perilous state of its finances along with the mystery surrounding its past reminded me of Museum of Forgotten Memories by Anstey Harris. And Laing’s career as a serial killer profiler made me think of the Quinn & Costa series by Allison Brennan.

Depending on which parts of Back to the Garden have the most appeal to you, you should hopefully find something else fascinating to tide you over until the book comes out next week!

Review: A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons by Kate Khavari

Review: A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons by Kate KhavariA Botanist's Guide to Parties and Poisons (Saffron Everleigh Mystery #1) by Kate Khavari
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Saffron Everleigh #1
Pages: 262
Published by Crooked Lane Books on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Saffron Everleigh is in a race against time to free her wrongly accused professor before he goes behind bars forever. Perfect for fans of Deanna Raybourn and Anna Lee Huber, Kate Khavari’s debut historical mystery is a fast-paced, fearless adventure.
London, 1923. Newly minted research assistant Saffron Everleigh attends a dinner party for the University College of London. While she expects to engage in conversations about the university's large expedition to the Amazon, she doesn’t expect Mrs. Henry, one of the professors’ wives to drop to the floor, poisoned by an unknown toxin.
Dr. Maxwell, Saffron’s mentor, is the main suspect, having had an explosive argument with Dr. Henry a few days prior. As evidence mounts against Dr. Maxwell and the expedition's departure draws nearer, Saffron realizes if she wants her mentor's name cleared, she’ll have to do it herself.
Joined by enigmatic Alexander Ashton, a fellow researcher, Saffron uses her knowledge of botany as she explores steamy greenhouses, dark gardens, and deadly poisons. Will she be able to uncover the truth or will her investigation land her on the murderer’s list?

My Review:

There’s something rotten in the state of London’s University College botany department. The signs, at least in the very broadest strokes, are a bit difficult for researcher Saffron Everleigh to miss. After all, the wife of one of the leading lights of her department has just been struck down – right in front of her – in the middle of a faculty and staff party.

A party to celebrate the fast-approaching departure of many of the department’s most prominent – and/or most ambitious – members for a research expedition to the heart of the Amazon.

Not that Saffron ever had the remotest chance of going on that expedition. Not that she isn’t an excellent researcher with sincere hopes of entering graduate studies in her chosen field. And if she were a man, she’d be well on her way.

As it is, she’s the focus of gossip, innuendo, and even blatant sexual harassment from the head of her department. As the story opens, the only person she’s certain respects her as a scientist is her mentor, Dr. Maxwell, who treats her very much as a daughter.

Because he was a close friend of her late father, who was also a botany professor at the College. But Dr. Everleigh was killed in the Great War, as was the man Saffron intended to marry. So she is following in her father’s footsteps as a researcher instead of living the life she had planned on.

When her mentor is accused of poisoning Mrs. Henry with poisonous plants he brought back from an earlier expedition, Saffron rushes to prove the police wrong. While her amateur detecting nearly results in her own death by poison, she does manage to conclude that the police have leapt to an obvious but incorrect conclusion.

The woman was poisoned, she is in a coma, but her mentor did not commit the deed. But as she waits for the results of her ill-advised experiment to wear off, she learns she has another colleague in finding the solution to the crime.

Alexander Ashton isn’t certain which he finds more alluring – the investigation of the poisoning or the woman who is hell-bent on conducting it. But the deeper they dig into the rot, the more dangerous the situation becomes. If there’s a secret that is worth putting one woman into a coma, it’s all too possible that it’s a secret worth killing for.

But Alexander is determined to help Saffron find it, and not just for personal reasons. After all, if Dr. Maxwell is not the poisoner, someone else in the Botany Department is. And that poisoner might just be part of the Amazon expedition right along with him.

Escape Rating A-: What makes A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons so much fun – besides that wonderfully evocative title – is the way that, as the story goes on, so many of the things we – and Saffron – thought were true turn out to be not quite what we thought they were. Particularly the people. And especially Saffron herself.

At first, Saffron is investigating what she believes is a miscarriage of justice being perpetrated by police detectives who are too interested in the obvious solution and unwilling to put in either the legwork or the brain work to make sure they’ve got the right man – or even the right crime.

Her initial motive for her amateur sleuthing is to clear the name of Dr. Maxwell, who is both a mentor and a father-figure to her. She knows he can’t possibly be guilty of the poisoning, not just because she knows the man but because her logical mind has examined the scene from all sides and knows that it wasn’t physically possible for him to have either poisoned the champagne or the glass it was poured into.

As we follow along in Saffron’s wake, as she and her reluctant fellow amateur investigator Ashton go further and further out on the limb of illegal and illicit activities in her dogged pursuit of the truth and his equally dogged pursuit of her – everything changes.

