Friday, February 9, 2018

Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

First Sentence: I had not been long at my post in Mount Street, Mayfair, when my employer’s sister came to some calamity.

Cook Kat Holloway has a new position in the home of Lord Rankin. He’s not a man you’d trust with the young maids, but would he really have killed a young Irish kitchen maid? With the help of Daniel McAdam, who is far more than he appears to be, and his son James, a plot is uncovered that extends far beyond the household.

Ashley creates a very strong sense of place, down to things as basic as a description of –“London was always a town on the move. Mud flew as carriage wheels and horses churned it up, droplets becoming dark rain to meld with the fog.”—and the layout of the house. 

One cannot have a protagonist who is a cook without many mentions of food and tempting-sounding meals—“…the cream of carrot soup…, the fish pale in its butter sauce, the beef proudly browned and crackling with heat, its sauce of wine, demi-glace, and shallots poured around its base, the potatoes crisp…” These descriptions represent more than the food itself. The quality of the cook represented the wealth of the family, the prestige of the cook, and the work involved in buying for, and preparing such meals.

Kat is an excellent character. She knows her worth and doesn’t stand for any nonsense. She has a life outside the kitchen but keeps that life very much to herself. There is a strength and intelligence to her which would have been important for her role during the period. Kat exemplifies so many women, both then and today, who deal with life’s disappointments and tragedies yet take care of others and their own daily tasks. 

Using a first-person POV is cleverly done and demonstrates the quality of Ashley’s voice. Our protagonist is well aware that she is telling the story, but it again clarifies who she is—“I’d read nonsensical tales in popular magazines in which maids, when stumbling upon an inert member of mankind, dropped entire trays full of the household’s best porcelain. I’d always consider the maids in these stories to be fools—a dead body is no reason to destroy so much crockery.”
Ashley’s observations are fascinating and make one think. Her pragmatism makes her the type of person one should like to know.

Daniel is a character who adds just the right element to the plot. He has the connections, physical strength, and ability to move about the city in ways Kat does not. And a bit of romance never hurts, either.

Death Below Stairs” has a plot that is a bit convoluted and feels as though it takes a back seat to Kat's activities in the kitchen. Although it truly is the characters who are the book’s strength, as well as a look at life below stairs, there’s enough suspense to make this a very worthwhile read.

DEATH BELOW STAIRS (Hist Mys-Kat Holloway-London-1881/Victorian) - Good
Ashley, Jennifer – 2nd in series
Berkeley, Jan 2018

Monday, February 5, 2018

Gone Before Christmas by Charles Finch

First Sentence: The two brothers stood motionless upon the top step of a fine London townhouse, each with arms crossed, assessing a correspondingly motionless pair of trees propped against a railing. 

Lt. Ernest Austen of the Grenadier Guards has disappeared. Charles Lenox is trying to establish his detective agency, the first of its kind, but having little luck. Even Scotland Yard is so baffled, they’ve agreed to have Lenox consult. Solving this case would give him credibility and recognition. But can he solve it? 

One of the many things to love about Finch’s writing is his use of humor, whether it’s about life, death—“Death is the great spiritual adventure toward which all living things mush lean forward in hope and humility, in neither fear or anger.”--or Christmas trees--"Well," said Charles, signing, "I hope it may last the next three days, anyhow." "Until Christmas morning." "Yes, then it can slink off to some corner and die.".

It is always interesting learning about the customs of a period, and that they relate to Christmas makes them even more so. The tradition of Lenox; father, is quite progressive for the time. Yet one of the best things about a prequel is to learn more about the protagonists and their history. 

Finch creates wonderful analogies—“France and England were rather like an unhappy couple out to supper at friends’: not presently at war, except in the sense that they were continually at war.” His descriptions are evocative—“There was evidence all over it of wealth, and ancient lineage—tapestries on the walls, enormous hunting scenes in oils, tables of marble…”. His use of language is a treat—“…he discovered that the next train was in ninety minutes. He set out to see the wonders of Ipswich for himself. When that was finished, he had eighty-seven minutes left…” It is elements such as these, along with learning bits of information such as how the term “butler” came to be, that makes reading Finch such a pleasure.

Gone Before Christmas” is a lovely story for the holidays with just the right balance of seriousness and sentimentality. 

GONE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (Hist Mys-Charles and Edmund Lenox-London-1887) – VG+
Finch, Charles (eBook Novelette)
Minotaur Books – Dec 2017

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Bryant & May: Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler

First Sentence: On a desolate rain-battered London midnight, the members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit went looking for a killer.

London has many private gardens, accessible only to the residents who live around them. The gardener also has a key but doesn’t expect to find the body of a woman who’d taken her dog for a walk. She has been strangled and neatly laid out on the path, her dog missing, and the garden locked before the gardener’s arrival. A second such body is found in a public park. At risk are more murders, the city’s parks being closed to the public, and the PUC disbanded. The clock is ticking.

