Every year for the past 10 (!) years, Bev at My Reader’s Block has hosted a vintage mystery challenge. I love a good Golden Age mystery, so I’m always happy to participate. But this year, Bev has brought back my personal favorite iteration of the challenge — Vintage Mystery Scattergories! Challenge participants are asked to read at least eight books to fulfill eight different categories, from books set in academia to books with a number in the title to locked room/impossible crime stories. I’m choosing to do the Golden Age version of the challenge, which means all books must have been published before 1960. For more info on challenge rules, plus a complete list of all the categories, click here!
Tracy Kiely, Murder at Longbourn
In this cozy contemporary mystery, Elizabeth Parker goes to visit her Aunt Winnie, who owns a bed and breakfast called the Inn at Longbourn on Cape Cod. Aunt Winnie is hosting a New Year’s Eve murder mystery party — but disaster strikes when one of the guests is really murdered. Because the dead man wanted to force Aunt Winnie to sell the inn to him, she becomes the police’s prime suspect. Confident that her aunt is innocent, Elizabeth does some amateur sleuthing to find the real killer. I don’t normally read contemporary cozies, but this was a pleasant read that kept me turning the pages. I enjoyed the nods to Pride and Prejudice (yes, there are a Darcy and a Wickham for our heroine to choose from) and to Agatha Christie (characters named Jackie and Linnet!). I may continue with the series, since the books are available at my local library.
Jenny Bayliss, The Twelve Dates of Christmas
Thirty-four-year-old Kate Turner lives in a small English village with few opportunities to meet single men. So as the holiday season approaches, she decides to sign up for the Twelve Dates of Christmas, a local matchmaking event where she’ll go on 12 dates with 12 different men in the hope of finding romance. Naturally, some dates are better than others, and a few are downright awful; but as Kate tries to envision a future with these men, she must also confront her feelings for her long-time best friend, Matt. This was a fun, light, predictable book that I enjoyed, although it’s not necessarily a keeper for me. Still, I’d recommend it to those looking for a cute holiday read.
Olivia Atwater, Half a Soul
After a dangerous encounter with a faerie as a child, Dora Ettings has been left with half a soul. As a result, she has trouble feeling and processing emotions, which makes her prone to socially embarrassing situations. When Dora and her family travel to London for the Season, she just wants to avoid getting into trouble. But the Lord Sorcier takes an interest in her case, and he and Dora soon find themselves working together to combat a plague with a mysterious connection to Faerie. I’m a sucker for the “magical Regency” genre, and I greatly enjoyed this book. Can’t wait to pick up the next in the series! Definitely recommended if the premise appeals to you.
Cecilia Grant, A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong
In this Regency Christmas novella, Andrew Blackshear is on the way to buy his sister a Christmas present when he comes across the beguiling Lucy Sharp, who happens to be the daughter of the man he came to meet. After a series of accidents, Andrew ends up driving Lucy to a house party, but even more misfortunes arise, forcing them to spend multiple nights together. Andrew values propriety and self-control above all, but he can’t help being wildly attracted to Lucy. The more time they spend together, the more they consider whether they are compatible enough for marriage. I liked this novella and especially enjoyed how Andrew and Lucy both came to appreciate each other’s good points. A cozy little story to end the year with!
Is it too late to wish everyone a Happy New Year? I’ve been pretty behind on reviews, so I feel a bit like I’m still in 2020. However, I’ve finally posted all my reviews for the 2020 Vintage Mystery Extravaganza challenge at My Reader’s Block, so it’s time for my wrap-up post! Challenge participants were asked to read at least five books that engaged with the so-called Rules of Murder propounded by Ronald Knox and S.S. Van Dine. I participated in the Golden Age level of the challenge (all books published before 1960) and read the following 10 books:
- Nicholas Blake, A Question of Proof — breaks Rule #14, “There must be but one detective.” In this book, the investigating is split pretty evenly between the official detective, Nigel Strangeways, and his friend Michael Evans, who is trying to prove his own innocence.
