Day 1106: Unnatural Habits

Cover for Unnatural HabitsPhryne Fisher meets Polly Kettle, a journalist on the track of a story about pregnant women disappearing from the Abbotsford convent, where they work in the Magdalene laundry. Phryne thinks that Polly is too naive and foolhardy and that she will soon run into trouble. And she is right—almost immediately, Polly disappears.

When Phryne looks into it, she learns that several girls have disappeared from the laundry. She also hears that a shady employment agency is offering actresses parts overseas and that her friend, Doctor MacMillan, has been asked to verify the virginity of a surprising number of young women lately. Could a white slavery ring be practicing in Melbourne? But why would they want pregnant women?

link to NetgalleyI am finding with Greenwood that things that appear to be related usually aren’t. As with the other Phryne Fisher novels I’ve read, there is more than one criminal involved, which I feel is a cheat.

Also, Phryne is beginning to seem a bit cartoonish to me as she battles evil and sexism. For light reading, these novels are enjoyable, but I think I have read enough of them.

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Day 1091: Raisins and Almonds

Cover for Raisins and AlmondsThis ninth Phryne Fisher mystery is set in the Jewish community of Melbourne. It begins when a young scholar, Simon Michaels, dies in a book shop. He is quickly found to have died of strychnine poisoning, and a bottle of strychnine has disappeared from the shop. Miss Lee, the shop owner, is immediately arrested, but Phryne has been retained by Mr. Abrahams, Miss Lee’s landlord, to find the real killer.

Phryne soon figures out that the death my have something to do with a formula developed by Yossi Liebermann, a gifted chemist, who has been studying alchemy and the Kabala. Apparently, this formula has gone missing, and Phryne has it, but it is in code. No one except Yossi knows what it is for.

In the meantime, unpleasant events are happening. Someone ties up a woman in her house, and there is a break-in at Phryne’s.

link to NetgalleyIt was difficult for me to tell whether the perpetrator was hard to guess, because I saw this first as an episode of the “Miss Fisher Mysteries,” and they stuck fairly closely to the book (unlike with Murder in the Dark). On the other hand, the guilty party barely appears in the novel, which is a form of cheating, and as in Murder in the Dark, there is more than one guilty party.

Also, as I mentioned before, I’m not really fond of descriptions of sex mixed with this genre. In this novel, Phryne cavorts with the young Simon Abrahams. Jack Robinson is more of a presence than in the previous book I read, but his bad grammar tells us that he is not going to be a romantic interest, as he is in the television series.

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Day 1086: Lady Cop Makes Trouble

Cover for Lady Cop Makes TroubleLady Cop Makes Trouble is the second book in Amy Stewart’s Kopp sisters series, set in pre-World War I New Jersey. Although entertaining, it did not really live up to the energy of the first novel.

Constance Kopp is in limbo in her career with the sheriff’s department in Paterson. Sheriff Heath has wanted to hire her as a deputy ever since the state of New Jersey made it legal to hire women as police. But the sheriff’s office is different, lawyers advise, and until he can hire her as a deputy, he has her working as a matron in the jail.

When a German-speaking inmate claims he needs medical attention, he refuses to describe his symptoms in English. Constance speaks German, so Sheriff Heath has her accompany the deputy and the prisoner to the hospital. When the hospital experiences a blackout, Constance sends the deputy away, claiming she can guard the prisoner, Baron Matthesius, herself. But the Baron escapes.

A law makes the sheriff responsible for escapes, so Sheriff Heath could be imprisoned for Constance’s mistake. Constance is determined to recapture the prisoner.

I didn’t find the plot of this novel as interesting as the last, nor were the characters as vibrant. Like the first novel, this one is based on newspaper clippings from the time. Constance Kopp really existed and had some interesting adventures.

