Review: Deadly Election by Lindsey Davis

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Unkept Woman by Allison Montclair

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is she?

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the secrets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Blue Diamond by Leonard Goldberg

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Under Lock and Skeleton Key by Gigi Pandian

Review: Under Lock and Skeleton Key by Gigi PandianUnder Lock & Skeleton Key (Secret Staircase Mystery, #1) by Gigi Pandian
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Secret Staircase #1
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Under Lock & Skeleton Key layers architecture with mouthwatering food in an ode to classic locked-room mysteries.
An impossible crime. A family legacy. The intrigue of hidden rooms and secret staircases.
After a disastrous accident derails Tempest Raj’s career, and life, she heads back to her childhood home in California to comfort herself with her grandfather’s Indian home-cooked meals. Though she resists, every day brings her closer to the inevitable: working for her father’s company. Secret Staircase Construction specializes in bringing the magic of childhood to all by transforming clients’ homes with sliding bookcases, intricate locks, backyard treehouses, and hidden reading nooks.
When Tempest visits her dad’s latest renovation project, her former stage double is discovered dead inside a wall that’s supposedly been sealed for more than a century. Fearing she was the intended victim, it’s up to Tempest to solve this seemingly impossible crime. But as she delves further into the mystery, Tempest can’t help but wonder if the Raj family curse that’s plagued her family for generations—something she used to swear didn’t exist—has finally come for her.

My Review:

Under Lock and Skeleton Key is the first book in the author’s Secret Staircase Mystery series. With that series title, it sounds like this should be a case for Nancy Drew – and it sorta/kinda is.

A grown-up Nancy Drew who grew up sharing her love of puzzle solving and misdirection with her BFF. A BFF she ghosted ten years back. A hurt they’ll both have to get over in order to get this mystery-solving partnership back together.

It’s also the story of Tempest Raj and her family’s very special construction company, Secret Staircase Construction. Because that’s what her family builds – homes and offices with hidden doors, concealed nooks and yes – secret staircases.

Tempest Raj is back home in California in her family’s eclectic, multi-ethnic and multi-family, nearly vertical piece of almost-paradise. She’s back licking her still-smarting wounds after the literal explosion of her career as a famous – and now infamous – Las Vegas stage magician. EVERYONE in the industry and on social media blames Tempest for the trick that went catastrophically wrong in both water AND fire, but Tempest is certain that the costly disaster was the result of her body-double assistant attempting to paint Tempest as a risk too dangerous to back or insure, in the hopes that said assistant could finally become the main event.

Instead the show shut down, putting everyone out of work – including said duplicitous assistant – while Tempest has been forced to retreat back home after losing her Las Vegas house along with her reputation. She’s waiting for the other shoe to drop, or should that be shoes, as it seems like everyone involved has threatened to sue her.

But her successful show wasn’t just her success, the money she earned allowed her to keep her family’s business, Secret Staircase Construction, afloat. Now that money is gone and she’s back home hoping that she won’t have to resort to taking a job that doesn’t exist as part of her dad’s somewhat misfit crew. A crew he can barely afford as it is.

When her dad calls her to report to a job site, she’s sure that fate has just come upon her. Instead, her dad needs her to look at the house they’re currently working on because they’ve found something that is more in her professional line than his. They’ve spotted a dead body in an enclosed space that no one has opened in a century – and none of them can figure out how it got there.

That kind of trap door illusion is just the sort of thing that Tempest specialized in, so she’s intrigued by the puzzle – at least until she’s chilled by the discovery that the dead body isn’t merely too recent to have been walled up for a century. When the wall is opened, Tempest recognizes the corpse just a bit too well. Her duplicitous assistant, Tempest’s near-duplicate, is dead – and the woman didn’t wrap her own corpse in a sack and put itself in a locked room.

The woman is dead. The biggest question in Tempest’s mind is whether she was killed for herself – or in place of the woman she resembled so strongly. It’s up to Tempest and her friends to figure out both whodunnit and who was intended to be done before the killer catches up with her!

Escape Rating A-: This cozy mystery thriller – as much of a contradiction in terms as that feels – is a mystery wrapped in an enigma enclosed in a puzzle in a way that is shot through with both magic and suspense. But the magic in Tempest’s life and in her family’s Anglo-Indian history is mostly of the stage magic variety.

This is also a mystery that manages to pay homage to the classics of the genre – from Agatha Christie and John Dickinson Carr to Scooby-Doo, without ever falling into the trap of slavish imitation – no matter how many hidden switches and actual trap doors the story has built into it.

