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.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

A Questionable Death and Other Historical Quaker Midwife Stories by Edith Maxwell: Reading Room Review


Call the Midwife is a British television show on PBS that viewers are wild about.  We love to watch this show set in the 1960s in England about the hard work of the midwives at Nonnatus House, how they are part of the fabric of the community.  They work towards social and medical advances as they help mothers deliver their babies and families become whole.  The mother is seldom considered in isolation to the rest of her family; the midwives often must involve themselves in the environment the new baby is coming into.  Edith Maxwell’s Agatha Award winning Quaker Midwife book series (seven in total) and this short story collection, A Questionable Death and Other Historical Quaker Midwife Stories, are set in the 1880s and focus on midwife Rose Carroll, who faces the same challenges of taking care of her clients, the pregnant women, while ensuring the baby’s environment is a welcoming and safe one.  She must often gain the trust of the father, as the men are especially skeptical of a woman having the skills of a male doctor in the 19th century.  Of course, Rose has the additional challenge of finding a murderer in her stories. 


Rose Carroll has a gift for and enjoyment of detection, as well as midwifery, and in a highly unusual show of acceptance of a woman’s help during those times, Detective Kevin Donovan works with Rose in solving murders.  Actually, Rose’s midwifery aids in the detection, as she is privy to local gossip and rumors on her rounds, and she’s an excellent listener.  Rose must also deal with women’s issues that are still being dealt with today. The police are adamant that they won’t interfere in domestic situations, such as a husband abusing his wife, but Rose can’t ignore the safety of a mother-to-be and her baby.  In “A Questionable Death,” nominated for the 2015 Agatha Short Story Award, Rose works with her friend Bertie to aid one of Rose’s clients who is having difficulties with her husband.  The story “The Unfortunate Death of Mrs. Edna Fog” involves the murder of a suffragette thirty years before women gain the right to vote.  Being a Quaker helps Rose to deal calmly with what she encounters, but she is a strong, passionate advocate for her clients. There’s nothing didactic about the threads of women’s issues and other history that run through the stories, as Edith Maxwell is wholly proficient at creating great plots into which history is seamlessly woven.                                   


One of the best things about this collection of stories is that readers have a timeline of Rose and the Quaker Midwife book series all in one place.  The story “A Fire in Carriagetown” is the first story Edith Maxwell wrote about the Amesbury, Massachusetts community, before Rose was appointed the main character, and it’s narrated by and features Faith Bailey, Rose’s niece.  In “In Pursuit of Justice” we see Rose as an apprentice midwife to eighty-four-year-old Orpha Perkins.   When Rose has gained some experience and has become the midwife for Amesbury, she herself takes on an apprentice, Annie Beaumont, and in “An Ominous Silence” Rose and Annie find themselves stuck in the snow on a train, where a closed room murder takes place.  In “The Mayor and the Midwife,” when the mayor of New Orleans comes to Amesbury, Massachusetts in 1888, Quaker midwife Rose Carroll solves the mystery of his son-in-law’s death and delivers a baby. This story was nominated for a 2016 Agatha award for Best Short Story.  And, the author ends this selection of stories with a real treat for readers, as “The Management of Secrets” takes place ten years after the last book in the series (A Changing Light).  Rose is settled in a life of her own and no longer detecting, but Kevin Donovan asks for her help one more time.


Short stories are an art form all in themselves.  I have just started reading more short stories, and I now realize there’s a daunting challenge for an author to bring characters and setting to life in a hugely shortened amount of time and place them in a plot that must quickly capture a reader’s attention.  Edith Maxwell accomplishes that in each of these short stories.  I felt great satisfaction after finishing each one.  Getting to know the main character of Rose is fairly easy, as she is pretty much front and center in all but one story.  The more you see a character, the more invested in their outcome you are. The supporting cast of characters in these stories must make themselves known, too, and add to the story.  Again, Maxwell has this task in hand, and the supporting characters in the world of Rose Carroll are so interesting and add such richness to Rose’s life and the stories.  A real-life people character who lived in Amesbury at this time is John Greenleaf Whittier, the famous poet who is a fellow Quaker of Rose’s and in their local Quaker group.  He is the first person to recognize and encourage Rose in her gift for detection.  Rose’s best friend Bertie Winslow is the postmistress of the town, a progressive step for women in a country where male postmasters were the norm and women couldn’t vote.  Both Bertie and Rose are forward thinkers, and they need each other’s support in a world that hasn’t opened its mind yet.  Kevin, the policeman, who is in a job where women are not welcome, comes to understand that Rose has a gift for helping to uncover clues and solve murders.  He overcomes his prejudices about what a woman’s place is and values Rose’s insights.  The characters that come and go in the different stories are all remarkably well-developed in a short amount of time, too.                       


Each story in this collection is complete and enjoyable by itself, but don’t be surprised if you want to read the seven books in the Quaker Midwife series after reading the short stories.  Edith Maxwell does an outstanding job of pulling the reader into each story and into the lives of the characters, and that’s quite a challenge when time is shortened; however, the stories never feel rushed or truncated.  I have a whole new appreciation for the short story now.  Of course, Edith Maxwell and her nom-de-plume Maddie Day have plenty of novels in series to keep readers engaged for hours and hours.  But, there are so many times and places a reader needs a shorter read, and I can wholeheartedly recommend A Questionable Death and Other Historical Quaker Midwife Stories collection of stories to fill that need.





A Questionable Death and Other Historical Quaker Midwife Stories is published by Crippen and Landru, a small publishing house I’ve recently become aware of because of my increased interest in short stories.  The description of their publishing company on the web site is as follows.  “Offering the best single-author, short mystery fiction available, Crippen and Landru have been seeking out and publishing stories that range from the beginnings of mystery fiction to the award-winning stories of today.”


Full disclosure: I received an advanced copy of A Questionable Death and Other Historical Quaker Midwife Stories, which is never a factor in the honesty of my reviews.