- Craig Rice, Home Sweet Homicide — breaks Rule #11, “There must be no love interest.” Though the main sleuths are children, there is a prominent romantic subplot between their mother and the policeman in charge of the case.
- Patricia Wentworth, Grey Mask — breaks Rule #16, “Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story.” “A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story.” In this book, the villain is the leader of a criminal secret society (not a spoiler; the mystery is the identity of the criminal mastermind).
- Georgette Heyer, Detection Unlimited — complies with Rule #12, “The detective novel must have a detective in it.” The detective is a police inspector.
- Anthony Berkeley, Not to Be Taken — engages with Rule #4, “No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used.” Bev clarified that any book that uses poisons would count here, and this novel centers around a murder by poisoning.
- Ngaio Marsh, The Nursing Home Murder — breaks Rule #6, “No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.” “The culprit must be determined by logical deductions–not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession.” As I recall, the detective stumbles upon the true culprit by accident, and there’s no particular reason to focus on that person rather than the other suspects.
- Anthony Berkeley, The Piccadilly Murder — breaks Rule #10, “Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.” I can’t really say more without spoilers, but the solution to the mystery hangs upon two people looking very similar.
- Elizabeth Daly, Deadly Nightshade — engages with Rule #18, “A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide.” The death of a police officer in connection with the mystery appears to be an accident, but that may or may not be the case!
- Patrick Quentin, A Puzzle for Fools — breaks Rule #20, which lists a number of overused plot devices, including “the word association test for guilt.” The protagonist of this novel literally uses that exact device to narrow down his list of suspects. Fortunately, the ploy is unsuccessful.
- Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors — breaks Rule #17, “A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no ‘atmospheric’ preoccupations.” No disrespect to Sayers, but the passages on bell-ringing in this novel are certainly a side issue, and a fairly tedious one unless you happen to be a campanologist!
As always, I very much enjoyed my reading for this challenge, and I look forward to signing up for the 2021 vintage mystery challenge in the coming days!
Jean Merrill, The Girl from the Diadem
Actress Belle Barclay is losing her voice, which means her career is ending and she needs to plan for her future. An opportunity drops into her lap when the young Earl of Orsett offers to hire her for one last acting job: she’ll accompany him to a house party, posing as his love interest, so that his parents, appalled by the prospect of an actress as their daughter-in-law, will permit him to marry his penniless childhood sweetheart instead. Of course, complications ensue, and the house party descends into a farce of miscommunications and unrequited loves. Belle congratulates herself on being above the fray, only to discover that she’s fallen in love with the worst possible man. This short novel is a delightful Edwardian romp, and while it’s not quite as good as Heyer or Wodehouse, it feels a bit like a combination of the two. Definitely recommended if you can find a copy — I had to buy a used one in pretty bad condition from Thriftbooks, but it was worth it!
Sherry Thomas, A Conspiracy in Belgravia
I really liked the first Lady Sherlock novel when I read it earlier this year, and this second installment in the series is equally good. Charlotte Holmes has left her family to live independently with Mrs. Watson, and she works as a consulting detective under the name of the fictional Sherlock. Her latest client comes as a surprise, however: Lady Ingram needs her help to locate an old flame, who turns out to have ties to Charlotte herself. When Charlotte takes the case, she discovers that it’s much more complicated than she originally assumed — not least because she is secretly helping the wife of the man she loves. The plot thickens wonderfully in this book, and I can’t wait to continue with the series and see what new twists and turns will arise! I highly recommend this series, but you really need to start with the first book, A Study in Scarlet Women.