An aerial chase, a traffic jam, a boy’s death and a man whose life implodes. This is an opening which captures one’s attention. 

That Fowler uses a memo to provide a cast of characters is both helpful and clever. That the list includes “Crippen, staff cat,” and the subsequent memo brings readers up to date on the situation at the aptly-named Peculiar Crimes Unit truly sets the tone for what follows. Fowler’s books are not one’s normal police procedural, as the characters, particularly those of Arthur Bryant and John May, are anything but what one would normally find. Fowler gives us something unique with present-day crimes overlain with an education into obscure historical facts and writing which increases one’s vocabulary. But never fear; this book is anything but dry or boring.

Fowler is skilled at juxtaposing historic London over that of the present day in a way that contributes to the plot. Part of that is an explanation as to how Bryant became a detective. Fowler creates evocative descriptions—“The wind was high in the trees, breathing secrets through the branches.—and observations—“Looking down on King’s Cross you’d have noticed an odd phenomenon: Every other roof was covered in white frost, forming a patchwork quilt, an indicator of which properties were owned by overseas investors and which had warm families inside.” But yes, unfortunately, there are also quite a few completely unnecessarily portents. 

It is hard to say which is more enjoyable; the cast of strange and fascinating characters of Bryant’s acquaintance, the vast abundance of arcane and historical information—who knew it was Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan, who wrote the music to “Onward Christian Soldiers--, the members of the PUC itself, or the plot which brings all these facets together into a perfect gem of a book with a well-done plot twist. We are even given a definition as to what is a murder mystery—“A murder mystery,’ she told Bryant…’is an intellectual exercise, a game between reader and writer in which a problem is precisely stated, elaborately described, and surprisingly solved.”—and Fowler does just that.

Bryant & May: Wild Chamber” is a murder mystery in the best sense. All the clues are provided if we but see them. The best part of the book is the very last line, but that one will have to read for themselves. 

BRYANT & MAY: WILD CHAMBER (Pol Proc-Bryant & May-London-Contemp) – VG+
Fowler, Christopher – 14th in series
Bantam – December 2017


Friday, January 26, 2018

The Voice Inside by Brian Freeman

First Sentence: Frost Easton felt a shiver in the house, which jolted him from a deep sleep. He assumed it was the beginning of an earthquake.

Rudy Cutter is serving a life sentence for the murders of several young women, including the sister of homicide detective Frost Easton. Now Easton learns his boss, and former lover, Jess, planted the evidence which got Cutter convicted. The original case is completely thrown out, Easton’s friend is fired, and Cutter back on the street to kill again. Frost is determined to stop Cutter and reporter-turned-writer Eden Shay wants to help. 

This is the way to start a book. No prologue. The story begins on the very first page. The scene is created, and one knows exactly where it’s set. There is a suggestion of threat which grows quickly until even as a reader, you nearly jump from the sense of danger being revealed, and the knowledge that it is only the beginning.

Freeman knows how to create a strong sense of place—“Painted murals adorned the massive columns of the freeway overpass.., Behind a metal fence, he saw the concrete ramps of a skateboard park…”. For those who live, or spent time, in the San Francisco/Bay Area, the local references--"He parked his police Suburban in the empty lot where buses normally unloaded tourists to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. ... For tourists, this was the symbol of San Francisco. For the locals, it was just a bridge."--are a wonderful touch, but they don’t overwhelm or slow down the pace of the story. 

Freeman also excels at the well-executed plot twist; the ones you feel you should have seen coming, but didn’t. He also creates excellent “what would you do” scenarios. 

The argument about--“the line." The line between going by the book and taking shortcut. It was a line that every cop faced sooner or later, when he had to decide if the end justified the means. Sometimes doing the right thing meant a criminal going free. Sometimes doing the wrong thing saved lives."--is a point which gives one something about which to seriously think. The title of the book is taken from the poem of the same name by Shel Silverstein.

The book’s plot is interesting in that there is no question as to the identity of the killer, and he is not a sympathetic character; no anti-hero here. But there is also more here than we expect.

Frost is a well-developed character; thought of as a “Boy Scout” by fellow cops. One thing that is rather questionable is the freedom he has. We never see him going into headquarters, rarely working with a team, or working more than one case. Frost is taken by his own good looks and ease of attracting women. Fortunately, at the end, we feel he may be maturing. His chef-brother, Duane, is a wonderful bit of lightness and his girl-friend Tabby, fits in the middle. We do so hope Freeman doesn’t take the stereotypical-relationship route with these characters, but it seems that may be avoided. Eden Shay, the writer, is a bit predictable but still steps outside that role. Comparing Easton’s former-lover Jess to a track of music is fascinating.

