Review: Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman

Review: Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine SchellmanLast Call at the Nightingale (Nightingale Mysteries, #1) by Katharine Schellman
Narrator: Sara Young
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Nightingale Mysteries #1
Pages: 320
Length: 9 hours and 14 minutes
Published by Minotaur Books on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

* Duration: 09:14:29 *
First in a captivating Jazz age mystery series from author Katharine Schellman, 'LAST CALL AT THE NIGHTINGALE' beckons listeners into a darkly glamorous speakeasy where music, liquor, and secrets flow.
New York, 1924. Vivian Kelly's days are filled with drudgery, from the tenement lodging she shares with her sister to the dress shop where she sews for hours every day. But at night, she escapes to The Nightingale, an underground dance hall where illegal liquor flows and the band plays the Charleston with reckless excitement.
With a bartender willing to slip her a free glass of champagne and friends who know the owner, Vivian can lose herself in the music. No one asks where she came from or how much money she has. No one bats an eye if she flirts with men or women as long as she can keep up on the dance floor. At The Nightingale, Vivian forgets the dangers of Prohibition-era New York and finds a place that feels like home. But then she discovers a body behind the club, and those dangers come knocking. Caught in a police raid at the Nightingale, Vivian discovers that the dead man wasn't the nameless bootlegger he first appeared.
With too many people assuming she knows more about the crime than she does, Vivian finds herself caught between the dangers of the New York's underground and the world of the city's wealthy and careless, where money can hide any sin and the lives of the poor are considered disposable...including Vivian's own.
©2022 Katharine Schellman (P)2022 Dreamscape Media. LLC

My Review:

Prohibition was a noble concept, the execution of which was considerably less than noble. But as a setting for historical fiction, Prohibition and the Jazz Age that it spawned sparkles every bit as much as the spangled dresses that the “Flappers” of the period wore when they went dancing. At the speakeasies where liquor was bought from illegal bootleggers, ignored by cops on the take, and drunk by everyone who came to forget their troubles for a night of drinking and dancing.

Drinking can be a social lubricant even when it’s legal. Illegal booze drunk in barely hidden illegal establishments didn’t just break down individual’s inhibitions, it broke the social inhibitions between races, classes and identities.

Which is why Vivian Kelly dances at the Nightingale every night that she can, in spite of her older sister’s fear and disapproval. By day, Vivian lives in a constrained world. She’s Irish, she’s an orphan, she’s poor and she has a job that barely buys the necessities and has no prospects whatsoever. She and her sister seem doomed to be spinster seamstresses under the thumb of their overbearing, disapproving, autocratic boss until they step over a line or their eyesight gives out. They’re barely scraping by with little hope for better.

So Vivian dances as much as she can. She may not be able to dance away her problems, but she can certainly set them aside for a while when the drinks are flowing and someone is always looking for a dance partner.

Vivian also comes to the Nightingale because it’s where her best friend, Bea Henry, works as a dancer. Vivian may be white, but she’s also poor Irish. Bea is black, but in the poorer quarters of New York City where they live only a block apart, the Nightingale is a place where no one cares that they’re not supposed to be lifelong friends, just as no one bats an eye that the bartender is Chinese and the club’s owner is a woman who clearly prefers other women.

The Nightingale is a place where anyone can belong and everyone can be themselves – a place where people can put down whatever mask the outside world forces them to wear.

The night that Vivian and Bea find a dead body in an alley behind the club all of that is threatened. The police hush up the murder, but the dead man was high society and someone is determined to make the club and its owner, Honor Huxley, pay dearly for the privilege of staying open and keeping the secret.

All the secrets.

Vivian is in it up to her neck. She can’t get the scene out of her head, and she can’t help but gnaw at the few available threads of the mystery. When the club is raided, and Vivian finds herself owing Honor for her bail money, the only way she can pay the teasing, tantalizing woman back is to do a little bit of snooping. Vivian can’t admit to herself that she wants to please Honor, but she also wants to pay back what she owes and more importantly, she doesn’t know how she’ll live without the Nightingale.

But there’s someone wrapped in this mess who seems determined not to let the Nightingale, or Honor Huxley, or especially Vivian, go on living at all.

Escape Rating B: There has been a veritable spate of recent mysteries or fantasies with mystery elements set in the Jazz Age in recent months, all featuring female amateur detectives who are in over their heads so far that they nearly drown. The time period is fascinating because the illicit nature of the speakeasies encouraged a breakdown of social barriers, allowing all sorts of people to mix and mingle in ways that would have been impossible before.

The cover of Last Call at the Nightingale was so evocative of the era and the ambiance that I was hoping that the story would be up with the other recent trips back to the 1920s such as Dead, Dead Girls, Wild and Wicked Things, Bindle Punk Bruja and my absolute favorite, Comeuppance Served Cold.

This was a story where I flipped between listening and reading. I was in a time crunch and I really did want to find out whodunnit and whether I was right about the things I managed to guess in advance. Some books are much better one way than the other, but this turned out to be one where it didn’t matter. The narrator did a good job with the various accents and characters, but the performance didn’t elevate the material above and beyond what was on the page.

Whether in audio or text, I would say that this is a story that I liked more than I loved, and I think that’s down to its protagonist Vivian Kelly. In her mid-20s with no family other than her sister, raised in an orphanage, barely making ends meet, Vivian is poor and Irish and would probably be called “white trash” behind her back if not to her face. It would have to have been a “hard-knock life” as the play Annie put it, and she’d have to have more sharp edges and street smarts than she seems to.

She’s in so far over her head that she should be drowning. Or, she should be more cynical about pretty much everything. Not that she shouldn’t have dreams or be trying, in however messy a fashion, to make them true, but that she misses some of the realities of life that should be obvious.

Or it could be that the intervening century between her time and ours has made us much more jaded than she was. As soon as the public story about the situation with the dead man’s widow, her young sister and her bastard of a dead husband was revealed, it was screamingly obvious what the underlying cause of that part of the mess was – and Vivian didn’t even think it. Which felt off and made Vivian a bit more incongruous than I could quite believe.

Which doesn’t mean that the setup of the story wasn’t fascinating, or that the reveal of both whodunnit and why wasn’t completely earned. In the end, this reads like Vivian Kelly’s coming-of-age story, and sets up the possibility of more to come. If that more doesn’t materialize, this one is absolutely complete in and of itself. It’s just that there’s a door in the back of the bar that could lead into another mystery.

One of the things that I very much did like was the way that we explore Vivian’s world, both the good parts and the bad, as she undertakes her undercover adventure for Honor Huxley. Vivian’s journey travels through the dark places and shines a light on them without being preachy but still showing clearly just how much was wrong and how hugely unequal the many, many inequities were. And that the Nightingale was a haven where those things didn’t have to happen.

By the time we leave Vivian, she is only a tiny bit older, but much sadder and maybe a little wiser. She learns that nothing she thought was true at the beginning was, and that the people we look up to are in position to use us and hurt us the most. And that she’s going to have to be a lot smarter and grow a much tougher skin if she’s going to survive in the world she has chosen to inhabit.

If this does turn out to be the first in a series as both the Goodreads and Amazon blurbs seem to indicate, I’ll be very curious to see how well, or even if, she manages either of those things.