Mrs. Henry WAS poisoned – but not for any of the personal or scandalous reasons that Saffron originally believed. She may have begun her quest to clear Dr. Maxwell’s name, but she continues to pursue it because she’s caught up in the hunt and can’t resist the puzzle. The more she digs, the more she uncovers, the more there is to find. And the more dangerous her situation becomes.

The more evidence she presents to the police the more she realizes that the enigmatic police inspector is way more savvy than she initially suspected. And the more that Alexander Ashton follows her through thick, thin and thorny bushes, the more she realizes that she might have found a man who is capable of seeing her as both a scientific colleague and as someone to love.

This is a story that starts out seeming like it’s heading down a rather salacious and scandalous path, only for it to twist itself into a much more serious investigation of discovery of both the criminal and the personal kind.

To sum things up, A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons is a fun and twisty mystery that has a lot of things to say about women in academia at a time when it was possible but not expected or respected. As the first book in a series, it gives hints that Saffron and Ashton’s relationship will continue to blossom – and probably continue to investigate crimes that the police would prefer they kept clear of.

If you like stories like Saffron’s, she reminded me of several investigating heroines who operate during the same time period, particularly Mary Russell, Maisie Dobbs and Bess Crawford. And for a similar story in a much different setting, The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older covers some surprising bits of the same ground of deadly shenanigans in academia under investigation by initially reluctant academicians turned amateur detectives.

But the most on-point readalike for A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons should be the second book in the Saffron Everleigh series, A Botanist’s Guide to Flowers and Fatality, coming out next summer!

Review: Deadly Election by Lindsey Davis

Review: Deadly Election by Lindsey DavisDeadly Election (Flavia Albia Mystery, #3) by Lindsey Davis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Flavia Albia #3
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 14, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the blazing July heat of imperial Rome, Flavia Albia inspects a decomposing corpse. It has been discovered in lots to be auctioned by her family business, so she's determined to identify the dead man and learn how he met his gruesome end.
The investigation will give her a chance to work with the magistrate, Manlius Faustus, the friend she sadly knows to be the last chaste man in Rome. But he's got other concerns than her anonymous corpse. It's election time and with democracy for sale at Domitian's court, tension has come to a head. Faustus is acting as an agent for a 'good husband and father', whose traditional family values are being called into question. Even more disreputable are his rivals, whom Faustus wants Albia to discredit.
As Albia's and Faustus' professional and personal partnership deepens they have to accept that, for others, obsession can turn sour, and become a deadly strain that leads, tragically, to murder.

My Review:

I want to start this with “Once upon a time” but I’m not sure whether that’s once upon a time, in 1989, the author published the first book in a historical mystery series featuring a hard-boiled rapscallion of a private inquiry agent named Marcus Didius Falco. The series ran for 20 books, until Falco passed the investigative torch to his adopted daughter Flavia Albia. Deadly Election is the third book in her series, which is now at ten books and continuing.

It could be “once upon a time”, back when audiobooks were still on actual tape, I listened to that first book, The Silver Pigs, and picked up all the subsequent books I could get my hands on in any form.

At the time, the series was a bit like the bear dancing, in that you are not surprised it’s done well, you’re surprised it’s done AT ALL. But in the end, it was done and done very well indeed, in spite of the seeming implausibility of the protagonist.

Once you’ve read the fortunes and misfortunes of the father, it seems natural to continue the adventure with the daughter who brings her own version of wry intelligence mixed with utter cynicism to her own investigations – following in her father’s often self-indulgent footsteps.

Flavia Albia is a different kind of investigator altogether. Not that she doesn’t find herself in trouble as often as her father did. It’s just that many of the times Falco had to be broken out of jail it was his own fault due to some of that self-indulgence. When Flavia Albia gets into trouble it’s usually because she’s working too hard or following too closely in a case. The former at least was something her father was seldom accused of.

And if it seems like I’m meandering a bit or giving a lot of background, that’s actually kind of how both series work. Because there is generally a lot of background, all to the purpose of immersing the reader in the world inhabited by Flavia Albia and her frequently disreputable family – with her “dear old dad” as the head disreputable. Without his redoubtable wife, Helena Justina, he would never have managed to stay any course long enough to have enough to retire on – as he has.

But as we walk the streets of Imperial Rome with Flavia Albia, we are able to immerse ourselves in her world. It’s a fascinating view of a time and place long subsumed by history, made all the more absorbing because as much as many things are different, human beings don’t seem to have changed a bit.

