Saturday, January 15, 2022

Death and the Maiden by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman: Reading Room Review

 

When author Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman) passed away in 2011, she had published four books in the Mistress of the Art of Death series. Beginning in 2007 with the stunning Mistress of the Art of Death novel, it was followed by The Serpent’s Tale, Grave Goods, and A Murderous Procession. Fans, including me, of this superbly written series were bereft at the loss of such talent and resigned to lingering storylines being left unresolved. 

This series features Adelia Aguilar, a young woman who, with her man servant Mansur, answers the summons from King Henry II of England for a forensic specialist doctor to come from Salerno, Italy to England and help solve an ongoing string of brutal child murders. Because the stories take place in the High Middle Ages, the latter 1100s, Adelia, as a woman, must keep her skills hidden and the credit given to Mansur. However, Henry II knows just how talented and knowledgeable Adelia is and decides to refuse her return to her native land. There is the character of Sir Rowley, who also serves the King, at first as his tax man and then as a bishop. Rowley becomes involved with Adelia, both personally and professionally, and they form a formidable team all the way around. 

The books have great story, characters, adventure, mystery, and history. The history of this time period, latter 1100s, is fascinating, and Franklin knew how to bring it to life with a brilliance of sufficient detail and precise language. Some of the history interspersed with the stories included Henry II and his Queen, Eleanor, Adelia’s limitations as a woman in Medieval Times, the intricacies of politics and religion ruling everyone, and the methods of both healing and examining the dead. The murder mysteries within all this context were clever and quite dark, but following the line of investigation that Adelia pursued in these dark tales was thrilling. 

So, when the decision was announced that there would be a fifth and final book in the Mistress of Death series written by Samantha Norman, Ariana Franklin’s daughter, there was great excitement. But, fans also recognized that Samantha Norman had big shoes to fill, even with the help of her mother’s notes. Death and the Maiden, the fifth and last book in the series was released in June of 2021, but I have only just read it. I sometimes drag my feet when I know a book is the last one by an author, as if I can make it last longer. I know that there are some mixed reviews on whether Samantha Norman successfully accomplished the task of standing in for her mother and giving us a book to tie up loose ends. I think she has. Oh, there are some quibbles I have, but overall I think that Death and the Maiden gives great satisfaction to the readers of this series.

Oh, those quibbles I mentioned. They mostly involve some questionable character choices. First, the fact that this last book revolves around Adelia’s and Rowley’s now grown daughter Allie. It could have been a disastrous choice to not feature Adelia as the lead here, but somehow it seemed right that the next generation through her daughter was stepping up to show what the future might hold for all of them. The only fault I had with this approach is that Norman kept referring to Adelia and Rowley as if they were old now, or certainly aging characters. Of course, in 1191, the 40s could be considered aging. I just think Norman made a few too many references to these two vital characters feeling their age. Again, the argument could be made that life in the Middle Ages was hard and that people aged faster, and as a result the life expectancy was fairly young compared to today. So, the matter of these choices made by the author may have bothered me a bit, but they did nothing to ruin my enjoyment of the story. In fact, I think that Allie was definitely up to the task as main character.

So, what happens in this last book? King Henry II is dead, Queen Eleanor is in France, and King Richard I is on the throne of England. The previous book, A Murderous Procession, takes place in 1176 when Allie is a child. She is now all grown up and studying under the tutelage of her mother in the art of forensic science and in healing. Adelia and Allie live comfortably near their friend Emma of Wolvercote Manor, and Rowley visits when he can get away from his busy duties as Bishop of Saint Albans. Life is, well, predictable, until a Gyltha’s sister Penda arrives from the Fens (Ely) with news that Gyltha is on her death bed, and if Adelia doesn’t accompany her back to Ely, Gyltha will surely soon die. Unfortunately, Adelia has just broken her ankle and can’t travel. Since Allie has been training under her, Adelia sends Allie with Penda. Adelia will have to wait out her ankle healing to join them in Ely.

Allie arrives in the village of Ely after a grueling four-day ride on horseback at an especially dark time. Not only is Gyltha gravely ill, but there have been teenage girls disappearing from the community and turning up much later in the river, dead. The locals attribute the deaths to accidental drownings, but, like her mother Adelia, Allie has the detective’s nose for sniffing out evil and feels that there’s something off about the disappearances and deaths. However, the first order of business is getting Gyltha well. Well-versed in the healing methods with which Adelia has been successful, Allie proves herself an able stand-in in treating Gyltha, and it’s not long before the beloved old wise woman is on the mend. 

With Gyltha’s recovery comes time for Allie to enjoy her surroundings of the Fens, the place she lived when a young child. She’s happy to be back, yet she can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right in the peaceful setting. There are distractions from Allie’s concerns though, and the biggest one is Lord Peverill, who seems interested in Allie, which is rather what Rowley and Penda had planned before Penda took her away to the Fens. Penda is also teaching Allie archery skills, which Allie is quite enjoying. And, Allie has made a good friend in Hawise, Gyltha’s granddaughter. In fact, Allie is feeling a sense of independence she’s never felt while she was under her mother’s scrutiny. 

When a friend of Hawise’s goes missing and turns up dead at the river’s edge, Allie has a chance to examine the girl’s body before it’s taken away. What Allie discovers is that the girl was strangled and raped before ending up in the river. Surmising that it must be someone local who has kidnapped and murdered the girls, Allie and others realize how dangerous the situation has become. As Allie waits for Adelia and Rowley to get to the Fens, she is forced to do some digging on her own, as yet another girl disappears. Before this tale is over, the suspense will be as thick as the fog over the fens on an early winter morning. 

Although I am sad to see this series end, I am well pleased with how it ended. It is easy for me to imagine the lives of these favorite characters beyond the pages of Death and the Maiden. I think Samantha Norman deserves high praise for giving readers a final farewell and well written last journey. This series will always be one of my favorites with his setting of England during Henry II’s reign into Richard I’s. For further historical fiction set during these two reigns, check our Sharon Kaye Penman’s five book series beginning with When Christ and His Saints Slept. The Middle Ages have so much drama from which to draw stories and so much world-forming history to connect those stories to. I recommend starting at book one in the Mistress of the Art of Death series so that the history and characters can unfold chronologically. You're in for some great reading.  Enjoy.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman: Reading Room Review

 


When I read last year's The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, I was thrilled with its unique entry into the mystery/crime genre. Yes, I know. There have been senior citizen detectives or amateur sleuths before, but here was a group of septuagenarians living at a retirement home in Kent, England who have banded together to add some excitement to their lives by reviewing unsolved murder cold cases. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim find murder and crime right under their noses though. The resourcefulness these four bring to the table is impressive, even to local constable Donna DeFreitas and her boss, DCI Chris Hudson, who by the end of the first book become friends of the Thursday Murder Club members. After falling hard for these characters and their witty camaraderie, I expected book two, The Man Who Died Twice, to be one of my best reads in 2021. Well, it was and then some. I saved this book until the end of the year, and I was rewarded with a read that ended the year on a very high note. 