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Day 1082: Revelation

Cover for RevelationIn C. J. Sansom’s fourth Matthew Shardlake novel it is 1543. Matthew’s experiences working for Thomas Cromwell have driven him away from his former Reformist religious views, and he has been avoiding becoming involved in political cases. He has never been happier working for ordinary people in the Court of Requests.

But soon his friend Roger Elliard is murdered in a most peculiar way, and Matthew vows to Roger’s widow Dorothy that he will find the killer. This purpose forces him to work for Archbishop Cranmer, along with the Earl of Hertford and Thomas Seymour, who are all worried that Roger’s death has something to do with Lady Latimer, Catherine Parr, whom the king is courting. Their fears are because of a similar murder of Dr. Gurney, who attended Lord Latimer during his final illness. They appoint Matthew to work with Coroner Hartsnet to find the murderer.

Of course, their fears are political. Henry VIII has been turning more and more back to conservative religious views, away from the Reformists. The Seymours and Cranmer see a marriage to Catherine Parr as the only hope for Reform. The English are more and more polarized by religion, with fanatical Reformists ranting in the street on the one hand while Bishop Bonner cracks down on them on the other.

Soon Matthew is convinced that there have actually been three murders. Further, they are modeled after passages in Revelation that detail seven ghastly visitations.

Although Sansom’s Shardlake mystery novels create a fully realized world with highly developed, convincing characters, there is something about them that holds me back from complete attention. I am always mildly interested but not absorbed. In this case, the novel took me an unheard of twelve days to read. That makes me happy that I have only one more to read, the one for my Walter Scott Prize project, although since I understand there is only one more after that in the series, I may choose to finish the series.

Don’t misunderstand me. These novels have complex mysteries that are difficult to guess and are well researched and interesting. I think lots of people would and do love them. I have personally not been able to decide why I’m not that involved. Perhaps Matthew Shardlake is too depressive for me.

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Day 1079: Murder in the Dark

Cover for Murder in the DarkOne of our pleasant discoveries since moving is to find that the local PBS station schedules lots more murder mysteries than Austin did, including our favorite, “Midsomer Murders.” On another channel, we also discovered the “Miss Fisher Mysteries,” based on the Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood being reissued by Poison Pen Press. When I saw that Netgalley was listing three of the series, I promptly requested them.

Phryne Fisher is a sort of flapper detective in this Australian series set in 1920’s Melbourne. Murder in the Dark is the 16th in the series. For those of you who have been watching the TV series, I have to warn you that this novel bears very little resemblance to the episode of the same name.

Christmas is nearing when Phryne begins to receive threats related to the Last Best Party, a house party given by siblings Gerald and Isabella Templar. Someone does not want Phryne to attend and even sends her a Christmas present of a poisonous snake. Of course, this makes Phyrne determined to attend.

When she speaks to Gerald about it, he admits that someone has sent him death threats. Soon after she arrives at the house, Gerald’s adopted son, Tarquin, disappears, as Isabella’s adopted daughter, Marigold, has already done. Although they thought Marigold had run away, Tarquin seems devoted to Gerald. Phryne also begins a sort of scavenger hunt, as she receives clues, supposedly from the murderer, that each lead to the next.

Phyrne soon finds out from her sources that someone has hired a hit man. Unfortunately, the description of the man is so vague that it could apply to most people.

In the sybaritic atmosphere of the party, Phryne tries to find the clues and locate the hit man before he kills someone. Since the guests include members of the upper classes, polo players, musicians, hashish smokers, the acolytes of the hosts, and even a goat lady, there are a lot of characters roaming about.

This novel was a pleasant enough light reading experience. The culprit wasn’t readily guessable because there was so little information about the plethora of characters. And indeed Greenwood cheats a bit by having, count ’em, three different culprits. I did glancingly guess the identity of the person who hired the hit man but dismissed the idea because it didn’t seem to make sense.

link to NetgalleyOne character who doesn’t appear in the TV series (oops! not until after I wrote this) is Phryne’s lover, an elegant Chinese man named Lin Chung. In this book, at least, he seemed to be completely unnecessary, perhaps only around to make Phryne’s behavior at the party seem more scandalous. But maybe he is more important in some of the other books. In any case, the TV show centers around a flirtation between Phryne and the police inspector, Jack Robinson, that does not seem to be present in the novels. Or maybe I’m talking from too little exposure to Phryne’s world.