For good and for ill. Considering Albia’s profession, she’s better off if a few more people are doing ill – as then they might need her services as an “informer” – otherwise known as a private inquiry agent or, as anachronistic as the term would be – private detective.

In Deadly Election, she has two cases to wrangle with. One comes to her through her friend – and possibly her eventual lover, Manlius Faustus. He’s already been elected to public office, but he’s now mentoring his childhood friend into the business. They’re using Albia’s services to investigate their rivals to see if some dirt can be found to foul up their campaigns – while trying to keep ahead of whatever dirt their opponents might dig up on them.

But the election has already turned deadly, as Albia’s other work, assisting with the family auction house, has turned up a dead body locked in a storage crate scheduled for auction. At first, Albia has no clue to the corpse’s identity, but as she investigates she discovers that the late lamented may not have had an enemy in the world, but he certainly had a relative in that race for public office.

It’s up to Albia to figure out who done it and why at a time and place where forensics were non-existence, women officially had no public role (unofficially was an entirely other matter) and where everyone is afraid to talk because the emperor’s agents are everywhere – looking for possible – or potential traitors.

Escape Rating A-: Part of what makes these series fun is that each book begins with what almost seems like a lot of extraneous information. Information that turns out not to have been extraneous at all by the time the story ends. But it does feel like an immersion process, that it takes time to become acquainted, or re-acquainted, with Albia’s Rome as she experiences it.

And to get used to her first-person voice, because she’s an intelligent outsider who has learned to be whoever and whatever she needs to be to get the job done and get paid by her client. But behind her mask of professional politeness she’s wry and snarky and frequently wishes she could let loose with a cutting remark or ten – because so many of her clients deserve it. Her thoughts can feel very modern, just as her adopted father’s did, but it works surprisingly well.

As Flavia goes on with her business and takes us through her Rome, we start to feel the cobbles under our feet, the mud between our toes, and even smell the overwhelming decay of the liquefying corpse the auction house’s staff find locked in a chest.

At first we’re watching her, and then we’re with her, in a way that wouldn’t work nearly as well if the story didn’t circle around to the case the way it does.

A lot of this particular story is about family ties and nepotism in politics. (Doesn’t that sound all too familiar?) Also it takes place in the middle of a very long, very hot summer, and that seems familiar as well. Forensics are non-existent. She has to solve her cases by painstakingly asking questions of everyone involved and piecing together the parts of the answers that might be true.

It’s easy for both Albia and the reader to get lost in the cover ups and lies, and isn’t that just politics all over.

At the same time, Albia’s relationship with Faustus is driving her crazy. He seems to be the only man in Rome immune to her charms. He’s divorced, she’s a widow, there’s no reason they can’t embark on an affair. Except that they are not of the same class. How much social opprobrium he’s willing to endure is not something she’s willing to risk her heart on.

But this case throws them together at every turn. Which makes it a lot of fun for the reader to wonder whether they’re going to get together or even if they should, while Albia takes a hard look at all the candidates for office and all the murder suspects for that poor corpse and begins to think they might be one and the same.

The heart wants what the heart wants, the cases aren’t going to be easy to solve, and the emperor is insanely paranoid – adding a level of unpredictable danger to a situation that no one except Flavia Albia wants to cope with in the first place!

But it’s all a lot of fun for any reader, like this one, who loves historical mysteries set in unusual times and places. And for any reader who likes their protagonists to have an inner asshole voice that isn’t always as inner as it should be.

In other words, I had a ball with this book, even if Albia wasn’t always having one herself. I’ll be back sometime with the next book in the series, The Graveyard of the Hesperides, the next time I’m in the right mood, if only to see how Albia’s romance is – or isn’t – going!

Review: The Unkept Woman by Allison Montclair

Review: The Unkept Woman by Allison MontclairThe Unkept Woman (Sparks & Bainbridge, #4) by Allison Montclair
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Series: Sparks & Bainbridge #4
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Allison Montclair returns with the fourth Sparks & Bainbridge mystery, The Unkept Woman: London, 1946, Miss Iris Sparks--currently co-proprietor of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau--has to deal with aspects of her past exploits during the recent war that have come back around to haunt her.
The Right Sort Marriage Bureau was founded in 1946 by two disparate individuals - Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (whose husband was killed in the recent World War) and Miss Iris Sparks who worked as an intelligence agent during the recent conflict, though this is not discussed. While the agency flourishes in the post-war climate, both founders have to deal with some of the fallout that conflict created in their personal lives. Miss Sparks finds herself followed, then approached, by a young woman who has a very personal connection to a former paramour of Sparks. But something is amiss and it seems that Iris's past may well cause something far more deadly than mere disruption in her personal life. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn is struggling to regain full legal control of her life, her finances, and her son - a legal path strewn with traps and pitfalls.
Together these indomitable two are determined and capable and not just of making the perfect marriage match.