Again, the investigations of our intrepid foursome are sizzlingly current and not of the cold, forgotten kind. I'm hesitant to give much information on the plots weaving throughout the book that find common resolution in the end. There's just too much to enjoy discovering in the story on one's own. The Thursday Murder Club becomes involved in a case spiraling in from Elizabeth's past, her past as a senior MI5 operative (spy). The first book hinted at Elizabeth's adventuresome and dangerous past, but book two lets the cat of her past out of the bag completely. She is contacted by a former spy associate who is still in the business, and he needs her help. He happens to be Elizabeth's ex-husband Douglas, who is hiding out in an apartment at Cooper's Chase. Douglas and another MI5 agent broke into the home of Martin Lomax, a middle man and money launderer for criminals all over the world. Lomax reports a bag containing millions of dollars of diamonds missing after the break-in and accuses Douglas of their theft. Being a marked man, Douglas has turned to the best spy he ever knew to get him out of his mess. Elizabeth and her friends decide to take on the task. Meanwhile, Donna and Chris are working to bring down the local Fairhaven drug king pin who happens to be a queen, Connie Johnson. Readers can expect cross-over action. One point of much interest is that Ibrahim will be doing any of his work strictly from his home, due to injuries he receives at the beginning of the book. The way he receives his injuries is yet a third part to the story, as there is retribution to be dealt out for it.

The characters are what drive these books and provide the witty dialogue and inventiveness of the investigations. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron find friendship and purpose in their “golden” years by using their brains and individual skills to show just how valuable they are. We come to know this group as interesting, vital people, not ready to be put out to pasture or ignored. Of course, they must deal with mortality, as they do live in a retirement home where death is no stranger, and they can’t help but think about their own at times. Yet, the reader will see far more optimism here than negativity. These sleuthing friends display an energy that defies age. And, there are younger characters, too, who make this story sing. The give and take in the relationship between Donna and Chris is delivered brilliantly through their entertaining dialogue. Donna has arrived in her boss’ life at just the right time for him, and the Murder Club has made a timely arrival in Donna’s life as well. In The Man Who Died Twice, these two characters reveal more of themselves, and when Donna introduces Chris to her mother, we gain another dimension to Chris that endears him to us even more.

One of the vehicles Richard Osman uses so cleverly in this book, and the last, to move the action forward is Joyce’s journaling. Her journal entries fill in blanks for us and help to bring loose ends together in what the Murder Club is doing in their investigation. It also gives us a more personal and fleshed out view of Joyce, such as her relationship with her daughter, and the others. The journal serves as a smooth segue from one scene to another, while enhancing our emotional investment in the characters. Readers will be pleased to see Joyce make great strides from Elizabeth's shadow in book two. 

I had heard amongst the buzz circulating around this second book that it was even better than the first. I think what prompts that statement is that readers are past the introductory phase with these favorite characters and are now deep into their hearts and minds. And, it's the expansion of the character base, too, getting to know Elizabeth's husband Stephen better and Ron's grandson Kendrick and Stephen's chess partner/Elizabeth's heavy lifter Bogdan. It's easy to think of The Man Who Died Twice as even better than The Thursday Murder Club because we now feel right at home at Cooper's Chase Retirement Village.


My Favorite Reads of 2021

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman  The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams  The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths  The Playground Murders by Lesley Thomson  The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean  Fogged Off by Wendall Thomas 

The Hollywood Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal Untrue Blue by Emma Jameson  State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton  Shot Caller by Jen J. Danna  The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths  Murder in Material Gain by Anne Cleeland

Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby  The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell God Rest Ye, Royal Gentlemen by Rhys Bowen  A Gingerbread House by Catriona McPherson  We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker  Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara

Death at Greenway by Lori Rader-Day  Body Zoo by J.D.   Allen  Under Pressure by Sara Driscoll  The Distant Dead by Lesley Thomson  A Ghost in the Garden by Elly Griffiths  Death by Equine by Annette Dashofy

The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny  The Guide by Peter Heller

 

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams (2021)

The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean (2021)

The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths (2021)

Fogged Off by Wendall Thomas (2021)

Untrue Blue by Emma James (2021)

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths (2021)

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker (2021)

A Gingerbread House by Catriona McPherson (2021)

State of Terror by Louise Penny and Hillary Rodham Clinton (2021)

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell (2021)

The Hollywood Spy (Maggie Hope #10) by Susan Elia MacNeal (2021)

The Playground Murders (The Detective's Daughter #7)  by Lesley Thomson (2020)

The Distant Dead (The Detective’s Daughter #8) by Lesley Thomson (2021)

Body Zoo byJ.D. Allen (2021)

Shot Caller by Jen Danna (2021)

Death at Greenway by Lori Rader-Day (2021)

Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby (2021)

Murder in Material Gain by Anne Cleeland (2021)

Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara (2021)

Under Pressure by Sara Driscoll (2021)

God Rest Ye Royal Gentlemen by Rhys Bowen (2021) 

The Man WhoDied Twice by Richard Osman (2021)

The Ghost in the Garden (A Girl Called Justice Book #3) by Elly Griffiths (2021)

Death by Equine by Annette Dashofy (2021)


Favorite Books Including the Pandemic After-Effects

The Madness of Crowds (Inspector Gamache #17) by Louise Penny (2021)

The Guide by Peter Heller (2021)

 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker: Reading Room Review

 

Thirty years ago, when Vincent King was just fifteen years old, he accidentally killed seven-year-old Sissy Radley, the younger sister of his girlfriend Star Radley. Vincent was tried as an adult and spent thirty years in prison. The testimony that sealed his fate was given by his best friend Walk. Walk was devastated at the part he played in Vincent's conviction, and even though Walk became Chief of Police of the small coastal California town where his friendships were his life, Walk was a prisoner of his own making for those thirty years, too. Walk's inability to move on from his idealized version of the world, where Vincent, Star, and Walk's girlfriend Martha were the future has made his world a small one. Walk's mission has been to look after Star and her two children, who are now thirteen (Duchess) and five (Robin). Walk can't really change the poor, depressing circumstances of Star and her children, but he does what he can to protect them. Walk's girlfriend from 30 years ago, Martha, moved on long ago to another town and a career of being a lawyer. Walk was stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for Vincent to come home.

Star Radley is thirty years past the promise of a happy life for a girl born beautiful and talented. She is an addict, drugs and alcohol, and she's living on fumes. Her two children, thirteen-year-old Duchess and five-year-old Robin, are mostly a fond memory in Star's addled brain. Duchess is the care taker for her brother Robin and would do anything for him, often going without food so he can eat. It is Duchess who shows the strength and responsibility in the family. It is Duchess for whom the reader can't stop reading this story. Her fate is the one in which we become invested. Like Duchess is willing to endure any misery to ensure that Robin is loved and provided for, the reader will suffer through the heartbreaks, one after another, of these two characters to keep hope alive.

