Monday, June 27, 2022

The Locked Room (Ruth Galloway #14) by Elly Griffiths: Reading Room Review


I ran this review back in March for those who were buying the UK copy of the book.  Now that The Locked Room is coming out in the U.S. tomorrow, I'm running the review again.


At this point in the Ruth Galloway series, my love of it is well established. Reading a Ruth Galloway book by Elly Griffiths is always the highlight of my reading year. The Locked Room, the fourteenth book, continues the traditions of great story, characters, and writing. And, as is evident with Griffiths embracing of new series and books in her writing, she doesn’t shy away from a challenge. The Locked Room is set in the opening days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a brave undertaking for authors, as so many readers are looking to escape the horrors of this ordeal in their reading. Of course, it is the talent of an exceptional author to be able to revisit a horror and give the reader validation and understanding of their nightmarish experiences. Griffiths says in her acknowledgements at the end of the book, “I thought long and hard about setting a book in lockdown but, having written a book a year about Ruth for the last thirteen years, it seemed wrong to miss out 2020.” It turned out to be a spot-on decision. The characters in whom we’ve become so invested need to experience such a life changing time to stay relevant to us. Kudos to Elly Griffiths for knowing her characters and readers so well and trusting them to handle this event. Her writing of the pandemic’s beginning is gripping, and it perfectly captures the confusion and uncertainty of that time.

Ruth’s mother has been dead nearly five years, and Ruth is finally sorting through Jean’s belongings in the house in London where Ruth had grown up. Arthur has remarried, and his new wife wishes to do some redecorating, so Jean’s personal items need to move on. In a box labeled “Private” Ruth comes across an interesting photo, an old photo of her salt marsh cottage in Norfolk with the notation of “Dawn 1963” on the back. With her mother’s distaste for Norfolk and Ruth’s cottage, it’s quite the puzzle for Ruth. She returns to her home and has intentions to do some digging on it. The results of her inquiries will expose a gobsmacking secret that Ruth’s mother kept to the grave.

There’s also some archeological digging that comes up, as a skeleton is discovered in the Tomblands area of Norwich. Carbon dating will need to be done to determine the age of the skeleton, but Ruth surmises that’s it’s medieval times and female. There’s some speculation that it could be a plague victim, but Ruth thinks that it’s more likely to be a scattered part of the church burial yard. It’s a timely speculation though, as news of a deadly virus called Covid-19 is surfacing. England is placed in lockdown status, with schools and businesses closing. Ruth and her eleven-year-old daughter Kate are isolated in their home on the salt marshes, so at least they can get out in the air daily, and they do yoga through Zoom with Cathbad. They also have a new neighbor named Zoe, a nurse and good company for Ruth and Kate, at the advised social distances.

DCI Harry Nelson has just started an investigation into some purported suicides of women who didn’t seem to be in a suicidal state of mind. Something they all had in common was attending a weight-loss center called Lean Zone, one that Ruth had checked out but decided it wasn’t for her. Ruth’s neighbor Zoe is a regular at the meetings, or she was until lockdown closes them. DI Judy Johnson, DS Tanya Fuller, and DC Tony Zhang interview families and friends of the supposed suicides, and they are examining the homes of the deceased. It’s fortunate that the team has this headstart because Nelson’s boss, Super Jo, calls a meeting to discuss the new Covid safety measures. Before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” the lockdown order is issued for the country, and entry into homes for interviews isn’t possible. The police station must stagger shifts, too, with only two people, plus the secretary, working in the Serious Crimes Unit at a time. Nelson finds himself alone in his house, as Michelle is in Blackpool visiting her mother. It does give him the opportunity to go see Ruth and Katie, even though he’s breaking the rules to do so. Ruth and Nelson have developed a less guilty attitude about being together, but it’s certainly far from a good situation for either of them. When Nelson’s daughter Laura comes home for lockdown, once again Ruth loses Nelson to his first family. Michelle doesn’t come home until the end of the book, but readers are aware that she’s come to some decision while she was away.