Normally, I would avoid mysteries like this that go into great lengths to describe Phryne’s clothes and are too detailed about her love affairs. I have two more to read, so we’ll see how well I can stand it. In any case, these novels are like popcorn, light and fluffy.

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Day 1045: Sovereign

Cover for SovereignI am working my way through C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series so that I can cross his fifth novel off my Walter Scott prize list. Sovereign is Sansom’s third, set in 1541.

Henry VIII is now married to Catherine Howard, and he is already engaged in a progress through the north when the novel begins. Archbishop Cranmer asks Matthew to meet the progress in York and help handle and judge the legal petitions that will be presented to the king. In addition, he asks Shardlake to see to the welfare of the state prisoner and make sure he stays alive until he gets to the Tower of London.

Once Matthew and his assistant Jack Barak arrive, things get complicated. His fellow lawyer in charge of petitions, Wrenne, seems like a nice man, but Matthew does not like Fulke Radwinter, the jailer for the prisoner Broderick. And there are complications. Shortly after arriving, Matthew finds the body of a glazier, Oldroyd, who has fallen into a cart of glass. The man in charge of the investigation, Sir William Maleverer, is up to his ears in corrupt land deals with Matthew’s great enemy, Sir Richard Rich.

When Matthew and Barak search Oldroyd’s house, they find a locked box in a hidden compartment. They take the box to a safe place in their lodgings, where Barak opens it, but as he is glancing through the papers inside, someone knocks him out and steals them.

After that incident, someone begins trying to kill Matthew. But are the murder attempts connected with the prisoner and his treason, the stolen papers, or Matthew’s law case against Richard Rich?

As usual, I found this novel full of period detail and knowledge of Tudor history. In the background of the novel is the story of Catherine Howard’s downfall. Shardlake, who became disillusioned with Thomas Cromwell and the Reformation in the first novels, now begins to view his monarch with distaste. The series is an interesting one, and I’m happy to continue reading it.

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Day 1027: In the Month of the Midnight Sun

Cover for In the Month of the Midnight SunI enjoyed Cecilia Ekbäck’s first novel, Wolf Winter, very much, so I was delighted to hear that her second was out and ordered it right away. This novel is also set in the Lapland area of Sweden, near the fictional Blackåsen Mountain, but it takes place about 75 years later, in 1856.

Magnus Stille is an administrator at the Bergskollegium, the Swedish Board of Mines. His father-in-law, who is also the state minister of justice, asks him to travel north to investigate a situation that has developed. Three men have been murdered, apparently by a Lapp. The minister wants to make sure the murder is not related to a Lapp uprising, which could put a huge mining agreement in jeopardy.

At the last minute before Magnus leaves, the minister asks him to take along his sister-in-law, Louisa. Louisa has gotten into some kind of trouble, and her father is apparently throwing her out of the house.

These two characters act as narrators of the novel, along with Büjá, an older Lapp woman who is grieving for her husband. Also speaking at times is Nila, Büjá’s dead husband.

Magnus has not been asked to go all the way to Blackåsen Mountain, but when he meets the Lapp, he is not sure he believes he is the murderer. So, he decides to walk all the way to the remote village. Once he gets there, he feels there is something terribly wrong at the foot of the mountain.

Like Wolf Winter, In the Month of the Midnight Sun features tension between the native ways of the Lapp and the settlers’ Christianity. It also has a supernatural element to it. The unusual setting makes these novels really interesting, as does Ekbäck’s talent for depicting her characters.

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