A Marriage Bureau Mystery

The Right Sort of Man      Allison Montclair     (2019)

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In the wake of World War II, women who had taken on substantial roles in the war effort were often expected to walk away from stimulating, remunerative work to become housewives. Recently, a number of nonfiction titles, novels, and films have been exploring the ramifications of this cultural shift. For example, in the PBS series The Bletchley Circle a cast of brilliant (fictional) female codebreakers become freelance detectives, solving murders after the war. On this blog I’ve reviewed several novels treating the issue of women adjusting to wartime and to the post-war economy and society; see links at the end of this post.

In the novel The Right Sort of Man, Iris Sparks can’t reveal her wartime work because of Britain’s Official Secrets Act, but she clearly was a spy for the Allies. The story starts in 1946, and Iris reveals her chops through her contacts in high places, her sharp intellect, and her ability to wield a knife against an aggressor. She has met Gwen Bainbridge, a wealthy widow who was so devastated by the loss of her husband in the war that she was confined for several months to a mental institution and lost custody of her young son. Iris and Gwen decide to become partners in establishing a marriage bureau—Iris to have gainful employment as a single woman, and Gwen to reclaim her place in the world. The services they offer are in demand as Britons return to civilian life and seek the comforts of home and family.

Alas, after only a few months of operation, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau loses one of its female clients to murder, and a man whom the bureau has matched her with is charged with the crime. Iris and Gwen have vetted their clients thoroughly and are convinced that the wrong person has been arrested. To see justice done and save the reputation of their firm, they set out to find the real perpetrator. In the course of their investigation, they run into black market gangs finding ways around Britain’s strict war-related rationing laws, which were not fully phased out until 1954.

The action moves forward and the personalities develop primarily through dialogue, and that dialogue is quick-witted, reflecting Iris and Gwen’s intelligence and perceptiveness.  These two women have Sherlockian powers of observation and deduction as well as skills in subterfuge and in the discernment of the truthfulness of those they are interviewing. Some complex sub-plotting centers on Iris’s sex life, which is, to use Gwen’s descriptor, “adventurous.”

Who is the novelist? Allison Montclair is a pseudonym for an experienced fiction writer who’s venturing into the mystery genre with The Right Sort of Man. It’s a highly successful venture, capturing the immediate post-war period in London and unveiling the lives of two women who survived and thrived.

For other excellent fictional treatments of women’s roles in Britain in World War II and afterwards, see my reviews of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs mysteries (2003-present) and of Anthony Quinn’s Freya (2017). On the American side of the Atlantic, check out Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (2017), and for women in post-war Germany see Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle (2017).

Among My Faves: Mystery Series

Once I find a mystery series I like, I read every installment that’s published. The characters in the series become my friends, whom I want to check in on, whose life adventures I want to follow.

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I’ve profiled a number of these series already on this blog. In the medieval mystery sub-category, my favorite is Ellis Peters’s classic Brother Cadfael Series, centered on a monastery in 12th-century Shrewsbury, England. In 21 books published between 1977 and 1994, Peters developed the brilliant and compassionate character Cadfael, with excellent historic authenticity.

Among authors of contemporary mystery series, Alexander McCall Smith stands in a category of prolificacy all his own. I’ve reviewed his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series, set in Botswana (1998-present) and his Isabel Dalhousie Series, set in Edinburgh (2004-present).  Both series feature female detectives who investigate primarily non-violent crimes. These novels are definitely not thrillers!

Other mystery series that I’ve reviewed in the past are listed at the end of this post. Here are some new reviews:

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The Marco Didius Falco Mystery Series and the sequel Flavia Albia Mystery Series by Lindsey Davis (1989-present). 

Falco is a private investigator of thoroughly modern sensibilities who lives in the first-century Roman Empire. By the time he retires after 20 books, his adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, is ready to move into detective work. Many of the novels in these two series take place up and down the seven hills of Rome, but the remarkable mobility of Roman citizens allows the author to set a number of the tales in far-flung provinces of the empire.

Early on, the plebian Falco acquires a patrician girlfriend, Helena Justina, the daughter of a Roman senator. Falco also has an old Army buddy, Lucius Petronius Longus, and a large extended family who figure prominently. The books are best read in sequence, so that you can keep track of the interpersonal relationships that evolve over several decades. Start with Silver Pigs (also published as The Silver Pigs).

The stories are complex, fast-paced, satirical, and outrageously funny. I love how the characters curse, as in this bit from The Third Nero (2017): “Perella exploded with exasperation. ‘Venus and her golden girdle! I can’t leave them alone for a moment without the idle barmpots getting in a twist.’” And I love how Davis portrays the Roman bureaucracy that Falco has to wade through as he takes on assignments from various emperors. People wonder how the Roman Empire can be managed so successfully. As any scribe would tell you, this is how. Emperors may come and go, bringing more or less chaos, but the bureaucrats keep the wheels turning.”

If you know a little Latin and a little Roman history, you’ll catch a few more of the jokes, but you definitely don’t need a degree in classics to appreciate this series. If you’re familiar with I, Claudius (the 1934 novel by Robert Graves adapted into a 1976 BBC television series), you’ll recognize Davis’s flagrantly anachronistic technique of transposing modern British social constructs to the ancient world.

I grab every one of these books the minute they hit the library shelves.

The Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Series by Julia Spencer-Fleming (2002-2013, possibly ongoing)

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For several years now, fans of Julia Spencer-Fleming have been waiting breathlessly for the next installment in this contemporary mystery series, set in upstate New York.

The character Clare Fergusson served as a combat helicopter pilot in the Army but finds her true vocation as an Episcopal priest. Russ Van Alstyne is the police chief in the small town in which Clare arrives to minister to a faltering congregation. Clare is in bad shape emotionally from her military service; Russ, who is also a veteran, has his own demons. The electricity between these two is crackling from their very first meeting. And did I mention that Russ is married?

I confess that the crimes that occur in the Clare/Russ Series are not the main attraction for me. There are violent scenes that I have to glide past, particularly when they involve fresh human blood on snow banks. I’ve read this series primarily for the interactions of Clare and Russ and for the Episcopal humor. I laughed out loud when Russ came to discuss a case privately with Clare late one spring evening and was shocked to find the church filled with worshipers attending an Easter Vigil service. The non-believer Russ has to learn a lot about Christian customs and has to accept that Clare is going to intervene in his murder cases when she feels a moral obligation to do so. Clare, who is a Southerner, has to get used to both the snowbound winters and hidebound mindsets of rural New York State.

Spencer-Fleming uses dialogue extensively in building her characters, and the dialogue in the Clare/Russ Series is snappy and authentic. The setting is depicted generously and with elegant detail, helping readers feel the biting cold winds of a blizzard, the treacherous slippage of tires on ice-slicked roads. Indeed, the first novel in the series is In the Bleak Midwinter, taking its title from a Christmas carol. Subsequent books are also titled with lines from various hymns, all beloved by Episcopalians.

