Mini-Reviews: Sacred, Nursing, Swan

Sacred Wood and Major Early EssaysNursing Home MurderMurder on Black Swan Lane

T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays

Despite its shortness, this book was a real challenge for me. It’s a collection of essays by T.S. Eliot about literary criticism, mostly focusing on specific critics and their (rare) success and (common) failures. Since I hadn’t heard of, much less read, the vast majority of these critics, I found most of Eliot’s arguments extremely hard to follow. On the other hand, I do think reading this book was good for me — the mental equivalent of strenuous exercise. But this is probably the type of book best read in a college course, with a professor and other students on hand to help make sense of it.

Ngaio Marsh, The Nursing Home Murder

When the Home Secretary contracts acute appendicitis and dies on the operating table, his wife insists that he has been murdered. After all, there’s no shortage of suspects: the man had many political enemies, including one of the nurses who assisted with his operation. Another of the nurses was his mistress, who was devastated when he broke off their relationship. Even the operating surgeon is a suspect, since he’s in love with the mistress himself. Then there are the dead man’s wife and sister, who each inherit a substantial sum under his will. Fortunately, Inspector Alleyn and Sergeant Fox are on the case. I found this a thoroughly enjoyable Golden Age mystery, despite some pejorative discussion of mental illness (referring to it as a “taint” in someone’s heredity, for example). I’m slowly working my way through this series and am glad Ngaio Marsh was so prolific!

Andrea Penrose, Murder on Black Swan Lane

All London society knows about the animosity between the scientifically minded Lord Wrexham and the Reverend Josiah Holworthy. Cartoonist A.J. Quill has even been selling pointed satirical sketches about their feud. So when Holworthy is murdered, Wrexham is the number-one suspect. To clear his name, he hunts down A.J. Quill and discovers that “he” is actually Charlotte Sloane, a poor widow using her artistic talents to earn a meager living. They team up to solve the murder and are soon plunged into a sinister plot involving alchemy. I love a good Regency mystery, so I had high hopes for this book, but I ended up being a little disappointed. It’s not bad, per se, but nothing about it stood out to me, and I doubt I’ll continue with the series.

Mini-Reviews: Isabella, Taken, Scandal

IsabellaNot to Be TakenFirst Comes Scandal

Loretta Chase, Isabella

I’ve liked all of Loretta Chase’s traditional Regencies, and this is no exception. Isabella Latham considers herself an old maid at 26, but she arrives in London for the Season with her two young cousins and is surprised when she acquires multiple suitors. The most notable are Edward Trevelyan, the earl of Hartleigh, and his charming cousin Basil. Isabella is attracted to both men, but they both seem to have ulterior motives: Edward needs a wife to help raise his ward, the young daughter of his deceased best friend, and Basil has his eye on Isabella’s fortune. Naturally Isabella ends up with the right man, and naturally the spurned suitor gets his own book, The English Witch, which I’m looking forward to reading sometime soon! I’ll be interested to see how Chase redeems his character, because he certainly did some morally dubious things in this book.

Anthony Berkeley, Not to Be Taken

I adore Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, so I was excited to try another one of his mysteries. But overall, I was a bit disappointed. While this book is well written, the style is entertaining, and the mystery plot hangs together well, there’s nothing particularly special or surprising about it. It’s a classic murder in a small English village, and only one of the victim’s closest friends could have done it. I did find the story entertaining while reading it, especially near the end, when the narrator gives three or four false solutions before revealing the true one. But unlike The Poisoned Chocolates Case, this one is not a keeper. I’ll happily read more by Berkeley in the future, though!

