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Archive for the ‘Historical mysteries’ Category

The Seige Winter by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman

Ariana Franklin, best selling author of medieval thrillers, died while writing “The Seige Winter” in 2011.  It was completed and published by Ariana’s daughter Samantha Norman.

The narrator of the story is William, Abbot of Perton Abbey around 1180 a.d., who is telling the story on his death bed for a young monk to transcribe.  The story is one about his family and their household about 40 years earlier, during the wars between the daughter of Henry I, Matilda, and her cousin, Stephen.  Henry on his death bed had declared Matilda his heir, but most of the barons of the land refused to swear alliegance to a woman and selected Stephen instead.  It was a time of great hardship as nobles loyal to Matilda were beseiged by Stephen’s superior troops and villages were plundered and burned.

One of the casualties during this time was the rape of a young girl in the Fens by a bunch of mercenaries led by a murderous monk loyal to Stephen.  One of the mercenary archers, Gwil, took pitty on the girl and defected in order to take care of her and to get her to safety.  He called the girl Penda since she could not remember her own name or the horrendous circumstances that caused her to be separated from her people.  To keep her safe on the road, Gwil insisted she disguise herself as a boy, and he taught her archery skills so that she would have a way of making a living.  After some years on the road as entertainers, they were forced into the company of a group of nobles who were fleeing from mercenaries, a group that happened to include Empress Matilda herself.  They all fled to Kenniford Castle, the home of Maud of Kenniford.  The Abbot, William, was the young boy at the time of the story who was Maud’s stepson.

One theme in this novel is about the place of women in medieval Anglo-Saxon and Norman society and how some were able to transcend their station in life through happenstance of birth and through hard work, skill and some degree of deception.  There are several very strong women role-models in this story, all of whom are to a large degree feared and admired by William.

There is considerable tension in this thriller as the reader waits for the inevitable second face-off between Penda and the murderous monk.

The Seige Winter” is well-crafted and informative about a period in history that was fundamental to the formation of the powerful Norman baronies in England during the Middle Ages.  It keeps readers on the edge of their seats to discover what will happen to several favorite characters, including Penda, Gwil, Maud and her love interest, Sir Alan.

Recommended.

Liz Nichols

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A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon

After 8 years of writing mystery and thriller reviews I felt a need for a rest.  My mother died in late February and work to do to setter her affairs.  There were taxes to complete and also a new business to start so my reading time was curtailed for a couple months.  When I finally emerged with enough time to read books again I found a challenge that was not exactly in the mystery genre, although there are murders, mysteries and swashbuckling thriller plots throughout.  I took up the challenge of reading all 8 of the books in Diane Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series– not a small task as most of her books in this series are over 1000 pages in length.

I have just completed number six in the series, “A Breath of Snow and Ashes” and I think other than the first book, “Outlander,” this is my favorite.  “A Breath of Snow and Ashes” finds the entire Fraser family together on Fraser’s Ridge in the wilds of colonial North Carolina where Jamie has been granted a large range of land to parcel out to other Highlander settlers and eventually a variety of other pioneers.  The Highlanders all share something in common:  in order to be allowed to emigrate they had to swear allegiance to the British king.  The tenor of the times, 1767-1776, makes it increasingly difficult to keep up loyalty to the crown.  Claire and Jamie’s daughter, Brianna, and the man she meets in 20th century Scotland, Roger, like Claire, time travel through a Celtic stone circle in order to find Brianna’s father and her mother who traveled back in time earlier.  They need to warn them of a news clipping from 1776 that suggests Claire and Jamie will be killed in a fire in their home at Fraser’s Ridge in January of 1776 and they want to stop the disaster from happening.  Do they survive? You must read to the end of the sixth book to find out!

