One of my favorite reading challenges is the Vintage Mystery Challenge at My Reader’s Block. The 2021 challenge was Vintage Mystery Scattergories, in which participants had to read at least eight books that fit within various categories. I ended up reading nine books, all from the Golden Age era (pre-1960):
My favorite of these, by far, was Busman’s Honeymoon, which might even be my favorite of all the Lord Peter Wimsey books. I also really liked The Unsuspected. I didn’t hit any real duds, although I’d probably say Murder in the Museum was my least favorite because I don’t remember much about it now. Anyway, this challenge was a pleasure as always, and I’m looking forward to starting my 2022 challenge soon!
The fifth installment of the Survivors’ Club series focuses on Ralph Stockwood, who is tormented with guilt because he encouraged his three best friends to fight in the Napoleonic Wars; they all died while he survived. As a result, he has completely shut down emotionally and believes himself incapable of love, though as the heir to a dukedom it’s his duty to marry and produce an heir. His godmother’s companion, Chloe Muirhead, proposes a marriage of convenience, since he needs a wife and he’s her only chance of a husband. I enjoyed this book a lot but find I don’t have much to say about it. Only Enchanting is still my favorite in the series so far, but this one is definitely worthwhile if you enjoy Regency romance.
Poppy Alexander, 25 Days ’til Christmas
Single mom Kate has been struggling ever since her husband’s death four years ago. She works a terrible job for low pay, her son Jack may have special educational needs, and her mother-in-law is slowly succumbing to dementia in an expensive assisted living facility. Attempting to focus on the positive, Kate decides to do one special Christmas thing with Jack every day in the month leading up to Christmas. Along the way she connects with the handsome and sensitive Daniel, but will she be able to take a chance on love again? I hoped this would be a cute Christmas romance, but it’s just so dreary; both Kate and Daniel are pretty miserable until the very end of the book, and it’s not fun to see Kate getting constantly beaten down by life. If you’re looking for an upbeat holiday read, this is not the one!
Mavis Doriel Hay, The Santa Klaus Murder
This is a standard English country house murder with a Christmas twist: the family patriarch has arranged for one of his guests to pose as “Santa Klaus,” but the patriarch is then killed during the festivities. Was the man dressed as Saint Nick the murderer? Suspicion abounds, especially when a second Santa suit is found. I liked this book fine; I enjoy the author’s writing style, and the mystery is fair play, although the murderer doesn’t get a huge amount of page time. My biggest complaint is that none of the characters were particularly likable or interesting, so reading the book was like being stuck in a house with a lot of mildly unpleasant people. I did like the novel overall, though, and it was a fun seasonal read.
In 1907 Los Angeles, Anna Blanc is a wealthy debutante who seemingly has the world at her feet, but she chafes under her father’s strict upbringing and longs for excitement. When she stumbles upon an opportunity to become a police matron for the LAPD, she jumps at it, even though it means using a fake name and lying to everyone in her life. When women from the local brothels start dying, allegedly by suicide, Anna is convinced they’re really being murdered. She investigates with the help of handsome but skeptical Officer Joe Singer, learning about some of life’s harsh realities along the way. This is a book I found both enjoyable and frustrating. It moves along at a quick clip, Anna’s internal monologue can be amusing, and Officer Singer is a delight. Unfortunately, Anna is also insufferable — she’s such a thoughtless, spoiled brat! The book tries to redeem her by having her solve the mystery, but to me, that doesn’t make up for how recklessly and selfishly she often behaves. Your mileage may vary; maybe I’m being harsh because I know how deeply she would irritate me in real life. But for me, the obnoxious heroine means I won’t be continuing with this otherwise promising series.
Francis Duncan, So Pretty a Problem
Celebrated painter Adrian Carthallow has been killed; his wife, Helen, confesses to the killing, claiming that she shot him by accident. But the local police are able to disprove her story almost immediately, which raises the question, why did she lie? Amateur sleuth Mordecai Tremaine happens to be vacationing nearby, and he also knows the Carthallows socially, so he’s perfectly placed to investigate the matter. He soon uncovers plenty of motives among the Carthallows’ circle of friends, but who actually pulled the trigger? I’ve read a few of the Mordecai Tremaine books now, and I always enjoy them. There’s nothing particularly original about this one — and I was able to figure out the solution in advance — but I liked the book and will continue to read more in the series.
