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.
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.
William Ritter, Ghostly Echoes
This third installment of the Jackaby series focuses on Jenny Cavanaugh, the resident ghost of 926 Augur Lane. She was brutally murdered 10 years ago, and now she is finally ready for her friends Jackaby and Abigail to investigate. As they begin to research the case, they realize that Jenny’s murder may be connected to recent disturbing events in New Fiddleham. Their investigation leads them to the eerie pale man who lurked at the edges of Beastly Bones, to a group of scientists with a sinister plan, and even to the Underworld itself. Meanwhile, Jenny continues to grow in confidence, even as she grapples with the question of what will happen to her when her murder is finally solved. Abigail’s mettle is tested as never before, and glimpses of Jackaby’s mysterious past are finally revealed.
I read this book a couple months ago, and I’m afraid I may not be remembering the plot very clearly; no doubt my summary has left some things out. But this is an exciting installment of the series, pulling together some of the plot threads from earlier books and setting the stage for a magical showdown in the fourth and final novel. I liked that we finally get a little insight into Jackaby’s past and some of the more unusual aspects of his personality, and it was also nice to learn more about Jenny, who is a fairly minor character in the first two books. The solution to the murder mystery is very clever, but I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that it ties into a much larger story arc that won’t be resolved until book four. The first two books in the series are much more episodic, but this one definitely can’t be read as a stand-alone novel. However, I’m certainly intrigued enough to pick up The Dire King and see how everything turns 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.
Elizabeth Daly, Unexpected Night
This first novel in the Henry Gamadge series centers around Amberley Cowden, a young man who stands to inherit millions of dollars on his 21st birthday—assuming he lives that long. He has a chronic heart condition, and it’s only a matter of time before he has a fatal attack. But when his body is found at the bottom of a cliff on the very day he turns 21, his death can’t help but raise suspicions. The local police mount an investigation that leads to a nearby theater troupe, another mysterious death, and the attempted murder of Alma, Amberley’s cousin and heiress. Henry Gamadge, who knows some of Amberley’s relatives, assists the police in their investigation, and his expertise in handwriting analysis proves valuable in solving the case.
Although it’s not particularly groundbreaking, I enjoyed this Golden Age mystery very much. The plot is a little bloated in places, but I found the ultimate solution ingenious. I also liked the character of Henry Gamadge, although he’s very involved with an investigation he really has no right to be involved with — a fact that several of the other characters point out! But I like that he cooperates so well with the local police, rather than trying to investigate on his own. Stylistically, I didn’t like the fact that dialogue tags are very infrequent; it’s often not immediately obvious who is speaking, although I could generally figure it out from context. Still, that quibble aside, I liked this book and am excited to read more in the Henry Gamadge series.
Tom Rob Smith, Child 44
In the USSR of the 1950s, no crimes are acknowledged except crimes against the state. After all, by removing distinctions of class and property ownership, the communist regime has theoretically abolished every reason for individuals to commit crimes like murder or theft. Leo Demidov, an officer of the state security force, believes this unquestioningly — until a coworker’s son is murdered, his stomach removed, and his mouth stuffed with dirt. Leo is ordered to report the boy’s death as an accident, but then he discovers that a dead girl’s body was found in the same condition, in a town hundreds of miles away. As Leo investigates these seemingly related deaths, he himself comes under the state’s suspicion and must ultimately question his commitment to the regime.
This is a book with a lot of different things going on, and ultimately I enjoyed some elements more than others. First, it’s a depiction of life in 1950s Russia that I found very compelling. Some Amazon reviewers have noted inaccuracies in the details, and the overall portrayal does lack nuance — no question who the bad guys are here! — but I definitely thought a lot about what it must be like to live in such a constant state of fear. Less successful, for me, was the hunt for the serial killer. The storyline lacks momentum, and without spoilers, I’ll just say that the overall resolution seemed to rely on one twist too many. Finally, the development of Leo’s relationship with his wife Raisa was a bit sketchy and rushed; I would have liked the book to spend a lot more time exploring their complicated feelings toward each other. Overall, I did enjoy the book and would consider reading the sequels, but I wasn’t wowed by it.
