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Two Mysteries Set in 1700s

I generally like historical fiction, and specifically, mysteries set during an age when England was flexing its merchant muscle and coming to terms with such issues as making it illegal to import slaves.  In the Colonies the French and Indian War was setting the stage for revolution ten or fifteen years later.

The two books I’ve read over the past two or three weeks are “The Hidden Man” by Robin Blake and “The Constable’s Tale” by Donald Smith.  Smith’s book is due to be published Sept. 15, but can be ordered now through Amazon.  Blake’s book came out last March.

The Hidden Man” is set in Preston, Lancashire, England in 1742.  The protagonist is the town coroner who is charged with investigating suspicious deaths and holding inquests to determine cause of death.  The Coroner, Titus Cragg, has a partner in his investigations, Dr. Luke Fidelis, who ministers among both the aristocratic folk and the poor within the region.  They are constantly at odds with the local magistrate in trying to determine who murdered a local goldsmith and pawnbroker, Mr. Pimbo and left him in an office locked from the inside.  When it becomes difficult to explain how the murderer got out the Dr. makes the supposition that the killer escaped when the room was opened and a number of curious onlookers rushed in to see what was going on.  It seems far-fetched by both Cragg and the magistrate, but will Fidelis be proven correct?  It appears that Pimbo had invested in a shipping venture to buy slaves off the coast of Africa, take them to Barbados, and trade them for rum and other goods to be sold in the Colonies.  The venture was being investigated by a marine insurance agency because a claim had been made that the ship had been lost a sea. The insurance company investigator has a young black servant with him who turns out to be a young woman.

The Hidden Man” plot is fairly convoluted and there are multiple suspects for two separate murders that take place, including the young black woman.  There are so many details and characters it is easy to get lost and also easy to get impatient with the many blind alleys this story goes down before the mystery is resolved.  It brings up some major social issues, such as the slave trade, but then the discussion is dropped and never goes anywhere.

If I had only time to read one of the two books set in this time period, it would be Donald Smith’s “Constable’s Tale.”  The protagonist in this tale is also a lawman, the constable of Craven County, North Carolina, Harry Woodyard.  A family friend, Comet Elijah, an elderly American Indian wiseman, is accused of savagely killing a farm family on the edge of New Bern, North Carolina, and Harry is obliged to take him into custody.  He can’t believe his friend, Elijah, could kill a family in cold blood, and he finds a Masonic emblem pin at the crime scene that might indicate someone else visited the farm family and could have been responsible.  Harry goes on a lengthy quest to find the owner of the pin.  His travels take him to Williamsburg, Annapolis, Philadelphia and points north into Canada, where Harry gets mixed up with the seige on Quebec, British and French double-agent, and several encounters with an old flame. The ending was a surprise I did not see coming.

The Constable’s Tale” as an exciting read from start to finish and I had a hard time putting it down until I was finished.  It is supenseful and provides insight into a violent and formative time in American history.  “The Constable’s Tale” is highly recommended.

Liz Nichols

(“The Constable’s Tale” was reviewed from a provided copy.

 

 

 

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Murder at Cirey by Cheryl Sawyer

Cheryl Sawyer’s new “A Victor Constant Investigation,” “Murder at Cirey” led me to look for more information about Voltaire’s 15 year residence at the Chateau de Cirey between 1734 and 1749.  The murder mystery is set during that period at the Chateau.  Voltaire and his paramour owner of the Chateau, Gabrielle Emilie de Breteuil, Marquise du Chatelet, are included as characters in the mystery.

Cheryl Sawyer is from New Zealand and currently lives in Australia.  She has been a publisher and writer in the South Pacific for twenty-one years.  She has written several historical novels.