But this is not a fair play mystery, unlike so many of those classics. It’s a mystery of misdirection, both for Tempest AND for the reader. It’s also the story of how Tempest gets her own “Scooby gang” together to help her solve the mystery.

A mystery that manages to contain so many red herrings that it’s a surprise that her grandfather – an excellent cook whose lovingly described dishes are guaranteed to make the reader’s mouth water – doesn’t take the opportunity to cook them up into something delicious. (His recipes at the end of the book all sound scrumptious!)

The initial crime seems impossible – a locked room mystery that would tax Holmes’ famous logic and Poirot’s little grey cells at the same time. But the rules about locked room mysteries point the way to possibilities that make the impossible not quite so impossible. Tempest just needs to color-code those red herrings.

But the story is also hedged around with family fears and family secrets. Everyone seems to be protecting Tempest – and themselves – from a truth that no one wants to talk about. There might be a curse on their family going all the way back to their roots in India under the Raj.

And it all might be just another one of those tasty red herrings.

It’s only once Tempest is able to pull a tiny thread of one of the many tangled threads in this case – in the Locked Room Library no less! – that she is finally able to tease out a solution. Not just to this convoluted case – but to the question that has been plaguing her since the day she came home. The question about what’s next for Tempest. And in working towards a resolution to the mystery, she finally finds her answer.

Tempest’s answer means that this is the beginning of what looks like it will be a fun and fascinating series – one that I am very much looking forward to exploring. In the meantime, I’ll just have to go back to some of this author’s other cozily magical mystery series. I’ve already read a bit of her Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt series (The Ninja’s Illusion) and now I have the perfect excuse to go back!

Review: A Peculiar Combination by Ashley Weaver

Review: A Peculiar Combination by Ashley WeaverA Peculiar Combination (Electra McDonnell, #1) by Ashley Weaver
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II, mystery
Series: Electra McDonnell #1
Pages: 296
Published by Minotaur Books on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The first in the Electra McDonnell series from Edgar-nominated author Ashley Weaver, set in England during World War II, A Peculiar Combination is a delightful mystery filled with spies, murder, romance, and the author's signature wit.
Electra McDonnell has always known that the way she and her family earn their living is slightly outside of the law. Breaking into the homes of the rich and picking the locks on their safes may not be condoned by British law enforcement, but World War II is in full swing, Ellie's cousins Colm and Toby are off fighting against Hitler, and Uncle Mick's more honorable business as a locksmith can't pay the bills any more.
So when Uncle Mick receives a tip about a safe full of jewels in the empty house of a wealthy family, he and Ellie can't resist. All goes as planned--until the pair are caught redhanded. Ellie expects them to be taken straight to prison, but instead they are delivered to a large townhouse, where government official Major Ramsey is waiting with an offer: either Ellie agrees to help him break into a safe and retrieve blueprints that will be critical to the British war effort, before they can be delivered to a German spy, or he turns her over to the police.
Ellie doesn't care for the Major's imperious manner, but she has no choice, and besides, she's eager to do her bit for king and country. She may be a thief, but she's no coward. When she and the Major break into the house in question, they find instead the purported German spy dead on the floor, the safe already open and empty. Soon, Ellie and Major Ramsey are forced to put aside their differences to unmask the double-agent, as they try to stop allied plans falling into German hands.

My Review:

I just got the pun in the title. Electra McDonnell is a safecracker – among all sorts of other thievery. In this WW2 era mystery thriller, Ellie is recruited, just short of press-ganged, by the agency that will be better known as MI6, in order to do what she does. That is, the Secret Intelligence Service requires her to serve her country by cracking a safe containing classified documents that a traitor plans to turn over to the Nazis.

Yes, they could just barge in, blow the safe, and arrest everyone involved, but that’s not going to put misinformation into enemy hands. Cracking the safe, substituting false documents for the real ones, does have that potential. IF they can open the safe without the traitors being the wiser.

That’s where Electra McDonnell and her Uncle Mick, small-time thieves and safecrackers trying to supplement their honest income as locksmiths, come into the picture. They get set up by MI6 and get nabbed by the police, but instead of going to jail, they get an offer they really can’t refuse.

If they do the job, they’ll be placed on the government payroll. If they refuse, they’ll get placed in one of His Majesty’s Prisons instead. All Electra has to do is crack a safe while her Uncle is held as “collateral”.

Sneaking in goes off without a hitch, except for a couple of small problems that are definitely going to turn out to be big ones. When Electra arrives to open the safe – it’s standing wide open and clearly, obviously, unfortunately – quite, quite empty. While the man that MI6 believed was the traitor is lying on the floor – quite, quite dead.