Vincent is finally released from prison thirty years after his incarceration, but don't expect a happy return to his hometown. Oh, he returns, and he doesn't mope around. He starts fixing his house up that he left all those years ago, when his parents still lived in it. But, shit happens, and it seems to happen to the people who least deserve it in this story. Walk is there for his friend, but Walk himself is broken and has a debilitating disease that he's keeping secret. Star is no longer an option for Vincent, and soon her situation becomes more tragic. Did I mention that this story is achingly sad? At one point in the story, Duchess thinks that she surely is due some good luck, but good luck seems an unattainable dream for the down-trodden characters of We Begin at the End

There's so much story I haven't touched upon in this review, but to say more would be a disservice to readers yet to begin their journey through this tale. I was deeply affected by this book, but I can't say I enjoyed it. Sometimes, a powerful read is like that, and sometimes enjoyment isn't the goal. I'm still trying to sort through what to take from this read. Obvious is the futility of living in the past, and how it occludes any meaningful life in the present.  Of course, it's grief and guilt that make an albatross of that past.  Where's a good grief counselor when you need one?  Cape Haven could surely have used one.  Reading and reviewing We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker has left me spent, but I will forever keep the character of Duchess Day Radley, self-proclaimed outlaw in my mind and heart, and I will dream for her a beautiful life.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Untrue Blue (Lord and Lady Hetheridge #7) by Emma Jameson: Reading Room Review

 


A new Lord and Lady Hetheridge book by Emma Jameson is a read I always look forward to, as the characters and the plot are steadfast in their deliverance of an entertaining, thrilling story. Untrue Blue is the 7th book in this series, and once again, it's my favorite. I've had seven favorites now. Jameson never shies away from taking the characters on a roller coaster of emotions, and readers are swept up (and down) in those emotions, too. The stories are fraught with danger for the characters, too, and the suspense that builds toward a confrontation with evil causes me to remind myself to breathe. 

I can't stress enough how this series should be read in order, starting with Blue Ice. There's just too much great story and character development that you would miss if you did otherwise. Where the characters are in Untrue Blue means so much more when the reader has suffered through their growing pains with them. <br /><br />Do not read past this point if you are just starting the series.

In Untrue Blue, Kate (Lady Hetheridge) is on leave from the London Metropolitan Police and on bed rest for her final month of pregnancy. Tony (Lord Hetheridge), retired from his position of a Superintendent in the MET, is fully into his work as a PI and sometimes consultant to the police. DI Paul Bhar is a delighted new father and is married to Emmeline. There's lots of good feeling for these couples and friends, but a death among Kate's and Paul's colleagues stuns everyone (and readers). DC Amelia Gulls is discovered dead in her flat, murdered by an unknown assailant. Even though Kate is on bed rest, she joins Paul and Tony, who has been called in as a consultant, in trying to find the murderer. Granted that Kate has to work at home, but she and Amelia shared a bond of females struggling to be taken seriously on the force, so she will do what she can from her bedroom confinement. 

Amelia Gulls had been working as an extra pair of hands on three separate cases, and the investigation into her death starts with looking at what she had found on those cases. Turns out that there are cross-over connections in two of the cases that will lead those investigating on a wild ride, a ride that readers will follow on the edge of their seats. I prefer to let readers experience the investigation without further description on my part. It's complex and exciting, and the losses leave big questions on who will fill certain shoes in the next book. Enjoy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Midnight Hour (The Brighton Mysteries #6) by Elly Griffiths: Reading Room Review


 
When the Brighton series by Elly Griffiths began in 2015 with The Zig Zag Girl, it was also called The Magic Men or Stephens and Mephisto series. The two main characters, DI Edgar Stephens and magician Max Mephisto are best friends, having met during WWII as members of the Magic Men, a small unit of men whose job it was to use illusion to deceive the Nazis and give the Allies the advantage. Over the previous five books of the series, and especially the last one, Now You See Them that jumped ahead ten years from #4, the characters and story lines have evolved to where The Brighton series more aptly describes the series. Elly Griffiths is such a brilliant writer/storyteller, and she knew that the ten-year leap was just the thing required at that point. 
 
From book one, I've loved learning more about the 1950s in Brighton and the live variety circuit, then the winding down of the variety circuit and the movement toward television, and now the 1960s with its changes. I also have enjoyed the character roster growing, as Griffiths is a master of unique and mesmerizing characters, and more women stepping into leading roles. With the second book set in the 1960s (and the 6th book overall), the women of the series are getting their full due in the story line and running the show. But, I was delighted to still see a strong connection to the older days of the variety circuit in the story.
 
The mid-sixties in Brighton is on the cusp of change, but it is still very much a man’s world with women eagerly pushing the boundaries as they can. Our regular characters are well ensconced in their endeavors and pursuits, but as the author is always moving them forward, by the end of the book some of them will be on the cusp of change, too. Edgar Stephens is comfortable in his role as Superintendent and Emma Holmes, although married to Edgar and mother of three children, is more determined than ever to make her private detective agency a working concern. Emma was Brighton’s first policewoman, but married women aren’t allowed to be on the force yet. Emma’s business partner, Sam Collins, continues her full-time job as a journalist and is also working hard to make a success of the detective agency. Max Mephisto has established himself as a movie actor and is still married to the mother of his two young children, American actress Lydia Lamont. In fact, Max is currently living at his country estate in England while the movie in which he plays Dracula’s father is filming in Whitby. Ruby, Max’s daughter and former fiancée of Edgar Stephens, is a bigger celebrity than ever with her starring role in a British television detective series. DI Bob Willis is showing signs of growth in both his role as Detective Inspector and his mentoring of a female police officer, although he can’t change the rules, like women on the force not yet being allowed to drive police cars. The female police officer, WDC Meg Connolly, has stayed the course to be on the force despite the derision she faces from the male members. And, in speaking of the fantastic female characters, I can’t leave out Astarte Zabini, the medium, who has seen her share of challenges and maintained her autonomy. Of course, the characters either introduced or brought back from a previous book for the storyline of The Midnight Hour are all captivating and engaging, too.
 

Bert Billington, the renowned theatre impresario who started his career on the variety circuit, is dead at the age of 90, but old age isn’t a factor. Bert has been poisoned with rat poison, and although many people had reason to hate him, it won’t be easy to find his murderer. His widow, Verity, now 75, was once famous in her own right as Verity Malone, the most beautiful show girl and singer on the circuit. She and Bert produced three sons. Seth is a successful actor, and he is Dracula in the movie that Max Mephisto plays Dracula’s father. Son David has taken over the theatre business from Bert, and son Aaron owns a mechanic shop. It seems no one in Bert’s family would benefit greatly from his death, but Aaron suspects his mother Verity might have wanted Bert dead. 

When Aaron shares his suspicions with the police, Verity hires Emma’s and Sam’s detective agency to investigate and prove her innocence. Verity prefers to deal with women in both the private and the police investigations, so it is WDC Meg Connally from the Brighton police force who conducts the interviews and develops a rapport with Verity. During the investigation, Emma and Meg become friends, as they share information and often join forces. Bert’s marital infidelities over the years left a trail of heartache and destruction, not to mention offspring, so the fallout from his affairs is a major part of the inquiries. The suspect list for Bert Billington tells a sad and sordid story of a self-indulgent life. Readers might be rooting for the killer to get away with the murder. 

