A- #BookReview: The House on Widows Hill by Simon R. Green

A- #BookReview: The House on Widows Hill by Simon R. GreenThe House on Widows Hill (Ishmael Jones #9) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, mystery, paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #9
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House on July 2, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads


Ishmael Jones investigates a haunted house . . . but is haunted by his own past in the latest of this quirky paranormal mystery series.

"That house is a bad place. Bad things happen there . . ."
Set high on top of Widows Hill, Harrow House has remained empty for years. Now, on behalf of an anonymous prospective buyer, Ishmael and Penny are spending a night there in order to investigate the rumours of strange lights, mysterious voices, unexplained disappearances, and establish whether the house is really haunted.
What really happened at Harrow House all those years ago? Joined by a celebrity psychic, a professional ghost-hunter, a local historian and a newspaper reporter, it becomes clear that each member of 'Team Ghost' has their own pet theory as to the cause of the alleged haunting. But when one of the group suddenly drops dead with no obvious cause, Ishmael realizes that if he can find out how and why the victim died, he will have the key to solving the mystery.

My Review:

The House on Widows Hill is more of a twist on the typical English country house mystery than even Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny Belcourt usually have to contend with.

And that’s definitely saying something about the cases that the mysterious “Organization” usually assigns to this unconventional pair – even after the case in the previous book, Night Train to Murder, that has literally just dropped them off in Bath when this investigation begins.

Someone high up in that secretive, blacker-than-black-ops ‘Organization’ wants Ishmael and Penny to spend the night at that house on Widows Hill overlooking the city, a house with a reputation so dark that not only has no one lived there since the Victorian Era, but no one even goes near the place.

The place is so creepy that not even the local kids go there on dares, and haven’t for decades. Probably because of the overwhelming sense of impending doom and dread that comes over anyone and everyone who approaches the outer gates.

Someone in the ‘Organization’ is considering buying the place – or that’s what Ishmael and Penny are told, anyway. That night is a ‘one-night-only’ invitation to not just Ishmael and Penny as representatives of the potential buyer, but also to a whole team of “ghost botherers” (as Ishmael calls them) who have been begging – for years it seems – to get inside the old haunt. Along with one intrepid reporter who represents the family that owns the creepy pile – and really would like to get shed of the place once and for all.

The rumor is that the house is haunted – but there have never been any reports of actual ghost sightings. At least not until the first member of the little group of wannabe ghost hunters dies in the midst of what Ishmael is sure is a fraudulent séance. Then again, Ishmael believes that all séances are fraudulent so he’s not disappointed that this one is all a wheeze – although he is peeved that he let himself get caught up in the distraction.

He just wasn’t expecting this particular bit of shenanigans to be a way of covering up murder. But he should have been, even if he’s a bit off his usual game. Because while there may not be any ghosts in the house, there certainly is a real something. Something that’s speaking to Ishmael himself in ways that seem entirely too familiar – even if they are speaking of a past that he can no longer claim as his own.

Escape Rating A-: I normally save this series for around Halloween, but I’m in the midst of a reading quandary that I hoped this book would solve – or at least beat back for a couple of days. I’m in the middle of listening to Erik Larson’s No One Goes Alone, and it reminds me A LOT of the Ishmael Jones series – at least so far. The thing about the Larson ‘book’ is that it’s audio only – there’s no actual book. If there were I’d have finished the damn thing by now, because I’m desperate to find out not just whodunnit but also how and why it was done. ‘Thumbing’ to the end of an audio is just damnably awkward – but I’ve been sorely tempted all the same. (I’ll finish the damn thing this week one way or another! And in case you can’t tell, I’m really, REALLY frustrated by the lack of a text.)

Once the resemblance between the two became clear to me, I picked up The House on Widows Hill, which is the next book in my catchup on this series, in the hopes of getting a bit of resolution by proxy for the book I can’t quite carve out enough time to finish.

It even worked, sorta/kinda. Which is awesomely relieving in a peculiar, reading obsessive kind of way.

So this book was pretty much the right book at the right time, even if my reading did start out as a search for a catharsis by substitution.

The House on Widows Hill very much has the classic haunted house vibe going on – even though with Ishmael and Penny involved the reader begins the story aware that it just isn’t going to go to any of the places that haunted houses normally go. That Ishmael gets shaken out of some of his internal certainties and securities added a bit to the ongoing arc of the series while at the same time ramping up the tension of both this book and the books in the series yet to come.

As I’ve already read the final book in the series so far, Haunted by the Past, I have one more book left in my catchup of this series, and that’s Buried Memories. Which I’ll probably get around to THIS coming Halloween, unless the urge for some of this author’s trademark line in snark hits me sooner and isn’t satisfied by the next book in his Gideon Sable series, Where is Anybody?, scheduled for publication in August.

#BookReview: The Holy Terrors by Simon R. Green

#BookReview: The Holy Terrors by Simon R. GreenThe Holy Terrors (A Holy Terrors mystery) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: horror, mystery, paranormal
Series: Holy Terrors #1
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House on February 6, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Six people locked in a haunted hall . . . Cameras watching their every move . . . And then someone dies . . . This first in a spine-tingling new paranormal mystery series from New York Times bestselling British fantasy author Simon R. Green will make you doubt your judgement - and believe in ghosts!
Welcome to Spooky Time, the hit TV ghost-hunting show where the horror is scripted . . . and the ratings are declining rapidly. What better way to up the stakes - and boost the viewership - than by locking a select group of Z-list celebrities up for the night in The Most Haunted Hall in England (TM) and live-streaming the 'terrifying' results?
Soon Alistair, a newly appointed Bishop, actress Diana, medium Leslie, comedian Toby and celebrity chef Indira are trapped inside Stonehaven town hall, along with June, the host and producer of the show. The group tries to settle in and put on a good show, but then strange things start happening in their hall of horrors.
What is it about this place - and why is the TV crew outside not responding? Are they even on air?
Logical Alistair attempts to keep the group's fears at bay and rationalise the odd events, but there are things that just can't be explained within reason . . . Can he stop a cold-blooded would-be killer - even if it's come from beyond the grave?
This locked-room mystery with a paranormal twist is classic Simon R. Green, featuring his trademark humour and imagination, irresistible characters, and thoroughly entertaining plotting.

My Review:

Four strangers locked in a haunted building overnight with two TV “personalities”, their every action and emotion covered by hidden cameras, all in pursuit of a payday that’s not going to be nearly as generous as their agents led them to expect.

Sounds like the perfect setup for a “Reality TV” program. Or a joke. Or, in this particular case, a joke of a reality TV show that is desperate to recapture the market share it lost much longer ago than its presenter is willing to admit. Or allow.

