Anna Lee Huber, This Side of Murder
It’s 1919, and war widow Verity Kent is on her way to an engagement party. Her late husband, Sidney, had been close friends with the groom, and they had fought together in the war. Nevertheless, Verity isn’t particularly excited about this party, but she has a specific reason for going: she has received an anonymous note implying that Sidney was involved in treasonous activity during the war. Verity is outraged — she knows Sidney would never do such a thing — and she wants to identify and expose the letter-writer. But when Verity arrives at the party, she learns that all the male guests knew Sidney from the war; in fact, they all served in the same battalion. Then one of the men turns up dead, and Verity is convinced that the murder is connected to the battalion’s actions during the war. To solve the mystery, Verity must investigate her husband’s past, but what she discovers is more shocking than she ever imagined.
I’m always on the lookout for historical mysteries set in the period between the two world wars. Ever since my tween self’s obsession with Agatha Christie, I’ve enjoyed books set in this era, especially if they also involve murder and skulduggery. So I was predisposed to like this book, and I did find it fairly enjoyable. Verity Kent is a somewhat stereotypical heroine, in that she is beautiful, highly competent, and forward-thinking enough to be appealing to contemporary readers. She’s fine, but I wasn’t particularly engaged with her character. However, I do have to give the author credit for surprising me, both regarding the evildoer’s identity and regarding certain romantic plot elements. I’m not entirely on board with how the romance turned out, but I’m intrigued to see what might happen in future books! So while this book didn’t blow me away, I liked it enough that I plan to seek out the sequel, Treacherous Is the Night.
Mary Balogh, Someone to Love
The earl of Riverdale has just died, and his family is putting his affairs in order. Obviously his son will inherit the title, the estate, and the bulk of the money. But the late earl also had an illegitimate daughter, Anna Snow, who grew up in an orphanage and is now a teacher there. The earl’s widow wants to give Anna some money, both as a kind gesture and as a way to forestall any future claims on the estate. But the lawyer she employs for this purpose makes a shocking discovery: Anna is actually the earl’s legitimate daughter, and her existence effectively disinherits his widow and his other children. Anna would like to be close to her newfound family, since she was previously alone in the world, but they all resent her for depriving them of their wealth and status. Her only ally is Avery Archer, a friend of the family, who decides to help her acclimate to her new life. But he never expected to be so drawn to her; and Anna never thought she would be so tempted to lose her heart to a (seemingly) shallow leader of society.
I was craving a good romance novel when I saw a review of this one at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did, because I really enjoyed this book! First of all, I think the setup is pretty genius; it may not be the most plausible premise, but it certainly sets up some great conflicts, both for this book and (presumably) for future books in the series. I very much liked Anna as a heroine — she’s confident in herself but also has a deep longing for intimacy and connection that she’s not sure how to express. In this respect, Avery is a great match for her, since he also conceals deep loneliness under a bored and detached facade. I really enjoyed his urbane quips and his witty conversations with Anna, and I loved that he’s not a typical alpha-male hero. My only quibble with the book is Avery’s practice of martial arts, because every time Avery engages in violence in the novel, it’s portrayed as being sexually appealing. Additionally, a somewhat stereotypical “Chinese gentleman” is the source of Avery’s knowledge (see the SBTB review and comments for a great discussion of this). Aside from that, though, I liked this book a lot and will definitely seek out more by Mary Balogh when I want a well-written Regency romance.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase
Harriet Vane, the famous detective novelist and infamous murder suspect (recently acquitted), is on a walking tour of British coastal villages. One afternoon she has a picnic on the beach and drops off to sleep. When she awakens, she is shocked to discover the body of a dead man farther along the beach. The man’s throat has been cut, but there is only one set of footprints (which must belong to the corpse), so suicide is a possibility. But Harriet can’t help thinking it might be murder. She photographs the body — which will be washed away when the tide comes in — and goes for help. But much to Harriet’s chagrin, help eventually arrives in the form of Lord Peter Wimsey, whose eagerness to solve the mystery is compounded by his desire to spend more time with Harriet. As the two join forces to solve the mystery, they also struggle to define the nature and boundaries of their relationship.
The more I read of Dorothy L. Sayers, the more I come to realize that she is emphatically not for everyone. This book is a Golden Age mystery, but it’s far from a typical one. Sayers is unquestionably familiar with the tropes of the genre — indeed, Peter and Harriet have some fun mocking them in this book — but she doesn’t seem particularly interested in following them herself. As with many of her other books, the “whodunit” is not the main concern; rather, she spends most of her time setting up a seemingly impossible crime, then explaining at length how it was possible after all. It’s clever, but I must confess that it didn’t hold my attention. A chapter near the end, where Peter and Harriet decode a letter and painstakingly explain how the code works, is especially dull.
However, I still really liked this book, and the reason is that I’m fascinated by the development of the relationship between Peter and Harriet. There’s one scene in particular, where they leave aside their usual polite banter and express their real emotions, that hit me right in the gut. Much as my romantic heart wants them to get together, I completely understand Harriet’s ambivalence and her struggle to maintain her independence in the face of Peter’s relentless pursuit. I’m extremely eager to read Gaudy Night now, but since I’m going in publication order, I have a couple books in between. I think that when I reread the series (as I undoubtedly will), I’ll group all the Peter-and-Harriet books together.