Most of the other characters in this novel are fictional, including, Victor Constant, the persistent member of the military police brigade called the Marechaussee who was billeted in Chaumont in the Champaigne district.  He was sent to Cirey to investigate the reported murder of a military courier, Damien Moiron, who was found in the Cirey woods shot at close range.  Was the courier killed by a highwayman in an attempted robbery?  Was he the victim of jealousy because of dalliances with some of the ladies in the area?  Was he killed because of the military intelligence he carried? Is this a case of espionage gone wrong? Victor does not give up until he solves the crime and brings the guilty to justice, no matter the danger to himself.

I was captivated by this swashbuckler of a mystery from first page to last and found myself evaluating all the clues along with our hero.  I enjoyed getting to see France in 1735 through the eyes of Voltaire and the characters surrounding him.

Murder at Cirey” is Sawyer’s first crime novel.  Victor Constant should enjoy a good run as an historical crime-solver based on this first installment of the series.

Liz Nichols

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The Counterfeit Heiress by Tasha Alexander

Tasha Alexander, author of “The Counterfeit Heiress” seems to have one foot in the Victorian era.  She has a good grasp of the people and places in and around London and Paris during that era, and particularly the world of upper class Victorian women.

When Lady Emily Hargreaves and her husband Colin attend a costume ball in London they are surprised to see another guest in a costume that looks much like Emily’s.  Some guests recognize that party-goer as the world-traveling heiress, Estella Lamar.  The next day Emily learns that the woman she saw at the masked ball has been murdered and is not Lamar at all, but a woman who for some unknown reason was impersonating her.  Who killed the impersonator?  Where is Estella Lamar?

This period mystery is set between London and Paris in 1897.  The Hargreaves are asked to solve this double mystery by one of Lamar’s old friends, Cecile du Lac.  The settings in Paris give this mystery a rather Gothic, noir feel for many of the scenes take place in and around a Paris cemetery and the catacombs under the city.  This is also a psychological suspense story because it delves deeply into the mind of a reclusive young heiress and the actions of her apparent captor.  The chapters jump between the investigation into the murder and the disappearance of Lamar, and chapters that set up the story about Lamar, her captivity and her mental state that leads to some surprising twists and turns in the plot.

The Counterfeit Heiress” is an exceptionally well-crafted and complex mystery that will be enjoyed thoroughly by fans of her Lady Emily Mystery series and many other lovers of fiction set in the late Victorian era.

Liz Nichols

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Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas by Stephanie Barron

Barron’s “Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas” is fittingly the twelfth novel in the “Being a Jane Austen Mystery” series.  Barron continues to write in the style of Jane Austen and uses the nineteenth century writer as a fictional character in the crime-solving series.

Jane and her family are invited to spend the holidays at The Vyne, a large manorhouse several miles from the parsonage at Steventon where Jane’s brother, James is vicar.  The invitation comes after Jane, her sister and mother are run off the road by a carriage with a mysterious gentleman who is headed to The Vyne rather as an apology.  At The Vyne they meet the Gambier’s the wife and young adult son and daughter of an Admiral, Mr. West, the son of a famous painter, and Thomas Vere-Chute, the brother of William Chute, the lord of the manor.   There are also assorted staff at the manor, including Benedict L’Anglois, secretary to Mr. Chute.  A messenger arrives from Admiral Gambier with the original of the Treaty of Ghent that signaled the truce between Great Britain and the United States in the War of 1812.  The charter required Chute’s review and signature as a Member of Parliament.  The young officer is killed before he even gets off The Vyne property the day after her arrived on his way back to London.  Jane finds a thin wire that was used to bring down the officer’s horse and several other clues also point to murder.  There is a second murder a couple days later.  Were the crimes committed by the same hand?

The solution to the murders is absorbing even though there are relatively few potential suspects and relatively little character development to help point toward one or more culprit.  The book also serves as a good reminder of how easy life is for most of us now compared to days before modern utilities and transportation.  A 15 mile trip in winter could easily take a couple days in a conveyance which might only have a few hot bricks to keep the feet warm.  Yet families braved the elements to celebrate the holidays with family and friends just as they do now.

