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All Historical Mystery Coverage

★ Rock of Ages

Junior Bender, burglar by profession but crime solver by avocation, doesn’t get much of a chance to pursue his ostensible career in Timothy Hallinan’s wildly entertaining Los Angeles-set caper Rock of Ages. Junior’s sleuthing skills are requested by nonagenarian gangster Irwin Dressler, which in Junior’s world is akin to being summoned by God. Dressler has invested in a rock ’n’ roll revival tour, but now none of his co-investors, who are also criminals of note, are returning his calls. Sensing that he is about to get stiffed, Dressler hires Junior to ascertain whether his worries have merit and, if so, to stymie the efforts of his potentially larcenous partners. No salary is mentioned for the gig; it is a simple exchange of favors, with Dressler’s favor to Junior being Junior’s continued existence. Hallinan worked in the music industry for years before becoming an author, and his insider familiarity with the LA music scene shines through in Rock of Ages. Those of us who remember classic rock when it was just “rock” will be amused to recognize the real-life stars Hallinan’s fictional doppelgängers represent. As a special added attraction, Junior’s smart and sharp-tongued daughter, Rina, plays a more central role than previously in the series, and she is seemingly poised to follow in her dad’s furtive footsteps.

★ Last Call at the Nightingale

At first blush, Vivian Kelly, the protagonist of Katharine Schellman’s Prohibition-era mystery, Last Call at the Nightingale, displays little in the way of sleuthing credentials. By day, Vivian is a seamstress in what we would now consider a sweatshop, and by night she is a regular at the Nightingale, a Manhattan speakeasy of some note among Jazz Age cognoscenti. She dances, she flirts without gender bias, she drinks, and for a while each evening, she forgets about her daytime drudgery. But when Vivian stumbles upon a dead body in the alley behind the club, the speakeasy’s hitherto bon vivant ambiance begins to melt away, revealing something altogether more sinister. Vivian is hauled off to jail in a police raid that happens soon after she discovers the body, and Nightingale boss Honor Huxley puts up her bond. In return for this kindness, Vivian agrees to have a quiet look into the murder of the man in the alley. She discovers early on that she possesses quite a knack for investigating, though she is often oblivious to the dangerous ripples she’s causing. The well-developed supporting cast is diverse in race, gender and sexuality, and the suspense will keep readers guessing until the end.

★ Wild Prey

Wild Prey, the second book in Brian Klingborg’s series featuring Chinese police inspector Lu Fei, takes him from his home in the northeastern corner of China to the steamy wilds of Myanmar. The story starts with Tan Meirong, a doggedly persistent teenage girl who insists that her sister, Meixiang, has gone missing. Meixiang worked at a gangster-owned restaurant that provides rare foods for wealthy clients to gorge on, ostensibly for medicinal purposes. (People in China have long consumed parts of bears, rhinoceroses, tigers and more, often for use as aphrodisiacs.) Lu launches an investigation and soon comes around to his supplicant’s way of thinking: Something is clearly amiss. However, Lu excels at incurring the wrath of his superiors, and this time is no exception. He gets pulled off the case, then suspended. Soon afterward, he is quietly approached by a Beijing bureaucrat who asks him to spearhead an undercover operation targeting a wild-game preserve in Myanmar. The bureaucrat believes the preserve is central to the illegal exotic animal trade into China, so perhaps this investigation will help Lu find Meixiang as well. Klingborg nails the atmosphere of Myanmar—the longyi, the flip-flops, the works. Lu is well drawn, world-weary but not beaten, and he has markedly upped his game in this second adventure.

