Saturday, May 20, 2023

Blackstone Fell (Rachel Savernake #3) by Martin Edwards: Reading Room Review



One of my favorite settings for a mystery is the moors of England. Blackstone Fell is set in northern England in the small fictional village of Blackstone Fell, where not only will you find a moor, but caves and a treacherous river and a sanatorium/asylum and a looming tower.   All you need is some fog to complete the perfect atmospheric setting, and, oh, you get some of that, too.  Now, the place setting is ready for the sinister secrets and disappearances and, well, murder that the peculiar inhabitants of such a setting are so adept at.  Fall of 1930 is a time setting that makes the odd occurrences in the village most challenging to decipher and piece together to form a whole picture and more dangerous to investigate, as none of the modern resources of computers or cell phones are available. On the ground legwork, incognito snooping, and direct involvement with people is a necessity.  One must get their hands dirty if answers are to be found.  There are some resources, of course, for those who live in places with them, such as British Museum in London for newspaper reporting of disappearances and deaths.  So, our snoops in Blackstone Fell, who hail from London, have a bit of an advantage over the village residents themselves. 


This new Rachel Savernake book starts out in a deliciously mysterious manner.  Nell Fagan is chasing ghosts, or rather the disappearance of two men three hundred years apart.  She also has an interest in a recent death at the Sanatorium.  In the small village of Blackstone Fell, Nell has rented the very Lodge House from which the men disappeared, so she can live there and talk to the people who would have knowledge of the rumors and facts she needs.  She has her work cut out for her, as the villagers do not take to strangers and even less to strangers asking questions.  The sanatorium/asylum located there is a mystery itself and adds to the sinister atmosphere.  Nobody seems to know exactly what goes on there.  Nell is posing as a photographer who wants to do a photo story on the village, so her moving about the area is not a suspicious activity.  But her disguise won’t last long, and her identity as a London journalist will be exposed. Her first attempt to visit the village pub and buy a round of drinks to ease her way into the community fails.  The only people who talk to her at all are the vicar’s wife and the doctor.  She soon realizes just how unwelcome she is when a boulder rolls down from the cliff and comes close to smashing her like it does her tripod.  Nell knows that this was no accident; someone tried to kill her.  There’s no shortage of suspects with the likes of piously querulous Reverend Quintus Royle, the creepily reclusive Alfred Lejeune, and any of the haughtily taciturn Sambrooks of the Sambrook Sanitorium. 


Nell takes a train back to London after her near brush with death, not giving up on her mission but trying to save it by engaging the best detecting mind she knows, a woman Nell describes “as sharp as a stiletto.”  However, Nell has angered Rachel Savernake at an earlier time, so Nell must seek out assistance in getting an audience with Rachel in her fortress of a home, Gaunt House.  Jacob Flint is the chief crime correspondent for the Clarion newspaper in London, and he knows Nell as a fellow reporter who is seasoned and sometimes a bit too outspoken.  He knows that Nell has been blackballed on Fleet Street, home of the London newspapers, due to her earlier run-in with Rachel Savernake, and he also knows what an excellent reporter she is.  Unfortunately, Nell’s habit of unreserved enthusiasm and single-mindedness is a handicap to her career, as she can be quite the bulldozer personality.  The mystery she’s working on in Blackstone Fell could help get her back into the good graces of the newspapers though.  Jacob is friends, as much as anyone can be a friend to the enigmatic Rachel Savernake, with Rachel and feels sorry for Nell, so he does manage to get Nell another interview with the reclusive Rachel.  However, the second attempt to get Rachel interested in a project doesn’t go too well for Nell, as once again she withholds information and isn’t completely honest, which she agreed to be.  Nell returns to Blackstone Fell and the Lodge to continue her investigations and face danger from someone who wants to silence her.


Jacob has his own investigation of another issue for his paper.  His boss is determined to expose the spiritualists/mediums who take advantage of desperate people wanting to make contact with their dearly departed ones.  His editor, Gomersall, is enraged at this hoodwinkery, and it is Jacob’s assignment to get the goods on one of the perpetrators in this scheme of fleecing the bereaved.  Jacob has his sights on one Ottilie Curle, who has risen to great prominence as one of the most successful spiritualists, giving those left behind one more chance to hear the voice of their loved ones.  As a quid pro quo with Nell for him having gotten her the chance with Rachel, Nell agrees to help him gain access to a meeting Ottilie is having with Nell’s aunt.  Ottilie is a pro through and through, and Jacob realizes just how challenging tripping her up will be.  You may be wondering if Jacob’s assignment of exposing fake spiritualists is just an interesting interlude in the action of the mysteries at Blackstone Fell.  All I can say is that the connection between the two provides for a most thrilling denouement. 