Lovers of this series will enjoy “Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas.” It is certainly appropriate to curl up with this book on a cold winter’s night in front of a roaring fire.

Liz Nichols

 

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Cradle to Grave by Eleanor Kuhns

Eleanor Kuhns is obviously well-versed in the history of Shaker country in upstate New York and New England and in life in general on the harsh frontier in the decades after the American Revolution.  Her latest historical novel, “Cradle to Grave” is infused with the atmosphere and socio-economic realities of that period in these backwoods settlements.  Kuhns is a librarian by profession and a very promising novelist.  Her first work, “A Simple Murder” won the Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.

In “Cradle to Grave” her protagonist, Will Rees, a weaver from Maine, travels to a Shaker village in New York with his new wife, Lydia, to help one of Lydia’s friends who has broken the law in abducting five children of a single mother the friend, Mouse, believes are being neglected.  The mother is murdered and Mouse is accused of the crime.  Rees learns that there are many individuals in the town who have a reason to harm Maggie Whitney, the frequently drunk wet nurse who is killed.  Most of the town’s council members want her gone because her family threatens to become a drain on the town alms to the poor.  In those days many communities like Dover Springs, NY turned out, or “warned out” anyone who applied for assistance or failed to pay taxes if they or their parents were not born in the community.  In colonial and early republic days destitute widows and their children ended up dying of exposure because social welfare was only granted to those who “belonged.”  There are also a number of men in the community who might want to see Maggie and her children disappear rather than get discovered to be the father of one of the kids.  One other man wants her gone so he can claim the small farm and cabin that Maggie inherited from a relative.

The character development, the accurate historic context, and the bleak mid-winter physical descriptions are exceptional in “Cradle to Grave” and I was thoroughly absorbed by this mystery.  I plan on going back to read Kuhns’ two earlier novels and look forward to her next one.

Liz Nichols

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Hell with the Lid Blown Off by Donis Casey

Hell with the Lid Blown Off” is the 7th in the Alafair Tucker Mysteries by Donis Casey.  Alafair Tucker is an Oklahoma farm wife and mother in the early years of the 20th century.  In this installment the Tucker family and their neighbors experience a huge, destructive twister.  Not all of their neighbors make it through including a conniving, disliked young man.  The coroner discovers that that victim, Jubal Beldon, was killed before the twister and was then repositioned to make it look like he died in the storm. Alafair helps the sheriff and his deputy to figure out who had something to gain from Beldon’s demise and who had the means and ability to kill the man.

The book is written from the point of view of Trenton Calder, the deputy sheriff and secret admirer of  Ruth Tucker, the 17 year old daughter of Alafair and a talented pianist.  Ruth generally stays in town with her piano teacher, Beckie MacKenzie.

The book is full of great character descriptions and amusing scenarios between characters that bring back the nostalgia of the early 20th century in rural America.  The nostalgia is tempered by the menacing storm and the strange and seemingly random destruction it wreaks. Those charming vignettes about ordinary life in Boynton, OK are also punctuated by the investigation into the death of Jubal Beldon and discovery about what a despicable rat he was.  In the end it is impossible to really blame anyone for his death.  Good riddance!

Hell with the Lid Blown Off” is a charming and nostalgic stroll through the lives of families in small town America in 1916 and the destructive forces, both natural and human, that can tear these lives apart in an instant.

Recommended reading for all lovers of early Americana and Historical mysteries.

Liz Nichols

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Courier by Terry Irving

Terry Irving, long-time writer and producer for television and radio news programs, has written a real corker of a political thriller in “Courier”  published in April by Exhibit A Books.  On Irving’s website, he claims he fashioned the main character, a motorcycle courier for a television network office in Washington DC, after a young Nicholas Cage.  I could see a scruffed-up Ryan Gosling playing the part in what would could be a first-rate thriller movie.