Be sure to read the eight novels in the series in order, and maybe send Spencer-Fleming a Facebook message, encouraging her to get going on the ninth installment.

& & & & &

My reviews of medieval mystery series:

My reviews of other historical mysteries set in Britain:

My reviews of contemporary mystery series:

My reviews of standalone mystery novels are too numerous to list, but you can click on “Mysteries” in the right-hand column to scroll through them all.

More Than a Mystery

The Other Americans     Laila Lalami     (2019)

Exactly who are “the other Americans” in Laila Lalami’s novel of that title? She introduces multiple narrators, each of whom could be categorized as “other.”

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  • Driss, a Moroccan immigrant who runs a diner, is a ghostly presence in many ways. On the first page he dies in a late-night hit-and-run accident, yet we get his back story piecemeal in chapters throughout the book.

  • Efraín, a Mexican doing landscaping in this California desert town, witnesses the accident but is afraid to come forward because of his undocumented status. We follow his crisis of conscience over many weeks.

  • Anderson, a prime suspect in the accident case, is an elderly white guy who runs the bowling alley next door to Driss’s diner. He sees himself as ostracized in a corporatized and increasingly diverse society.

  • Nora, Driss’s adult daughter, is convinced that her father was not killed accidentally but murdered, and she pushes the police to dig deeper into the evidence. As a musician, she finds some acceptance in the jazz community, despite her brown skin.

  • Coleman, an African American police detective, is assigned to the accident case. She’s smart and savvy, but she struggles at home in raising her teen stepson.

  • Jeremy, another police officer, is a veteran of the Iraq War who clearly suffers from PTSD. Early in the novel he becomes Nora’s boyfriend, and their relationship anchors a significant sub-plot.

The list of characters goes on, and Lalami integrates the disparate narrative perspectives smoothly as she disentangles the mystery of Driss’s death. All her characters (even Anderson in his way) are outsiders, with personal histories that define them in opposition to the people around them. A sense of otherness can arise from many sources, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender, immigration status, woundedness, or occupation.

Although the ensemble cast of The Other Americans is very large, the characters are fully fleshed out, with distinct voices. I really wanted Lalami to broaden each of their stories, although I know that this would have cluttered the novel and distracted from the main plot. She does provide a brief and tantalizing wrapup of the hit-and-run accident, several years out, from Nora’s point of view.

I got to know these Americans; I sympathized with many of them and wished them well. Good novels do that to a reader.

Two Breezy Beach Reads

For your summer reading pleasure, here are two novels set adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean.

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A Hundred Summers     Beatriz Williams     (2013)

Beatriz Williams spins an old-school romance with the more explicit sex scenes of contemporary literature and comes up with a frothy confection of a chick-lit novel.

The story is set in Depression-era America, with chapters alternating between 1931 and 1938. In 1931, the sensible and lovely Lily Dane (student at Smith) meets the smart and handsome Nick Greenwald (student at Dartmouth) at a college football game. Although Nick gets his leg broken in that game, the two fall in love. Alas, the impediment to their lifelong happiness seems to be that Nick’s father is Jewish.

In the summer of 1938, the characters reunite at the fictional Seaview, Rhode Island, an oceanside retreat for the privileged few who are relatively unaffected by the 1929 economic crash. Lily’s best friend, the fashionable and reckless Budgie Byrne, is now married to Nick, while Lily is single, serving as a kind of nanny to her six-year-old sister, Kiki. Graham Pendleton, once a lover of Budgie’s, pursues Lily, who still pines for Nick.

Conundrums swirl. Why in the world would Nick have married Budgie, when they’re obviously unsuited to each other? Is Kiki really Lily’s sister or is she Lily and Nick’s love child? What’s going on with the Greenwald family business? What does Lily’s wacky and yet wise Aunt Julie know? How can these people drink so much alcohol and still stand on two feet? It all comes together with hurricane force in the final chapters, and an epilogue takes the story out to 1944.

Williams’ dialogue is sprightly and her plot moves right along, so even if you find that the characters verge on the stereotypical, I think you’ll enjoy this novel as you lounge on the sand under a summer sun. 

A Dangerous Collaboration     Deanna Raybourn     (2019)

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If your beach-read tastes lean more toward classic mysteries, this fourth installment in the Veronica Speedwell Series might serve. I dipped into A Dangerous Collaboration without having read the previous novels, and I figured out the background pretty quickly.

Veronica is a lepidopterist and sleuth who is shockingly independent and sexually liberated for the year 1888 in Britain. Stoker Templeton-Vane plays opposite her as her love interest and partner in detection. He’s a trained physician, which comes in handy, and a hunk who would not be out of place in a bodice-ripper romance. Veronica and Stoker stoke up their unconsummated attraction to each other with slick banter as they try to unravel the mysterious disappearance of a bride on an island off the Cornish coast.

Much of the plot is typical of English house-party murder mysteries, with Gothic elements impishly pointed out by the author’s choice of a character name invoking Bram Stoker, author of the 1897 Dracula. You’ll encounter a castle with secret tunnels and hidey holes galore, a garden of poisonous plants, a spooky séance, and an array of suspects that includes family members, household staff, and local villagers. The denouement is suitably sensational and watery, though the reader is pretty sure that Veronica and Stoker will survive and solve the mystery.

And there are even fictional rare butterflies!

Happy surfing!

 

A Riverside Mystery

Once upon a River     Diane Setterfield     (2018)

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The river of the title is the Thames, meandering its way through southern England toward London and the sea. It’s a waterway freighted with history, mystery, and folklore. Diane Setterfield calls upon all these qualities of the Thames in this mystical, magical novel.

On a blustery night at the winter solstice, in an unnamed year in the nineteenth century, some inveterate storytellers are drinking at an inn called The Swan in a town called Radcot (an actual place in West Oxfordshire). Bursting in at the door comes a badly injured man carrying what seems to be a floppy doll. The man turns out to be a photographer whose boat crashed at a weir upstream. The doll turns out to be a young girl, about four years of age, who is at first thought to be dead but then revives at the hands of the local nurse/midwife, who is called to the scene.

The basis of the book is revealed in the first few chapters, but the unraveling of the tale takes 400 more pages. Who is the little girl? She does not speak, so she cannot reveal any information. Does she belong to the photographer? Is she the daughter of a local landowner—a child kidnapped two years previously and never found? Is she the sister of the parson’s housekeeper, a fearful woman with many reasons to be twitchy? Is she the step-granddaughter of a mixed-race farmer who lives nearby?   

The narrative snakes back and forth among these possibilities, much like the flow of the River Thames, with language that evokes folk legend or fairy tale, though grounded in daily life. In keeping with this tone, the characters are drawn with broad strokes. The farmer is a most upright and kindly man; the nurse is highly skilled and compassionate. As foils, the evil characters at the fringes of the novel are truly nasty. For example, the farmer’s stepson is unrepentant as he pursues various unethical and criminal activities in the face of unrelenting kindness from the farmer.    