Meanwhile, there are a variety of heart-pounding narrow escapes, murder plots and mayhem to keep the incredibly detailed plot threads moving along so that it is very hard to put the book down, and especially this sixth novel in the series. Claire gets kidnapped by some militiamen who do not care for Fraser and his family.  She is accused of killing a young woman who serves as Claire’s apprentice healer, Malva Christie, and Claire is taken to New Bern to be tried.  Brianna, earlier in the book, is kidnapped by a smuggler and there is some question initially as to whether Brianna’s son, born 9 months later, is actually the smuggler’s or Roger’s.  There’s a mystery surrounding the appearance of a skull with a distinctly modern set of teeth and eventually that mystery is revealed by other time-travelers who demand Claire’s help in getting back to the 20th century.

As much as I enjoy reading about the amazing Fraser family, I am going to get back into reviewing newer mysteries and thrillers now.  A large number are still stacked up waiting for my attention.  But for those who are as hooked on the “Outlander” series as I am, and eagerly await the third season of the Starz drama (should coincide with the third book “Voyager“) I do particularly  recommend the sixth book “A Breath of Snow and Ashe” which is set in colonial North Carolina.

 

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Death at St Vedast by Mary Lawrence

I enjoy a good historical mystery where you can tell the author has at least one foot in that era.  Such a mystery is “Death at St. Vedast” by Mary Lawrence.  Lawrence proved in her first “A Bianca Goddard Mystery,” “The Alchemist’s Daughter,” that she had thoroughly researched the social, economic, political and cultural history of England at the time of Henry VIII.  “Death at St. Vedast” is an inventive continuation of alchemist, healer and amateur sleuth, Bianca Goddard’s story.

This new story is set in 1543 in London and in a small village outside London called Dinmow. Bianca and her husband, John, have rented John’s master’s house when the Silversmith, Boisvert, prepares to move to the home of his bride, Odile Farendon, a wealthy widow of a Goldsmith.  Several suspicious deaths occur in and around St. Vedast, the church where Odile and Boisvert are to be married.  The deaths could be signs of poisoning, bewitching, or both.  Boisvert and the priest who marries the couple, Father Nelson, are both accused.  Similar strange deaths occur in the village of Dinmow, the place where the flour used to make communion wafers and a pax bread given to the bride before her marriage.  Bianca observes a number of suspicious happenings between members of the Goldsmiths Guild, the White and Brown Bread Bakers Guilds, an attorney, the warden at St. Vedast, and others, that cause her to suspect people are being framed to protect those who are really guilty.  She and John need to take a trip to Dinmow to investigate and start to unlock what really happened.

Lawrence carefully explains in an afterword where she has changed some details to fit the storyline, primarily in where she locates some of the guildhalls.  It is clear that she has a very good grasp of what life in Tudor England was really like.  There are plenty of colorful descriptions, interesting plots, exciting action and authentic dialogue to make “Death at St. Vedast” a page-turner for all who appreciate fiction set in early Renaissance England.

Reviewed from a supplied advance edition. This book is now available from Kensington Books.

Liz Nichols

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Bright Midnight by Chris Formant

Chris Formant is a life-long student of classic rock and roll and a collector of rock memorabilia. He holds a seat on the Board of Trustees of the Rock and Role Hall of Fame in Cleveland.  “Bright Midnight” is his first novel and it will be a crowd-pleaser for all the baby boomers who love classic rock and all those conspiracy theorists who believe in the “Myth of 27.”

For the uninitiated, the  “Myth of 27” hypothesizes that there is simply too much coincidence around the fact that so many rock stars, and particularly during the height of rock and roll post-Woodstock, died of mysterious causes at the age of 27– too many for it to simply be coincidence.  While Formant’s work is fiction, he has thoroughly researched each of the artists who died within a few years of each other in  the late 1960s and early 1970s including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ron McKernan, Peter Ham, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and Al Wilson.  Formant uses modern forensic analysis techniques to combined with clues from research of memorabilia and historical records to pose plausible explanations as to why all these deaths were not just accidental deaths or suicides, and how they were related.  Certain sinister aspects of the rock and roll record industry seem to have doomed some of the more rebellious and independent artists to short lives.