Put another way, a has-been comedian, a wannabe almost-celebrity chef, an outspoken bishop and an actress whose career isn’t what it used to be, walk into a haunted town hall to film an episode of ‘Spooky Time!’ with its resident medium AND its indefatigable host.

There should be a punchline coming for that joke. And there certainly is for at least some of the participants. At least for the ones that survive the night.

Anyone who has any illusions left about the exact amount of ‘reality’ present in a so-called reality TV show needs to check those illusions before the first page – because they’ll all be spoiled although the plot of the book certainly is not.

From the moment the time-locks ominously click shut and the lights start to go out, it’s clear to the participants that something has gone even wronger than they expected after seeing the dilapidated state of the place they’re supposed to be spending the night. But in the gloomy, shadowed and downright spooky atmosphere, it’s all too easy to chalk up their fears to the idea that something supernatural might be stalking their number.

But as the Bishop says to the Actress, that doesn’t add up. It’s clear, at least to him, that they are being led astray by their own guilts and fears. And even though there is an entirely different sort of ‘leading astray’ that the Actress would prefer to do to the Bishop, she’s willing to trust him to see her through this long and particularly dark night.

Escape Rating B-: I ended up with a LOT of mixed feelings about this one, some of which may have to do with having no love or even liking for so-called reality TV. (Although, honestly, if the author has any love for that genre it’s a particularly twisted version of it.)

It’s clear from the outset that all of the so-called ‘supernatural’ events are planned and prepared, that the show is on its last legs and the guests were chosen for their gullibility, their expendability, or both. And because they were relatively cheap – just like the all-night rental of the supposed ‘Most Haunted Hall in England.’

Particularly as, in spite of all the horror implications of the blurb and the Goodreads genre assignment, the title of the series to follow has it right, The Holy Terrors is a mystery and not horror at all.

Which means that the reader’s enjoyment of and/or absorption in this story relies on either getting caught up in the mystery or being charmed by its characters – many of whom are not charming at all.

Although the Bishop and the Actress certainly are, and their increasing charm with each other does help carry readers along. Which is a good thing, because ‘whodunnit’ was obvious long before the big reveal – complete with a bit of good old-fashioned villain monologuing – at the end.

As the first book in a series that looks like it will follow the adventures of the Bishop and the Actress as they have more mysterious and possibly spooky adventures, there’s a fair amount of heavy lifting to be done that doesn’t feel like it’s completely done by the book’s end.

Because I’m not totally sure what the newly christened “Holy Terrors” will actually be doing in their future adventures – beyond that they’ll be doing them together. It’s not clear even at the end of this book and I’ve been guessing throughout.

Not that I won’t ‘tune back in’ to find out when the next book appears. I just hope it’s a bit more clear by then AND that it doesn’t sidle quite so close to the territory the author has already occupied by Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny Belcourt.

One final note to say thanks for the memories, the facepalm and the headslap – not necessarily in that order and definitely not as the Actress said to the Bishop – which is what all of the above are referencing.

This entire story – and quite possibly the series intended to follow – is part of a long-running British tradition of jokes and/or clichés (your mileage may vary on which they are) of double entendres that begin or end with “as the bishop said to the actress” or the other way around. Phrases that take on a sexual overtone, undertone, or alternate meaning by adding that phrase that either way is roughly equivalent to a joke ending, “that’s what she (or he) said”.

It niggled at me through the whole book as something familiar, but I was caught up just enough in the mystery at hand and the bell didn’t ring until AFTER I finished the book. Because that phrase, in popular parlance in British in the 1930s, was one that Simon Templar, The Saint, used frequently and often in the original books by Leslie Charteris – of which I read as many as I could find back in the dark ages after seeing bits of the TV series starring Roger Moore in syndication way back when.

I don’t remember that phrase from the TV series, but in the books, Templar used it frequently, often and as intended. Honestly, I’m not even sure I was quite old enough to get the double entendres at the time I read the books, but the whole thing stuck in my memory and thereby hangs that facepalm and headslap.

Because if this series continues, the whole entire thing has the potential to be a series of investigations where the Bishop and the Actress are going to have a LOT to say to each other. And quite possibly do with and to each other between solving mysteries.

Review: The Twilight Queen by Jeri Westerson

Review: The Twilight Queen by Jeri WestersonThe Twilight Queen (A King's Fool mystery, 2) by Jeri Westerson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: King's Fool #2
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on January 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Court jester Will Somers is drawn into another gripping and entertaining mystery when malevolent forces strike again at the court of Henry VIII - and Anne Boleyn is the target.
Greenwich, Palace of Placentia, April 1536. Queen Anne is in peril. In the mid of night, court jester Will Somers is summoned to an urgent assignation when she discovers a body in her chamber. The queen wants Will to find out who the man is and how he ended up there. Is someone trying to frame her for his murder?
Anne has many enemies at court, and to make matters worse, Henry VIII is lining up his next conquest and suspects her of treason. Has the formidable Oliver Cromwell been whispering vile lies in the king's ears, and could Anne be the target of a Catholic conspiracy? As further attacks plague the court, Will is determined to uncover the truth behind the plotting and devilry, but he will need to keep hold of all his wits to do so!

My Review:

There are characters, whether real or imagined, who seem to get reinvented or reinterpreted for each generation. Henry VIII, that towering, looming figure of British history, with his outsized body and equally outsized personality – along with his fascinating and scandalous pursuit of a son and heir for his crown – seems to be one of those characters.

That his story – or rather the reinterpretation of his story through the characters of his six wives – has been reimagined yet again in the Tony Award winning Broadway play, Six: The Musical, is just the latest in a long line of portrayals, beginning with the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, written under the rule of King James I of England and VI of Scotland – a reign that could be said to be the direct result of Henry’s failure to secure a healthy male heir.

Which makes this portrayal of Henry, his court and his wives and paramours, as seen through the eyes of his Court Fool, Will Somers, just that much more fascinating and relevant, as it appears that this series is also going to trip its way through Henry’s nearly 40-year reign through the machinations of his court and his courtiers through each of his successive – but not all that successful – marriages.

The first book in this series, Courting Dragons, took place as Catherine of Aragon’s star at court was rapidly waning, and Anne Boleyn’s was on the ascendant.

In the midst of the King’s ‘Great Matter’, the impending divorce that severed not only Henry’s first marriage but also his country’s religion, a murder took place among the foreign diplomatic corps that threatened to destabilize the already fraught negotiations over, well, pretty much everything at that point.

A murder that was ultimately solved by a not-so-foolish investigation by the King’s Fool, Will Somers.

Just as that first murder of a Spanish diplomat had political implications for Catherine of Aragon, the murder that opens The Twilight Queen has potentially deadly implications for Anne Boleyn, whose brief, tumultuous reign is now in its twilight.