Review: The Blue Diamond by Leonard Goldberg

Review: The Blue Diamond by Leonard GoldbergThe Blue Diamond (The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes Mysteries #6) by Leonard Goldberg
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, World War I
Series: Daughter of Sherlock Holmes #6
Pages: 336
Published by Minotaur Books on June 14, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The fate of the allied forces lies in the hands of Joanna and the Watsons in the next Daughter of Sherlock Holmes mystery from USA Today bestselling author Leonard Goldberg.During a critical stage in World War One, the Governor-General of South Africa journeys to London for a meeting of The Imperial War Conference. Days prior to the conference, the Governor-General is scheduled to have an audience at Buckingham Palace at which time a most precious blue diamond will be presented to King Edward as a symbolic gesture of the colonies’ resolute and never-ending allegiance to England.
The flawless blue diamond, with its magnificent luster, weighs nearly 3000 carats which renders it one of the world’s largest and most valuable gems. On the Governor-General’s arrival, he is ensconced at the fashionable Windsor Hotel under the tightest security, with his entire entourage and formidable security team occupying the entire penthouse floor. All entrances and exits are locked down and closely guarded, and no one is allowed entrance after 6 PM.
Despite the extreme precautions, the famous diamond is stolen from the Governor-General’s suite in the middle of the night, with no clues left behind. With Scotland Yard baffled, Joanna and the Watsons are called in to investigate the theft and it becomes clear that the crime is not simply the work of a master thief, but one that could greatly aid the Germans and turn the tide of war in their favor. Time is of the essence and the blue diamond must be recovered before it begins its travels which could cause irreparable damage to the allied war plans.

My Review:

Up until this entry of this series featuring Joanna (Holmes) Blalock Watson, the Daughter of Sherlock Holmes of the series title, it has very much seemed as if the books in the series have been as much, or even more, in dialogue with Sherlock Holmes himself and the canon of the elder Dr. Watson’s accounts as they were about the investigations conducted in the series’ present by Joanna Watson with the able assistance of her husband, the younger Dr. Watson, and his esteemed father.

But in this entry in the series, even though it does call back to the codebreaking in her father’s Adventure of the Dancing Men, is finally dealing directly with the important events of her day rather than her father’s famous cases.

That is because The Blue Diamond takes place in 1916, and the criminal activities that Joanna and the Watsons are called in to investigate in London are directly related to the war taking place in Europe – even if that is only a suspicion when they are first called in.

At first, it looks like a series of very high-end thefts occurring at equally high-end hotels. The first prize the clearly expert thieves took was a rare Ming vase worth over 100,000 pounds. The second was an even rarer – and much more highly prized – blue diamond. Hence the title of the book.

But the diamond was stolen from the suite of the Governor-General of South Africa – making the whole mess a political nightmare. Even so, the theft of a rare vase and an even rarer diamond are still property crimes – even if the value of the items represented riches beyond the dreams of avarice – if not beyond the dreams of high-end thieves.

The third item stolen shifted the entire investigation from mere grand theft to treason when top secret papers were extracted from a visiting French Minister’s suite. Those papers, which contained top secret plans for a joint operation between the British and the French designed to draw the German army into a trap and then break them in a pincer movement, elevated the crime to one that would get the perpetrators hung – if Joanna and the Watsons can figure out who they are.

And as much as Scotland Yard wanted Joanna and the Watsons on the original case, MI5 was even more eager to have them discover not just whodunnit, but how and why and especially whether or not those plans had been relayed to the enemy.

The tide of the war depended on those answers. It really, truly did.

Escape Rating B: This series always gives me mixed feelings. Probably because at least within the confines of my own head, it is in dialogue with two other series (Mary Russell and Lady Sherlock) that re-work Holmes and each treats the Great Detective entirely differently. (If anyone knows of a story or even fanfiction that puts Joanna, Charlotte and Mary in the same room for what would be an utterly fascinating conversation please let me know!)

Only the Russell series has fully traveled beyond the original canon by virtue of having Sherlock outlive it. Lady Sherlock is still working her way through it. This is the first case of Joanna’s where she is dealing fully with her own contemporary circumstances and not her father’s.

Rather than being rooted in Sherlock Holmes’ old case, this one is rooted in what we now call history. It’s 1916, the Great War is creating great casualties along with victories that seem like defeats. The U.S. has not yet entered the war, and Germany seems unstoppable. The situation is grim. Those plans have the potential to change the tide of the war – but only if the Germans don’t see them (This eventually happened, the plans referenced in the story were carried out at the Battle of Amiens.)

At first, there are few clues beyond the obvious, that stealing the plans benefits the German High Command. If the plans reach Berlin it gives the enemy knowledge of future military strategy. It has the potential to demoralize the Allies. The uncertainty about whether the plans have been seen and/or tampered with throws up confusion and doubt.

While Germany’s motives are obvious, there don’t seem to be any German agents involved. Instead it all circles back to the South African Governor-General and his entourage. South Africa is a Dominion of the British Empire – an ally. And that’s where the case gets more convoluted.

As Joanna becomes more certain that the thefts were an inside job, the reasons for those thefts becomes that much more elusive. It’s only as the noose tightens around 221B Baker Street that Joanna is finally able to determine who is holding the rope – and why.

There are things about this series that I really like, particularly the portrayal of Dr. Watson Sr. as an intelligent man and a dedicated physician who misses his old friend and finds delight and purpose in helping his friend’s daughter and his own son continue in their footsteps. He’s delightful and he feels both real and right as a character. That he’s well into his 80s at this point in the series and has a heart condition makes me sad. He can’t live forever and there are signs that his time is coming.

I want to say that I find Joanna a bit odd – but she comes by that honestly, considering who her father was. Or does she? That, for me, is the greatest puzzle of the entire series so far, as Joanna seems to have every single one of her father’s habits, quirks and eccentricities to the point where she can seem to be a caricature of a man she never met. That she might have inherited his genius would be entirely possible – but not the whole kit and kaboodle of his personality in all its extremities. Rather than ringing true, this particular bell is ringing cracked.

The case she has to solve here is every bit as contrived and convoluted as any that her father faced. But at least this one is hers, born out of the war the world is facing in her time and not his. This feels like a step forward for the series so I’m glad to see it.

In spite of those quibbles, and all the ways in which this series drives me crazy, I know I’ll be back for the next book in the series. I never can resist a Holmes story.

Review: A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline WinspearA Sunlit Weapon (Maisie Dobbs #17) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Series: Maisie Dobbs #17
Pages: 358
Published by Harper on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the latest installment of the New York Times bestselling series, a series of possible attacks on British pilots leads Jacqueline Winspear's beloved heroine Maisie Dobbs into a mystery involving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
October 1942. Jo Hardy, a 22-year-old ferry pilot, is delivering a Supermarine Spitfire--the fastest fighter aircraft in the world--to Biggin Hill Aerodrome, when she realizes someone is shooting at her aircraft from the ground. Returning to the location on foot, she finds an American serviceman in a barn, bound and gagged. She rescues the man, who is handed over to the American military police; it quickly emerges that he is considered a suspect in the disappearance of a fellow soldier who is missing.
Tragedy strikes two days later, when another ferry pilot crashes in the same area where Jo's plane was attacked. At the suggestion of one of her colleagues, Jo seeks the help of psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs. Meanwhile, Maisie's husband, a high-ranking political attach� based at the American embassy, is in the thick of ensuring security is tight for the first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, during her visit to the Britain. There's already evidence that German agents have been circling: the wife of a president represents a high value target. Mrs. Roosevelt is clearly in danger, and there may well be a direct connection to the death of the woman ferry pilot and the recent activities of two American servicemen.
To guarantee the safety of the First Lady--and of the soldier being held in police custody--Maisie must uncover that connection. At the same time, she faces difficulties of an entirely different nature with her young daughter, Anna, who is experiencing wartime struggles of her own.