My Review:

The title of this one, just like the previous book in the series, A Rogue’s Company, is a bit of a pun. Because neither Iris nor Gwen are “kept women” in the traditional sense that phrase is usually meant.

But they both have been, in rather nontraditional meanings of the phrase. And the circumstances under which each of them placed themselves under some man’s thumb have come back to bite them in this fourth entry in the Sparks & Bainbridge series.

Gwen Bainbridge is currently under the thumb of her father-in-law, Lord Harold Bainbridge. When her husband was killed late in the war, Gwen attempted suicide. Twice. And Harold had her declared a lunatic and committed to a sanatorium. She’s been out for quite some time now, she and Iris started their business together, and Gwen is ready to take back the reins of her own life – only to realize that those reins are something she has never really had.

And that the doctors and lawyers who will help her present her case that she is no longer a lunatic are all telling her that getting kidnapped and solving murders is not going to make the Lunacy Court look kindly on her pleas.

Meanwhile, Iris’ ex-lover, the spy who rented her apartment for her under one of his many false names, has barged back into her life and left a corpse in her apartment. The police believe that Iris is the killer, and are not taking kindly to the way that Iris continues to dodge both their questions and the plain-clothes detectives they send to tail her.

All the things that Iris can’t say are wrapped up in her own spy work during the war – and are covered by the Official Secrets Act. She’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. If she tells the cops what she knows, she’ll be killed for violating those official secrets. And if she doesn’t talk – and can’t find out what really happened – there’s all too likely a chance that she’ll be convicted of a capital crime with the resulting capital sentence.

In order to solve the murder and get herself out from under the cops’ accusing eyes, Iris will need all the help she can get. It’s too bad for her that her old spymaster has cut her off, her gangster boyfriend has decided she’s too hot to handle – and not in a fun way, and that her best friend and partner Gwen is too worried about her chances in the courts to take a chance on helping Iris.

Or is she?

Escape Rating A: This entry in the series isn’t really about the marriage bureau at all. This one is all about the two women who own it, and their separate but parallel determination to stand on their own two feet (four feet altogether) without expecting to be helped or rescued or taken care of by anyone except, when the occasion requires it, each other.

It’s a story about letting the past go, for Iris to stop paying penance for the things she didn’t do during the war, and for Gwen to fight her corner and take care of herself for the first time in her life – making the best decisions for herself and her son.

The sense of the historical setting is particularly strong in this one. The war is over, but the recovery has just barely begun. The old war may be over, but another war, a cold war of spies and intelligence gathering, has taken its place. And neither Sparks’ nor Bainbridge’s war has really been dealt with. Iris is still punishing herself for her actions – or rather for her inactions – while Gwen has been so caught up in fighting her in-laws that she’s just now realizing that she hasn’t determined what form her independence will take – because she’s never really had any in her life.

So one side of this story is very much a spy thriller, as Iris has to use all of her old tradecraft to hunt down who really done it and why. Meanwhile, Gwen is demonstrating that she’s learned more from Iris than even she expected, and that she’s more than capable of fighting any corner she has to – even if she has to assault the police to get them to listen to her.

The Unkept Woman is a terrific combination of history, mystery and women’s friendship. I’m really glad I was introduced to Sparks and Bainbridge back in The Right Sort of Man. But dammit we still don’t know exactly what Sparks did during the war – although we sure do learn a lot more about it in this entry in the series. She’s still talking around what she did but the circle around that truth is getting a lot closer. Hopefully we will find out more in the next book in the series – whenever it comes.

Review: The Yeoman’s Tale by M.J. Trow

Review: The Yeoman’s Tale by M.J. TrowThe Yeoman's Tale (Geoffrey Chaucer #2) by M.J. Trow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Geoffrey Chaucer #2
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on July 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


Poet-sleuth Geoffrey Chaucer is caught up in the chaos of the Peasants' Revolt as he attempts to track down a brutal killer.

June, 1381. Embarking on his annual pilgrimage to Canterbury, Geoffrey Chaucer and his fellow travellers are forced to turn back when confronted with a horde of armed and angry peasants, intent on marching to London. Returning to the city to warn the authorities of the approaching danger, the pilgrims hole up at the Tabard Inn and prepare for the coming invasion.
That same night, a woman's body is fished out of the River Thames, her throat cut. When he discovers that the victim was the wife of one of his fellow pilgrims, Chaucer determines to investigate. Could the woman's henpecked husband be responsible for her death? A jealous business rival? Or was she murdered by one of the pilgrims? Does a cold-hearted killer lurk within the Tabard?
As the army of rebellious peasants approaches, Chaucer finds himself in a race against time to uncover the truth before anarchy descends.

