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All Historical Mystery Coverage

Mystery novelist and amateur sleuth Lady Amy Lovell is back in The Mystery of Albert E. Finch, the latest installment in Callie Hutton’s Victorian Book Club Mystery series.

The novel kicks off with Amy’s wedding to Lord William Wethington, a fellow member of the Mystery Book Club of Bath. During the celebratory wedding breakfast, Amy’s cousin, Alice Finch, is poisoned and collapses face-first into her meal. There’s no reviving Mrs. Finch, and soon the Wethington wedding reception is declared a crime scene.

Local detectives charge Mrs. Finch’s husband, Albert, with her murder, but Amy isn’t sure that he’s guilty. With their honeymoon on hold, Amy and William put their sleuthing skills to the test and begin their own investigation. When a second body turns up, the newlyweds must race to figure out who is poisoning their wedding guests—and why.

Hutton’s Victorian-era Bath is a delightful setting, even given the murders taking place in its streets. And it’s easy to root for the newlywed sleuths, whose relationship is clearly rooted in friendship and respect. Though the story takes a humorous turn when several of Amy’s relatives unexpectedly move into the couple’s home, The Mystery of Albert E. Finch also addresses issues like misogyny and classism with grace and heart.

There’s a running joke about William’s disappointment in his delayed honeymoon that goes on for a bit too long and loses steam, but overall, Hutton’s writing is sharp and witty. Amy and William are in top form, and readers will enjoy reuniting with them and the rest of the Mystery Book Club in this consistently pleasurable cozy mystery.

The latest Victorian Book Club Mystery takes on issues like misogyny and classism with grace and heart.

Set amid the glitz and glimmer of showbiz, these historical mysteries expose the corruption and abuse that exists after the shine of spotlights go out. But even more than that, they examine critical periods during which women’s roles were shifting as they demanded more freedoms.

As a teenager, Willowjean “Will” Parker literally ran away to join the circus. Stephen Spotswood’s Murder Under Her Skin (the sequel to 2020’s Fortune Favors the Dead) finds her as an adult in 1946 New York City, working at a detective agency with her mentor, the brilliant Lillian Pentecost. Fresh off an arson investigation, Will gets a telegram that her friend Ruby Donner, the tattooed lady of Hart and Halloway’s Travelling Circus, has been murdered and that another performer, Valentin Kalishenko, has been arrested for the crime. Will believes Valentin is innocent, and she and her boss set off for small-town Virginia to meet up with the circus and clear Valentin’s name.

Hart and Halloway’s Travelling Circus allowed Will to escape her abusive father and safely explore her sexuality as a lesbian. Now that she’s returning as an outsider, some of that closeness is gone and, in a melancholy but emotionally realistic twist, Will finds herself trapped between two worlds: She’s no longer completely trusted by her former peers, and she’s still working to gain the approval of her intrepid boss. 

As they work the case, Will and Lillian find the world in flux around them, which Spotswood ably explores without distracting from the central mystery. In the wake of World War II, U.S. veterans are dealing with displacement and PTSD, women are being shunted into more restrictive roles now that GIs have returned, and movie theaters are filling up while circus arenas are emptying. None of the characters in this mystery quite know how to cope with these seismic cultural changes, setting Murder Under Her Skin apart from more simplistic stories set in the same time period. Despite the cultural angst swirling around them, Will and Lillian focus on finding justice for Ruby, a woman many of their contemporaries don’t consider respectable or worthy of their compassion.

Elly Griffiths jumps ahead a few decades (and across the pond) in her snappy new Brighton mystery, The Midnight Hour. It’s 1965, and when theatre impresario Bert Billingham is murdered with rat poison, his wife, actress Verity Malone, is a natural suspect. Worried that the police will look no further than her, Verity hires PIs Emma Holmes and Sam Collins to clear her name. Among their suspects is magician-turned-actor Max Mephisto, who is filming a remake of Dracula along with Billingham’s son and is rumored to have had a fling with Verity.

Much like Murder Under Her Skin, this mystery focuses on a tightknit group of performers. Many of the actors, directors and costume designers in Billingham’s orbit worked together during the war, and everyone seems to have a story illustrating Billingham’s nastiness, giving Emma and Sam no shortage of suspects. 

As they navigate the complex showbiz web around Billingham and his family, Emma and Sam team up with 20-year-old rookie police constable Meg Connolly, which allows Griffiths to explore the experiences of three women at very different stages in life. The growing feminist movement has created more opportunities for women like Meg, but her male-dominated workplace still treats female sleuths as novelties. While Meg is just starting out, Emma struggles to balance her career with being a wife and mother, and she is frustrated that her detective work is treated like a hobby rather than a profession. Sam, meanwhile, worries that her own romantic interest in Max Mephisto could be clouding her judgment.

The sixth book in a series, The Midnight Hour is also full of secondary characters who have appeared in previous Brighton mysteries, so readers may want to start at the beginning before taking a stab at this one. But those who are already fans of the Brighton mysteries will be well satisfied with this installment, which tracks the evolution of Emma and Sam’s characters and careers without sacrificing one bit of Griffiths’ wit and charm.

Beyond being tantalizing whodunits, both Murder Under Her Skin and The Midnight Hour feature dynamic, complicated female characters who unapologetically stand up to and outshine their male contemporaries.

Set amid the glitz and glimmer of showbiz, these historical mysteries examine two critical periods during which women demanded more freedoms.

The Left-Handed Twin

Edgar Award-winning author Thomas Perry returns with The Left-Handed Twin, his ninth novel featuring guide Jane Whitefield, a member of the Wolf clan of the Seneca Nation of Indians. The term guide does not entirely describe Whitefield’s job; she serves as a one-woman witness protection program, spiriting people out of life-threatening situations and into new and safer existences. This time out, she assists a young woman who testified against her boyfriend in a murder trial only to see him acquitted and bent on revenge. The first part of the task is fairly straightforward, utilizing the obfuscation skills Jane has honed over the years, but it all starts to go sideways when the ex-boyfriend enlists the help of the Russian mob, a group with an agenda of its own in locating Jane: extracting information from her about past clients who ran afoul of the mob. Suddenly, she finds herself on the run, and the safest places for her are the forests and fields of Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness, one of the ancestral Seneca territories where she holds the home-court advantage over lifetime city dwellers. Still, her Russian adversaries are nothing if not determined, and there are at least a couple of times when readers will wonder if this is the book where Jane’s story comes to an untimely end.

Bryant & May: London Bridge Is Falling Down

Spoiler alert: London Bridge Is Falling Down marks the final installment of Christopher Fowler’s beloved Bryant and May series. With each passing book, the Peculiar Crimes Unit, which solves murders that stump other branches of law enforcement, finds itself more critically threatened with closure. Both protagonists, cranky Arthur Bryant and the urbane and charming John May, are getting rather long in the tooth (in Bryant’s case, long in the dentures), and cases don’t present quite as frequently as they once did. So in hopes of postponing the inevitable, Bryant goes in search of a case and turns one up: Amelia Hoffman, age 91, whose death does not entirely fall into the catch-all of natural causes. Hoffman had something of a chequered (the English spelling must be used here) past, as it turns out, and before long the case develops into a full-blown conspiracy investigation. The narrative neatly straddles the blurry line separating espionage fiction from straight-up suspense, and adds for good measure a mean streets of London travelogue and more than a little laugh-out-loud but still dry British humor. Lovers of this series need not despair (well, not yet). Next year, we will see Bryant and May’s Peculiar London, a companion travelogue of sorts in which fan-favorite characters will hilariously dish on their home city while ambling about its streets, and there will be no dead bodies to be found anywhere.  

So Far and Good

For the better part of 30 years, I have counted myself as a major fan of John Straley’s sporadic series featuring Alaska-based PI Cecil Younger. From the outset, 1992’s Shamus Award-winning The Woman Who Married a Bear, the books have combined grittiness, social issues and introspection with whimsy and slapstick, as the hapless investigator moves from crisis to crisis, both business and personal. So Far and Good, the latest adventure, finds Cecil serving seven-plus years in prison for homicide, arguably a necessary one. His daughter, Blossom, visits him regularly, and this time she has an interesting tale to tell: Her best friend took a DNA test to surprise her mom with an ancestry-related gift and discovered that she and her “mom” were not in any way related. As it turns out, this friend was abducted as an infant, and the case has remained unsolved for the past 16 years. Should be a happy ending, right? Instead, it serves as the catalyst for a suspicious suicide, a near-homicide and assorted disappearances. And Blossom joins the missing, it will take all of his considerable savvy, not to mention a reversal of his inherent unluckiness, to set his world back in order (more or less) once again. 

★ War Women

The year that John Straley’s first Cecil Younger book appeared, 1992, also marked the debut of Martin Limón’s excellent series featuring George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, military police partners stationed in Itaewon, Korea, in the 1970s. Several plot lines wind around one another in the pair’s latest outing, War Women. First off, there is the disappearance of their best confidential informant, along with some particularly sensitive classified documents about impending military exercises. Then there is the nosy reporter who has acquired explicit, potentially career-ending photos of an Army general and the hasty cover-up attempts that spiral speedily out of control, the suspense building until the final, nerve-shredding shootout. But these events are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A culture of abuse targeting female service members has permeated every level of the military hierarchy, and there are those who will kill to keep that culture thriving. Bascom and Sueño, while still their customarily smart-aleck selves, are more thoughtful this time around. They’re not overcome by the gravity of the situation, but they’re certainly affected by it. War Women is the most sobering of the series to date, while still being a book readers will want to devour in one sitting. 