My Review:

I love the Maisie Dobbs series, so I had been saving this book for a time when I needed a reading treat. As yesterday was Memorial Day, I was looking for a book about war and what comes after. Considering the origins of Memorial Day, I probably should have been looking for a book set during the U.S. Civil War, but I remembered I’d been saving this one and today seemed like a perfect time. So here we are.

Part of what makes this series so compelling is the way that Maisie Dobbs as an investigator turns some of the mystery conventions on their pointy little heads. A lot of fictional detectives don’t believe in coincidence, so when there are multiple crimes it usually turns out that there’s a single cause or perpetrator at their roots.

Maisie, as trained by the late and often lamented Maurice Blanche, sees coincidences as guideposts – not necessarily to the crime she’s investigating, but to something in her own life that needs looking into. Which means that in addition to the usual questioning of witnesses and suspects, Maisie is quite often questioning herself. Not that she doubts herself, but that she’s always looking for the lesson that the universe is trying to teach her.

The cases and incidents that she undertakes to resolve in A Sunlit Weapon have huge, potentially world-shattering consequences. They will also change the life of one little girl. And all the aspects of that tangled investigation are wrapped around war. Not just this war, but also the one before. And not just the fighting, but the grief that inevitably follows in its wake.

Maisie begins with one case. A young aviatrix, a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary tasked with repositioning planes from one airbase to another, is nearly shot down over Kent by someone on the ground. When Jo Hardy goes back to check out the scene on the ground, she finds, not the shooter, but Mattias Crittenden, a young black American soldier bound and gagged in a deserted barn. She is determined to make sure that the black GI gets justice and not a lynching, so she turns to Maisie for help.

Maisie also has a much more personal case of her own. Her adopted daughter Anna is being bullied at school because Anna is slightly darker skinned than the typical “English Rose” complexion. The children at her school have suddenly started harassing her and referring to her as an enemy Italian, when in fact she’s English. (Her father was a Maltese sailor. Malta became part of the British Empire in 1814.)

What has Maisie perplexed is that Anna was happy in school and eager to learn – up until the past few weeks. Something at the school has changed – and not for the better.

These two “cases” shouldn’t have anything to do with each other. Or to the third case that falls into Maisie’s lap. Her new husband, Mark Scott, is an American attached to the U.S. Embassy. His current task is to handle security for Eleanor Roosevelt’s imminent visit to Britain. Scott has learned that there are plans to assassinate the First Lady while she’s in Britain.

Maisie’s search of the barn where Private Crittenden was discovered turned up two items. The dog tags of Crittenden’s friend Private Stone, who is missing – and coded plans that reference the First Lady’s codename while she’s traveling.

Somehow, Jo Hardy’s mysterious ground shooter and the plot to assassinate Mrs. Roosevelt are linked – even if Maisie doesn’t yet know how. And all of it, along with the mystery at little Anna’s school, may not all be part of the same series of crimes, but are all part of the same thing – the terrible consequences of war.

Escape Rating A-: We’ve followed Maisie from her childhood apprenticeship with Maurice Blanche through her nursing service in WW1, through her grief at the loss of her fiancé, her eventual wedding and subsequent tragic widowhood, her recovery and now her second marriage to the American Mark Scott who she met in a previous book in this series, The American Agent. What we haven’t seen until now is Maisie as a married woman, as the period in her life when she was married happened between Leaving Everything Most Loved and A Dangerous Place. So for those of us who have followed Maisie through her career, this is the first time we’ve seen her in the position where she’s going to have to negotiate how to balance her work life and personal life in a way that she hasn’t had to before.

Because being an investigator is very much core to who Maisie is as a person. It wasn’t easy giving it up to marry the first time around, but she was younger and less well established. At this point in her life she knows she can’t give up being who she is to become a traditional wife and mother – something that the Headmistress of her daughter’s school throws in her face in their first confrontation.

At the same time, a part of the undercurrent of this story is that Maisie’s job is dangerous, and that no matter what she promises she’s not going to stop doing it. And that her new husband hates the danger she throws herself into – even though that kind of danger is the reason they met in the first place.

But the case, or rather cases, that Maisie looks into exemplify the way that Maisie works. She pulls on one thread because it’s part of her initial remit from her client. The more she pulls, the more she investigates, the more complicated and interwoven the threads seem to be – until they send out branches and tentacles into people and places she never thought they’d go.

It’s not a quick process, so Maisie’s stories aren’t page-turners in a thriller sense. And yet they’re compelling because Maisie makes them so. She’s intelligent and complicated, and the way she works through her cases is the same – no matter where they lead her.

In this case they lead her from a black GI accused of killing his white friend even though no corpse has been found. It’s all too clear that this is a rush to judgment or that he’s a convenient scapegoat because of the color of his skin. There is no part of the way that the US military treats its black soldiers, particularly in the persons of its MPs, that does not grate – not just on 21st century readers but on the British public at large at the time. Because racial segregation doesn’t make sense and that’s all too easy to see through the eyes of people who don’t employ it. (That’s not to say that Britain didn’t and doesn’t have plenty of its own problems in regards to class separation, elitism, etc., just that it didn’t run that way at the time.)

But in doing her best to ensure that Pvt. Crittenden isn’t rushed to a hangman’s noose or the electric chair for the murder of a man who might not even be dead Maisie opens up more cans of worms. As she does.

And in the middle of investigating how Crittenden got to be in that barn – no matter how many roadblocks, literal and figurative, get thrown in her way – Maisie links the barn to the shooting, the shooting to a damaged young man, and the young man all the way back to the Headmistress of her daughter’s school. Not because they have the same beliefs or commit any of the same actions, but because they were all, every single one, damaged by the war that was supposed to have ended all wars.

Not because it didn’t, but because war is hell – both for the ones who fight it and the ones who wait behind.

I am already looking forward to Maisie’s next adventure, and not just because I’m wondering how hard (or if) she’s going to have to hit her husband with a clue-by-four to get it through his head that she’s never going to turn away from doing the right thing no matter how dangerous it might be. As this book took place in the autumn of 1943, I expect the next book to cover some of 1944. If Maisie ends up being involved in the planning of or the misdirection wrapped around D-Day I will not be at all surprised. Riveted, but not surprised. And I can’t wait to read it!

Review: When Blood Lies by C.S. Harris

Review: When Blood Lies by C.S. HarrisWhen Blood Lies (Sebastian St. Cyr, #17) by C.S. Harris
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #17
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, has spent years unraveling his family’s tragic history. But the secrets of his past will come to light in this gripping new historical mystery from the USA Today bestselling author of What the Devil Knows.
March, 1815. The Bourbon King Louis XVIII has been restored to the throne of France, Napoleon is in exile on the isle of Elba, and Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and his wife, Hero, have traveled to Paris in hopes of tracing his long-lost mother, Sophie, the errant Countess of Hendon. But his search ends in tragedy when he comes upon the dying Countess in the wasteland at the tip of the Île de la Cité. Stabbed—apparently with a stiletto—and thrown from the bastions of the island’s ancient stone bridge, Sophie dies without naming her murderer.
Sophie had been living in Paris under an assumed name as the mistress of Maréchal Alexandre McClellan, the scion of a noble Scottish Jacobite family that took refuge in France after the Forty-Five Rebellion. Once one of Napoleon’s most trusted and successful generals, McClellan has now sworn allegiance to the Bourbons and is serving in the delegation negotiating on behalf of France at the Congress of Vienna. It doesn’t take Sebastian long to realize that the French authorities have no interest in involving themselves in the murder of a notorious Englishwoman at such a delicate time. And so, grieving and shattered by his mother’s death, Sebastian takes it upon himself to hunt down her killer. But what he learns will not only shock him but could upend a hard-won world peace.

