Dear readers and friends, if there’s one quotation that ran through my mind this annus horribilis, it’s Fitzgerald’s, “It occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence, or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well” (The Great Gatsby). And we have lived it every single day since March, when the subtle rumbling of the covid avalanche came to our attention. Then, lockdown … and a strange, united elation of singing from balconies and applauding health care workers and a kind of strange peace for those of us staying home that took the form of bread-baking and staring out windows. And, what I thought would be “reading time”, despite WFH. It wasn’t. Not the reading time part: instead a length of days, lost, in dream and lethargy. Of the books I did read, few stood out. Here they are. Continue reading
I have come to the most recent “end” of Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series with a sigh of satisfaction and anticipation for the next book, underway but by no means on the pubbed radar. One reason I love this series is Spencer-Fleming’s ability to deliver the familiar with something fresh, new, and surprising. In Hid From Our Eyes, she continues Clare and Russ’s great love and now adorable parenthood, offers ample glimpses into the ensemble cast who surround them, but also introduces new characters, fleshes out beloved, well-known ones, advances, but barely, to my great chagrin, a secondary romance, and depicts three murders occurring in different time periods, 1952, 1972, and present-day. She links them by the murders’ similarity: a dead young woman is found on a Millers Kill roadway, the autopsy failing to establish cause of death, and three police chiefs, Harry Neil (1952), Jack Liddle (1972), and Russ Van Alstyne (present-day), committed, intelligent, ethical, try to find the murderers. (Spencer-Fleming lobs a gasp-worthy revelation when one of Jack’s 1972 suspects is a newly returned military vet, angry, wild, and oh-so-sad, barely out-of-his-teens Russ!) Continue reading
When you review the 15th installment of a beloved historical murder mystery series, your review is inevitably about where the volume fits in the series’s scale of goodness to weakness. Because I have no perspective when it comes to Harris’s Regency-England-set Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries, read no further if you haven’t read the series, just start reading it – from the beginning to the present volume.
In this 15th installment, Harris sees her nobleman-hero, Viscount Devlin, affectionately known as Seb for us in the series’s thrall, seek the murderers of a disgraced nobleman, Nicholas Hayes, youngest son of the deceased Earl of Seaforth. Years ago, Hayes was convicted of the murder of an exiled French aristocrat’s wife and, having stayed the noose, was sent to Botany Bay, an equally devastating, but protracted death sentence. Hayes’s return to London, with an Asian child, purported to be his son, shakes many privileged lives, not least of which is the present Earl, a distant cousin. But no sooner does the ton whisper speculation about Hayes’s return than he is found dead in Pennington’s Teas Gardens, with a sickle in his back. What brought Hayes back, though he would be captured and executed if caught by Bow Street? Was it revenge? Vindication? Continue reading
I loved Allison Montclair’s first Sparks and Bainbridge mystery, The Right Sort of Man, and anticipated the second. Is there anything better than a summer holiday, with only a modicum of work obligations, to enjoy an anticipated book?
A Royal Affair takes Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge out of their humble business start and into the highest echelons of royal matters, to the possible engagement of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Someone, however, doesn’t want this to take place. A blackmailer, with damning letters involving the prince’s mother, Princess Alice, and intrigues implicating Greek leftists (anti-monarchist, of course) and those who would restore Greece’s ersatz (sorry, my side is showing) royal family, who, where I come from, are neither royal, nor Greek. This lent a moue of disappointment reading the mystery novel, but it is strictly a personal one and I can still heartily recommend the series and this addition to it. To set the scene, Lady Matheson, Gwen’s cousin, arrives at London-based Right Sort Marriage Bureau with a task for Gwen and Iris: to search out the person, or persons, who seek to destroy the union between the handsome Greek prince and the future queen. Continue reading
I hoard C. S. Harris’s Regency-set St. Cyr mysteries like a squirrel her winter-nut-stash. But every time, when I have time off, I crack one open to enjoy without interruption. Given it’s a pandemic-summer and stay-home is still the best way to go, I’m happy to say I have TWO St. Cyrs to enjoy! Number fourteen sees Sebastian St. Cyr and wife Hero’s sleuthing hit close to home as Sebastian investigates the murder of his beloved niece’s husband, Lord Ashworth, dissipated, privileged, arrogant, and, as Sebastian suspects, a murderer and defiler of women and children. No one will mourn Ashworth, least of all his wife, Stephanie, who suffered at his hands, but his murder becomes personal when Stephanie is suspected. Like all of Harris’s St. Cyr mysteries, it’s a wild ride: a Russian delegation arrives in London to foil the Anglo-Dutch alliance sprung out of Napoléon’s dwindling/defunct powers. Russian and English nobles, London’s poor and destitute, one notch above-impoverishment servant class mix and mingle in Sebastian and wife’s, Hero’s, attempts to discover who killed the vicious Lord Ashworth. The narrative moves towards a confrontation between Sebastian, with his preternatural detecting powers, and evil. There is, in this volume, evil in Biblical proportions and Seb, more than ever, aware of human frailty, as the people he loves are caught in Ashworth’s depraved vortex. Continue reading
After Not the Girl You Marry‘s cynicism, it was refreshing to discover a cozy, well-written historical mystery with an engaging, likeable heroine, her “downstairs” sidekick, A CAT NAMED JACK (who saves the day), a Yorkshire setting (one of my favourite places in the world), and a Christie-esque closed-manor murder. Our heroine is nineteen-year-old Lady Cecilia Bates of Danby Hall; her mother, the Duchess, determined to save the crumbling manor and family’s waning finances by arranging a lucrative marriage for her son; the Duke, urbane and warm, sells off the family treasures, piece by piece, to keep staff, grounds, tenants, and family; the heir, Patrick, handsome, but distracted and solely focussed on his botanical experiments. When the novel opens, Danby Hall awaits the arrival of Miss Annabel Clarke, the swimming-in-money American bride-to-be, whose fortune will save Danby Hall in exchange for a Duchess’s title. Lady Avebury has rallied the staff and her family to welcome Annabel with balls, masquerades, garden parties, and picnics. To that end, she has invited neighbouring aristos, as well as interesting London-based guests, one of whom, Richard Hayes, famous explorer, expires of strychnine poisoning at the first grand dinner. The spoiled, mercurial heiress believes the poison was meant for her, but Lady Cecilia Bates and the heiress’s New-Jersey-born lady’s maid, Jane, with Jack’s help, are on the case.
