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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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Cold Tuscan Stone by David P Wagner

Cold Tuscan Stone” is the first novel in the “Rick Montoya Italian Mystery” series.  Wagner is a retired foreign service officer who is now living in New Mexico.  He fittingly designed this mystery series around subjects the author knows well, and that knowledge pays off through the details Wagner is able to provide in describing the setting in a small Tuscan city and the Etruscan artifacts that are tucked away in museums and secret burial caves around the area.

The protagonist, Rick Montoya, has just moved to Rome from his native New Mexico to be a translator.  Montoya spent part of his youth in Rome while his father was in foreign service there.  When he moves to Rome he is quickly recruited by a high school friend, Beppo Rinaldi, who is the head of the Italian Art Squad, a crack force of investigators of art theft and smuggling around the country.  He asks Rick to pose as the agent of a Santa Fe art gallery interested in smuggling authentic Etruscan artifacts from around the Tuscan city of Volterra.  Beppo gives Rick a list of several suspicious art dealers in and around Volterra.  Rick is to get to know these individuals, assess their potential for being art smugglers, and propose a possible illegal transaction to the ones who appear most suspicious.  Rick’s Roman girlfriend, Erica, is an art expert and she knows one of these dealers, as well as the curator of Volterra’s Etruscan museum.

It takes Rick awhile to get sufficiently on the inside of things in the community.  Meanwhile, he is the last one to see one of these art dealers alive.  The man mysteriously falls or is thrown from a high wall and Rick is questioned about the possibility of a murder by the same local police who are supposed to be protecting and assisting him in the art sting.  It takes a long time for Rick to gain the trust of the police Commissario Conti.  The police doggedly tail Montoya until the mystery is seemingly resolved.

The reader will soak up the atmosphere of Tuscany and its beautiful towns and landscape as experienced through this compelling new character, Rick Montoya.  I personally love Italy as a setting for a mystery, and I love art mysteries, so what’s not to like about “Cold Tuscan Stone?”

Read it.  You’ll like it.  I look forward to many more Rick Montoya mystery adventures set in similarly atmospheric places.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols


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The Pirate King by Laurie R. King

Laurie King has delivered eleven Mary Russell mysteries and “The Pirate King” is the first one I’ve read that has disappointed me.

The thing that I find so jarring about “The Pirate King” is that it is set in the 1920s.  Our heroine, Mary Russell, and her husband, Sherlock Holmes, are so thoroughly Victorian.  There is a character-to-era mismatch.  I also find that the plot plods along with little action until the very end.  It was a chore to slog on through it.

In this installment of Mary Russell’s story she is recruited to find out whether a silent film director, Randolph Fflytte, is responsible for a rash of smuggling drugs and other illegal contraband into the U.K. and the death of a company employee.  Russell takes a job as the assistant to the film company’s producer, Geoffrey Hale, and promptly gets roped into accompanying the film crew,  a bevy of young starlets and other actors to Portugal and then on to Morocco to film a parody of “The Pirates of Penzance.”  Needless to say, Russell’s Victorian values clash with those of the thoroughly modern Roaring Twenties era film crew.

It becomes apparent to Russell early on in the filming that Fflytte has hired a real pirate and a real pirate crew to be the title characters.  Fflytte also falls in love with an old pirate ship and spends some extra time in Portugal outfitting the ship to be able to take the whole crew to Morocco.  As Mary Russell predicts, the whole British cast and crew are held captive once they get to Morocco and the women are threatened with the possibility of being sold as harem wives deeper into Islamic territory while the men (including a disguised Sherlock Holmes) are threatened with being killed.  Supposedly the westerners can be saved by arranging a large ransom, but Mary doubts that any of them will get out without putting up a fight.  The escapes scene is quite entertaining and is the best part of the book.  Mary so impresses Fflytte that he signs her to a contract to become “The Pirate Queen” in a sequel to the current movie.  Again, readers who are used to Mary being this Victorian era sleuth will find the image of Mary as a pirate somewhat strange.

I’ll come back to this series when King decides to place Russell and Holmes back in their Victorian era.

Liz Nichols

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Smuggler’s Moon by Bruce Alexander

“Smuggler’s Moon” was on a “staff favorites” shelf at the Iowa City Public Library when I stopped by last week. I have read others by Bruce Alexander and thought it would be fun to visit the lives of Sir John Fielding, a London magistrate who’s adventures are set in the 1770s.

Alexander does a great job of setting the scene of London in the 18th century where life is harsh for just about everyone and death can be but an instant away.

In Kent (south of London) smuggling represented work that brought in about three times the normal wage for a laborer. There really weren’t many other types of jobs besides farming and fishing. Smuggling represented such a large share of the local GNP that it was particularly difficult to root it out. That is what the blind magistrate, John Fielding, and his trusty clerk, Jeremy, are ordered to do by the Lord Chief Justice.

There’s non-stop excitement in this historical thriller and procedural. This is the kind of series where you’ll want to read more because you’ll care about finding out what happens to each of the main characters they become so human.

Liz Nichols

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