 

The Midnight Hour is by no means a diatribe against the obstructions to women’s independence, but Elly Griffiths does a deft job of showing how women are progressing in spite of the constraints put on them in the 60’s. The women are front and center in The Midnight Hour and demonstrating just how capable they are, dealing with those constraints to become more than the “female” roles society has assigned them. Emma must deal with being the one responsible for child rearing while pursuing a career she is both passionate about and excels at. Ruby is ahead of the curve by being an independent woman of means and success. Sam has had to use the advantage of her first name to get her jobs in journalism and prove she is equal or better than a male reporter. Meg is learning more about expanding her views of her abilities and those of all women. Reading The Feminine Mystique by feminist Betty Friedan is quite a shock to Meg, but it is presenting ideas about the strength and importance of women that will serve her well. 

I highly recommend The Midnight Hour as another riveting read by the brilliant Elly Griffiths. I thank NetGalley and Quercus Publishing for an advanced reading copy.


Friday, December 3, 2021

The Corpse with the Granite Heart by Cathy Ace: Reading Room Review

 


I used to be a real stickler for reading a series in order, start with #1 and proceed, and I still prefer that. However, with age comes letting go of some of my hard, fast rules and learning to be more flexible. I have wanted to read Cathy Ace’s Cait Morgan series for some time, and I kept getting further and further behind. Well, with this year’s book, The Corpse with the Granite Heart, #11, I decided to dive in. I’m so glad I did. 

Cait Morgan and her husband Bud Anderson have traveled from their home in Canada to visit their good friend John Silver in London and meet his new fiancée, Bella Asimov. Cait, who lived and worked in London previous to her move to Canada, is looking forward to visiting favorite London spots with Bud and enjoying the Christmas cheer of the season.

Though they both are fighting jet lag the afternoon they arrive, they are scheduled to attend a dinner at John’s fiancée’s home. The dinner is a strange affair to begin with, a morbid memorial dinner for the fiancée Bella’s recently departed father. The recently departed Asimov patriarch, Oleg Asimov, was an ardent admirer, if not an expert, on Shakespeare and financially supported local projects and endeavors concerning the famous playwright. His family thinks it was his only redeeming quality. Upon arriving, Cait realizes she knows Bella’s sister and brother-in-law from the time in Cait’s life before she gave up on her beloved London, a time in which they were part of her trouble. But, Cait has impeccably good manners and knows that they are there for John, not old grudges. All Cait and Bud really want to do is get through the dinner and go back to John’s to collapse in bed. However, it turns out that their rest will be delayed.

As the guests prepare to go into dinner, an odd routine of everyone taking a bathroom break before entering the dining room is announced. While the business of taking care of business is occurring, there’s a burst of activity at the front door as Cait’s and Bud’s driver rushes in to raise the alarm. Someone has fallen from the top room of the house to the driveway below. Cait, who is a well-respected criminal psychologist, and Bud, who is a retired cop, immediately react and get involved. The dead person is Sasha, Bella’s sister, and suicide is suspected. 

A man who is obviously law enforcement but rather shadowy arrives with his subordinate to question everyone, still leaning towards a suicide. Cait has misgivings about that call and realizes that the case is being handled very carefully, which is no doubt due to the revered standing of the family and the father’s wealthy success. At last being given clearance to go back to John’s house, Cait hopes that she and Bud can go back to their plans of just being tourists. 

Of course, a trip filled with visiting museums won’t happen, as the story is obviously going to involve Cait’s detecting skills. When another death, Sasha’s husband, occurs at the Asimov mansion on the hill, nothing seems done and dusted except for the bodies. And, there will be more death to befall the house. It’s a treacherous time to be in Beulah House, and the reader has to wonder if it will be a case of “then there were none.”

The detective, Mr. Worthington, finally checks out Cait’s credentials, which include solving other murders and an eidetic memory, and allows her to help him. There are all sorts of peculiar and sordid facts about the Asimov family, but who seems to want to kill them off? It’s interesting to watch the clues unfold and the guilty revealed. A nasty business it is, being at the top. 

I enjoyed this, my first Cait Morgan, book. I hesitated to jump in on #11, but author Cathy Ace makes it possible to glean past information needed for the present story. I quickly became a fan of Cait and Bud, with their easy-going relationship and trust and respect for one another. There were many unreliable characters, for whom it wasn’t clear if they were trustworthy or not, and that added greatly to the suspense, which built with every death. The characters’ fear of who would be the next victim is keenly felt by the reader. There’s plenty of atmosphere to soak up in this narrative where money has built an empire of ill will. 

I hope to go back and pick up at least some of the previous Cait Morgan books I’ve missed, as I’m curious about Cait’s and Bud’s relationship in its beginning and the cases they've solved together. Of course, I’m not surprised I would enjoy this series, as I’m a fan of Cathy Ace’s writing in her Wales series and her stand-alone, The Wrong Boy. Ace has a good eye for interesting characters in all her stories, and a deft hand at writing stories that capture the flavor of a setting. The use of each chapter being headed by a quote from a Shakespeare play foreshadowing the chapter’s contents was a clever vehicle to use for The Corpse with the Granite Heart, as it connected to Oleg Asimov’s one true passion and created a dramatic atmosphere. So, I will happily recommend this latest book in the Cait Morgan series and the series itself.

Full disclosure: I received an advanced copy of The Corpse with the Granite Heart from the author.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Under Pressure (FBI K-9s Mysteries, Book Six) by Sara Driscoll

 

The sixth book of Sara Driscoll’s FBI K-9 series, Under Pressure, deftly carries on the consistency of outstanding story that I’ve come to expect in this series. This series has proved itself a solid part of crime/mystery fiction’s finest and one of my favorites. The plot, the pacing, and the characters (both human and animal) work seamlessly together to keep the reader reading just a little bit more and then a little bit more. I always find it hard to find a stopping point for my bookmark, which can lead to some seriously late-night reading. Meg Jennings and her search-and-rescue Labrador Hawk lead the way as readers follow them into another dangerous case, showing us just how valuable an asset the FBI K9s are.

FBI K-9 Handler Meg Jennings and her D.C. firefighter/paramedic boyfriend Todd Webb have taken the plunge and moved in together. In what is the best of living situations, Meg’s sister Cara and her boyfriend, Washington Post journalist Clay McCord, have also moved in together, with each couple occupying an identical half of a duplex. The proximity of the couples is a good arrangement, as McCord has become an unofficial resource in Meg’s FBI cases. No sooner are the moving boxes unloaded than another case for the FBI’s Human Scent Evidence Team comes up. 