Julia Quinn, First Comes Scandal

I think of Julia Quinn as the perfect choice for historical romance with some sweet, silly fun and minimal angst. But the last few books of hers that I’ve read have been a bit “meh,” including this one. The heroine is Georgiana Bridgerton, who is forcibly abducted by one of her suitors and therefore “ruined,” even though nothing actually happened. The hero, Henry Rokesby, is a medical student who’s not particularly interested in marriage. But the Rokesbys and Bridgertons have been neighbors and close friends for many years, so Henry’s father convinces him to propose to Georgiana and salvage her reputation. I liked the premise and the fact that the book is very light on conflict, but the style got on my nerves. I felt like Quinn was trying too hard to be clever, and I also found a lot of the dialogue distractingly anachronistic. So I wouldn’t recommend this one unless you’re a Quinn completist.

Mini-Reviews: Necromancer, Dimple, Scrapbook

Death of the NecromancerWhen Dimple Met RishiScrapbook of Frankie Pratt

Martha Wells, The Death of the Necromancer

This gaslamp fantasy follows Nicholas Valliarde, otherwise known as Donatien, the leader of a notorious criminal enterprise in the city of Vienne. He has one goal: to ruin the life of the Count of Montesq, who had Nicholas’s foster-father executed on a false charge of necromancy. In the middle of a heist that would further this goal, however, Nicholas runs into an unexpectedly life-threatening situation and soon learns that a real necromancer may be at work in the city. I really enjoyed this novel, especially the setting, which is like a fantastical version of 18th-century France. There’s also a really great friendship that arises between Nicholas and the police inspector who’s been tracking his criminal alter-ego. I will definitely continue with the Ile-Rien series, although this one stands alone quite well.

Sandhya Menon, When Dimple Met Rishi

Dimple and Rishi are Indian American teens who have never met, but their parents are friends and have tentatively arranged a marriage between them. Rishi knows about the arrangement and is happy about it; he loves his family and his culture, and he trusts his parents to choose an appropriate wife for him. Dimple, on the other hand, is more interested in computer coding than marriage, and she’s desperate to attend a prestigious summer program — one that Rishi happens to be attending also. When they meet, Dimple is enraged to discover the marriage arrangement. But the more she gets to know Rishi, the more she ends up liking him. This is a cute YA rom-com with insight into a culture I know little about. I recommend it if the premise intrigues you!

Caroline Preston, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

This “novel in pictures” tells the story of Frances “Frankie” Pratt, an ambitious American girl who leaves her hometown to attend college, then travel to New York and Paris in hopes of becoming a writer. The book purports to be Frankie’s scrapbook of these eventful years of her life, with just a few sentences of narration on each page. The photos are of authentic 1920s artifacts — advertisements, ticket stubs, postcards, and the like — and I was very impressed by the author’s dedication to finding these artifacts and creating a story around them. That said, the scrapbook conceit is the cleverest part of the book; the plot and characters are all fairly two-dimensional. Still, this is a fun, quick read that would appeal to people who enjoy scrapbooking or are fascinated by the 1920s.

Mini-Reviews: Mask, Winter, Unlimited

Grey MaskWinter of the WitchDetection Unlimited

Patricia Wentworth, Grey Mask

Charles Moray has just returned to England after four years abroad. When he reaches his home, he is surprised to find that it is unlocked and that a secret meeting is taking place inside. He learns that the intruders are members of a criminal organization led by an unknown man in a grey mask. He also sees Margaret Langton — the woman he once loved, who broke off their engagement right before the wedding with no explanation — enter the house and speak with Grey Mask. Charles decides not to go to the police but to investigate the matter himself. He and Margaret eventually team up to save a beautiful young heiress who is in danger from the gang and to discover the identity of Grey Mask. I thought this book would be somewhat cheesy and campy, but in fact I really enjoyed it! I will definitely read more by Patricia Wentworth; this is technically the first book in the Miss Silver series, but Miss Silver is a pretty marginal character in this installment.

