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
Goodreads

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.

Review: Death Before Wicket by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Death Before Wicket by Kerry GreenwoodDeath Before Wicket (Phryne Fisher Mystery #10) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #10
Pages: 232
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on July 4th 2017 (first published 1999)
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Phryne Fisher is on holiday. She means to take the train to Sydney (where the harbour bridge is being built), go to a few cricket matches, dine with the Chancellor of the university and perhaps go to the Arts Ball with that celebrated young modernist, Chas Nutall. She has the costume of a lifetime and she s not afraid to use it. When she arrives there, however, her maid Dot finds that her extremely respectable married sister Joan has vanished, leaving her small children to the neglectful care of a resentful husband. She rescues the children, but what has become of Joan, who would never leave her babies? Surely she hasn t run away with a lover, as gossip suggests? Phryne must trawl the nightclubs and bloodtubs of Darlinghurst to find out. And while Phryne is visiting the university, two very pretty young men, Joss and Clarence, ask her to find out who has broken into the Dean s safe and stolen a number of things, including the Dean s wife s garnets and an irreplaceable illuminated book called the Hours of Juana the Mad. An innocent student has been blamed. So there is no rest for the wicked, and Phryne girds up her loins, loads her pearl handled .32 Beretta, and sallies forth to find mayhem, murder, black magic, and perhaps a really good cocktail at the Hotel Australia."

My Review:

I’ve been reading the Phryne Fisher series, in publication order, as time permits. Meaning whenever I either need a comfort read or discover that I’ve otherwise bitten off more book than I have time to chew, as happened this week.

Most of the books in the Phryne Fisher book series were used as inspiration for episodes of the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Death Before Wicket is one of those that were not filmed. (The others, for those keeping score, seem to be Flying Too High, Urn Burial, The Castlemaine Murders, Death by Water, Murder on a A Midsummer Night and Murder and Mendelssohn.)

I’m fairly certain that the reason that Death Before Wicket wasn’t tackled is that while the crime is set in a university, where the academic politics have gotten exceedingly but recognizably vicious, the entire background revolves around cricket, specifically Test matches in Australia in the 1920s. Cricket as a sport seems to be impenetrable to those not brought up loving the thing, which would include most Americans and anyone outside the Commonwealth countries. And I’m not sure about even the Canadians on this score. No pun intended.

So while the mystery that Phryne has to solve is as much fun as ever, the background, including her reason (or excuse) for traveling from her Melbourne residence to Sydney, may leave some readers more than a bit puzzled. Including this one. I skimmed over the cricket games. As many times as I’ve seen cricket in the background of plenty of mysteries and dramas set in England, I have no clue how the game works, or why.

But as lost as I was amongst the cricket fans, the academic parts of this mystery were as convoluted as ever. The politics at the University of Sydney were as vicious as anything Kissinger intended with his famous quote, “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” At this University, that viciousness leads to theft, disgrace, kidnapping, embezzlement and eventually, murder.

Someone broke into the Bursar’s safe and made off with a whole bunch of items, none of which seem to be worth all that much. The books were stolen – not the library’s books, but the college’s account books, and the poor bursar is so befuddled that he can’t recreate them. And of course there’s an audit coming. A rather pretty Book of Hours is missing, as are the professors’ exam books for the upcoming finals. At a college, that’s probably the prize worth stealing. Except that there are two other items missing. One is rather small potatoes, a set of garnet jewelry belonging to the Dean’s wife. Garnets are semi-precious, fairly common, and generally not worth a whole lot in the grand scheme of thievery.

But the prize among the missing items is a bit of papyrus from ancient Egypt, that just might contain the secret to where Cheops is really buried, since the poor pharaoh is not in his magnificent pyramid. Or it might contain the text of a potent Egyptian curse, the possibilities of which have the local occult community positively salivating. Translating the text might be the key to which professor gets his research funded. Or it might be all of the above.

It is up to Phryne to sort through all those tempting and treacherous possibilities, before someone loses their career or their life. And it’s a near-run thing, but Phryne, as always, is up for the job.

Escape Rating B-: There are lots of reviewers who will say that this is one of Phryne’s adventures that can be given a miss, unless one is either a real fan or a terrible completist. As I’m certainly the latter, and possibly the former, I picked this one up in its proper order. I’m not sorry in the least, but I found the academic setting of the mystery to be perhaps unintentionally hilarious. Academia in the 21st century is not quite as it was in the 1920s, but some of underlying insanity isn’t all that different either. Enough similar that I found enough bits reminiscent to carry me through. If you are looking to start Phryne’s series, do not, on any account, start here. Start with Cocaine Blues. There’s a reason that the TV series also opened with that one, as it introduces everyone and everything.