My Review:

“Able was I ere I saw Elba,” at least according to a palindrome attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte during his later captivity on the island of Saint Helena. But that’s later. This seventeenth book in the Sebastian St. Cyr series takes place during the spring of 1815 – with Napoleon’s escape from Elba forming the backdrop – and providing some of the motivations – for St. Cyr’s investigation.

Which is where that title comes in.

The St. Cyr series, from its very beginning in What Angels Fear, has revolved around Sebastian St. Cyr’s search for his own identity. As the series began in 1811, St. Cyr used the tools he learned as an agent of the crown, not just in France during the Napoleonic Wars but in other equally dangerous places, to catch a killer and prove his own innocence into the bargain.

Sebastian was operating from a position of relative privilege – even under an accusation of murder. He was the third son and last remaining heir of the Earl of Hendon, carried the courtesy title of Viscount Devlin, and believed that his mother had died 20 years earlier at sea, attempting to escape her marriage and her family. He thinks his father resents him for his mother’s betrayal and their relationship is strained.

Over the course of the series Sebastian has learned that pretty much none of what he believed at the beginning was true. He is not the offspring of the man he calls father – although they have reconciled. And his mother has been alive all these years. Now that the war between France and England is over, Sebastian is in Paris, along with his wife and two children, to meet his mother and ask all the questions that have been churning inside him since he learned the truth.

Only for his mother to die in his arms, stabbed in the back by an unknown assailant for an equally unknown reason. All his questions still unanswered, but swallowed up in the ones that have just presented themselves.

Who killed the wayward Countess of Hendon, better known in Paris as Dame Sophia Capello? And more importantly, not just for St. Cyr but also for the roiling political pot that is on the boil in both France and England, why was she killed? And why was she killed right then, just as Napoleon is about to sweep into Paris from Elba?

Did her death have something to do with her own recent visit to the exiled emperor? Was she a secret Bonapartist? Or was she a spy for one of the other factions hoping to rule a still fractured and bleeding France?

In his search for the answers to Sophie’s death, St. Cyr runs across a possible answer to a question he’s been asking for 20 years – an answer he’s still afraid to discover.

Was the man whose portrait hangs so prominently in Sophia’s house his real father?

Escape Rating A+: If you are looking for historical fiction that is steeped in its time period to the point where you feel the cobbles under your feet as you walk, then the St. Cyr series absolutely cannot be beat. The series doesn’t just wink and nod at its period, it immerses the reader and the story deeply into what is happening as the hero works his way both through his world and through the mystery that confronts him.

The history in When Blood Lies is about what it feels like to be in the eye of a storm. The storm being France for the past 20something years as the country has careened from absolute monarchy to revolution to near-anarchy to dictatorship and quite possibly back around again. Everyone knows Napoleon is coming back, it’s only a question of when. The restored monarchy seems to have made it their life goal to make the field as ripe as possible for Napoleon’s return by adopting the worst behaviors of their predecessors.

Which doesn’t mean that Napoleon’s return isn’t still going to be awful and bloody and bloody awful. Even if his return is what the French people want, there are too many powers-that-be around Europe who won’t allow him to retake his throne without a fight. (Waterloo, anyone?)

As St. Cyr conducts his investigation, conditions in Paris are breaking down around him. The regime is about to change forcibly – and everyone knows it. Lies and loyalties have suddenly become fluid – as if they’ve ever been solid in the recent decades. He’s desperate to find witnesses and perpetrators before they flee the coming storm or are consumed by it. He’s lost his last chance to question his mother, and his chance to find her killer is rapidly disintegrating.

At the same time, this is, as the series has always been, St. Cyr’s quest for identity. He’s made peace with his legally recognized father, the Earl of Hendon. He is Hendon’s acknowledged heir. The truth about his heritage, even if it comes out, might not change that fact, as his mother was married to the man when Sebastian was born, Hendon acknowledged him as his son, and there isn’t anyone else as Sebastian’s two older brothers deceased long before they had children of their own. His older sister knows his true origins and hates him for them, but she has only daughters and so far her daughters have only daughters so he’s it whether she likes it or not. (If one of her daughters manages to have a son things might get dicey in the legal sense but that hasn’t happened yet.)

But he still wants to know who fathered him. From whom he inherited his distinctive yellow wolf’s eyes and his preternaturally acute senses. On his mother’s wall, there’s a painting of a man who might as well be Sebastian himself in 20 or 30 years. A Scotsman who fought on the French side in the late wars. Who Sebastian might have faced on one or more battlefields.

He clearly needs to know the truth, but now isn’t sure he wants to know it. A truth that he’ll not soon have the chance to discover, as France and England are plunged into war again just as the book concludes.

I came into this series at the very beginning, because the original description of St. Cyr was so fascinating that I had to see what the whole thing was about. Over the course of the series, which consumes four years in book-time and seventeen in the real world, St. Cyr has changed and grown, but he has consistently been compelling and his investigations absolutely riveting, while the depth of the portrait of his life and world has increased in complexity every step of the way.

It’s clear from the way that When Blood Lies ends that there is more yet to come, as France and England are about to be plunged back into the war that still haunts St. Cyr’s nightmares. I can’t wait to find out what happens next, whether he fights or spies – or a bit of both – and how much of himself he discovers along the way.

Review: Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray

Review: Two Storm Wood by Philip GrayTwo Storm Wood by Philip Gray
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, thriller
Pages: 352
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In this thriller set on the battlefields of the Somme after the end of World War I, a woman investigates the disappearance of her fiancé.
The Great War has ended, but for Amy Vanneck there is no peace. Her fiancé, Edward Haslam, a lieutenant in the 7th Manchesters, is missing, presumed dead. Amy travels to the desolate battlefields of northern France to learn his fate and recover his body.
She’s warned that this open-air morgue is no place for a civilian, much less a woman, but Amy is willing to brave the barbed wire, the putrid water, and the rat-infested tunnels that dot the landscape. Her search is upended when she discovers the scene of a gruesome mass murder. What does it signify? Soon Amy begins to have suspicions that Edward might not really be dead. Disquieting and yet compulsively readable, Two Storm Wood builds to an ending that is both thrilling and emotionally riveting.

My Review:

“The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” Honestly, Shakespeare pretty much said everything best. This particular quote is from Julius Caesar, but it’s relevant to Two Storm Wood because the mystery in this historical thriller revolves around an attempt to attach the evil that one man did to another man’s bones – even if the man’s actual bones can never be found.

The story begins with a mystery. Two soldiers in a convalescent hospital for men with facial disfigurements back home in England after the Armistice that ended World War I. One kills the other, after stealing the victim’s uniform and identity papers. The reader knows nothing about them, not their names, not their real identities. Only that they are officers and that one is impersonating the other – whoever either or both might be.

Then the focus shifts to Amy Vanneck, whose name we definitely DO know, as she escapes from the smothering confines of her status conscious, social climbing, upper middle class family to sneak away to France with a friend. The war may be over for many, but not for Amy or the tens of thousands of others whose loved ones were listed as “missing, presumed dead.”

So Amy heads for France, to the former battlefields of the Great War, now turned into vast, disturbed – and disturbing – fields of unmarked graves, filled with bodies that may never be identified. She’s certain that her fiancée is one of those bodies, and that the responsibility for his fate can be laid at her door – whether she knew it or not.