A dead musician has been discovered in the Queen’s private chambers. It’s obvious to Anne that the intent is to stir up rumors that she is unfaithful to her royal husband. A treasonous pot that someone influential at court is already stirring.

Because no good deed goes unpunished, when the Queen has need of a discreet investigator, she calls upon the King’s Fool to poke his nose into all the places he can to figure out who left this dead and potentially deadly ‘package’ in her private chambers – in the hopes that the truth will stave off her inevitable downfall.

Escape Rating B: Genre blends such as historical mystery are always a balancing act – much like Will Somers position is a balancing act between making his sovereign laugh, forcing his master to stop and think – and keeping both his job and his head.

For a historical mystery to be successful, it has to balance upon the knife edge of being true to its historical setting AND following the somewhat strict conventions of the mystery genre. It must allow the reader to maintain that crucial willing suspension of disbelief when it comes to history while still delivering that ‘romance of justice’ that is crucial to a mystery’s satisfactory ending.

As much as I love this particular period of history, this series so far reads like it tilts more than a bit towards the description and details of the historical setting. Not that the mystery doesn’t get solved, but rather that the mystery feels more like an excuse to dive into the history instead of the historical period being a setting for a mystery.

Reflecting on this second book in the series, I believe that impression is a result of Will Somers’ life and work being so far removed from ordinary life either in his time or our own. Even Crispin Guest, the protagonist of the author’s Medieval Noir series, feels like more of a standard archetype, as he’s operating as a kind of private investigator in a big city. Even though the details of his circumstances are even a century or two before Somers, what Guest does and the way he does it – and how he feels about it – reads as something surprisingly familiar.

Will Somers’ dependence on and love of his ‘master’ the King, on the other hand, jars a bit in the 21st century mind whether it rings true or not. A kind interpretation of their relationship would liken it to the relationship between Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings – except that Frodo couldn’t order Sam’s head to be struck off. Will Somers’ relationship with his king reads a bit too close to the so-called ‘love’ of slaves for their masters in the antebellum South. It’s not comfortable, no matter how fascinating a character Somers has turned out to be.

Which he most definitely is.

In the end, I found the history behind this story more interesting than the mystery within its pages. Your reading mileage, of course, may vary. I am, however, still terribly curious about the next book in this series, which is planned to take place during Henry’s brief but fruitful marriage to Jane Seymour, tentatively titled, Rebellious Grace.

Review: Night Train to Murder by Simon R. Green

Review: Night Train to Murder by Simon R. GreenNight Train to Murder (Ishmael Jones #8) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #8
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House on March 3, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads


When a body is discovered in a locked toilet cubicle on the late-night train to Bath, Ishmael Jones is faced with his most puzzling case to date.

When Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny are asked to escort a VIP on the late-night train to Bath, it would appear to be a routine case. The Organisation has acquired intelligence that an attempt is to be made on Sir Dennis Gregson's life as he travels to Bath to take up his new position as Head of the British Psychic Weapons Division. Ishmael's mission is to ensure that Sir Dennis arrives safely.
How could anyone orchestrate a murder in a crowded railway carriage without being noticed and with no obvious means of escape? When a body is discovered in a locked toilet cubicle, Ishmael Jones has just 56 minutes to solve a seemingly impossible crime before the train reaches its destination.

My Review:

Reading Reality is having a bit of a theme going in the days leading up to Halloween, and this visit with Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny Belcourt is just horror-adjacent enough to be a part of it.

And I was having a hankering for some high-quality snarkitude and this author ALWAYS delivers!

Ishmael Jones is a fascinating character – to himself most of all at times. He’s an alien. Specifically, he’s a version of E.T. with no way to phone home because he doesn’t remember where it is. When he crash-landed his ship in 1963 the ship’s last act was to transform him into a human adult the best that it could – and erase all his memories of who and/or what he used to be.

It didn’t exactly do a BAD job at Ishmael’s transformation. He blends in just fine. But he doesn’t change or age, so he’s looked like a man in his mid-30s for almost 60 years at this point and has the same problem that vampires often do in paranormal stories. He has to move on every so often before too many people start to notice too much.

Ishmael’s solution has been to work for a series of agencies so black and so secret that they don’t even know what their own right and left hands are doing – let alone anyone else’s. They keep his secrets and in return he keeps theirs and does the kind of dirty work that actual humans aren’t capable of for very long – if at all.

His work and romantic partner, Penny Belcourt, knows as many of his secrets as Ishmael himself does. They met on a case, the first one in this series, The Dark Side of the Road, a story that began as a rather typical English country house mystery that went seriously far into the Dark Side of multiple Forces.

Ishmael and Penny are the coyly-named Organization’s best agents, so it’s not exactly a surprise for them to be ordered to report for a top secret, rush-rush and hush-hush job, not even to London’s St. Pancras Station. It’s just annoying and both of them are at least somewhat annoyed by being handed tickets to an express train to Bath with not nearly enough information about their instructions to guard a high-ranking politician who has just been promoted to an equally high-ranking top-secret job on said politician’s imminent journey to take up his new post via that London to Bath train.

The trip will take less than two hours. It shouldn’t be that difficult to keep the man alive for that length of time on a moving train that will not stop to take on anyone or anything until it reaches its destination.

But if it were an easy job the Organization wouldn’t be putting its best agents on the case. And they are, so it isn’t. It’s just that it’s even more clandestine and hush-hush than even Ishmael and Penny suspected. And they suspected a lot, and everyone, from the very beginning.

Escape Rating A-: There are two things I find pretty much endlessly fun about this particular series. One, of course and always, is the author’s trademark snarkitude. It’s a signature that follows him everywhere from urban fantasy like his Nightside series to science fiction such as his Deathstalker series to the genre-mashup that is the Ishmael Jones series.

The other thing is a particular feature of the Ishmael Jones series, and it’s that this series is a genre-mashup of pretty much everything. It’s a bit of SF in Ishmael’s alien origins, a bit of urban fantasy in that he often faces monsters that are believed at the outset to be things that go bump in the night, and there’s generally a bit of horror in that whatever he’s investigating leaves a thoroughly gruesome trail of dead bodies and parts thereof.

But ultimately – or at its heart or a bit of both – the Ishmael Jones series are mysteries. Someone gets dead early on in each book, if there isn’t already a corpse laying around at the start. It’s up to Ishmael and Penny to figure out whodunnit and put a stop to them one way or another before the story reaches its inevitably grisly end.

What makes the mystery so much creepy fun is that as the mystery deepens there’s always a sneaking suspicion that the perpetrator is paranormal in some way, and that in the end that suspicion is nearly always a very tasty red herring. This particular mystery takes that assumption one better, as there is, for once, something actually paranormal going on but it isn’t either the monster or even the victim.

Because one of the things that this series does so very well, and with so much high-quality snark and occasional sheer bloody-mindedness, is that the worst monsters in this or any other universe are inevitably human. And that’s what keeps me coming back to this series, over and over and over again.