Rachel Savernake does become involved in the goings on at Blackstone Fell.  Rachel admits she has “an unhealthy interest in murderers, especially those who masquerade as respectable.”  She wants to know why they do it, since “by killing someone, they risk their own necks.”  She also believes that justice “is much rarer than people like to think.”  When someone dies a suspicious death by train in the underground, someone related to a person whose death Nell was investigating, and someone Rachel and Jacob were on their way to question, Rachel decides she must go to Blackstone Fell to solve the puzzles that are resulting in murder.  As always, Rachel and her servants/companions work as a team in putting answers to questions, so Rachel and Hetty Trueman and Martha Trueman move into a cottage for rent, with the doctor and rector (and his wife) living as neighbors.  Rachel has a cover story for her presence in Blackstone Fell, as does Cliff Trueman, who is staying at the local inn and pretending to be in the motor trade.  All four in the ensemble have their roles to play if the darkness of Blackstone Fell is to be exposed.  Of course, Jacob Flint is deeply involved in the investigation, too, both as a cohort to Rachel and a journalist wanting the big scoop.


From beginning to end, Blackstone Fell has commonalities with Agatha Christie novels, and Christie’s novels made me fall in love with mystery/crime fiction years ago. The small village set-up of Blackstone Fell with the vicar and the vicar’s wife, the local doctor, the eccentric person living in a tower, a widowed major, the wealthy and secretive lords of the manor all serve to pull me into a thrilling cast of suspect characters.  The ending is also reminiscent of Agatha Christie.  Without spoiling any of the ending, I will simply say that all the major players hear the solution to all the puzzles and murders at the same time in that wonderfully familiar way of Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot.  I rather enjoyed the way Rachel announces the guilty, as just when you think you’ve heard all the revelations, there seems to be one more “but wait a minute” and then another.  All the rocks are turned over to lay bare the wickedness beneath. 


In comparison to the familiar sleuths of Christie, Rachel Savernake seems a more modern sleuth, a more deliberate thrill seeker, and she comes with the team of her three capable servants, who are more like family and always have her back.  Miss Marple and Poirot seem more old-fashioned and set in their ways.  Rachel is a risk taker, often in contrast with her logical thinking skills.  The Golden Age vibe is continued by the inclusion of a “cluefinder” at the end of the book.  These were often a part of a Golden Age mystery, listing clues to the solution and the pages upon which they’re found.  The second Rachel Savernake book had an ending of the same form as this third book and the fascinating cluefinders, too.  Something else that Martin Edwards does that always drew me to the Agatha Christie books is choosing apposite words to use.  It’s not that every word is eye-catching, but there are those greatly satisfying instances where a word just feels so congruous in its application.  I think the timing for this series couldn’t be better, as more and more people seem to have taken an interest in Golden Age and classic mystery/crime fiction. I don’t know who better to write a new Golden Age mystery than the person who literally wrote the book on Golden Age mysteries.  Martin Edwards has brought all his Golden Age knowledge and seasoned fiction writing talent to create this brilliant Rachel Savernake series for readers to savor.  Blackstone Fell is my favorite Rachel Savernake yet, although I reserve the right to repeat that line after reading the next book.




Sunday, May 7, 2023

Helpless (Zoe Chambers #12) by Annette Dashofy: Reading Room Review


We readers are a funny lot.  The house could be falling down around us, and if we are completely ensconced in a book, we would keep reading.  When one of those books comes along, there is no greater pleasure for a reader.  Well, Helpless, Zoe Chambers #12, by Annette Dashofy is certainly that book.  It is as riveting a read as I’ve had in some time.  Dashofy is a master plotter, with different points of focus that all work together in creating the urgency of action from beginning to end.  There is not a scene in this book that isn’t on the edge of the difference between disaster and success.  The pace is in sync with the rushing flood waters and the ticking of the clock.  Time is no one’s friend in this story, and helpless is an all-pervasive feeling in the face of the disasters of nature and of man. 


It's a horrifying scene that a neighboring farmer arrives at when going to his friend’s house to fill sandbags for an approaching major storm to western Pennsylvania.  Michelle O’Donnell lies dead on her kitchen floor and her husband Danny O’Donnell has been shot and pinned beneath a tractor.  Their seven-year-old daughter Peyton is nowhere to be found.  As law enforcement, including Vance Township Police Chief Pete Adams and his wife, Corner Zoe Chambers arrive on the scene, it’s also discovered that Danny had been working on the tractor, replacing a tire.  The perpetrator drove the tractor onto Danny as he lay wounded and then sabotaged the tractor so it couldn’t be driven off the dying man.  Unbelievably, Danny is still alive, and he’s able to tell them what happened, and that Peyton has been kidnapped. 