But speaking of Cocaine Blues, I did miss Phryne’s regular cast of irregulars. This story is set in Sydney, not Melbourne. While it was fun to watch Phryne navigate a new place and gather a new, albeit temporary, set of friends, allies and lovers, I missed her usual gang, particularly in this mystery, Bert and Cec. As did Phryne.

On the other hand, Dot, left to soldier on as Phryne’s only trusted aide in this adventure, did have her chances to operate solo a bit and to shine.

Part of the solution to the mystery involved a certain amount of involvement in the local occult community, particularly its less savory denizens. In order to get to the bottom of the morass, Phryne herself has to deal with and perpetrate a certain amount of mumbo-jumbo, some of which went a bit over the top. Belief is, as Phryne herself says, a powerful thing. That she manipulates others’ belief in the supernatural in order to find the solution is not surprising, but that she herself nearly trips over into it felt a bit unnatural for her character.

One final note. While the Phryne Fisher series is set in the 1920s, the first book was published in 1989 and the series is still ongoing. While the settings feel true to their time and place, Phryne’s attitudes feel singular for her own time, and perhaps owe more to the time in which they were written rather than their setting. This has been true across all the books so far, and also in Death Before Wicket. One part of obscuring the mystery involves a professor who is being blackmailed because of his homosexuality. Phryne does not care who anyone has sex with, and neither do at least some of the faculty. But if it ever becomes public, the scandal will at best ruin the man, and possibly land him in prison. As much as I prefer Phryne’s attitude of acceptance, and her tolerance in this and many other things, I wonder how true her attitude would have been, even to a woman in her singular position. Which doesn’t change the fact that I love Phryne and will happily read any and all of her adventures.

I’m looking forward to going Away with the Fairies, the next time I need a reading break!

Review: The Painted Queen by Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess

Review: The Painted Queen by Elizabeth Peters and Joan HessThe Painted Queen by Elizabeth Peters, Joan Hess
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Pages: 352
Published by William Morrow on July 25th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Egypt, 1912—Amelia Peabody and her dashing archeologist husband, Radcliffe Emerson, are once again in danger as they search for a priceless, stolen bust of legendary Queen Nefertiti and Amelia finds herself the target of assassins in this long-awaited, eagerly anticipated final installment of Elizabeth Peters’s bestselling, beloved mystery series
Arriving in Cairo for another thrilling excavation season, Amelia Peabody is relaxing in a well-earned bubble bath in her elegant hotel suite in Cairo, when a man with knife protruding from his back staggers into the bath chamber and utters a single word—“Murder”—before collapsing on the tiled floor, dead. Among the few possessions he carried was a sheet of paper with Amelia’s name and room number, and a curious piece of pasteboard the size of a calling card bearing one word: “Judas.” Most peculiarly, the stranger was wearing a gold-rimmed monocle in his left eye.
It quickly becomes apparent that someone saved Amelia from a would-be assassin—someone who is keeping a careful eye on the intrepid Englishwoman. Discovering a terse note clearly meant for EmersonWhere were you?”—pushed under their door, there can be only one answer: the brilliant master of disguise, Sethos.
But neither assassins nor the Genius of Crime will deter Amelia as she and Emerson head to the excavation site at Armana, where they will witness the discovery of one of the most precious Egyptian artifacts: the iconic Nefertiti bust. In 1345 B.C. the sculptor Thutmose crafted the piece in tribute to the great beauty of this queen who was also the chief consort of Pharaoh Akhenaten and stepmother to King Tutankhamun.
For Amelia, this excavation season will prove to be unforgettable. Throughout her journey, a parade of men in monocles will die under suspicious circumstances, fascinating new relics will be unearthed, a diabolical mystery will be solved, and a brilliant criminal will offer his final challenge . . . and perhaps be unmasked at last.

My Review:

The Amelia Peabody series is for those who like their historical mysteries steeped in calamity, where their heroine frequently jumps out of the frying pan, into the fire, leaps from that small cooking fire to a large bonfire, from thence to a major conflagration, and finally into the cauldron of an active volcano. All told in the singular voice of an intelligent woman who is always utterly certain that she is both right and the best person to deal with whatever crisis has just erupted.