I have droned on and on, to your great boredom, about how I love romance and how my second love is the mystery-romance-historical combo, like Deanna Raybourn, or Susanna Kearsley, C. S. Harris, Jennifer Ashley … *sobs* and the no-longer-writing-new-Renegades-of-the-Revolution Donna Thorland. Let’s face it, I love the hybrids as much as I love romance, so let’s let that second love thing die. Now, with Tessa Arlen’s first in A Woman of WWII series, I’m adding another much-anticipated series to the beloved list. Given the stay-at-home state of things, Arlen’s Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders made for the perfect comfort read: with a Christie-Foyle’s-War-inspired English village + eccentrics setting and intrepid, engaging, loveable heroine, the eponymous Poppy, a too-charming-for-his-and-Poppy’s-own-good American Army Air Force hero … and no less than a Midsommer Murders corps of village-body-count! While I toiled away at WFH and dabbed lipstick for Zoom meetings, I enjoyed, in the time-interstices, my reading of Poppy, her American hero, and their joint sleuthing. Continue reading
Oy, as if I need another historical mystery with romantic elements to follow, but this cross-genre is appealing to me … so, here I go again with Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford and Sloane Regency-set, slow-burn romance and mystery series. Add this to the pile with Harris’s St. Cyr, Raybourn’s Speedwell, and Ashley’s Holloway.
Murder At Kensington Palace is the series third and I’m sorry I didn’t read the first two. The present volume was so satisfying, however, that it made me an insta-fan and regretful not to have discovered it from the get-go. As with Harris, Raybourn, and Ashley, Penrose creates engaging, easy-to-love protagonists. Like Ashley especially, she fashions an irresistible band-of-sleuths ethos, with a circle of friends, servants, street-people and -children, Bow Street runners, an eagle-eyed, sharp-tongued aged aunt, aiding and abetting the primary protags, compelling, lovable characters in their own right. Wrexford and Sloane are Lord and Lady “statussed,” but their world goes way beyond the ton. Continue reading
Deanna Raybourn’s Victorian-set Veronica Speedwell mysteries are my second favourite historical mystery series with a delicious dose of tantalizing romance, the first being C. S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr Regency-set ones. I’ve extolled the virtues and joys of the latter on numerous occasions and you might well be sick of reading me doing so. I will here fan-squee for Raybourn’s.
A lepidopterist by trade, Veronica is a marriage-eschewing, proto-feminist, sharp-tongued beauty (I like to imagine her as a A-Place-In-the-Sun Elizabeth Taylor) who works with her piratically-handsome, former navy-surgeon, taxidermist sidekick, Stoker, aka “Revelstoke” (more True Blood Joe Manganiello than Pirates Orlando Bloom). Veronica and Stoker work together, from their home base, their friend’s Lord Rosemorran’s London estate, where their scientific expertise works to establish his museum; most of the time, they spar, banter, and smoulder at each other, all the while denying their slow-burn romance, undeniable attraction, and deep love for one another. Also, they unearth murderers. It’s a formula made to win me over. It did, from book one, A Curious Beginning, and does, with this, the fourth installment (#5 waits in the wings, thank you, Berkley!!!).
It’s too bad I started reading Allison Montclair’s The Right Sort of Man when I returned to work after the holidays because I wanted the luxury of inhaling it in hours instead of days. First, it came recommended by MissB’s reader, Barb, always spot-on; second, it held much tropish goodness: historical, check; mystery, check; women forging paths in post-war-England, check; engaging voice, check; witty, rapid-sharp dialogue, check; glimmers of love interests, check. And, I cannot say this enough: it’s moving without being lugubrious and the characters grow in believable, positive ways. (More than anything, my ugh with litfic is the latter. If you have any recs about this, they’d be welcome.)
Montclair creates a pair of female amateur sleuths who start a marriage bureau agency in post-WWII London. They’re an unlikely, contrapuntal pair whose professional relationship grows into a friendship. If you’re keen on romance tropes, they’re an opposites-attract version of female friendship. Montclair opens her novel, cleverly-like, with the victim, one Tillie LaSalle, seeking a match from Gwen Bainbridge and Iris Sparks’s Mayfair matchmaking establishment, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau. We soon realize Iris and Gwen are as unlike in personality as they are in height. Gwen is the willowy, still-grieving widow of would-have-inherited-a-title Ronald Bainbridge and mother to six-year-old Ronnie. Iris, on the other hand, a former ton-ish wild girl about town, did some secret service work during the war and has derring-do recklessness to Gwen’s methodical care. Continue reading