Review: Betrayal at Iga by Susan Spann + Giveaway

Review: Betrayal at Iga by Susan Spann + GiveawayBetrayal at Iga (Shinobi Mystery #5) by Susan Spann
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Shinobi Mysteries #5
Pages: 256
Published by Seventh Street Books on July 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Autumn, 1565: After fleeing Kyoto, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo take refuge with Hiro s ninja clan in the mountains of Iga province. But when an ambassador from the rival Koga clan is murdered during peace negotiations, Hiro and Father Mateo must find the killer in time to prevent a war between the ninja clans. With every suspect a trained assassin, and the evidence incriminating not only Hiro s commander, the infamous ninja Hattori Hanzo, but also Hiro s mother and his former lover, the detectives must struggle to find the truth in a village where deceit is a cultivated art. As tensions rise, the killer strikes again, and Hiro finds himself forced to choose between his family and his honor."

My Review:

From the very beginning of this series, all the way back in the marvelous Claws of the Cat, I have been itching for the story of the first meeting between Hiro Hattori and Father Mateo. And while I didn’t get it in Betrayal at Iga, the story does get a lot closer to the source of their partnership, that old contract between Mateo’s secret (presumably) benefactor and Hiro’s shinobi (read as ninja) clan.

Someone, somewhere, still unknown, was willing to pay a lot of money to contract with one of the two greatest shinobi clans to keep the Portuguese missionary alive. That contract has saved Mateo’s life over and over again, even as it has endangered Hiro’s, generally at the same time. In Betrayal at Iga, Hiro has been forced to bring Mateo to the seat of his clan’s power, in order to keep him alive after the tumultuous events of The Ninja’s Daughter.

(If you are getting the hint that this series is best read in order, that is one of the correct things to glean from the above. Also, the whole series is just damn excellent, so if you like historical mysteries, the whole thing is well worth reading. Period. Exclamation Point.)

The stakes are higher than ever in this fifth book in the series. Hiro and Father Mateo have arrived at Hiro’s home just in time for negotiations of an alliance between Hiro’s clan and the rival Koga clan. The clans are not currently at war, but not exactly at peace, either. Rivals seldom are.

Both feel as if peace is being forced on them from outside. Shinobi are always outsiders, samurai who are not acknowledged as samurai, trained in the shadow arts of espionage and assassination. Most shoguns hire them at need and otherwise leave them alone. But in the current political upheaval, both clans are all too aware that the new shogun, brought to power in a bloodbath, seeks to control all not currently under his sway. The shinobi clans’ independence is at stake, as is their livelihood and their very lives. Only by banding together will they be strong enough to resist the shogun’s iron fist.

But the negotiations are threatened from within. In the opening moments of the welcome feast, just as Hiro and Mateo arrive at Hiro’s childhood home, one of the rival negotiators dies of obvious poison in front of the entire assembled clan. In a household consisting entirely of assassins and practiced poisoners, every single person in attendance knows the result of poisoning when they see it spew in front of them.

In order for the negotiations to continue, someone must pay for the all-too-obvious crime. If the real killer is not found, the person who pays with their life will be the one who prepared the feast, even though the poison could not possibly have been contained within. That person is Hiro’s mother Midori, and Hiro can’t let her die, no matter how willing she might be to sacrifice herself to save the family’s honor.

It is up to Hiro and Father Mateo to find the real murderer, and the true motive for the murder, before his mother is forced to ritually kill herself. And before someone gets away with murder. But in a household of assassins, everyone is more than capable of the crime. Hiro has many too many suspects, and time is running out.

Escape Rating A: The best detectives are often outsiders. And in all of their previous cases, Hiro and Mateo have definitely been outsiders, Mateo by culture and Hiro by profession. But every once in awhile, it can be illuminating for the detective in a series to find himself all too much on the inside of a crime that he is investigating, where he already knows all the players and has previously formed opinions of the possible suspects. That is certainly the case in Betrayal at Iga, where Hiro is back at home, and the most likely suspects seem to be his mother, his grandmother, his cousin and his former lover. He comes home and into the middle of the mess with preconceived notions about all of them, and not all of those notions are to either his or the potential suspect’s benefit.

At the same time, the crime has to make some kind of sense, and it just doesn’t. Or at least not for any of the members of the Iga Ryu (clan). His cousin Hanzo wants this alliance – and killing the members of the Koga delegation guarantees it will fail. Hiro’s mother, grandmother and former lover are all capable of the crime, but none of them would commit it without Hanzo’s orders as clan head. Which it made no sense for him to give. One of the women could be a traitor, but even Hiro’s jaundiced opinion of his ex makes that extremely unlikely.

None of the obvious suspects benefits – so who does? And therein lies the key to solving the mystery, in spite of all of Hiro’s many distractions.

This peek inside the closed world of the shinobi provides fascinating insights into Hiro’s history and character, as well as an absorbing mystery that seems perfectly set in its time and place. If you enjoy historical mysteries or historical fiction that provide windows into times and places that might not be familiar, this series is a treat from beginning to end. Start your trip back in time with Claws of the Cat.

I’ll be eagerly awaiting the next stage of Hiro and Mateo’s journey, hopefully next summer.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I love this series, so I am very happy to be able to give away a copy of Betrayal at Iga to one lucky US or Canadian commenter:

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Review: Raisins and Almonds by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Raisins and Almonds by Kerry GreenwoodRaisins and Almonds (Phryne Fisher Mystery #9) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #9
Pages: 217
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Phryne Fisher loves dancing, especially with gorgeous young Simon Abrahams. But Phryne s contentment at the Jewish Young People s Society Dance is cut short when Simon s father asks her to investigate the strange death of a devout young student in Miss Sylvia Lee s East Market bookshop. Miss Lee has been arrested for the murder, and Phryne believes that she is a very unlikely killer. Investigation leads her into the exotic world of Yiddish, refugees, rabbis, kosher dinners, Kadimah, strange alchemical symbols, and chicken soup. With help from the old faithfuls Bert and Cec, her taxi driver friends; her devoted companion Dot; and Detective Inspector Call me Jack Robinson, Phryne picks her way through the mystery. She soon finds herself at the heart of a situation far graver and more political than she at first appreciates. And all for the price of a song ."

My Review:

The best fictional detectives are nearly always outsiders. As outsiders they have no vested interest in any or all of the potential victims, nor are they predisposed to protect or defend any of the potential suspects merely because of some connection, perceived or otherwise. Finally, they tend to make fewer or no assumptions based on prior knowledge, because as outsiders they have little or none.