Electra and her uncle could get out at this point. They’ve done the job they were coerced into doing, they’re not obligated for anything more. But knowing that the “Service” will be watching them makes their income supplementing housebreaking even dicier than normal. And they both want to do their bit for king and country – if not exactly in the usual fashion.

Not to mention, Electra just can’t let it go. Eventually the documents will be found, and Electra’s services as a safecracker might still be needed. The ability to keep cool in danger and under pressure that makes her a good housebreaker and safecracker is also excellent training for a covert operative.

If only the handsome Major with the stick up his ass who is in charge of the operation can manage to get his head unwedged from the same location long enough to see just how much of an asset Electra can be.

Escape Rating A-: World War II, the war years, the years immediately before it and its aftermath, provide plenty of fodder for absolutely oodles of stories. The war years are particularly fruitful for stories with female protagonists – the war created thousands of opportunities for women to have a great deal of independent agency in the absence of so many men at the front. There have also been several books that feature civilians getting roped into the secret services, and A Peculiar Combination reminded me more than a bit of several of them, including The London Restoration by Rachel McMillan, Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees and Death in Focus by Anne Perry. So if you liked one of those you’ll probably like this too, and vice versa.

But Ellie McDonnell is a bit different from the usual run of such heroines because she begins the story not exactly operating on the side of the angels. She’s a thief. In fact, her entire family, her uncle and her two cousins, are all housebreakers although only Ellie and her uncle are safecrackers. Breaking and entering is the family business and it’s a business that Ellie seems to have few, if any, moral qualms about.

They’re very careful housebreakers, after all. They only steal from people who can clearly afford it, and they only break in when they are certain no one is at home – or is going to be at home for some time. It’s also not in any way, shape or form remotely glamorous. It’s a living. Not exactly a respectable living, but a living. It’s a job, not an adventure. Ellie and her uncle may get a thrill out of it, but it isn’t about the thrill. It’s about a roof over their heads and food on the table and making sure there’s enough money coming into the household when legitimate jobs are scarce.

Not that both Ellie and Mick don’t get caught up in the thrill of helping Major Ramsey figure out who the traitor is, and the race against time to switch the documents before they’re handed off to the Nazis.

There’s an element of out of the frying pan into the fire as Ellie and Ramsay move one or two steps forward in their hunt for the enemy agent only to discover themselves back where they’ve started because they’ve swallowed a red herring instead of an actual clue. Or because the actual clue led, as it does at the opening, to an actual dead body. The reader finds themselves misdirected every bit as much as they are. The person who is acting against them seems to be at least one step ahead of them throughout the entire chase – and for excellent reasons which the story does an equally excellent job of concealing.

Returning to Major Ramsey, the man with both a stick and his head up his fundament, there is actually a second “peculiar combination” in this story. A romantic triangle – if that’s what it eventually turns out to be as the series progresses. Ramsay may be romantically interested in Ellie – there certainly are hints in that direction. Ellie is at least attracted to Ramsay, as he’s more than handsome enough, but she’s wary of his imperious manner and his upper-crust background. Meanwhile, there’s another man vying for Ellie’s heart, a childhood friend who is, as the saying goes, no better than he ought to be. But then, neither is Ellie. I hope that this conundrum is eventually resolved with as deft a hand as the spy case is wrapped up in this first book in the series, because as much as I’ve loved the adventure and the misdirection so far, I would be even happier with this story without the potentially messy romantic entanglements. YMMV

But I really did love the spy games, and I like Ellie as an unconventional protagonist quite a lot, so I’m looking forward to the second book in this series, The Key to Deceit, coming out in May, 2022.

Review: The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny

Review: The Madness of Crowds by Louise PennyThe Madness of Crowds (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #17) by Louise Penny
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #17
Pages: 448
Published by Minotaur Books on August 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache returns to Three Pines in #1 New York Times bestseller Louise Penny's latest spellbinding novel
You're a coward.
Time and again, as the New Year approaches, that charge is leveled against Armand Gamache.
It starts innocently enough.
While the residents of the Québec village of Three Pines take advantage of the deep snow to ski and toboggan, to drink hot chocolate in the bistro and share meals together, the Chief Inspector finds his holiday with his family interrupted by a simple request.
He's asked to provide security for what promises to be a non-event. A visiting Professor of Statistics will be giving a lecture at the nearby university.
While he is perplexed as to why the head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec would be assigned this task, it sounds easy enough. That is until Gamache starts looking into Professor Abigail Robinson and discovers an agenda so repulsive he begs the university to cancel the lecture.
They refuse, citing academic freedom, and accuse Gamache of censorship and intellectual cowardice. Before long, Professor Robinson's views start seeping into conversations. Spreading and infecting. So that truth and fact, reality and delusion are so confused it's near impossible to tell them apart.
Discussions become debates, debates become arguments, which turn into fights. As sides are declared, a madness takes hold.
Abigail Robinson promises that, if they follow her, ça va bien aller. All will be well. But not, Gamache and his team know, for everyone.
When a murder is committed it falls to Armand Gamache, his second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and their team to investigate the crime as well as this extraordinary popular delusion.
And the madness of crowds.

