Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Place of Confinement by Anna Dean

First Sentence: My dear Eliza, I am in prison and I do not know how much longer I can bear my confinement.

Spinster Dido Kent has been sent off to Charcombe Manor with wealthy and demanding Aunt Manners. Upon arriving, she learns that Miss Letitia Verney is missing, though to have eloped to Gretna Green with Tom Lomax, wastrel son of Dido’s suitor, William. There is more than one puzzle to keep Dido busy. Why does no one seem concerned about Letitia?  Why is Aunt Manners giving her jewelry to George, a brother she dislikes? Why is crying heard from a deserted part of the manor house? And most urgently, how can Dido prevent Tom from being hung for the murder of a man visiting George’s new resort town near the estate.

From the very opening, it is hard to resist Ms. Dido Kent and the charming letter to her sister. Ms. Dean very cleverly creates the atmosphere of there being a mystery about to unfold without resorting to the cliched use of a portent.

Anyone familiar with Jane Austin will find themselves equating Dean’s characters with those of Austin. Dean captures the details of the period perfectly from the societal structure, to the inclusion of a chamber horse, to the style of speech. “…And would you seek to change the world’s opinion on the matter?” “I do not presume so far… I seek only to act as my conscience dictates. It is a matter of integrity, Mr. Lomax, not revolt.” The relationship between Dido and William Lomax is wonderfully written and completely appropriate to the characters and the period.

Yet set into this period of lightness, Dean introduces murder and an element of the Gothic and dread through a grim discovery made by Dido. There does appear to be a small oversight in the logic needed to solve the crime, but it can be forgiven considering the very clever plot twist and even bigger surprise. The sub-theme of duty is very effective and adds depth to the story.

A Place of Confinement” is wonderful. I do love Dido Kent and admire Ms. Dean’s skill of creating a character who solves crimes in a way that is completely believable considering the constraints placed upon her by the period in which she is set. Do treat yourself and begin the series at the beginning.

A PLACE OF CONFINEMENT (Hist Mys/Ama Sleuth-Dido Kent-England-Georgian/1807) – VG+
Dean, Anna – 4th in series
Minotaur Books, 2013

Saturday, October 19, 2013


First Sentence: I met Paul when a friend of my friend Tabith played at the Hotel Utah late on Thursday night.

An ex-boyfriend of PI Claire DeWitt is found dead. The police believe it was a robbery gone wrong, but Claire isn’t convinced, particularly when were appear to be links to the past. While Claire investigates, she sends her new assistant, Claude, off on a case of miniature horses that have gone missing from a ranch in Marin County.

Sara Gran has such a wonderful, original voice and often writes passages that make you stop and think…”Maybe it was true: Life was a series of words we’d been given to arrange as we pleased, only no one seemed to know how. A word game with no right solution, a crossword puzzle where we couldn’t quite remember the name of that song.” She is very good at expressing small truths, “Everyone things their grief is the first grief. Everyone things their grief is primary and everyone else’s is secondary.”

When some author’s characters refer to past cases, you feel as though you’ve missed a book in the series. When Claire refers to past cases, it is almost as an aside and assures you that it is fine that you don’t know the details. That said, it is very helpful to have read the actual first book in this series, “…City of the Dead.”

Told in first person, this is very much a character-driven book. It is fascinating to see how Gran incorporates different philosophical beliefs into Claire’s thought process. And then there is the book by the French detective Jacques Silette which seems to have almost magical properties of his own and becomes something of an on-going character in the series.  Claire, however, is far from being a paragon of virtue. She excels in vices; legal and illegal and the focus on these significantly and adversely effect the reader's view of the character.  Rather than want to know her better, she becomes someone you'd likely avoid.

Description and sense of place are also among Gran’s strengths, even if she does get a bit Map-Quest-y at times. For those who live, or know, the San Francisco Bay Area well, it is delightful following Claire to places so familiar to us. For those who don’t, her descriptions and details provide the feeling of being there.

Unfortunately, what is severely lacking is the mystery. It is there, but it seems the clues were not.