The protagonist is a classic rock editor for Rolling Stone, Gantry Elliot.  He is an aging “has been” struggling to keep up with the the changes in rock music until he begins to receive anonymous tips about the rock stars of the 1960s and 1970s who all died at age 27.  The tipster maintains that all of these artists were murdered and presents clues with each package to support the claim.  By the time Gantry has received several of these packages he takes the evidence to the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit who, after expressing initial doubts, decides to take on the cold cases and involves associates in Scotland Yard and the French National Police to take the lead on solving the deaths that occurred within their jurisdictions. Gantry involves his boss, the editor of Rolling Stone and eventually gains his full support.

There are fascinating details about the music industry, and modern day forensics.  It turns out that as good as technical forensics is now, old-fashioned interviewing of former associates of the dead and people who might shed light on the commonalities between all of the victims is what actually breaks the case.  The closer Gantry gets to breaking some of these cases, the more dangerous the international crime thriller gets for Gantry and the people who open up to him and the FBI.

Bright Midnight” is an inventive read sure to please those who are nostalgic for the Age of Aquarius and its rock legends and those who enjoy speculating on conspiracy theories such as the “Myth of 27.”

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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Two Mysteries About Early 20th Century Labor Unrest

I have recently finished two somewhat similar mysteries set in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

All Men Fear Me,” by Donis Casey is the first of these mysteries. This book is the eighth in the “An Alafair Tucker Mystery” series.  The book is set just after the US joined World War I and the town of Boynton, Oklahoma is at heightened alert for German traitors and union activists fomenting unrest.  In the midst of all this unrest the Tucker family is trying to stay together with the older sons all contemplating joining the Army and heading for France, and a son-in-law afraid for his life because of his German heritage.  All of the foreign-born people in town are keeping a low profile because of prejudice and suspicion that has become very prevalent among the residents.  Alfair’s brother, a union organizer, comes to town ostensibly for a visit, but is suspected of really being in town to stir up trouble at a local factory. There is worry that trouble will brew at the “Liberty Sing” following the drawing of names for the draft lottery.  A man, called Old Nick, is another recent addition to the town, a very mysterious person no one knows.

The author, Donis Casey, has done an excellent job of researching the era and making the reader feel as if they are back in state-side life during the 1st World War with FDA-mandated austerity measures, suspicion about neighbors who may not originally have been from the area, formation of a chapter of the Knights of Liberty to offer vigilante justice to anyone who appears to be unpatriotic or unwilling to serve.

All Men Fear Me” is a nostalgic novel that will take the reader back to the days at the beginning of America’s involvement in the Great War.

Jack H. Bailey’s “Orchard” attempts to mix fact with fiction.  Bailey uses historic mine unrest in and around Coeur d’Alene in the late 1890s and early 1900’s and the efforts of mine owners to break the control of the Western Federation of Miners and weaves a fictional story around the shadowy life of a real union contract killer named Harry Orchard, a man who was finally sent to prison for the killing of the former governor of Idaho in 1906, Governor Steuenenber.  Orchard’s arch-rival and eventual captor is Pinkerton Agent, Charlie Siringo.  The details of exactly what activities Orchard and Siringo engage in and the dialog as they interact with their union and law enforcement associates is made up, but gives a fascenating picture of what may have taken place.  It is clear that there were many wrongs to redress on both sides.

Bailey succeeds in making both Orchard and Siringo more than just two-dimensional characters.  We have a sense of what makes both men tick.  There are times when we are ready to root for Orchard as a champion of poor minors and their families, and times when we want Siringo to capture the killer in order to stop the bombings and contract killings.

All Men Fear Me” and “Orchard” are both highly recommended.

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Blood of the Oak by Eliot Pattison

Eliot Pattison’s “Bone Rattler”/”Duncan McCallum” series just got another jaw-dropping installment with publication of “Blood of the Oak” by Counterpoint Press. Eliot Pattison’s novels have a way of waking the reader up to the grim realities of what really went on during Colonial American times, both the heroic and the barbaric.