Phryne Fisher is always somewhat of an outsider. Her early years were spent in Melbourne’s slums, her family destitute and with never enough to eat. But she’s not poor any longer. A lot of young men died, and suddenly her father inherited a dukedom in England and the money to go with it. She and her family were whisked away to England, to a life of luxury. But she never forgot.

Even though she learned to pretend to be “to the manor born”, she is all too aware that she was not. While she can walk in both worlds easily, she is not quite a member of either.

In Raisins and Almonds, she is even further an outsider, as the investigation of this particular crime requires that Phryne insert herself into Melbourne’s Jewish community, at least as much as a shiksa (a rather pejorative Yiddish word for a female non-Jew) can insert herself. She begins by knowing only one person, her current lover, Simon Abrahams. And she is aware from the very beginning that she is only borrowing him, and must return him, possibly heartbroken but otherwise unharmed, to his people and his heritage. And she’s fine with that, even though Simon is not.

But Simon’s father is more than willing to make use of the female detective temporarily in their midst, when one of his tenants in the Eastern Market is accused of a murder she so obviously did not commit. Especially because the man who was most definitely murdered was also a member of the Jewish community. Miss Lee the bookshop proprietor may not have committed the deed, but somebody surely did.

And the elder Mr. Abrahams wants that murderer found, quickly, quietly and correctly, before whispers about the Jews rise to the level of violence that all the members of the community left behind in whatever European country they once called home.

While those fears feel unfounded both to Phryne and to the Australian-born generation of the Jewish community, it is also impossible to deny that anti-Semitism is definitely on the rise in Europe as well as in post Revolutionary Russia. The recent publication of Mein Kampf has caused many to turn worried eyes towards Germany, while the younger and more passionate among them seek adventure and purpose in Zionism with its promise of a homeland in Palestine.

Any or all of these tensions could be the cause of murder. But the motives of this particular murder turn out to be much, much more primitive. Greed is universal. So are envy and jealousy. And no one ever wants to see the snake in their own private garden.

Escape Rating B+: Phryne is always the consummate outsider. At the same time, one of the characteristics that seems singular to Phryne is that she seems to be immune to the prejudices of her day. She takes everyone as she finds them, and does not seem to enter into any conversation or association with any preconceived notions, at least not any notions based on race, class, gender identity, sexual preference or religion. So far in the book series, Phryne has demonstrated that she carries none of the anti-gay, anti-Asian and now anti-Semitic views that were common in the 1920s. And as a reader, I can’t help but wonder if this is a reflection of the author’s times rather than Phryne’s.

Which doesn’t keep me from being appreciative. One of the difficulties of reading what are now historical mysteries but were contemporaneous in their day is the amount of casual racism and sexism that often imbues the pages.

There was plenty of overt anti-Semitism in the 1920s. And indeed well into my own lifetime. While there seems to be a relatively recent resurgence of open and vitriolic anti-Semitism, it never completely goes away – it just goes underground. There have been times in my life where it has been more subtle, and also times when it has been less so. But the dark underbelly of human nature seems ineradicable, and the impulse to hate others, and oftentimes it has been the Jews, never disappears completely.

Which meant I understood completely the desire of the older generation of the Abrahams family to find a just solution to the crime as quickly as possible. Too much attention from the police or especially from the press would be seen as inviting just the kind of trouble that they had all left behind in Europe. Not that there weren’t occasionally violent impulses and certainly casual anti-Semitism in Australia, but so far, those impulses had not broken out in pogroms and outright persecutions.

Unlike many detective stories, Phryne’s cases often involve multiple perpetrators. This always serves to increase the number of red herrings and confuse the proceedings mightily. These stories are also not traditional stories in the sense that we don’t always see all the clues that Phryne sees, or at least it seems that way, even at the end.

This was a case where the differing motives for the various sets of crimes practically tripped each other up. There was murder, there were multiple attempts at robbery, but underlying that whole mess was a quite deceptive morass of espionage. All of which kept me, and everyone else involved in the case, guessing until the very end.

Raisins and Almonds was not my first trip to Phryne Fisher’s 1920s Melbourne (I began with Cocaine Blues and so should you, not because you need to read this series all the way through from the beginning but because they are all good fun), and I know it will not be my last.

Review: Thieves Quarry by D.B. Jackson

Review: Thieves Quarry by D.B. JacksonThieves' Quarry (Thieftaker Chronicles, #2) by D.B. Jackson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Thieftaker #2
Pages: 317
Published by Tor Books on July 2nd 2013
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, September 28, 1768
Autumn has come to New England, and with it a new threat to the city of Boston. British naval ships have sailed into Boston Harbor bearing over a thousand of His Majesty King George III’s soldiers. After a summer of rioting and political unrest, the city is to be occupied.
Ethan Kaille, thieftaker and conjurer, is awakened early in the morning by a staggeringly powerful spell, a dark conjuring of unknown origin. Before long, he is approached by representatives of the Crown. It seems that every man aboard the HMS Graystone has died, though no one knows how or why. They know only that there is no sign of violence or illness. Ethan soon discovers that one soldier -- a man who is known to have worked with Ethan’s beautiful and dangerous rival, Sephira Pryce -- has escaped the fate of his comrades and is not among the Graystone’s dead. Is he the killer, or is there another conjurer loose in the city, possessed of power sufficient to kill so many with a single dark casting?
Ethan, the missing soldier, and Sephira Pryce and her henchmen all scour the city in search of a stolen treasure which seems to lie at the root of all that is happening. At the same time, though, Boston’s conjurers are under assault from the royal government as well as from the mysterious conjurer. Men are dying. Ethan is beaten, imprisoned, and attacked with dark spells.
And if he fails to unravel the mystery of what befell the Graystone, every conjurer in Boston will be hanged as a witch. Including him.

My Review:

I plucked the first book in this series, Thieftaker, from the midst of the towering TBR pile back in February. At the time, a book about pre-Revolutionary America seemed like a good read for Presidents Day. After the Fourth of July, earlier this week, it seemed like an appropriate time to dig out the second book in the series.

And I’m glad I did. This was definitely the right book for the right time. Again.

Thieves’ Quarry takes place three years after the events in Thieftaker. Which makes the year 1768, the year that the British, in their infinite wisdom, decided to teach those fractious colonists in Boston a lesson by occupying the city with British regulars. Those muttering “revolution” mutter a whole lot louder as armed Redcoats stand on every street corner to watch the citizens. Even Ethan, who began the series as a British loyalist, feels uneasy at the occupation – and he’s not alone.