Novelist Setterfield keeps coming back to those storytelling tipplers at The Swan. Their speculations about the strange little girl, and their embroideries upon the events of that winter solstice night, are like the Facebook posts of their era. As a year of seasons advances, most of the plot and sub-plot components are ultimately resolved, but readers are left with some of the same uncertainties that the storytellers at the inn have.  

It’s a cracking good tale.

Cozy Mysteries in Maine

The Mainely Needlepoint Mysteries     Lea Wait    (2015-present)

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I’ve recently dipped into this popular American cozy mystery series. In the initial book, Twisted Threads, we learn that the first-person narrator, Angie Curtis, was raised in Maine by her grandmother (“Gram”) after the disappearance of Angie’s mother. When the mother’s body is found after 17 years, 27-year-old Angie heads back to Maine from Arizona, where she’s been working as an assistant to a private detective. Angie’s skills come in handy with the investigation into her mother’s death and other mysteries in the small Maine tourist town of Haven Harbor. After these are solved, Angie agrees to stay on for six months to help Gram run her home-based business, Mainely Needlepoint, which produces high-end custom pillows, chair covers, and wall hangings.

Of course, in subsequent books in the series, other crimes in Haven Harbor bubble to the surface for Angie to tackle. She finds herself pretty happy to be back in Maine with her delightful Gram, the eccentric cast of needle crafters who work for Mainely Needlepoint, and potential romantic partners.

The dialogue in these novels is realistic, and the plots move quickly, resolving in the final few pages, though I did detect signs of haste in the writing. The setting on the coast of Maine comes to life with descriptions of ocean views and luscious seafood. I guessed some of the perpetrators of crimes early on, but I liked learning more about Angie as she weighs whether to stay on in her native Maine or return to the sunny Southwest.

You can read the books in any order, but chronologically works best. The series titles are

Twisted Threads (2015)

Threads of Evidence (2015)

Thread and Gone (2015)

Dangling by a Thread (2016)

Tightening the Threads (2017)

Thread the Halls (2017)

Thread Herrings (2018)

Thread on Arrival (2019)

For other cozy mysteries, see my reviews of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels (also here).

Graham Norton’s Holding is another great cozy, reviewed here.

An Asian American Family

Everything I Never Told You     Celeste Ng     (2014) 

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Celeste Ng’s 2018 novel, Little Fires Everywhere, made my list of the best of that year. I checked out Ng’s 2014 offering, Everything I Never Told You, to get more of her deep probing of complex family issues, and I was not disappointed.  

The first words of Everything I Never Told You are “Lydia is dead,” so it’s no spoiler for me to tell you that the death of sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee is the central mystery of the novel, which is set primarily in 1977 in a small college town in northwestern Ohio. The narrative line zigs and zags, back and forth in time, tracing the lead-up to the death of Lydia and, in the process, uncovering the backgrounds and personalities of the other members of her immediate family.  

Lydia’s father, James Lee, is a professor of history at the local college. The Chinese American James has struggled against bigotry throughout his life, and the ante is upped when he marries Marilyn, an undergraduate he meets in 1957 when he’s a graduate student at Harvard. Marilyn, with her honey-colored hair and blue eyes, has battled discrimination and bullying as a woman trying to make a career in science. Her plans to become a physician are scuttled when she gets pregnant, marries James, and drops out of Radcliffe. As a bored stay-at-home mother, she finds a focus for her considerable intellect in grooming daughter Lydia for medical school, even though Lydia doesn’t have the interest or ability that Marilyn assumes. Lydia’s older brother, Nath, is pretty much ignored by the family as he quietly applies to and is accepted by Harvard to pursue his passion for aeronautics. And Lydia’s younger sister, Hannah, hiding under tables and around corners, observes much but is dismissed as irrelevant by the rest of the family.

As the title of the novel lays out clearly, the Lee family members don’t open their hearts to each other. James pushes his biracial children toward conformity, wanting them to fit in even though they look different from everyone else in town. (“. . . different has always been a brand on his forehead, blazoned there between the eyes. It has tinted his entire life, this word; it has left its smudgy fingerprints on everything.” [251]) Marilyn is mostly able to hide her anguish about her abandoned career, but at a high price. Lydia’s siblings do what they can to support each other, but Nath in particular longs to escape the backwater where he was raised. Novelist Ng takes readers behind the scenes, reconstructing the months leading up to Lydia’s death as well as the months afterwards. The Lees are all stupefied by their grief, but each family member’s reaction to Lydia’s death is unique. The inability of the Lee family to discuss racism and sex discrimination is a microcosm of society’s struggles on these topics. 

When I finished reading Everything I Never Told You, I wanted to hug James and Marilyn and Nath and Hannah and tell them that they are good people who will survive the tragedy of losing Lydia. I wanted to gently encourage them to talk to each other more. I wanted to know how the rest of their lives played out. Obviously, these fictional characters came fully alive for me, testifying to the skill of Celeste Ng. Her intimate family story is sad and poignant and yet glimmering with hope.

Two Medieval Mysteries

The Western Wind     Samantha Harvey      (2018) 

The first-person narrator of this mystery novel is a parish priest, John Reve, in an isolated English village in the year 1491. Novelist Samantha Harvey recreates the late medieval scene accurately, going against some conventional assumptions about priests, religious beliefs, and intelligence in the Middle Ages. John Reve is a smart and well-read fellow who gently corrects his parishioners’ superstitions. Readers are immediately pulled into the story of how Tom Newman, the wealthiest man in town, may have died and what Reve is going to do about the death.  

The story starts out on Shrove Tuesday, the celebratory day before the forty days of the Christian penitential season of Lent. If the tale seems cryptic at first, that’s because the rest of the novel works backwards, day by day, with Reve’s account of each day filling in more of the details of what really happened to Newman on the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday. Clever markers in the surroundings are reminders of the timeline—food noted as being left over on Tuesday is being prepared on the previous days, for example. And we step back to view the European zeitgeist at a time right on the cusp of the Reformation. In a memory of a conversation with Newman, Reve recounts how Newman pronounced a Protestant view of the primacy of the individual soul, without the need for priestly intervention with God: “I can put my case to God and he can forgive me or not, and he can punish me or not. I’m not sure he needs you to arbitrate.” (175) 

The prose throughout is simple yet elegant: 

  • “The vacant happiness of eating filled me; the meat was tastier than any lifetime of bread. One mouthful of it scythed a whole field of summer wheat to stalk and husk.” (89) 

  • “It was a warm afternoon. The church was mellow and dusty, it had its summer smell of ponds and peaches.” (175) 

As you can tell from my many blog posts about novels set in the Middle Ages, I’m a big fan, but I think that anyone who loves historical novels—especially mysteries—would find The Western Wind highly satisfying.