There’s a lot of graphic detail about the treatment of Black and Indian slaves and white indentured servants in the colonial south during the 1760’s in this book.  There’s also a lot of factual history about the Stamp Tax Act and the ramifications of this attempt to make colonists pay taxes for finished products of every sort while receiving scant compensation for the raw materials that the colonies shipped back to England.  “Blood of the Oak” vividly describes how the stage was set for the Revolutionary War and also poignantly describes how the Iroquois and other Indian tribes were wiped out by a combination of settler incursions onto Indian land, war, disease and enslavement of Indian people.  At the end of the book we see the Iroquois’ female spiritual leader and her most trusted chiefs take the tribes’ idols deeper into the wilderness in a futile effort to get away from death and destruction at white men’s hands.

Not every reader will be able to stomach the violence in “Blood of the Oak.” Those who stick with it will be rewarded with a visceral understanding of that critical period of Colonial history between the French and Indian Wars and the Revolutionary War.  Particularly interesting is the description of  how the Sons of Liberty were able to communicate with each other to eventually unite a disparate group of colonies using a complex system of codes and a range rider system that included both colonists and Iroquois allies.

Despite the extremely graphic violence in this book, it is another masterpiece of America historic fiction and a really bone-rattling mystery thriller.  It will be impossible to romanticize Colonial history again after this excellent, accurately portrayed work of historical fiction.

Liz Nichols

(Reviewed from a supplied pre-pub review copy.)

 

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House of 8 Orchids by James Thayer

I loved “House of 8 Orchids,” the thriller set in China in the late 1930s by James Thayer.  The novel was published in paperback January 5, 2016, and judging from other reviews in Amazon it has been very well received.  Thayer is called “a master storyteller” by Clive Cussler.  This is his fourteenth novel, and his experience shows in this vividly told story.

House of 8 Orchids” is the story of John Wade, the son of an American Consul General in Chungking, China, who at age five, along with his younger brother, was kidnapped from the streets of Chungking by the thuggish Eunich Chang.  Chang embarked on a life of crime after the fall of the last emperor of China.  He trained the American boys to be pickpockets and swindlers and, along with other boys he plucked from the streets, the henchmen for all his evil endeavors.  When John’s brother, William, decided to save a woman Chang had kidnapped to sell as a sex slave, John began to gradually recognize the Eunich and his former life as evil and to embrace using his physical and mental strengths to do good.  These more noble impulses in John were encouraged by his experiences with an American doctor who operated a clinic along the Yangtze River and an American Naval commander who helped Wade ultimately defeat Eunich Chang and other forces of evil.

House of 8 Orchids” provides a vivid portrayal of the dangers and chaos faced by everyone living in China during that time when the Kuomintang and Communists were fighting for control of the country, and the Japanese were also trying to gain a stronghold in China.  Add those political dangers to those of pirates, warlords and rogues like Eunich Chang on top of everyday illnesses and accidents and it is a wonder anyone survived that era in China.

John Wade is exactly the kind of protagonist I am excited to get to know in literature.  He is a complex combination of Chinese and American– more Chinese than American through most of the book.  That only gradually changes as he gets to know the doctor, Elizabeth Hanley, and the Naval officer, Commander Beals.

House of 8 Orchids” would make a terrific movie.  If it hasn’t already been optioned for the big screen, it should be.

Liz Nichols

(Reviewed from a supplied copy.)

 

 

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A Three Mystery Review

I have reviews for three of the several books I read during the month of December.  All are by American novelists and all have a strong ethnic presence.  All are part of mystery series of varying degrees of maturity.  While the protagonist of the first is a private investigator, the other two books feature amateur sleuths.  They are:  “Caught dead” by Andrew Lanh, which is a pen name for the experienced mystery writer, Ed Ifkovic (A Rick Van Lam Mystery); “The Puffin of death” by Betty Webb (A Gunn Zoo Mystery); and “Brooklyn secrets” by Triss Stein (An Erica Donato Mystery).  All were published within the last couple months.