Amelia Peabody and her Egyptologist husband Radcliffe Emerson are the creations of the late, great Elizabeth Peters, herself an archaeologist under her “real name” of Barbara Mertz. Ms. Peters is no longer with us, but she left behind one final semi-completed manuscript in her hallmark series featuring the redoubtable, indefatigable, Amelia Peabody. That manuscript is, of course, the book under discussion, The Painted Queen, completed by mystery author Joan Hess.

If any of the above, or what follows, sounds like your cup of tea, do not, I beg you, start with The Painted Queen. It is the end of a saga that has been going on for over 40 years. Begin with Crocodile on the Sandbank, the first book in this long-running story, where Amelia and Emerson meet and solve their first murder together. It is fun, hilarious and occasionally creepy, all at the same time. It also sets the pattern, as their long-time reis (dig foreman) puts it early on, “Another dead body. Every year it is the same. Every year, another dead body…” Or two, or three, or even half a dozen, as it is in The Painted Queen.

The action in The Painted Queen takes place in the 1912-1913 dig season in Egypt, putting it squarely into the middle of Amelia’s long and fascinating tale. While the parts of the story, and the string of murders, that revolve around her family are a direct followup to the events of A River in the Sky, the historical events are centered around the 1912 discovery of Nefertiti’s bust at Amarna.

As usual, Amelia is in everything pretty much up to her neck. Equally as usual, while she (and her son Ramses) are sought by assassins at every turn, she puts herself in the most danger by her tendency to act before she thinks – a tactic that for once her enemies are too disorganized to take advantage of.

In the end, as always, Amelia Peabody, with the help of her friends and family, and with more than a bit of assistance from divine providence, solves the mystery and keeps her family safe, if only so that they can return the following season for yet another body, and another mystery to solve.

Escape Rating B: It was great to have one last visit with these old and very dear friends. As a mystery, not all of it hangs together, and much of what makes the story work relies on the reader knowing who all these people are and how they relate to Amelia and her life, but for those of us who have read from the beginning, this coda is a treat.

There are, as was often the case in Amelia’s history, two stories going on. One involves both the history of early 20th century Egypt and early 20th century Egyptian archaeological history. As this story takes place in 1912, events are also part of the run up to World War I and the beginning of the end for both the British and the Ottoman empires. At the same time, the finding of Nefertiti’s bust was a real historical event, an event at which the Emersons were not present, so their involvement in the mess has to be tidied over by the author before the end, so that history can proceed on the course we know that it did.

The more personal side of the story, that of the assassins who are chasing after Amelia and Ramses for their part in the death of Amelia’s ward Nefret’s unfortunate and totally scurrilous husband actually serves as comic relief, as the personal adventures of the family often do. The assassins are completely inept from beginning to end. Clearly Nefret’s late unlamented was the brains of the outfit.

Whether a reader falls in love with this series tends to ride on whether or not said reader loves or hates Amelia’s voice. The story is told from her first person perspective in her very distinctive style. We know what she knows, we know what she thinks she knows (which can be vastly different from the actual solution, at least in the early stages of each mystery) and she can be rather sure of herself and her rightness even when she is fairly far off the beam. We also hear her inner thoughts, which can often be scathing as well as funny.

She’s someone I would love to have tea with (or something stronger) but would not want to be related to except at some remove. She generally gets her way, one way or another. And she so often IS right, and not chary of reminded people of that fact. She’s a treasure as a fictional character, but would be a dratted nuisance in real life.

I’m going to miss her.

Review: A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang + Giveaway

Review: A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang + GiveawayA Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, historical fiction, historical mystery
Pages: 350
Published by Lake Union Publishing on August 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Just beyond the Gilded Age, in the mist-covered streets of New York, the deadly Spanish influenza ripples through the city. But with so many victims in her close circle, young socialite Allene questions if the flu is really to blame. All appear to have been poisoned—and every death was accompanied by a mysterious note.
Desperate for answers and dreading her own engagement to a wealthy gentleman, Allene returns to her passion for scientific discovery and recruits her long-lost friends, Jasper and Birdie, for help. The investigation brings her closer to Jasper, an apprentice medical examiner at Bellevue Hospital who still holds her heart, and offers the delicate Birdie a last-ditch chance to find a safe haven before her fragile health fails.
As more of their friends and family die, alliances shift, lives become entangled, and the three begin to suspect everyone—even each other. As they race to find the culprit, Allene, Birdie, and Jasper must once again trust each other, before one of them becomes the next victim.