My Review:

Just as in the first book in this historical mystery series featuring the very real and historical Geoffrey Chaucer as a fictional and very amateur detective (The Knight’s Tale), this year’s story begins with Chaucer setting out on his annual pilgrimage to Canterbury. The one that inspired his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales.

As Chaucer and the group of assorted pilgrims set off on their journey from London, we’re introduced to Chaucer’s fellow travelers as they start telling each other stories to pass the time. It begins to seem like we’re going to be following along as Chaucer experiences the inspiration for his Tales much more directly than he – or we – ever imagined.

But that’s where this much-anticipated and well-planned pilgrimage goes completely off the rails. Again. Last year the pilgrimage went on but Chaucer himself did not embark upon it as he was forced to remain in London due to the events of the earlier book.

This year, this spring of 1381, the entire company is forced to turn back by events that are much larger and more encompassing than anything Chaucer ever imagined in his poetry. The pilgrims on the road to Canterbury run headlong into the massed Commons of England as they march toward London and their date with doom and destiny in what history records as the Peasants’ Revolt.

They return to a city that is about to be besieged, even if none of the powers that be are willing to acknowledge that the ragtag army heading their way is any kind of a threat to the small but well-armed and well-trained militia that guards the city and especially the palace and person of the king, Richard II.

Only to find that the death they fled on the road has preceded them into London. One of the members of their party chanced upon a dead woman floating in the Thames, a not uncommon occurrence at the time. Upon discovering that the poor unfortunate had her throat expertly slit, the yeoman who found her concluded that she had been murdered and couldn’t let the matter rest. So he brought the corpse to the inn where the pilgrims were gathering – and about to be surrounded by the invading rebel army.

There’s more than one situation stinking up The Tabard Inn as the guests prepare to impatiently wait for either rescue or death. But even in the face of all the death and destruction about to overcome them, Geoffrey Chaucer can’t let this one, seemingly unrelated murder go without trying to discover whodunnit.

Escape Rating B-: The thing about historical mystery, just like other hybrid genres, is that it has to satisfy both sides of its equation in order to satisfy its readers. In this particular case, that means that the historical setting and characters need to be well-researched, fully-fleshed out, and seem at least plausible for their time and place, while the mystery still has to encompass the elements that readers expect of that genre, a crime to solve, an investigator, whether amateur or professional, and a solution that gives the reader the satisfaction of learning the motive, the means, the opportunity and the perpetrator of the crime – while seeing justice served upon that perpetrator in one way or another.

Whether historical mystery readers are going to find their reading of The Yeoman’s Tale satisfying is going to depend a great deal on whether they prefer their historical mysteries to emphasize the historical side of that blending or the mystery side.

Just as in The Knight’s Tale, while the author plays a bit fast and loose with the recorded events of history, the situation is plausible and the characters do fit very well into their time and place. But to say that the mystery part of The Yeoman’s Tale plays second fiddle to the historical tale of the Peasants’ Revolt, the sacking of London by the rebel army, and conditions in London and the (most likely fictional) siege of The Tabard Inn doesn’t go quite far enough. There’s an entire string section playing between the history and the mystery, with the mystery being the last, lonely instrument in that orchestra.

Not that the mystery doesn’t also get resolved in the end. But it just isn’t the story here, so calling this a historical mystery does not give the reader the true flavor of what they are about to read. And not that the story that is told here doesn’t have its fascinating and compelling moments. Chaucer the character is an up-close and personal witness to history in a way that the real man likely was not in this particular instance.

But the first book in this series, The Knight’s Tale, dealt with history on a much smaller scale and allowed Chaucer, as both character and amateur investigator, to take center stage. In this second outing, the events that surround the mystery are much bigger than any tale that Chaucer ever told.

The real historical events, even in this fictional perspective, take center stage in this story, pushing Chaucer, the mystery he seldom even thinks about during this crisis and pretty much everything else not just onto the margins of the stage, but frequently off the stage all together.

Consider this review “The Disappointed Reader’s Tale”. I really enjoyed The Knight’s Tale and was hoping for more, which is not what I think I got. And not that I don’t enjoy historical fiction set in the Plantagenet period, which this is, but I have to say that this is my least favorite part of that long dynasty. But I picked this up expecting a historical mystery and just was not thrilled with the story I got instead. If the series continues I’ll probably pick up the third book, but I’ll be a lot more cautious in my expectations.