Pete and County Detective Wayne Baronick once again join forces and are now tasked with finding a cold-blooded killer, a sadistic monster, before the child can also come to harm.  But, this killer is cunning and already has a head-start that doesn’t bode well for the authorities, and no one knows his identity.  The severe weather from Hurricane Iona in New Orleans is a double-edged sword.  While it prevents the killer from leaving the area, it also makes conditions near impossible for law enforcement chasing him.  People who live in low-lying areas of Monongahela County are frantically trying to sandbag their houses and businesses and farms to keep flood waters out.  Roadways are filling with water, creating conditions for cars to be swept away, and, trees are toppling onto roadways making the roads impassable.  But, Pete and his deputies and Baronick won’t let the conditions surrounding them keep them from a full-out pursuit of a child in danger and her unstable kidnapper.  Amber alerts are issued, with a vehicle description finally being put together, but the alert is only as good as the information is current, and when the perpetrator starts to switch vehicles, the new vehicle must be determined before adding to the alert.  It’s a game of cat-and-mouse that couldn’t have occurred under worse conditions.  And, the clock keeps ticking.


Ordinarily, Zoe would head to the morgue where she would do the autopsy on Michelle, but Danny has asked her to stay with him, and that’s where she knows she has to be.  Danny is the blacksmith for her horses and a friend as well, so her presence has a calming effect on him.  A tent-like structure is set up over Danny and the rescue workers while the storm rages around them and rain pounds the canvas above their heads.  Zoe’s former EMT partners are working tirelessly to try and keep Danny alive.  Dr. Fuller arrives to help, which is outside of his usual duties, proving just how much everyone is invested in saving what’s left of this family.  Danny’s friend Leroy, desperate to help, is sent after supplies to fix the tractor so they can drive it off Danny.  Danny is fully coherent, and ironically, the pressure of the tractor is keeping him from bleeding out.  And, the clock keeps ticking.


With Helpless, Annette Dashofy has taken the Zoe Chambers series deeper into the chilling waters of suspense than ever before.  She has set a frenetic, but controlled, pace of action, with intertwining plotlines that must all be resolved in less than 24 hours.  Tick tock, tick tock.  You will feel that clock ticking the time by with lives on the line.  The storm will seem to grasp you in its relentlessness and fury, too.  Dashofy takes all the moving parts and brings them together in perfect symphonic blending.  Helpless is, of course, already on my Favorites List for 2023, and I’m positive that it will be on many others’ favorites list, too.  I know I’ve said this before, and it doesn’t take anything away from the books I said it about, but I do think this is the finest writing Annette Dashofy has produced.  The author stated in a recent interview that writing this book was a daunting experience because “writing suspense is way out of my wheelhouse.”  Well, Ms. Dashofy, I think you’re going to have to redefine your wheelhouse now.  


I received an e-copy of Helpless from the author and from NetGalley.  My review reflects my honest assessment of this book.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

The Case of the Absent Heirs (WISE Enquiries Agency #6) by Cathy Ace: Reading Room Review


There’s something so exciting about a book set at Christmastime when it’s a book in a favorite mystery series.  You get to see the characters you’ve come to love at a time of celebration and family gatherings.  If you’re especially lucky, there’s snow, and lucky you are, as it does show up at just the right time in this story.  Of course, even with it being the busy season of Christmas preparations, the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries, has a whole lot more going.  In The Case of the Absent Heirs, the WISE women have officially taken on a new case and unofficially gotten involved in a community problem.  The Chellingworth Estate is jumping with activity, including the time growing near for Duchess Stephanie to have her baby.  There are holiday visits to be made to family by the WISE women, and there is Stephanie’s parents coming to visit at the manor.  Annie, Mavis, Christine, and Carol are taking their trips to see family during the holidays and have a case to wrap up by the New Year.  A Christmas dinner at the main hall for all the WISE women and their significant others and the Chellingworth family is an event that must happen according to plan, and the Dowager Duchess Althea has some Christmas surprises scheduled for some exact times, too. 


The WISE women are presented a job by a solicitor handling a local farmer’s estate.  He has been unable to locate the man’s heirs, his triplet sons.  The sons are grown men and seem to have vanished into thin air, and in order to inherit, they must be found by the first of the new year and sign documents.  The women decide that, despite being busy with their upcoming family visits and the Christmas Day celebrations at Chellingworth Hall they are attending, they can manage this one case, too.  How complicated can finding the sons be?  As it turns out, it not only will be complicated but dangerous as well.