The place setting of this story is especially perfect for the darkness of the period. Ruth and Kate isolated on their piece of salt march paradise, which starts to feel less like a place of freedom and more like a prison, as they are forbidden anything else. The place that they do sneak and visit is anything but cheery. Ruth’s friend Janet, who lives in one of the historical houses at Tombland in Norwich, calls Ruth to come and look at some strange findings. It’s a place of plague history, and the legend of the Grey Lady ghost is well-known. The plague and the pandemic are easily compared with places like this to provide ambience. One of the earmarks of Ellly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series that I enjoy so much is the link to Norfolk folklore. This book introduces the Grey Lady that haunts Tombland, and readers will no doubt recall the Black Shuck with its death stare and the ghost lights of Norfolk’s Lantern Men that will lead you to your death in the marshes. Atmosphere never goes wanting in this series. 

Readers are given an intimate look inside the lives of our beloved characters’ struggles with the challenges of a lockdown. From the shut-down of schools and trying to do classes online in a new format called Zoom, to parents homeschooling their children, to conducting a police investigation with reduced resources and distanced contact, to shopping for groceries in a queue, to fighting the loneliness and isolation from loved ones and colleagues, to the awfulness of having a loved one deteriorating from Covid and landing in intensive care on life support. The characters we’ve come to know and love are hurting, and we hurt with them, remembering our own fears and indeterminate future. Griffiths is able to incorporate many problems of the pandemic into this novel as a natural part of the storyline, not superfluous material. Domestic abuse and a lack of PPE equipment for medical workers and housing problems for students with no place to go. All this is brought to the forefront of our attention and brings back memories of that time we all went through. One of our long-term characters will face Covid full-on, and we will suffer through the tragedy of preparing to say goodbye to a loved one struck by this killer disease. 

This review might seem long to some, but there is so much I didn’t touch upon, so much for readers to still discover. I want readers to have the joy of reading the words of Elly Griffiths to reveal what a brilliant tale this is. I think fans of this series will be thrilled with The Locked Room and be champing at the bit for number fifteen, as there is a cliffhanger at the end which promises to bring some major decisions to some of the main characters’ lives. 

I do feel I need to comment on the relationship quagmire that entangles Ruth and Nelson. As much as I am a fan of Ruth and Nelson together, this book had me wanting some resolution more than ever. I was rather upset with Nelson that his grown daughter Laura whines and he races to her, leaving Ruth and their amazing young daughter Kate to understand. My understanding with him is growing thin. My heart breaks for young Kate as she is always so delighted to see her father and never complains when he leaves them short. It’s clear that he loves Ruth and Kate, and I’m ready for him to man up. Or maybe someone else will.

The Locked Room is a book you don’t want to miss in the Ruth Galloway series. Don’t be discouraged by the inclusion of the pandemic. As I’ve already stated, I agree with Elly Griffiths that she just couldn’t leave out 2020 in the lives of the characters whom most of us have long ago crystallized into living, breathing people. To continue our connection to the characters, it’s essential that they experience our same world. I believe that The Locked Room by Elly Griffiths will be held up as an example of successful pandemic literature, and I can imagine people years from now reading it and gleaning from it how the shock of it all felt. I’m grateful that Elly trusted her readers, and now, her readers must trust her. She never lets us down.


Tuesday, June 21, 2022

A Girl Called Justice: The Spy at the Window (Justice Jones #4) by Elly Griffiths : Reading Room Review


I know I have started the reviews for the first three Justice Jones mysteries by Elly Griffiths with a gushing statement of affection, and I’m about to go full-on gush for number four, The Spy at the Window. This children’s series is every bit as thrilling for adults as it is for the younger audience, with its engaging characters and immersing plots. We started out with Justice at age twelve, entering Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk late in the first semester. Her mother, who was an author of mysteries, had died, and her barrister father thought Highbury was the solution for Justice’s care and education, as his work kept him so busy. Herbert Jones also knows the head mistress of the school, Miss Delores de Vere, a friendship Justice is still trying to figure out, so there’s a ready connection for Herbert to keep apprised of how Justice is doing.