If this series sounds like it might be your jam, or if you’ve ever wanted to see just how far a classic-type mystery like a country house mystery or a strangers on a train type mystery can be led very, very far astray, take a look at The Dark Side of the Road and see if you like the view from that side.

I’ll be continuing with my journey with Ishmael Jones and Penny Belcourt with the next book in the series, The House on Widows Hill, the next time I have a yen for either high-quality snark, horror-adjacent mystery, or a bit of both!

Review: The Isolated Seance by Jeri Westerson

Review: The Isolated Seance by Jeri WestersonThe Isolated Séance (An Irregular Detective Mystery #1) by Jeri Westerson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Irregular Detective #1
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on June 6, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The first in a gripping new Victorian mystery series set in London from critically acclaimed author Jeri Westerson.
Watch out, Sherlock! Introducing one-time Baker Street Irregular Timothy Badger and his partner-in-crime Benjamin Watson, two exciting and unconventional young consulting detectives, mentored by the great man himself, tackling intriguing and unusual cases in Victorian London with endearing verve and wit.
Sherlock Holmes's protégés Tim Badger and Benjamin Watson are catapulted into a tricky first case when a man is brutally murdered during a séance.
London, 1895. Former Baker Street Irregular Tim Badger is determined to follow in the footsteps of his great mentor, Sherlock Holmes, by opening his own consulting detective agency with his partner, Benjamin Watson. The intrepid duo are ready to make a name for themselves . . . if only they had clients!
Their luck changes when Sherlock recommends his protégés to Thomas Brent. Brent is eager to find out who killed his master, Horace Quinn, during a séance at Quinn's house. What was Quinn desperately trying to find out from his deceased business partner, Stephen Latimer, before he was stabbed through the heart?
It seems that everyone in Quinn's household had a reason to want him dead. Can Tim and Benjamin step out of Sherlock's shadow to navigate dark secrets and unexpected dangers in their pursuit of a cold-blooded killer?

My Review:

Sherlock Holmes was such a towering figure of investigative genius that it takes not one but two men to even think of stepping into his shoes. Someday, when they’ve got a little more experience under their belts and are a bit more confident in their ability to even hold a clue-seeking magnifying glass up to the ‘Great Detective’s’ bootprints.

Sherlock meets the Irregulars in A Study in Scarlet, as illustrated by Richard Gutschmidt.

Once upon a time, and not all that long ago in the year 1895, Tim Badger was one of the many street urchins that Holmes employed as his Baker Street Irregulars, beginning in Holmes’ very first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, back in 1881.

In 1881, the Irregulars were all children – or at most teens. Inevitably, they grew up. Well, some of them at least, as the game afoot on the streets of London in the late 19th century in their circumstances was that of survival of the fittest – and the Irregulars all entered that game with the deck stacked against them.

But it’s not a surprise that one of those survivors would outgrow the Irregulars with a talent for detection and the same burning need that drove their mentor Holmes, a desire to make a living by righting wrongs and pursuing criminals. Even though there are better ways to make a living and the odds are still stacked against them.

Tim Badger is just one of those ragamuffin boys who has aged out of being invisible and now has to make a living for himself. He’s chosen to follow in his mentor’s footsteps, with the assistance of his very own Watson. But unlike Holmes’ Dr. Watson, Mr. Benjamin Watson is in every bit the same poverty-stricken circumstances as Badger.

Ben Watson is a young black man with a penchant for chemistry and an oddly assorted collection of surprisingly useful odd jobs in his past. A past that isn’t nearly as checkered as Badger’s.

Their first big case is a desperate one, and so are they, even though they’re handed that case on Holmes’ silver salver, for reasons that Badger and Watson have yet to determine. Holmes claims he’s too busy, but that’s pure balderdash and Badger knows it. For Holmes the case would be easy as pie, but for the two fledgling detectives in a race to prove that a young man was wrongfully accused of murdering his employer – it’s the chance of a lifetime.

Or the end of more lives than just their client’s, including, quite possibly, their own.

Escape Rating A-: Surprisingly and delightfully, The Isolated Séance is a story of Sherlock Holmes, of all people, paying it forward – in spite of that phrase not being in common parlance until more than a century later.

As a way of making the leap from Holmes himself to a ‘new generation’ it’s an excellent way of shifting the focus of this Holmes pastiche from the great man to a couple of young men just getting their start – as Holmes and his Watson were when they first took rooms together at 221b.

We get just enough of a glimpse of Badger and Watson’s original circumstances to see just how much the two young men are in over their heads when Holmes steps in and gives them not just a case but an astonishing hand up in their attempts to follow the path he has already broken and solve a case that is every bit as convoluted as anything Holmes himself took on.

Holmes calls his starting grant to them an investment in his legacy, and so it proves. It also helps kick the story into a higher gear as it removes many of the external impediments to their possible success, giving both the characters and the reader a chance to focus on those impediments that are inherent to the case itself and to their maturity – or rather its lack. Particularly in Badger’s case.

(Although both men are very young, Watson’s circumstances as a black man in a city that is prejudiced against him at every turn gives him a bit of caution and maturity that Badger sadly lacks. Watson’s perspective as someone who will always be considered an outsider even before he opens his mouth reminds this reader of the relationship between a young Mycroft Holmes and the more mature Cyrus Douglas in Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s Mycroft Holmes series. Please consider this a readalike recommendation as the Jabbar series is marvelous.)

The case itself is a farrago of mysterious circumstances, wild conjectures, police intractability and mistaken identity from its murderous beginning in the midst of a seance to its tragic, justly unjust ending. Elements which are present in much of Holmes’ canonical casebook as well.

But the way that Badger and Watson come to their solution – and wrestle with their consciences along the way – stands on its own merits. As do they. I look forward to watching their career continue in the second book in this series, The Mummy of Mayfair, hopefully this time next year!

Review: One Extra Corpse by Barbara Hambly + Giveaway

Review: One Extra Corpse by Barbara Hambly + GiveawayOne Extra Corpse (Silver Screen Historical Mystery #2) by Barbara Hambly
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Silver Screen Historical Mystery #2
Pages: 256
Published by Severn House on March 7, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Hollywood intrigue, glamor . . . and murder: Enter the roaring twenties in this thrilling Silver Screen historical mystery, starring two very different female sleuths.
May, 1924. It's been seven months since young British widow Emma Blackstone arrived in Hollywood to serve as companion to Kitty Flint: her beautiful, silent-movie star sister-in-law. Kitty is generous, kind-hearted . . . and a truly terrible actress. Not that Emma minds; she's too busy making her academic parents turn in their graves with her new job writing painfully historically inaccurate scenarios for Foremost Studios, in between wrangling their leading lady out of the arms of her army of amorous suitors.
So when one of Kitty's old flames, renowned film director Ernst Zapolya, calls Emma and tells her it's imperative he meet with Kitty that morning, she's not surprised. Until, that is, he adds that lives depend on it. Ernest sounds frightened. But what can have scared him so badly - and what on earth does cheerful, flighty Kitty have to do with it?
Only Ernest can provide the answers, and Kitty and Emma travel to the set of his extravagant new movie to find them. But the shocking discovery they make there only raises further questions . . . including: will they stay alive long enough to solve the murderous puzzle?