But in the case that forms the central mystery of Thieves’ Quarry, Ethan is working for the British Crown. Not precisely as a thieftaker, although as he puts it, all the men were certainly robbed of their lives, but as a conjurer. Someone killed every man aboard one of the British transport ships bringing troops to the colonies, and did it with an extremely powerful spell.

It’s up to Ethan to figure out who that powerful speller is, before the frustrated colonial Lieutenant Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, has Ethan and every conjurer in Boston hanged as a witch. Which won’t resolve ANY of the outstanding problems, nor will it trap the killer, but will give the restless populace something to focus on other than the occupation, and will have the added benefit of getting the Crown off of Hutchinson’s back, as he will have done SOMETHING to resolve the issue. Even if it doesn’t solve anything at all.

So Ethan finds himself in a race against time, trying desperately to figure out who committed this terrible crime, while the Sheriff, the Lieutenant Governor and his arch-rival Sephira Pryce dog his every step – when they are not out in front of him throwing roadblocks in his path.

And in the end, he discovers that the answer is one that he should have known all along.

Escape Rating B+: The author does an absolutely fantastic job of bringing pre-Revolutionary Boston to life. As we follow Ethan, it almost feels like the reader can not just see what he sees, but sometimes even smell what he smells. Even when it smells really, really rank.

So much of this story, in spite of the fantastical elements, rings true. As do most of the characters. While real historical figures play small parts in this story, notably Samuel Adams and the aforementioned Lieutenant Governor, all the characters feel like real people living in a real time and real place. Except for one.

For this reader, every time Sephira Pryce appears I have to grit my teeth and wait for her to step off the page again. She does not feel like a real person, instead, she reads like a caricature of a female criminal mastermind – ruthless, capricious, petulant, self-indulgent and gorgeous. Ethan’s lingering descriptions of her looks each time she enters the scene get old. I’m only grateful that there’s no “will they, won’t they” chemistry between them, because frankly that would make me drop the series. But there’s just something about her that doesn’t ring true, and it always bothers me.

But the mystery in Thieves’ Quarry kept me turning pages until the very end. And no, I didn’t figure it out. When Ethan finally unravels the whole mess, it’s easy to see how he (and we) should have figured things out much, much sooner. But didn’t. And that’s marvelous.

I enjoyed Thieves’ Quarry and its mystery as well as its gritty portrait of pre-Revolutionary Boston. Enough so that I may not manage to wait until the next appropriate holiday to pick up A Plunder of Souls. Next Presidents Day is awfully far away.

Review: The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes by Leonard Goldberg

Review: The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes by Leonard GoldbergThe Daughter of Sherlock Holmes by Leonard Goldberg
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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1910. Joanna Blalock unknowingly is the product of a sole assignation between the late Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. After the nurse and her ten-year-old son see a man fall to his death in an apparent suicide, elderly Dr. John Watson and his charming handsome son Dr. John Watson Jr. invite her to join their detective team. From hidden treasure to the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880, the group devise an ingenious plan to catch a murderer in the act while dodging Scotland Yard the British aristocracy.

My Review:

This book is absolutely charming, and I was utterly charmed.

The title does give just a bit of it away, as well as the reason why I picked it up in the first place. I find Sherlock Holmes pastiches completely irresistible, and with that title, well, it couldn’t be anything but. The protagonists of this lovely little mystery are the esteemed Dr. John H. Watson, friend and chronicler of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, his son, John H. Watson the younger, also a physician, and Mrs. Joanna Blalock, the aforementioned daughter of the, by this point in time, late and very Great Detective.

This is story for those who love the Holmes stories, but don’t mind playing a bit with the stories and the characters. While the mystery itself is a callback both to The Adventure of the Dancing Men and particularly to The Adventure of the Empty House. This case in our present story parallels much of Empty House, most especially in their villains. Just as our detective is Holmes’ daughter, our villain is Sebastian Moran’s son.

And Inspector Lestrade’s son is now himself a Scotland Yard detective. And the son is just as willing to let an easy solution lay, and to allow Holmes’ daughter to solve the case while he takes the official credit, as ever his father was with hers.

Some things never change, and that is definitely part of the charm of this story.

The case itself stems from the Second Afghan War, where Watson Sr. and both Morans served. (A war that seems to never end. Dr. Watson in the contemporary Sherlock series was also wounded in the Afghan War).

But in this case, a young man appears to have committed suicide while playing cards with Dr. Christopher Moran, and losing disastrously. His family does not believe that it was suicide, even though they absolutely cannot believe that their son’s good friend Dr. Moran could possibly have had anything to do with it.

Mrs. Joanna Blalock, a friend of the family, finds herself at Dr. Watson’s door, which is still 221b Baker Street, in search of assistance with the case. Watson knows precisely who she is, and is more than willing to assist her in her endeavors, first by cudgeling his memory, and second by assisting her with her case – with the help of his son, who is smitten with the young widow.

As the case unravels we follow this intrepid trio, as chronicled by Dr. Watson the younger, as they form a tight-knit partnership and eventually solve this string of terrible murders that would have all passed as accidents without their timely assistance.

The case is a worthy successor to the canon from which it sprang.

Escape Rating A-: This was the right book at the right time. The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes was calling my name from the top of my TBR pile, and I simply decided to answer the call. I fell right into this Edwardian continuation of the Holmes stories, and I sincerely hope that there are more.

As far as the Holmes canon goes, it has to be said that this story ignores the events of His Last Bow, the final Sherlock Holmes story which is set on the eve of the First World War. The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes is set in 1910, and by this point in its history, Holmes has been dead for several years.

But one part of the canon that is surprisingly tastefully handled is the birth, or rather the creation, of his daughter Joanna. Yes, Irene Adler was her mother. It’s nearly always Irene Adler when someone tries to continue the Holmes tradition by providing him with a child. The problem is that Holmes in the original stories is such a cold and seemingly unemotional character. It is difficult to imagine that thinking machine indulging in the pleasures of the flesh, let alone having a torrid, or even a tepid, affair.

The problem is often handled by changing some of the nature of Holmes, making the actual person of Holmes a considerably warmer character than the fictional version, and this is not implausible. The author of this story takes another tack. Here, we have Joanna as essentially the product of a one-night stand between two lonely people who mostly valued each other for their minds. It feels more plausible than some of the other possibilities.