Mary Balogh, Slightly Dangerous
In this final book of the Bedwyn saga, we finally get Wulfric’s story. The Duke of Bewcastle has always prided himself on his propriety, his detachment, and the competent performance of his duty. But now that all his siblings are married and gone, he finds himself lonely and vaguely dissatisfied. He impulsively accepts an invitation to a friend’s house party, where he meets the widowed Christine Derrick. She is outgoing, fun-loving, and always getting into some improper scrape — in other words, just the sort of woman to repulse the Duke of Bewcastle. But much to his surprise and chagrin, Wulf is drawn to Christine, and she to him. But can two such different personalities ever compromise enough to form a lasting relationship? This book is Balogh’s take on the Pride and Prejudice formula, and as such I enjoyed it immensely. Wulf is a man after my own heart — I love an uptight, emotionally repressed hero who gradually learns to unbend a little. I wasn’t 100% sold on Christine at first, but as the book went on, and especially after she met the other Bedwyns, she won me over. I probably won’t keep every book in this series, but this one will stay on my shelves for the foreseeable future!
Connie Willis, Take a Look at the Five and Ten
Ori isn’t looking forward to the holiday season with her obnoxious relatives. She especially dreads seeing Grandma Elving, who tells the same story — about how she worked at Woolworth’s one Christmas in the 1950s — over and over again, in mind-numbing detail. But at Thanksgiving dinner, her stepsister’s new boyfriend, Lassiter, seems fascinated by Grandma Elving’s story. He thinks it may be a traumatic flashbulb memory, and he wants to include Grandma Elving in an experiment to uncover the root cause of this trauma. Ori drives Grandma Elving to and from the research lab and ends up assisting Lassiter in his experiment. But she doesn’t expect to fall for him, nor to discover that his hypothesis may be entirely wrong. I love Connie Willis, and this is another great Christmas story from her, although I must confess it’s not my favorite — I think that might be All Seated on the Ground. But I’d still recommend this one, especially to fans of her work!
Kate Clayborn, Missing Christmas
I’ve been meaning to read more Kate Clayborn ever since I read and loved Love Lettering back in January. This novella is loosely tied to her Chance of a Lifetime series, but it can definitely stand alone as well. Kristen and Jasper are friends and business partners, but Jasper has always wanted more. He’s crazy about her, but he doesn’t want to make a move that would jeopardize their friendship and partnership. Unfortunately, one kiss changes everything, and then they end up stuck in a snowy, romantic cabin over the holidays. I liked this story but didn’t feel the same magic I felt with Love Lettering. Maybe Clayborn just does better with a full-length novel. Still, I did enjoy this one and will continue to read more by the author.
Jackie Lau, One Bed for Christmas
Another holiday romance novella, this one centering on happy-go-lucky Wes Cheng and competent, driven Caitlin Ng. Wes has been in love with Caitlin since their college days, but he hasn’t made a move because he doesn’t feel worthy of her. But when a snowstorm knocks the power out at Caitlin’s place, she asks Wes if she can stay with him for a few days, and sparks start to fly between them. I’m not sure why I didn’t connect with this story more; both the main characters are likable, and I usually enjoy the friends-to-lovers trope. Maybe I was a little frustrated by Wes…I just wanted him to COMMUNICATE already! The novella was also a bit too racy for me, but obviously others’ mileage will vary. Overall, I didn’t hate this one but didn’t particularly like it either, and I won’t seek out more by this author.
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors
Lord Peter and Bunter are trapped by a snowstorm in the town of Fenchurch St. Paul in East Anglia. There, Peter partakes in a bit of New Year’s Eve bell-ringing and learns about a decades-old scandal involving a stolen necklace. Months later, the dead body of a stranger is found in Fenchurch St. Paul’s churchyard, and the town vicar asks Peter to investigate the matter, with tragic results. I liked this installment of the series; it’s a twisty mystery with a few good surprises, although I found the frequent digressions into the theory and technique of bell-ringing tedious. Also, this book isn’t as humorous as many others in the series; it’s a bit darker and moodier. Still, definitely a good read, and I’m happy to be continuing my acquaintance with Lord Peter.