Rosamunde Pilcher, The Shell Seekers
This is a hard book to describe, because it’s mostly about ordinary people living ordinary lives, without many exciting events or dramatic plot twists. It centers around Penelope Keeling and describes her life, both as a 64-year-old woman in the present (that is, the 1980s, when the book was written) and as a young woman before and during World War II. It also explores the lives of Penelope’s three grown children, who are very different from their mother and from each other. I found this book a slow read but an enthralling one; Penelope is a (mostly) sympathetic character, and I enjoyed how the slow unveiling of her past clarified events in the present. If you like quiet British novels, this is definitely one to pick up.
This fourth installment of the Inspector Roderick Alleyn series centers around the members of a neopagan religion, the House of the Sacred Flame. During one of its rituals, devout initiate Cara Quayne drinks from a ceremonial goblet and immediately collapses — not from spiritual ecstasy, as some of the worshippers believe, but from cyanide poisoning. Alleyn is on the case, assisted by his colleague Inspector Fox and his journalist friend Nigel Bathgate. Their investigation uncovers various dirty little secrets about the cult and eventually leads them to the murderer. The mystery plot was clever and fairly clued (though I didn’t guess the killer’s identity), and I enjoy Marsh’s writing style, especially the banter between the investigators. But I wasn’t a huge fan of the cult setting — the novel paints it as completely sordid and unpleasant, and I felt that way while reading. Nevertheless, I’ll definitely continue with the series at some point.
Uzma Jalaluddin, Hana Khan Carries On
Hana Khan is the 24-year-old daughter of Indian Muslim immigrants to Toronto. Her family is having a rough time: her father is recovering from a car accident, her older sister is having a difficult pregnancy, and the family’s halal restaurant is struggling. When a rival halal restaurant threatens to move into the neighborhood, Hana is horrified and determined to stop it — never mind that the owner’s son, Aydin, is surprisingly cute and fun to talk to. Hana is also struggling at work; she dreams of producing her own radio show, but for now she’s an unpaid intern, and her (white) boss isn’t interested in her ideas unless they’re stereotypical stories about Muslims. Will Hana be able to follow her dreams, help her family, and maybe even find love? I really enjoyed this light, fun novel, although there is quite a lot going on (I didn’t even mention the small You’ve Got Mail subplot!). Hana is a relatable character whose voice I really enjoyed, and it was nice to see her grow throughout the novel. I should note that the plot does include an Islamophobic attack on Hana and her friends, which is tough to read. But the book is ultimately joyful and uplifting, and I would definitely recommend it to fans of romantic comedies!
Maggie Stiefvater, Mister Impossible
After the events of Call Down the Hawk, Ronan, Hennessy, and Bryde are running from the Moderators and making a plan to strengthen the power of the ley lines. Jordan has discovered the existence of sweetmetals, artifacts that can keep dreams awake even if their dreamers die; Declan joins her in her quest to create one. Matthew is processing the fact that he’s a dream and not a “real” person. Carmen has been working with the Moderators but eventually comes to a crossroads. OK, so none of that summary will make sense unless you’ve read Call Down the Hawk, and possibly the Raven Cycle as well. It’s book 2 of a planned trilogy, and storylines are not resolved; rather, the book ends by setting up the final conflict that will play out in book 3. I’ll admit, much as I love Ronan, I found his story the least compelling; I was much more interested in Declan (my unexpected favorite!), Jordan, and Matthew. But I’m a big fan of Stiefvater’s writing and general vibe, so I enjoyed this book and can’t wait to see how everything turns out!
