Review: Season of Blood by Jeri Westerson

Review: Season of Blood by Jeri WestersonSeason of Blood (Crispin Guest Medieval Noir #10) by Jeri Westerson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Crispin Guest #10
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House Publishers on December 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A missing Holy Relic. A mysterious and beautiful woman. Two murdered monks: Crispin Guest tackles his most intriguing investigation to date.

1390. Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire, England. Two monks lie murdered, their Holy Blood relic stolen: a relic that is said to run liquid for the sinless and remain stubbornly dry for the sinner. Unwilling to become involved in a bitter dispute between a country monastery and Westminster Abbey, the disgraced former knight Crispin Guest attempts to return the relic to Hailes where it belongs, but somehow it keeps returning to his hands no matter what.

As he tries to shield a former nemesis from a charge of murder while becoming entangled with a mysterious and beautiful woman caught between Church politics and the dangerous intrigues of King Richard's court, Crispin begins to suspect that someone at Westminster is conspiring with the assassins. Can the Blood of Christ point to the killer?

My Review:

Season of Blood follows last year’s A Maiden Weeping, and Crispin seems to have learned very little from all the trouble he got into during that case.

A man dies on his doorstep with a knife in his back. In Crispin’s down-at-heels section of London, that actually might not be all that uncommon an occurrence. But the dead man in this particular case is a monk. And in addition to his corpse, he leaves Crispin with two big problems.

That knife in the monk’s back clearly bears the seal of Simon Wynchecombe, former Sheriff, current Alderman, and always a thorn in Crispin’s side. Simon hated Crispin while he was Sheriff, and beat and belittled him at every turn, including when he needed Crispin to resolve a case.

The second problem presented by the corpse is that he has a religious relic in his possession. Crispin has been involved with relics before. He doesn’t trust them or the people who traffic in them. But the damnable things keep invading his life, and that never ends well for him.

On the heels of the corpse, a woman hires Crispin to find her errant niece, who seems to have run off with a married man – that married man being the same Simon Wynchecombe whose knife was in the dead man’s back.

This all should scream “unlikely coincidence” to Crispin the expert tracker, but something about this woman has Crispin doing most of his thinking with his little head instead of his big one. Not that that hasn’t happened before, too. Crispin can never resist a pretty face, especially when there’s a clever brain behind it.

So Crispin, as usual, finds himself investigating a case where he trusts that no one is telling the truth. He is forced to rely on his own wits to determine who killed the first monk (and eventually the second and the third) without having anything like 21st century forensic science. Only his own knowledge of how things work and how people behave – even if his wits are a bit addled by the beautiful woman who seems to be at the center of this spider’s web of a case.

And just because he doesn’t believe in the truth of the relic, doesn’t mean that others are not willing to kill for them. Or that just because so many of the people involved with this case are celibate monks, does not mean that there are not men under those robes, just as fascinated by a pretty face as he himself is. Possibly even the same pretty face.

The chance to solve this conundrum tests Crispin at every turn. But the unexpected chance to score against an enemy – PRICELESS.

Escape Rating B+: A part of me wants to say that this was fun, in spite of the dead bodies falling at every turn. This case is interesting because it is so foreign. The past is definitely another country in this one.

Crispin is skeptical about the truth and the efficacy of those much venerated relics. His attitude is in some ways almost modern, and in others fits within his time. He’s not sure they are real, but if they are, we don’t deserve them. And it’s not for him to judge their religiosity, only to follow the trail of death and end it – no matter the cost.

But this is a case where trying to follow “who benefits?” is difficult because the benefits don’t seem based in our reality – even though they are in theirs.

As always, Crispin is a fascinating character. Once upon a time, he was a nobleman, who lost his station and his fortune by backing the wrong claimant in one of the early skirmishes of what became later known as the “Wars of the Roses”. He should have been killed for his treason, but instead he was reduced severely in station.

He should have died of his ignorance, but instead was helped and taught until he could manage to make his own living as the infamous “Tracker” who solves problems for a fee and shows up the Sheriffs at every turn. He has seen life from both the heights and the depths, but is a stranger in both and at home in neither.

He’s also in his mid-30s and starting to feel that he is no longer young. At the same time he has no idea of if or how to “settle down”. He does have a knack for gathering interesting people around him who both help and support him. A group that gets more interesting all the time, particularly in this outing.

If you like historical mysteries where you really feel (and occasionally taste and smell) just how different the past is from our own present, Crispin Guest is a master at bringing his world to life – and solving its suspicious deaths.

Review: The Castlemaine Murders by Kerry Greenwood

Review: The Castlemaine Murders by Kerry GreenwoodThe Castlemaine Murders (Phryne Fisher, #13) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #13
Pages: 240
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on July 1st 2006
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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The fabulous Phryne Fisher, her sister Beth and her faithful maid, Dot, decide that Luna Park is the perfect place for an afternoon of fun and excitement with Phryne's two daughters, Ruth and Jane. But in the dusty dark Ghost Train, amidst the squeals of horror and delight, a mummified bullet-studded corpse falls to the ground in front of them. Phryne Fisher's pleasure trip has definitely become business. Digging into this longstanding mystery takes her to the country town of Castlemaine where it's soon obvious that someone is trying to muzzle her investigations. With unknown threatening assailants on her path, Phryne seems headed for more trouble than usual....

My Review:

This was the first time that one of Phryne Fisher’s mysteries gave me a bit of a book hangover. Normally, this series is more like a palate cleanser for me, in that when I find myself in need of a quick, comfortable read, I pick up the next book in the series, read it in one night and the next morning I’m ready for whatever is next on my actual schedule.

The true historical elements wrapped into this story, combined with the cultural background on Chinese immigration and Chinese society in Australia in the 1920s and before were fascinating. Also, unlike most of the books in the series that I have read so far, this particular story was not filmed, nor were any of the elements from this story part of any of the filmed episodes.

So it was both utterly familiar and completely new at the same time.

There are really two stories in this book, running mostly in parallel and eventually meeting up at the end. Phryne uncovers (unmasks, perhaps unboots) a mummy at an amusement park. In spite of the age of the mummy, who while certainly not an Egyptian pharaoh seems to be at least half a century old, someone still seems to be dead – or perhaps deadly – interested in preventing Phryne from discovering who he used to be.

Meanwhile, Phryne’s lover Lin Chung is in the process of assuming control of the Lin family. His venerable Grandmother is still alive, but now that Lin Chung is an adult, control of the family businesses is his. If he can manage to gain that control without offending the old dragon too much, and without making her lose too much face in the process. It’s a delicate balance.