The Last Hours     Minette Walters     (2018)

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My family expressed cynicism upon seeing the cover of this novel: “Really? A book about the Black Death? Isn’t the daily news depressing enough?” Although I was also skeptical, this book presented an appealing plague scenario: In the absence of her husband, the wise lady of a Dorsetshire manor orders all her serfs into the manor enclosure, shuts the doors, and has the bridge over the moat burned. Of course, there are echoes of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which a group of aristocrats sought to avoid the Black Death by holing up in a villa outside Florence, telling 100 stories to pass the time. The Last Hour is one story, not 100, but there’s that same reader’s itch to find out if the isolation gambit works. And Walters throws in a murder mystery to boot.

Like The Western Wind, reviewed above, The Last Hours offers characters who are literate and savvy—some might say they’re anachronistic in their questioning of divine retribution as a cause for the Black Death. They guess that rats might be involved instead. The portrayals of daily living and survival techniques in 1348 are well crafted if long-winded, especially in the middle third of the novel. Readers are not spared any of the squalor or cruelty of the era. I was quite let down to find on page 537 that the story is “to be continued.” So I’ll have to look for the sequel to The Last Hours to find out the fates of those Dorsetshire serfs.

For my full essay on the sub-genre of medieval mysteries, click here.                                  

A Metafictional Mystery

The Word Is Murder     Anthony Horowitz     (2018)

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Not many writers would undertake a metafictional mystery novel, and far fewer writers would be able to write a successful one. Anthony Horowitz has nailed the whole metafictional mystery bit with The Word Is Murder. So how does he do it? And what is metafiction anyway?

I think of metafiction as a kind of second narrative going on in a piece of fiction, so that the reader has one foot in the fiction and one in the real world. Metafiction draws attention in some way to the artificial construct of a literary work. In The Word Is Murder, the fictional first-person narrator is a fellow named Anthony Horowitz, who is remarkably similar to the real-life author Anthony Horowitz. The real-life Anthony has written a trove of mysteries for the BBC (including the exceptionally fine series Foyle's War), as well as the  popular Alex Rider series of young-adult books and several standalone mystery novels (see my review of Magpie Murders). The fictional Anthony has these very same writing credentials. Exactly how much the fictional Anthony resembles the actual Anthony in personality is something readers really can't know, but I get the feeling that there is considerable personality overlap between the two Anthonys.

When you launch into The Word Is Murder, you aren't quite convinced that you're reading fiction, even though you plucked the book from a fiction shelf at your library. Fictional Anthony is telling you about a murder case in present-day London, against a backdrop of his current writing projects, which you know to be writing projects of the actual Anthony. When fictional Anthony introduces you to a rumpled and idiosyncratic freelance detective named Daniel Hawthorne, you're not sure if Hawthorne is actual, fictional, or a doppelgänger of some kind. In fact, all the characters might be real or might not be. But the murder case is gripping.

Diana Cowper is a wealthy London widow, mother of the Hollywood actor Damian Cowper. One spring morning she visits a funeral home to pre-arrange her own funeral. This act is not too unusual; many people choose to spare their families the choices and expense of such arrangements. What is unusual is that Diana is murdered in her home later that same day. The London police detective assigned to the case doesn't think that the two events are connected, but another police official hires Hawthorne to poke around nonetheless. Hawthorne is Sherlockian in his deductive powers and experienced in murder cases from his days in the police force. (He was fired, but that's another story.) Hawthorne persuades the fictional Anthony to accompany him on his investigation, so that fictional Anthony can write a nonfiction "true crime" book about the case.

Aside from all the metafictional shenanigans, the mystery itself presents many avenues for inquiry by the detectives. Ten years before her own death, Diana was the driver in a tragic auto accident that killed one child and severely disabled another. Might their family want revenge? Diana’s son, Damian, is a fast-living and egotistical fellow who stands to inherit her estate. Diana has been involved in what may be questionable business investments. Her housekeeper, who discovers her body, seems less than truthful. The red herrings keep multiplying, in a way that keeps you gobbling up those pages. A warning to sensitive readers (like me): There’s one violent scene toward the end of the book, but you can sense it coming and skim over it.

Horowitz has written a tour de force in both the metafictional and mystery arenas. I read The Word Is Murder on a long train journey, and it was a good thing that my destination was the last stop, because I would have missed it otherwise!

PS—For some non-mystery metafiction, see my review of The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies.

Michigan Mysteries

Summer People     Aaron Stander     (2000)

Color Tour     Aaron Stander     (2006)

And seven additional titles 

The sand dunes, the sunsets, the resiny scent of pine forests: Michiganders will recognize the setting of Aaron Stander’s series of murder mysteries set in the northwest section of the Lower Peninsula, around the tip of the little finger of the hand, along the shores of Lake Michigan.

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The main detective in these novels is Sheriff Ray Elkins, a rumpled middle-aged former professor of criminal justice from downstate who has retreated to the North Woods where he was raised. He’s surrounded by a distinctive cast of year-round residents, who disdain the vacationers renting beach houses during the glorious warm months.  

In the series debut, Summer People, Elkins suspects links between a murder and three subsequent unusual deaths. Stander’s plot is nicely complex, and his characters come to life quickly and believably. The Lake Michigan images are spot on: “Ray paused at the door, looked out at the lake. He could make out the silhouette of a distant ore carrier steaming north to the Straits. From that height he could see the earth’s curve across the horizon and the long line of waves moving toward shore—there was a sense of rhythm and harmony in the scene.” (70) 

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In the next novel, Color Tour, it’s autumn in the Mitten State, the summer people have departed, and an elderly resident discovers a young man and woman murdered on a Lake Michigan beach. Since the dead woman was a teacher at a nearby private school, Sheriff Elkins must painstakingly interview a large number of suspects. As the investigation progresses, evidence seems to point to one character, then another and another, in an entertainingly indirect way. Though I did guess the surprise of the subplot early on, the murderer was a mystery to me until the end. 

The many state references will tickle those who, like me, love our nation’s third (Great Lakes) coast. Small Michigan details drop in on almost every page, as in this description of a minor character in Summer People: “A string tie hung on his chest: A Petoskey stone cut in the shape of the Michigan mitten was centered on the two strands of the tie.” (144) And the folks Up North do appreciate delicacies from other parts of the state. For instance, in Color Tour, a detective is sent south to check out some evidence with the words, “’If you have time on your way out of Ann Arbor, here’s a few things I need from Zingerman’s Deli.’” (152)  

I’m sad to report, however, that these two novels desperately needed a copy editor and a proofreader to catch typos, wrong words, awkward phrasings, and inconsistencies, which distract from otherwise competent writing. I still plan to read more in the Sheriff Ray Elkins series, the seven additional titles of which are 

Deer Season (2009)

Shelf Ice (2010)

Medieval Murders (2011)

Cruelest Month (2012)

Death in a Summer Colony (2013)

Murder in the Merlot (2015)

Gales of November (2016)

Adventures in 1956 Italy

The Italian Party     Christina Lynch     (2018)

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Welcome to Siena, Italy, in the year 1956, when the Italians have regrouped after the destruction and privations of World War II. Rolling into this magnificent Tuscan city are the newlywed Americans Michael and Scottie Messina, in a brand new Ford Fairlane. (Good Lord, how much it must have cost to ship that behemoth for them!) Michael has a job selling Ford tractors to Italian farmers, whom he must convert from their traditional agrarian practices. Scottie will be the model housewife, supporting him.

