Monday, October 17, 2016

Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths: My Review

Smoke and Mirrors is the second book in the Magic Men Mysteries, following the successful The Zig Zag Girl. This second entry seals the deal for me that Elly’s new series is another favorite. As an ardent fan of the Ruth Galloway series, I started this new series with a bit of trepidation. Could I really love another series by this favorite author as much as the first? Well, apparently, the answer is an unqualified yes. The smooth writing, the great plotting, and the fascinating characters whose depths are ever growing. It’s all there in the Magic Men series, also known as the Max Mephisto/Edgar Stephens series.

The setting is Brighton, England in 1951, and the Christmas season has begun. But, there is little to be jolly about after two children disappear on their way to a sweet shop and are found dead in a fresh snow two days later, a trail of candies/sweets leading to their bodies. Mark and Annie, ages 12 and 13, had been best friends, growing up on the same street, and both having an interest in writing plays and the theater. Annie’s writing leaned toward a dark, twisted style, with a startling retelling of Hansel and Gretel and an original, though steeped in folktale traditions, script entitled The Stolen Children. It falls to Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens and his team of DS Emma Holmes and Sergeant Bob Willis to determine who would have motive to kill these bright, creative kids just beginning their lives. There seems to be no shortage of leads to follow up and people to investigate and more than a few red herrings, but with a crime of this magnitude and brutality, no stone can be left unturned, and Griffiths leaves no loose threads when the resolution is revealed.

And, there is the theater connection, which leads Edgar to the pantomime performance of Aladdin at the Palace Pier Theater starring his friend and fellow WWII veteran, Max Mephisto. The current murders have eerie similarities to a 1912 pantomime performed in Hastings where a fifteen-year-old girl was killed right before she took the stage in Babes in the Wood play. One of the performers in the current pantomime had been one of two who discovered the body of that girl in 1912. Max gives Edgar insight and access to the theater world that would have been a closed community otherwise, and Edgar needs all the edge he can get in a case where make-believe is all too real.

The 1950s is an interesting, but challenging era to write about, but Elly Griffiths uses her resources well to recreate Brighton after the horrors of WWII, but still showing its effects in rationing and the all too fresh memories with which Edgar must deal. Edgar and Max have the bond of serving together in the Magic Men assignment during the war, and it has given them both a basis for a friendship and a way to cope with their past. The boundaries of what are socially and legally acceptable sexual relationships in Brighton and England in this pre-war decade surface, too, within the theater cast. And, there is still a matter of class divisions long after WWI started to change those. But, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the peek into the world of the English pantomime play of the 50s, with its double entendre and the fluidity of gender in roles.

Characters are one of the outstanding features of Griffiths’ writing that give it depth and provide the reader with exceptional enjoyment. Major characters, such as Edgar and Max, are expected to be well developed, with each book adding to their background and connection. But, Elly Griffiths, as she does in her Ruth Galloway series, gives incredible attention to detail in her minor characters, too. Emma Holmes is a sign of times to come with her smart, dedicated police work and her ability to succeed in what is still very much a man’s world. The Great Diablo brings his larger than life personality to the cast of the play and the cast of the book. Ruby, Max’s daughter and Edgar’s love interest is becoming a more clearly recognizable player, as her ambition becomes more apparent. Even the dead children are characters we feel we know and, thus, lament their deaths even more.

Elly Griffiths just received the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger in the Library for 2016, a prestigious award for her whole body of work thus far. It comes as no surprise to those of us who have read her books for years and enjoyed the consistency of excellence she always produces. Her stories continue to be one of the best highlights of my reading year.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Coffin Road by Peter May: My Review

I first fell in love with the wild and wooly Outer Hebrides of Scotland in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, three outstanding novels that captured the beauty of that isolated wildness. I also have the companion book by May and photographer David Wilson that is a testament to just how on target the written descriptions from the Lewis Trilogy are. Now, Peter May returns to the setting of the Hebridean archipelago in his latest book, a standalone, Coffin Road. This time, it is the Isle of Harris that is the featured spot in the Outer Hebrides, and it is once again a tale of depth as only Peter May can pull from these islands. Three stories that need to be resolved. Three stories that are dependent upon one another to fill in the blanks.