…Bohemian Highway” sadly lacks the charm, humor and magic of Ms. Gran’s first book. I found myself more annoyed by Claire, than entranced by her. I do hope Ms. Gran’s next book finds its way back to the appeal of the first, but I’m not completely certain I’ll be there to read it.

(PI-Claire DeWitt-New York City-1980s) – Okay
Gran, Sara
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Old Betrayal by Charles Finch

First Sentence: The long green benches of the House of Commons were half-deserted as the evening session began, scattered with perhaps a few dozen men.

Charles Lenox has a very full life.  He has a wonderful wife, infant daughter and a seat in Parliament. Although it is a very busy time in Parliament, Charles Lenox agrees to meet with a former colleague’s client. But it’s the murder of a country squire that returns Lenox to his former profession of investigation, at least part time. Lenox finds this to be much more than a simple murder. Instead, it’s a case which could impact the nation.

Finch opens with a very good introduction to the main characters, providing both background and a clearly established sense of time and place. There is also an unusual set up right from the start that adds just a touch of humanity and humor to the story. Asking about the outfit worn by an 18-month old child, Lenox says “I have never understood this strange tradition that has us dress our small boys in martial clothing. This one seems to be wearing a regimental jacket.” Rather than describing the details of the season, he has Lenox equate Spring, not with nature, but with the events and posturing of the London Season. That’s not to say his traditional use of description is not evocative, for it assuredly is.

Finch’s details on the period, both in appearance and in conveying the spoken, and unspoken, rules of society are exacting. “…Toto burst into tears, burying her face in Jane’s quickly encircling arms. In a woman of slightly lower birth it would have been a distasteful spectacle. Rules soften toward the top, however.” He includes wonderful bits of historical detail, such as how Charing Cross obtained its name and the etymology of “hogwash.”

The dialogue also contributes to the sense of time as it reflects the speech of the period. There are actually historical figures deftly woven into, and critical to, the plot. Again, the details are very impressive although I do suspect some liberty was taken with Campbell’s Soup being available in England during that time.

What was rather fascinating was watching Finch, and ergo Lenox, balance both the investigation, the demands of his personal life and those of Parliament. The mystery keeps one involved and provides wonderful twists along the way with a motive clearly linked to actual events in history.

An Old Betrayal” is a very good read and entry to a wonderful series which should be read in order.

AN OLD BETRAYAL (Hist Mys/Lic Invest-Charles Lenox-England-1875) – VG
Finch, Charles – 7th in series
Minotaur Books, 2013

Monday, October 14, 2013


First Sentence: At the sound of footsteps in the alley, Maggie Keene dimmed the gas lamp and sidled up to the room’s only window.

Deputy Marshal Archie Lean is summoned to a murder scene. The body of a prostitute is found, pinned to the earth with a pitchfork, her heads and limbs laid out to represent a pentagram, and her body parts removed—all in the traditional method of killing a witch. Also on the scene is Cyrus Grey, Indian and former Pinkerton who studied anatomy. In spite of their different approaches, the two men must join forces and stop a killer.


This had all the elements that would normally have appealed to me; historical, police procedural, Maine, witch trials, occult. Of course, the very small print did not help that, but that’s the fault of the publisher, not the author. Still, had I been engrossed in the story, I would have persevered. Instead, I found it just didn’t hold my interest. 

The main characters of Lean and Grey were too clearly fashioned after Watson and Holmes, almost to the point where they felt plagiarized, but with the names changes. The anachronisms were overwhelming, the speech had no reflection of the period; it seemed much too modern. As for setting, it is an area I know well. However, beyond a map-quest tour of the area, the sense of place was not evocative.

The Truth of All Things” was a slog to read with stereotypical characters and no strong sense of time or place. I abandoned it after the first 150 pages. I did try, but just couldn’t stay with it.

THE TRUTH OF ALL THINGS (Hist Mys/Pol Proc-Archie Lean/Perceval Grey-Maine-1892) – DNF
Shields, Kieran – 1st in series
Broadway Paperbacks, 2012

Thursday, October 10, 2013


First Sentence: Lewis and Clark County Montana Sheriff’s Department Investigator Cassandra Dewell winced when a pair of headlights broke over a rise onto a long treeless bench in the foothills of the Big Belt Mountains north of Helena.