Italy is a major character here, as Scottie meets the locals and comes to adore the small shops, the camaraderie, and even the gossip. “Everything about it fascinated her—the way food was revered, treasured rather than seen as an inconvenience to be packaged in a way that made it as easy as possible to prepare and consume. Nothing in Italy was ‘instant’ or ‘new and improved.’” (86) An excellent aural learner, Scottie quickly learns to speak Italian. “Here in Italy she felt like a different person altogether—more expressive, more curious, more open.” (58)

Michael, on the other hand, sees Italy as backward, greatly in need of an infusion of American-style mechanization and democracy. And he has a view of his new wife that was common in the 1950s: "She had no mission other than to keep house for him. He envied her naïveté, her unsullied innocence, her lack of secrets. She was the American ideal he was sent there to promote. She was like Dale Evans, he thought: a beautiful, pure, faithful, true cowgirl. She was the only one not there with an ulterior motive.” (55)

Well, not so much. Little by little, the sunny picture darkens as we learn that many secrets lie beneath the surface of this marriage and of this sojourn in Italy. I won’t spoil the revelations for you, but you can know that treacherous international espionage is involved. Still, the sun shines a lot in Siena, and novelist Christina Lynch keeps us bubbling along with glorious meals of pasta and prosciutto and panini and Prosecco. As one character tells Michael, “‘The world is your oyster, my boy. You should suck it down in one gulp and be happy. A beautiful wife, a good job, and an Italian assignment . . . Life here is a party. Join the fun.’” (265)

Yes, this is an Italian party. The title of the novel is certainly referring to the glamorous lifestyle that Scottie and Michael can afford to live in Italy. But it also refers to the political parties that the plot revolves around, and even to the representation of Italy globally. Lynch sets up the view of American exceptionalism that dominated the Cold War era, and then she pokes at its underpinnings, especially through Scottie’s love of Italy. Yet even Scottie relies on a multitude of American beauty products to put together her stunning appearance. In a scene describing Scottie’s daily beauty routine, Lynch itemizes Helene Curtis Spray Net, Lady Gillette razors, Peggy Sage Spice Pink nail polish, Revlon Creamy Ivory liquid foundation, Michel flesh-colored powder, Max Factor eye shadow, Maybelline mascara, Coty Dahlia Pink creamy lipstick, Joy by Jean Patou eau de toilette, Taylor-Woods fifty-four-gauge stockings, and Warner’s garters. (182-3)

The Italian Party is as effervescent and rosy as the Campari-and-soda drinks that the characters order constantly in streetside cafés. The tone is similar to that of A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, another frothy confection with seriousness underlying its brisk plot. I highly recommend both novels.

Mysteries from 3 Countries

In this post are reviews of mysteries from Iceland, the United States, and England, offering quite distinctive approaches to the genre. For even more reviews of mystery novels, go to the Archive in the right-hand column and click the “Mystery” category.

The Shadow District     Arnaldur Indriðason     (2017)    

Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

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I haven’t read a Scandinavian noir since I raced through all three volumes of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc) a decade ago. Those novels were terrifying for me, but I kept turning the pages. Although Indriðason’s The Shadow District is billed on the cover as a thriller, it’s not scary—or even fast-paced—but it’s a serviceable mystery that I would class loosely as a police procedural.

The novel toggles between present-day Reykjavik and the same city during World War II, when Iceland was occupied by British and American troops. In the present day, a 90-year-old man is found dead in his apartment. Looking for a motive for the murder of this seemingly innocuous elderly person, retired police detective Konrad reopens an investigation into the unsolved murder of a young woman that took place in 1944 in the titular Shadow District. Readers follow the path of the investigators in 1944, but Konrad has to uncover the details painstakingly, because records of this unsolved case have (surprise!) disappeared. One thread of inquiry involves the huldufólk, the elves of Icelandic folklore. As a character explains, stories about the huldufólk “can reveal a great deal about people’s attitudes over the centuries, whether it’s their fear of the unknown or their desire for a better life or dreams of a better world. They can tell us so much directly and indirectly about life in the past.” (207-08) If you want to join the stampede for Scandinavian crime stories but shudder at the usual gore, this Icelandic offering may fill the bill. Note that the translation uses British English, so there are a few idiomatic phrases that may puzzle American readers. And the English-language edition of this book spells the author's surname "Indridason" when in fact the Icelandic spelling is "Indriðason." There's quite a difference, since "ð" is pronounced as "th."

The Last Place You Look     Kristen Lepionka     (2017)

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Now, this novel is truly scary, so I had to skim cautiously over several sections in which the tension built. But it’s well written, and I wanted to read to the end to discover the murderer.

Private detective Roxane Weary is the thirty-something daughter of a recently slain Columbus police officer. She had a conflicted relationship with her father, but she’s devastated by his death and has turned to whiskey for solace. Meanwhile, in an Ohio prison, inmate Brad Stockton has exhausted his appeals and is slated for execution. Brad’s sister, Danielle, hires Roxane to see if there’s anything that can be done to save him. Danielle swears that she has caught sight of Sarah Cook, the daughter of the couple that Brad was convicted of murdering decades ago. Sarah disappeared and is presumed dead also. The case gets exceedingly complex and dangerous as Roxane delves into it, drawing plot elements from actual cases that I’ve seen in the news over the past few years.

I found the first-person narration of The Last Place You Look engaging, revealing Roxane as a hard-nosed yet caring Sam-Spade-like detective. Her sexual liaisons with both men and women are treated matter-of-factly, not as aberrations. Lepionka’s characters have substance, and her plot is cleverly orchestrated.  

Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales     PD James     (2017)    

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Renowned British mystery writer PD James died in 2014 at the age of 94, so be warned that this small collection of her stories is not new work. Instead, gathered in a slim volume are six stories that first appeared in print between 1973 and 2006. These are classic James mysteries, very much in the tradition of the Golden Age mysteries that James transformed with a signature wit and careful writing throughout her career. Four of the six stories are told in first-person narrative, and the reader should be wary of assuming that sympathy with the narrator is warranted.

Take this PD James collection along on your next vacation, for engaging reading in the airport or train station. If you want more about the writing methods of PD James, see my review of her 2009 nonfiction book, Talking About Detective Fiction.

A Mystery in Cornwall

The Lake House     Kate Morton     (2015)

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Really, nothing’s new in the fiction game. A few basic plots (the journey, the quest, the betrayal, the discovery) pretty much cover it, plus characters, settings, and episodes from one century or another. A writer of fiction assembles these pieces, using language as the glue and the paint. The artistry lies in wise choices of plot and characters and settings and episodes and language. Chaucer knew this in the 14th century when he reworked old stories and stock types into the magic of The Canterbury Tales, giving life to his pilgrim characters with a most sophisticated form of English. I’m not talking about plagiarism here but rather careful selection and artful re-crafting.