One of the other parts of the story that is handled well is the inclusion of both Drs. Watson. Watson Sr. is in his 80s, and time and age are catching up to him. But he lives at 221b and occasionally helps people who still drop by searching for Holmes. It is not an attempt to recapture past glory. Instead, as he says himself, it is out of a desire to remain relevant. The case presented by Joanna Blalock provides him with that. It takes all three of them to solve this puzzle and Watson Sr. feels not merely relevant, but invigorated. It was good to see this often undersung sidekick get one last chance to shine.

I truly hope that this is the start of a series, because I want MORE!

Review: Urn Burial by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Urn Burial by Kerry GreenwoodUrn Burial (Phryne Fisher, #8) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #8
Pages: 187
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on April 1st 2007
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The redoubtable Phryne Fisher is holidaying at Cave House, a Gothic mansion in the heart of Australias Victorian mountain country. But the peaceful surroundings mask danger. Her host is receiving death threats, lethal traps are set without explanation, and the parlour maid is found strangled to death. What with the reappearance of mysterious funerary urns, a pair of young lovers, an extremely eccentric swagman, an angry outcast heir, and the luscious Lin Chung, Phrynes attention has definitely been caught. Her search for answers takes her deep into the dungeons of the house and into the limestone Buchan caves. What will she find this time?

My Review:

I bounced hard off the book I intended to read for today. It was so dark and twisted it was literally giving me nightmares. So I switched to a murder mystery, where evil always gets its just desserts – and I don’t have to wade through the disgusting course of its mind in the process.

Urn Burial is the 8th book in the Phryne Fisher historical mystery series by Kerry Greenwood, following immediately after Ruddy Gore. While some events that occurred specifically in both Ruddy Gore and Blood and Circuses do have a slight impact on events, most notably that the nature of the circumstances in both those cases have led Phryne to be willing to attend a country house party far from home, it is not necessary to have read the previous entries in the series to enjoy Urn Burial.

On that other hand, those whose only familiarity with Miss Fisher comes from the TV series may find themselves put off just a bit. Most of the characters in the TV show mirror their counterparts in the books, but there are two notable exceptions. Jack in the books, while a good and intelligent cop, is nothing like Jack in the TV series, being a happily married middle-aged man in the books who likes working with Phryne but has no other relationship with her, nor should he. And Lin Chung, who Phryne meets In Ruddy Gore, is only a one-time dalliance in the TV series, but in the books is her frequent paramour.

Unlike much of the book series, Urn Burial has not been re-released with new covers in the wake of the popularity of the TV series, and those two differences are probably the key.

But I turn to Phryne when I get disgusted with whatever I intended to read. I always enjoy the books, and love the dip back into Phryne’s world alongside her intelligent and intense personality. And Urn Burial was no exception.

This is a country house party mystery. There’s a bit of irony there, as by the time that Urn Burial takes place, the country house party scene has become passe even in its English home, while in Australia there never was such a scene. And there was certainly never such a setting as Cave House. It is described as the kind of amalgamation of weird architectural features that hurts both the eye and the aesthetic sense, with secret passages going in every direction. And it is remote enough that it is regularly cut off from the main road, whenever the river rises too high – or in the case of this story, just high enough.

Like all country house mysteries, this one has attracted more than it’s share of quirky characters, not limited to the host, hostess, Phryne and Lin. And as so often happens in Phryne’s cases, if not in mysteries in general, in spite of the relatively small number of guests and servants, and the isolation, there are not one but three perpetrators operating within the confines of Cave House. It is up to Phryne to sort out exactly who has done what before anyone else winds up dead.

Escape Rating B+: While Phryne is often not very comfortable for those around her, for me she has become a comfort read, and so it proved here. I had a great time with Urn Burial, in spite of the death threats as well as the actual deaths. In the end, Phryne always serves justice. And I needed that rather badly.

The story is both typical for Phryne and atypical for the country house mystery it pokes at. And poke it certainly does. Phryne finds a clue in a copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first Hercule Poirot mystery and the exemplar of the country house mystery.

Another, more tongue-in-cheek poke at the mystery forms created by Dame Agatha Christie was embodied in one of the members of the house party. An elderly lady, knitting quietly in a corner, occasionally inserting a cogent comment adroitly and exactly when and where needed, named Miss Mary Mead. St. Mary Mead was the village where Miss Jane Marple resided, when she was not visiting some friend or relation and solving a crime – usually by sitting in the corner, knitting, and listening with both ears wide open. Miss Mary Mead is Jane Marple in every detail, with one exception. At the end, when all the secrets are revealed, Mary Mead has no problem admitting that she really is a private detective, which Marple never does.

The case here is as convoluted as anything Phryne has ever encountered. It seems to be about inheritances, about fathers and sons and providing, or not, for the next generation. And definitely about taking what one feels one is owed. But in the middle of that, there’s a case of bullying and abuse that threatens everyone in its path, and muddies the waters and motives of all the guests.

Watching Phryne tease out who did what to whom, and why, is always a treat.

Review: Ruddy Gore by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Ruddy Gore by Kerry GreenwoodRuddy Gore (Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries #7) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #7
Pages: 240
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on June 17th 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A night at the theatre is interrupted by a bizarre and mysterious on-stage death
Running late to the Hinkler gala performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, Phryne Fisher meets some thugs in a dark alley and handles them convincingly before they can ruin her silver dress. Phryne then finds that she has rescued a gorgeous Chinese, Lin Chung, and his grandmother, and is briefly mistaken for a deity.
Denying divinity but accepting cognac, she later continues safely to the theatre. But it's an unexpected evening as her night is again interrupted by a most bizarre death onstage.
What links can Phryne possibly find between the ridiculously entertaining plot of Ruddigore, the Chinese community of Little Bourke St or the actors treading the boards of His Majesty's Theatre?
Drawn backstage and onstage, Phryne must solve an old murder and find a new murderer - and, of course, banish the theatre's ghost, who seems likely to kill again.

My Review:

In a week which started terrifically but where I eventually bounced off of more than half the books I planned to read, I found myself searching for a “comfort read” to finish the week. And as usual found myself sinking gratefully into the immersive world of Phryne Fisher, as created by Kerry Greenwood. And I have emerged, like Phryne from her luxurious bath, grateful for the respite.

The mystery in this book takes place during a seemingly ill-starred run of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lesser known comic operas, Ruddigore. And the operetta’s plot of ghosts, curses, mistaken identities and long-lost heirs finds its parallels in the theater in which it is being performed. As Phryne herself comments late in the story, the mystery that she is unraveling makes her feel as if she herself is in the middle of a G and S operetta. Or one of Shakespeare’s comedies.