Usually, Meg and Hawk work with Brian Foster and his German shepherd Lacey under the direction of Special-Agent-in-Charge Craig Beaumont, but in a first time inter-departmental collaboration for the K-9 unit, they will be working with the Organized Crime Program and the Diamond Trafficking Program. The issue at hand is conflict diamonds, known also as blood diamonds, that are being brought into the United States by the “Philly Mob.” The goal is to have the dogs track one of the couriers and bust up the selling and buying of these illegal diamonds. The courier is an undercover FBI agent who is deeply embedded into one of the crime families and who will supply his scent for tracking. It’s an experimental endeavor, but Meg and Brian feel Hawk and Lacey are up to the task. Journalist Clay McCord reveals that he’s been working on a story about the Philadelphia Mob that includes conflict diamonds and other illegal transactions, which expands the scope of the investigation beyond just conflict diamonds and raises the stakes for both the mob and for those hunting for truth and justice. 

Most of the action in Under Pressure takes place in Philadelphia, where the Italian Mob is heavily entrenched in their illegal activities. Sara Driscoll is one of the best authors I read who give a sense of place so clearly and interestingly. There’s no superfluous description of setting, but a thorough knowledge of it is apparent. There is an astute efficiency in every book of the series acclimating the reader to the lay of the land. I can imagine that someone who is quite familiar with Philadelphia feels themselves running alongside Meg and Brian and their dogs. 

There’s always so much to talk about that the author does right in these books. Although I’ve commented in reviews of previous books in this series, I feel a review of any of these books is incomplete without a mention of how great the characters are. Those of us who have read all the books thus far would no doubt agree that we are heavily invested in Meg, Cara, Todd, and Clay, and that we are absolutely besotted with Hawk and Lacey, and the non-working dogs-- Blink, Saki, and Coy. The evolution of the main characters’ closeness has been a story in itself to watch unfold, and I look forward to further developments. And, a shout-out for the dialogue with its witty additions to an already cleverly written narrative.

I so highly recommend the FBI K-9 series and this most recent book, Under Pressure. From the insightful title of many connections to the exciting action and clock driven suspense to the characters who rise to impossible challenges, Under Pressure is another unmitigated success in this series of brilliant storytelling. 

 

 

 

Author Information:

Sara Driscoll is the nom de plume for Jen Danna and Ann Vanderlaan, who collaborate on the FBI K-9 mysteries. Jen lives in Canada and is a scientist who specializes in infectious diseases (and yes, she’s been and is involved in COVID-19 research and trials). Ann lives in North Carolina and has expertise in many fields as a former research scientist, consultant, teacher (both medical and veterinary schools), software developer, and involvement in dog rescue and training. Jen and Ann, under their own names, have written a previous series together, the intriguing Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, which has five books thus far (and I hope more to come). The FBI K-9s Mysteries, written under Sara Driscoll, now has six books and definitely more to come. Jen Danna also has a new (two books so far) solo series, the NYPD Negotiators Thrillers, another exciting line of stories.

Monday, November 15, 2021

The Distant Dead by Lesley Thomson: Reading Room Review

 

In the eighth installment of the series, the Detective’s Daughter Stella Darnell has reached a crisis point in her life. She is feeling the loss of her detective father full force. Although it’s been seven years since Terry Darnell succumbed to a heart attack, Stella, a cleaner by trade and an excellent sleuth by accident, was suddenly struck that her father was truly well and gone. She has left her life in London that includes a successful cleaning business called Clean Slate and the love of her life Jack Harmon (and his young twins) to get some space and perspective in Tewkesbury. Both her business associates and Jack are floundering without her and wondering if she will ever return to them. 

Stella is employed by a cleaning service in Tewkesbury, and she’s living in what at first seems an odd arrangement of sharing an apartment with Lucy May, a journalist in her 70s who had had an intimate relationship with Stella’s dad at several points in their lives. Stella had been involved with Lucy a few months back in solving a murder case, and Lucy had received a bad head injury. So, they are both in a recuperative state and trying to return to some sort of normal. Cleaning in the Tewkesbury Abbey is one of Stella’s cleaning assignments, and she has found some much needed peace at the abbey. It’s a different kind of cleaning for Stella, as the old statues and buildings require a gentler touch than her normal scrubbing. It’s rather a new concept to Stella that not everything needs or should have a deep clean. Wear of time has a beauty all its own.

Stella decides to attend something called a Death Café, where people talk about death, thinking it might help her sort through her feelings of grief. She assumes that the small group of people who show up are strangers to one another, as that’s how they act, and they seem not to even like one another much. Stella considers herself a stranger to everyone, except her reputation as a capable sleuth has preceded her more than she realizes. Also, one of the attendees named Roddy March, does have a demonstrable interest in Stella, having come across Stella cleaning in the abbey, what we learn is a deliberate act on his part, and trying to engage her in conversation.

When Roddy shows up at the Death Café that night, Stella isn’t half pleased. He wants to involve Stella in his new podcast about a series of murders that began in 1940. He’s aware of Stella’s detecting success and thinks she will add interest to the program, where he plans to reveal the real killer of a famous pathologist who was murdered in 1963 in his home. The home is named Cloisters, and it happens to sit right next to Stella’s beloved abbey in Tewkesbury. The pathologist is connected to an unsolved murder of a young woman from 1940 in London. And here is where murder once again finds Stella, even as she tries to hide from it in Tewkesbury. After two Death Café meetings, one of the group will be dead, stabbed in the abbey, and it is, of course, Stella who comes upon him and hears the man’s dying words. The policewoman who shows up in charge of the official investigation is none other than the favorite colleague of her father’s, Janet Piper. Janet had worked as a WPC in London with Terry and had loved him, although neither ever acted on their affection for one another. The past is present in abundance in this story. 

To solve the current murder, the 1940 and 1963 murders must be revisited and re-examined. Maple Greenhill and her lover were together in an abandoned house as the air-raids sounded and the rain pounded on that miserable night of December 11, 1940, but it was far from the romantic rendezvous that Maple expected. Maple discovered her lover was not the fiancé she thought but her killer instead. No one knew the identity of this man in her life, so he was able to remain anonymous and get away with murder, almost. One man put the pieces together, but his findings were discounted, as corruption and status overpowered justice.

Some things occur just as natural as day follows night, and the investigation Stella and Lucy begin soon draws in the rest of the cleaning/detecting crew from London, including Jack. It is fascinating reading when these characters work together to find answers to a murder. One of the crew in her digging even finds out that she lives in the house in which Maple Greenhill grew up. The connections of the Death Café attendees to the distant dead are also revealed in the author’s always brilliant timing, and the more revealed the more dangerous it becomes for those investigating, especially Stella. More deaths occur as the killer desperately attempts to contain the secrets of a lifetime. The suspense, intensified by so much of the story occurring at night and in the rain, will grip the reader and not let go until the last secret surprises you. The ending to the drama is large and frightful, an ending that begs to be on film.

The book is divided into two parts, with part one alternating between the time periods of 1940 and 2019 and the locations of London during the Blitz and present-day Tewkesbury. Part two focuses on the present-day Tewkesbury and the unraveling of the past into the present-day investigation. Lesley Thomson creates such amazing characters, with the regular ones returning from book to book to the absolute delight of the many fans of this series. Stella and Jack have both captured our hearts, and their separation is cause for alarm in this book. The new characters in each book are deeply developed, too, and are always intriguing in their backgrounds and purpose in the story. In The Distant Dead, there are quite a few characters with which to keep up, but I had no trouble in doing so. Thomson has a deft hand at creating a large cast with memorable attributes. I had no moments when I had to look back at a previous part of the book to sort the character’s name or role. The author maintains a continuity of the different characters’ appearances, not leaving them behind for chapters and chapters. 

I need to mention the dialogue in The Distant Dead, as dialogue is something at which Lesley Thomson also excels. Listen carefully to the conversations, as they help move the plot forward. There’s much appreciated wit to be had in Thomson’s dialogue, too. One of my favorite bits of dialogue was the exchange between two members of the Death Café as each attendee was introducing him/herself. It goes as follows:

‘Joy by name. Joy by nature,’ said the woman in the hunting tunic.

 ‘You hide that well, Lovey,’ Gladys grinned at Joy.

 

The Distant Dead is an amazing read in one of my favorite series. Lesley Thomson is one of the best writers and best storytellers I read. Thomson’s stories are always complex but never confusing. Her Detective’s Daughter series is one that should be on every mystery/crime reader’s automatic read list and on every writer’s reading list for learning what works.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Fogged Off (Cyd Redondo Mystery #3) by Wendall Thomas: Reading Room Review

 

It bears saying again that it’s been a hard two years for everyone, and as we slowly return to missed activities we enjoy, reading a new Cyd Redondo book, Fogged Off, by Wendall Thomas helps make our smiling and laughing return in force. Reading has always been a constant source of pleasure for me, and when I can read something that makes me laugh out loud, I know it’s a balm for my soul. Wendall Thomas’ book series starring Cyd Redondo is a guaranteed mood lifter. The characters, the plot, the dialogue, the setting, and that unique voice Thomas brings to Cyd combine to take the reader on a wonderfully wild adventure. 

In reviewing the first book in this series, Lost Luggage, I said that Cyd Redondo is one of the best new characters in the mystery/crime genre. After reading two more Cyd Redondo books, I’ll just suffice it to repeat that there are characters that one falls in love with, and Cyd is such a character. She has a knack for bargains and smart deals, the ability to live with an extended family who is overprotective, and the compassion to take care of those she loves and serves. With travels to Africa, Australia, and England, Cyd is no longer the travel agent who doesn’t travel.

A unique aspect of Cyd’s travel agency (her family’s legacy from her great-grandfather Guido Redondo) is that it caters to senior citizens, and Cyd’s affection for them is infectious. One of her long-time clients is Shep Helnikov, who splits his time between four months of the warmer season in London to the rest of the year in dear old Brooklyn. Shep is an expert on Jack the Ripper, having researched him, had a book (Jacked!) published and writing a new book (All Jacked Up) about Jack. Shep leads Jack the Ripper tours and teaches a course in Homicide History at a university during his time in London. Cyd found Shep the apartment he rents in London every year and thinks of him like one of her uncles. 

In a book that will provide many laughs, this story starts with sad news. Shep has died of an apparent heart attack in London. His colleague Dean Dean McAfferty at Brooklyn College, where Shep taught during his time in the States calls on Cyd to go to London and see about the return of Shep‘s body and academic papers. It’s not an entirely unusual request, as Cyd’s Uncle Leon is Shep’s executor, and the colleague is willing to give Cyd a department credit card to foot the transportation, hotel, and an expense account. And, Cyd’s Uncle Leon is accompanying her, much to her Aunt Helen’s displeasure. Since Cyd is going to take care of all the work in London to bring Shep home, she has Uncle Leon sign forms from the State Department designating her as acting executor. 

As sad as the occasion is which brings Cyd and Leon to London, it’s London, and Cyd can’t help but be wide-eyed at the history and majesty around every corner. But, she is ogling it alone, as Uncle Leon has flown the coop, popping into a limousine waiting for him at the airport, while Cyd’s ride was a bit of a downgrade. Luckily, she got an upgrade at the fabulous Savoy Hotel because Uncle Leon was staying elsewhere. Having bought British cell phones before leaving the airport, Cyd is at least hopeful her uncle will keep in touch. He says he’s there for his work, which is taxidermy, but Cyd is skeptical. 

Returning a body from overseas is not a simple matter, nor an inexpensive one, so Cyd Redondo of Redondo Travel is always on the ball and gets her clients repatriation insurance, except Cyd’s irresponsible cousin Jimmy had made a change in Shep’s travel plans for him and failed to reinstate the insurance after the change. Shep’s colleague Dean Dean has also agreed to the college paying the $30,000 in repatriation fees for the body’s shipment. It’s Cyd’s job to get all the paperwork in order and signed and turned in to the funeral home handlers, The Heeps (hey, I don’t make these names up, the author does), who process the papers and body for travel. 

Our favorite travel agent hits the ground running, as always, and sets the tone of fast-paced action for the rest of the book. She goes from the U.S. Embassy, where she learns she’s missing a notary form, to Shep’s apartment, where she encounters a female “friend” of his nosing through his belongings, to the outfit called London Afoot that employed him for the Jack the Ripper historical walks to drinks in a cave-like setting she falls in love with to a Jack the Ripper tour that she missed due to faulty information.

Cyd must wait through the weekend to obtain the additional paperwork on Monday from a notary. What a weekend it is, too, no sitting around having tea and being a tourist for Cyd. She sees The British Museum only because visiting it connects to her work. Of course, she savors every part of London she encounters. Starting with a Saturday memorial gathering for Shep, at which Cyd meets the rest of the London Afoot guides, the story snowballs into a dramedy of staggering genius. It could be said that only Cyd Redondo could uncover the backbiting world of Jack the Ripper tour guides, track down new clues of Shep’s as to the identity of the Ripper, run (again) into an ecoterrorist and become involved in an endangered species battle, have an encounter with a former lover, and hunt down a murderer. It could also be said that only Cyd Redondo could handle all challenges thrown her way. When Shep’s death is ruled a homicide, Cyd barely has time to grab a pair of new shoes on sale. There are no lulls in the plotting of Fogged Off. It’s fast, it’s furious, but it is always clear.

Wendall Thomas has without a doubt created some of my favorite characters for this series, and the more readers get to know them, the more fascinating we realize they are. Cyd’s father died when she was young, so she’s grown up surrounded by his brothers/her uncles to help raise her. Going into the family travel business has kept Cyd especially close to her Redondo family, and, well, she and her mother live in the Redondo family home. The books in this series are revealing to readers, and to Cyd, that there is an unexpected and fascinating depth to her family members. Uncle Leon in Fogged Off proves to be someone with worldly connections, a debonair operator across the pond from the Redondo familial surroundings. But, Leon and the other uncles always have Cyd’s back, and this family loyalty gives readers a warm, safe feeling. Oh, and look for the mention of the Redondo “eyebrow raise” that all the uncles have. 

The characters who are exclusive to each book are always ready for their closeup (Mr. DeMille), too. Quirky and unpredictable describes the lot. In Fogged Off, the Jack the Ripper tour guides each have their own hook to attract customers, and they wear clothes that are more like costumes to distinguish themselves, too. Cyd’s community of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn provides an endless supply of colorful friends and a nemesis or two who enrich our knowledge of Cyd. The different female residents of Cyd’s community that float in and out can be a little crazy, sometimes in the truest sense. I think there might be a sign as you enter the Bay Ridge community that says, “No shrinking violets allowed.” As if the character pool wasn’t complete enough, there are some reappearances of a few characters from the previous novels, ones who played dramatic parts in Cyd’s unplanned adventures, and one who readers and Cyd would like to be around more. 

Can an inanimate object be a character? Well, I think in view of the actual life it holds from time to time and the amazing effects its contents have on Cyd’s life, we can give her purse this status, her precious red vintage Balenciaga bag. I think it was a stroke of absolute brilliance to include Cyd’s Balenciaga bag on the cover of the book. So many touches of witty connection run throughout this series. Readers will be charmed and smitten by what ends up living in Cyd’s bag this trip. 

I want to stress that Cyd is only 32 years old, and there are plenty of young characters before I add one more reason I adore this series. Cyd doesn’t look at senior citizens as too old, too late to enjoy life’s adventures. As much of her travel business deals with the older generation, she is determined to ensure her clients, old and young, have the best travel experience they can. That the author showcases seniors living life to the fullest, including Shep and Uncle Leon, means something to me personally. This positive attitude toward seniors is a hopeful, bright spot from which I take inspiration.

Writing a review about a book that I so thoroughly enjoyed sometimes results in a rather lengthy review. I may have rambled on about the characters a bit, but they are such great characters. Wendall Thomas is sure to reap the rewards of awards with Fogged Off.  I highly recommend it and the whole series. Someone could read this book without reading the previous two, buy why would you. You really don’t want to miss a thing (eh, Steven).

 

Thanks to the author and to NetGalley for an early copy of this book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Murder in Material Gain by Anne Cleeland: Reading Room Review

 

I’m always delighted to have a new Doyle and Acton book to read. The unlikely pairing of DCI Michael Sinclair, Lord Acton, who is English aristocracy, with DS Doyle, who is an Irish plain-spoken red-head with a touch of the fey, keeps the action both expectedly exciting and thrillingly unpredictable. Murder in Material Gain is Anne Cleeland’s fourteenth book in this series, and it’s as twisty and full of crisscrossing plots as all of the ones that have come before. Doyle may continually be trying to curtail Acton’s less than legal proclivities, but their unique relationship and ability to foil the villains keeps readers glued to the page. 

Sir Acton/DCI Acton and Lady Acton/DS Kathleen Doyle have spent their Christmas holidays at Trestles, Acton’s ancestral estate in the country and are still there on an extended holiday stay. Acton thinks it will be good for Doyle, who had needed a pause due to her hand injury, and, in addition, he does love his family home. Doyle would rather be back in London in their flat and back at work, but she’s resigned herself to a longer stay than she preferred. She is keeping in touch with the criminal world through her volunteering in Wexton Prison’s ministry program, where she is teaching a Bible study class to women. Kathleen’s friend Dr. Okafur is in charge of the program, along with the former Detective Chief Superintendent, a prisoner now. Also at the prison, or rather in prison, is Martina Betancourt, who brought chaos and murder to the flat where Acton and Doyle live with their toddler son Edward. Murdering has landed Martina in prison, but due to her quasi-friendship with Kathleen, the sentence is a lighter one than Martina deserves. Doyle admires Martina’s religious dedication but recognizes that it too often crosses the line into dangerous zealotry. 

Fans of this series will vividly recall the ordeal that Doyle experienced at Wexton Prison, and yet, Acton is willing to go along with Doyle’s volunteerism there. In fact, he drives her there and waits in the car outside until she finishes. Even with Doyle pregnant with their second child, Acton seems okay with this arrangement. Doyle calls it “a shrine worthy miracle that her husband had acquiesced in this plan.” Of course, Acton is never one to be cavalier about his wife’s well-being, so there is purpose and care behind his ease. Idle action is not something in Acton’s vernacular. Doyle soon realizes that it is the prison’s ministry itself that is under Acton’s watchful eye and plotting.

Trestles, while at this time, seems like a peaceful respite, has seen plenty of violence and turmoil in its history, and there are ghosts, especially the Knight, still roaming around who know all about it. It’s Doyle’s unfortunate gift to be able to see the ghosts and hear their complaining. And, plots and betrayals are still whispered behind closed doors, as Acton’s mother lives in the Dowager house on the estate, and she is keen on seeing her son unseated from his head of the family. Never on good terms, mother and son have been completely at odds since Acton married his Irish bride. Acton brooks no disrespect for his wife, and his mother does nothing but disrespect Kathleen. Sir Stephen, Acton’s cousin, is in league with Acton’s mother against her son. So, there is this undercurrent of trouble in the story, too, that could rear its ugly head at any time. At present, the Dowager seems to be courting the local priest, who is only too happy to eat meals at the Dowager’s table. It is a curious relationship, but before we can ascertain if Acton’s plotting mother means to use the priest in her schemes, the poor man is found murdered on the grounds of the estate. Yet, the priest has his secrets, too, which are discovered after his death. 

The problem in Murder in Material Goods is a good thing gone sideways. Donations to Wexton Prison’s ministry program are at a healthy level, and nowhere better than prison for money to corrupt. Doyle catches on rather quickly that there is skimming going on from the ministry’s coffers, and Acton knows about it. But who are the blacklegs in this scheme? As usual, there are twists and turn that lead Doyle and readers astray, but Doyle is nothing if not persistent. Uncovering the truth and uncovering Acton’s behind-the-scenes dealings may take her on a twisty road, but she always stays the course and arrives at her destination. She once again has a pesky ghost in her dreams, this one is an artist from the earlier years of Trestles, urging her to discover what Acton is up to. The ghost tells Doyle that Acton is moving the chess pieces furiously, but he is moving them around her, once again trying to shield his lovely wife from some sort of ugly crime. This artist ghost keeps lamenting about a green axe he buried but is now lost to him, but Doyle doesn’t know where to look for it. These ghostly dreams are vague, but they eventually help Doyle to get to the bottom of it all, as usual. 

I am so fond of the characters in this series. Doyle and Acton really need no further accolades from me, but the supporting cast is fascinating, too. Readers can easily find themselves caught up in the daily lives of these characters, as well as their parts in the bigger dramas. Reynolds, Acton’s butler, is one of my favorite characters in the series, besides Acton and Doyle, and Doyle does something wonderfully magnanimous for him in this book. Reynolds seems to get caught quite often between his orders from Acton and the pleadings of Doyle. Savoie, the French master criminal, is another character I always enjoy encountering in the stories. His life has changed immensely since this series began. With his adopting a rival criminal’s young son when said rival ends up dead, Savoie has shown great depths of responsibility. I did miss seeing DC Thomas Williams in this book. His life has taken a sharp turn, too, from being smitten with Doyle to becoming Acton’s right-hand man and now newly married. I can’t wait to see where that marriage goes, as he is married to a woman who is also loyal to Acton. DS Isabel Munoz, who seems forever annoyed with Doyle but whom Doyle meets head-on admirably, is MIA in this book, too, but I suspect both she and Williams will be back soon. There is never a lack of interesting characters moving in and out of Lord and Lady Acton’s lives. 