In The Lake House, Kate Morton selects

  • a little of the actual Lindbergh kidnapping case of 1932
  • a smidgen of the character of author Agatha Christie
  • pointers from 1930s Golden Age British mysteries
  • a bit of the fictional 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the 1950s Chronicles of Narnia
  • a distillation of several contemporary fictional female British detectives.

Morton sets all these pieces in the fabulous landscapes of Cornwall and populates her family-saga-cum-mystery with deftly drawn individuals. The passages that describe the natural world in Cornwall and that build the personalities of the protagonists are particularly strong. The novel toggles back and forth between 1933 and 2003, with occasional forays into World War II and the years just before World War I. The time switching can become dizzying, but it allows for plenty of family backstory and for the integration of two distinct plots.

The book is long—at 492 pages, perhaps overly long—and complex. In 1933, during an elaborate lawn party on Midsummer Eve at an estate called Loeanneth in Cornwall, the infant son of wealthy Anthony and Eleanor Edevane, Theo, disappears from his nursery in the night. The boy is never found, either alive or dead, and the grieving family moves to London, abandoning the estate. Skipping ahead to London in 2003, police detective Sadie Sparrow is put on an enforced leave for leaking information about an unrelated case of a mother apparently deserting her young daughter. Sadie decamps to her grandfather’s retirement cottage in (wait for it) Cornwall, where she becomes intrigued by the 70-year-old cold case of Theo Edevane. A key witness from that night in 1933 is Alice Edevane, older sister of Theo, who, at age 86, is the doyenne of the police procedural novel in 2003 London.

Morton throws in innumerable flashbacks, including Sadie’s teenage rebellions, Anthony’s experiences in World War I, Eleanor’s upbringing, the genesis of Alice’s writing career, and even the background of Peter, personal assistant to the aged Alice. Although there are no explicit sex scenes, several romances are included, as well as many, many secrets. The tendency of the Edevanes to keep secrets allows for multiple red herrings in the mystery plotting. I’ve read an awful lot of mysteries, so I guessed about 75% of the secrets. Still, the last fifty pages of The Lake House surprised me, in a good way. I especially relished the final chapter, which takes the surviving characters ahead to the year 2004, giving a brief picture of how they all have adapted to the revelations of the year 2003.

Kate Morton is an Australian writing phenomenon and internationally bestselling novelist, now living in London. I’ve just discovered her work, and I plan to check out more of it.

A Mother Disappears

Swimming Lessons     Claire Fuller     (2017)

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On the southern coast of England, across from the Isle of Wight, the sea is a relentless presence. If you’ve had swimming lessons, you might venture out into the frigid waters, to contest with the treacherous currents. Two of the characters in this novel feel an inexorable pull to the sea, and they’re both strong swimmers.

One is Ingrid Coleman, wife to Gil and mother to Nan and Flora. She disappeared twelve years before the main action of the novel, presumably drowned despite her expertise at swimming. In the month before she disappeared in 1992, she wrote long letters to Gil, recalling how they met in London in 1976, married, and moved into a ramshackle house on the beach. Ingrid’s letters form about half of the text of Swimming Lessons, though where the letters are to be found is mysterious. Ingrid slipped each one into a book that linked thematically to that segment of her story, but Gil owns so very many books that the letters would be hard to locate.

Flora is the second strong swimmer of the novel. She’s never recovered from Ingrid’s disappearance when she was a child, and she displays her anger and grief in her adult relationships. Flora’s point of view is represented in the non-epistolary portions of Swimming Lessons, taking place in the present day. She clings to the belief that her mother is still alive, and she swims on the same beach where Ingrid vanished. “The water was the colour of mint tea, and sometimes if she listened hard enough, her mother’s voice sounded amidst the swish of the weed and the tumble of the sand, telling her to straighten her legs, to keep her lead hand in motion, to swim against the current so that it was always easy to return, even when tired.” (162)

The present-day crisis that brings Flora, her sorta-boyfriend Richard, and her sister back to the family home is Gil’s hospitalization from a bad fall that he takes while chasing after a woman he thinks is Ingrid. Whether the woman actually is Ingrid or whether Gil is hallucinating is another of the mysteries in this novel, which is not officially billed as a mystery.

Despite the richness of the writing, I wanted author Claire Fuller to develop the characters of Nan and Gil more fully. From the evidence presented, Gil is a reprehensible fellow—a middling writer and a manipulative womanizer who lies obnoxiously to cover his tracks. The clutter of his life is reflected in the stacks of books that fill his house to overflowing: “Hardbacks about space and time, paperbacks about love affairs, tumbling together with poetry pamphlets and novella, knocked the top off another stack and then another, like a line of dominos.” (312)

Although I didn’t get enough of a sense of Nan and Gil, the forward movement of the narrative is kept brisk by unanswered plot questions, with twists and turns right up to the end. Meanwhile, Fuller tosses out sumptuous descriptions like this one: “She . . . took the uphill footpath through the small beech wood, the trees stained by streaks of copper where the rain dripped in slippery runnels. She slapped their trunks with the palm of her hand as she passed, as if she were whacking the meaty rumps of giant horses.” (261)

The moral of the story, if that might be allowed, may be that when people are not honest with each other they can be swept away from those they love. Claire Fuller is an author to keep an eye on.

Among My Faves—McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series     Alexander McCall Smith

Some of my friends seem abashed to admit that they read a “soft” author like Alexander McCall Smith. His novels run around 225 pages, with simple plots, mostly lovable characters, and generally happy endings. I can consume one in an evening, and I relish every minute of it.

McCall Smith writes most of his books in series, so you get to know the characters and want to find out the next events in their lives. You can, however, select any book from a series as your first foray, and McCall Smith will provide you enough background to get oriented. I’ve reviewed two of his series previously on this blog:  the Isabel Dalhousie series and 44 Scotland Street series. But the grandmother of them all is McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

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The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is set in Botswana, where McCall Smith taught law in the 1980s and for which he plainly has a great affection. After I’d read a couple of the Botswana novels, I educated myself about this nation in southern Africa (bordered by South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe), to get some context. Since Botswana is at 24 degrees south of the equator, and since the Kalahari Desert makes up about 70% of its territory, you’ll find ample references in the novels to hot, dry, dusty, sunny weather conditions. Thanks to cattle farms and the mining of gemstones and precious metals, the economy of Botswana is especially strong, and residents enjoy a good standard of living, especially with respect to education and health care. Still, the AIDS epidemic has hit the country hard, so a recurring feature of McCall Smith’s books is an orphanage that shelters children whose parents have died from AIDS. The Tswana African people are the predominant ethnic group, and Christianity is the predominant religion. English is the official language of Botswana, but you’ll find honorifics in the Setswana language:  “Mma” for women and “Rra” for men. You’ll also find the English adjective “late,” referring to the deceased, used not only as a modifier (“her late father”)  but also as a predicate adjective (“her father was late”). 