The Voice Inside” is a step ahead in this series with an intense plot a dramatic climax and follow-on, and a well-done conclusion.

THE VOICE INSIDE (Pol Proc-Frost Easton-San Francisco, CA-Contemp) – VG+
Freeman, Brian – 2nd in series
Thomas & Mercer – January 2017



Monday, January 22, 2018

A Christmas Return by Anne Perry

First Sentence: Christmas was just over a week away.

Mariah Ellison, grandmother to Charlotte Pitt, receives a package containing a reminder of a long-ago unsolved murder. Once friends with the victim’s wife, Mariah decides to travel to Surry to reconcile with her friend and, by teaming up with her friend’s grandson Peter, see if they can solve the 20-year-old crime.

Anne Perry has the voice of a true storyteller—“She stood up and walked to the outer door of her rooms, and all the way to the front hallway of the main house. … The walls were decorated with paintings of aristocrats from earlier centuries. In Mariah’s opinion, it was a good place to put them, far better than in one of the rooms where people actually spent time and would be obliged to look at them.” She is also good at including small observations along the way—“It made her see the poison of gossip.”

Even if one isn’t familiar with Mariah from the Pitt series of books, it is interesting to finally learn about her background and that which had originally made her so bitter and hard, and once knowing it, who could blame her. A common theme Perry uses is that of forgiveness and redemption, and that’s true here as well as we see a transformed Mariah trying to bring about those attributes for her friend. 

Peter is a delightful character. He is perfectly portrayed with both the audacity and loyalty of one his age.

A Christmas Return” is a treat with Mariah being a true heroine who wins the day with inner strength, and by unconventional means.

A CHRISTMAS RETURN (His Mys-Mariah Ellison-Surrey, England-1800s) – G+
Perry, Anne – 15th Christmas Novella
Ballentine Books – Nov 2017


Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Twelve Dogs of Christmas by David Rosenfeldt

First Sentence: “You looking for work”

As much as defense lawyer Andy Carpenter tries to avoid taking on new cases, anything involved with dogs is a case he can’t turn down. Martha “Pups” Boyer has been reported by her neighbor, Randy Hennessey, to the city for violating the pet-limit zoning law. Andy thinks defending Martha will be simple until Randy turns up dead and Martha is the prime suspect. Even then, Andy has no idea just how dangerous this case may be.

This is a definite example of the don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover rule. This certainly doesn’t start out as a happy holiday story. It is, however, a very compelling opening and one that demands you keep reading.

The introduction to the protagonist is also an introduction to the author’s voice (compelling), humor (enjoyable), and cynicism (heavy-handed, at times). It is also a very good segue to the body of the story.

The introductions to Andy’s team are short but memorable and each member makes an impression. The shadowy figure of Cafferty adds a threat and suspense.

If one appreciates a well-done courtroom scene, Rosenfeldt is for you. In this case, it is also another step along the way into a wonderfully twisty plot involving dogs, property, politics, and corruption.

The Twelve Dogs of Christmas” is an engrossing courtroom suspense that is a great escape from winter weather.

THE TWELVE DOGS OF CHRISTMAS (Legal thriller-Andy Carpenter-New Jersey-Contemp) – G+
Rosenfeldt, David – 15th in series
Minotaur Books – October 2017

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Return of the Magi by P.J. Tracy

First Sentence: Emil Rice was snuggled in the back seat of his mom’s car under a fuzzy blanket printed with Marvel Comics superheroes, watching the dark countryside roll by through the frosty window.

Emil Rice is a charming man and a very bad thief as he’s been caught 22 times. In fact, his parole officer, Harry Foster, runs a betting pool on how quickly Emil will be re-arrested. However, on Emil’s 23rd arrest the judge doesn’t send him back to jail but sentences him to community service at a secure mental health facility where he is befriended by Gloria and Edith, two elderly women who see Emil is the final piece of a life-changing plan.

For those who appreciate descriptions that provide a strong sense of place, Tracy satisfies that need—"It was a clear, bitter night—the kind that made your ears and eyes and teeth hurt—but the moon was full in the sky, with freckles of bright stars scattered around its happy face, smiling an apology for the brittle temperature.”

Beginning with Emil as a boy, all the characters are wonderful. Whether lead or supporting, they are fully developed. Yet it’s also a delight to watch them change and grow.

Tracy’s humor is subtle—“Gloria put the teddy bear by his head and pressed the Bible into his hands. ‘Read Matthew chapter two, verses one through eleven. Don’t bother to read John. We think he might have been just a little psychotic.’”—and balanced by the ability to convey emotion—“Foster clicked off and stared at his silly tree, the presents stacked along its green skirt of branches, and felt all the happiness leaking out of him.”