My Review:

One Extra Corpse, like its predecessor Scandal in Babylon, strips away the phony tinsel of Hollywood to find the real dirty, bloody tinsel underneath.

It’s 1924, just one month after the events of the first book in the Silver Screen Historical Mystery series, Emma Blackstone has mostly settled herself into her new life in Hollywood as her movie star sister-in-law’s general factotum and keeper of all secrets as well as caretaker of both Kitty Flint AND her three pampered Pekingese dogs, Chang Ming, Black Jasmine, and Buttercreme.

Managing Kitty also comes with a bit of tinsel-making of Emma’s own. She’s regularly employed – and sometimes just plain used – as a scene doctor for movie scripts during these frenetic-paced early days of the silver screen – and occasionally as a social prop for a gay actor who needs to be seen with a woman to protect his image.

Days that may be silent on film but are filled with noise, chatter and above all gossip behind the scenes. Gossip that all too frequently includes who’s sleeping with whom this week – as opposed to last week or next week – as the star-making machinery of Hollywood seems to be fueled by equal parts sex and addiction.

The addiction of entirely too many actors to their drugs of choice – frequently provided by their studios, the addiction of the studios to making money and controlling their actors so that they can keep making that money, and the addiction of the general public to movies as well as gossip about their favorite stars.

No one wants a dead body on the set, not when that dead body belongs to a big name movie director and when it’s all too clear that the man was murdered. Quite possibly by his over-acting, downright histrionic current wife. Who had plenty of motives and no alibi.

But she’s a star in her own right, and her studio doesn’t want to ruin her box-office potential. She makes them too much money to be a murderer, and the police have been paid plenty to make sure she doesn’t get labeled as one. The studios have handed the police a neat-and-tidy case with a tailor-made perpetrator. They can afford to sacrifice an extra to keep one of their stars out of trouble.

Which is where Emma and Kitty get themselves involved. They were on the scene because the victim had something important he wanted to tell Kitty. Who was one of his many, many ex-lovers, just as he was one of hers. Of course, he was killed before he could tell them whatever-it-was, otherwise there wouldn’t be a case to investigate.

And there so very much is. Not the case of a jealous wife, tempting though it was. Or at least Emma is sure that isn’t the solution – not when the Bureau of Investigation (the FBI before it became the FBI) seems to have searched Kitty’s house looking for something, and mysterious thugs make multiple attempts to murder one or both of them.

All while a desperate young woman is on the hook for a murder that she couldn’t possibly have committed. Or could she?

Escape Rating A: This was surprisingly meaty for a book whose cover kind of screams camp with vamp, but then, the silent movie era did have to maximize flash and style to convey emotion. After all, the characters couldn’t use their own words, or even the scriptwriter’s words.

What makes this story so good, and kind of rocks the reader on their heels at the end, is the way that it gets deep into how the sausage-machine of moviemaking worked then – and probably still does now to a greater extent than we like to think about while we’re watching the latest hit.

This story looks hard at the human cost of all that “entertainment”. When that director is killed on set, he dies in the middle of directing a climactic battle scene in his last picture. A scene that uses real bullets fired hopefully above the heads of real people while the inevitable stampeding horses are harnessed into a rig that is guaranteed to bring them down in a crash of heavy bodies on spindly legs that will look great on film. That some of those extras will need to be carried off on stretchers, and that some of the horses will be crippled and shot afterwards, is considered just part of the cost of making movies.

Nobody cares who or how many die as long as it can be hushed up and the show goes on. Which is what the case turns out to be all about in the end.

But it middles in a whole lot of the real issues of the time, in Hollywood and elsewhere. Particularly, in this case, the growing “Red Scare” about communism and socialism in Hollywood, and the lengths the government will go to suppress it, the adults who briefly flirted with it in their misspent youths will go to escape their pasts, and how far some will go to keep their secrets – or the secrets of their own, currently imploding, government.

As the story whipsaws the reader back and forth from the froth of Hollywood to the hamfisted murder investigation to the all-too-real threats to Emma’s and Kitty’s life and liberty, it’s impossible to stop turning pages to find out not just whodunnit but what they done and why they did it.

Most people read mysteries for what has been called “the romance of justice”, that guarantee that good will triumph and evil will get its just desserts. One Extra Corpse doesn’t deliver on the whole of that promise, but it delivers as much justice as was possible and definitely satisfies in that delivery just the same.

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

Today is the first day of Reading Reality’s Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week. There will be giveaways every day this week, and I wanted to get the week started with a real bang.

Barbara Hambly is an author who I’ve been reading and following for more than 40 years, since her first book, The Time of the Dark. Over those decades she has written epic fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal that verges on horror, and historical mystery. While I haven’t read EVERYTHING she’s ever written, I’ve read and loved some of everything she’s turned her hand to, and am looking forward to more to come as I expect Emma and Kitty have plenty more cases coming in their future. At least I certainly hope so.

As is my custom, TWELVE YEARS now and counting, I’m giving things away for this combined blogoversary and birthday week. Today’s giveaway is the winner’s choice of any one of Barbara Hambly’s books, in any format, up to $30 (US) so that includes One Extra Corpse.

Good luck with today’s giveaway and remember that there’s more to come!

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Review: Breaking the Circle by M. J. Trow

Review: Breaking the Circle by M. J. TrowBreaking the Circle (Margaret Murray, #2) by M.J. Trow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Margaret Murray #2
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on January 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Turn-of-the-century archaeologist-sleuth Margaret Murray returns for the second in her captivating historical mystery series.

'Famous Sensitive Found Dead. Police Baffled.'

May, 1905. When one medium turns up dead, the police assume it is a robbery gone wrong, but when another is found obviously murdered, it's clear there's a killer on the loose!

Dr Margaret Murray, accomplished archaeologist and occasional sleuth, calls upon her police connections to investigate; who wants to see the mediums of London dead? Known for her sharp mind and quick wit, Margaret decides to infiltrate one of the spiritualist circles to narrow down the list of suspects.

Her tactics seem to be working as she accidentally puts herself in the sights of the murderer. Unperturbed, Margaret sets an elaborate trap to uncover the culprit - but can she untangle the trail of clues before she too, passes beyond the veil?