My Review:

There are four sentences that Chief Inspector Armand Gamache tells to every Sûreté du Québec officer who becomes a part of his team. He often ticks them off on his fingers as he recites them, and even though the order changes, the totality never varies.

“I’m sorry. I was wrong, I don’t know. I need help.”

Those four brief sentences may not be the path to wisdom, but they seem to be the path to being a good officer when taken to heart. And, as we all know in real life, any of them can be difficult to say, especially in the moments when they are most needed.

And they form an important backdrop to this seventeenth entry in the series, as Gamache finds himself saying the first three parts pretty much over and over again in this case that reaches back so far and has so many twists and turns that he is often forced to backtrack from his current course in his latest attempt to figure out exactly who did what in the past that lead to the dead woman in the snow in the present.

Not that there aren’t plenty of motives in the present as well, but those reasons don’t seem to apply to this particular corpse. A question that haunts and confuses Gamache’s entire investigation from its very beginning.

Deborah Schneider is in Three Pines with her childhood best friend Abigail Robinson. And there are PLENTY of reasons for people to want Robinson dead. Reasons that are rooted in the pandemic that has just passed. And it has passed in Three Pines, and seemingly even in the Province of Québec and Canada as a whole by the time this story takes place.

It seems that the Canadians, certainly the fictional ones, have been more reasonable about getting vaccinated and were more reasonable about wearing masks as well.

What people are not being at all reasonable about are the discoveries in the aftermath of the pandemic. Just as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina uncovered more than one long term care institution whose patients had been abandoned to the flood, the receding tide of the pandemic in Canada has uncovered many too many care homes, particularly for the elderly, where the patients were left to die by the people who were supposed to be caring for them.

How the Light Gets In by Louise PennyAnd Abigail Robinson, with her Ph.D. in statistics and her sterling reputation, has produced a technically correct but morally repugnant study that claims that Canada, in its entirety, will be unable to fully recover from the pandemic or any future such calamities if it doesn’t triage out of its population those who have the least chance of recovery and the greatest chance of becoming a long-term burden on the system and the rest of the population.

There are plenty of tired and scared people willing to follow her recommendations, a course of action that would transform the right to die into an obligation to die at a point predetermined by the government.

The recommendations are so morally repugnant that the Canadian government agency that funded the study has refused to endorse it or publish it. But in these days of instant internet communication, the report is everywhere and support for it is gaining ground.

If someone had killed Abigail Robinson, who has become an all-too-excellent and savvy representative of her terrible theory, no one would be terribly surprised. But Robinson is not dead. Instead, the woman who was her right-hand was bludgeoned to death with a fireplace log.

Was it just a case of mistaken identity? Or does the crime, and the reason for it, stretch back into the past – right along with the true origins of Robinson’s heinous proposal?

Escape Rating A-: On the one hand, I was very glad for this story to return to the series’ heart and home in Three Pines. And on the other, the pandemic hangs over everything like a bad smell, making this dark story even darker. Not that the story is bad, in fact it’s very, very good, but there’s a darkness in the past that needs to be uncovered, actually more than one such darkness, and a darkness in the present and the entire situation gets more than a bit murky.

So much of what makes this series work are its characters, not just Gamache himself but his close colleagues at the Sûreté du Québec and his friends and neighbors in the village of Three Pines. But it felt like there was maybe one too many new people, or people who weren’t fully integrated into the story, and it diffused the story a bit.

And the heart of the story was so damn personal. It’s clear from pretty much everyone’s reading of Robinson’s report that while it’s initial implementation is intended to force the elderly, particularly those with long-term health issues, to feel obligated to die – or that there will be literal death panels. But the implication is that the concept will be expanded to include anyone with permanent disabilities of any kind no matter what their age. People like Gamache’s infant granddaughter Isola who was born with Down syndrome.

Anyone who has a loved one with long term care issues has plenty of reasons to want to kill Robinson. But she’s not the one who is dead.

The case that Gamache must solve drags him out of his comfort zone, and into another governmentally sanctioned road to hell that links Robinson, the poet Ruth Zardo, and Three Pines’ resident “Asshole Saint”.