Rick Putnam, the central character of “Courier,” is a Vietnam vet determined not to be swallowed up in an alcoholic haze following his stint in the service.  His nerdy roommates tolerate Rick’s loud PTSD-induced nightmares and his thrill-seeking lifestyle.  Putnam’s bosses at the television network take full advantage of his dare-devil motorcycling through the streets of Washington DC to bring them canisters of news feed faster than anyone else in the network’s courier pool.  The book is set in 1972, a particularly significant era for Washington DC news because of the Watergate hearings on election fraud and bribes going on in the Nixon White House and re-election campaign committee and Kissinger’s failed attempts to end the war through negotiation. Irving does a masterful job of setting the reader in the middle of this era of Washington intrigue.

Things go wrong in a hurry for Putnam and everyone connected to him when he picks up a camera that includes some news feed and supporting documentation that could blow the Watergate story sky-high.  The material is so hot that suddenly Rick is subjected to several attempts to run him off the road.  These incidents, combined with the sudden death of the whole news crew that gathered the story, and an apparent attack on Rick’s roommates at their rented house, make it clear that none of these situations are tragic accidents– they are attempts at assassination.  Irving’s description of all these connected incidents makes for nail-biting reading.

All of the characterizations in the book are little gems that leave vivid pictures in the reader’s mind.  So many vets and their family members will identify with Rick and his thrill-seeking, PSTD behaviors and yet he never asks for pity or to be cut any slack because of his horrendous war experiences. Many will also identify with Rick’s early experiences leaving home to join the Army to get away from an alcoholic mother.  Even minor characters, and the bad guys are memorably described in this book.  The computer-geek roommates are very memorable and play a pivotal role in breaking open the conspiracy behind the attempts on Rick’s life. Even the Vietnamese thugs who relentlessly pursue Rick, and the woman who controls their actions, Mrs. Jin, are described in a way so that the reader can understand the rationale behind their villainous actions.

The conspiracy behind this political thriller is chillingly plausible.  Irving’s fictional account posits that there was a conspiracy to thwart the Vietnamese War peace talks on the part of the Thieu government that involved flooding the Committee to Re-elect the President (Nixon campaign committee) with illegal contributions from Vietnam.  That is the secret Rick discovers is on the films he carries in his courier’s pouch and that the Vietnamese assassins want to destroy.

Courier” is without question one of the best thrillers of the year and a very good candidate for turning into a highly entertaining movie.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

 

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Killer Weed by Michael Castleman

Michael Castleman has written an interesting new “Ed Rosenberg Mystery” called “Killer Weed.”  It is a well-researched nod to the  “Summer of Love” of San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury District during 1967-68 and how the culture of free love, rock-and-roll and drugs have played out for the Baby Boomer generation over the years.  While the characters are fictional, for the most part, their experiences have historical roots.  The protagonist does a really good job of tracing the start of marijuana trafficking along the West coast and that information almost gets Rosenberg killed.

This is also the second book I’ve read this year where the protagonist is a newspaper journalist who has gotten canned due to the extreme bloodletting in the newspaper industry.  Ed Rosenberg has just lost his job at the “Foghorn” a San Francisco daily paper, followed shortly thereafter by the pink slip to Ed’s wife who has been a publicist for the paper.  Ed settles into the life of a freelance writer and accepts an assignment working for a billionaire who wants to detail what happened during the Summer of Love and also wants to find out about his own past as the kid of one of the flower children who was murdered during that time.  Ed discovers certain patterns in a more recent murder that point to a connection to that earlier one.  Meanwhile, Ed’s wife has gone to work for a politico who, if elected, should bring Julie, Ed’s wife, on board as his press secretary– only he is assassinated in a scene reminiscent of Harvey Milk.  Yet another murder for Ed to investigate.

Meanwhile, Ed’s daughter, Sonya, refuses to accept the school’s drug prevention information because it runs counter to what she has learned from her weed-smoking dad and her wine-drinking mom.  As punishment she must do a research project that compares and contrasts the school’s curriculum with latest medical research on the use and abuse of marijuana and the author uses this device to provide a balanced understanding of the issues about marijuana use and whether or not it is addictive and/or dangerous to use.

