REVIEW: Allison Montclair’s A ROYAL AFFAIR (Sparks and Bainbridge #2)

Royal_AffairI 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

REVIEW/RESPONSE: C. S. Harris’s WHO SLAYS THE WICKED

Who_Slays_WickedI 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

REVIEW: Eliza Casey’s LADY TAKES THE CASE (Manor Cat Mystery #1)

Lady_Takes_CaseAfter 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.
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REVIEW: Tessa Arlen’s POPPY REDFERN AND THE MIDNIGHT MURDERS

Poppy_Redfern_Midnight_MurdersI 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

REVIEW: Andrea Penrose’s MURDER AT KENSINGTON PALACE

Murder_At_Kensington_PalaceOy, 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

MINI-REVIEW: Deanna Raybourn’s A DANGEROUS COLLABORATION

Dangerous_CollaborationDeanna 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!!!).
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MINI-REVIEW: Allison Montclair’s THE RIGHT SORT OF MAN

Right_Sort_ManIt’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

MINI-REVIEW: Laura Lippman’s LADY IN THE LAKE

Lady_In_the_LakeI wanted to read Laura Lippman’s Lady In the Lake after I heard an NPR interview with the author. Lippman was knowledgeable and personable about her city’s fractured history, the state of American politics and journalism, its ills and its profound necessity for examining the state of the nation and ensuring free, open democracy. Certainly, her standalone novel contains threads of these ideas. It is, however, unlike Lippman’s expansive personality and openness, a cramped book. The premise held promise: a recently separated late-thirties beauty, Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz (née Morgenstern) has left marriage and middle-class comfort behind to pursue a reporter’s beat. In 1966, there was a ceiling still so thick for women that not even Maddie’s sledgehammer beauty and persistence can break it. Living in one of Baltimore’s seedier neighbourhoods, Maddie pursues an affair with a black policeman, whose nightly visits, an inter-racial “romance” still illicit and dangerous to both, are vigorous and all-consuming. Maddie revels in her freedom for sex and solitude. There’s a mild regret at leaving her son Seth with his father. Seth proves a snivelling, whiny character and I never warmed to him. If at first Maddie’s pursuit of a journalistic career seems random and half-hearted, once she gets a clerical job at a local paper, she begins a relentless pursuit to find the killer of the “lady in the lake”, Cleo Sherwood, make her mark, and get a beat of her own.
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MINI-REVIEW: Dianne Freeman’s A LADY’S GUIDE TO GOSSIP AND MURDER

Lady's_Guide_Gossip_MurderThough I’m no fan of the new stylized covers, Freeman’s Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder WAS pink and I love pink as much as a murder mystery set in late Victorian times among the aristocratic and privileged. If only there’d been a murder at Downton … (well, there was, but it was in a hotel room). I thought Freeman’s plot convoluted, but I wanted to find another historical murder mystery series to follow, as if I didn’t already have quite a few.

Ah, the complicated plotting: young,  widowed, single mother, Lady Harleigh, American Frances Price by birth, aristocratic British by marriage of convenience, much like Lady Grantham, is our amateur sleuth. When the novel opens, we learn Frances has refused marriage to her charming neighbour and partner in sleuthing (does he work for the Home Office?), George Hazelton. Frances lives with Rose, her seven-year-old daughter; recently affianced sister, Lily; Aunt Hetty, and the comic-relief, klutzy, American heiress, Charlotte Deaver (left to Frances’s care by her globe-trotting, toy-boy-collecting mother). Frances has a lively social life, now she’s out of mourning, and a wide circle of friends, one of whom is Charles Evingdon, a harmless, handsome, air-headed aristocrat. Frances has tried to set Charles up with one of her friends, Mary Archer. Sadly, Mary is murdered and Charles is implicated. With George’s help, Frances extricates Charles from the police. However, as she, George, and their coterie of friends, including Charles, learn more about Mary Archer, things are curiouser and curiouser.    Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Jennifer Ashley’s DEATH IN KEW GARDENS

Death_Kew-GardensDeath In Kew Gardens, number three in Ashley’s Kat Holloway Below Stairs mysteries and, at least in its first half, the best one yet (I’d still recommend you read the first two, I loved’em). As you know, I don’t read mysteries for the “puzzle-mystery-solution”, or for the criminal’s motive or psychology, but the detecting main character and, in Ashley’s series’ case, her marvelous detecting team of “below stairs” maids, butlers, housekeepers, and mysterious policeman/detective/government agent Daniel McAdam (man of many roles and disguises) and his friends. Of all the mystery series I read, I love Ashley’s for her protagonists and friends, who help Kat Holloway, an inspired cook by profession, solve crimes and bring justice. Kat is talented, smart, beautiful, and kind. In Death In Kew Gardens, Kat’s kindness sets off the novel’s mystery. As Kat shops with her mercurial, temperamental, and hilarious cook’s assistant, Tess (I loved her!), she accidentally knocks over a passerby, Mr. Li, whom she then helps up. That night, Mr. Li knocks on the Rankin house kitchen door, where Kat cooks for the Bywaters and their niece and her friend, Lady Cynthia, and gifts Kat with a box of aromatic tea. Continue reading