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.