The first thing readers need to know is that this is definitely not a Joe Picket book. If you are expecting Joe’s Dudley-Do-Right morality, do not read this book. That said…

The elements of Box’ style which hold are very visual descriptions—occasionally more so than some might care for –and excellent dialogue being top among them.

As many of the characters in this book previously appeared in “Back of Beyond,” I greatly appreciated that Box summarizes the first story, providing the back story and relationships of the characters. The characterization of the two girls was very well done, even down to Danielle’s anthropomorphizing her car. The contrast of the two sisters is excellent; one being a survivor, the other a victim.

The protagonists, Cody Hoyt and Cassie Dewell, are as different from one another as could be. Cody, hardened by life and experience, believes in doing what is necessary to get the bad guys. Cassie is fairly new to the force and somewhat naïve; at least in the beginning.

This is a much darker story than we’re accustomed to from the Joe Pickett books. There are points where it’s ugly and very difficult to read. There is an unexpected twist which is so shocking, it’s hard to believe it happened. The story has an excellent reveal and climax, as well as a very, very good, albeit creepy ending. I applaud Mr. Box for taking this slightly risky step to the dark side. He is an author, I believe, who deserves much more credit and notice than he receives.

The Highway” was not a comfortable read, but it was a very, very good one. As an audiobook reader, Holter Graham did a very credible job, although it’s always a bit challenging having a man doing female dialogue. Even so, his voice did not take you out of, or get in the way of, the story.

THE HIGHWAY (Suspense/Pol Proc-Cody Hoyt/Cassie Dewel-Montana-Contemp) – VG+
Box, C.J. (Read by Holter Graham) – 2nd in series
A Macmillan Audiobook from St. Martin’s Press, 2013

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


First Sentence: The Theater District did not shut down for winter storms.

Putting on a play in New York is always a tough gig. However, having the play change constantly and having a person in the audience die each of the first two nights, makes it particularly challenging. It does draw an audience, and the attention of Special Crimes Unit, including Detective Mallory.

Kathy Mallory is a force and one of the most memorable and compelling characters there is. Her partner Riker, Dr. Edward Slope, brilliant Charles Butler and all of the recurring characters in this series are not only her family, but become part of everyone who follows the series. If you’re a fan, you are a real fan. If you’ve not read the series before, don’t start here.

It has taken me a long time to figure out how I feel about this book. The answer is that I’m somewhat disappointed. The reason why is the plot. It is confusing, to put it kindly. Of the secondary characters, there is only one about whom we care, and it takes us a long time to get there. Of the others, there is only one from whom we may feel some sympathy, but not that’s enough. There is, however, a very good second thread which does make the story more interesting. As opposed to most Mallory books, I did not find this a one-sitting read. I never considered not finishing it, but I did keep hoping it would get better.

The two things that drove me forward were the character of Mallory, who is always compelling, and O’Connell’s dialogue including her use of wry humor…”Words of a wise man: “Don’t ever let me catch you punching out a reporter.” And the late Louis Markowitz had also told her,” It’s unsanitary, kid. You don’t know where that scum has been.”. Those two elements are wonderful, but not enough on their own.

There seems to be a major continuity gap between the previous book, “The Chalk Girl”, and this book. That gap is never explained. There is also an epilogue in this book, as was in the last, that really doesn’t contribute anything to the story itself. The first time, it was interesting and touching; this time it seems disjointed and somewhat out of continuity with the previous one. I do, however, have a suspicion that O’Connell is playing with us, in the way Mallory would, and all will be clear….someday.

It Happens In the Dark” is not O’Connell’s best book. Were someone new to the series, or someone who is not a true fan, to read it, I suspect this would be the end or only book they would read by her. As someone who is a fan, I am willing to forgive an author their occasional blunder—who knows what may have been going on in Ms. O’Connell’s life during the time she was writing this—but I shall also very much hope the next book rises back to the level we’ve come to expect.

IT HAPPENS IN THE DARK (Pol Prod-Mallory-NYC-Cont) – Good
O’Connell, Carol
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Burning of Rachel Hayes by Doug Alleyn

First Sentence: A cold finger brushed Rachel’s throat, jolting her out of a dream.