Mary Balogh, Slightly Sinful
***Warning: SPOILERS for Slightly Tempted***
This book overlaps somewhat with the previous Bedwyn book, Slightly Tempted, in which Alleyne Bedwyn goes missing on the day of the Battle of Waterloo and is presumed to be dead. In fact, Alleyne isn’t dead, but he sustained a head injury and now has amnesia — he can’t even remember his name. Fortunately, he is rescued by Rachel York, a beautiful young woman who, having been abandoned by her con artist fiancé, is now living in a brothel. As Alleyne recovers from his other injuries in the brothel, he and Rachel fall in love, but they can’t pursue a relationship until Alleyne discovers his true identity (since he might be married already). Meanwhile, Rachel and her friends from the brothel decide to go to England and force her fiancé to give back the money he stole from them. I was really looking forward to Alleyne’s book, since he’s the lovable rogue of the Bedwyn clan, but I admit I was somewhat disappointed. I think I wanted more of the rest of the Bedwyns, who are necessarily absent for most of this novel. And Rachel was a perfectly fine heroine, but nothing about her really stood out to me. Still not a bad read, but not one of my favorites in the series.
Naomi Novik, A Deadly Education
This book takes place in an alternate reality in which evil beings called maleficaria are devouring all the magically talented children throughout the world. These children’s only hope is to get a place in the Scholomance, a magic school that trains its students in the use of magic and gives them the opportunity to form alliances with each other. But maleficaria are present in the school too, and only the most careful and vigilant students will make it out alive. El (short for Galadriel) is a student in the Scholomance, and she’s trying desperately to hang onto her humanity even though the school wants to turn her into a powerful dark sorceress. Her affinity for evil magic makes her a social outcast — except for Orion Lake, the school’s golden boy, who for some reason keeps trying to help her. This book is nothing like Novik’s Temeraire series or her stand-alone fairy tales, but I absolutely loved it anyway! El’s voice is such fun, and the setting of the Scholomance is fascinating. The book’s pace is actually a bit slow because there’s so much world building, but I didn’t mind that. I’m dying to know what happens next; fortunately, I think the sequel is coming out sometime this summer!
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
On the threshold of a big change in her life, narrator Kathy looks back on her youth at Hailsham, a prestigious British boarding school, and on her friends Ruth and Tommy, whom she met there. As Kathy tells her story, it slowly becomes obvious that there is something different about Hailsham and its students. But only now, as an adult, does Kathy truly understand how her experiences at Hailsham have shaped the course of her life. I really liked the first 75 percent of this book, but I felt it petered out toward the end. The meat of the book is the relationships between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, which I found complex, interesting, and poignant. The speculative-fiction elements of the book, by contrast, didn’t interest me much, and because the ending has to deal with those elements, I think it’s not as strong as the rest of the novel. Still, I did like the book overall and would recommend it to fans of The Remains of the Day.
Kate Quinn, The Alice Network
In 1947, American coed Charlie Sinclair is desperate for some news of her cousin Rose, who has lost touch with her family after the war. Charlie’s search leads her to Eve Gardiner, a curmudgeonly older woman who agrees to help her for a price; but Charlie soon learns that Eve has an ulterior motive. In 1915, the young and pretty Eve is recruited as a British spy. She is sent to a small town in France to pose as a waitress in a restaurant popular with the occupying German troops. The book switches between Charlie’s story and Eve’s until their two quests converge in the late 1940s. I enjoyed this book — it’s well written with an exciting plot and likable characters — but I didn’t LOVE it, and honestly I’m not sure why. I definitely think that fans of historical fiction would enjoy it!
Jane Ashford, The Bargain
When the Prince Regent believes he’s being haunted by the ghost of actress Bess Harding, he calls on Lord Alan Gresham for help. Alan is the sixth son of a duke, but he has no taste for high society; he’d rather be conducting scientific experiments at Oxford than mingling with the prince’s crowd and hunting for a nonexistent ghost. But Alan’s scientific investigation is complicated by Ariel Harding, Bess’s daughter, who is desperately seeking a reason for her mother’s suicide. Passionate, headstrong, and emotional, Ariel is a menace to Alan’s logical and orderly life. Too bad he also finds her infuriatingly attractive. I wasn’t sure I would like this book at first — Alan is SUCH a jerk in his attitude toward women. To him, they’re all flighty, hysterical, and incapable of logical reasoning. But he eventually realizes the error of his ways, including that Ariel is not the only woman capable of rational thought, so he won me over by the end. I also loved how Alan’s relationships with his brothers change throughout the book, and how Ariel helps them all with their romantic difficulties. I almost wanted a sequel by the end! Recommended for fans of Regency fluff, and I might try more by this author in the future.