My Review:

While the victims of this particular murder spree may be a bit more “out there” in terms of their belief in spiritualism, Margaret Murray’s participation in the investigation isn’t quite as far-fetched here as it was in her first outing, Four Thousand Days.

In that first book it seemed like Murray and her colleagues came together to solve the mystery by a combination of friendship, happenstance and curiosity. This time, while it’s the same band of amateur and professional detectives, the investigation begins deliberately – if still a bit haphazardly. (How the band first got together may be a bit haphazard but their investigation is NOT.)

A woman is dead, having drowned in her mulligatawny soup. It could have been natural causes, but that doesn’t explain what an entire blackbird’s feather was doing in her mouth when she was found. Chicken may be a source of protein for the dish, but blackbird most definitely is not. Nor would it place a whole feather in the mouth AFTER the victim’s death.

But that victim was no one important, and the police seem to have wanted an easy solution. That she was a practicing – if quite possibly fraudulent – spirit medium made the whole thing just that much more distasteful. The inquest ruled the death as natural causes and closed the door on it.

At least until a second spirit medium turned up dead, this time poisoned with cyanide, with the Tarot card of The Hanged Man crushed in the victim’s hand.

That reopens the official case, and brings Detective Sergeant Andrew Crawford and retired Inspector Edmund Reid back to Professor Margaret Murray’s door – which has moved to the Flinders Petrie Museum at University College (now the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology) in the five years since their previous case. (That gap in time means that you don’t REALLY need to read the first book first, but if this one sounds like your jam it’s every bit as good!)

It’s looking like a serial killer is stalking psychics in London. And yes, someone does make the obvious joke that they should have seen it coming. Setting that witticism aside, Crawford has a bit of a problem. He needs an insider to learn if there were tensions among the various sensitive circles that might have led to murder. But that community skews overwhelmingly female, especially among the active participants. He needs a woman to infiltrate that community, but there were, as yet, no women in the police. (WPCs didn’t begin serving until after WW1)

And that’s where Margaret comes directly into his case, literally, posing as a psychic and getting an inside look at the circle where the first victim was a member. The police are still searching for a motive for the killings when the killer turns from poison to blunt force trauma, killing one woman by beating her to death with her own crystal ball.

Now Margaret is in the thick of it. All she’ll need to do is hatch an out-of-the-box scheme to catch the killer without putting herself into a box – or a coffin.

Escape Rating A-: What makes this series work, at least for this reader, is the voice of its protagonist Dr. Margaret Murray. Not just because she was a real person – as were both Flinders Petrie and Edmund Reid, but because she led the kind of life, had the type of career, and left behind the writing to make the adventures that her fictional avatar gets herself into seem not just plausible but even possible.

On the page she may seem like a voice from the 21st century, but there is more than enough evidence that she was a woman of her own time with the kind of history and personality that makes her easy to identify with now. She was a feminist before it was ‘cool’, and then not so cool, and then cool again, and not again and left behind the body of work to prove it.

Which makes her dry wit and trenchant observations on being a professional woman in a man’s world all that much more fascinating as well as both rueful and even funny although they all too frequently still ring true.

The mystery that Murray is in the middle of is more than a bit ‘out there’ and not just because the victims are into looking ‘behind the veil’ and other euphemisms for attempting to speak to the dead. Even if the professionals among them are mostly fleecing people by attempting to speak to the dead. Some of the practitioners and their adherents really do believe – whether we do or not.

The whole case is a fascinating puzzle, all the more so because it takes place at the dawn of modern forensics. Fingerprints are just being accepted as valid evidence, and photography of crime scenes is just beginning to come into its own.

Most of the investigation of this crime involves human factors rather than early 20th century technology, but we also see a bit of the human factors from the police perspective as well. The initial reluctance to take up the case because of the victim’s profession being a case in point.

Howsomever, it’s Margaret Murray that we follow, and she’s just fascinating in an understated and dry-witted way. She’s looking into the people, both the spiritualists and the victims, to see where there might be means, motive and opportunity for murder. That she discovers she’s been barking up the wrong tree but still manages to right herself in the end gives the mystery the twist that it needs to ramp the tension up and to bring it back down to its justified conclusion.

She’s also creating a rather eclectic group of colleagues around herself. Not just Crawford and Reid, both policemen by trade and training, but also Thomas the proprietor of the local cafe – and reformed thief, and Dr. William Flinders Petrie himself, who was her real-life mentor but is also her lover. (Whether that last bit is also history or just fictional we may never know).

But I’m reading this series for Dr. Margaret Murray. I had a fantastic time with her in Breaking the Circle – every bit as much as I did in the first book in her series, and hope that she has as long a career as an amateur detective as she did in real life!

Review: Courting Dragons by Jeri Westerson

Review: Courting Dragons by Jeri WestersonCourting Dragons (A King's Fool mystery, 1) by Jeri Westerson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: King's Fool #1
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on Publication date January 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Introducing Will Somers, the king's jester but nobody's fool in this exuberant, intriguing and thoroughly entertaining mystery set in Tudor England – the first in a new series from the author of the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series.

1529, London. Jester Will Somers enjoys an enviable position at the court of Henry VIII. As the king's entertainer, chief gossip-monger, spy and loyal adviser, he knows all of the king's secrets – and almost everyone else's within the walls of Greenwich Palace.

But when Will discovers the body of Spanish count Don Gonzalo while walking his trusted sidekick Nosewise in the courtyard gardens, and a blackmail note arrives soon after demanding information about the king, is one of his own closely guarded secrets about to be exposed? Trouble is afoot at the palace. Are the king's enemies plotting a move against him? Will must draw on all his wit and ingenuity to get to the bottom of the treacherous and deadly goings-on at the court before further tragedy strikes . . .

My Review:

Henry VIII was always a towering, larger-than-life figure, even before he became the obese caricature of himself that has become the popular image of him. Just as he loomed large over the life of his court and everyone in it, so too he dominates this historical mystery told from, not Henry’s point of view, but through the eyes of his fool, or court jester, William Somers.

Who was every bit as real a person – whether or not he resembles the character in this story – as the king he served.

If you remember the old doggerel, “Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived” as a way of tracking Henry VIII’s six wives, this story takes place in 1529, in the midst of the long and ultimately futile negotiations between Henry and Pope Clement VII in regards to that first divorce, sometimes referred to as the King’s Great Matter.

Which it most certainly was.

So the court is in ferment, divided between the rapidly waning star of the old queen, Catherine of Aragon, and the woman who will be the next queen, Anne Boleyn. Tension is everywhere among the usual cutthroat jockeying for favor and position that was always an integral part of serving in the King’s court.

Will Somers, the king’s fool, has been among Henry’s closest companions since he had arrived in court several years before. Somers was the one person who could, by the very nature of his position, go anywhere, talk to anyone, walk in and out of the King’s apartments, and generally do as he pleased as long as he was always available when the King called for him.

