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!