Katherine Arden, The Winter of the Witch

I loved the first two books in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, and this book was a fitting conclusion to the series. I love the setting, which is essentially a magical version of medieval Russia that contains various elements of Russian folklore. I also really like that the series doesn’t shy away from consequences: although Vasilisa is a sympathetic heroine, sometimes her choices have unexpected or unintended effects on those close to her. It’s a morally complex universe where no one is completely good or evil, and I liked that the book has some sympathy for even the most destructive characters. My only complaint is that the novel is a bit slow-moving, but if you liked earlier books in the series, you should definitely read this last installment!

Georgette Heyer, Detection Unlimited

I love Georgette Heyer, but this isn’t one of my favorite of her mysteries. I’m a little surprised that I feel this way, though, because the mystery plot itself is one of her strongest. It’s a simple setup: a universally disliked man is shot in his garden, and everyone seems to have an alibi for the time of death. I thought the solution was clever and hung together well, although I was a bit disappointed in the choice of murderer because I liked that character! But the reason I didn’t totally love this book is that there’s a lot of padding surrounding the mystery plot; most of the book is just descriptions of the various characters and how they interact with one another. And while Heyer is great at characterization, I just wanted the story to go somewhere!

Mini-reviews: Henrietta’s, Matrimonial, Austen

Henrietta's WarMatrimonial AdvertisementAusten Escape

Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942

I greatly enjoyed this charming epistolary novel, which is both written and set during World War II. The titular Henrietta writes to her childhood friend Robert, who is off fighting somewhere in France, and describes daily life in her rural English village. Despite the constant presence of the war in the background, Henrietta mostly focuses on the mundane, humorous aspects of life. A pleasant and uplifting book.

Mimi Matthews, The Matrimonial Advertisement

Last year I read Matthews’s novella, A Holiday by Gaslight, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to seek out some of her full-length novels. This one, the first in her Parish Orphans of Devon series, is a “proper” Victorian romance (i.e., no explicit content) that centers around a marriage of convenience. Justin needs a wife to manage his remote, secluded estate, and Helena needs a safe place to hide from her past. The book definitely justified my high expectations, and I can’t wait to continue with the series!

Katherine Reay, The Austen Escape

I’ve read one other book by Reay, Dear Mr. Knightley, and I wasn’t a huge fan. But when I got this novel as a gift, I decided to give the author another chance. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this book either — something about the writing style just grates on my nerves. I also found the heroine obnoxious and unsympathetic, and I have no idea what her love interest saw in her. I was frankly appalled by one major plot point: the heroine’s best friend, who has a history of mental health issues, starts to believe she’s living in Jane Austen’s time…and nobody seems to think this is something that needs immediate medical attention! So all in all, I wasn’t a fan, and I’m pretty sure I’m done with this author.

Review: A Question of Proof

Question of ProofNicholas Blake, A Question of Proof

This first book in the Nigel Strangeways mystery series is set at an English boys’ prep school called Sudeley Hall. One of the schoolmasters, Michael Evans, is in love with Hero, the headmaster’s wife. They’ve been having a passionate affair for two months, but so far they’ve successfully managed to keep it a secret. One afternoon they meet for a rendezvous in a haystack on school property. Unfortunately for them, several hours later the corpse of one of the schoolboys is found in that same haystack. The boy, who was unpopular with both the students and teachers, has clearly been murdered, and it seems as though an outsider couldn’t have done it. Michael’s secret makes him the most likely suspect, a fact which isn’t lost on the local policeman in charge of the case. Luckily, one of Michael’s good friends is amateur detective Nigel Strangeways, who agrees to investigate the murder on the school’s behalf. Nigel is convinced of Michael’s innocence and soon sets his sights on another suspect. But since there’s very little physical evidence in the case, the murderer might get away scot-free.