A balance that is made even more delicate when Lin Chung manages to settle a century-old feud between the Lin family and the equally distinguished Hu family. Among the many outstanding issues to be settled between them is the theft of gold from the Lin family and the murder of their four couriers back in 1857, at the height of the Australian gold rush and the depths of anti-Chinese prejudice in Australia.

But when all the accounts are settled between the two families, with nothing left owing on either side, the theft and the deaths are still outstanding, because the Hu family was not responsible. So who was? What happened to the bodies? And what happened to the gold?

Meanwhile, Phryne’s younger sister Beth has been rusticated to Australia by their bully of a father, because she will not marry either of the two men he has picked out for her. And with excellent reasons, even if it does take her half the story to finally reveal all.

It is rather convenient that the mysterious mummy, the missing couriers and Beth’s erstwhile suitor all resolve into one single problem. And it’s also a whole lot of fun to watch it all finally unravel.

Right along with the rope that the villains tie Phryne up with.

Escape Rating A-:This was the right book at the right time. I’ve been reading the Phryne Fisher series in order, but not one right after another. As much as I love the series, what makes reading one seem fresh would get a bit stale if I tried reading a bunch of them back-to-back, no matter how tempted I might be.

The Castlemaine Murders was one that tempted me a great deal. It had a lot of elements that made it just a bit different from previous books in the series, while, unlike Death Before Wicket, the story was not based on something in which I have neither the interest nor the understanding.

Instead, the mystery in The Castlemaine Murders is all about history. And while the particular mystery that Phryne had to solve was fictional, the events of the Australian Gold Rush in general, including the terrible treatment of the Chinese laborers brought in to work the fields, was all too true. Much of the history that Phryne and Lin Chung investigate really happened, if not quite in the same way as in the story.

A significant chunk of this story revolves around Lin Chung rather than Phryne – they operate separately for much of the narrative. It’s a fascinating introduction to a culture and society that I am not familiar with, while at the same time the prejudices that the Chinese laborers faced in Australia were unfortunately not all that different from what they faced in the California Gold Rush.

This is also to some extent Lin Chung’s coming of age story, as he begins to operate as head of the family and out from under his very formidable grandmother’s thumb. He’s an interesting character in his own right (and in Phryne’s life) and his parts of the story were absorbing.

One of the ways that this story diverges from the TV series, in addition to the significant part that Lin Chung plays in the narrative, is the part of the story relating to Phryne’s sister Beth (who is dead in the series) and their father who is rather feckless in the TV series but a bully and a tyrant here.

For those reading this book expecting it to be just like the TV show will probably be a bit disappointed, or even censorious about Phryne’s continued relationship with the married Lin Chung. But for those following the book series on its own merits, this one is a treat.

Up next is Queen of the Flowers, the next time I need a comfort reading break!

Review: Wings of Fire by Charles Todd

Review: Wings of Fire by Charles ToddWings of Fire (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #2) by Charles Todd
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Inspector Ian Rutledge #2
Pages: 306
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on May 15th 1999
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Charles Todd's Wings of Fire, Inspector Ian Rutledge is quickly sent to investigate the sudden deaths of three members of the same eminent Cornwall family, but the World War I veteran soon realizes that nothing about this case is routine. Including the identity of one of the dead, a reclusive spinster unmasked as O. A. Manning, whose war poetry helped Rutledge retain his grasp on sanity in the trenches of France. Guided by the voice of Hamish, the Scot he unwillingly executed on the battlefield, Rutledge is driven to uncover the haunting truths of murder and madness rooted in a family crypt...

My Review:

I’ve been looking for comfort reads this week, and that has led me to take a look at some mystery series that I’ve been meaning to get caught up on. Today, that led me to Wings of Fire, the second book in Charles Todd’s Inspector Ian Rutledge series. I love their Bess Crawford historical mystery series, but by the time I started with Bess, the Rutledge series was already into double-digits and I wasn’t quite ready to face catching up. I have read scattered entries in the series, including the first book, A Test of Wills, so I was happy to answer when this one started calling my name.

That it reminded me, a bit, of the historical mystery that served as part of (the best part of, to my reading) Magpie Murders was just icing on the cake.

The Rutledge series is set in the post-World War I period. Ian Rutledge was a Scotland Yard detective before he went to serve in France, and now that the war has ended, he has fought his way back into his old job – even though he doubts himself and his superiors most certainly doubt him at every turn.

Rutledge returned from his war with shell-shock, which in his time was seen as a moral failing and not as the psychological trauma that it truly is. He faces skepticism about whether or not he is remotely capable of doing his job from every direction. Including the doubts from within. A manifestation of his PTSD is that he hears the voice of a young soldier that he was forced to execute for desertion. Whether “Hamish” is merely a figment of his imagination or is the voice of his conscience and his intuition is anyone’s guess, including Rutledge’s. However, while Hamish’s voice may be imaginary, his advice is all too often correct – except, of course when it is terribly, horribly wrong.

Rutledge is sent to Cornwall to reopen the case of a series of suspicious deaths within one prominent family. His superiors want him out of the way while an important serial killer is pursued in London, and they assume that he can’t do any harm in Cornwall, but will assuage the conscience of the local squire who called for the fresh investigation.

But Rutledge is an indefatigable pursuer of the truth, no matter who he might make “uncomfortable” in the process. And there is plenty in this case to be uncomfortable about. The local police ruled that the deaths of half-siblings Olivia Marlowe and Nicholas Cheney were suicide, while the subsequent death of their half-brother Stephen was an accident.

That’s an awful lot of bad luck and tragedy for one family – enough to make any detective suspicious. When those suspicions are combined with the revelation that Olivia Alison Marlowe was also the famous WWI poet O.A. Manning, doubts multiply.

As Rutledge digs deeply into the past of this once-numerous family, he finds a history of tragedy of disaster that stretches the bounds of bad luck past breaking. A murderer has been hidden in their midst for decades, but no one wants to believe that a beloved child or sibling could have held so many in so much terror for so long.

The question is whether Rutledge can sort through the clues and prove it, before he becomes the next victim.

Escape Rating A-: This was just what the reading doctor ordered. When life is disordered it is cathartic to get sucked into the “romance of justice” where good is tested but triumphs, and evil receives its just desserts.

Rutledge is a fascinating protagonist, because he is always the quintessential outsider. Even back in his own London home, his wartime and peacetime experiences set him apart from the rest of his fellow detectives. They don’t trust him, and he honestly does not trust himself.