***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***
This last installment of the Queen’s Thief series finds the kingdoms of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis banding together to defend themselves against the inevitable Mede invasion. The events are chronicled by Pheris Erondites, grandson of the traitorous baron whose machinations in Attolian politics are far from over. Pheris is physically disabled and mute, but he is also clever and observant. When he becomes one of Eugenides’s attendants, he gets a front-row seat to the action and even finds that he has a role to play. I don’t have much to say about this book, except that it’s a fitting end to a fantastic series. If you’ve loved the previous books, you won’t be disappointed! I did wish Costis and Kamet had a little bit more to do in this installment, since they were the focus of the last one; but that’s a very small complaint about an otherwise wonderful book. This series will definitely live on my keeper shelf to be revisited many times in the future!
John Rowland, Murder in the Museum
Mild-mannered Henry Fairhurst is working in the British Museum Reading Room when he notices that one of his neighbors has fallen asleep. His heavy snoring is attracting attention, so Henry attempts to wake him up — only to discover that the man has stopped breathing and died. When Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard discovers that the man was poisoned, Henry becomes an important witness and uses his enthusiasm for detection to help Inspector Shelley solve the case. Along the way, they encounter a blackmail scheme, a pair of young lovers, a kidnapping, and more suspicious deaths. I liked the writing style of this book (straightforward and occasionally humorous) and found it a quick and easy read, but I wasn’t terribly excited about the mystery. I’m not sure it’s “fair play,” and the solution didn’t quite satisfy me. I did like that there was one seemingly significant event that turned out to be a coincidence; that doesn’t often happen in detective novels, but it’s very true to life! Overall, this particular book isn’t a keeper for me, but I’d definitely read more by this author.
Diana Wynne Jones, A Tale of Time City
It’s the beginning of World War II, and Vivian Smith is being evacuated from London to the English countryside to escape the Blitz. Her cousin is supposed to meet her at the train station, but instead she is kidnapped by two boys, Jonathan and Sam. They take her to Time City, a place outside history whose residents are tasked with observing history and making sure it doesn’t go off the rails. But something is going wrong, and Jonathan and Sam are convinced that Vivian can somehow put it right — except they’ve kidnapped the wrong Vivian Smith! Diana Wynne Jones can do no wrong, and I enjoyed this time travel adventure, although I found the plot hard to follow at first. Fortunately, everything came together in the end, and I very much enjoyed Vivian’s narrative voice. Recommended for fans of the author.
***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***
In this conclusion to the Paradox trilogy, space mercenary Devi Morris and her lover Rupert are on the run, trying to figure out how to save the universe from the constant threat of the phantoms. Devi is determined keep her promise to save Ma’at and her Daughters; but since they’re the only known weapons that actually work against the phantoms, she’s fighting an uphill battle. Luckily, Devi’s good at thinking outside the box, and with Rupert at her side and some help from unexpected places, her crazy plan just might work. This is a satisfying conclusion to the Paradox trilogy, but you really need to read all three books to understand what’s going on. And I must confess, I was kind of tired of this series before I even picked up Heaven’s Queen. It’s a lot of space battles, Devi obsessing about her fancy suit of armor, Rupert declaring his undying love for Devi…I got bored after a while. I was underwhelmed by the romance; it felt very over-the-top and teen-angsty to me. Nevertheless, I’m glad I finished the series, and hardcore fans of the genre might enjoy it more than I did.
Charlotte Armstrong, The Unsuspected
In the eyes of the world, Rosaleen Wright’s tragic death was a suicide, but Rosaleen’s friend Jane is convinced it was murder. Jane turns to her friend Francis for help, telling him that she thinks Rosaleen’s employer, the famous radio personality Luther Grandison, is guilty. Francis immediately takes action, ingratiating himself into “Grandy’s” inner circle by pretending to be the husband of his ward Mathilda, who supposedly died in a shipwreck. But when Mathilda turns up alive, Francis must use any means necessary, including straight-up gaslighting, to maintain his cover and bring the killer to justice. So, yeah, the plot of this book is bananas, but I actually really enjoyed it! I thought the inverted structure of the mystery would make it less exciting, but there was plenty of forward motion to keep me on the edge of my seat. I also liked the main characters, especially Mathilda and Jane — and while Francis does some pretty despicable things, he’s conflicted and regretful enough that I ended up liking him too. Overall, this was a super fun and compelling read — I stayed up way too late to finish it — and I definitely want to read more by Charlotte Armstrong!