I enjoyed this Golden Age mystery novel and think it’s a solid example of the genre with a few unique elements. First of all, Nicholas Blake is the pen name of Cecil Day-Lewis, who was Poet Laureate of the UK from 1968 to 1972, and I think his literary background shows in the writing style. The first chapter of the book reads more like a play, with lots of interior monologuing and narration that sounds like stage directions. It’s a clever device that recurs throughout the book, but it’s perhaps a bit overwrought. On the other hand, Day-Lewis was also a schoolmaster for several years, and it’s clear that his experience in this area also provided fodder for the book. The characterization of the schoolboys rings true and is especially fun to read. As for the mystery itself, I liked how the book deals with one question at a time and solves it before proceeding to the next problem — it makes the whole outline of the plot easier to follow, rather than waiting to dump everything on the reader in the last chapter. The revelation of the killer made sense but relied an awful lot on Strangeways’s amateur psychological profiling. Overall, I liked this book fine and will read the next in the series, Thou Shell of Death, which is already on my shelves!

Review: Murder Most Malicious

Murder Most MaliciousAlyssa Maxwell, Murder Most Malicious

It’s Christmas 1918, and England is ready for a little peace on earth after the end of the Great War. But the house party at Foxwood Hall is anything but peaceful: on Christmas night, Lady Phoebe Renshaw hears her older sister Julia arguing with her would-be fiancé, Lord Allerton. The argument ends with Julia breaking off their relationship — and the next day, Lord Allerton is nowhere to be found. Then some of the Foxwood servants receive a gruesome surprise in their Boxing Day gifts, indicating that Allerton is dead. The police believe one of the footmen is responsible, but Lady Phoebe and her maid, Eva Huntford, are convinced of his innocence. In an effort to prove it, Phoebe and Eva do some investigating of their own, and they soon discover that many of Foxwood’s current inhabitants — both above and below stairs — had a reason to want Allerton dead. And if they don’t stop sleuthing, they may be the next to die.

This book has strong Downton Abbey vibes, and I think anyone who enjoyed that show will like this book too. It gives that same upstairs-downstairs picture of English country house life at a time when social mores were beginning to shift dramatically. Phoebe and Eva are both likable protagonists, and despite their class differences, it’s obvious that they truly care for one another. At times they feel a little too much like stock characters, though . . . like every other heroine in historical fiction, they’re intelligent women who seek to transcend their social roles, but they don’t have many other personality traits. The same is true for most of the other characters: there’s the eccentric older relative, the faithful butler, the autocratic matriarch, the handsome lord who’s more than he seems, and so on. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable formula, so I didn’t mind too much. The mystery plot was interesting, and while I did guess the culprit, it was fun to follow along. Overall, I’m definitely interested in continuing with the series, and I hope that Phoebe and Eva’s characters will be more fleshed out in subsequent books.

Review: Mystery in White

Mystery in WhiteJ. Jefferson Farjeon, Mystery in White

Six passengers in a third-class train compartment become entangled in a sinister mystery when the train is trapped in a snowdrift on Christmas Eve. The group includes a lively young brother and sister, a chorus girl, an elderly bore, a shy clerk, and a professor with an interest in the supernatural. They all decide to leave the train and seek shelter at a nearby station, but they become lost in the snow and end up at an isolated country house. Desperate for shelter, they enter the house, but no one seems to be home. Yet the teakettle is on, and the table is set for a meal. As the characters try to make sense of these events, one of them reveals that a man was murdered in the train — and when the group is later joined by another “lost” individual, they suspect that he may be the murderer. This chain of events later converges with another mystery concerning the house itself and a murder that happened 20 years ago.

I enjoy Farjeon’s light and humorous writing style, and his characters are well rounded and sympathetic. But plot-wise, I was quite disappointed in this novel. The six characters introduced in the opening chapters of the book are the ones we follow for about two-thirds of the novel, so naturally I assumed that they would be the most important people in the story. But in fact, aside from the professor, who acts as the detective and orchestrates the denouement, none of these six people have any relevance to either of the mysteries in the novel! They provide some humor and some human interest, but they have no actual function in the plot. Instead, two new characters come in late in the game, and they turn out to be central to the story. I can’t understand why Farjeon would structure his story in such a way that it’s totally disconnected from the characters we’ve been following all along. I also felt sorry for several of the characters, who deserved a happier ending than what they got. All in all, this might be entertaining for people who enjoy a witty period piece, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for people who want a good mystery!