Once again, Anne Cleeland has given readers, especially we insatiable fans, an Acton and Doyle story that checks all the boxes. And, the last box checked is an eager anticipation for book fifteen, as the chilling epilogue leaves much for speculation. I can’t wait!

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Death at Greenway by Lori Rader-Day: Reading Room Review

 

Lori Rader-Day always gives readers a unique story, something different from anything else they’ve read. I love that freshness, and the characters that help create that uniqueness. I’ve been introduced to dark sky parks, handwriting expertise, and a character who beat the odds of being kidnapped as a baby. And, in Death at Greenway, Lori Rader-Day takes a leap into another whole pond. Well, she actually leaps across the pond to merry old England when it wasn’t so merry during WWII. Historical mystery fiction! Oh, but she doesn’t stop there with delighting me. The setting is Agatha Christies’ Greenway home and South Devon, with London as the starting and ending points. As part of her research, Rader-Day visited Greenway and stayed there. She brings the authenticity of having walked the house and grounds to this story. Is it little wonder I’ve been looking forward to reading Death at Greenway.

After a beginning chapter in which Agatha Christie is at Greenway with her husband and house staff listening to the radio announcement from Prime Minister Chamberlin that England was officially at war with Germany (the listening world encapsulated in that kitchen scene), focus is changed to London, April 1941. London and its inhabitants are suffering greatly from the daily bombings of the German planes, with whole families dying in their homes, despite the air raids and shelters. There is a general consensus that the children of London must be saved, taken away from the city to the country, where they will be safe. Parents are handing over their children to organized evacuation operations, while the parents stay and work in London. Bridget Kelly, who is training to be a nurse, finds herself part of such an operation due to an egregious error she has made in treating a patient. Bridget is given the choice to give up her nurse’s training completely or be a part of an evacuation of ten children to an undisclosed country location. Bridget chooses to lend her services to the evacuation movement. 

War is hell and chaotic, and Bridget starts her journey with the evacuated children, their sponsors, and another nurse in a crowded train station, with much shouting and hurrying and immediate caring for the children. As if the chaos of soldiers and children and parents saying goodbye to their children weren’t enough, the second nurse in the party introduces herself as Bridget Kelly, too. It seems everything in our protagonist Bridget’s life is surreal at this point. Mrs. Arbuthnot, who is in charge of the group, insists that they choose two dissimilar names, so protagonist Bridget becomes Bridey, and the new Bridget becomes Gigi. Bridey finds out quickly that Gigi is happy to let Bridey handle the children by herself for long periods of time while Gigi socializes with a group of other young people on the train. With two babies in the mix to care for, it’s quite the challenge. It’s a long train ride to their destination, which they finally learn is Greenway, home of the famous author Agatha Christie, in South Devon.

Greenway is beautiful, but the evacuation team and their wards are restricted to several rooms and told not to enter others. However, they have lots of space outdoors to walk and explore. Agatha Christie is in residence at Greenway when the group arrives, but she doesn’t interact with the evacuee group. She leaves for London not long after. This story does not include or involve the Grand Dame of Mystery, but we do get some peeks at a habit or two of hers. I enjoyed learning more about the evacuation of children from London and the ten children or vacs, as they were called, at Greenway. Rader-Day weaves a fascinating story into the historical facts of this evacuation, and she even talked to one of the vacs still alive, little Doreen. The two nurses, Bridey and Gigi, carry a heavy responsibility, to keep these children healthy and safe, which is more of a challenge than Bridey thought it would be. Although Greenway is far from London, the German planes are still a danger, as they bomb nearby locations, causing the house and earth around the group to tremble in response. Bridey wonders why they were evacuated to somewhere on the coast and to a large white house on a hill. 

So, what is this story? An historical fiction book or a mystery? For me, it was historical fiction with lots of mysteries running through it. There is murder, but everyone is so busy with the war that a full investigation is not forthcoming. But, still the murder adds to the mystery of what is happening in the small village of Galmpton, where healthy men are dying disproportionate to statistics. What is important in the story? What direction should the reader be focusing on? Oh, Rader-Day requires our undivided attention, so readers read closely and remember that characters tend to appear in a Lori Rader-Day book for a reason. Keep those little gray cells sharp, as the many threads introduced do have connections. 

Some of the threads: Nurses who aren’t really nurses. Travelers from the train from London to Greenway whom Gigi talks to and who end up in South Devon, too. Man found dead in the River Dart, murdered. Other men in the village who seem healthy and too young to die are dying. Somebody is stealing jam and leaving a muddy boot print. Gigi’s wisht man has been seen by little Doreen. Mrs. Poole, the mother of a child kept by her from evacuating arrives at Greenway in distress, and then she is missing. Bridey is friendly with the local doctor, but when he makes a romantic move, she can’t respond. Gigi has hidden money and hidden motives in her role as an evacuation nurse. And much more. Lori Rader-Day keeps it all flowing toward resolution, both on the worldly stage and the smaller one starring Bridey.

The first month or so of this story goes a bit slower than the rest of the time forward, but it doesn’t drag. It is an important time of setting up characters and mysteries and daily life of the evacuation, including what goes on in the village below Greenway. The reader is learning about who is who and who does what and that the Germans aren’t the only destructive force to fear. And then, a year has soon passed at Greenway, and lots of changes are taking place again. To tell beyond the early days at Greenway would deprive readers of discovering all the intrigue and revelations for themselves. There is so much good story still to come, and I was quite happy with the way it all wrapped up in the end, threads coming together and mysteries solved. I think the author was very much in tune with what ending was consistent with a WWII story, and it shows great judgment not to try and rewrite history.

Multiple characters are used to voice the narration of the book, which gives readers the edge of knowing more of what’s going on than any one of the characters. It’s Bridey’s voice we hear the most, which is fitting, as her journey is the one we are following to fruition. I enjoy this use of multiple voices in separate chapters. They’re like the different puzzle pieces used to make the picture whole. And, oh those characters, they are pure Lori Rader-Day magic, one of the things she does best. She brings characters to life with a deftness born of raw talent but perfected by hard work. The character of Bridget/Bridey shows such growth that I am actually proud of her, like she’s someone I really know. That’s how well-developed characters are supposed to affect readers. And, Gigi is a character who shows me not to judge too quickly or assume you know her too soon. So many characters have poignant stories in this book, and readers will follow them all through the sadness and the joy they invoke. Death at Greenway tells the stories of ordinary people inside the extraordinary story of war, and it feels very intimate. That’s the accomplishment of a skillful storyteller.

I thoroughly enjoyed Death at Greenway, and I think readers are in for a treat. Don’t get hung up in what category to pigeon-hole this book. Just enjoy the captivating read that is sure to land this award-winning author even more tangible plaudits.

I thank NetGalley and the William Morrow Publishers for an advanced reader’s copy of this book.