She’s also promised him she’d find him after the war, and bring him home. Even if all she has to bring back is a corpse. But the more she digs into his fate, the less certain she is – not just about what happened to him, but about who the man she loved really was.

Or who he became in that hellscape of war.

Her search takes her from one mass grave to another, from one putrid processing station for the dead to the few and frequently shell-shocked men who served with Lieutenant Edward Haslam, teacher, choirmaster, officer, and as she discovers along her hellish journey, assassin.

There are two things she does not find. She does not find his body. And she does not find the truth – a truth which seems to be drifting further out of reach the longer and further she searches.

Along with evidence that someone is dogging her trail, determined to stop her from finding anything or anyone at all.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up expecting it to remind me of Charles Todd’s historical mysteries. With its focus on Amy Vanneck as the protagonist, I thought I’d be catching glimpses of nurse Bess Crawford, but as the story progressed I got just as many hints of Todd’s other investigator, Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard.

Little did I know that I had just swallowed a red herring.

More than either of those series, the book that Two Storm Wood resembled the most strongly was The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott, which also focuses on the search for closure after World War I for so many whose loved ones were declared missing during the war. In some ways, Two Storm Wood is even more haunting that The Poppy Wife, as Amy’s search takes place much closer to the Armistice, when the situation was in even more flux as the ground was still literally settling over the shallowly buried dead.

Amy goes to France expecting to find closure. She honestly hopes to find and identify her fiancée’s corpse. Instead, she finds a place where no one expects her – or any other “gently bred” woman to be as she travels alone through a world that belongs more to the dead than to the living. She’s in way over her head with no idea how impossible the task she has set herself truly is.

But she is also free, free from social expectations, free from her mother’s social climbing snobbery, and free to learn just how strong a person she can be when she has no one to rely on but herself. She doesn’t thrive, because no one in these circumstances is even in the same country as “thriving”, but she does persevere.

Even as two men who both claim to be working for the Graves Commission try to dissuade her or redirect her from her self-appointed course. Yet both their involvement and Amy’s own investigations lead her inexorably to Two Storm Wood, and to a crime so heinous that the Army has already begun covering it up.

Whatever and however many other books Two Storm Wood reminded me of, at its center it felt like three stories. One is the story of Amy’s journey through the haunted battlefields, mass graveyards and half-ruined towns and villages that haven’t even begun to recover from the war. It’s not just that war is hell, but that its aftermath is every bit as hellish as the actual fighting – if not worse because it’s supposed to be over but it really isn’t.

The second story was Amy’s search for who Edward Haslam really was, and who he became in that no man’s land of trenches and raids and death on every side. We see the beginning of their relationship through Amy’s memories, and their wartime separation through the letters that Edward sent. The most chilling bit of this part of the story is the way that the more she learns, the less she feels she knows – as though everything she thought was true is slipping away from her.

The third part of the story was the mystery of what really happened at Two Storm Wood. In the end, the actions themselves become clear, but the motives behind them didn’t feel like they were as interwoven with the rest of the story as they should have been for a reveal that turned out to be so fundamental. That bit felt kind of tacked on to a story that had been both chilling and affecting as it followed Amy’s journey. They did tie together at the end, but that tie didn’t feel as tight as it should have been.

But Amy’s journey is a compelling and heartrending read about the way that the horrors of war are inflicted not just on those who fight but on those who are left behind. And that the scars war leaves behind are just as deep on all sides.

One final note, the Graves Commission whose work Amy follows in this story is not yet done. It’s successor organization, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is still finding and identifying the dead of the First World War at the rate of one per week more than a century after the Armistice.

Review: Down a Dark River by Karen Odden

Review: Down a Dark River by Karen OddenDown a Dark River by Karen Odden
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Inspector Corravan #1
Pages: 328
Published by Crooked Lane Books on November 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the vein of C. S. Harris and Anne Perry, Karen Odden’s mystery introduces Inspector Michael Corravan as he investigates a string of vicious murders that has rocked Victorian London’s upper crust.
London, 1878. One April morning, a small boat bearing a young woman’s corpse floats down the murky waters of the Thames. When the victim is identified as Rose Albert, daughter of a prominent judge, the Scotland Yard director gives the case to Michael Corravan, one of the only Senior Inspectors remaining after a corruption scandal the previous autumn left the division in ruins. Reluctantly, Corravan abandons his ongoing case, a search for the missing wife of a shipping magnate, handing it over to his young colleague, Mr. Stiles.
An Irish former bare-knuckles boxer and dockworker from London’s seedy East End, Corravan has good street sense and an inspector’s knack for digging up clues. But he’s confounded when, a week later, a second woman is found dead in a rowboat, and then a third. The dead women seem to have no connection whatsoever. Meanwhile, Mr. Stiles makes an alarming discovery: the shipping magnate’s missing wife, Mrs. Beckford, may not have fled her house because she was insane, as her husband claims, and Mr. Beckford may not be the successful man of business that he appears to be.
Slowly, it becomes clear that the river murders and the case of Mrs. Beckford may be linked through some terrible act of injustice in the past—for which someone has vowed a brutal vengeance. Now, with the newspapers once again trumpeting the Yard’s failures, Corravan must dredge up the truth—before London devolves into a state of panic and before the killer claims another innocent victim.

My Review:

This first book in the Inspector Corravan series begins in the middle in a way that just plain works. For one thing, Corravan is 30 or thereabouts, meaning that he had not just a life but an adult life for years before this story begins. Howsomever, the book does a terrific job of telling the reader enough about his previous life AND his previous cases for us to get a feel for the man as a character as well as how good he is at his job and how often he rubs his superiors the wrong way.

It’s also a bit in the middle when it comes to the circumstances of Scotland Yard and the London Metropolitan Police Department. The situation that the department is in when we first meet Corravan is taken from history. The corruption trial that rocked the Met and still influences the public’s acceptance or lack thereof towards the police really happened. The man who is in charge of the newly formed CID (Criminal Investigation Department) that Corravan serves is a fictional avatar of the real C.E. Howard Vincent who held that position at the time this book takes place..

So the story is grounded in the real a bit more deeply than the usual historical mystery, and that’s part of what makes the story so fascinating. But the truly compelling part of this story is the mystery itself. As it should be.

It all starts with the discovery of a woman’s body floating down the Thames in a lighter, a small boat used to carry cargo along the river. She’s relatively young, blond, pretty and appears to have been well-off if not outright wealthy based on her clothing and her physical condition. She wasn’t raped, but the skirt of her dress was cut open, her wrists were slashed post-mortem and there were flowers in the boat.

Whoever killed her, whyever they did it, the dead woman left behind a fiancé, parents and friends who loved her and are devastated by her death. Corravan begins an investigation, under pressure from his superiors, who are under pressure from theirs. Everyone wants the murder solved before the public loses even more confidence in the police.

A week later there’s a second body. Then a third who the mysterious killer lets go, possibly because she’s pregnant. Corravan is out of his mind, losing his temper, and losing his battle against the demon drink all at the same time.

Because the victims seem to have nothing in common save their gender, station and appearance. He’s not making any headway and the powers-that-be are losing patience – although not as fast as Corravan is.

Just when he’s at his wit’s end – and about to be demoted for it – a key witness steps out of the shadows. He learns just how heinous this crime really is – and just how hard it will be to bring absolutely everyone responsible to any kind of justice.

Escape Rating A: I picked this up because I read and enjoyed two of the author’s previous books, A Dangerous Duet and A Trace of Deceit, also Victorian-set mysteries. And also books that center women’s stories and women’s lives even though much of the investigation is driven by a male protagonist.