The story begins with Phryne rescuing an elderly Chinese lady and her grandson from a band of cutthroats, also Chinese, as Phryne is on her way to the theater. And for much of the story, that rescue seems disconnected from the events that follow, until just the right moment at the end.

Phryne, who seems to know everyone and always be on hand when trouble strikes, is in the audience for a performance of Ruddigore when two of the actors are struck down onstage, one right after the other, both playing the leading role.

Either this is one heck of a coincidence, or one of the other actors wants that part very, very badly. Or possibly both. Phryne, friendly with the manager of the theater as she is with a surprising number of people, is asked to investigate the events, whether they be accidental, deliberate or one of each. So Phryne finds herself at the center of a whirling cast of over-emotional, constantly emoting and continually superstitious actors and crew, as she finds herself not just investigating the attempted murders, but also every strange thing that has happened at the theater since the company began rehearsing Ruddigore. So not just death and potential death, but also ghostly visions, petty thefts, even pettier meddling, and the case of long-dead actress and her missing child.

Inspector Robinson wants Phryne involved in this case. His usual methods of interrogation simply don’t work with people who are professional dissemblers. When everyone is faking everything, it is difficult for an honest cop to determine who is faking just one particular thing out of all the fakery on display.

Phryne dives right in, attempting to separate the plot of the operetta from the real life imbroglio, while untwisting the separate schemes of a thief, a prankster, and a murderer.

This is the theater, and everyone Phryne meets is playing at least one part. Possibly more. The question is who is willing to kill to protect theirs.

Escape Rating B+: A good time was had by all, at least I believe among the readers. I certainly had a great time. But the plot in this tale is surprisingly convoluted.It is usually a truism in detective stories that where there is a series of crimes there is generally only one criminal – that the long arm of coincidence doesn’t stretch to multiple villains operating at the same time on the same patch.

That’s not true here, and all of the various bits of separate skulduggery result in a plethora of red herrings and a veritable army of possible motives. It is only as Phryne peels away the truly small-time peccadilloes that she is able to work her way into the heart of the mysteries. It doesn’t matter if the actress faked the theft of her own gloves, but who died, and how and especially why, matters a great deal.

The solution of this particular mystery is all on Phryne. While unlike in her previous outing, Blood and Circuses, Phryne manages to keep herself at home for this one, the world of the theatre is one that she invades mostly alone, relying on herself almost completely to solve all the mysteries.

The one person who does help her is the mysterious Lin Chung, whom she meets at the very beginning. In spite of the possible societal repercussions, which could be many, Phryne not only enlists Lin’s help with the mystery but also embarks on a long-term liaison with the handsome (and extremely talented) merchant and former stage magician. Through Lin Chung’s descriptions and through the reception that each of them faces when seen to invade the other’s culture, there’s just a bit of a glimpse of what life was like for Chinese immigrants in 1920s Australia.

In the end, just as in the best Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, all of the various mysteries, including the ones that Phryne brings to light during the investigation, all get resolved with happy endings, no matter how unlikely, all around. For everyone except the murderers, who naturally receive their just desserts.

So a good time is had by all. Especially this reader. But as much as I enjoyed this one, the plot is more than a bit convoluted, and is is missing the input from Phryne’s usual cast of irregulars who add so much to her adventures. So this one feels like one for people who are already into the series and not a good place for someone new to the series to begin.

Reviewer’s Note: In the TV series, Phryne’s relationship with Lin Chung was downplayed in favor of exploring the incredible chemistry between the actors playing Phryne and Jack Robinson. It is going to be very interesting to see how future stories differ based on the impact of that change.

Review: A Twisted Vengeance by Candace Robb

Review: A Twisted Vengeance by Candace RobbA Twisted Vengeance (Kate Clifford #2) by Candace Robb
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Kate Clifford #2
Pages: 400
Published by Pegasus Books on May 9th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

1399. York is preparing for civil war, teeming with knights and their armed retainers summoned for the city’s defense. Henry of Lancaster is rumored to have landed on the northeast coast of England, not so far from York, intent on reclaiming his inheritance—an inheritance which his cousin, King Richard, has declared forfeit.
With the city unsettled and rife with rumors, Eleanor Clifford’s abrupt return to York upon the mysterious death of her husband in Strasbourg is met with suspicion in the city. Her daughter Kate is determined to keep her distance, but it will not be easy—Eleanor has settled next door with the intention of establishing a house of beguines, or poor sisters. When one of the beguines is set upon in the night by an intruder, Kate knows that for the sake of her own reputation and the safety of her young wards she must investigate.
From the first, Eleanor is clearly frightened yet maintains a stubborn silence. The brutal murder of one of Eleanor’s servants leads Kate to suspect that her mother’s troubles have followed her from Strasbourg. Is she secretly involved in the political upheaval? When one of her wards is frightened by a too-curious stranger, Kate is desperate to draw her mother out of her silence before tragedy strikes her own household.

My Review:

In yesterday’s review, I noted that one of the things that historical mysteries often have in common is that they are set in times of great political upheaval. And so it proves with A Twisted Vengeance, the second book in Candace Robb’s Kate Clifford series, after last year’s The Service of the Dead.

Kate Clifford, the protagonist and amateur detective of this series, lives in York, England in 1399, a time when England was again on the cusp of civil war. (While England has only had one conflict officially called the English Civil War, it has had lots of civil wars that were named something else.) In 1399, what Kate and her city are experiencing is part of the long run up to the Wars of the Roses, which may have “officially” begun in 1455 but had their roots in much earlier conflicts.

At this particular point in the century-long mess, Richard II, unbeknownst to all the characters in this particular story, is about to be deposed by his cousin, the Lancastrian Henry of Bolingbroke, crowned as Henry IV. While the deposing, and later beheading, hasn’t happened at this point in Kate’s story, the conflict between Richard and Henry is in full swing, with nobles and their knights scurrying for position on both sides, or sometimes, as in yesterday’s book, attempting to straddle the increasingly mushy middle.

York, as the second city in England and the unofficial capital of the North, is a prize coveted by both factions. As our story begins, both factions have sent knights, spies and seemingly unaffiliated with surprisingly well-armed men to camp in and around York, in hopes of glorious battle and rich plunder.

And all of them are spoiling for a fight.

Kate, on the other hand, is trying to keep her head down, manage her properties, and get out from under the onerous weight of her late husband’s massive debts and away from the grasping machinations of his family. Her initial efforts in this regard form the backdrop of The Service of the Dead. Her late husband being the dead in that instance, and no one seems to lament the bastard. Not even his bastards.