Review: The Moving Toyshop

Moving ToyshopEdmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop

On holiday in Oxford, poet Richard Cadogan stumbles upon a perplexing mystery. Arriving in town late at night, he blunders into a toyshop (the front door being mysteriously unlocked) and discovers a corpse in the flat upstairs. Before he can do much more than ascertain that the old woman is really dead, someone hits him from behind and knocks him out. When he comes to, Cadogan escapes and rushes to tell the police about the murder. But when he leads the policemen back to the scene of the crime, the toyshop is gone. In its place is a grocer that has obviously been there for years. Of course, the police think that Cadogan is crazy, and they won’t investigate a murder without a body. Luckily, Cadogan is acquainted with Gervase Fen, an Oxford don who moonlights as an amateur detective. Together, Fen and Cadogan investigate the mystery and uncover a murderous conspiracy, as well as discovering what happened to the moving toyshop.

This is a fun romp of an English Golden Age mystery, with just enough Oxford detail to please fans of academic mysteries. But despite the fact that it’s probably Crispin’s most famous novel, several aspects of it didn’t work for me. First, I can’t figure out Gervase Fen as a character: he’s supposed to be about 40 and lean, but his dialogue (especially the constant exclamations of “Oh, my dear paws!” and “Oh, my fur and whiskers!”) makes me picture a much older and larger man. Also, he’s rude about Jane Austen, which is an automatic strike against him in my book! Then there’s the issue of pacing. The story starts off strong, but it seems like most of the mystery is solved with about one-third of the book still to go. Finally, it seemed like the novel was setting up a romance for Cadogan, but nothing ever came of it, which I found confusing and disappointing. Still, I did enjoy the novel’s light tone overall, as well as the Oxford setting. I’d consider reading more by Crispin, but I think I’ll have to go in with moderate expectations.

Review: The Cut Direct

Cut Direct.jpgAlice Tilton, The Cut Direct

Leonidas Witherall, a retired professor at a boys’ school, can’t imagine why anyone would want to murder him; but within the first few chapters of this book, he is twice run over by a car. The perpetrator looks like one of Witherall’s former pupils, an unpleasant young man named Bennington Brett. But when Witherall regains consciousness after the second vehicular assault, he wakes up in a chair across from Brett’s corpse. Concerned that he’ll be the number-one suspect if he calls the police, Witherall decides that the only available course of action is to solve the murder himself. Along the way, he accumulates a motley crew of assistants, including a drinking pal of Bennington’s, the Brett household’s beautiful secretary, a mobster and his girlfriend, and the kindly widow next door — whose brother just happens to be the local chief of police. Of course, Witherall’s attempts to investigate are hampered by the fact that his description is all over the police reports and the newspapers. As his efforts to evade capture become ever more farcical, he slowly begins to piece the mystery together.

This second book in the Witherall series is just as much madcap fun as the first book, Beginning with a Bash. The book is light, breezy, and full of delicious banter; it reminds me of the great screwball comedies of the 1930s, and I really wish someone would adapt the series for television. The opening chapters of the book are a little bewildering because Witherall himself doesn’t know what has happened to him, but it’s actually pretty easy to follow all the strands of the somewhat convoluted plot. As a mystery, I’m not sure it’s entirely successful; some aspects of the solution aren’t fair play, although I think astute readers will spot the culprit fairly quickly. But the characters, the dialogue, and the humor more than make up for any plot deficiencies. I especially loved Mrs. Price, the thoroughly respectable widow who wholeheartedly embraces Witherall’s schemes, even going so far as to use police resources to help him out of various difficulties. In short, this book (and, so far, the series) is a delight, especially for fans of movies like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby.