Review 1301: The Paragon Hotel

Cover for The Paragon HotelAlice “Nobody” James is on the run from the Mafia with two bullets in her at the beginning of The Paragon Hotel. She is obviously in distress when her train arrives in Portland, Oregon, so Max, the African-American railway porter, takes her to the Paragon Hotel. The hotel is the only one in Portland for respectable Negroes in the 1920’s, when this novel is set. In fact, it is illegal for them to even live or work in Portland.

Alice is grateful for the help, and soon after recovering gets to know some of the residents and employees of the hotel. In particular, she is drawn to Blossom Fontaine, a chanteuse who reminds her of a friend she had in New York. When Alice finds that the occupants of the hotel are worried about the Ku Klux Klan, newly arrived in Portland, she decides to help them with her skills in investigation—for she was a spy for Mr. Salvatici, a man known as the Spider, back in Little Italy.

As Alice and her new friends prepare to battle bigotry, a little boy disappears. The novel follows the search for the boy while flashing back to explain how Alice ended up being wounded by her own friend, Nicolo Benemati.

link to NetgalleyI have been a fan of Lyndsay Faye for a long time, but I did not find this novel as compelling as her others. I wasn’t interested at all in the Mafia story. I was more interested in the Portland story, but somehow the characters didn’t ring true to me, particularly Alice herself. Faye seems to have written this novel to explore Portland’s long racist history, which I found interesting, but it gets off track onto other issues.

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Day 870: Jane Steele

Cover for Jane SteeleBest Book of the Week!
Fans of Lyndsay Faye’s Timothy Wilde trilogy (I am one) have undoubtedly been looking forward to Jane Steele, which she describes as a riff on Jane Eyre. In this novel, which Faye dedicates to “Miss Eyre and Mr. Nickleby,” Jane Steele describes her life as one very similar to Jane Eyre’s, only with an important difference—Jane Steele is a serial killer.

At the beginning of the novel, Jane is nine or ten years old, living in a cottage with her mother on the grounds of Highgate House. Although her mother has told her Highgate House belongs to her, it is occupied by her Aunt Patience Barbary and her cousin Edwin. Mrs. Barbary hates Jane and her mother, and after her mother’s death from an overdose of some opiate, Mrs. Barbary wastes no time in preparing to ship Jane off to Lowan Bridge School, run by Mr. Vesalius Munt. But before that can happen, Edwin tries to rape Jane, who pushes him off a cliff to his death. Terrified by the perspicacious Constable Quillfeather, Jane goes meekly to school.

It is difficult to know how much to reveal in this review, but suffice it to say that almost every action in Jane Eyre is echoed in some way in Jane Steele, but always with a twist. Mr. Munt is, if anything, a worse sadist and hypocrite than the headmaster of Lowood School. Jane Steele has a dear friend in the school, Rebecca Clarke, who comes close to dying, but when Mr. Munt offers Jane a choice between further starving Clarke or agreeing to be sent to an asylum, Jane instead chooses to stab him with a letter opener. Jane being sixteen by then, she and Clarke run off to London.

link to NetgalleyEventually, Jane meets her Mr. Rochester when she forges credentials as a governess to go work at Highgate House. There she hopes to search for proof of her mother’s claim that the house belongs to her. She finds herself in an unusual environment. The house belongs to Mr. Charles Thornfield, a nephew of Patience Barbary. Her charge is a little Sikh girl named Sahjara, and the entire household is Sikh. This household has its own secrets, to do with the betrayal of the Khaba, the Sikh military, by its own leaders.

This novel is a romping good read, full of adventure. It features a missing treasure, secret identities, several oily villains, and the resurrection of the heroine’s self-esteem. Yes, Jane kills five men. Do we still like her? Absolutely. I think you’re going to love this book.

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Day 808: The Fatal Flame

Cover for The Fatal FlameI was sad to learn that The Fatal Flame would be the last book in Lyndsay Faye’s Timothy Wilde series. On the other hand, it is better to wrap up a series than let it go on until it becomes perfunctory. Still, I could have spent a lot more time with Timothy, his erratic brother Val, and his friends.