Killer Weed” is a blast from the past where I found myself learning new things while getting nostalgic about the 1960’s and enjoying a well-constructed murder mystery all at the same time.  Well done, Michael Castleman!

Liz Nichols

 

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An Air of Treason by P.F. Chisholm

P.F. Chisholm is the pseudonym of well-known British mystery and historical crime writer, Patricia Finney.  “An Air of Treason” is the sixth in her Sir Robert Carey Mystery” series set in Elizabethan England and it is a swash-buckling thriller of an historical mystery.

Sir Robert Carey is the youngest son of the illegitimate son of Henry VIII and therefore the half-brother of Queen Elizabeth I.  Carey is forced to make his way in the world as a courtier and soldier who is sometimes asked by the Queen to solve knotty murder mystery.  In an “Air of Treason” the Queen inveigles upon Carey to revisit the 30 year old murder of Elizabeth’s former lover’s wife Amy Robsart Dudley which occurred in 1560 at Dudley’s estate near Oxford.  What Carey finds confirms that a murder occurred; her death was no accident.  It also puts into question whether Carey’s father and/or the Queen herself were behind the murder.  Obviously, accusing the queen of murder would be an act of treason, so Sir Robert must tread very gently around solving this cold case crime.

An Air of Treason” literally transports the reader back to the 16th century.  Many of the characters were real historic figures and Chisholm/Finney has a very thorough understanding of what it was like to live in the 16th century and to interact with these historic figures. There are many others added to the story who are probably fictional, but are very life-like, interesting characters.  They include Carey’s henchmen, Dodd and “Tyndale,” and members of the gang of former soldiers who rob and take Dodd prisoner.  “Jeronimo” the former Spanish ambassador’s son is among that band of disgruntled soldiers who try to take advantage of Dodd’s connection to Carey.

One lose end that bothers me is that Carey is poisoned early on in the book, and yet he spends almost no time trying to solve the mystery of who is trying to kill him and almost all of his time trying to solve the 30 year old murder case for the Queen.  At the end of the book we know that Tyndale is one of the people sent by some unknown enemy to kill Carey, and yet as far as we can tell, he has not made a move yet.  I assume that some of these loose ends will be tied up in a future book in the Sir Robert Carey series.  It just seems curious that this loose end would be left undone at the end of this book.

Elizabethan mystery lovers will love “An Air of Treason,” despite the unsettling unfinished nature of one of the plot threads.

Liz Nichols

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Whispers of Vivaldi by Beverle Graves Myers

In January Beverle Graves Myers published the sixth in her Tito Amato Mystery Series, “Whispers of Vivaldi.” Brava to Myers!

Tito Amato is a castrato at the Venetian state theater, Teatro San Marco who has lost his singing voice and in 1745 is trying to build a new career as the opera company’s director under the tutelage of the theater’s Maestro Reynaldo Torani.  Amato plans to reinvigorate the opera company by producing a new opera by a promising local musician.  The bargain struck with the minister of cultural affairs for Venice is that a young castrato singing in Milan must be recruited in order to put on the new opera. There is something in this new opera that reminds Amato and others of the young Vivaldi who died in 1741 after moving from his beloved Venice to work for the Emperor in Vienna.

There is a mystery surrounding the supposedly male soprano that puts into question whether the young Angeletto is really a boy or a girl.  To complicate matters when Torani is mysteriously killed Amato is blamed because he seems to have the most to gain by the maestro’s death.  He is banned from entering the Teatro San Marco by the state’s cultural minister, but he takes on the task of helping the local police to determine who actually did kill Torani.

Myers spins a devilishly complex yet elegantly simple tale of loss, revenge, renewal and triumph amid the romantic setting of 18th century Venice.  I enjoyed this historical and musical mystery very much and am happy to recommend “Whispers of Vivaldi” to all my mystery loving fans.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

 

 

 

 

 

 

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