Over her last few years at the school, Justice had made some great friends of her own and solved some tricky mysteries, where even murder was involved. Highbury is located on the edges of the Romney March area of southeast England, a remote, isolated setting that’s conducive to the unusual and spooky. The architecture of the school itself seems made for mystery, with its turrets and tunnels and cellars and priests’ holes. It’s the perfect setting for Justice and the rest of her mystery-loving group of friends. And, I’m especially taken with the time setting of the late 30s and early 40s, as solving a case is all down to leg work, careful observation, and note taking. No cell phones or Internet exists, it’s putting clues and evidence together at its basic best. Justice is a list maker, and as she explores the mysteries that pop up, she keeps a journal of clues and suspects and observations. A passed note or found letter is far more thrilling than a text message, any day or creepy night of the week. 

The fourth book of the series, The Spy at the Window, opens in December 1939 with the announcement of England going to war with Germany. Justice is fifteen and returning to school after Christmas holiday during her 5th Form. Things start to change very quickly in England. Young men are leaving their families to fight in the war and everyone at home is adapting to living with less and organizing into community units for safety and survival. Justice has the comfort of her best friends at school (and fellow sleuths) Stella and Dorothy and Letitia. Of course, the rest of the Barnowls Dormy are there for each other, too, even persnickety Rose. Blackout curtains have come to Highbury House, like they have to every house in England, and due to the servants not being there to work, the students must do dusting and sweeping and washing up of the dishes. 

But, the big change is totally unexpected. The boys of St. Wilfred’s School come to share Highbury House with the girls. The intention at first is to keep the two groups entirely separate, but then sports brings them together. Justice makes a new friend in Henry and, of course, Rose finds a boyfriend. The two male teachers who accompany the boys’ school are quite different from one another. One is from a military background and a take-charge personality, and the other is a much less assertive person whom the boys seem to take advantage of. The two groups of students live beside each other in harmony, and it seems no mystery will be forthcoming from that change. However, when Justice hears voices from an unoccupied turret room and sees a man’s face at a window two stories up, curiosity and investigation follow. When Justice’s father disappears after the half-holiday at Highbury, anybody and everybody is suspect. Justice and her crew must take everyone now residing at the school into consideration for a possible link to the disappearance. Justice can’t bear the thought of her father being gone, in addition to her mother, but will a young girl and her friends be able to root out a spy and find Mr. Jones? 

This story was brilliantly suspenseful, the kind you feel deep in your bones. I’ve enjoyed watching Justice grow and mature in her time at Highbury, and it seems her father made a wise choice indeed in sending her there. From the beginning I’ve loved that Justice is a young person who is comfortable in her own skin and has confidence in her abilities. This clever, intuitive, kind character has endeared herself to so many readers, including the adults, like me, who realize that great storytelling knows no age limits. Of course, the author being Elly Griffiths guarantees the best of stories and characters. Her Ruth Galloway series, her Brighton series, and her standalones/Harbinder Kaur all have favorite characters for me. I’m so glad that she has added the Justice Jones series to her repertoire. I can’t wait to see what mystery next befalls the Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk. 

A final note I will include because I am such a big fan of great book covers.  The books in the Justice Jones series have some of the best covers you'll find. They are both a visual and textural delight. The colors with the predominant purple and shades of green and blue with touches of black perfectly create an atmospheric sense of mystery.  The slick and raised parts, as in the pictures of the other books in the series on the back, are an added treat for those who appreciate the textures of book covers. This is why I have to buy the print copy of the books, and I can truly say that I enjoy these books cover to cover. 

Friday, June 10, 2022

The Navigator's Daughter by Nancy Cole Silverman: Reading Room Review


The Navigator’s Daughter is the first book in a new series by Nancy Cole Silverman. Of course, Nancy is no novice in the writing of mystery/crime. Her two previous series, Carol Childs mysteries and Misty Dawn series are popular, successful series. With The Navigator’s Daughter, the author is embarking on rather darker storylines, and historical leanings. Mystery and history are always a winning combination for me, and The Navigator’s Daughter brings me both in a gripping tale of past meeting present. 