I started this one afternoon and finished it later that evening, because I couldn’t put the damn thing down. But it is a walk through dark places, and there are points where it seems like the twisty passages are all like. The origins of everything are so far back and the character holding a big chunk of the information Gamache needs is pretty much a lying liar every step of the way and I wanted a confrontation that needed to happen multiple times but never quite does. It also felt like there was one completely extraneous character, although who I felt that was shifted a bit. Rather like one of those large ensemble cast TV series that needs to lose one or two people to tighten up right and really zing.

But it still gave me an epic book hangover because I love these characters, felt for them, and wanted to spend more time with them. And I will, hopefully sometime next year with the OMG 18th book in the series!

Review: The Abduction of Pretty Penny by Leonard Goldberg

Review: The Abduction of Pretty Penny by Leonard GoldbergThe Abduction of Pretty Penny (Daughter of Sherlock Holmes Mystery, #5) by Leonard Goldberg
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Daughter of Sherlock Holmes #5
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on June 15, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A continuation of USA Today bestselling author Leonard Goldberg's Daughter of Sherlock Holmes series, The Abduction of Pretty Penny finds Joanna and the Watsons on the tail of an infamous killer.
Joanna and the Watsons are called in by the Whitechapel Playhouse to find Pretty Penny, a lovely, young actress who has gone missing without reason or notice. While on their search, the trio is asked by Scotland Yard to join in the hunt for a vicious murderer whose method resembles that of Jack The Ripper. It soon becomes clear that The Ripper has reemerged after a 28-year absence and is once again murdering young prostitutes in Whitechapel.
Following a line of subtle clues, Joanna quickly reasons that Pretty Penny has been taken capture by the killer. But as Joanna moves closer to learning his true identity, the killer sends her a letter indicating her young son Johnny will be the next victim to die. Time is running out, and Joanna has no choice but to devise a most dangerous plan which will bring her face-to-face with the killer. It is the only chance to protect her son and rescue Pretty Penny, and save both from an agonizing death.
The Abduction of Pretty Penny is a wonderful new entry in a series that the Historical Novel Society calls “one of the best Sherlock Holmes series since Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell books."

My Review:

The Abduction of Pretty Penny falls prey to a temptation that has proven irresistible to more than one writer of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, just as Pretty Penny herself seems to have fallen victim to one of the most notorious serial killers in history.

It looks like the star of the Whitechapel Playhouse, the Pretty Penny of the story’s title, has been kidnapped by a criminal who is notorious – not for kidnapping his victims, but for murdering and dismembering them, leaving their mutilated corpses to be found in the alleys of Whitechapel.

Of course, I’m referring to Jack the Ripper, and therein lies both the terror and the multiple conundrums of this story. Because Joanna Blalock Watson is the daughter of Sherlock Holmes. She has certainly inherited her father’s prodigious talents – but she is manifestly not his contemporary.

Joanna plies her inherited trade in the early years of the 20th century, while Jack committed his best-known crimes between 1888 and 1891. The heyday of Joanna’s famous father, and before her own birth.

It’s been 28 years since the Ripper stalked Whitechapel, but in addition to Pretty Penny’s abduction, Jack has been leaving his calling cards, the mutilated corpses of Unfortunates, as prostitutes are called, all over Whitechapel.

While sending especially terrifying notes to Joanna. And seemingly holding Pretty Penny captive until he can display her fresh corpse as part of his grisly “final act”.

So what begins as the search for a kidnap victim turns into a deadly contest between Jack the Ripper and, in a peculiar way, Sherlock Holmes. It’s clear from the Ripper’s actions that in his mind his antagonist is the Great Detective himself, even if the person he is taunting is Holmes’ daughter – and her son.

Escape Rating B+: So the story here is really Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper – only once removed, sort of like cousins, as in “first-cousin once-removed”.

Which only serves to highlight the thing about this story that drove me absolutely freaking bananas.

Many writers have succumbed to the temptation to write the case that never was but should have been, that of Sherlock Holmes investigating the Ripper. If Holmes were factual rather than fictional, this is a case that would certainly have happened. The Ripper’s spree occurred between 1888 and 1891, while Holmes’ first case, A Study in Scarlet, was published in The Strand in 1887, so presumably took place in that year or the year before.

Holmes and Moriarty had their presumed fatal encounter at Reichenbach Falls in 1891, so if Holmes had truly been operating during the Ripper years, he would have either been called in by Scotland Yard or would have been drawn in by his own irrepressible curiosity. (If you’re curious, the best accounting that I have ever read of Holmes investigating the Ripper is still Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay Faye.)

As this series features Holmes’ daughter Joanna, her husband (and chronicler) Dr. John H. Watson, Jr., AND his father, Holmes’ friend and chronicler Dr. John H. Watson, Sr., now retired, I kept expecting to see some references by the senior Watson to either Holmes’ own investigation of the Ripper or the reason that Holmes didn’t involve himself with the Ripper case. The lack of such a reference was annoying. In the extreme.

I ended up with a lot of mixed feelings about this entry in the series – although the series opener, the appropriately titled The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, is still the best.

The progress of the case itself provided plenty of thrills and chills, to the point where some of the gruesome descriptions caused me to stop reading at bedtime. Some people have no problems sleeping after reading the details of human dismemberment but I’m not one of them.

So the investigation, and the hunt for Pretty Penny, had me riveted from the beginning to the surprisingly real sensation of relief at the end.

But it’s the things not said or not fully explained that keep this from true excellence.

As noted above, there should have been a reference either to Sherlock Holmes’ own investigation of the Ripper or an explanation of why such an investigation never took place. The lack was frustrating – infuriating even, like waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Likewise there seemed to be a bit of a lack of explanation of why the Ripper went dormant for 28 years only to suddenly reappear at this particular juncture. Reasons were implied but not well explained. This may be the result of a desire not to mess with the known history – that the Ripper was never identified. This story does a surprisingly good job of having its cake and eating it too in that particular regard. But in order to make that part work, explanations of his long hiatus and his “resurrection” felt a bit scant.

So, lots of mixed feelings. I got instantly caught up in the story and was riveted to the end. But at that end, the link to Sherlock Holmes that I come to these stories for, fell just a bit short.

Review: A Rogue’s Company by Allison Montclair

Review: A Rogue’s Company by Allison MontclairA Rogue's Company (Sparks & Bainbridge Mystery, #3) by Allison Montclair
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Sparks & Bainbridge #3
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on June 8, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Allison Monclair's A Rogue's Company, business becomes personal for the Right Sort Marriage Bureau when a new client, a brutal murder, two kidnappings, and the recently returned from Africa Lord Bainbridge threatens everything that one of the principals holds dear.
In London, 1946, the Right Sort Marriage Bureau is getting on its feet and expanding. Miss Iris Sparks and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge are making a go of it. That is until Lord Bainbridge—the widowed Gwen's father-in-law and legal guardian—returns from a business trip to Africa and threatens to undo everything important to her, even sending her six-year-old son away to a boarding school.
But there's more going on than that. A new client shows up at the agency, one whom Sparks and Bainbridge begin to suspect really has a secret agenda, somehow involving the Bainbridge family. A murder and a subsequent kidnapping sends Sparks to seek help from a dangerous quarter—and now their very survival is at stake.

My Review:

I’ve just realized that the title is a pun – or a spoiler, take your pick – on multiple levels. Iris Sparks, co-owner of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau, is keeping company with Archie Spelling, a known gangster. Quite willingly and fairly often.

Gwen Bainbridge, her friend and co-owner of the agency, very much on the other hand, has been forced to keep company with a gang of rogues because they’ve kidnapped her while she was in the unfortunate company – and unfortunately in the company – of her douchecanoe of a father-in-law, Lord Harold Bainbridge.

That Harold is a complete and utter rotter is not a spoiler at all. I think I rage-read the first half of this book because Harold’s douchecanoe nature and general all-around misogynistic asshattery is on display from practically the first page of the book.

I hated not just every scene the man was in but every time Gwen was forced to deal with the power the man had over Gwen’s – and every other person in the household’s – life. A power that he indulged to a disgusting degree at every possible turn as well as at plenty of turns that one wouldn’t have thought were possible, if only because he was willing to insult and demean everyone except his cronies in front of any audience at all. Going completely against that whole idea that one didn’t air one’s dirty linen in public.

Harold has power over Gwen because he had Gwen declared mentally incompetent when she was unable to maintain the proper British stiff-upper-lip in the face of her husband’s (Harold’s son’s) death during the late war. Along with that declaration, Harold captured custody of Gwen, her son Ronnie (his grandson) and all of the shares in Bainbridge Ltd., that his son left to his wife in his will.

And thereby hangs a good chunk of the tale. For Gwen, it’s all about little Ronnie, and not letting Harold send her 6-year-old boy off to the boarding school that his father hated and that turned his grandfather into the disgusting, overbearing ass that he became.

As Gwen grabs hold of her courage and her will and begins to finally fight back, she – with the aiding, abetting and more-than-able assistance of her partner Iris – puts her very superior brain to work to figure out what’s behind her consignment to her father-in-law’s clutches, along with exactly what’s behind his consignment to the clutches of his (their) kidnappers.

It’ll be the making of Gwen – if she survives. Even if calling in favors from her friendly neighborhood gangster puts Iris’ future happiness at risk.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up because I loved the first two books in this series, The Right Sort of Man and A Royal Affair. In the end, I loved this one too, but not as much as the first two because, well, see my comments about rage-reading the first half located above.

I’m starting to think I’m just allergic to stories that feature women caught in impossible situations because men are entitled assholes whether the jerks in question are actually titled or not. Gwen Bainbridge’s situation has always been a bit precarious vis a vis her titled, overbearing, petty dictator of a father-in-law, because he’s always held the whip hand in their relationship and seems to enjoy using it. Her husband – his son – died in the war and Gwen’s mourning of him did not exactly exhibit the stiff upper lip that Brits are known for. She was labeled as a “hysteric” and placed under the guardianship of her late husband’s family. Under the thumb of her father-in-law who threatens and demeans every single person with whom he comes in contact at every possible turn – including his grandson, Gwen’s 6-year-old son Ronnie. The dinner party scene with the toasts was particularly horrific in this regard – but it was just the latest in a continuing line of horrors in that household.

It’s not a surprise that both Sparks and Bainbridge, along with nearly every other person who comes into contact with the man, wants to commit some kind of mayhem upon his odious person. It’s only a surprise that it didn’t happen sooner – and more often.

I’m going to try to stop ranting now. It’s more difficult than I thought it would be. Gwen’s asshat-in-law has the same name as my ex-husband, so there might be a teensy bit of transference going on here.

Moving right along…

This story isn’t about Gwen’s family troubles, although it certainly is about families, and troubles, and the trouble that we will put ourselves through for our families – or at least for the members of our family that we love.

Because the other half of this story starts out with a bit of a dilemma for Gwen and Iris. They have a new client – well of course they do, that’s the whole raison d’etre of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau after all. But their new client causes them to question a whole host of assumptions that they both had when they began their enterprise.

Their new client, Simon Daile, is African. Not a Brit who has gone to Africa to make a fortune – like the odious Lord Bainbridge – but a man from Africa who came to England to study agriculture and got stuck there during the war. He’s the first black client the agency has had, and they are surprised. Then they are surprised that they are surprised.

And finally, they figure out that they’ve been missing out on clients because they assumed that all their clients would be just like themselves. White. And that they need to throw their assumptions out the window, no matter how comfortable clinging to them might have been.

Their bit of soul searching feels like it’s handled reasonably well, at least right up until the point where Gwen’s bit of sixth sense about when people are lying to her kicks in. Because Mr. Daile is lying about something. Or she thinks he is. And she’s afraid that her intuition has gone off or is leading her astray because she’s uncomfortable. Which is logical, merely incorrect in this case. Also, that she’s just second-guessing herself because Lord Bainbridge does nothing but try his worst to make her feel small, incapable and lacking in pretty much everything at every turn.

(Speaking of comfort, my soapbox is apparently a bit too comfortable. Moving right along AGAIN…)

It turns out that she’s both right and wrong, and that the wrongness ties into the mystery genre’s convention about coincidences. There are two threads to this story, Mr. Daile and the kidnapping of Lord Bainbridge and Gwen. Those threads connect – just not in any of the ways that Gwen – or the reader – might have initially suspected..

And Gwen rescues herself. Not just from the kidnapping, but from Lord Bainbridge. And it’s glorious! Now that she’s gotten THAT albatross off from around her neck. I have really high hopes for future books in this series! Meanwhile, I’m going to take a look at The Haunting of the Desks, a short story in the series that looks like oodles of fun!

Review: The Stills by Jess Montgomery + Giveaway

Review: The Stills by Jess Montgomery + GiveawayThe Stills (Kinship #3) by Jess Montgomery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Kinship #3
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on March 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

With compassion and insight, Jess Montgomery weaves a gripping mystery and portrait of community in The Stills, the powerful third novel in the Kinship series.
Ohio, 1927: Moonshining is a way of life in rural Bronwyn County, and even the otherwise upstanding Sheriff Lily Ross has been known to turn a blind eye when it comes to stills in the area. But when thirteen-year-old Jebediah Ranklin almost dies after drinking tainted moonshine, Lily knows that someone has gone too far, and—with the help of organizer and moonshiner Marvena Whitcomb—is determined to find out who.
But then, Lily’s nemesis, the businessman George Vogel, reappears in town with his new wife, Fiona. Along with them is also her former brother-in-law Luther Ross, now an agent for the newly formed Bureau of Prohibition. To Lily, it seems too much of a coincidence that they should arrive now.
As fall turns to winter, a blizzard closes in. Lily starts to peel back the layers of deception shrouding the town of Kinship, but soon she discovers that many around her seem to be betraying those they hold dear—and that Fiona too may have an agenda of her own.