Rick Van Lam, as far as I can tell, is the only Vietnamese sleuth in American mystery literature.  He’s definitely not your stereotypical “Charlie Chan” type detective.  Rick is bui doi, an Amerasian product of the Vietnam Conflict who was brought to America at the age of thirteen to be raised by an American family in New Jersey. After attending John Jay College in criminal justice in New York he moved to Hartford, CT to become part of that city’s police force, but wiped out after a close encounter with death and joined a private investigator’s office instead.  He developed close ties to the Vietnamese community in Little Saigon in Hartford and it is with that community that he interacts in trying to solve the deaths of “the beautiful” Le sisters, Mary and Molly.  One sister is married to a small-time Asian market in the heart of Little Saigon while the other is married to a rich and successful Anglo entrepreneur. The separate crimes both appear to be staged in order to blame drug traffickers in a crime-infested neighborhood.  It takes being able to bridge both the Vietnamese community and the community at large in order to solve the crimes and Rick goes about it with a great deal of sensitivity and skill.  “Caught dead” maintains the suspense of “who done it” right up to the last couple chapters.

Betty Webb’s “The Puffin of death” is the fourth in the “Gunn Zoo Mystery” series featuring the professional zookeeper and amateur sleuth, Theodora Bentley.  The setting for this installment of this series is Iceland where Teddy is sent to collect several animals for its new Northern Climes exhibit, including a couple puffins and a polar bear cub.  Because Teddy is invited to stay with an Icelandic zookeeper while she is in Iceland, she has a very up close and personal experience with modern day Icelandic culture.  Her hostess and her boyfriend are both members of an Icelandic heavy metal band.  She also spends a lot of time with a birdwatching tour group from Arizona, and it is the leader of that group who comes up dead shortly after Teddy arrives on the scene.  The body has been badly chewed by a puffin by the time Teddy discovers the body.  Like Webb’s previous books in this series, the author sprinkles a heavy dose of humor in the plot and the memorable cast of characters.  While the book drags a little in the middle chapters, overall I enjoyed “The Puffin of death.”

The third book I would like to feature is Triss Stein’s “Brooklyn secrets.”  Like the author, the protagonist, Erica Donato, is a researcher who is well-versed in the history of Brooklyn, New York.  Stein is not a native of Brooklyn, but she has spent many years in New York City and once worked at the Brooklyn branch library used as one of the settings for the book.  She is also very familiar with the history of the Brownsville projects and the different ethnic groups that have populated this ghetto area since the 1930s.  Donato spends time in that area in order to do research for her graduate program disseration on the members of Murder, Inc. who dominated the Brownsville housing project in the 1930s.  She finds in the 2000s the deadly gang influence has changed little except in ethnicity and language.  Now the residents are largely Black and those in gangs control drug and human trafficking.  The book is very well written to show a lot of parallels between the Brownsville of then and now.  The author admits that the book is not reflective of the very most current trends and language among Black teens in Brownsville today but Stein does what she can to paint a realistic picture of life in the projects today.  “Brooklyn secrets” is a chillingly convincing page-turner of a mystery.

Reviewed with supplied copies.

Liz Nichols

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Two Period Mysteries

The last couple weeks I’ve completed two newer period mysteries and one fantasy title, all through supplied review copies.  Two of them fit together pretty well because they are both period Americana mysteries.

One is “The Good Know Nothing” by Ken Kuhlken, “A Tom Hickey Novel”  set in 1936 Los Angeles, Catalina Island, and other parts of California.  The book is absolutely steeped in Great Depression California history and characters who actually lived in that era.  The language, the settings, the music– everything about the novel feels authentic to the era.  The cover write-up says this is the last of the Tom Hickey novels.  That’s a shame as I am just getting to know this smart LAPD cop and detective.  It will be worth going back to read the earlier books in the series, but this one stands on its own very well.