Megan Whalen Turner, Thick as Thieves
***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***
This fifth installment of the Queen’s Thief series centers around Kamet, whom we briefly met in The Queen of Attolia as a slave and personal secretary to Nahusheresh, then the Mede ambassador to Attolia. Now, despite his master’s disgrace, Kamet is content with his power and status in the Mede empire. But the sudden death of Nahusheresh changes his life irrevocably: Kamet is forced to flee, or he and his fellow slaves will all be tortured and killed. He finds an unlikely companion in an Attolian soldier (whom, it turns out, we’ve also met before), who promises Kamet safety and freedom in Attolia. But Kamet has other plans, as does the Attolian king, Eugenides. This book is pretty uneventful compared with the rest of the series; most of it follows Kamet and the Attolian on their journey as they hunt for food, sell their belongings for cash, and evade their Mede pursuers. But the development of Kamet’s character and his friendship with the Attolian are a delight, and of course we get a bit of Eugenides and a few other familiar characters at the end. I heartily recommend both this book and the entire series — I can’t wait to read the next one!
Despite being a princess, Alyrra is a nobody. Abused and neglected by her family, she has nothing to look forward to except a politically strategic marriage. But when she is betrothed to the prince of a neighboring kingdom whom she has never met, she suddenly finds herself embroiled in intrigue and magic. A sorceress curses Alyrra to switch bodies with her lady’s maid, so no one recognizes her as the true princess and she must work as a goose girl instead. But Alyrra is content with her new life — until she realizes that she has a duty to ensure the good governance of her new kingdom, not to mention protect the life of the prince. Overall, I really enjoyed this book! Alyrra is a sympathetic heroine, and I enjoyed watching her slowly, painfully grow throughout the story as she realizes that she can’t avoid her real life forever. There are some pacing issues and some awkward character introductions that had me flipping backwards to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I also wanted some of the secondary characters to be more fleshed out, particularly Kestrin. But I liked the book despite these issues and will plan to read more by Khanani.
Note: This book was originally self-published in 2012, but it was subsequently rereleased by a traditional publisher. According to the author, the rerelease has “gone through four rounds of professional edition . . . the middle of the book was replotted, and the story overall has grown by about 20,000 words.” So, since I read the original self-published version (which was gifted to me years ago), my comments may not be particularly applicable to the version that’s widely available now! I’d actually like to read the rereleased version and see if the issues I complained about have been addressed.
Ellery Queen, The Chinese Orange Mystery
When Ellery Queen accompanies his friend Donald Kirk to a dinner party at Kirk’s hotel suite, he is shocked to discover a murdered man in the waiting room of Kirk’s office. The crime is bizarre for a number of reasons: not only does no one recognize the corpse, but there is absolutely no identifying information to be found anywhere on or around the dead man. Moreover, everything in the room has been turned backwards or upside-down — furniture, art, even the victim’s clothes. As Ellery’s policeman father investigates the case officially, Ellery also does some sleuthing among Kirk’s friends and family, and he eventually discovers the identity of both the victim and the murderer. I enjoyed this mystery and found the solution very clever; I never would have guessed it, but it does make sense and is fairly clued (although the killer’s motive is a little weak). Even the list of dramatis personae drops a few hints! Recommended for fans of Golden Age mysteries — and even though it’s part of a series, it can definitely be read out of order.
Loretta Chase, Ten Things I Hate about the Duke
This second novel in the Difficult Dukes series focuses on Lucius, Duke of Ashmont, whose wild and rakish behavior is a well-known society scandal. He has no interest in reforming his wicked ways, however, until he crosses paths with strong-minded bluestocking Cassandra Pomfret. I’m not a big fan of the “reformed rake” trope, but I liked that Lucius spends most of the book acknowledging his faults and genuinely making an effort to improve himself. He admires Cassandra’s strength and intelligence, and he supports her without trying to take charge or get in her way. I should say that, while this book can technically stand alone, it does refer back to events in A Duke in Shining Armor. I’m looking forward to the third book now, which looks like it will have a marriage-in-trouble plot…unfortunately, it’s not out yet!