So when I learned this book existed, I was happy to set aside the books I’d bounced off of this week and dive right in. Especially as I was even more tempted by the description of the story appealing to readers of C.S. Harris and Anne Perry, as I loved both authors’ 19th century-set mystery series.

While Down a Dark River resembles C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr series in the way that it is so firmly grounded in its time and place, and the way that it borrows from real history using real people as secondary characters, the true resemblance is to Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series and her William Monk series. Corravan’s background – and his temperament – resemble Monk, but the time period in which this series is set makes him contemporaneous to the Pitts. A time when the world was obviously changing as a result of the Industrial Revolution, both for good and for ill.

This case, as Corravan himself remarks, feels like a new kind of crime. He’s chasing a serial killer – someone organized but with a deranged mind or at least worldview. Not someone who kills in the heat of the moment, but someone who plans meticulously and seeks out victims who make sense for reasons that exist only in his own head.

The process of the investigation, and the way that Corravan nearly loses not just control of it but control of himself, gives us a window into a fascinating character who does not want to adapt to the times or the circumstances, only to discover that the cost of not doing so is greater than he is willing to pay.

Earlier I said that this book centers women’s stories and lives in spite of its male protagonist. And the way that is worked out in the story made for a compelling twist that carries the reader, the detective and eventually his department along to a stunning conclusion that satisfies in one way but can’t possibly do so in another.

Nor should it, which is what made this so very good.

I expected to like this, but I didn’t expect to love it as much as I most definitely did. So I’m very happy that Inspector Corravan’s investigations will continue later this year in Under a Veiled Moon.

Review: Fires of Edo by Susan Spann

Review: Fires of Edo by Susan SpannFires of Edo (Shinobi Mystery #8) by Susan Spann
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Shinobi Mystery #8
Pages: 230
Published by Seventh Street Books on February 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Edo, February 1566: when a samurai’s corpse is discovered in the ruins of a burned-out bookshop, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Jesuit Father Mateo must determine whether the shopkeeper and his young apprentice are innocent victims or assassins in disguise. The investigation quickly reveals dangerous ties to Hiro’s past, which threaten not only Edo’s fledgling booksellers’ guild, but the very survival of Hiro’s ninja clan. With an arsonist on the loose, and a murderer stalking the narrow streets, Hiro and Father Mateo must save the guild—and themselves—from a conflagration that could destroy them all.

My Review:

The entire Shinobi Mystery series, starting with Claws of the Cat, takes place in feudal Japan beginning in 1564, at a time when few foreigners were permitted in the country. (For reference, 1564 was early in Elizabeth I’s reign in England, William Shakespeare was born and St. Augustine, the oldest continuously-inhabited European-established settlement in what is now the continuous U.S., would not be established until the following year.) More importantly, 1564 and the years following in Japan were a time of political upheaval, as the events that push the series forward frequently show.

This is particularly the case in Fires of Edo. Hattori Hiro and the man he has been hired to protect, Father Mateo Ávila of Portugal, have stopped at Edo (the future Tokyo) on their long journey from Kyoto to a location that is still under debate between the two of them.

Hiro is supposed to take Father Mateo to the safety of the Portuguese colony at Yokoseura – where Hiro can keep the man who has become his friend over the course of their association – safe. But Father Mateo does not have any desire to be “safe” and confined among his fellow countrymen. He wants to continue to explore Japan – because once he enters that sanctuary he may not be able to get back out.

But that safety starts looking pretty attractive during their entirely too eventful sojourn in Edo.

As they have made their rather meandering way across the country, Hiro has been carrying out a self-appointed mission for his ryu – the clan of shinobi (read as ninja) that raised him and trained him. The identities of his fellow agents have been compromised, revealed to Oda Nobunaga and the forces that support Nobunaga’s rise to control the shogunate (which eventually happened in 1568).

Hiro and Father Mateo have faced plenty of adventures along their journey, some begun by Father Mateo’s inability to keep from poking his nose in places it doesn’t belong. Others as a result of either Hiro’s mission or his hidden identity as a shinobi or both.

They’re both responsible for their landing in the mess they uncover in Edo. Father Mateo can’t bear to see a man who may be innocent condemned to death without an investigation for a crime that even at the briefest glance appears to have not been his fault. Something reeks about this whole case – and it’s not just the camphor that seems to have started a whole bunch of coincidental fires that are too many and too much alike to be truly coincidental.

Meanwhile, one of the men that Hiro has come to warn is the investigator for the crimes. He is also a man whom Hiro has never trusted after their rivalry in childhood and young adulthood. Hiro is certain something is rotten in Edo and in this investigation – if only because his old enemy is in it up his neck.

Or possibly up to Hiro’s.

Escape Rating B: When Hiro and Father Mateo arrive at their comfortable inn in Edo, at first it seems as if they will finally get a bit of a rest. Or at least not have to face the metaphorical ghosts they did in the previous book in this series, Ghost of the Bamboo Road.

This time around, the ghost that Hiro has to face is entirely too real. The man that Hiro has come to Edo to warn, Daisuke, is a ghost of Hiro’s past. When they were both young and being trained in the arts of the shinobi, Daisuki locked Hiro in a small space with a corpse. They were young, they were being entirely too foolish, and the incident left Hiro with no fear of corpses or ghosts whatsoever – unlike the norm for his time and culture.

But it did leave Hiro with a profound distrust of Daisuke – a distrust that continues into adulthood. Father Mateo believes that Hiro should forgive the other man, not for Daisuke’s sake but for his own.

But Hiro can’t shake his distrust – a distrust that grows into suspicion as the three men are caught up in a series of crimes that seem to be intended to either expose the shinobi in Edo or cover up their activities – at the expense of an innocent man’s life if necessary.

That the crimes that this mystery is wrapped around all involve printing and bookbinding shops made the story a bit of a treat for this librarian. On my other hand, the character of the intrusive, ineffective, conclusion-jumping junior police officer grated on my last nerve.

Of course, he’s supposed to. That he managed to fail upward at the end was a bit more annoying – even if all too realistic – than I really wanted to see. (Honestly, I wanted him to turn out to be the criminal. He was so obviously suspicious that it didn’t seem possible but no one stuck out quite the way he did.)

The crimes that are covered and uncovered seemed as if they were tangential to the real business – right up until the end. So I was certainly fooled – but not quite as enthralled as I was with Ghost of the Bamboo Road.

But I adore this series, and can’t wait to see where Hiro and Father Mateo’s wandering journey takes them next!

Review: Four Thousand Days by M.J. Trow

Review: Four Thousand Days by M.J. TrowFour Thousand Days (Margaret Murray, #1) by M.J. Trow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Margaret Murray #1
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House Publishers on November 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


Introducing turn-of-the-century archaeologist-sleuth Margaret Murray in the first of a brilliant new historical mystery series.

October, 1900. University College, London. When the spreadeagled body of one of her students is discovered in her rented room shortly after attending one of her lectures, Dr Margaret Murray is disinclined to accept the official verdict of suicide and determines to find out how and why the girl really died.
As an archaeologist, Dr Murray is used to examining ancient remains, but she's never before had to investigate the circumstances surrounding a newly-dead corpse. However, of one thing Margaret is certain: if you want to know how and why a person died, you need to understand how they lived. And it soon becomes clear that the dead girl had been keeping a number of secrets. As Margaret uncovers evidence that Helen Richardson had knowledge of a truly extraordinary archaeological find, the body of a second young woman is discovered on a windswept Kent beach - and the case takes a disturbing new twist ...