And, the book begins with just that. A blank. A man is washed up on the beach at a sparsely populated area of the Isle of Harris and doesn’t remember who he is or why he’s there. All he knows is that something bad has happened and he might be involved. He’s wearing a life jacket, but there’s no boat or other means of explaining his arrival. Struggling up the beach, he encounters an elderly woman who just happens to be his neighbor and calls him Mr. Maclean. The woman realizes Maclean is not well and leads him to his cottage. He is able to add the first name of Neal and a profession of writer after other neighbors, apparently friends, drop by. Neal makes a decision not to reveal his amnesia due to his uneasy feeling on the beach, and thus begins a frustrated effort to regain his identity and memory. A map with Coffin Road designated on it surfaces, but with no memory of it or its significance. He was supposedly writing a book about Eilean Mor and the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers on that island in 1900, but he can’t find a manuscript or any related work.

Another man lies dead from a head bashing in a small chapel at a lighthouse on Eilean Mor. Detective Sergeant George Gunn is sent from Stornoway on Isle of Lewis to investigate who the dead man is and what he was doing on the uninhabited island and who would want him dead. No small task with no ID on the murder victim. His only lead is the identification of a man seen fleeing the island by a tourist boat captain.

With the action going on in the Outer Hebrides, there is a third mystery forming in Edinburg, where a teenage girl is making discoveries that turn her world upside down. It’s been two years since her father’s disappearance was ruled a suicide, and Karen’s mother has just moved her boyfriend into the house with them. Karen’s transformation from a young teen at the time of her father’s death to a bitter, rebellious young woman with multiple tattoos and body piercings two years later has brought her to the point of breaking with her mother. Desperate for an anchor, Karen Fleming turns to her godfather, who worked with her father, for information about her father, something to help her find closure. She finds anything but closure, and lives are in danger as a result.

Peter May is a genius at many things in his writing, but two of the most brilliant are the aforementioned setting descriptions and the skill that must bring these layers of story together to fit seamlessly into a complete picture of who, what, when, where, how, and why. Is the murder of a lone man at an isolated lighthouse connected to a girl’s quest to find answers about her father? Is a man’s loss of identity authentic or a convenience? There are secrets hiding in every crook and cranny of this book, and May orchestrates their revelations into a perfect flow of need to know.

Peter May also is adept at turning out interesting characters, and his movement of them reminds me of chess pieces that are strategically and expertly placed. The main character of the novel is that of the amnesia sufferer, Neal Maclean, so readers must deal with an unreliable narrator much of the time, but one on a fascinating path. There are alternating narrators, with George Gunn and Karen Fleming taking their minor turns, but it is through Neal that readers must try to make sense of most of the twists and turns. Being a fan of the unreliable narrator when done well, I think May pulls it off quite well with the amnesia being the vehicle of unreliability. With every move towards regaining identity and memory, Neal Maclean edges towards reliability, and the story moves towards resolution.

And, with all the substance Coffin Road has with the characters and the setting and the layers of story, there is a cause. The reason for the secrets and the isolation and murder, a world issue that is woven into the story elements that will leave the reader with lingering fears of an all too real terror. I am pleased to say that with Coffin Road, readers will be treated to one of Peter May’s best and most thrilling tales yet.

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Friday, September 30, 2016

October Books: Catch Them as They Fall

The October book releases are upon us.  So grab your sweater and your cup of coffee or tea, because you will be chilling with some great reading this month.  This fall has been one amazing profusion of publications, and it shows no signs of letting up.  Steady your TBR pile and take a look at some of the titles coming your way.

Echoes of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon edited by Laurie R. King and Les Klinger (Oct. 1st)

Blood on the Tracks by Barbara Nickless  (Oct. 1st)

The Queen’s Accomplice by Susan Elia MacNeal  (Oct. 4th

Coffin Road by Peter May (Oct. 4th) (U.S.)

The Heavens May Fall by Allen Eskens (Oct. 4th)

The Big Book of Jack the Ripper by Otto Penzler (Oct. 4th

The Trespasser by Tana French (Oct. 4th)

Crosstalk by Connie Willis (Oct. 4th)

All the Little Liars by Charlaine Harris (Oct. 4th)

Murder in Containment: A Doyle and Acton Mystery by Anne Cleeland (Oct. 7th)


Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King  (Oct. 11th)

Hag-Seed (Hogarth Shakespeare) by Margaret Atwood (Oct. 11th)

Smoke and Mirrors (Magic Men series) by Elly Griffiths (Oct. 18th)

What Light by Jay Asher (Oct. 18th)

Mary Russell’s War and Other Stories of Suspense by Laurie R. King (Oct. 18th) (Paperback edition)

The Whistler by John Grisham (Oct. 25th)