The novels are set in a gritty 1840’s New York City. This one deals with several issues that were controversial at the time: slavery—particularly whether Oregon would join the union as a free or slave state; the development of feminism; and the treatment of the mentally ill.

Timothy Wilde is one of New York’s newly formed Copper Stars, the police force, now two years on the job. At the beginning of the novel, he encounters a few of his colleagues at a wharf, where they are watching Ronan McGlynn. McGlynn is known to offer factory jobs to young, naive Irish women straight off the boats only to forcibly imprison them in brothels. When the men follow McGlynn and his latest victim to the Queen Mab, a brothel, they find there a Tammany Hall boss, Robert Symmes.

Timothy finds Symmes despicable, so he is not happy to be assigned to a case involving him later that day. Symmes is receiving threats from someone. He believes that person to be Sally Woods, a woman who used to work in his textile factory and led a strike against it for higher pay for the women. The threats Symmes is receiving are printed flyers promising to burn down the buildings that Symmes owns.

Although Timothy is disturbed by Sally Woods, he is still looking for evidence when one of Symmes’ buildings burns down, thankfully with no one in it. Why? Because the inhabitants were warned by another woman, Ellie Abell, who used to be Sally Woods’ best friend. A burning building is a great horror to Timothy, because two years earlier he was severely burned in the great New York fire of 1845.

Timothy soon becomes preoccupied by another matter. His great love Mercy Underhill has returned from London (much to my dismay). He is concerned to find that not everything she says makes sense.

The fire investigation gets more complicated, but that’s not confusing enough. Something Timothy tells his brother Val about Symmes causes Val to decide to run against Symmes in the upcoming election for alderman. Symmes is a dangerous man who enjoys inflicting pain. Timothy knows that there is danger for all Val’s intimates.

This novel is complex, exciting, and interesting. I am waiting to see what Faye will do next. But meanwhile, I’ll miss the Wildes, Bird, Jim, and other characters from this series.

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Day 741: Seven for a Secret

Cover for Seven for a SecretSeven for a Secret is the second fantastic Timothy Wilde historical mystery by Lyndsay Faye. The series is set in 1840’s New York City. Wilde is a member of the newly formed copper stars, the city’s first police force.

It is Valentine’s Day, and Timothy and his colleague Jakob Priest are celebrating having solved an art theft when a beautiful woman of color comes looking for him at the station house. She is Lucy Adams, and she has just returned home from her job at a flower shop to find her son and sister missing. She knows exactly what happened to them. “Blackbirders” have snatched them to sell down south as escaped slaves, even though they are free.

Timothy asks his brother Valentine to go with him to get them back. Although Valentine is a corrupt Democratic party boss and a drug addict, he’s a good man in a fight. Timothy, his African-American friend Julius, and Valentine retrieve the three from the slavers, Varker and Coles, but not without a fight. The two women and little boy need somewhere safe to stay until Lucy’s husband returns, so Valentine offers them the use of his apartment.

Something is going on that is more complex than he understands, for when Timothy goes searching for Lucy’s husband, he finds that Lucy isn’t married to Charles Adams, a white salesman, as she thinks she is. She may or may not be married, but her “husband” is a Democratic senator for New York state.

Coming to see Lucy and her family a couple of days later, Timothy finds Lucy strangled and the room disrupted. Timothy is an honest police officer but he knows a frame job when he sees one. He has just finished removing the body and cleaning up when an enemy, Sean Mulquean, another copper star, arrives to investigate a reported disturbance. Timothy also soon learns that Varker and Coles have kidnapped Julius, so he must hurry to court to try to free him before he can look for Lucy’s sister Delia and son Jonas.