My Review:

This has been a week of mostly mysteries – or at least a week of conundrums of one sort or another. Margaret Murray’s first foray into amateur detection fits right in. But I was expecting it to considering how much I enjoyed one of the author’s previous mysteries, The Knight’s Tale.

The process of professional archaeologist and amateur detective Murray becoming involved in this case-that-is-almost-not-a-case is marvelously immersive and feels true to the character. It also does a lovely job of introducing the reader to this time and place, London in 1900 as the new century turns over and a new era is on the horizon.

It also places us squarely into the academic environment of University College – that Godless Institution – at a time when women academics were, shall we say, rather thin on the ground. Murray was (really) one of a kind. Her professional credentials are a bit haphazard, because women weren’t supposed to be what she was. But she’s doing her best – which is quite good – to encourage the women who follow in her wake.

And that’s where this story really kicks off, as one of Murray’s part-time students is a police constable called to the death of another. Constable Crawford is sure it’s murder, while the detective in charge calls it suicide – clearly because he doesn’t want to investigate the death of a prostitute.

That’s where Crawford calls in Murray, and Murray calls in retired Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Edmund Reid – who was the real life copper in charge of the Met’s investigation into the Ripper killings. As Murray and Reid poke their noses into places that someone seriously wishes they shouldn’t, the string of murders gets longer and the tempers of officialdom get shorter.

The trick, or the question, or both, is discovering what the deaths of a part-time student and part-time prostitute in London, a full-time student on an archeological dig in Kent, and the most boring professor in the entire University College have in common will require just the kind of digging that Margaret Murray can’t let go of – even if it kills her.

Margaret Murray (3rd from left) unwrapping a mummy in 1908

Escape Rating A-: Margaret Murray reads like a combination of Amelia Peabody (Crocodile on the Sandbank) and Harriet Vane (Strong Poison), all the better for Murray having been a real person, who really had the kind of background and went on the kind of adventures that make her a perfect fit for this sort of story.

Seriously, even though as a real person thrust into the role of amateur detective she’s a bit more like Nicola Upson’s version of mystery author Josephine Tey in An Expert in Murder – and their real life time periods do overlap – Murray combines Amelia Peabody’s expertise in Archaeology (and a mutual acquaintance with Flinders Petrie) with Vane’s experience walking the halls of academe at a time when women were just grudgingly accepted. At best.

While the case that Murray discovers herself in the middle of – and is nearly done in by – has just a bit of a hint of the puzzle that Mary Russell digs herself into in A Letter of Mary. (That’s a bit of a hint, BTW)

As much fun as it is to speculate about the relationships between the real historical figures that populate this story and seem to be part of Murray’s inner circle of helpers and investigators, it’s the character of Murray herself that makes this so much fun.

Often, in historical fiction of all stripes, in order to make a female character the active protagonist and give them real agency it is necessary to make them a bit anachronistic, outré, or both. They end up not feeling like creatures of their own time in order for us to identify with them in ours.

Murray’s actual biography lets the reader know that she was a person of her time – and yet that she really was doing it all uphill and against the wind, so to speak. Which allows her to speak both to her time and our own.

The real-life Margaret Murray lived to be 100. After reading Four Thousand Days, I would be thrilled to read 100 years of her adventures as an amateur detective – or pretty much anything else she – or her author – decided to turn their hand to!

Review: Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose by T.A. Willberg

Review: Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose by T.A. WillbergMarion Lane and the Deadly Rose by T.A. Willberg
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, historical mystery, steampunk
Series: Marion Lane #2
Pages: 304
Published by Park Row on February 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


The envelope was tied with three delicate silk ribbons: “One of the new recruits is not to be trusted…”

It’s 1959 and a new killer haunts the streets of London, having baffled Scotland Yard. The newspapers call him The Florist because of the rose he brands on his victims. The police have turned yet again to the Inquirers at Miss Brickett’s for assistance, and second-year Marion Lane is assigned the case.
But she’s already dealing with a mystery of her own, having received an unsigned letter warning her that one of the three new recruits should not be trusted. She dismisses the letter at first, focusing on The Florist case, but her informer seems to be one step ahead, predicting what will happen before it does. But when a fellow second-year Inquirer is murdered, Marion takes matters into her own hands and must come face-to-face with her informer—who predicted the murder—to find out everything they know. Until then, no one at Miss Brickett’s is safe and everyone is a suspect.
With brilliant twists and endless suspense, all set within the dazzling walls and hidden passageways of Miss Brickett’s, Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose is a deliciously fun new historical mystery you won’t be able to put down.   

My Review:

The tunnels under post-war London that house Miss Brickett’s top secret and extremely secretive agency of Inquirers and Gadgeteers stretches far under the city in 1959. It seems to reach from an occasionally tenuous connection to the reality above the ground to imaginary realms as diverse as the Invisible Library, Unseen University’s library in the Discworld, all the way north to Hogwarts and out to the Scholomance. It’s a place where the science is sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic, and the magic has tentacles in entirely too many places labelled “Here be Dragons”. The monsters there are more than monstrous and dangerous enough to be, if not quite real dragons, entirely too close for comfort.

But the story in Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose, for all the secrets concealed in, for and by Miss Brickett’s, touches more on real-world dangers of the time, along with the darkness that oozes out of the human heart.

Marion Lane, who we were introduced to in the marvelous first book in this series, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder, is now in the second year of her (hopefully) three year apprenticeship at Miss Brickett’s. The events of that first year (and first story) have left her scarred but undeterred. She loves her work, she loves Miss Brickett’s, and she is determined to become a full-fledged Inquirer at the end of her three year apprenticeship.

(This is a broad hint, even a hint and a half, to read the first book first. There are a lot of players in this game and one definitely needs a firm grasp on the scorecard.)

But Marion, like the Librarian Irene Winters of the Invisible Library, has a tendency to be the fool that rushes in where angels would rightfully fear to tread. Not that Marion is anymore foolish than Irene, but they both have that tendency bordering on compulsion to leap in hopes that the net will appear – or at least in certainty that if it doesn’t they’ll be able to think of something on the fly – sometimes literally – before they reach that sudden stop at the bottom of their current plummet towards seeming doom.

The case that Marion finds herself in the middle of, whether she planned to be there or not, has dimensions that encompass the world above and the heart of Miss Brickett’s. A case that at first seems like two cases with little to do with one another.

Out in the real world, a Russian spy known as “The Florist” has left behind a series of corpses with ugly calling cards. His victims are branded with a rose on their torsos. Through rather roundabout means, Marion’s mentor at Miss Brickett’s has been informed that Scotland Yard is stumped but is not asking for assistance from Miss Brickett’s as usual because something that has been discovered in the case has put the agency under suspicion.

At the same time, Marion has received an anonymous letter that one of this year’s intake of new recruits is not to be trusted. As the three newbies begin their first year apprenticeship, something rotten is exposed in Miss Brickett’s that may or may not have anything to do with either “The Florist” or the untrustworthy first-year. But the rot that is exposed will turn out to be the most dangerous secret of all.

Because it has divided the formerly unified Miss Brickett’s into a hotbed of suspicion, lies and power-hungry madness that has pit friend against friend and protegee against mentor. All in an attempt to satisfy greed, a lust for power, and a desperation not to be caught at all costs.

A cost that may, quite possible, include the lives of Marion and her friends.

The gorgeous UK cover

Escape Rating A-: Marion Lane and Miss Brickett’s have tunneled under the crossroads between mystery, fantasy and science fiction and sit in the center of a vast web that encompasses all three genres.