Ben Macintyre, The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief
Ben Macintyre’s enthusiasm for larger-than-life historical figures is evident once again in this biography of Adam Worth, one of the most notorious thieves and con artists of the late 19th century. Worth began his criminal career as a pickpocket but soon established himself as a gang leader, gaining notoriety through planning a series of successful bank jobs. Eventually Worth set up shop in London, where he created a public persona as a wealthy English gentleman, which he was able to maintain for decades even while continuing his criminal activities. His crowning achievement was the theft of Gainsborough’s famous portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Worth’s criminal genius, plus his short stature, prompted a Scotland Yard detective to dub him the “Napoleon of the criminal world” — a phrase famously used to describe the ultimate fictional criminal mastermind, Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty.
I’m a big fan of Ben Macintyre’s books about World War II-era espionage, so I was excited to try this book even though it has a different subject matter. I’m not sure if it was the different focus or the fact that I was extremely busy in real life at the time, but I just couldn’t get into this book the same way I did with Operation Mincemeat, for example. I think Macintyre overstates his thesis, which is that Worth was the real-life inspiration for Moriarty; the evidence that exists really doesn’t seem very conclusive. Also, he focuses a lot on Worth’s theft of the Gainsborough painting and engages in some psychological speculation about Worth’s supposed obsession, which according to Macintyre had a sexual component. In this area, there really seems to be NO evidence supporting the book’s claims! I did find the interactions between Worth and William Pinkerton (yes, one of those Pinkertons) to be very interesting and would have loved the book to focus more on that relationship. Overall, the book is entertaining enough, but I didn’t like it as much as I expected to.
Matt Haig, The Humans
Professor Andrew Martin, a mathematician at Cambridge University, has just proved the Riemann hypothesis, an action that represents a huge breakthrough with dramatic consequences for the improvement of human science and technology. Unfortunately, his discovery has come to the attention of an alien race that, believing all humans are motivated by violence and greed, will do anything to prevent it from going public. Therefore, one of the aliens is sent to Earth to invade the professor’s body, destroy the proof of the Riemann hypothesis, and kill anyone who might know about the discovery — including the professor’s wife and troubled teenage son. At first, the alien is eager to complete his mission; but the more time he spends on Earth, the more he comes to understand and even love the humans around him.
I went into this book knowing very little about it, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it! Matt Haig has a light, playful style but doesn’t shy away from more serious moments, as when the alien narrator begins to feel the tension between his growing empathy with the humans and his own cultural values. I liked that the book is a sort of philosophical thought experiment, exploring how the human race might look to an intelligent but emotionally detached outsider, and ultimately considering the question of what it means to be human. Oddly, I found the human culture on display in this book to be a bit off-putting . . . for example, the fact that Andrew Martin’s son is named Gulliver rubbed me the wrong way. But overall, this is a fun read with a good mixture of levity and thoughtfulness.
Lucy Parker, Making Up
Trix Lane is a confident, talented circus performer whose daring aerial acrobatics have won her a major role in a popular and long-running London show. But some of her spark has dimmed lately, in the wake of an emotionally abusive relationship that shook her confidence. Now she has the opportunity to get an even bigger role in the show, but she’s not quite sure she can do it. And her anxiety isn’t helped when she learns that Leo Magasiva has just been hired to do makeup for the show. Leo and Trix have a fraught past, and whenever they meet, they can’t seem to help antagonizing each other. But beneath their sarcastic banter is an undeniable attraction, and when they begin to explore their true feelings for one another, Trix is surprised to discover how compatible they really are. But will their fledgling relationship be able to survive new misunderstandings and competing career goals?
I adore Lucy Parker’s contemporary romances, and this one is no exception. I love the enemies-to-lovers trope when it’s done well, which it definitely is here; I especially loved the nods to Much Ado about Nothing (my favorite Shakespeare play, not surprisingly!). I have to admit, though, I didn’t adore this book quite as much as I did Act Like It and Pretty Face. I think it’s because the overall tone is a little more somber, and there isn’t quite as much witty banter. (That’s understandable, of course, given that Trix is recovering from her ex’s abusive treatment.) I also find that I can’t remember very many incidents in the book. Both Leo and Trix do change throughout the novel, but their development is largely internal, not necessarily tied to specific plot events. Don’t get me wrong — I still really liked this book! It’s just a bit quieter than Parker’s previous novels. But I still love her and can’t wait until her next book, The Austen Playbook, comes out!
Charles Finch, Home by Nightfall
***Warning: Slight spoilers for previous books in this series.***
In this ninth installment of the Charles Lenox series, the Victorian gentleman-sleuth is happy that his fledgling detective agency is beginning to thrive. He is especially excited about the recent disappearance of a famous German pianist who had been performing in London. Hoping to be hired to assist the police, Charles eagerly reads the newspaper reports and spins theories to explain the disappearance. But his attention is split between this mystery and his brother Edward, who is grieving the recent death of his wife Mary. Charles offers to keep Edward company at his country estate, only to run into more strange occurrences: a break-in, several thefts, and an unsettlingly cryptic drawing. Now Charles must work to solve two mysteries, and he soon realizes that in both cases, nothing is as it seems.