My Review:

I picked up The Stills for two reasons. One, because I read the second book in the Kinship series, The Hollows, and was absolutely fascinated with this fictional portrait of a female sheriff in rural southeastern Ohio in the 1920s. A time and a place where the last thing that a reader – or a resident – would expect is that the hand of local law enforcement belongs to a woman. Or that the fictional Sheriff Ross is based on a real historical figure, Maude Collins of Vinton County, Ohio.

The second reason is that Prohibition is a singularly fascinating failure in American history. It is almost a textbook case for the road to hell being paved with good intentions. The concept was laudable, but the result was a disaster. One that we seem to have learned few lessons from.

Those two fascinations combine in The Stills. It’s the winter of 1926. Even before the Great Depression, that part of Ohio was economically depressed, as it has been historically. What is not well known outside of the area is that this particular part of Ohio is considerably more a part of Appalachia than it is the city and suburban Midwest that are typically thought of when Ohio is mentioned.

Which meant, at least in the 1920s and probably a whole lot longer, that in spite of Prohibition the making of moonshine was still a part of the local culture AND the local economy.

The story of The Stills is wrapped around two women. Sheriff Lily Ross, who stayed in Kinship, married, was widowed, took over from her late husband as sheriff and was elected in her own right at the end of The Hollows. Lily, a strong, resolute and pragmatic woman – also a good shot and a grown-up tomboy – is surrounded by a whole phalanx of women as strong as herself who all support her the best they can – which is generally quite well indeed.

On the other side of the story is Fiona Vogel. Fiona was also born in Kinship, but she left for the bright lights and big city charms of Cincinnati. On the surface at least, Fiona is a more traditional example of what women are supposed to be. Under that demure exterior lies a woman who knows that she has shackled herself to a criminal. A man that she is determined to get the best of and get away from before he “takes care” of her the way he has so many others who got in his way.

Fiona is the opposite to Lily in another way. Where Lily is surrounded by a group of friends who stand beside her, a group that is mostly but not entirely female, Fiona is nearly imprisoned by a group of enemies, mostly but not completely male. All of whom are out to subjugate her in as many ways as possible if not just kill her outright.

The Stills of the title are, quite literally, stills. Moonshine stills. It’s about the lengths – and depths – that one man will go to in order to control them and the illegal trade they represent. It’s about the collateral damage that became the wreck by the side of Prohibition’s good-intention paved road to hell.

And it’s the story of one female sheriff doing her very best to follow the law, appease her conscience – and protect those she holds dear.

Escape Rating B+: Where the previous book in the series, The Hollows, wrapped itself around three perspectives – Lily and her friends Marvena and Hildy – The Stills only follows two of its primary characters, Lily and her “opposite”, Fiona.

And as much as Hildy’s dithering and everyone else dithering about Hildy drove me crazy in The Hollows, I have to say that I liked Fiona’s perspectives even less. I would have been a much happier reader if the entire story was told from Lily’s point-of-view, leaving the inner workings of Fiona’s rather twisted mind to be revealed along with the rest of the plot.

Some of which turned out to be Fiona’s own convoluted plot to get rid of her bastard of a husband in order to get control of not just her life but both his legal AND illegal empires. Fiona is a victim who looks like she’s going to perpetuate the cycle. She may begin as a victim but by the end she’s on her way to becoming a perpetrator and I’d rather not have been near her head.

Lily, on the other hand, does an excellent job of, well, her job, but also of being a female character who is both true to her time AND has the kind of agency that makes her perspective dynamic to follow as well as making her easy for 21st century readers to empathize with.

And I definitely did.

I also liked that Lily might be developing a romantic relationship, but that she is taking it very, very slowly, is cognizant of everything that is at risk both personally and professionally, and is very careful about balancing the professional life that she loves – even though she’s not supposed to even have it – with the possibility of falling in love again. Those hesitant thoughts, the stop and start of possibility versus caution, feel very real.

This series, at least so far, combines historical fiction with mystery in a way that brings the historical period to life and provides a background that makes the mystery feel like it is grounded in its time, place, and characters. While I haven’t read the first book, The Widows, this does feel like a series where the individual books can be read as standalone, while creating a deeper story for those who have followed Lily’s adventures from the beginning.

This entry in the series makes it clear that Lily has plenty of sheriffing to do in the future. And I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next!

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Stills to one very lucky US commenter on this tour!

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