There are always multiple threads winding through the WISE Agency books, but I don’t find it hard to keep up at all.  Events in life don’t happen in a vacuum, so it’s only natural there’s lots going on, and at Christmas season, the obligations and activities are increased on a tight schedule.  Because the WISE women leave no stones unturned in their investigations, their new case is proving to be more of a challenge than it originally seemed.  The Case of the Absent Heirs takes the search beyond the village of Awen-by-Wye, as the three brothers seem to have scattered to different places.  London, Scotland, and Wales are possible places where the triplets have landed.  Luckily, Mavis is visiting her sons in Scotland, Christine has a townhouse in London, and Carol will be close to the place in Wales that needs checked out.  This simple fill-in case for the end of the year grows more sinister by the day.  Soon, lives are in danger, as settling old scores comes into play.    


Annie has another mystery she’s trying to unravel.  Someone has been leaving unwelcome packages outside of village residents’ doors, glued to their steps.  The packages contain clues to some secret each person has hidden from others.  The items pointing to the secrets are malicious in intent, and it’s a distressing situation for the village of Awen-by-Wye.  Annie unofficially takes it on as a case, with the help of pub owner and boyfriend Tudor, both having received packages themselves.  Someone is targeting good people with this cruelty, threatening their peaceful existence.    


Meanwhile, at Chellingworth Hall, Christmas preparations are underway, with a very pregnant Duchess Stephanie trying to keep her worry-wart husband Henry Devereaux Twyst, eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth, calm.  Stephanie’s parents have come to visit for Christmas and for an indeterminant amount of time after the baby is born.  Henry is not looking forward to his in-laws’ open-ended visit.  With the arrival of the parents, a third plot is introduced.  It involves some associates of Stephanie’s parents and her concern about her parents’ involvement with them.  The WISE women will help Stephanie with her concern, as yet another pressing matter falls in their lap.    


As a fan of this series, I especially enjoyed the personal revelations about the WISE women’s relationships with their families and their partners in this book.  The Christmas visits were a perfect means of providing more insight into family dynamics.  Mavis and her sons were particularly interesting to me.  Mavis is still the practical, organized person she always is, but there is a softness in her with her sons that isn’t apparent in her work life.  Christine’s and Alexander’s relationship also receives some close scrutiny in this book, and readers will learn if the couple can overcome the challenges to a long-term future.  And, Tudor and Annie have to be one of my favorite couples in my fiction reading.  The pub owner and the sleuth seem made for one another, and it’s one of those sweet romances in which both participants deserve some hard-earned happiness in life.  Carol and her husband have the couple relationship that is the most solid.  I love how they are so considerate of one another and how they both love being with their child.


This series continues to give readers intriguing plots built around an outstanding cast of characters who are ever evolving and adapting.  The setting of Awen-by-Wye in Wales is a major draw for me, a setting I’m not overly familiar with from other mystery/crime books.  The Case of the Absent Heirs is once again a clever, comforting tale from author Cathy Ace, who knows how to tell a story.  In this book #6, cases get solved, but there is also a lot about relationships that gets explored and moved forward.  For me, The Case of the Absent Heirs accomplished much but never seemed too much.   



Addendum to my review:

Something I sometimes like to include in my reviews for those who might just be coming to the series is my short description of who the WISE women are.  So, here it is.  The WISE women are a diverse group of private investigators who, despite their different backgrounds and skills, work brilliantly together. WISE is comprised of one Welsh woman named Carol, who is a whiz at culling information from the computer and assembling it for use; Irish Christine, who is a titled Irish aristocrat with a sharp mind and lots of helpful connections; Scottish Mavis, a retired nurse of wounded soldiers and the organized leader of the group; and English Annie, whose warm and unassuming nature can get almost anyone to open up to her. Those who underestimate these women, like the police and criminals, learn the foolishness of that mistake.

And, how the WISE women started.  The WISE Agency has a close, like family, connection with the Duke and Duchess of Chellingworth, and the Dowager Duchess. Their first case was for Henry Devereaux Twyst, the eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth, and it is through this case that the women became ensconced in the community of Anwen-by-Wye. They even have their offices in a converted barn on the Chellingworth estate, and Christine lives in an apartment in this barn. Mavis lives with Althea, the Dowager Duchess, in the Dower House on the estate. So, the Chellingworths and the WISE women have become an integral part of one another’s lives.