Faye’s historical setting of gritty 1846 New York is absolutely convincing. We like Timothy more the more we see him, and Faye is beginning to build a solid cast of supporting characters. This is a well-written, swift-moving, suspenseful series. At almost 500 pages, the novel is long for a mystery, but it didn’t seem like it for a second. Unfortunately, I have just learned that there is only to be one more in the series, and that one is waiting in my pile to be read.

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Day 425: The Gods of Gotham

Cover for The Gods of GothamBest Book of the Week!

New York in 1845 is a turbulent city. The political campaign between the Democrats and the Whigs is crooked and violent, and the recent influx of Irish poor is causing some Protestant leaders to preach against Papists. The recent establishment of a police force has been fought against by those claiming it impinges on their civil liberties.

Timothy Wilde is a bartender who has managed to save up $500 and intends to ask the woman he loves, Mercy Underhill, for her hand. A huge fire that ranges more than twenty blocks changes his plans, for his home is burned down with all his money in it and so is his place of work. His face is badly scarred as well, so Timothy believes his future is ruined.

His older brother Valentine, with whom he has a rocky relationship, has plans for him. Val has just been made a captain in the new police force and believes the copper stars–for that is what they are soon called because of their badges–is the place for his brother. Timothy is distrustful of Val’s intentions. His brother is a popular and charismatic leader of the firemen and the Democratic party, but Timothy also knows him as an opium addict and a wild man who hangs out with thugs. Timothy soon finds that the job suits him, however.

He is not long on the job before a child runs into him late one night, hysterical and covered with blood, saying “He’s going to tear him to pieces.” Wilde sees that she is a kinchin mab, or a child prostitute. He brings her home to the Dutch widow who is his new landlady instead of taking her in for questioning. When the girl recovers herself, she identifies herself as Bird and tells him a pack of lies. He soon finds out what she was talking about, however, when the body of a young male child prostitute is found in a trash receptacle.

Timothy’s investigation results in the discovery of a field full of bodies on the edge of the city–a total of 19 dead children with a cross carved into their torsos. Although the authorities try to keep this a secret, the word soon gets out. Then someone begins writing letters blaming the deaths on the Irish. Soon the city is a powder keg.

This novel is even better than Faye’s acclaimed first, Dust and Shadow. It depicts New York in all its grit and dissension and feels historically grounded. It introduces an honest, kind, and clever hero whom I hope we’ll see more of. The plot is full of twists, and although I managed to spot a perpetrator well in advance, the story was much more tangled than I expected. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

Day 402: Dust and Shadow

Cover for Dust and ShadowIn Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, Lyndsay Faye combines a great deal of research into the Jack the Ripper killings in 1888 with a vast knowledge of Sherlock Holmes literature to offer an entertaining solution to the crimes. The novel begins nearly 50 years after the events, when Dr. Watson places his narrative of the murders into a safety deposit box on the eve of war.

Inspector Lestrade comes to consult Holmes after the second murder, when police begin to realize the two deaths may be linked. Holmes immediately begins pursuing his usual means of detection–inspecting the body and the scenes of the crimes, trying to find out where the victims were last sighted, questioning the victims’ friends–and he very quickly figures out that another murder is related. He even hires an alert young prostitute, Mary Ann Monk, to make her own enquiries and observations after she identifies the body of her friend, Mrs. Nichols. However, he is soon frustrated by his lack of progress. The only lead Holmes has come across is the story of an elusive sailor, being sought by a friend who thinks he may have been involved in the first murder, that of Mrs. Nichols.

Soon Holmes and Watson have something else to worry about, for a member of the press is printing details of the crimes unknown to but a few. He has been alleging that Holmes himself may be the murderer.

Faye’s novel is atmospheric and absorbing. Its greatest accomplishment, though, is in successfully capturing the narrative style of Doctor Watson, making us believe that this could be a Holmes story. Although I was about 100 pages ahead of Holmes in solving the murder (which would never happen in a real Holmes story), I still found the solution ingenious as well as the reason why the crimes are recorded in history as unsolved (when, of course, Holmes solved them). This novel is a very good first effort. I have Faye’s next book awaiting me in my pile.