The leading character for The Navigator’s Daughter is Kat Lawson, who is facing some important life changes and challenges. She has lost her newspaper reporting job, her father is dying of cancer, and she’s heading for divorce. She has plenty to deal with and figure out right where she is, but her father has made a request. He has received a letter from one Sandor Zselnegellar telling him that his WWII B-24 plane has been found in Hungary, in the area of Tomasai. Kat’s father wants her to go to Hungary in his place and see the plane. He also wants her to try to locate the woman and young boy who saved his and two of his crew’s lives by hiding them from the Germans. The time setting is 1996, fifty years after the war, so it's possible the woman and boy are still alive. Kat was named after this woman, Katarina, so she realizes how important her going to Hungary is to her father. She suspects that this discovery and this Sandor fellow might turn out to be a scam, but she agrees to go and keep alert to any tricks on the part of him. 

When Kat arrives in Budapest, Sandor has arranged for her to stay with his cousin and wife, who have just turned their guest bedroom into a rental unit. Not having had time to arrange a hotel herself and upon seeing the beautiful view from her room, Kat gladly accepts Sandor’s arrangement. Kat has a week to see the plane and find Katarina and her son Adolph. Her search will take Kat to the countryside outside of Budapest and to the small town of Keszethely. While Sandor is Kat’s main guide, she meets a young Gypsy man who is knowledgeable and much more forthcoming about the cave and tunnels in which Kat’s father and his friends hid. She still feels like Sandor is up to something, even though he does show her the plane, and so having another guide proves useful to her. The cousin of Sandor’s also seems to have a personal agenda, but Kat is shocked when she discovers just what his true nature and purpose is. In fact, Kat will uncover some long-held secrets that will rock her world as she has always known it.

To tell more would ruin the surprises and twists that Nancy Silverman so cleverly created for the story. Kat and the rest of the characters are well developed, as I was interested in what each of the ones connected to Kat would do next, and I continued to wonder about them after finishing the book. I do hope they will all return in book two. I was delighted to learn more about Hungary, especially Budapest. Kat’s evening walks helped bring the setting to life. And, the historical connection of Hungary during WWII was new and fascinating to me. I didn’t realize that Hungary switched sides, from the Axis to the Allies, and that the country was first occupied by Nazi Germany and then communist Russia. Information gleaned through the threads of the story about Hungary’s Jewish population had me researching more. I always enjoy when a book leads me to reading more about a subject. 

The Navigator’s Daughter series is going to be a must-read series for me. It checks so many boxes. Historical fiction, mysteries involving art works, and a lead character who isn’t afraid to take on the challenges of a whole new life. I haven’t gotten into the art in the book, but suffice it to say, I learned some interesting tidbits there, too. I also liked that the idea for the book came from a real experience. Those who enjoy their historical fiction with mystery and connections to WWII are going to love The Navigator’s Daughter.

Full disclosure is I received an advanced copy of this book from the author for a honest and fair review.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Fatal Reunion (Zoe Chambers #11) by Annette Dashofy: Reading Room Review

It’s good to be back in Monongahela County, Pennsylvania with a new Zoe Chambers book by Annette Dashofy. Fatal Reunion, #11, is being enthusiastically welcomed by the many fans of Zoe Chambers and Pete Adams. The covers have always been some of my favorite mystery/crime book covers, and the cover for Fatal Reunion is another engaging one. Because the series is so good, I sometimes forget that the cover of Circle of Influence, the first Zoe Chambers book, is what made me pick it up, and in this case, you certainly can choose a book by its cover. I discovered this series in 2020, when we all found ourselves home-bound, and I read all ten that year. I found great comfort in the reliability of Annette Dashofy to always deliver a gripping story. With Fatal Reunion, she may have given us the best yet.

Zoe Chambers-Adams is finding her new job as County Coroner keeps her plenty busy. Switching from her former job as paramedic where she fought to save lives, Zoe now deals with only those whose lives have ended. She and husband Police Chief Pete Adams now live on the farm Zoe’s mother gave her, so she can still take care of her beloved horse and a few other boarding ones, plus sneak in rides, an activity that helps keep her centered. Pete, a city boy at heart, is slowly adjusting to his new country life, having come from Pittsburgh and living in town in Vance Township when he became Chief of Police there. And, Pete has also grown used to the different situations and kind of people he encounters in his Vance Township job as a rural community. However, I always enjoy when the author throws him a new situation that’s country born. Fatal Reunion opens with Pete and backup from other agencies chasing a juvenile on a giant John Deere tractor that the kid, of course, has stolen. Of course, Pete gets his tractor and his perpetrator after a wild ride through the countryside. The kid is a juvenile who has been in trouble on a frequent basis in the area, and he will be around the rest of the book muddying the waters a bit.