Tana French, Faithful Place
Frank Mackey, last seen as Cassie’s irascible handler in The Likeness, is an experienced undercover cop. He’s tough as nails and an expert in detachment: getting emotionally involved in an operation is the surest way to screw it up. But Frank’s detachment is really rooted in his childhood, growing up in a poor neighborhood in 1980s Dublin. When he was 19 years old, he was madly in love with Rosie Daly, the girl next door. Despite their families’ disapproval, they were planning to run away to England together. But Rosie never showed up, and Frank always assumed that she changed her mind and left the neighborhood on her own. Now, however, one of Frank’s sisters reaches out to him with disturbing news: no one has heard from Rosie since she supposedly left town, and her suitcase has just been found. To find out what really happened all those years ago, Frank must return to his estranged family and face the ghosts of his past; but the truth may be even more horrible than living with the uncertainty.
The word I keep using to describe this book is intense, but that doesn’t seem to encompass the emotional wringer I went through while reading this book. Something about Tana French’s writing pulls me in and grabs me, and I think this novel might be my favorite of hers so far. Frank is not a particularly likable character—he’s manipulative, callous, and occasionally violent—but I never doubted the truth of his thoughts, feelings, and actions. His interactions with his family also felt real to me; French excels in her depiction of dysfunctional families, and the Mackeys are a quintessential example. The plot isn’t particularly complex as far as mysteries go; Rosie’s fate is never really in doubt, and the villain of the piece isn’t that hard to spot either. But the point of this type of mystery isn’t solving the puzzle of whodunnit or why; the point is what happens, or what ought to happen, once the puzzle is solved. And the consequences of Frank’s discovering the truth provide the gut punch of this novel. Bottom line, I can’t wait to continue with the Dublin Murder Squad series!
N.B. This is technically book 3 of the Dublin Murder Squad series, but you absolutely won’t be missing anything if you haven’t read books 1 and 2.
Lois Austen-Leigh, The Incredible Crime
Prudence Pinsent enjoys her position as the daughter of the Master of Prince College, Cambridge. She socializes with the various professors, Fellows, and their wives, and she loves a good rugby match. One day she travels into the countryside to visit her cousin, Lord Wellende, and to enjoy a few days’ hunting on his estate. En route, she encounters an old acquaintance who happens to be a coast guard inspector. He reveals that a nasty new drug is being smuggled into England, and the central distributor is operating out of Cambridge. Moreover, he suspects that Lord Wellende, whose estate is on the coast, may also be involved. He asks Prudence to keep her eyes and ears open while she visits her cousin, but she insists that Wellende couldn’t possibly be involved in drug smuggling. However, the longer she stays at Wellende’s estate, the more she is forced to admit that something fishy is going on. Meanwhile, she finds romance in an unlikely place.
I enjoyed this book for its bright, lively voice, but I must say that the plot is very scattered! Cambridge actually isn’t a huge part of the story, but the scenes set there feel more like a satire of academia than anything else. The drug smuggling is the main plot, but it’s not a traditional mystery in the sense of fair cluing, multiple suspects, alibis, and the like. There is a suspicious death in the book, but it happens almost at the end of the novel and is resolved fairly quickly. Then there’s the romantic element, which I (somewhat surprisingly) was not a fan of and which felt very tacked on. My overall impression is that the book isn’t sure what it’s trying to be. I think it’s best to approach the novel as a period piece — the style is enjoyable, there are some lovely descriptions of the countryside, and some of the minor characters are great fun. But it’s not particularly satisfying as a mystery, and I’m not sure whether I’ll end up keeping my copy.
Alan Bradley, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place
***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***
In this latest installment of the Flavia de Luce series, Buckshaw is in mourning after the death of Haviland. To cheer up Flavia and her sisters, Dogger suggests a holiday to the nearby village of Volesthorpe. But what should be a peaceful boating excursion inevitably turns into another mystery when Flavia dangles her hand in the water and inadvertently catches a corpse. The dead man is Orlando Whitbread, the son of Canon Whitbread, who was convicted of murdering three of his parishioners by poisoning the communion chalice. Naturally, Flavia is on the case, and she soon discovers that the people of Volesthorpe are hiding many secrets, including what really happened in the case of the poisoned chalice.
After reading Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, I honestly wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue with this series. Flavia’s continuing lack of friends, her adversarial relationship wth her sisters, and of course Haviland’s death made me feel very sad for Flavia, and I was more depressed than entertained. But I’m happy to say that this book was a lot more fun; it feels like the old irrepressible Flavia is back! I loved her interactions with Dogger in this novel, and it was interesting to learn a little more about his backstory. I was also pleased to see her getting along with her sisters a bit better, especially Daffy, whose love of poetry ends up giving Flavia a key clue. There’s even a hint of a suspicion that Flavia might be growing up, although I’m kind of torn on whether or not I want that to happen…. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to the next book now, and I’m happy that the series seems to be back on track!