In this setting, Rutledge is the distrusted “City” man poking his nose into local business that everyone believes has been satisfactorily resolved. He is not wanted, and no one believes that he is needed. He is resented at every turn, and yet no one can tell him to “shove off” no matter how much they want to.

That no one wants to believe in even the possibility of foul play just makes his job that much harder, and his self-doubts that much louder. And yet, it seems obvious from very early on that something must be wrong. This is a family that lost two children, three husbands, one wife, and three adult siblings to various accidents and mysterious deaths over the course of two decades. Nobody has luck THAT bad – especially not when there is money and property involved!

Part of what makes this case so fraught for Rutledge is the identity of Olivia Marlowe as the wartime poet O.A. Manning. The possibility exists that Olivia is the person responsible for the long series of deaths, and Rutledge is desperate for that not to be so. He found comfort in her poetry during his war, and does not want her legacy to be diminished at her death if he can help it. Yet, when the evidence seems to point that way, he refuses to ignore it.

What makes this case so interesting is its tangle. Something was wrong within that family. But what or who? And how can Rutledge prove anything when it seems that everyone who might know something is dead as the result of whoever-or-whatever it is. And no one really wants to know.

It’s Rutledge’s dogged pursuit that keeps the case going, and the reader’s fascination with it that makes this book a page-turner. I’m looking forward to continuing my way through Inspector Ian Rutledge’s case file whenever I need to sink my teeth into a meaty historical mystery.

Review: Murder in Montparnasse by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Murder in Montparnasse by Kerry GreenwoodMurder in Montparnasse (Phryne Fisher Mystery #12) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #12
Pages: 253
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Always enticing in divine twenties fashion, Phryne, one of the most exciting and likeable heroines in crime writing today, leads us through a tightly plotted maze of thrilling adventure set in 1920s Australia. The divine Phryne Fisher returns to lead another dance of intrigue. Seven Australian soldiers, carousing in Paris in 1918, unknowingly witness a murder and their presence has devastating consequences. Ten years later, two are dead under very suspicious circumstances. Phryne s wharfie mates, Bert and Cec, appeal to her for help. They were part of this group of soldiers in 1918 and they fear for their lives and for those of the other three men. It s only as Phryne delves into the investigation that she, too, remembers being in Montparnasse on that very same day. While Phryne is occupied with memories of Montparnasse past and the race to outpace the murderer, she finds troubles of a different kind at home. Her lover, Lin Chung, is about to be married. And the effect this is having on her own usually peaceful household is disastrous."

My Review:

For various reasons, some of which are detailed in this Facebook post, this week went to hell in a handcart. And a crappy handcart at that.

As usual, when I can’t concentrate on much of anything else, I turn to my current comfort read, Phryne Fisher. Murder in Montparnasse swept me back in Phryne’s world for a few hours, where there is plenty of danger, but also lots of derring-do, where justice triumphs and evil gets righteously crushed.

And where the ghosts of memory are laid to their proper rest.

For those who have watched the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries series, Murder in Montparnasse was filmed, and broadcast in the middle of the first season. I recently re-watched it, so the story in the TV version is still pretty clear in my memory.

It feels like the base story is the same in both versions. There are alterations in the details, as there usually are. The TV version includes Jack and Phryne’s first kiss, when Jack needs to distract Phryne and keep her from giving the game away to the villain.

Jack in the books is absolutely nothing like Jack in the TV series, so many of the changes between versions involve Phryne’s long-term lover, Lin Chung, and the rather interesting arrangements for his upcoming marriage.

But the two versions are the same at their heart. Bert and Cec, who served together in WW1 at Gallipoli and many other terrible places, come to Phryne with a problem. Two of their mates have been murdered in such a way that both deaths appeared to be accidents, at least on the surface. The circumstances in both cases were very definitely fishy, and should have been investigated properly, but weren’t due to police incompetence. Something that Jack in the book definitely has something to say about. Whatever he is or isn’t, he is always a good cop.

Bert and Cec’s problem connects to a piece of Phryne’s past that she has tried to bury, mostly from herself. On leave at the end of the war, Bert and Cec and their mates were in Paris, and they witnessed the murder of the painter Sarcelle. Phryne modelled for Sarcelle (among others), and also knew that his death had been ruled an accident.

Their description of the incident takes Phryne back to her own Parisian experience. She remembers everything all too well, especially the cold-hearted beast who seduced her, beat her, and expected her to keep on taking it until he was done. She ran before she could be broken. But she’s never forgotten the man who broke her heart even as he tried to break her body and spirit.

The beast has come to Australia. At first, Phryne doesn’t know why. But she does know that whatever Rene Dubois is involved in this time, it must be far from the side of the angels.

All Phryne has to do is figure out what, and if and why he has to do with the deaths of Bert and Cec’s friends, before he escapes justice yet again.

This time Phryne, with the help of Bert and Cec and their mates, are going to see that the man who haunted her nightmares finally gets exactly what’s coming to him. No matter what it costs.

Escape Rating A-: As a story, this one hangs together a bit better in the book than it did on TV. Even though there are multiple plot threads here, not just Phryne’s past and the deaths of Bert and Cec’s friends but also a kidnapped young woman, a different young woman who wants to get out of the marriage her parents have arranged for her, Lin Chung’s bride’s secrets and Mr. Butler’s resignation, the threads do connect and Phryne’s ghosts get expiated.

The ending is very satisfying.

We also see more of Phryne’s past and in more detail than TV could portray. The glimpses, through Phryne’s eyes, of the post-WW1 Paris that Hemingway called “a moveable feast” are evocative and poignant. And we get a much clearer picture of what Phryne thought and felt during that transitional, ephemeral time and place. It all goes a long towards explaining how Phryne got to be who she is at the point where the books begin. For this reader, at least, it feels like Phryne preserved more of her agency in the book version that her memories indicated in the TV version. And I always prefer that my heroines have all the agency they can grab.

The ending of Murder in Montparnasse is far from tidy, but it feels incredibly right. Dubois gets exactly what he deserves. It is not a neat, clean or even legal result. But it is definitely justice. And it feels intensely satisfying to see it delivered.

A little Murder in Montparnasse was just what I needed. I think I’m going to go and watch it again.