This story quickly grows darker when a local teenage girl goes missing. Taylor is a senior at Monongahela High School and hasn’t been seen since leaving her house for an after-dinner walk. Law enforcement and the community search for three days in hopes to find Taylor alive. Pete and his department retrace her movements the day she disappeared and talk to her boyfriend with whom she’d just broken up. But, Taylor has been dead since shortly after she was last seen by her parents. Vance Township is horrified by her brutal death. 

The location where Taylor’s body is found brings back memories of the Monongahela Strangler, who preyed on teenage girls when Zoe and her friend Rose were seniors at the same Monongahela High School. Twenty years ago three girls were abducted, raped, and murdered and were also left in a field like Taylor, one girl in the exact location. Zoe, whose 20th high school reunion is the coming weekend, is most uncomfortable with the similarities, even though she knows that a teenage boy had been singled out as the murderer and killed himself before he was charged or tried for the gruesome murders. The murders had stopped after the suicide, but Zoe knows that could be due to several different scenarios. Pete, who isn’t familiar with the crimes or victims from the twenty-year-old case is looking squarely at the animosities between the victim’s family and that of her boyfriend’s family. 

To add fuel to the fire of connecting the old murders to the new one, Zoe’s friend Rose is in town for the reunion and swears she sees a lurking male classmate who used to sexually harass them. Rose had always thought that particular creepy classmate had committed the earlier murders, not the young man who was vilified in the press for it. But, Zoe has not seen this man who had basically fallen off the face of the earth from everyone’s radar. She wants to believe Rose, and the sighting gains credibility when a former teacher of theirs, who is also in town for the reunion, confirms seeing the man, too. However, the lurking classmate seems most elusive to track down. 

There are plenty of people connected to the current murder case and the murders from twenty years ago, and it’s interesting to see how Pete goes about his police work to break loose pieces of information buried deep about persons of interest. He is thorough and doesn’t hesitate to use other law enforcement resources to aid in the investigation, such County Detective Wayne Baronick and Pete’s friend FBI Agent Ethan McCoy. Rose’s husband, Miguel Morales, who is a deputy sheriff in New Mexico, helps some on this case, too. And, Pete stays in touch with Warren Froats, who was Vance Township’s police chief when the Monongahela Strangler killed the three high school girls twenty years ago. Baronick has access to a lab and other conveniences that the small town of Vance Township doesn’t, so Pete works with Wayne quite frequently. I’ve come to really enjoy Pete and Wayne working together, with their friendship and Wayne annoying Pete. Wayne’s sister Abby works as a new police officer for Pete, and is a bright up and coming investigator. And, of course, Zoe is an unofficial investigator, who works so well with her husband and Wayne. She knows the county and its people, which can be an invaluable resource. It’s a unrelenting trio who use plenty of legwork along with technology to find the truth. 

While on the way to resolution in Fatal Reunion, the twists of direction will keep the reader guessing just which one of the persons of interest had the means, motive, opportunity, and intent. I changed my mind several times as to who I thought was the killer, and even briefly considered the actual guilty party, but Annette Dashofy cleverly ensures an element of surprise in the book’s finale. It’s an action-packed dramatic end, something Annette Dashofy is a master at. The pacing throughout the story is in step with the suspense, as layer after layer of secrets are peeled back and brought to light. Like all intriguing storytelling, the pieces are out there floating, waiting to be caught and connected. 

The slightly longer than usual wait for Zoe Chambers #11 has been well worth it. I’ve read where quite a few people are saying this latest book in the series is their favorite, and I agree that Fatal Reunion has all the earmarks of outstanding in the series. Annette Dashofy is brilliant in developing her characters and plots and pacing. And, let's not forget dialogue, as it always captures the essence of the characters. The suspense is spine-tingling throughout the book, and it will take your breath away at the end. That’s why you might want to clear your schedule when you sit down with Fatal Reunion. You will not want to leave it once you start it.

Full disclosure is that I received a paper ARC from the author for a fair and honest review. My review reflects exactly how the book affected me.