Review 2018: A Death at Fountains Abbey

Thomas Hawkins escaped from the gallows at the end of the last book in this series, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, but Queen Caroline is still holding a threat over him—her knowledge that his beloved Kitty is a murderess. The Queen has received a request for help from John Aislabie, who has been threatened by mysterious letters. But Aislabie was the mastermind behind the South Sea Company scam, and the Queen fears that he did not destroy the green ledger of its accounts, which would show how much the Crown gained from the scam while so many others were ruined. So, she sends Thomas ostensibly to help Aislabie but really to search for the ledger. He takes with him Kitty, who now poses as his wife, and his dangerous ward, Sam Fleet.

In Yorkshire, he finds Aislabie behaving like a victim of the South Sea scandal instead of its perpetrator, claiming he took the fall for more important people. Yet he seems to have plenty of money, which he is spending on his horses and his grounds. He is not well liked, claiming common land as his own and proclaiming as poachers the families that have farmed and hunted it for centuries. In fact, Thomas finds no lack of suspects for the nasty threats Aislabie has received.

Another strange situation concerns Mrs. Fairwood, who is living with the Aislabies. She has presented herself as his daughter, thought to have been killed in a house fire thirty years before. As her bona fides she has brought along a letter from a servant who disappeared on the day of the fire and a brooch that belonged to Aislabie’s first wife, who also died in the fire. Mrs. Fairwood is also being threatened.

This is another excellent mystery/thriller in this series with its scapegrace hero and heroine. The series books always seem carefully researched and the settings authentic. The ending is quite suspenseful.

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Review 2010: Punishment of a Hunter

When Zaitsev and his homicide team in 1930 Leningrad investigate the death of Faina Baranova, he knows there is something odd about it. Although all her clothing is practical, she is dressed in velvet and posed before red curtains the neighbors in her communal apartment say are not hers. There is something theatrical in the scene. However, after months, the team finds no clues.

In a meeting at work of the OGPU, Zaitsev is accused of hiding bourgeois origins. He claims he knows nothing about his father, having grown up in an orphanage. Pasha, his building janitor, shows up in support and claims to have known his mother; nevertheless, some days later he is arrested.

After a few months, he is released without explanation. Zaitsev soon figures out he is to solve another murder, this time of a group of people on the site of a new park planned by Kirov, head of the party in Leningrad. The unspoken message is solve the case or go back to jail. However, because he’s been released, his colleagues no longer trust him and won’t speak to him about work.

Aside from presenting an intriguing mystery, Punishment of a Hunter evokes 1930 Leningrad, beautiful but gray and tired, the atmosphere paranoid, citizens poorly clad and fed. I was convinced by this post-revolutionary world as I was not by the popular A Gentleman in Moscow. I hope Pushkin Press will be publishing more books by Yakovlevna.

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Review 2008: The King’s Evil

This third book in the James Marwood/Cat Lovett series begins with James hearing that Cat’s cousin, Edward Adderly, has found out where she is hiding. Since the first novel, in which Edward raped her and she put out his eye, she has been hiding at the office of Mr. Hakesby, an architect, and working for him as a drafter and maid. James finds Cat on Saturday and warns her she must go into hiding. She finds refuge with Dorcas, a connection of Mr. Brennan, a draftsman she works with.

However, on Sunday Edward Adderly is found drowned in the well at Clarendon House, where Cat was working with Hakesby on a project. Clarendon has recently been removed from his offices at court, and his enemy, Buckingham, has been trying to stir up the public against him. One of James’s bosses, Mr. Chiffinch, tells him to dispose of the body. Cat is accused of murder and a warrant put out for her arrest.

James is charged with finding out who murdered Adderly, but he is also dispatched by Charles II to accompany Lady Quincy, Cat’s aunt, to Cambridge. This errand has to do with fetching a child back to court, but in both his investigation and his trip to Cambridge, James keeps encountering a mysterious man called the Deacon and his fat friend. James begins to believe both his errands are related.