Staci Hart, Wasted Words
Cameron Emerson and Tyler Knight have been roommates and good friends for more than a year. Cam is also attracted to Tyler, but she knows they could never be more than friends; they just aren’t a good match. Tyler is an exceptionally handsome ex-football player, the epitome of the popular jock, while Cam is a short, “nerdy” girl who loves comics and doesn’t wear makeup. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from eventually taking their friendship to the next level, but Cam’s insecurities might sabotage their relationship before it truly begins. I wanted to like this book because it’s “inspired by” Jane Austen’s Emma, but I would say the similarities are superficial at best. Cam likes matchmaking and being in control, but that’s really the only Emma-esque aspect of the plot or characters. The writing style isn’t great; the dialogue is unrealistic and the descriptions of love overwrought. I also got very impatient with the conflict, which basically boils down to a lack of communication. I hate when characters who are supposed to be in love won’t TALK to each other! Overall, I was disappointed, and I won’t seek out more by this author.
Jen DeLuca, Well Played
Stacey loves her small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, and she loves her summer job as a bar wench at the local Renaissance Faire, but she’s starting to feel stuck in a rut. When she impulsively emails Dex MacLean, a Faire musician with whom she had a casual fling, she’s just looking to change things up a little. She never expected that they’d end up corresponding throughout the year — or that he would be so sensitive, vulnerable, and caring. When the next Faire season comes around, Stacey is excited to begin a real relationship with Dex, but life has a few big surprises in store. As with the previous book in the series, this is a fun, low-stakes read. It might almost be TOO low-conflict, and I’m not someone who needs a lot of angst in my books! But the main problem is resolved around halfway through, so there’s not a lot going on in the rest of the book. Still, I liked the setting and the characters, and I’m excited to read the next (and final?) book, Well Matched, when it comes out in 2021!
Nancy Campbell Allen, Beauty and the Clockwork Beast
In this gothic, steampunk fairytale, plucky botanist Lucy Pickett goes to visit the estate of the enigmatic Lord Blackwell to care for her cousin, who has married Blackwell’s brother and who has a mysterious illness. Miles, Lord Blackwell, certainly doesn’t need Lucy distracting him from his own problems, particularly the fact that he’s secretly a werewolf. But of course, they are mutually attracted and must work together to discover what’s really going on with Lucy’s cousin and who, among Miles’s friends and neighbors, might be at the bottom of it. I enjoyed this book so much more than I was expecting to! It’s not great literature, but it is fun escapist fiction, and I’m definitely planning to continue with the series!
Teri Bailey Black, Chasing Starlight
After a series of misfortunes, aspiring astronomer Kate Hildebrand is forced to move in with her estranged grandfather, a former silent movie star, and an assortment of male boarders. Though she dislikes her situation at first, Kate gradually becomes fond of her grandfather and some of the other boarders — particularly the handsome actor Hugo Quick. But when one of the other boarders is murdered, and Hugo and her grandfather are both implicated, Kate must decide whether to cooperate with the police or protect her friends and solve the crime herself. Meanwhile, she gets a job as a production assistant at a Hollywood studio and begins to rethink her career aspirations. I very much enjoyed this YA mystery set during the Golden Age of Hollywood. I loved the atmosphere, which ranges from the glamour of the film studio to the seedy danger of a gangster’s club. The mystery is a little weak, but adequate since I really liked the setting and the main characters. I’m not sure if a sequel is planned, but if it does materialize, I’ll certainly read it!