My Review:

At first, it seems like this story is about the party. An engagement party, in New York during the Gilded Age, among the upper crust. A young socialite dies, and everyone wants to sweep her death under the expensive carpet and chalk it all up to an accident. Even if, or perhaps especially because, it isn’t.

But once the focus moves outward, from the singular death to its effects on three young people attending that party, the action shifts into high gear. Suddenly, it’s not about the party, or at least not just the party, any longer.

As we watch our young protagonists (they are all 18) grow and change in the wake of this event, and in the process of their investigation into it, it seems to be about everything but the party. We become involved with them, their worlds, which were once the same but are now divergent, and the mystery expands.

Until it contracts, and we’re back, surprisingly, to that party, only nothing was quite as it seemed.

A Beautiful Poison is a murder mystery, and, it is also a coming of age story. And it’s a story about friendship. And love. Definitely about love.

All three of the protagonists are 18. And although all of them either are about to or already have embarked upon their adult lives, their relative youth and inexperience definitely factor into the story.

At first, is seems like Allene’s story. And also at first, Allene’s story seems like that of a typical poor-little-rich-girl, a bird in a gilded cage that yearns to fly free, even though her sheltered upbringing means that she has no clue what that freedom might cost.

Her friends are all too aware of the cost. Both Jasper and Birdie used to be members of Allene’s charmed inner circle, until tragedy shoved them out and away. And Allene, firmly under her parents’ thumbs, as rich girls were a century ago, let it happen.

Jasper’s parents committed suicide – after his father lost all their money. In the intervening four years, Jasper has lived with his alcoholic, agoraphobic uncle, supported them both, and put himself through college as a janitor at Bellevue Hospital, borrowing textbooks over the weekend in the hopes of someday going to medical school.

Birdie has fallen even lower, as women had many fewer financial opportunities. She and her mother were upper-caste servants in Allene’s household, serving as lady’s maids and dressers to Allene and her own mother. Until Birdie’s mother was suddenly and inexplicably turned out of the house without a reference, forced to take Birdie with her. Hazel is now a prostitute, while Birdie keeps the little family afloat, a family that includes her 4-year-old sister, by being one of the dial-painters in the clock factory.

Birdie knows that her time is running out, and swiftly. She knows she’s dying, although she doesn’t know why. Birdie sees Allene’s invitation to the engagement party as her last chance to get back into Allene’s inner circle, in the hopes of saving her little sister from their mother’s fate. Allene just sees it as an adventure, and a chance to spend time with her besties before she is immured in marriage to a wealthy man who will undoubtedly grow up to be just like her father. Her cage door will lock forever, and this is her last chance to fly free.

As Allene, Jasper and Birdie investigate the original shocking death, more bodies pile up. People around them are dying, and in each instance, they find a note left behind, with only two words on it, “You’re welcome”. But who is welcome for what?

Time is running out, but so are the potential victims. Especially when the influenza epidemic sweeps through New York and nearly takes them all with it – before their amateur investigation is complete.

Escape Rating B+: This story is a circle. It starts with the party, and it ends with the party. But at the end, everyone’s perspective on those events has changed. And their world is a much different place than it was at the beginning.

Once the story moves outward, away from its initial focus on Allene to encompass all three protagonists, it moves at the same cracking pace as the progress of Birdie’s cancer, which is rapid indeed.

Birdie is one of the “radium girls” who painted clock faces with bits of radium that glowed in the dark. As did they before they died. There are books about real-life cases just like Birdie’s, including this year’s The Radium Girls. Those cases led to the first workplace regulatory legislation. It would have been much tidier in some ways for the author to have included the solution to Birdie’s death as part of the story, but radium wasn’t isolated as the cause until well after her death. Instead, her predicament becomes one of the many red-herrings in the mystery.

Upon finishing the story, it felt like the coming of age aspect was more important than it seemed at first, just as all the characters turned out to be much deeper than they seemed, especially Allene, who was rather shallow and self-absorbed at her engagement party. Allene and Jasper grow up during the course of the story, and they discover who they are and what they are to each other.

One of the things that they discover, surprising for both them and the reader, is that as much as this story is about love, it is not a love story. Allene and Jasper do not end up with each other, at least not as anything more than friends. Whether that is because their roads have diverged too far, or whether it’s because they are better as “family” than lovers is up to the reader to decide. But it felt right.

But the story is still about love, and what we will do for love. No matter what the cost, there are times and circumstances where no price is too high.

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

I’m giving away a copy of A Beautiful Poison to one lucky US/Canadian commenter.

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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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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.