I think this series is proving every bit as good as Sansom’s Shardlake series, and perhaps doesn’t have such a heavy feel to it, although neither main character seems to have much of a sense of humor. James finds himself pulled helplessly into the affairs at court while Cat into the arms of Mr. Hakesby, who has offered marriage. The plots are interesting and complex and the characters believable.

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Review 1892: Rizzio

The Scots mystery writer Denise Mina is still concerned with crime, but with this novel, she has turned to historical true crimes. Rizzio is a novella that deals with the 1566 murder of David Rizzio, a musician and favorite of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The murder has been engineered by Lord Lennox and Lord Ruthven, with the aid of Henry Darnley, Mary’s worthless husband. Darnley thinks the shock will cause his hugely pregnant wife to miscarry, most likely causing her to die. Then, he can be king. This is what came of their love match of the year before. To Lennox, Darnley’s father, this outcome would put him in power over his weak son. Lord Ruthven, almost dead already, is the tool of a group of aristocrats about to be dispossessed by parliament.

The novella is mostly description with little dialogue, but it has deep insight into the thoughts and personalities of its characters. It is mostly concerned with the activities of one night, March 9, 1566, in Edinburgh.

It is fast-paced and interesting. Mina has made no attempt to reflect the language of the time, and in fact wrote using modern idioms. Hence, perhaps, the lack of dialogue.

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Review 1874: The Fire Court

The second book in Andrew Taylor’s Marwood/Lovett series, The Fire Court begins shortly after the Great London Fire that was the setting of the first book. James Marwood’s father wanders off in his senility and discovers a salacious scene in chambers near where the Fire Court sits—a lascivious painting of a woman dressed like a whore stretched out on a couch.

His father comes home with blood on his sleeve babbling about what he has seen, but James thinks he has experienced a senile delusion. However, a few days later the body of a woman is discovered nearby in a pile of rubble. She is dressed up like a whore, but she is not one. She is Celia, the widowed niece of Mr. Poulton, a client of Mr. Hakesby.

Hakesby has given refuge to Cat Lovett, who has fled her family. She is now going by the name of Jane Hakesby, supposedly Mr. Hakesby’s cousin and servant. But Mr. Hakesby is very frail, suffering from an ague. Cat has been helping him with his architecture work, and he badly needs the custom of Mr. Poulton, who has a case before the Fire Court.

The Fire Court’s mission is to make decisions quickly about competing rights of property so that London can be rebuilt. Mr. Poulton wants to develop some property called Dragon yard that is mostly owned by himself and his niece Celia, and Hakesby is drawing up the plans. But Philip Limbury, an upperclass personage with influence at court, has some rights to Dragon Yard and also wants to develop it. Marwood is sent to look into the death of Celia, and he soon realizes that his father must have seen her murdered in the apartments of Mr. Gromwell, his father’s description of where he went being so vivid. Marwood begins to believe there is some sort of conspiracy going on involving the Fire Court, and both he and Cat are soon in danger.

Although I felt the characters in this book took too long to realize they were involved in real estate conspiracies, this was another complex and interesting novel in this series. The 17th century setting seems convincing, and James and Cat are interesting characters.

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Review 1869: The Widows of Malabar Hill

In 1920’s Bombay, Perveen Mistry is the only female lawyer in the city. She is working with her father at the Mistry law office when a question comes up about the trust for the three widows of Omar Farid. First, the family’s agent Mr. Mukri says the widows want to change the purpose of the trust from support of veterans to the establishment of a madrassa. Further, the wives are giving up their mahr (sort of a dowry) to the trust. That may not be allowed by law. But Perveen also notices that the signatures of two of the women appear to be the same. Since the women are living in purdah, Purveen talks her father into allowing her to interview the wives.