Zooming in to the series, you’ll meet Precious Ramotswe, the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in the capital, Gabarone, a bustling city with a mix of Western amenities and traditional African dwellings and family affiliations. Precious, who is 34 at the start of the series, was raised primarily by her beloved Daddy, the cattle farmer Obed, in a rural village. Although she had a happy childhood, she married the musician Note Mokote, who physically abused her and then abandoned her, leaving her unable to bear children. When her father dies, Precious is able to sell some of his herd to launch her business, the first detective agency in Botswana. She hires the capable Grace Makutsi as her secretary and sets up an office near the auto repair shop of  JLB Matekoni, an excellent mechanic. The detective agency usually takes on cases that involve domestic or business problems—cheating spouses, thieving employees, missing persons, petty vandalism.

Although Mma Ramotswe does thorough surveillance and research, she also applies levelheaded thinking to solve the cases, and she encourages her clients to utilize compromise or forgiveness as part of the solutions. Readers have access to her thoughts as she ponders motives and ethical challenges. McCall Smith’s specialty in his years as a law professor was ethics, and through Mma Ramotswe’s cases he presents many moral quandaries. Is a legal approach or personal reconciliation preferable? What are appropriate punishments for various degrees of crime? How have societal views of women affected attitudes toward domestic violence? At a much lesser level, what should the response be to a coworker who is good hearted and efficient but irritating in manner? These are the kinds of tough questions that underlie the easygoing banter of McCall Smith’s dialogues. He paints scenes of kindness, but not without pushback on ethical issues. Oh, and there’s romance in some of the novels, too.

McCall Smith churns out writing at a prodigious rate. Remember that he’s publishing books in several other series at the same time as he’s writing more for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In addition to the two series I’ve mentioned above, he has books in the Corduroy Mansions series and in the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series. He’s also written versions of African folk tales for children, and he’s produced half a dozen freestanding novels for adults. I’d recommend steering away from the freestanding novels, which vary in quality.

But the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is highly recommended. I offer the list to date below. At your library or book store, be sure to look under “M” for “McCall Smith,” since that’s his full, unhyphenated surname.

  • The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
  • Tears of the Giraffe (2000)
  • Mortality for Beautiful Girls (2001)
  • The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2002)
  • The Full Cupboard of Life (2003)
  • In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (2004)
  • Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006)
  • The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007)
  • The Miracle at Speedy Motors (2008)
  • Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (2009)
  • The Double Comfort Safari Club (2010)
  • The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (2011)
  • The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection (2012)
  • The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (2013)
  • The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Café (2014)
  • The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (2015)
  • Precious and Grace (2016)
  • The House of Unexpected Sisters (2017)

Video side note: In 2008-2009, BBC/HBO broadcast seven episodes of a  television series loosely based on the early books about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I found that these episodes, filmed in Botswana, admirably captured the spirit of the books. 

An Irish Cozy Mystery

Holding     Graham Norton     (2017)

A village in the west of Ireland, a human skeleton unearthed at a building site, gossip about old love triangles, and a bumbling local police sergeant:  all the ingredients for a classic cozy mystery novel. Holding is indeed that, but it goes beyond the genre.

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In Holding, Graham Norton has produced some noteworthy character studies of mature people who are at turning points in their lives. He has readers sympathizing with the middle-aged police sergeant, PJ Collins, who is overweight, underutilized, and desperately lonely. Norton also pulls us into the plight of middle-aged Brid Riordan, who loves her kids but often gets drunk to forget how unhappy her marriage is. Another character is Evelyn Ross, who’s stuck in the past, lamenting a failed romance from twenty-odd years ago. There’s also PJ’s elderly housekeeper, Lizzie Meany, whose background is revealed in a heartbreaking and surprisingly violent segment of the novel.

The mystery plot is not that tricky for readers who read a lot of cozies—I guessed the identity of the bones early on and had a good idea who buried them by the midpoint of the book. Still, the climax of the book, with the solution of the mystery, was suitably tense for me. It’s the unraveling of the story, with the appropriate red herrings, that gives the author scope for more interactions of his characters. PJ, for example, compromises his professionalism in his dealings with two of the murder suspects, and Brid makes some major changes in her family situation.

Holding has such a classic-1930s-mystery vibe to it that modern elements like DNA testing and mobile phones seemed slightly odd at first, but Norton skillfully integrates twenty-first-century technology into a rural Ireland that in some ways has not changed for a century—the pubs on the main street, the church fete, the outlying farms and hedgerows. He does allow, of course, for occasional lapses in phone reception that will advance his plot!  

Although I had never heard of him before, Irish-born Graham Norton is a well-known television personality and cultural commentator in Britain. This status might have gained him some book sales in the European market, but it clearly didn’t influence my decision to pick up Holding at my local library and stick with it to the end. (I have a “50-page test.”  I assess each title that I start reading at the 50-page mark to decide if I want to invest more time it in. I abandon many, many books even before page 50. Holding easily passed this test.)

The epilogue of Holding contains suggestions that more adventures of Sergeant PJ Collins may be forthcoming. I hope Norton takes time from his television career to produce another PJ mystery. I’ll be on the lookout!

More Medieval Mysteries

In my essay on the twelfth-century Brother Cadfael mysteries and in my subsequent posts (Fifteenth-Century Mysteries, Part 1, and Fifteenth-Century Mysteries, Part 2), I’ve introduced you to my minor obsession with crime novels set in the Middle Ages. Authors who write in this highly specialized sub-genre tend to churn out multiple books for their sleuths. Here are two more series that I liked.

The Domesday Series     Edward Marston (pen name for Keith Miles)     (1993 to 2000)          

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After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, William the Conqueror’s Norman barons moved in to subdue the Anglo-Saxon population and redistribute land and assets. In 1086 William ordered the compilation of a massive survey of properties, known as the Domesday Book—in modern English called “Doomsday Book,” perhaps because it sealed the fates of those listed. Conflict is built in to this scenario! Enter Gervase Bret, the brilliant lawyer, and Ralph Delchard, the intrepid soldier, who travel around England investigating disputes related to the Domesday Book and, of course, solving crimes. Descriptive passages in this series are especially fine, and the stories are multifaceted. For example, the plot of The Wolves of Savernake plays well on fear, fantasy, rumor, suspicion, and superstition.

It’s fun to see how Marston works an animal into each title and plot of the eleven volumes:  The Wolves of Savernake (1993), The Ravens of Blackwater (1994), The Dragons of Archenfield (1995), The Lions of the North (1996), The Serpents of Harbledown (1996), The Stallions of Woodstock (1997), The Hawks of Delamere (1998), The Wildcats of Exeter (1998), The Foxes of Warwick (1999), The Owls of Gloucester (2000), and The Elephants of Norwich (2000)

In addition to the Domesday Series, Marston has written a mystery series about a theater troupe in Elizabethan England, featuring the stage manager Nicholas Bracewell. This series has more seaminess and sex. Under his given name (Keith Miles) and the pen names Conrad Allen, Martin Inigo, and Martin Garland, Marston has written dozens of other books set in various historical periods.