Mary Balogh, Slightly Tempted
When Gervase Ashford, the Earl of Rosthorn, spots Lady Morgan Bedwyn across a ballroom in Brussels, he can hardly believe his luck. He has spent the past nine years on the Continent, having been banished from England as a direct result of certain actions of Morgan’s brother, the Duke of Bewcastle. Now Gervase has the opportunity to take his revenge by flirting outrageously with Morgan and making her the subject of unsavory gossip. But the more time he spends with her — and especially when he sees her strength and determination in helping the wounded after the Battle of Waterloo — the more he genuinely comes to admire her. Meanwhile, Morgan knows that Gervase is an experienced rake, and she’s determined not to fall for his act; but she didn’t expect him to become her closest friend. I think the Bedwyn series gets better and better — I really loved Gervase and Morgan’s story! It’s on the heavy side for a Regency romance, because Waterloo and its aftermath play a pivotal role in the story, but seeing both characters work through their traumas and find love in the process is a fulfilling experience. I can’t wait to continue with the series!
P.D. James, Talking about Detective Fiction
I have mixed feelings about this book. I think I expected more of a general survey of detective literature, whereas the book is a very brief overview of mostly British writers, mostly from the Golden Age — in other words, authors that P.D. James herself happens to like. Nothing wrong with that, of course! It just wasn’t quite what I wanted. I was also annoyed by the occasional spoiler; the book does a good job of avoiding them in general, but then goes and gives away the ending to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd! Being a fan of Golden Age British mysteries myself, I found a lot to enjoy in the book, but I also didn’t really learn anything new or add any books to my TBR list. There’s not even a list of recommended detective novels in the back, which I would think is pretty mandatory for this type of book! All in all, I was pretty “meh” on this, but maybe fans of James’s would enjoy it more.
Patrick Quentin, A Puzzle for Fools
Broadway producer Peter Duluth has been drinking his life away ever since the tragic death of his wife two years ago. Now he’s hit rock bottom and checked himself into a sanatorium to dry out. When he hears a creepy voice talking about murder late one night, he initially thinks he’s imagined it — until a couple of the other patients mention a similar experience. Then a member of the staff is murdered, and while the police are officially investigating, Peter decides to do a little sleuthing of his own. This is my first book by Patrick Quentin, and I’d definitely consider reading more. It’s a solid Golden Age mystery with a perfect sinister setting. The only thing I didn’t particularly like was the romance, which was quite superficial. Still, I’ll keep my eye out for more Peter Duluth mysteries.
Mimi Matthews, The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter
Like A Rogue of One’s Own, this novella is a Victorian romance featuring the “reformed rake” trope, and the rake is even named Tristan! This book’s Tristan shows up at an annual country house party that is known for being exceptionally racy, where he unexpectedly befriends Valentine March, a vicar’s daughter who is attending the house party as a lady’s companion. When Tristan and Valentine are caught in a passionate embrace in the conservatory, Tristan does the honorable thing and offers marriage. But Valentine, despite her attraction to Tristan, isn’t sure she wants to marry a man with his unsavory reputation. I liked this novella more than A Rogue of One’s Own, but the many similarities made me feel like I was reading the same book again! I did enjoy this one more, but it’s definitely not my favorite by Mimi Matthews. Still, I look forward to trying some more of her full-length novels.
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow
The premise of this novel caught my fancy immediately: humans have discovered intelligent life on another planet, and the Jesuits (an order of Catholic priests) are spearheading the mission to make contact with these life forms and learn about their culture. The novel starts in 2060, and Fr. Emilio Sandoz is the sole survivor of that mission; he has returned to Earth badly damaged, both physically and spiritually. The book then jumps back and forth in time, giving the backstory on Emilio and his companions and describing what happened on the alien planet and its aftermath. The novel is epic in scope, and I’m frankly still digesting it. Overall, I think it’s wonderfully done, although it takes a while to get going — we don’t actually meet the aliens until about 2/3 of the way through the book. So it’s not quite an action-packed sci fi story; but as an examination of faith, of human goodness and human frailty, and of the complexity of relationships, this novel has a lot to say and gave me a lot to think about.