Fields Where They Lay (A Junior Bender Novel) by Timothy Hallinan (Oct. 25th)

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life by Pat Conroy (Oct. 25th)

A March to Remember by Anna Loan-Wilsey: My Review


A March to Remember is the 5th Hattie Davish historical mystery by Anna Loan-Wilsey, and it is wonderfully predictable.  Predictable may sound a lot like boring, but the Hattie Davish mysteries are anything but that.  No, predictable here refers to the fascinating history and characters each of these mysteries contains.  Anna Loan-Wilsey does her research and it shows.  What is especially appealing to me is the predictability of those amazing back stories of history, an education of the lesser publicized events in a story that captivates.  Hattie Davish, the traveling secretary in this series, herself is a study into women’s roles that didn’t necessarily follow the norm in the 1890s.  Hattie has opportunity to use her intelligence and ingenuity like few women did in that era. 

In A March to Remember, Hattie travels to Washington, D.C. in March/April of 1894 with Sir Arthur Windom-Greene, her principal employer and mentor, so that Sir Arthur can do research on another of his books.  Well, it is usually Hattie doing the research, or copying documents from the files of historical papers, so that her employer can peruse the information at his leisure.  Hattie is at her best, ferreting out this information.  The timing of their visit coincides with the arrival of Coxley’s Army, a large group of unemployed men from around the country who have marched from Ohio and other points to represent the grievances of thousands of the unemployed who face starvation for themselves and their families after the bleak economy of 1893.  The plan is to speak at the Capitol, as a protest to the deplorable conditions and in support of a new roads bill that could employ a major part of those currently destitute and desperate.  Of course, Hattie becomes involved.  She and Sir Arthur are staying with Senator Merriweather Lewis Smith and his wife Mildred, and the senator is against the roads bill. 

Hattie’s involvement with the Coxley camp begins when she witnesses a carriage accident in which a young woman, who is employed at a house of prostitution, drowns after being thrown into a pond.  Her gentleman friend who was with her in the carriage flees the scene without trying to rescue the young woman and before he can be identified.  Two of Coxley’s men come upon the scene and one attempts to rescue the young woman to no avail.  Thus, Hattie’s first encounter with two of the men seeking a voice in the nation’s capital for their cause.  With Hattie’s detective skilled mind, she uncovers missing buttons from the vest of the man who fled, and the mystery solving begins.

Dr. Walter Grice, who is in love with Hattie and she him, also arrives in Washington to visit his sister, another senator’s wife, and to spend time with Hattie.  There is much for Hattie to see and do with and without Walter, as she meets President Cleveland’s wife, goes to a senate meeting, and explores the darker side of the city’s offerings.  Curiosity is a large part of Hattie’s character, and it is little surprise that she had actually seen the accident victim a day before at a house near Union Station, where she was to meet Walter. 

Politics is never simple and always at the forefront of what goes on in Washington City.  Hattie discovers connections between Coxley’s men, senators, prostitutes, and the society of the senators’ wives.   The day of the May Day march by Coxley’s Army brings large media coverage (L. Frank Baum covered it and it figures into his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—something I discovered in further reading about the event), as it is the first march on Washington, but it also brings fierce resistance from the government and law enforcement.  The attempt by Coxley to speak on the Capitol grounds is thwarted by police, who arrest Coxley for trespassing on the grass and who also wield an unrestrained show of force.  There is another unexplained death, a murder of one of Coxley’s men, when the smoke clears and another puzzling piece for Hattie to try to solve.  Who is behind all the mysterious deaths and events?  Signs point to those in the high levels of government and to those from the Coxley camp.  It is a quagmire of confusion that only our resourceful Hattie will be able to discern. 

Anna Loan-Wisley has such talent for presenting actual historical events surrounded by mystery and story that envelop the reader in a learning experience without realizing how very much you do learn.  Her descriptions of the Washington, D.C. in 1894 are exceptional, even the fascinating ride on the elevator of the Washington Monument.  The White House is also part of the setting that is so thrilling to picture at that point in time.  The characters are so well drawn out that you become invested in the minor as well as the major players.  The author’s words give life to the people and the place, so that the reader easily become ensconced into the world at hand. 

Learning that this book might be the last in the Hattie Davish series is quite a blow.  Anna Loan-Wilsey has such a gift for writing historical mystery that is seems a mistake must have been made.  My hope is that events occur to make the continuation of this series possible.  Of course, I look forward to any future books from Anna.

I was given a copy of A March to Remember by the author, but it in no way influenced my opinion.