Somers is perfectly placed to find himself in the role of amateur detective when that metaphorically cutthroat jockeying results in the actual cut throat of one of the Spanish ambassador’s attendants.

That the bisexual Somers had spent the previous night with the dead man only adds to his distress. Someone he genuinely cared for is dead, and a thorough investigation could discover Will’s own clandestine behavior. He wants justice – and he needs to protect himself.

In the midst of the King’s Great Matter, with the Spanish on one side and his King on the other, the crime could also have political implications. Somers will have to tread carefully, but still poke his, or his dog’s, nose into every nook and cranny to find the killer – even while that killer is stalking him and those he holds dear.

The Family of Henry VIII (c. 1545), unknown artist. Left to right: ‘Mother Jak’, Lady Mary, Prince Edward, Henry VIII, Jane Seymour (posthumous), Lady Elizabeth and Will Somers. Oil on canvas, 141 x 355 cm. Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey

Escape Rating A-: Hybrid genres like historical mystery have to achieve a balance between the two genres being blended. In the case of historical mystery that means that the historical setting has to feel authentic and the mystery has to be puzzling and fit the conventions for solving the crime that has taken place.

Courting Dragons is one of those historical mysteries where the reader is dropped right into the historical period from the first page, and where the history that wraps around it is integral to the plot – even though it can’t change any of the known historical facts. (For anyone who remembers the movie or the play, Anne of the Thousand Days, Courting Dragons read a LOT like returning to that setting and characters.)

So one of the reasons that I loved Courting Dragons was because I saw that movie in 1969 – I was twelve – and fell in love with the entire Tudor Period, warts and all. Going back was a delight. Howsomever, I read a lot in the period after I saw the movie and was familiar with the historical background.

Courting Dragons read like that balance between the history and the mystery was weighted towards the history, to the point where unless you are either familiar with the period, or enjoy learning a surprising amount of detail about a period with which you are not well acquainted, you need to be aware that the historical setting and tensions of Courting Dragons dominate the mystery. As I said, I loved it but your reading mileage may vary.

It does take a while for the mystery to get itself going, because there is just so much to learn and explore about life at court and Will’s circumstances within it. Which are fascinating but may not be what you read mysteries for.

There was one bit of the story that niggled more than a bit. It doesn’t feel inaccurate, but it was jarring to a 21st century reader all the same. And that involves Will’s relationship with the king. On the one hand, Will is utterly financially dependent on his work. He has a relatively high place for someone of low birth, but it can be snatched away at any time – and so can his life. He is the one person who can tell the king “No” and not get killed for it. He can needle the king about matters, such as his divorce, that the king doesn’t want to hear contradicted in any way. But he has to be careful of how much and how far he goes all the time. Very much on the other hand, in the book it is clear that Will is the king’s man through and through, and actually loves him in a way that seems a lot like the way that Sam Gamgee looked up to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. Or the way that slavery proponents claimed that slaves felt about their slavemasters. It may be the way things actually were, but it still disconcerts.

So, if you like your historical mystery to dive deeply into the historical milieu in which it is set – or if you are just plain fascinated with the Tudors, Courting Dragons is a terrific mix of royal history and rotten murder. Will Somers, and his master Henry VIII, will be back in The Lioness Stumbles, hopefully this time next year!

Review: A Fox in the Fold by Candace Robb

Review: A Fox in the Fold by Candace RobbA Fox in the Fold (Owen Archer #14) by Candace Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Series: Owen Archer #14
Pages: 256
Published by Severn House on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Owen Archer suspects an old adversary is on his tail as he seeks to solve the mystery surrounding a dead body found on the road to York.
October, 1376. Owen Archer is summoned by sheriff Sir Ralph Hastings regarding a stripped and bloodied body discovered on the road north to York. Could it be connected to an attack on a carter and his labourers who were transporting stone destined for St Clement's Priory? The carter fled, but his men stayed to fight and are now missing. Is the victim one of them?
At first Owen believes the catalyst for murder and menace in York is the arrival of the political pariah William Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester. But he soon suspects that a formidable and skillful adversary from his past has arrived in the city, thrusting him and his family into grave danger, and his investigation becomes a race to uncover the truth before his old nemesis destroys all he holds dear.

My Review:

This latest entry in the Owen Archer series is wrapped around Archer’s past. The past when he was a captain of archers for the Duke of Lancaster and was betrayed by one of his own men. A betrayal which resulted in the loss of his left eye and set him on the path readers’ found him on in the first book in the series, The Apothecary Rose.

In other words, in a peculiar way Owen owes everything he has to this betrayal and the man who arranged it. Owen has succeeded beyond his own wildest dreams, becoming a respected officer and landowner, the confidant of kings and princes, with a beautiful and intelligent wife and several wonderful children by birth and adoption.

Owen has it all – just as it seemed he did, in an entirely different way back when he was still a soldier. And the same man who tried to take it all away – along with Owen’s life – back then has followed him to York to try again.

But this time Owen has hostages to fortune. It’s not just his own life on the line, but the lives of his wife, his children, his friends and his colleagues. He has a lot to live for, and a lot to fight for.

All he has to do is finally get the fox Reynard out of his fold of the city of York without losing anyone he holds dear along the way.

But the case is complicated – as nearly all of Owen’s cases are complicated – by the machinations of the high and mighty. Reynard may be acting on his own, determined to finally best the man he has both envied and hated for all these years.

Or he might be in the pay of someone determined to bring disaster on Owen and on the city of York for political reasons of their own. If Reynard has an influential patron, Owen’s case may be much, much harder to solve.

And possibly even more deadly, and with even more dire consequences than he ever imagined.

Escape Rating A-: Owen Archer is caught on the horns of multiple dilemmas when this story opens, and he barks up more than a few of the wrong trees before he finally realizes that not just all of the cases that confront him are one but that the instigator of those cases is not at all who he thought it was.

And his confusion and split attention does lead to a bit of the same on the part of the reader until Owen finally manages to focus his one eye on the true threat to his city and to everyone that he holds dear.

What makes the Owen Archer series so fascinating, at least to this reader, is the way that the mysteries he faces touch on both the big and the small. By big, I mean the roiling politics of his time, and by small, I mean the everyday crimes that are the bread and butter of all mystery stories.

This particular mystery at first looks small, a dead cart driver and a missing load of building stones. At first, the biggest part of the mystery seems to be where the stones might have gone. How, exactly does one “fence” or whatever the medieval term might have been, a load of building stones?

But, as with so many of Owen’s cases, the simple opening leads to some dark and twisty alleys – in the streets of York, in Owen’s past, and in the political upheaval yet to come.

King Edward III is going to die in less than a year, after 50 years of ruling England. His Prince of Wales has predeceased him, and his country is going to be left in the hands of a child who will rule (badly) as Richard II. As the old king falters, the jockeying for position on a regency council has already begun – and friends and advisors of the dying Edward are in danger of losing their places and perhaps even their lives in the coming storm.

Owen believes that King Edward’s former Chancellor has brought bad luck to York when he arrives in the midst of what seems to be a pilgrimage of atonement. And he has, but not in the way that Owen thinks. But Owen saw the man as a ‘bird of ill omen’ in A Choir of Crows and is reluctant to change his mind – especially as death has followed in the man’s wake yet again.

Instead, someone from Owen’s past has taken advantage of the visit to strike Owen down one more time. But this fox operates in the shadows, and Owen doesn’t sense the true nature of the threat for almost too long.

So, as with other entries in the series, this mystery begins small but unfolds large – while forcing Owen to look back at who he was and who he is. It gives him the chance to understand that what he once thought would break him was the making of him after all.

One of the things that I love about this entry in the series is the way that it both reflects back on earlier books in the series, particularly the first book, The Apothecary Rose, and the more recent A Choir of Crows while also casting a reflection on events in its period that reflect the present. If historical mystery is your thing, and you haven’t yet walked the streets of Owen Archer’s medieval York, I highly recommend starting this series from the beginning with The Apothecary Rose.

I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, whenever it may appear, because I expect it to cover an event that we’ve just experienced – in pomp and circumstance but diluted actual impact. In our own time, the Queen is dead, long live the King. In Owen’s time, the King will be dead, and the realm will be in for one hell of a mess.

Review: Till Sudden Death Do Us Part by Simon R. Green

Review: Till Sudden Death Do Us Part by Simon R. GreenTill Sudden Death Do Us Part (Ishmael Jones #7) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #7
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House on April 30, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads


A wedding. A murder. A 200-year-old curse: Ishmael Jones is plunged into a baffling investigation when he answers an old friend's call for help.

Although he hasn't seen Robert Bergin for 40 years, Ishmael feels duty bound to respond when his old friend calls for help. Robert's daughter Gillian is about to be married, and he is afraid she'll fall prey to the ancient family curse.
Arriving in rural Yorkshire, Ishmael and his partner Penny learn that the vicar who was to perform the ceremony has been found dead in the church, hanging from his own bell rope. With no clues, no evidence and no known motive, many locals believe the curse is responsible. Or is someone just using it as a smokescreen for murder? With the wedding due to take place the following day, Ishmael has just a few hours to uncover the truth.
But his investigations are hampered by sudden flashes of memory: memories of the time before he was human. What is it Ishmael's former self is trying to tell him ... ?

My Review:

I pulled this one from somewhere in the midst of the virtually towering TBR pile because I finished a book in one of this author’s other series for a Library Journal review and realized that I was still in the mood for his particular brand of snark and that I wasn’t caught up to Ishmael Jones yet.

So here we are. Or rather, there Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny Belcourt are, in another play on a country house ghost story. One in which the ghost may not be real, but there really is something out to get Ishmael, Penny, and whoever either invited them or whom they need to protect from something that has gone loudly, seriously and with malice very much aforethought bump in the night.

Ishmael’s been invited to a wedding in Bradenford, Yorkshire, a rural town he’s never been to before and hopes never to be again even before the mess of this case.

The thing about Ishmael – well, honestly there are a LOT of things about Ishmael, most of which Penny Belcourt knows (because they met on a case in their first adventure, The Dark Side of the Road). Ishmael and now Penny work for a mysterious organization rather coyly named The Organization because Ishmael needs something that clandestine to hide him from all the ubiquitous security devices and agencies that have cropped up all over the world since he crash-landed his UFO in 1963. And hasn’t aged a day since.

He looks human because his ship fixed that before it went defunct. But it didn’t do a perfect job. It’s not just the lack of aging, it also locked away all his memories of who and what he was before.

But this is a case that seems designed to bring back more of his past than he has any desire to meet. Both his past passing for human AND his past as an alien monster. He’s not even sure which reveal is going to be worse.

Still, he and Penny come to Bradenford because he owes an old colleague more than he can ever repay. Even if his attempt at that repayment is going to reveal at least some of the secrets he’s been keeping. Because it’s been 40 years since Ishmael and Robert Bergin have met. Bergin shows every single one of those years – while Ishmael displays precisely none.

But Bergin reluctantly recognizes that he’s not the man he used to be, while Ishmael still very much is. And that’s exactly who Bergin needs, a skilled operator used to dealing with all the terrible and secret things that no one wants to admit exist.

There’s a curse on the Bergin family and it has reached out from the past to grab his daughter and everyone involved with her wedding to an actor who probably isn’t nearly good enough for her.

But no one deserves to get sliced to pieces by some monster with fangs, claws and a 200-year-old vendetta.

It’s up to Ishmael and Penny to figure out whether there really is a curse – or just someone taking advantage of the old legends for grisly purposes of their own.

Escape Rating B: This turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. The author is very much an acquired taste – but one I acquired so long ago that when I get the craving nothing else will do.

What brings me back over and over is the snarkitude. Whoever the protagonist is in one of his series, they are all cut from the same snarky, wry, sarcastic cloth, thinking all the things we wish we’d thought at the time, making all the smart-assed observations – and still managing to get the dirty job done no matter who they piss off along the way.

Because there’s always someone – and usually multiples.

Part of what makes Ishmael Jones in particular so interesting are the built-in ironies of the whole setup. Ishmael is an alien investigating weird shit who doesn’t believe in demons, ghosts, spirits or any of the other psychic phenomena that the people he’s investigating are generally desperate to blame for whatever has gone wrong. He knows there’s weird shit out there, but he’s very much aware that there’s always a human agency behind it. Every once in a while, it’s a human agency he used to work for.

From Ishmael’s perspective, this is a story about his own past coming back to bite him. Both in the sense that he learns stuff he still didn’t want to know about his old friend Bergin and their mutual employer, but also because he’s feeling like his old identity is emerging from the shadows he’s kept it buried in for almost 60 years. He’s afraid of his own past and his inability to control it because Ishmael is the persona that Penny loves and he never wants to lose that.

But this is also a murder-mystery. Everyone in town wants it to be the old curse because no one wants to think there’s a brutal murderer roaming their peaceful little town. A mysterious curse brings tourists while a rampaging mundane murderer will drive everyone away. At least it ought to.

I have mixed feelings about the way the murders get solved. It could be interpreted as a bit of a cheap shot that got redeemed at the end with a clever twist. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

Howsomever, I enjoyed my journey with Ishmael and Penny, so I’ll be back to see how Ishmael’s reconciliation between his past and his present continues in Night Train to Murder the next time I have a taste for extreme snarkitude blended with murder.