Tom Hickey is trying to keep his marriage to a Big Band singer together, be a good father to his young daughter, and still be a good detective for the LAPD.  He also tries to be a good brother to his sister who is a personal assistant to evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson.  Tom had been the responsible “parent” for his sister since their father disappeared after being accused of killing someone.  Years later, a friend of the family receives a manuscript for a book, “The Death Ship” that had been published under another person’s name, B. Traven, but the friend says their long lost father claims to have written.  The book is considered a modern classic and they attempt to woo the author back.  When someone other than their father shows up, Tom and his sister, Florence, believe their father has been killed by someone who then claimed their father’s work as their own.  The search to find out what happened to their father leads them to the likes of Harry Longabough (aka Sundance Kid), William Randolph Hurst and his mistress Marion Davies.  I was hooked almost from the first chapter on “The Good Know Nothing.”

My second mystery read was another in Reavis Z Wortham’s “A Red River Mystery,” “Dark Places.”  This novel is set in the era of flower children in 1967.  Pepper, the 14 year old grandchild of our protagonist, Constable Ned Parker from Center Springs, Texas, decides to run away with her sometime boyfriend, Cale Westlake in hopes of reaching San Francisco to start a new, carefree life.  The trials and tribulations of being on the road with very little money and no food or supplies soon brings both Cale and Pepper face to face with reality, but not before they run into trouble with some underhanded store owners, some pimps and prostitutes and a bunch of hippies, and a motorcycle gang.  Meanwhile, Ned goes after Pepper and meets up with an American Indian named Crow who has some ulterior motives for helping out.

Dark Places” is a nostalgic ride down Highway 66 from Texas to Barstow exploring some of the darker sides of the “summer of love” in 1967.  I enjoyed this book every bit as much as Worthham’s other books in this series.

Liz Nichols

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Death in Salem by Eleanor Kuhns

Eleanor Kuhns is the librarian-turned historical mystery writer.  I am in awe of her ability to work full time as assistant director of Goshen Public Library in New York and still have the time to do all the research and writing that is required to produce a high quality historical mystery series.  “Death in Salem” again features itinerant weaver Will Rees and his wife Lydia and is set in Maine and surrounding states in the 1790s.

Rees embarks on the trip south from Maine to Massachusetts to sell his wares to earn a few extra dollars for his growing family.  In the last novel in the “A Will Rees Mystery” series Rees and his wife acquire a brood of kids when they encounter a woman who is dying and who’s orphaned children they decide to adopt.  In Salem Will visits with his Revolutionary War compatriot nicknamed Twig, who has become the town undertaker.  Will accompanies his friend to the funeral averil (wake or post-funeral gathering) for the wife of a prominent merchant fleet owner who has died under somewhat mysterious circumstances after years of being bed-ridden.  She was a member of a prominent whaling family that lives several miles from Salem.  When the black slave servant of the dead woman’s household is arrested for her murder on little to no evidence, Twig asks Will to investigate to save the life of his lover, the black woman.

It is clear that the Sheriff is either incompetent or in on some wider plot tied in to this case.  Leads investigated by Will are far-ranging and suggest the possibility of an insurance fraud cover-up, possible smuggling, possible mercy killing, and several other potential reasons for the growing number of murders.

The one thing that I find a little bothersome, and particularly as the author moves forward with this series, is the lack of opportunity to include Lydia on the whole plot.  Lydia arrives late on the scene in “Death in Salem,” and while her insights do help to solve the case, this series is more satisfying when Will and Lydia work as a team from the start. Because the children clearly need Lydia at home the author is somewhat boxed in because someone must stay home with the kids while Will is plying his wares throughout the northeast. Perhaps the next novel will need to be set at their farm in Maine because there are a growing number of family issues to resolve that could be woven into the pattern of the next mystery.

Death in Salem” is a most insightful mystery.  So few mysteries these days are based on such thorough scholarship.  I learned a lot I did not know before about everything from slavery in the early northern states to the differences between the merchant ship trade and the whaling trade in late 18th century America.  Lovers of Historical mysteries set in colonial America will love this one!

Liz Nichols

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