Euphemia “Effie” Reeves is sick of feeling invisible and insignificant. As a maid in a noble house, she is either ignored or mistreated by the family. When she falls for the youngest son of the house, she knows a relationship between them would be impossible, but she can’t help wishing for it anyway. Luckily, she has an ally in the faerie Lord Blackthorn, who is determined to pursue virtue by being kind to the powerless. Unluckily, despite his good intentions, his interference often does more harm than good. When Effie’s dream finally seems to be within reach, she discovers that her desires have changed. Like Atwater’s previous book, Half a Soul, this is a charming fantasy romance with some social satire baked in. I especially loved Lord Blackthorn’s enthusiastic efforts to help, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they usually led to disaster. Recommended for fans of the genre!
Elizabeth Daly, Murders in Volume 2
Rare manuscript expert Henry Gamadge once again plays detective when Miss Vauregard, a member of one of New York’s most prestigious old families, asks him to discover the true identity of a mysterious young woman who has ingratiated herself with the family patriarch (and holder of the purse strings). As Gamadge investigates, he becomes convinced that the woman is working with someone in the family; things get even worse when the patriarch is murdered and Gamadge himself is the most likely suspect! I enjoyed this novel, which is well plotted and contains such intriguing elements as a hundred-year-old unsolved mystery, a cult, and possible travel to and from the fourth dimension. This is also the book in which Henry Gamadge falls in love, and I would have liked a bit more development of the romance. But overall, I liked this book and will definitely continue with the series.
Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice, Light Raid
Sometime in the future, North America is engaged in a civil war, and 17-year-old Ariadne has been evacuated to neutral territory. But when her parents’ letters become less frequent and stop telling her anything specific, Ari knows that something must be wrong. She flees her foster home to return to HydraCorp, the large and powerful company where her parents live and work, only to discover that her father is falling apart and her mother is in jail for treason. Outraged, Ari intends to prove her mother’s innocence, but she is thwarted by the mysterious Joss Liddell, who is as irritating as he is attractive. As Ari investigates the situation at HydraCorp, she discovers a secret so big that it could change the course of the war. I never felt like I fully understood the world of this novel — the book doesn’t spend any time on exposition — and I’m still not sure what the war is actually about. But I did enjoy this book; it’s action-packed and full of plot twists, and there’s also a fun YA romance. I liked Ari’s narrative voice; she reads as immature sometimes, but that makes sense since she’s a teenager. Overall, while I don’t think this book is as good as Connie Willis’s solo stuff, it’s still an entertaining read.
Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane are finally getting married, and they’ve decided to spend their honeymoon at Talboys, a house in Harriet’s childhood neighborhood that she’s always loved and that Peter has purchased for her. They’ve made arrangements for the turnover with Noakes, the previous owner, but when they arrive on their wedding night, Noakes is nowhere to be found. Eventually Peter and Harriet discover Noakes’s dead body in the cellar, and all signs point to murder. As they assist the local police in solving the mystery, they also adjust to their new reality as a married couple. This might be my favorite Wimsey story yet. The mystery is more satisfying than many of Sayers’s others; there are multiple plausible suspects and some well-placed clues. But the subtitle of the novel is “a love story with detective interruptions,” and the real meat of the story is Peter and Harriet’s relationship, as they learn more about each other and figure out how to combine two very independent lives. This book also fleshes out two recurring characters, Bunter and the Dowager, in a satisfying way. A wonderful ending to the series, in my opinion, although Sayers newbies shouldn’t start here.