Thomas Perry gives fans the gift of another Jane Whitefield thriller and a beloved series comes to an end in this month’s Whodunit column.

Charlotte Holmes has never been in more danger and the ride has never been more exciting than in Miss Moriarty, I Presume?, Sherry Thomas’ sixth Lady Sherlock mystery.

Defying her parents’ most fervent wishes and every rule of polite Victorian society, the singular Miss Holmes has successfully contrived to live freely, both professionally and personally. Having put her talents and temperament to good use as a “consulting detective” under the guise of a fictional brother named Sherlock, Charlotte now helms a thriving business. She’s forged a lasting friendship with Mrs. Watson, her professional partner, confidante and landlord, and has finally found love and peace with Lord Ingram Ashburton, the man she’s admired since they were children. (Their surreptitious and sexy flirtation reaches new heights in this outing.)

Despite these happy circumstances, there is one thorny problem. Over the course of her previous cases, Charlotte attracted the dangerous attentions and ire of the criminal mastermind known as Moriarty. In Miss Moriarty, I Presume? that shadowy figure finally comes calling. Moriarty enlists Charlotte to verify the health and welfare of his errant adult daughter, who now lives on a mysterious commune and from whom he has recently stopped receiving scheduled updates. Alighting to Cornwall to see what has become of Miss Moriarty is a mission Charlotte doesn’t dare refuse, given that beneath Moriarty’s unsubtle demand lies an unspoken threat of violence.

Moriarty’s daughter’s whereabouts offer a complex and satisfying puzzle: She may be on the run, sick or even dead. The questions surrounding her and her motivations are plentiful and compelling, and her home, the pseudo-religious Garden of Hermopolis, is a superlative setting. Simultaneously quirky and dark, the walled and guarded compound provides a fertile environment for the mystery to grow. 

With a plot hinging almost entirely on Moriarty and his kin, Miss Moriarty, I Presume? does much to mend Moriarty’s vague characterization and motives in the series’ earlier books. The mystery man becomes a little less opaque, and disparate threads involving other recurring characters come together as well. Key elements at the center of the series—the cold war with Moriarty and the romantic relationship between Charlotte and Lord Ingram—progress by leaps and bounds. Readers will revel in seeing Charlotte and her dearest companions at the top of their game in this eventful and pivotal entry in the formidable series.

Charlotte Holmes has never been in more danger and the ride has never been more exciting than in Miss Moriarty, I Presume?, Sherry Thomas’ sixth Lady Sherlock mystery.

The Shadows of Men

Calcutta, 1923: Then, as now, the state of Muslim-Hindu relations evoked an image of a short-fused powder keg, awaiting only the striking of a convenient match. The murder of a prominent Hindu theologian provides said spark, setting the stage for Abir Mukherjee’s fifth novel, The Shadows of Men. Police Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee are tasked with unraveling the circumstances of the homicide before holy war breaks out in the streets and alleyways of West Bengal’s most populous city, Calcutta. Things take a complicated turn almost immediately, as Banerjee finds himself framed for the aforementioned murder and thus removed from the state of play, at least in any official capacity. But he and Wyndham have never been what you’d call sticklers for the rules, and this time will prove to be no exception. Their investigation, at times in tandem but more often in parallel, will carry them to Bombay, which is unfamiliar turf to both of them. There they will discover that there is more afoot than just age-old cultural and religious enmity, and that certain third parties may harbor a keen—albeit covert—interest in fanning the flames of mutual intolerance. The narrative is first-person throughout, switching from Wyndham’s perspective to Banerjee’s in alternating chapters, an unusual and clever approach that keeps readers dead center in the melee, while at the same time poised on the edges of their seats.

All Her Little Secrets

Wanda M. Morris’ debut novel, All Her Little Secrets, is a multilayered, atmospheric thriller with subplot atop subplot. In a 200-odd-word review, I can barely scratch the surface. The main characters are Atlanta corporate attorney Ellice Littlejohn, a Black woman who is the lead counsel for a thriving transport company; her brother Sam, a ne’er-do-well who skates very close to the edge of legality, and sometimes over the edge; her auntie Vera, once a ball of fire, now laid low by advancing episodes of dementia; and CEO Nate Ashe, a Southern gentleman who might be looking out for Ellice’s interests but who also might be a corrupt businessman attuned to the optics of displaying a minority woman in a position of power. Then there is a murder, and another, and it becomes next to impossible for Ellice to determine who is in her corner. Examinations of racism, sexism, ageism and classism (and probably other -isms I have forgotten about) abound, making All Her Little Secrets a very timely read, in addition to being one heck of a debut.

Psycho by the Sea

A handful of pages into Lynne Truss’ hilarious new installment in her Constable Twitten series, Psycho by the Sea, I found myself imagining it as a BBC TV series with an eccentric “Fawlty Towers” sort of vibe, perhaps with a screenplay penned by Graham Greene. The characters are delightfully overblown, the storyline whimsical (well, if a cop killer who boils his victims’ severed heads fits your notion of whimsy).The novel is set in 1957 in the English seaside town of Brighton, which is not the sort of place that jumps to mind as crime central. Still, a number of locals make a good living pushing the boundaries of the law, including Mrs. Groynes, the lady who makes the tea at the Brighton police station. Privy as she is to the daily departmental goings-on, she ensures that the constables will be conveniently far from wherever her crimes are set to take place. When the severed-head-boiling killer escapes from the psychiatric detention facility he has called home for several years, perhaps aided in that getaway by a staff psychotherapist, all manner of ghoulish things begin to take place in the otherwise somnolent resort. While Psycho by the Sea is not the most suspenseful story on offer this month, it is easily the funniest, the quirkiest and the most entertaining read of the bunch. 

★ Silverview

When John le Carré passed away in December 2020, he left a gift behind for his readers: Silverview, one last novel from the master of espionage. The story goes that le Carré began work on the book nearly a decade ago, but it was held for publication as the author “tinkered” with it (a sly nod to his 1974 book Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?). The tinkering paid off. Silverview is one of his best works, an intricate cat-and-mouse tale in which just who is the feline and who is the rodent is up in the air until the final pages. When bookshop owner Julian Lawndsley meets Edward Avon, he is virtually bowled over by the larger-than-life demeanor of the elderly white-haired gentleman. Together they hatch a plan to expand Julian’s bookstore. Meanwhile, British intelligence has launched an investigation into a long-ago incident in Edward’s life, one that suggests he may still be in the spy game. If this is true, it’s anybody’s guess who his employer might be, for it is certainly not the home team. Not that the home team could even remotely be considered the good guys, mind you. But I suppose treason is treason, irrespective of the morality of the players. Perhaps even more world-weary in tone than the le Carré books that preceded it, Silverview will make readers look askance at the sort of things their countries do on the world stage.

The Shadows of Men Calcutta, 1923: Then, as now, the state of Muslim-Hindu relations evoked an image of a short-fused powder keg, awaiting only the striking of a convenient match. The murder of a prominent Hindu theologian provides said spark, setting the stage for Abir Mukherjee’s fifth novel, The Shadows of Men. Police Captain Sam […]

Straddling the line between suspense and historical fiction, Lori Rader-Day’s Death at Greenway is an unsettling murder mystery that gives readers a nuanced look into life on the British homefront during World War II. 

Student nurse Bridget “Bridey” Kelly made a horrible mistake on duty, resulting in the death of an officer in her care. Her only hope for redemption is to take an assignment caring for 10 children who are being evacuated from London and sent to Greenway House, the country home of Agatha Christie. Christie makes only the briefest of appearances, although her library of books on murder makes for a chilling backdrop.

Like the children, Bridey experiences the effects of PTSD, so she struggles to care for them, especially when her fellow nurse, Gigi, proves to be less than enthusiastic (or knowledgeable). From the moment they settle into Greenway House, things feel amiss. Items go missing, and one of the children reports seeing a man lurking outside at night. After a body washes up in the quay, Bridey is asked to help and realizes the victim’s injuries were the result of homicide, not accidental drowning. All the while, the mysterious Gigi’s stories of her life before Greenway House fail to add up. When she goes missing, Bridey knows something foul is afoot.

Told from multiple perspectives (even those of individual children), Rader-Day’s novel is in many ways a portrait of grief and trauma. Each character is suffering due to displacement, rationing and German bombings. There are no real monsters, just people forced into circumstances they never thought possible. Bridey is a particularly compelling character—the reluctant detective, longing to move on with her life, but unable to let sleeping dogs lie.

Far from a cozy mystery, Death at Greenway is as taut as a bow string, with every character capable of snapping at a moment’s notice. 

Far from a cozy mystery, Death at Greenway is as taut as a bow string, with every character capable of snapping at a moment’s notice.

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