With more than a bit of espionage fiction tossed in to make this mixture a very tasty stew indeed.

While Miss Brickett’s strongly reminds me of the universe of The Invisible Library – and would serve well as a readalike for that series especially now that it has concluded – the way that things work also gives hints of Hogwarts, or the world of A Marvellous Light in that it exists in plain sight, that people in high places know about it, but that it operates in a bit of a hidden pocket of its own.

And even though Miss Brickett’s doesn’t teach or use magic, it still feels a lot like a fantasy.

Very much on my other hand, however, the two issues that Marion feels compelled to solve are both grounded in the real. The case of The Florist, his spy games and his ties to the KGB and the Soviet Union read like a fantasy or alt-history version of the historical case of the Cambridge Five and the infamous British double agents including Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt. The Florist himself may have been considerably over the top, but it’s an over the top version of stuff that actually happened.

The rot in Miss Brickett’s is also all too real, but in an entirely different way. We’ve seen, in real life, in very recent history, just how easy it is to sway people with persuasion, with lies, with propaganda, by seeding doubts, planting suspicions and reaping fears where none originally existed.

Watching those poisoned flowers bloom in a closed, hothouse environment like Miss Brickett’s was chilling – and entirely too real. The tense atmosphere created by the club that becomes a cult just added to the sense of claustrophobia, paranoia and deadly danger that always exists at the fringes of the place.

The two cases fed into one another in ways that were both completely expected and utterly chilling at the same time. We know it’s going to get worse before it even has a chance at getting better – because that part, at least, is something that has happened before and will happen again. It’s humans being human, and sometimes we suck.

As Marion Lane’s adventures (and most definitely misadventures) with the Florist and his “Deadly Rose” come to a close, it’s clear that this case may be wrapped up but that Marion’s adventuring career is FAR from over. I’m looking forward to following Marion Lane’s further escapes whenever she next emerges from the tunnels of Miss Brickett’s.

Review: Murder Under Her Skin by Stephen Spotswood

Review: Murder Under Her Skin by Stephen SpotswoodMurder Under Her Skin (Pentecost and Parker, #2) by Stephen Spotswood
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Pentecost and Parker #2
Pages: 368
Published by Doubleday Books on December 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Someone's put a blade in the back of the Amazing Tattooed Woman, and Willowjean "Will" Parker's former knife-throwing mentor has been stitched up for the crime. To uncover the truth, Will and her boss, world-famous detective Lillian Pentecost, travel south into a snakepit of old grudges, small-town crime, and secrets worth killing for.

New York, 1946: The last time Will Parker let a case get personal, she walked away with a broken face, a bruised ego, and the solemn promise never again to let her heart get in the way of her job. But she called Hart and Halloway's Travelling Circus and Sideshow home for five years, and Ruby Donner, the circus's tattooed ingenue, was her friend. To make matters worse the prime suspect is Valentin Kalishenko, the man who taught Will everything she knows about putting a knife where it needs to go. To uncover the real killer and keep Kalishenko from a date with the electric chair, Will and Ms. Pentecost join the circus in sleepy Stoppard, Virginia, where the locals like their cocktails mild, the past buried, and big-city detectives not at all. The two swiftly find themselves lost in a funhouse of lies as Will begins to realize that her former circus compatriots aren't playing it straight, and that her murdered friend might have been hiding a lot of secrets beneath all that ink. Dodging fistfights, firebombs, and flying lead, Will puts a lot more than her heart on the line in the search of the truth. Can she find it before someone stops her ticker for good? Step right up! Murder Under Her Skin is a delightfully hardboiled high-wire act starring two daring heroines dead set on justice.

My Review:

The first book in this series, Fortune Favors the Dead, opened the partnership between private investigator Lillian Pentecost and former ‘cirky girl’ Willowjean Parker with Parker throwing a knife into the back of the man attempting to assault Pentecost.

The story in Murder Under Her Skin takes Will Parker, along with Lillian Pentecost, back to the place where Will learned how to throw that knife with intent, aim and a whole lot of nerve.

Will’s former mentor, the knife thrower Valentin Kalishenko, has been accused of murdering one of Hart and Halloway’s Travelling Circus and Sideshow’s sideshow attractions. Ruby Donner, the circus’ “Amazing Tattooed Woman”, is dead. With one of Kalishenko’s knives in her back.

The evidence is all circumstantial, but the local townspeople would much rather that someone in the circus killed one of their own rather than one of the townspeople being accused. The circus performers, one and all, are just as certain that whatever happened, Kalishenko didn’t do it.

The man left his knives everywhere. Anyone could have picked one up to strike the fatal blow. But Kalishenko has no alibi. He doesn’t even remember where he spent the night – only that he spent it in an alcoholic blackout.

A not uncommon event – but an exceedingly inconvenient one. At least for Kalishenko.

The circus’ owner asks for Lillian Pentecost’s help in figuring out who really done it. A help that Pentecost feels duty-bound to provide after the events in the previous book. Will wants to help her former mentor, and needs to help get her friends, her former found family, out of the jam they are in. And just wants justice for Ruby.

Along the way, Will discovers that her home in the circus was the kind of home that you can’t go back to again. She can and does help, even though the discovery that she’s no longer a member of the family breaks her heart.

Escape Rating A+: The Pentecost and Parker series, or at least this particular entry in it, is one of the most satisfying but also most unexpected book babies ever. If Rex Stout’s classic Fer-de-Lance (the first Nero Wolfe book) had a book baby with Phryne Fisher, particularly Blood and Circuses, the resulting book would be Murder Under Her Skin.

The comparison with Fer-de-Lance struck me in the first book because the setup of the partnership is so similar. Will becomes the legwoman and principal “active” investigator for Lillian Pentecost in much the same way that Archie Goodwin does for Nero Wolfe. The difference is that one could claim that Wolfe’s desire not to stir from his New York brownstone feels voluntary, while Lillian Pentecost’s continuing battle against the onset of multiple sclerosis is a cup she would gladly pass if only she could.

Wolfe won’t go out and Pentecost shouldn’t go out but the result is the same. Being a private detective requires that someone go out and tail suspects, occasionally fight with evildoers, and have clandestine meetings whose location can’t be dictated or controlled. Will Parker takes care of all those things for Lillian Pentecost and whatever else her boss needs to can’t quite manage for herself no matter how much she wishes she could.

But this case takes Pentecost out of her familiar Boston home and haunts while pulling Parker back to hers. It’s not just that the circus is currently stopped in the tiny town of Stoppard, Virginia, but that the circus was Parker’s home and refuge for years. She knows these people and they know her, both for good and for bad.

The case has more facets than it first appears – which is what made it so marvelously convoluted to follow.

Ruby was murdered, Kalishenko was stitched up. It’s up to Pentecost and Parker to prove it. Then the case gets bigger and wider as it’s revealed that the failing circus was in Stoppard because it’s the place where Ruby grew up. Meaning that she knew everyone in town and everyone knew her. And that she might have left both friendships and grudges behind her.

Even that isn’t complicated enough, as the more Will digs into Ruby’s past and the circus they both once called home, the more threads and tendrils reach out to faraway places and very dangerous people.

In the end the case is considerably larger than anyone ever expected. And that’s what made the unravelling of it so much hard-boiled noir-ish fun to follow.

Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker have turned out to be a fascinating and delightful pair of hard-boiled investigators. Fortune Favors the Dead was utterly marvelous and Murder Under Her Skin continues that streak. I hope they have plenty more mysteries to solve in the future!