Suzanne Allain, Mr. Malcolm’s List
Jeremy Malcolm, the wealthy and handsome younger son of an earl, is widely regarded as the catch of the season. He wants to find a suitable bride, but none of the women he’s met has checked off every item on his list of requirements for a wife. When Julia Thistlewaite, one of the young ladies he rejects, discovers the existence of the list, she is outraged and asks her friend Selina Dalton for help. Selina will come to London and capture Mr. Malcolm’s heart by pretending to have every quality on the list, but will then reject him for not meeting her own standards. Selina is reluctant to go along with the scheme, especially when she meets Mr. Malcolm and finds herself extremely attracted to him. This Regency romance is fine but lacks depth. It’s extremely fast-paced, leaving little time for character or relationship development. Overall, I thought it was just okay.
Jules Wake, Covent Garden in the Snow
Tilly loves her job as a makeup artist at the London Metropolitan Opera Company, but she’s a disaster with technology. When she inadvertently sends a computer virus to her entire contact list, she’s forced to work with the new IT director, Marcus, to gain some computer literacy. Marcus looks like a slick corporate type, and Tilly immediately decides that he has nothing useful to teach her. But she also feels an unwanted attraction, and the more time they spend together, the more she comes to like and appreciate him. This was a cute read; I enjoyed the backstage theatrical setting, and Marcus is an appealing hero (perhaps a bit too perfect). But Tilly drove me CRAZY. She’s laughably bad at technology — so much so that I couldn’t take her seriously as a professional adult. She also puts up with way too much from her feckless fiancé, who has to betray her trust in multiple very significant ways before she’s finally ready to end the relationship. And she’s completely awful to her family for no discernible reason. Yes, she does grow toward the end of the book, but by then I was already too annoyed with her. Overall, I liked some aspects of this book, and it was a quick and entertaining read, but the frustrating heroine prevented me from fully enjoying it.
Four students at Oxford’s (fictional) all-female Persephone College meet to discuss the formation of a club in opposition to the college’s unpopular bursar. During their meeting, they spot a canoe floating down the Cherwell river — with the bursar’s drowned corpse inside. The girls are questioned by the police and, realizing they and their fellow students might be suspects, decide to launch their own investigation. I enjoyed this Golden Age mystery, although I wanted more undergraduate hijinks; most of the book has a light, humorous tone, but the final few chapters are quite somber. It’s interesting that this book was published in the same year as Gaudy Night, another mystery novel set at an Oxford women’s college. Gaudy Night is clearly the superior novel, but Death on the Cherwell works well as a less weighty counterpoint.
Kevin Kwan, Sex and Vanity
Lucie Tang Churchill has never felt accepted by her family; as someone with half Chinese and half European ancestry, she doesn’t quite fit in with either side. As a result, she’s always striven for perfection in every aspect of her life. But when she meets the quiet, handsome, unsuitable George Zao at her cousin’s wedding, Lucie is attracted to him and soon feels her perfect life spinning out of control. This novel is a breezy update of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, and while I love the original, I wasn’t quite as impressed by the retelling. It’s a fun read — I especially enjoyed the author’s snarky footnotes — but I couldn’t relate to the characters’ ultra-wealthy, jet-setting lifestyle. The book is filled with name-dropping of people, places, and luxury brands I’ve never heard of. I found Lucie shallow and didn’t understand what George saw in her. Overall, I think this book would make a fun beach read, especially for people who enjoy reading about yachts and couture clothing and hip restaurants. I see the appeal of it, but I definitely prefer Forster’s original novel!
Ellis Peters, The Potter’s Field
In this installment of the Brother Cadfael series, the abbey is given a tract of land known as the Potter’s Field. As the brothers begin to plow the field, they unearth the skeletal remains of an unknown woman. She is most likely the wife of one of the brothers, who deserted her to pursue his religious vocation. Could Brother Ruald be responsible for her death? Brother Cadfael and Hugh Beringar investigate to discover the woman’s identity and find out what happened to her. I love this series because, even though there’s always at least one mysterious death, the overall tone is very gentle and peaceful. Justice always prevails, and usually Cadfael helps a pair of young lovers get together, as he does in this book. It’s the perfect antidote to the anxieties of modern life, and I’d definitely recommend the whole series.