The Return of the Magi” is an unexpectedly delightful story. It is not overly sentimental but does make one think of the stories by O. Henry. It warms one heart and makes one think that there are always possibilities.

RETURN OF THE MAGI (Holiday Story-Emil Rice-Nevada-Contemp) - Ex 
Tracy, P.J. – eBook Novella
Penguin – Nov, 2017

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Whisper of Death by Patricia Wynn

First Sentence: After rounding another turn in the wide stone staircase, Hester Kean peered up and gasped with relief.

Hester Kean and her cousin Mary, who is being pursued by the repugnant Lord Wragby, are touring the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, with Hester learning about the dome’s remarkable acoustics. So remarkable that Hester hears a whispered death threat, by, and toward, an unknown person. She suspects it may have had to do with Jacobite sympathizers. When Lord Wragby is murdered, his powerful father blames James Henry, the man Mary truly loves. Can Hester and the outlawed Viscount St. Mars finally solidify their relationship, and save James, too?

One should always be grateful to authors who begin historical books with notes on the period and the history. The inclusion of historical figures within the story adds veracity and sense of the time in which the story is set. That said, there are a lot of characters, real and fictional, many with multiple names and titles. A cast of characters would have been very helpful. But persevere as it is well worth it once one gets into the meat of the story.

Wynn very clearly demonstrates the complicated relationships which are based on title, rank, politics and wealth. In contrast, she also makes note of how rank impacted even some of the more mundane aspects of life—“Hester sent one of the footmen ahead to purchase some tea. Tea had become so fashionable, that the owner, Mr. Twinings, was selling more dry tea than hot coffee, but it would not be proper for a lady to set foot inside a coffee-house.” 

Wynn provides us an accurate depiction of London, not one that is glossed over. Women and men of rank were bargaining chips, valued primarily for their titles and income.

Hester is such a wonderful character. Not only is she smart and capable, but a skilled diplomat and strategist capable of inveigling others to act when she cannot. The reunion between Hester and St. Mars is wonderful and everything for which readers of the series have been waiting. It is very G – PG-rated, so if one is hoping for hot and sexy, it won’t be found here. On the other hand, if one desires a book that all ages can read, this is it.

There is history. The situation between Hester and St. Mars does facilitate the relating of historical information about being married “in the Fleet,” which is fascinating. An interesting subplot reminds one that even though there were no field slaves in England, many blacks were the property of their employers. And who knew that there was a threat by the King of Sweden to invade England? However, it is the focus on Jacobites and concern over foreign invaders which proves a very good plot twist.

Whisper of Death” is a very good mystery with a touch of romance. It has a satisfying ending and leaves us knowing that future adventures await.

WHISPER OF DEATH (Hist Mys-Heaster Kean-London-1716)– VG
Wynn, Patricia – 6th in series
Pemberley Press – 2017

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Devouring by James R. Benn

First Sentence:  Light is faster than sound.
      
Captain Billy Boyle and Lt. Piotr “Kaz” Kazimierz are headed to Switzerland but crash-land in France, meeting up with Anton Lasho, a Sinti (Gypsy) determined to kill every German he meets.  The three do make it across the border and connect with members of the OSS.  Their task? Investigate Swiss banks that are laundering looted Nazi gold.
     
From the very start, there is high drama and fast action, and it’s great.  One feels the anxiety of the characters as we are immediately introduced to Billy, “Kaz” and Anton Lasko, who is new to us but who proves to be such a good character, one wouldn’t mind seeing him in the future.  Billy and Kaz are truly wonderful characters.  One can very much appreciate the way in which Benn sprinkles information on their backgrounds throughout the story.  It is through the trio that Benn creates such painful, yet honest scenes that they touch one’s emotions.  That’s the mark of a truly fine writer.
      
Benn has an excellent voice.  He includes the vernacular of the 1940’s—“You’re all packing, I assume” … “Can you get us shoulder holsters?” I asked. “It’s clumsy carrying these six-shooters around in a coat pocket.”—without overdoing it.  He includes just the right touch of wry humor—“All we had to do was avoid imprisonment and long-range rifle fire.  All in a day’s work.”
      
This may be Benn’s most complex book so far.  It is filled with historical information. One may find it makes them quite angry.  Not toward the author, but because of the information which one may not have previously known, yet is important to learn.  And that’s what makes this a particularly good book.

The Devouring” is a really well-done tale of duplicity, stolen gold, and a country that wasn't quite as neutral as we thought.  

THE DEVOURING (Hist Mys-Lt. Billy Boyle-France/Switzerland- WWII) – VG
      Benn, James R. – 12th in series
      Soho Crime – Sept 2017