The Owen Archer Series     Candace Robb     (1993 to 2008)     

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In the early 1360s, an archer who has lost an eye in England’s never-ending war in France retires to the city of York, in northern England. Owen Archer apprentices himself to a female apothecary, Lucie Wilton, whom he marries. The mystery part comes in because Owen also works as a spy for John Thoresby, who is the Archbishop of York and the Chancellor of England under King Edward III. As Owen rides away to crack cases, Lucie tends the shop in York and gets involved in sub-plots. Although the dialogue occasionally doesn’t ring true for me, the plots in these books are complex and satisfying. The personalities of Owen, Lucie, and numerous supporting characters are believable and well-rounded.

There are ten Owen Archer mysteries: The Apothecary Rose (1993), The Lady Chapel (1994), The Nun's Tale (1995), The King's Bishop (1996), The Riddle of St. Leonard's (1997), A Gift of Sanctuary (1998), A Spy for the Redeemer (2002), The Cross-Legged Knight (2002), The Guilt of Innocents (2007), and A Vigil of Spies (2008). Two other separate mystery series by Candace Robb feature characters Margaret Kerr and Kate Clifford. Under the pen name Emma Campion, Robb also writes non-mystery historical novels set in the fourteenth century.

Applied Ethics in Scotland

A Distant View of Everything     Alexander McCall Smith     (2017)

The Isabel Dalhousie Series

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The detective is a fortyish woman in Scotland who edits an academic journal about applied ethics. Seriously? Only Alexander McCall Smith could pull this one off, and he has, for eleven books in this bestselling series of mellow mysteries.

It all started in 2004 with McCall Smith’s The Sunday Philosophy Club, where we meet Isabel Dalhousie. Isabel is an independently wealthy divorcée, so she can afford to pursue her scholarly interest in ethics without pay, and she has the time to investigate activities she comes across that she considers ethically questionable. “There was no reason why she should become involved in the affairs of others, but she seemed to be irresistibly drawn into them. And every time that she did it, it was because she imagined that there was a moral claim on her.” (69)

You might just call Isabel a busybody, but she has many other defining qualities. She speaks Italian, attends classical concerts, collects fine art, and works crossword puzzles. She treasures her city of Edinburgh, though she’s half American: “Her own heritage, she thought, was enviable: Scottish commonsense philosophy on one side and American pragmatism on the other. That was a perfect combination.” (163-4)

Isabel can be stuffy. She muses on sundry subjects randomly, and she can go off into quotes from the poet WH Auden (whom she calls “WHA”) at any moment. She refers casually to the writings of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. Since I live with a philosopher whose specialty is Kantian ethics, I have assistance with these references, but you can always Google them. The philosophy background adds considerably, I think, to the multifaceted personality that McCall Smith is building for Isabel. (Reader friends of mine either enjoy this approach or despise it.)

Where this series gets spicy is at the third installment, The Right Attitude to Rain (2006), in which Isabel enters into a love affair with Jamie, a handsome, kind bassoonist who’s fourteen years her junior—and also the former lover of Isabel’s niece. As with other aspects of the McCall Smith novels, you’re likely to find the Isabel/Jamie affair either charming or ridiculous. The vagaries of this relationship intertwine with the mystery plots through the rest of the novels.

The mysteries don’t usually involve death. In fact, in A Distant View of Everything, the most recent of the series, Isabel investigates whether a matchmaker’s pairing of a couple is suitable. This plot line is thin, but the ongoing saga of Isabel, Jamie, and their expanding family fills in. Yes, I’ll reveal that the cougar Isabel gets pregnant in her forties, and Jamie is a doting dad.

McCall Smith uses a fair number of Scots words and phrases to add Edinburgh flavor to these novels, but he’s usually careful to provide clues to his dialect choices in the context. In case you’re wondering, though, Scots slang for a toilet is “cludgie,” and in British slang the cheap theater seats, in the highest balcony, are called “the gods.”

And one more thing: the Sunday Philosophy Club doesn’t actually meet. It’s more a pleasant idea. If you want to catch up with the Isabel Dalhousie books, here’s the list to date: The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004), Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (2005), The Right Attitude to Rain (2006), The Careful Use of Compliments (2007), The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday (2008), The Lost Art of Gratitude (2009), The Charming Quirks of Others (2010), The Forgotten Affairs of Youth (2011), The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds (2012), The Novel Habits of Happiness (2015), A Distant View of Everything (2017). In addition, three shorter Isabel Dalhousie stories are available as e-books.

An Accidental Thriller

You Belong to Me     Colin Harrison     (2017)

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Somehow I missed the word “thriller” in the blurbs about this book. Thrillers give me nightmares, so I rarely read them. I thought that You Belong to Me was a literary novel about a map collector. Hah!

Paul Reeves, a 50-year-old collector of old maps of New York City, is indeed a central character, but his quest to acquire rare and pricey specimens is only one of several plot lines that novelist Harrison leads his readers through. Paul’s girlfriend, Rachel, has a little scheme of her own. Then there’s the story of Billy, a tough former Army Ranger from Texas navigating contemporary New York as he tries to win back his gorgeous girlfriend, Jennifer, who’s now married to someone else. That someone else is Ahmed, a prominent Iranian-American financier with relatives who came through the 1979 revolution in Iran with plenty of guerilla survival skills. And guerilla tactics are part of the arsenal of Mexican bodybuilder and hitman Hector, who also gets involved. All of these plots play out on the streets of New York, as we elbow through the lunchtime crowds in Rockefeller Center to reach Christie’s for a map auction, as we creep down a squalid back street behind a grimy weight-lifting gym, as we careen along the Belt Parkway with a murderer in pursuit.

Yes, several gruesome murders take place in the noir New York of You Belong to Me. I tried to zip through those passages quickly, lingering more over paragraphs such as this one, describing a map from 1776: “The large map showed, in stunning detail, the charming young city of New York set amid farm fields, swamps, ponds, streams, and woods, complete with harbor soundings in fathoms. Only months later, in September of that year, much of the southern tip of the city would be consumed in a ghastly fire that broke out in a bordello frequented by British sailors . . . The map also depicted the quaint little village of Brooklyn, spelled ‘Brookland’, and nearby the marshy water of Wallabout Bay . . . The map’s lines were crisp, the detail so magnificent that actual wisps of smoke from individual houses were depicted. Such beauty and precision and provenance made the map fantastically important.” (78)

The title of the novel reveals the theme that unites the narrative: possession. Paul wants to own precious maps of his beloved city. Rachel decides that Paul should belong to her and her alone. Billy and Ahmed both want to possess Jennifer. Hitman Hector wants to acquire the money that is owed to him. Watch out for that greed, New Yorkers! Colin Harrison has your number, and he punches it with impudence and sass. You Belong to Me is the proverbial page-turner, with rapid-fire action and snappy dialogue, but the characters, with all their failings and evil deeds, are strangely endearing. Read this one even if, like me, you don’t usually care for thrillers.