I quite enjoy this series, so I’m not sure why I waited three and a half years to read this book after reading the previous installment! It was nice to revisit these characters and immerse myself in this world after spending some time away. And I think this might be one of the strongest books in the series. I was able to guess some elements of the countryside mystery, but it still held my interest, and I found the resolution to be very thought-provoking and poignant. I also enjoyed the diversion to the village setting — most of the plot takes place there, although Charles does dash up to London every so often to work on the case of the disappearing pianist. In fact, my main complaint is that the dual mystery plots split the reader’s focus; I would have preferred to stay in the country and follow that case, perhaps leaving the pianist for another book. Still, this is a very good installment of an enjoyable series — well worth reading for fans of historical mysteries!
Miles Burton, Death in the Tunnel
When prominent businessman Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found dead in a first-class train compartment, the local police assume that he must have committed suicide. After all, they found the murder weapon, monogrammed with Sir Wilfred’s initials, in the train compartment, and the train employees swear that no one entered or left the compartment except Sir Wilfred himself. But because of the man’s high social status—and the apparent lack of a motive—Scotland Yard is called in. Inspector Arnold is not quite satisfied with the suicide theory, so he in turn asks for the help of his friend Desmond Merrion, an amateur expert in criminology. Together, Arnold and Merrion consider the possibility that Sir Wilfred was murdered and try to discover how it could be done.
This is one of those Golden Age mystery novels that’s all plot and absolutely no character development. The two principal characters are Arnold and Merrion, and all we ever learn about them is that Merrion is more “imaginative” than Arnold, but both are good detectives. They have literally no other character traits — though I believe there are several other books featuring Merrion, so he may be better defined elsewhere. Sir Wilfred is only fleshed out enough to hint at a possible motive for murder, and the three or four suspects are only vaguely differentiated from each other. That said, the plot is actually very ingenious — one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a while from a pure “puzzle” standpoint! Merrion and Arnold piece together their solution in a very logical way, demonstrating how the seemingly impossible crime could have been accomplished. So in the end, the excellent plot made up for the lackluster characterization, for me; your mileage may vary.
Kathleen A. Flynn, The Jane Austen Project
Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane live in a near-future world where time travel is well established as a scientific research tool. Their first mission is to travel to 1815, where they will retrieve Jane Austen’s personal letters (many of which were destroyed after her death) and her manuscript of “The Watsons,” which, according to a recent discovery, she actually did complete. To achieve this goal, Rachel and Liam will pose as members of the gentry and try to become part of the Austens’ social circle. But the more they get to know Jane and her family, the more Rachel and Liam begin to have scruples about their actions. Additionally, they start to worry about the possibility of changing history and the even scarier possibility that they may not be able to leave 1815. And of course, the deepening of their relationship to each other may have far-reaching consequences in both 1815 and their own time.
I enjoyed this book overall, but I definitely think some parts were more successful than others. The premise is certainly an interesting one if you love Jane Austen, and overall I think the portrayal of Jane and her family was very well done. The book evokes the 1815 setting very well; it feels like the reader is also a time traveler, being immersed into this bygone era for the first time. I was particularly tickled by one scene where Jane catches Rachel looking through her private papers and accuses her of being a French spy! That said, the novel gives short shrift to the time travel element; it doesn’t explain how it works or what the “rules” are, and the future consequences of Rachel and Liam’s actions in 1815 are wrapped up very quickly. Finally, I wasn’t particularly invested in the romance. While Rachel and Liam are both pleasant enough, I never really got a sense of what made them tick. Ultimately, I did like the book, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll ever need to reread.
Lauren Willig, The English Wife
In the winter of 1899, Bayard van Duyvil and his highborn English wife, Annabelle, are at the pinnacle of New York high society. Wealthy and attractive, with two young children and a brand-new estate, they seem to be the perfect couple — that is, until their Twelfth Night ball, when Bayard is found murdered and Annabelle goes missing. Rumors abound that Annabelle killed her husband, but Bayard’s sister Janie is not convinced. With the help of dashing journalist James Burke, Janie is determined to discover what really happened to Bay and Annabelle. But she soon learns that their relationship was much more complicated than it appeared.
I always enjoy Lauren Willig’s books, but I find that I definitely prefer her light and fluffy Pink Carnation series to her more serious historical novels. I enjoyed the setting of this one, and I liked Janie a lot — I’m always a fan of characters who have to grow into their strength. The romance between Janie and James was also satisfying, albeit quite predictable. However, I wasn’t a huge fan of the secondary narrative, which takes place five years earlier and is told from the point of view of Georgie, an actress who meets Bayard while he’s visiting London. I liked Georgie but disliked Bayard more and more as the story went on. I also found Janie’s story more interesting, so I was annoyed when the book’s focus shifted away from her. Overall, I found this an enjoyable read, but it’s not a keeper for me.