Review: The Women of Baker Street by Michelle Birkby

Review: The Women of Baker Street by Michelle BirkbyThe Women of Baker Street (A Mrs Hudson and Mary Watson Investigation, #2) by Michelle Birkby
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Mrs. Hudson and Mary Watson #2
Pages: 368
Published by Pan Macmillan on February 9th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

As Sherlock and Watson return from the famous Hound of the Baskervilles case, Mrs Hudson and Mary must face their own Hound, in the swirling fog of Victorian London . . .

When Mrs Hudson falls ill, she is taken into a private ward at St Barts hospital. Perhaps it is her over-active imagination, or her penchant for sniffing out secrets, but as she lies in her bed, slowly recovering, she finds herself surrounded by patients who all have some skeletons in their closets. A higher number of deaths than usual seem to occur on this ward. On her very first night, Mrs Hudson believes she witnesses a murder. But was it real, or just smoke and mirrors?

Mary Watson meanwhile has heard about young boys disappearing across London, and is determined to find them and reunite them with their families. As the women's investigations collide in unexpected ways, a gruesome discovery in Regent's Park leads them on to a new, terrifying case.

My Review:

I read The House at Baker Street last weekend, and I loved it so much that when I discovered that the second book in the series was already available in ebook, I immediately grabbed it. Then I discovered that I simply couldn’t wait to read it, so here we are again, returning to Victorian London and 221b Baker Street.

The Women of Baker Street is a direct follow up to The House at Baker Street. Events that occurred in that first book are definitely still resonating by the time this second book opens a few months later. And dogged Inspector Lestrade is still investigating the rather incendiary ending of that first story.

Much to the dismay of both Mrs. Hudson and Sherlock Holmes.

But the story in The Women of Baker Street opens in a decidedly different place, as Martha Hudson is whisked off to St. Bart’s Hospital after collapsing at home. She’s been ill for weeks, and also been successfully concealing her illness from Holmes after his return from Dartmoor, where he was off investigating the legendary Hound of the Baskervilles.

Mrs. Hudson was afraid she had cancer, and just didn’t want to know. In the 19th century, there was no hope of a cure, just suffering and death. But her problems, while serious, were much less desire. An intestinal blockage, fixed with quite survivable surgery followed by bedrest.

That’s not all there is to the case. Dr. Watson takes advantage of both his position at the hospital and Mrs. Hudson’s bent for investigation and installs her in a semi-private women’s ward where odd things have been happening. He’s not convinced that there is really anything going on, but one of the nurses whom he respects is convinced. Of course, he doesn’t believe he’s putting Mrs. Hudson at risk – his concern is to set the nurse’s mind at ease.

However, the pattern in this series is that the women’s instincts are much more accurate than the men’s logic. There IS something strange going on in that particular ward. On her very first night, Mrs. Hudson thinks she witnesses a murder. Then she chalks off her experience to pain and medication.

Until it happens again.

The first part of this case is rather quiet. Mrs. Hudson doing what she does best, sitting (or in this case mostly lying) and listening while other people expose their foibles and their secrets. The small ward is a hotbed of gossip, pain and seething resentment, all exposed to her expert’s eye over the long days that the women are all cooped up together in this single room.

When the tide of strange deaths nearly overtakes Mrs. Hudson herself, Watson and Mary whisk her back home, to continue the case, and her recovery, in a less dangerous location. At least it seems less dangerous, until Martha’s case, and the even more tragic situation that Mary has been investigating on her own, collide within the precincts of 221b. With nearly disastrous results.

The game is afoot. Until it very nearly isn’t.

Escape Rating A-: The story in The Women of Baker Street gets off to a much slower start than the previous entry in the series. Mrs. Hudson has turned out to be the prime mover and shaker in these stories, and as this entry begins, she is temporarily down for the count.

And also quite shaken. She is used to being the mistress of herself and her own domain, but as the story begins she is an invalid, stuck in a place not of her choosing and unable to take care of herself. And, of course, she hates it.

Until Dr. Watson presents her with his little bit of investigation. While she’s still not happy with her surroundings, now she has purpose – even if a part of her believes that this case has been invented to keep her at least mentally occupied.

Not that the various denizens of the ward aren’t fascinating. Especially Emma Fordyce, who was once one of the grandes horizontales of her day. She was a celebrated courtesan, lover of the rich, famous and influential, and she has never told any of the secrets that were whispered in her ears. Rumor has it she’s planning to talk.

When she dies unexpectedly, even for someone staying the hospital, it throws suspicion on anyone whose secrets she might have exposed – and on the woman who seems to have been installed in the ward solely to watch her – or to watch over her.

There were plenty of reasons still around who might want Emma Fordyce dead. But once Mrs. Hudson is home and able to take a slightly more dispassionate view of the case – all she runs into are dead ends. Including the buried bodies of a group of young boys who seem to be tied into, not the case of Emma Fordyce, but to a ghost story.

As Holmes discovered on Grimpen Mire – at the heart of all too many ghost stories lies a kernel of very nasty truth. And it is Mrs. Hudson’s dangerous investigation into the nasty truth of the so-called “Pale Boys” that brings them face-to-face with death.

Again.

The two intertwining cases turn out to be intensely chilling – to the point where The Women of Baker Street would make a good Halloween story. The creepy factor is very high, especially when added with the layers of misdirection and manipulation. And the crimes that Martha and Mary find themselves investigating just add to the chills, as does Lestrade’s continued investigation into the remnants of the case from the previous book.

No ice cube got left undribbled down my back by the end.

This is a series where I seriously want more stories, but don’t see any listed on the horizon. Which does not keep me from hoping that the author will return to Mrs. Hudson and Mrs. Watson. Soon, I hope.

Review: The House at Baker Street by Michelle Birkby

Review: The House at Baker Street by Michelle BirkbyThe House at Baker Street (A Mrs Hudson and Mary Watson Investigation #1) by Michelle Birkby
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Mrs. Hudson and Mary Watson #1
Pages: 368
Published by Harper Perennial on October 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBook Depository
Goodreads

When Sherlock Holmes turns away the case of persecuted Laura Shirley, Mrs Hudson, the landlady of Baker Street, and Mary Watson resolve to take on the investigation themselves. From the kitchen of Baker Street, the two women begin their enquiries and enlist the assistance of the Baker Street Irregulars and the infamous Irene Adler.A trail of clues leads them to the darkest corners of Whitechapel, where the feared Ripper supposedly still stalks. They discover Laura Shirley is not the only woman at risk and it rapidly becomes apparent that the lives of many other women are in danger too.As they put together the pieces of an increasingly complicated puzzle, the investigation becomes bigger than either of them could ever have imagined. Can Mrs Hudson and Mary Watson solve the case or are they just pawns in a much larger game?It is time for Mrs Hudson and Mary Watson to emerge from the shadows and stand in the spotlight. Readers will discover they are resourceful, intelligent and fearless women, with a determination to help those in need . . .

My Review:

This is not the first re-imagining of the life of Sherlock Holmes’ imperturbable housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, to emerge in recent years, but it is the one that tears the fabric of its canon the least. (The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King posits a much, much different life for the Great Detective’s landlady!)

Instead, like Carole Nelson Douglas’ series featuring Irene Adler as the protagonist, The House at Baker Street show the world of 221b through the eyes of its female inhabitants and habitués as they take up a case that Holmes rejects. And they carry it off with aplomb, if not without more than their fair share of danger and intrigue.

Just like Holmes himself, Martha Hudson also has the assistance of her very own Watson. Mrs. Hudson is aided and abetted by Mrs. Watson – the former Mary Morstan that was. In addition to calling on the aid of many of Holmes’ own allies, including the ever-present and ever-helpful Irregulars.

And when Hudson and Watson find themselves in need of an expert housebreaker, they turn to Holmes’ very own nemesis, Irene Adler herself.

The case in The House at Baker Street feels very much like something that Holmes would reject out of hand – and one where the female Hudson and Watson would understand the circumstances so much more intimately than the male detectives.

At a time when an unsullied reputation was a woman’s most precious possession, a whisper campaign of tireless malignity filled with descriptions of unspeakable acts could bring down the highest of the elite – and could wreck a formerly happy marriage. It could even end a life.

Or two. Or ten. Or possibly a hundred.

But whisper campaigns are insidious, and women, even more so then than now, we’re not supposed to even think of the things that were being hinted at. Never accused, because an accusation requires proof. But whispered about in an undertone in a crowded ballroom, or a smoky club room. And, as always, it is impossible to prove a negative. How does one prove that one hasn’t ever done something, especially when no one will directly speak of it?

Laura Shirley is a victim of just such a campaign. Holmes rejects her incoherent plea for help, both impatient with her frightened mannerisms and certain that she must be lying about something relevant. He’s certain that there’s no smoke without at least a little fire.

Martha Hudson and Mary Watson know better. Laura Shirley’s fear is real. Whether Hudson and Watson have learned enough of the detective business to solve her case is anyone’s guess – including their own.

But in a fit of daring – or perhaps insanity – they decide to try. And discover that they have inserted themselves into a web much darker than they, or even Sherlock Holmes himself, ever imagined.

Escape Rating A-: This story feels like it fits almost seamlessly into the Holmes canon. It’s not just that the reader can feel the pea-souper fog and almost smell the smells – especially the unsavory ones. It’s that this story feels like something that could have happened under Holmes’ very nose – not because he didn’t notice but because he often does not seem to care what happens to other people. In the stories, and especially in some of the portrayals of Holmes on TV and in the movies, he frequently seems like a fairly selfish bastard.

And a genius, of course. But still, quite often, a bastard who cannot admit that he does, in fact, care about at least some of the people around him. Like Watson. And Mrs. Hudson, and the Irregulars. And even, in an unspecified and undefined way, Irene Adler.

But it is all too easy to seem him dismissing Laura Shirley in irascible impatience. And even today, we are all much too aware that a woman’s testimony about her abuse, because that is what was happening to Laura Shirley, is always discounted, often down to nothing. That men in general and Holmes (and her husband) in particular would write her story off to either hysterical imaginings or a guilty conscience feels like the way of the world. Not just hers, but ours.

That Martha Hudson and Mary Watson take her seriously because they both know better also feels entirely too plausible. But what makes this book is that they choose to do something about it – and in the doing uncover great danger – but also discover that they, every bit as much as Holmes and Watson, rise to the thrill of the chase and the danger of the hunt for evil.

Hudson and Watson, but particularly Mrs. Hudson, jump off the page. The story is told from Martha Hudson’s perspective, and we are with her as she reaches outside of herself and pushes out of her “comfort zone” to face this challenge. We are with her as she stumbles and fumbles and most importantly, learns how to expand herself into this new role that she has taken on. And it is the making of her.

That Hudson and Watson discover in the end that evil, is in fact hunting them makes for the perfect ending – and effectively slots the first case of Hudson and Watson into the greater arc of Holmes and Watson’s long-running battle with the greatest criminal mastermind of their generation.

If you love Sherlock Holmes’ stories, The House at Baker Street is a marvelous addition to your addiction. It certainly was to mine. There is a second book in this series, titled The Women of Baker Street, which I can’t wait to immerse myself in.

Review: A Casualty of War by Charles Todd

Review: A Casualty of War by Charles ToddA Casualty of War (Bess Crawford #9) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, World War I
Series: Bess Crawford #9
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on September 26th 2017
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From New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd comes a haunting tale that explores the impact of World War I on all who witnessed it—officers, soldiers, doctors, and battlefield nurses like Bess Crawford.

Though the Great War is nearing its end, the fighting rages on. While waiting for transport back to her post, Bess Crawford meets Captain Alan Travis from the island of Barbados. Later, when he’s brought into her forward aid station disoriented from a head wound, Bess is alarmed that he believes his distant English cousin, Lieutenant James Travis, shot him. Then the Captain is brought back to the aid station with a more severe wound, once more angrily denouncing the Lieutenant as a killer. But when it appears that James Travis couldn’t have shot him, the Captain’s sanity is questioned. Still, Bess wonders how such an experienced officer could be so wrong.

On leave in England, Bess finds the Captain strapped to his bed in a clinic for brain injuries. Horrified by his condition, Bess and Sergeant Major Simon Brandon travel to James Travis’s home in Suffolk, to learn more about the baffling relationship between these two cousins.

Her search will lead this smart, capable, and compassionate young woman into unexpected danger, and bring her face to face with the visible and invisible wounds of war that not even the much-longed for peace can heal.

My Review:

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And that’s how it seems for much of A Casualty of War, as every time that Bess Crawford attempts to make things better for Captain Alan Travis, she seems to end up digging the poor man an even bigger hole. Bess being Bess, she feels more than a bit guilty about it, and a whole lot responsible.

And it’s that sense of responsibility that gets her in deep trouble. As it usually does.

Bess’ war is ending. Not with a bang, but seemingly with a whimper, as the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 is noted by the chiming of a surgeon’s watch and nothing more at the forward aid station where Bess is currently stationed.

The guns may have finally been silenced, but there are still plenty of casualties pouring into the aid station, including Captain Travis. Bess met Travis once before, as the both spent a brief respite at a canteen in between trips back to the front. She found him pleasant, affable, intelligent and eager to return home to his family estate in Barbados.

Now he’s a patient, claiming that he was shot by someone on their own side. Not merely someone unknown, but his cousin James. His late cousin James. Very late. A year late. Whether James went up or down after his death in combat, he hasn’t been shooting anyone recently. On either side. For more than a year.

And that’s where the story kicks into gear and moves back to England. All the nurses who served in forward positions get sent home for two weeks’ leave, including Bess. She still has a duty to perform, but where that duty can best be provided is something that she’ll learn after a couple of weeks to rest and regroup. Or at least that’s what supposed to happen.

Instead, Bess takes on Captain Travis’ continuing case. Not his medical case, not exactly. Rather, the mess that she feels she helped to land him in. Bess feels as if she was the one to suggest that his supposed assailant, the one who Travis said resembled his great-uncle, might be his cousin James. So when it turns out that James has been dead for over a year, Alan Travis gets classified as a head-case and sent to increasingly worse care.

Shell shock was considered a moral failing, not a disease.

But Bess remembers the man she met in that canteen before he was wounded. She thinks he’s telling a version of the truth. And that he’s definitely not crazy. Just because it couldn’t have been James does not mean that there was not a very real assailant, one who resembled his cousin, in a British uniform, shooting at him. Not once but twice. As Bess treated both his injuries, she knows for certain that the shots were real. The only question is who fired them.

Bess finds herself involved in not just a giant mess, but also a small town mystery. It’s not just that something is wrong with the treatment of Captain Alan Travis’ case, but it turns out that something is also very wrong with the administration of his cousin Lieutenant James Travis’ will. And that those two messes are somehow one and the same.

It will be up to Bess, with the help of her friend (and her father’s right-hand man) Sergeant Major Simon Brandon, to figure out who did what to whom before it’s too late. Not just for Captain Travis, but also for Bess herself.

Escape Rating B+: After the Magpie Murders a couple of weeks ago, I have been itching to sink my teeth into a good historical mystery. I pulled A Casualty of War out of the TBR stack a couple of weeks ahead of publication just to scratch that itch. And I’m glad I did.

A Duty to the Dead by Charles ToddI have loved this series from its very beginning in A Duty to the Dead. And if you like historical mystery or are a fan of Maisie Dobbs in particular, that’s where I recommend that new readers begin Bess Crawford’s journey. While Bess finds herself in the middle of a case during every book, the series is also the story of Bess’ war as a combat nurse. Her journey begins in A Duty to the Dead, while in A Casualty of War it is obvious that her war is coming to an end. Which makes this book not the best place to start.

The war itself is winding down in this book. It actually has wound down, but that’s something we know from history and not something that Bess was 100% certain of at the time. What happened on November 11, 1918 was an armistice, which is not a peace treaty. While the guns were silent, it was still possible that they would roar again. Which of course they did, but not for another 20 years.

So part of the underlying theme to A Casualty of War is that Bess’ war, and her war service, are coming to an end. Bess, like many combat veterans, suffers from PTSD, even if it wasn’t called that then. Her experiences, many of them horrific, will be with her for the rest of her life. And unlike women of previous generations, Bess is used to serving, not just to being useful, but to having a profession and the professional respect and recognition to go with it. Adjusting to peacetime is going to be difficult.

It’s not surprising that Bess involves herself in a mystery during her leave. She doesn’t know what to do with herself if she’s not taking care of someone else.

One of the things that made this particular case frustrating, at least for this reader, is that it was obvious fairly early on that whatever was going on in the village of Sinclair and whatever was going on with Captain Travis were connected, and that the issue revolved around his cousin James Travis’ estate. While whodunnit was not remotely clear, if only because we hadn’t met the perpetrator at that point, the why of things felt obvious.

But one of the fascinating things about the case was the way that Simon Brandon and Bess worked together. Their relationship has always been interesting. Simon is a few years older than Bess, probably ten but not more than fifteen. He’s been a part of her life from her very earliest memories as he joined her father’s regiment in India when she was a child, and when he had to lie about his age to enlist. While he seems to act as an older brother, he certainly isn’t. He is certainly her protector, but his protection never encroaches on Bess’ agency or autonomy, not even when he fairly obviously wishes that he could. Nearly every man who asks Bess to marry him, and there have been several, wonders if Brandon is the reason that she refuses. And so does this reader. He is the one person in Bess’ life who understands and accepts her as she is, and not as he expects a woman to be in that time and place.

So the mystery in A Casualty of War had its anticlimactic moments, and also resembled bits of A Pattern of Lies. But the questions that it asks about not just Bess’ future, but the future of all who served in that war that did not end all wars and must now lay down their guns and their scalpels, remains an open one.

I can’t wait to see where Bess finds herself, and how she finds herself, next.

Review: Away With the Fairies by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Away With the Fairies by Kerry GreenwoodAway With the Fairies (Phryne Fisher Mystery #11) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #11
Pages: 241
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on August 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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It’s 1928 in Melbourne and Phryne is asked to investigate the puzzling death of a famous author and illustrator of fairy stories. To do so, Phryne takes a job within the women’s magazine that employed the victim and finds herself enmeshed in her colleagues’ deceptions.

But while Phryne is learning the ins and outs of magazine publishing first hand, her personal life is thrown into chaos. Impatient for her lover Lin Chung’s imminent return from a silk-buying expedition to China, she instead receives an unusual summons from Lin Chung’s family, followed by a series of mysterious assaults and warnings.

My Review:

It feels as if Mr. Butler, Phryne Fisher’s butler and general factotum (particularly as portrayed in the TV series) , must be the direct ancestor of Summerset, Roarke’s majordomo in the In Death series. Or at least that’s what got me picking up Away with the Fairies, the next book in my Phryne Fisher series read, as I searched for comfort reading in the anticipation and wake of Hurricane Irma.

The murder victims in Secrets in Death and Away with the Fairies are also surprisingly similar. Both are women who operated in the gray areas that surround respectable journalism for their times. And both of them had an unhealthy interest in other people’s secrets, and the power that came with possessing those secrets and being willing to use that power.

And that’s what ultimately got both of them killed. It also makes neither of them a very sympathetic victim.

The victim is so unsympathetic in Away with the Fairies, that the case of Miss Lavender’s death isn’t even Phryne’s primary concern during the story. Instead, her sometimes desultory and often parceled out investigation into Miss Lavender’s seemingly unremarkable life and slightly puzzling death serves as a distraction to keep Phryne from her growing concern over her missing lover, Lin Chung.

His trip to China to purchase silks for his family business has gone on much longer than he planned, and Phryne’s dreams of his body being food for rapacious vermin are a disturbing message that something is very, very wrong. A message that is confirmed when Phryne receives Lin’s severed ear and a request for ransom from the pirates who have captured him. Phryne marshalls her best resources, in this case Bert and Cec, to find out everything that can be found about South Sea piracy, and prepares to rescue Lin, even if she must take on the pirates herself.

She’s more than capable of defeating them, single-handed if necessary. Just as soon as she knows where to hunt them down.

But Miss Lavender’s death niggles at her. The more she and her agent, in this case the resourceful Dot, discover, the more motives she finds for the woman’s death. It seems to have been inevitable that someone would finally bump her off, the question is, who managed to do it?

Escape Rating B: This was my second hurricane book. I was having no luck concentrating on anything more serious, or anything where I wasn’t already intimately familiar with the world within. As much as I love to really sink my reading teeth into good and deep worldbuilding, this just wasn’t the time.

When I’m looking for comfort read, I always turn to Phryne, and am swept away – if not quite as far away with the fairies as the victim in this case.

A bit of the story in Away with the Fairies reminded me fondly of Murder Must Advertise from the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Just as Wimsey infiltrates an advertising firm to investigate a murder, Phryne inserts herself into the ladies magazine where the victim and many of her suspects work. While Phryne never pretends to be anything other than who she is, she does conceal her profession as a detective until someone else lets that cat out of its bag.

Just as in yesterday’s Secrets in Death, the victim is a nasty piece of work – albeit on a much smaller scale this time around. She was always poking her nose into other people’s business, and using the knowledge gained to elicit small rewards and small revenges. It is amazing that she lived as long as she did, considering that her life was spent in two relatively small worlds where everyone knew her and ended up disliking her at best and fearing her at worst.

Her signature eccentricity about drawing and writing about fairies never felt fully explained or fully realized. It certainly made her stand out, and it also provided her with a modest living as a writer and illustrator, but it was so excessive that it felt as if it needed a bit more explanation, especially when combined with Phryne’s discovery that the profusion of fairy paraphernalia that overwhelmed the public areas of her apartment was not replicated in her private spaces, which were neat, orderly and most of all, uncluttered.

Having recently re-watched the first season of the TV series, the difference between the TV and literary versions of this story stand out even more clearly. The subplot revolving around Phryne’s concern for Lin Chung and her subsequent rescue of him are completely scrapped in the TV version for the weaker and much less compelling murder investigation. And even though I understand why, the story definitely loses something in translation. The story is much stronger in the book. Miss Lavender’s case was too slight and inconsequential to carry the whole story, and it’s better here where it doesn’t.

But I am always happy to visit with Phryne. And I look forward to reading Murder in Montparnasse, the next time I need a comfortable little murder. To read about, that is.

Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony HorowitzMagpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Pages: 496
Published by Harper on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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When editor Susan Ryeland is given the manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has no reason to think it will be much different from any of his others. After working with the bestselling crime writer for years, she’s intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries disturbing sleepy English villages. An homage to queens of classic British crime such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Alan’s traditional formula has proved hugely successful. So successful that Susan must continue to put up with his troubling behavior if she wants to keep her job.

Conway’s latest tale has Atticus Pünd investigating a murder at Pye Hall, a local manor house. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but the more Susan reads, the more she’s convinced that there is another story hidden in the pages of the manuscript: one of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition, and murder.

My Review:

I really wish that the Atticus Pünd series existed, because the one we got in Magpie Murders was absolutely marvelous. I’d dearly love to read the rest of the series.

What we have, however, is the final book in the series, encased within a framing story about the death of the fictitious author of this fictitious book, and the many, many ways in which art seems to be imitating life – or vice versa.

The story begins with its frame. Susan Ryeland, editor at a small but prestigious publishing house, settles in for the weekend to read the latest manuscript by her least favorite and most favorite author. Susan loves Alan Conway’s work, but the man himself is far from lovable.

As Susan settles in to read, we do too. We read Magpie Murders by Alan Conway right along with her. And it is a marvelous take on the Golden Age of mystery, reading as though it should sit on the shelf beside Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham.

The detective, the perpetual outsider, comes to a small English village to investigate what turn out to be a series of murders. It’s an absorbing case, and the readers, along with Susan herself, are sucked right into the mid-1950s, the mind of the detective and the murderous goings on of this otherwise unremarkable little place.

Until the story ends abruptly, and we, as well as Susan, are left wondering “who done it?”. The last chapter of Magpie Murders is missing. And its author has just been found dead, an apparent suicide.

So Susan begins by hunting for that missing chapter, and finds herself hunting for the truth about Alan Conway’s life, and about his death. By the time those missing pages are found, Susan has uncovered much more than she, or anyone else, could have bargained for.

After all the times when she has blurbed that “reading such-and-such’s latest book changed her life”, just this once, it’s all too true.

Escape Rating B+: Magpie Murders is really two books in one. There’s a classic historical mystery sandwiched within the pages of a contemporary mystery thriller. And for this reader, the historical mystery wins out.

I absolutely adored Magpie Murders by Alan Conway. It was both a wonderful homage to the mysteries of the Golden Age, and a terrific case itself. Atticus Pünd would make a wonderful addition to the ranks of series detectives, right up there with Poirot, Marple, Wimsey and the rest. In its post-WWII time period, it takes the reader back to a simpler but no less deadly time, and its play on the locked room/locked house mystery keeps the reader guessing.

It gave me a tremendous yen to pick up a “real” historical mystery at the first opportunity. It reminded me how much I love the genre, and gave me a hankering to return. Or just to re-watch Poirot.

The abrupt ending to Conway’s novel jarred me almost as much as it did Susan Ryeland. I felt cheated. I wanted to know who the killer was every bit as much as she did. But I had a difficult time getting into the framing story.

In fact, I started the book once, couldn’t get into it, and then picked it up on audio. Listening to it got me over the hump, to the point where I was so captivated by Pünd’s story that I changed the audio back for the book, so that I could find out whodunnit that much more quickly – only to be disappointed when Susan discovers that the final chapter is missing.

Susan’s own quest turned out to be fascinating as well, but for some reason I didn’t find her as sympathetic or interesting a character to follow as the even more fictional Pünd.

The problem is that Pünd, while a bit distant in the traditional detectival mold, is a sympathetic character and seems to be a generally nice man. We want him to succeed. Alan Conway, on the other hand, will not be missed by anyone, except possibly his publishers.

Conway’s series is the marquee title for small but prestigious Cloverleaf Books. It’s their one big moneymaker, and it tides them over an awful lot of less successful ventures. Conway, or rather Atticus Pünd, pays the bills and keeps the lights on. But no one likes Conway. There are certainly people who benefit from his death in the direct, traditional way, but there are even more who are just happy at his absence from this earth, beginning with his ex-wife and ending with Susan’s lover. While there are plenty of people who will miss Atticus Pünd, no one will miss his author.

Susan finds herself with plenty of motives, too many suspects, and a police investigation that is all too happy to consider it suicide and close the case. There’s plenty of evidence to support that theory, and damn little to support anything else.

Until Susan starts digging, and nearly digs her own grave. In the end, no one is certain that good triumphed and evil got its just desserts. Not even Susan. And that’s what makes the contemporary thriller less satisfying than the historical mystery it contains. Mystery, as a great writer once said, is the romance of justice. Good is supposed to triumph, evil is supposed to get those just desserts. When that formula is subverted, as it is in the contemporary frame for Magpie Murders, it feels wrong, at least for this reader. While there may be a metaphor in there about the world being more complicated than it used to be, or that the real world isn’t half so neat and tidy as fiction, the framing story is also fiction. I want my neat and tidy ending, and I’m disappointed that it wasn’t there.

But we do finally get to read Atticus Pünd’s last chapter. And that was well worth waiting for.

Review: A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas

Review: A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry ThomasA Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock, #2) by Sherry Thomas
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Lady Sherlock #2
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The game is afoot as Charlotte Holmes returns in the atmospheric second novel in New York Times bestseller Sherry Thomas's Victorian-set Lady Sherlock series.
Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.
Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.
In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

My Review:

I actually read this book a couple of weeks ago, when the Sherlock Holmes book I was planning to read kind of fell through, but I still had a taste for Holmes. So I dove through the towering TBR pile and emerged with A Conspiracy in Belgravia, the second Lady Sherlock book after last fall’s fascinating A Study in Scarlet Women.

While I am familiar enough with the Holmes canon to play spot the analog between a pastiche series like Lady Sherlock and the original, I certainly don’t have it memorized. So as obvious as it was that A Study in Scarlet Women was a play on the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, the derivation of the title of A Conspiracy in Belgravia was much less obvious. As much as it sounds to the ear like A Scandal in Bohemia, the stories are not related. Although, now that I think about it, A Conspiracy in Belgravia does contain hints of The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.

So a puzzle for another time. Meanwhile, we have the conundrums that Charlotte Holmes and her associates have run across within the rather tony and well-to-do precincts of Belgravia. And, while Charlotte investigates not one but two separate mysteries, she is also mulling over a tempting marriage proposal from Lord Bancroft. The proposal is not tempting because of the man himself, but rather for the sheer number of problems that marriage to him will solve.

None of which resolve the largest dilemma that this proposal creates – that Charlotte Holmes is in love, if that phrase can be used for someone who is usually much more brain than emotion, with the man’s brother Lord Ingram. To add to the difficulties involved, Lord Ingram finally figured out that he is in love with Charlotte. Unfortunately for both of them, this discovery occurred well after his marriage to someone else. That it has become obvious over time that Lady Ingram only married him for his money makes the situation all that much more melodramatic and tragic.

Especially when Lady Ingram calls upon “Sherlock Holmes” so that the detective may discover the whereabouts of her former lover – a man who also happens to be Charlotte Holmes’ illegitimate half-brother.

When the puzzles that Lord Bancroft (who is definitely the analog to Mycroft in this pastiche) run into Charlotte’s commission from Lady Ingram, the intertwining conundrums begin to test even the mettle of Sherlock Holmes. Can she remain free, save her sisters and get to the bottom of all the conspiracies before it is too late?

Only Sherlock Holmes has the capacity to reveal the depths of this conspiracy. But can she? And, in the end, should she?

Escape Rating B: I’m a bit on the fence about this one, and for some of the same issues that were raised by the first book, A Study in Scarlet Women. One of the issues with historical fiction is where the author draws the line between making the female protagonist relatable to a 21st century reader and making sure that the character fits plausibly within her time period. If she’s not relatable enough, readers lose interest. If she’s too much a part of her time, the odds are unfortunately all too likely that her activities will be too restricted to make her the heroine of her own story.

With a Holmes pastiche, even one that plays as much havoc with the original characters as this one, taking Holmes too far away from the character we know and love, creates a third crevasse into which the story can fall.

One of the things that the author has done with this series has been to make Charlotte an unconventional creature of her times. While she may have a singular genius, the world treats her the way all women are treated – her movements are often restricted, she must hide behind her fictitious brother, the police inspector she assists resents her assistance because she is a woman, and her parents have the right to kidnap her off the streets, while the establishment will consider that a job well done.

The dilemma of Lord Bancroft’s marriage proposal is very real. She would regain respectability, her parents would leave her alone, and she can rescue both of her sisters, who very much do need rescuing. But marriage would give Lord Bancroft the right to control her movements and her activities. He has already said that he would not allow her to continue practicing as Sherlock Holmes. While his position as this world’s Mycroft means that he does have fascinating puzzles for her to solve, she knows that marriage sacrifices her happiness and merely her right to be her own person and make her own decisions for a safety that can be restricted or removed at any turn.

Charlotte’s relationship with Lord Ingram also gives me pause. With the notable exception of Laurie R. King’s utterly marvelous Holmes/Russell series, Holmes’ name and the word romance are seldom mentioned in the same breath. Or even in the same paragraph. For someone who so singularly knows her own mind, and gives it precedence over every other facet of her existence, Charlotte’s confused feelings about Lord Ingram don’t quite ring true for Charlotte as Holmes. If it is an attempt to make her seem, at least in this one aspect, more typically feminine, it falls a bit flat for this reader.

None of the above is to say that I did not enjoy A Conspiracy in Belgravia and this alternate vision of Sherlock Holmes, because the intricacies of the mystery were quite entertaining. The revelation of the mastermind behind events was both a surprise and not, as this personage could be expected to appear in some form in this series. But the way that events maneuvered around to the revelation were a pleasant surprise for the reader, and an unpleasant surprise for the characters.

As it should be.