When Perveen visits the wives, she finds Mr. Mukri rude and uncooperative and only Sakina, the second wife, understands and agrees with the requested changes. Sakina is shocked to find out that Razia, the first wife, is the administrator of the trust. Razia is unaware that Mr. Mukri has filed for a change in the purpose of the trust, but she is clearly afraid of him. Perveen also finds out that the agent has not been paying the household’s bills and that the third wife, Mumtaz, is trying to hide a pregnancy from the rest of the household. Perveen believes Mukri is mishandling the estate’s funds.

This novel is being marketed as a mystery, but it is about 80 pages before Perveen goes to see the women and 120 before a murder is committed. That is mostly because Massey devotes about half the novel to Perveen’s personal life, particularly her brief marriage. It seems to me that she could have accomplished what she needed to do in a few paragraphs or a chapter, because we don’t invest much in this relationship. Perveen is afraid of her ex-husband at the beginning of the novel, but the reasons could be explained in a lot less space.

Massey does a good job of giving the feel of the indoor spaces and food and costume, but I didn’t get a good sense of what Bombay was like at this time, something that I look for in a novel set in an exotic location or other time. And, in fact, Perveen’s visit to Calcutta for the first time is an excellent opportunity to describe that city, but there is no description.

At first, too, I thought I was going to object to Perveen being too much out of her time, for I really dislike historical novels where the heroines behave more like they live in the present. This particularly bothered me in the section about Perveen’s romance, but as the novel continued, it stopped being an issue.

This is not a mystery, however. Perveen pokes around a bit, but the solution just depends on her being in the right place at the right time. It is her father who actually finds the most important clues. So, overall I was disappointed in this novel.

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Review 1844: Karolina and the Torn Curtain

I was interested in reading more foreign novels, so for some reason I picked Polish and then just googled a list of books. I picked a novel I thought was written by a woman only to find out that Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym for two gay men. I would scold myself for sloppy research, but I enjoyed this mystery, although it is second in a series and I prefer to start with the first. However, I don’t think you miss much if you start with this one except maybe more introduction to the main characters.

The novel is set in 1895 Crakow. Zofia Turbotyńska is the respectable wife of a professor at the Jagellonian University. However, she has another occupation—solving crimes.

Zofia’s maid Karolina has disappeared from her house without explanation, and later her body is found in the river, where she has been thrown after being shot. The autopsy reveals she has also been violated.

When Zofia investigates, she learns that Karolina had met a young man, an engineer, who wanted to marry her and take her to America. Looking into it further, it appears that Karolina was lured by a white slaver, and the police claim to have identified him and shot him during an attempted escape. But then Zofia’s other maid Franciszka sees Karolina’s boyfriend in a crowd.

This mystery is quite convoluted and also fairly witty. One of the things modern audiences will find funny are some of the “scientific” ideas of the time—for example, that educating women affects their organs so that they can’t give birth. Another is the chapter subtitles, reminiscent of those in older novels except facetious.

I enjoyed this novel but didn’t feel the characters were that compelling. I’m not sure whether I will read another one.

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Review 1837: The Ashes of London

London is in the midst of the Great Fire of 1666. James Marwood is on an errand for his master when he stops to watch St. Paul’s burn. He is barely able to stop what he thinks is a boy from running right into the fire. When clothes begin to burn, the resulting dishevelment reveals a young woman rather than a boy. James puts his cloak around her, and she runs off still wearing it.

The girl is Cat Lovett, whose father is an attainted traitor as a result of the Restoration. She was supposed to meet him next to St. Paul’s. She has been living with her uncle’s family, the Alderleys, but they are trying to force her to marry Sir Denzil Croughton, a man she dislikes. She is hoping her father can help her. That night, though, her cousin Edward rapes her, and she stabs him in the eye, so she runs away with the help of her servant Jem to Jem’s sister.

James is also the son of a man who was on the wrong side of the Restoration. His father is a member of a sect called the Fifth Monarchists, who believed that after the King was put aside, Christ would be King. Now frail and senile, he keeps saying things that are deemed traitorous.

James works for the publisher Williamson, but soon he is asked to meet Mistress Alderley. She wants James to find her niece, and later he is asked by government officials to try to find Lovett.