But Kate’s hopes for peace are immediately dashed in this story, when someone attacks the house next door. Unfortunately for Kate, her mother has moved into that house. And whatever Dame Eleanor’s ostensible reasons for her move to open a lay religious house on Kate’s doorstep, Kate knows that her mother always has layers under layers of motivations, and that somehow Kate will end up picking up the pieces while enduring streams of her mother’s verbal abuse.

Dame Eleanor has a dangerous secret. And just like all of Eleanor’s secrets, it is going to get someone killed. And, also as usual, that secret is going to do it and Eleanor’s damn level best to drag Kate under with it.

Escape Rating A-: A Twisted Vengeance grabbed me from the very first page, and didn’t let go until around midnight, when I turned the last page and heaved a sigh of relief. No one escapes from this one unscathed, and danger piles upon danger (also secret piles upon secret), from the first to the last. But our heroine and her fascinating and motley household do live to fight (and investigate) another day.

One of the reasons that A Twisted Vengeance was able to do that first-page grab was because all of the setup had already been handled in The Service of the Dead. That first book has a rather slow beginning, because the richness of this historical setting, and the circumstances of Kate’s rather singular position in it, take a while to take hold. The investment of time in reading the first book, definitely pays off here in the second.

In the end of this outing, the army leaves, and all is finally revealed, not necessarily in that order. That army, and all of its plotting and scheming, are in many ways a giant (and very stinky) red herring, confusing all the issues and providing too many places for too many villains to hide in plain sight.

When all is said and done, and there’s a lot of both, this is a story about family. Both writ large, as the family squabbles and family conflicts are a huge part of the political landscape, and as the great lords use the conflict as an excuse to enact their petty (and not so petty) revenges.

But also writ small, in the neverending conflict between Kate and her mother Eleanor. Where the political shenanigans can sometimes get very large and seem very arcane, the little war between Kate and Eleanor is easy to understand and sympathize with. It will remind every woman who has ever had issues with her own mother (and the number of women who have never had such issues is vanishingly small). The yawning gap between mothers and their grown daughters is a chasm filled with childhood resentments and parental admonishments.

In 21st century terms, parents have such an easy time pushing our buttons because they are the ones who installed them.

Kate doesn’t trust Eleanor because Eleanor keeps secrets, as she is in this instance. And while much of their conflict lies in the past and in patterns neither of them seems able to change, the fact is that Eleanor’s secrets have gotten people killed in the past, and Kate is right to both worry and be mistrustful.

A Twisted Vengeance, like The Service of the Dead and the author’s absolutely marvelous Owen Archer series, is a historical mystery for those who love a rich, detailed slice of history served up with their engrossing mystery. If that’s you, Kate Clifford is a heroine to follow.

Review: A Cruel Necessity by L.C. Tyler

Review: A Cruel Necessity by L.C. TylerA Cruel Necessity: The First John Grey Historical Mystery by L.C. Tyler
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: John Grey #1
Pages: 288
Published by Felony & Mayhem on May 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Two-time Edgar nominee LC Tyler is best known for his series featuring Ethelred and Elsie a third-rate novelist and his gloriously vulgar agent, respectively. And so he should be: He s twice won Britain s Last Laugh award for the Best Humorous Mystery of the Year. But with A Cruel Necessity, the first in the John Grey series, Tyler takes a sharp turn into the shadows. There are still some chuckles to be had, but not many: This is England in the year 1657, Oliver Cromwell is in power, and joy has essentially been outlawed. A young lawyer with a taste for beer and pretty women, Grey finds pleasures enough, even in this backwater Essex town, but he d be wise to keep his amusement to himself: A Royalist spy has been found dead in a local ditch, and Cromwell s agents are eager distressingly eager to explain to Grey that this is nothing to laugh about."

My Review:

I picked this one up out of simple curiosity – it refers to itself as the “first” John Grey historical mystery, and that caught my attention. Because Diana Gabaldon has written a series of historical mysteries featuring Lord John Grey from her Outlander series, set a century after this John Grey. I wondered how they compared.

While Lord John Grey, by the time we meet him in Outlander, is a bit older and a whole lot cannier than John Grey, erstwhile lawyer, they do have one thing in common. And it is something they have in common with many historical mysteries, starting with Brother Cadfael, set in the 1100s and often considered the progenitor of the current popularity of historical mysteries.

All of these series are set at times of great political upheaval. In Brother Cadfael’s time, England was in the midst of a civil war. Lord John Grey, in the 1740s and onwards, faces the Jacobite rebellion and the run up to the American Revolution.

John Grey, the hero, and sometimes dupe of Tyler’s series, lives in the middle of an equally disruptive political upheaval in the late 1650s. In a way, the issues that swirl around him tie into Lord John Grey and the time of the not-too-distant American Revolution. One of the things that made the American experiment singular at its inception was that the nascent Republic created a method for the peaceful transfer of power.

In John Grey’s 1657, that concept only existed in one form, “the King is dead, long live the King.” Other than in a monarchy, there was no other way to go about it. And not all of those transfers were particularly peaceful. In 1657, Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate was coming to its inevitable end. Not because there was anything particularly wrong happening, at least not in light of its time, but because the rise and continuation of the Protectorate was focused solely on the life of its creator and Protector, Oliver Cromwell. And no man lives forever.

Cromwell was 50 when the Protectorate was established, and by the opening days of A Cruel Necessity, nearing 60. People on both sides, Royalist and Roundhead, were looking to the future. If Cromwell attempted to pass the Protectorate to his own son, he would be establishing a monarchy, no better than the one he deposed. And possibly worse. Richard Cromwell wasn’t half the man his father was. Possibly not even a quarter.

Granting the Protectorate to one of his generals would set up a military dictatorship – also not a desirable option. No country can afford to be at war forever.

People were starting to look at the third option – invite the son of their deposed and beheaded King back to England to pick up the reins of monarchy, and reign England. And it is A Cruel Necessity indeed that many people were trying to keep a foot in both camps, in the hope of saving their families if not themselves from economic ruin and a traitor’s death.

Poor John Grey, back home after a year at Cambridge studying law, is trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. And he’s just a little too honest, and more than a bit too easily fooled, for the villagers to trust him with any of the things that they are doing to deal with that onrushing but uncertain future.

So John keeps trying to do the right thing, even if he can’t figure out what that right thing is, or what might be the best way might be. And even though he can’t seem to see that everyone around him is lying through whatever teeth they have left.

And so is he.

Escape Rating B: In the end, I liked this story, but not for the things I usually expect in a historical mystery.

One of the things that I liked a lot was the way that the historical period and its messes played into the mystery. In another time and place, these events simply wouldn’t have happened. But it helped that I already knew the outlines of this history. I have had a lifelong fascination with English history, even though none of my ancestors came from anywhere near there. And while the period I studied centered on the Tudors, I did dip my toes into both the Plantagenets and the Stuarts. The Protectorate bit a chunk out of the Stuart period.

Which is why the review began with a history lesson. I’m not sure how this book will work for readers with no interest or familiarity in the period. I found all the period details absolutely fascinating, but I wonder if some readers will just get lost in them.

Usually in a historical mystery, particularly in a series, it works better if the reader likes and empathizes with the main character. This John Grey is a bit a puzzle in that regard. He’s likable enough, but he’s also a very great fool. Or simply greatly foolish a great deal of the time. Or perhaps completely socially unaware might be a better description. It’s not just that he spends the book being deceived by absolutely everyone, it’s that he falls into the trap, over and over, so very easily. And so very often.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Grey grows up. If Grey grows up. I know that there is a saying that G-d looks out for fools, but if that’s true, then John Grey is probably keeping him a bit busier than he should be.

Review: The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle

Review: The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa TuttleThe Curious Affair of the Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: From the Casebooks of Jesperson & Lane #1
Pages: 416
Published by Random House Publishing Group - Hydra on May 16th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

To solve some mysteries, one must embrace the impossible.
Has there ever been a more unlikely pair of consulting detectives than Jesperson and Lane? They certainly make a striking duo: Mr. Jasper Jesperson, with his shock of red hair and seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of all subjects—save common sense—and Miss Lane, whose logical mind is matched only by her fascination with psychic phenomena.
Their talents are rare . . . as are their customers. So when Jesperson and Lane are hired to track the nocturnal wanderings of a sleepwalking London business owner, they’re simply happy to be working again. The case begins as a window into the séances and other supernatural parlor games that are so popular these days, and takes a sinister turn as the intrepid investigators pull back the curtain on the cutthroat rivalries underpinning polite society.
But after several mediums go missing, it’s clear that Jesperson and Lane are in over their heads. For they’ve uncovered a presence beyond their understanding—an evil force that won’t hesitate to kill in order to achieve its nefarious ends.

My Review:

I really enjoyed the beginning of this book. It was an interesting set up to a slightly off-beat Sherlock Holmes read-alike, with an even more eccentric Holmes and a female Watson who is not a doctor. On the one hand, their respective eccentricities make Jesperson and Lane closer to partners from the beginning. On that other hand, it also begins as a kind of tweak of the nose at Conan Doyle, because Aphrodite Lane becomes a detective after discovering that her friend and employer Gabrielle Fox, who is supposed to be a skeptical investigator for the Society for Psychical Research, is every bit as much of a fraud and a trickster as every medium they have ever investigated.

Miss Lane is willing to believe, but she wants empirical evidence. Evidence that doesn’t involve secret hooks and pulleys under the table. And I applauded her for that.

But about halfway through, The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief turned into the most infuriating book I have read in a long time, perhaps ever.

I fully realize that sentence requires a bit more explanation.

At the beginning of the story, as Jesperson and Lane get started in their consulting detective business, the setting seems to be the same Victorian London as the Holmes and Watson stories. (There is a tip of the hat to Holmes as a fictional character they are both familiar with). There was, at that time, quite a bit of exploration of and belief in the supernatural, and frauds abounded.

Conan Doyle, in spite of his invention of that most rational detective, Holmes, was himself a great believer in spiritualism (and fairies!). Harry Houdini, formerly one of Conan Doyle’s great friends, practically had a second career as a debunker of mediums and psychic phenomena. Their friendship broke over this fundamental difference of belief.

When the first case is presented to Jesperson and Lane, that of the sleepwalking, Mr. Creavey (in other words, the somnambulist) they are looking for a logical and rational explanation. Which Jesperson eventually finds. Someone is controlling Mr. Creavey through a post-hypnotic suggestion.

And while psychic phenomena are bunk, hypnosis is a well-known and reproducible technique.

And this is where the story goes completely off the rails. At least for this reader. Because the so far rational and redoubtable Miss Lane, who is telling the story in the first-person, becomes completely irrational on the subject of hypnotism and hypnosis, when it is obvious to both Jesperson and to the reader that Miss Lane has herself been hypnotized. The only question yet to be completely resolved is whether her hypnotist is the same as Mr. Creavey’s, but even at the outset it seems all too likely. It would be much too coincidental, in the best detectival tradition, for there to be two different hypnotists involved in the same case.

Whether hypnosis works exactly as portrayed in the story is questionable, but it certainly does work and does exist to a significant extent. That the amount of control the hypnotist has over his victims seems rather greater than is considered the norm feels like it falls within the spectrum of fiction.

But it gets worse. While the formerly rational Miss Lane descends into risible irrationality, what drove this reader off the edge into fury was that the story seemed to change its basic premise. While throughout the book it seems to be part of the historical Victorian era, when mostly gullible or desperate people believed in spiritualism but it was not proven, the ending of the story requires that this setting become a world in which psychic phenomena are real and functional.

In other words, we began in rationality and ended with magic, with no explanation for how the basic way that the world works seems to have flipped on its head.

Escape Rating C-: I did finish, which gets the C grade. And I’m still thinking about the book, and still furious, which also keeps it in the C category. But, but and very definitely but. I am so disappointed. What read like a very promising start descended so far on so many levels. Miss Lane’s descent in particular, from rational action to idiocy was particularly galling, especially as we view the story from inside her head.

I enjoy stories where magic works. I love urban fantasy. But if that’s the case, it needs to be established, or at least hinted at, from the beginning. That’s not what happened here. And yes, I’m aware that some of the promotional materials delve a bit into the supernatural aspects, but a) promotional materials don’t always represent the work in hand, b) the switch between absolute belief in rationality to confirmed belief in “magic” is not even subtext in the actual text, and 3) the point-of-view character still changes from an interesting and rational being to a complete idiot.

Color me extremely disappointed. And very, very annoyed.

Review: The Illusionist’s Apprentice by Kristy Cambron + Giveaway

Review: The Illusionist’s Apprentice by Kristy Cambron + GiveawayThe Illusionist's Apprentice by Kristy Cambron
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Pages: 356
Published by Thomas Nelson on March 7th, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Harry Houdini’s one-time apprentice holds fantastic secrets about the greatest illusionist in the world. But someone wants to claim them . . . or silence her before she can reveal them on her own.
Boston, 1926. Jenny “Wren” Lockhart is a bold eccentric—even for a female vaudevillian. As notorious for her inherited wealth and gentleman’s dress as she is for her unsavory upbringing in the back halls of a vaudeville theater, Wren lives in a world that challenges all manner of conventions.
In the months following Houdini’s death, Wren is drawn into a web of mystery surrounding a spiritualist by the name of Horace Stapleton, a man defamed by Houdini’s ardent debunking of fraudulent mystics in the years leading up to his death. But in a public illusion that goes terribly wrong, one man is dead and another stands charged with his murder. Though he’s known as one of her teacher’s greatest critics, Wren must decide to become the one thing she never wanted to be: Stapleton’s defender.
Forced to team up with the newly formed FBI, Wren races against time and an unknown enemy, all to prove the innocence of a hated man. In a world of illusion, of the vaudeville halls that showcase the flamboyant and the strange, Wren’s carefully constructed world threatens to collapse around her.
Layered with mystery, illusion, and the artistry of the Jazz Age’s bygone vaudeville era, The Illusionist’s Apprentice is a journey through love and loss and the underpinnings of faith on each life’s stage.

My Review:

The Illusionist’s Apprentice was utterly charming, and quite surprising. We’ll talk about the charming first, and get to the surprising at the end.

Just like last week’s Blood and Circuses, the story in The Illusionist’s Apprentice is set in a world that is gone. In this case, that world is the vaudeville circuit. Vaudeville flourished during the period just before the American Civil until the 1910s, with the advent of movies. During the period of The Illusionist’s Apprentice, it is clear to the participants that vaude is dying, if not yet dead.

For our main character, the illusionist Wren Lockhart, vaudeville is the only life she’s ever known.

This is also a mystery, wrapped not so much in the proverbial enigma, but in a profound conundrum. Also in a web of contacts and enemies. A web that Wren entered as the late Harry Houdini’s apprentice, but must now maintain all by herself.

Or so it seems.

In the 1920s there was a rise in interest in spiritualism. Everyone had lost someone in recent memory, either to the Great War or the Spanish Influenza Epidemic. Lots of people were willing to latch onto any possibility of communicating with their deceased loved ones. And all too many con artists were willing to latch onto the money of those who grieved.

Harry Houdini in 1899

Harry Houdini, the famous illusionist and escape artist, had almost a secondary career in exposing fake mediums and spiritualists. Wren Lockhart was his apprentice, both as an illusionist and as a fake medium buster.

So she has come to see whether one of those fake mediums that she helped ruin, Horace Stapleton, really can bring the dead back to life. In a cemetery. It’s obviously yet another gag, but how did he do it? And why did someone put him up to it?

The FBI is watching Stapleton and the crowd, because it’s so obviously a scam even if they can’t figure out how. FBI Agent Matthews is watching Wren in particular, when the unthinkable happens. Twice. Stapleton, in a flourish of showmanship, seems to actually raise one of the corpses from the grave. Only to have the man walk a few steps and collapse, dead again.

Among the very meager evidence, Matthews finds a note linking the late Houdini and the still living Wren Lockhart to the crime, or event, or whatever-the-heck it was. And Matthews is all too eager to follow that trail, if only for a chance to speak with the woman who fascinates him.

Wren and Matthews find kindred spirits in each other. Both driven, both workaholics before the term was invented, both using their focus on their work to keep others at a distance. They discover that they need each other. At first, Matthews just needs an entree into the world of vaudeville. He needs Wren’s help to figure out just how Stapleton did whatever it was he did.

Wren needs Matthews. She’s not used to relying on anyone, keeping her feelings and her secrets carefully locked away. But someone is targeting her, and she needs an outsider, particularly a very protective outsider, to help her find the snake in the grass at her feet.

They manage to keep each other alive, long enough to dig up all the truths, not just the ones that Wren has been hiding, but also the ones that have been hidden around her, under the cover of illusion.

Escape Rating A-: This was absolutely charming from beginning to end. Just like a member of her audience, I was sucked into Wren’s illusions from the very beginning of the story. She is an absolutely fascinating character. She is so completely eccentric, so much “out there” even for a female vaudevillian, that one can’t help but be captivated. At the same time, her position in the world of vaude gives her the opportunity to be unconventional in a way that makes her easy for a 21st century woman to empathize with. Her perspectives feel like hers, but they also mirror ours.

FBI Agent Elliot Matthews wants to be a hero. More correctly, he discovers that he wants to be Wren’s hero. But in spite of his status as an FBI Agent, he is not a hero in the usual mold. While he’d like to protect her, he comes to recognize that what he wants isn’t what Wren needs, or is willing to accept. Wren is looking for a hero who will walk beside her, letting her fight her own dragons. And Matthews discovers that he is willing to be that person, even though it isn’t easy.

The story here is one of wheels within wheels within wheels. It’s not a traditional mystery, but it is a mystery. And it’s one with ever widening circles of puzzles as it unravels.

Initially the mystery is all about Stapleton and whoever it is that is or isn’t dead. Then it widens to include who wanted to link Wren to the stunt, and why. Then it’s who is trying to kill Wren, and why. And finally, what is the deep, dark secret in Wren’s past that she has spent so much time, effort and money in concealing, and that someone is trying so hard to expose.

The secret of Wren’s past, and her present, is a very slow reveal, as she comes to trust Matthews more and more over time, and she peels away some of her protective layers. Some of the way that this is done is by skipping backwards into Wren’s past, so that we see those events as they happened. The jumps back and forth are a bit disconcerting at first, but in the end it does work.

And keeps the reader on the edge of their seat until the very end. Just like one of Wren Lockhart’s performances.

Now for why I was so surprised that I loved this book. Like The Hideaway, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, The Illusionist’s Apprentice was published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, a well-known and well-respected publisher of Christian inspirational literature, both fiction and nonfiction. And also like The Hideaway, The Illusionist’s Apprentice is not inspirational fiction, even though it is billed as such. And I was wary of it, like The Hideaway, because of that billing and that publisher. So I am left, as I was after reading The Hideaway, both confused and concerned. It is quite possible that people looking for inspirational fiction will be disappointed by this book. It is excellent historical fiction, but not inspie. It is also very possible that readers like myself, who steer far clear of inspirational fiction, will miss this book because of the publisher. I want this book to find its much deserved audience, and I worry that it won’t.

If you love historical fiction, particularly set in the 1920s (which is a fascinating period that’s getting a LOT more love since Downton Abbey), The Illusionist’s Apprentice is marvelous. And that’s no illusion!

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