Review 2105: The Royal Secret

When James Marwood and Cat Lovett, now the widowed Mrs. Hakesby, meet Mr. Van Riebeeck at the theater, Marwood has no idea that his investigation of someone selling state secrets will involve him. Cat, who has carried on her husband’s architectural business since his death two years before, has thought she would never be drawn to a man, but she is to Van Riebeeck.

When Marwood’s investigation begins to focus on Van Riebeeck, he tries to warn Cat, but she just thinks he is jealous, which he is. In the meantime, Cat is working on plans for a chicken house for the King’s sister, Madame, and is asked to take them and a model to France.

Van Riebeeck has already killed three people and proposed marriage to Cat before he disappears. But since one of the murdered is Marwood’s own footboy, he is determined to find him.

This is another excellent entry in the Marwood/Lovett series. The main characters remain interesting, and Taylor involves them in some intriguing plots. I am enjoying them.

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Review 2078: The Silver Collar

Antonia Hodgson states in the Notes to The Silver Collar that she intended to write this novel from the very beginning of the Thomas Hawkins series. The Silver Collar is the fourth book in the series.

It’s 1728. Things are going well for Thomas Hawkins and his beloved Kitty Sparks, but Thomas begins to feel discontented because he is being supported by Kitty’s wealth and her pornographic bookstore. Then the couple quarrel because Thomas learns she has secretly been seeing Magistrate Gonson, who recently got him unjustly convicted of murder.

After they argue, Thomas stomps out. He returns to find out belatedly two things—Kitty is pregnant and Magistrate Gonson has conspired to help her mother, Lady VanHook, kidnap her.

Thomas knows that Kitty is terrified of her mother, whose intentions are twofold—to take over Kitty’s fortune and to torment Kitty. Finding her pregnant adds some spice. Thomas gets help from Jeremiah, a black man whose little daughter is enslaved by Lady VanHook, and from Sam and Gabriela Fleet. They find that Kitty has been incarcerated in an insane asylum, but that’s just the beginning of this fast-moving, adventurous novel.

There was one place where the pace slowed to a slog, and that was in reading Jeremiah’s letter, which was too long and went into too much extraneous detail. Hodgson created a trap for herself when she gave him speech problems, because this section would have worked much better as a dialogue. However, in all, this was an exciting entry in the series.

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Review 2040: The Zig Zag Girl

I’ve been enjoying Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, so I thought I’d give her Brighton series a try. This first novel takes place in 1950.

Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens has always felt a little self-conscious about part of his war work. After helping the Finnish army, he was part of a group of illusionists called the Magic Men, whose job was to fool the Germans that Scotland was well defended. After a disastrous accident in which their commanding officer, Charis, was killed, they were disbanded. Edgar had been in love with Charis.

Edgar’s best friend in the service was Max Mephisto, a well-known magician. Although Edgar hasn’t seen Max since the Magic Men were disbanded, the murder of a young woman reminds him of Max. She has been cut in three, like the illusion of the Zig Zag Girl, which Max created. Edgar consults with Max, who is still working the magic circuit, and his old army group members begin showing up. There is Diablo, an old magician who spends most of his time drinking; Bill, the carpenter who constructed the illusions; and Tony Mullholland, a magician whom no one much liked.

But before the rest of these characters reappear, Max recognizes the murder victim as Ethel, his assistant who left the act to get married. When Tony Mullholland is also killed, Edgar begins to believe that the crimes are connected somehow to the Magic Men.

Although I feel I need to get to know Edgar better and he didn’t really figure out much in this case, the series promises to provide more entertainment. Max is an interesting character, and I’m curious how he’ll be brought into the upcoming mysteries.

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Review 2038: The Last Protector

It’s 1668. When James Marwood’s boss Williamson sends him to secretly observe a duel between the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Shrewsbury, James is alarmed. He has already come to the attention of the powerful Duke, and not in a good way. He has to do what Williamson asks, but he is observed and must flee for his life.

Cat Lovett has come to regret her marriage to the elderly Mr. Hakesby. As he has become less able, he has begun demeaning her and making demands of her. What she believed would be a marriage of just companionship has turned out not to be so, and she finds it distasteful.

When an old friend, Elizabeth Cromwell, the daughter of the last Protector, Richard, claims her acquaintance and behaves as if they were closer than they were, Cat eventually recognizes she is using her to get the plans for a building called the Cockpit from her husband. She also realizes that Richard Cromwell, who is supposed to be banished to Europe, is in the country. The Cromwells want the Hakesbys’ help to regain a personal possession, they say, but Cat thinks Hakesby is foolishly getting embroiled in treason.

The Last Protector is another fine entry in the James Marwood/Cat Lovett series set during the Restoration. It combines political intrigue with suspense in a realistic seeming historical setting.

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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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