There is also the matter of two bodies that have turned up. They both have their thumbs tied together behind their backs and have been stabbed in the neck.

I decided to read this series after the strong recommendation by Helen of She Reads Novels. I found it to be engrossing and entertaining. The atmosphere of burning London is well done as is the general paranoia following the Restoration. James and Cat are both appealing characters. Although it is quite a long novel at 400+ pages, it went very quickly. I’ll just have to look for the next one.

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Review 1823: Murder in Old Bombay

Nev March says she was inspired to write Murder in Old Bombay by Sherlock Holmes and Kipling’s Kim. Certainly I can see the influence of the Holmes novels, if not in the hero’s deductive processes then in the complicated plot and disguises. From Kim, I hoped for a more atmospheric novel.

Captain Jim Agnihotri has retired from the army and is in the hospital recovering from serious wounds when he reads about a murder case. Two Parsee women fell or were pushed from the university bell tower, and the man charged got off because it wasn’t clear whether it was suicide or murder. Also, two other men present on the scene could not be found. Jim decides to offer himself as a journalist and investigate the case.

Having been hired, Jim goes to interview Adi Framji, whose wife and cousin were the victims of the crime. As a Eurasian, Jim is not usually accepted into either British or Indian society, but the Framjis soon accept him as a friend. Although Parsee families don’t marry outside the Zoroastrian religion, he finds himself smitten by Diana, Adi’s sister returned from London.

Jim’s investigation at first doesn’t turn up much, but even though the break in continuity seemed odd, the novel gets more interesting when he takes on a mission for the army. Indeed, he gets the opportunity to travel a bit and don several disguises.

As far as the mystery goes, this novel seems to stumble along. Jim also makes some cognitive leaps that don’t seem warranted by what has come before. For example, early on Jim concludes that the two girls who fell from the tower were being blackmailed. This turns out to be true, but where did it come from? There is nothing that comes before it to lead him to that conclusion.

The adventure portion makes the novel perk up, but otherwise I felt the effort was a little lackluster for a historical novel. March doesn’t supply much background for the historical events, nor does the reader get much sense of the sights, sounds, and smells of Victorian India, which is one of the things that makes Kim so wonderful.

Finally, although Jim is a likable character and I also liked the Framjis, I wasn’t interested in the romantic plot.

Maybe I’m making this review sound a bit too negative. I enjoyed parts of the novel, but the mystery seemed all over the place and I wanted more descriptions—of rooms, the city, the dress, the food. I wanted to feel the atmosphere of 19th century India, as a historical novel should make me do.

Kim

Dark Road to Darjeeling

Arctic Summer

Review 1798: The Mirror Dance

It looks like Alec, Dandy Gilver’s detecting partner, is settling down at last. Dandy doesn’t like Poppy, however, and perhaps is feeling a little jealous, so she goes along with her maid Grant to meet her new client, Sandy Bissett.

Miss Bissett has explained that a Punch and Judy show in Dundee has made puppets representing characters whose copyright is owned by her magazine company. The characters are Rosy Cheeke and Freckle. She wants them to cease and desist.

Before her appointment with Miss Bissett, Dandy and Grant go along to see the puppet show. During the show, the puppets stop moving, and after a wait, Dandy goes to see what the problem is. She finds the puppeteer, Albert Mackie, murdered in his booth. Dandy can’t figure out how anyone entered or left the booth without being seen.

Returning with Alec, Dandy finds the mystery becoming more bizarre, with the puppets found in their clients’ conference room, messages in lipstick and blood, and the discovery of a similar murder 50 years ago of a man with the same name. A brother of the murdered man also appears on the scene.

Usually McPherson’s Dandy Gilver mysteries are so full of red herrings that they’re confusing. This time I figured out the murderer, although nothing else, almost immediately. However, the series is still fun.

The Turning Tide

Dandy Gilver and a Spot of Toil and Trouble

Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the Ballroom