Veterinarian David Westbrook, released after 2 years in prison, has rented a barn to rebuild his practice and his life. He hears a woman's screams and rescues her son who'd fallen in an old well. But he also discovers the remains of a woman, Rachel Hayes, who had died in a firestorm in the 1870's. But once her remains are found, fires and deaths begin.

Allyn starts us off with a dramatic prologue which clearly has a purpose and makes us want to know more. It establishes themes which run through the entire story.

The author has a wonderful voice and writes great dialogue…”One last question,” she said,” a medial one. Are you a good vet?” “I try to be. I was tops in my class at State. My patients bark at me sometimes, but they never write nasty letters.” “You have a strange sense of humor.” “Thank you.”

The characters are fully-dimensional. Each has a past they are trying to overcome and with objectives for their futures. They are real; they are alive and you feel their pain. You find yourself empathizing with Westbrook. You want to pull him back when he’s about to do something stupid and are very relieved when he doesn’t.

Even the four-legged creatures become very real to us. Allyn’s descriptions and understanding of the animals is wonderful. I shall caution that there are animals harmed in this book, but it was relevant to the plot and done with a purpose. The protagonist is a vet and a rescuer. It helps to keep that in mind.

The Burning of Rachel Hayes” is a gripping read with an underlying element of the Gothic and a bit of “something wicked this way comes” feel. It is not a typical ghost story. There is a paranormal element but one leaving you wondering whether it’s truly paranormal or corporal. It is filled with strong, diverse and interesting characters, both human and animal. I found myself so caught up in the story, parts of it stayed with me long after finishing the book. Although Mr. Allyn has written other books, he now concentrates on short stories, including the David Westbrook collection of “All Creatures Dark and Dangerous.”

THE BURNING OF RACHEL HAYES (Myst-Dr. David Westbrook-Michigan-Contemp) – VG+
Allyn, Doug
Five Star, 2004

Saturday, October 5, 2013


First Sentence: “This is the sword of justice,” Jean-Baptiste told him, lifting it from its long, straw-lined, padlocked crate.

Due to the illness of his father and pressure from his grandmother, Charles-Henri Sanson is forced to assume the position and title as the fourth generation hereditary master executioner of Paris. It is a position of title and power. It is also a role into which one is born and has no choice but to assume as no other professions are open to the inheritor of that role. Yet Charles must both learn his position and strive to maintain his humanity while so doing.

Ms. Alleyn wisely provides a “Cast of Characters” at the beginning of this book. This is critical, and very helpful in avoiding confusion, as she is dealing with many members of one family. That she takes this family, whose profession is as terrible as one could imagine, and make them both human and sympathetic is a remarkable accomplishment.

Charles is the antithesis of what one would imagine for his role, yet part of the power of the book is that it breaks down stereotypes. He is, to paraphrase another character’s observation, prosperous, has a good education, nice manners and is very, very handsome. He also despises what he does,…”It was rather pathetic, Charles often thought, that among the crowds who came to stare at public chastisement, the one least eager to be present was the man in charge of the business.” Conversely, his grandmother and sister are very matter of fact about the profession and proud of the family’s title and status. That conflict makes for a very thoughtful reading.

The story deepens with the introduction of an antagonist. Although she has so done throughout the story, it is at this point, Ms. Alleyn forcefully speaks to our emotions. One doesn’t just end the story, one muses over it long after the last page is turned.

The historic detail doesn’t just create a sense of time and place, but includes us and informs us. It is fascinating to learn the levels of what could and could not be done, both in terms of the punishments and types of executions for different levels of crimes and society, but how bodies were handled after death. We also learn about the legal process in the days before defense lawyers.

While “The Executioner’s Heir” sounds as though it could be very grim, it is not. Yes, there are passages difficult to read, but never unnecessarily graphic. It is a very human story and, in the end, about a man deciding to be the best he can be. It is a remarkable book. 

THE EXECUTIONER’S HEIR (Hist Novel-Charles-Henri Sanson-France-1760s) – Ex
Alleyn, Susanne – Standalone
Spyderwort Press (1st electronic edition), 2013