★ Razzmatazz

Christopher Moore’s latest novel, Razzmatazz, is the wild card of this group: It’s a mystery, to be sure, but one with snippets of folklore, science fiction and the supernatural, all blended with the author’s legendary irreverent humor. For example, very few noir novels have ever begun with a tongue-in-cheek minihistory of China’s Qing dynasty. (“The sky is black with the smoke of burning villages, and it is widely agreed throughout China that the soup of the day is Cream of Sadness.”) Also, to my recollection, zero noir novels have ever featured a dragon that wasn’t just a tattoo. As this sequel to 2018’s Noir opens in 1947 San Francisco, bartender and “fixer” Sammy Tiffin has been tasked with a couple of jobs: 1) tracking down the killer of Natalie Melanoff, aka Butch, a bouncer at a lesbian nightclub who was found floating faceup in San Francisco Bay; and 2) locating a mysterious dragon statuette that went missing some 40 years prior and is now an object of keen interest to the Chinese criminal underworld. Much of the story centers on Jimmy’s Joynt, the club where Butch worked, which is a relative oasis of joy in an era not noted for its acceptance of LGBTQ people. Racism rears its ugly head as well, particularly toward the Chinese community that, then as now, constitutes a significant portion of the population in the City by the Bay. Moore provides a warning in the preface about the period-correct dialogue, noting that “the language and attitudes portrayed herein regarding race, culture, and gender are contemporary to that time, and sadly, all too real.” Be warned, but know that Moore and his merry band of miscreants are firmly on the right side of history—and they will make you laugh until it hurts.

Let loose at a rock 'n' roll tour or a fabulous nightclub—just try not to get murdered. Plus, Brian Klingborg ups his game with his second Inspector Lu Fei mystery.

In 1923, Saffron Everleigh is the only female research assistant at University College London. She hopes to make a name for herself in botany and gain the respect of her male colleagues, many of whom question whether she deserves to be there. While attending a department party meant to celebrate an upcoming university-funded expedition to South America, Mrs. Henry, one of the professors’ wives, is poisoned. When Dr. Maxwell, Saffron’s mentor and boss, is accused of the crime, she begins her own investigation to clear his name—and figure out which member of their group tried to commit murder.

Kate Khavari brings 1920s London to life in A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons, focusing on the era’s less commonly explored academic and scientific spheres and taking full advantage of the lush greenhouses and gardens where Saffron and her colleagues conduct their research. Khavari also notes how the trauma of World War I still affects several of the characters, particularly Alexander Ashton, a fellow researcher who joins Saffron in her quest. Alexander’s experiences with what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder feel authentic and contribute to this mystery’s realistic depiction of the ’20s.

Intelligent, witty and brave, Saffron makes for a delightful sleuth and protagonist. While trying to establish herself in a male-dominated profession, she must also navigate sexual harassment and discrimination. It’s a difficult position, but Saffron rises to the challenge.

Khavari has crafted a fast-paced, interesting mystery with two extremely likable central characters, and readers will be eager to follow Saffron and Alexander’s future escapades.

With its intriguing 1920s academia setting and two likable central characters, A Botanist's Guide to Parties and Poisons is a promising start to a new historical mystery series.

Claudia Gray’s The Murder of Mr. Wickham is a cozy locked-room mystery set in a world populated by Jane Austen’s beloved characters.

Emma and George Knightley have decided to host a monthlong house party at their estate, Donwell Abbey, and have invited some of their closest friends: the Darcys (including their son, Jonathan), the Brandons, the Wentworths, the Bertrams and Juliet Tilney, the daughter of Northanger Abbey’s Catherine and Henry. During the first days of the party, the very-much-not-invited George Wickham makes an appearance to collect a debt from Mr. Knightley, and we quickly learn that every person in attendance has a grievance with Wickham. Austen fans will already know from Pride and Prejudice that the Darcys’ interactions with Wickham were the opposite of pleasant, and he is still up to his nefarious ways in Gray’s novel: An investment scheme has robbed some couples of their wealth, he is blackmailing Fanny Bertram, and Colonel Brandon has a particularly heartbreaking past with the scoundrel.

When Wickham is found dead one stormy night, it is apparent that someone staying or working at Donwell must have committed the crime, as the muddy roads were too impassable for a stranger to arrive. After witnessing the local magistrate’s bumbling efforts, Juliet and Jonathan form an unlikely partnership, as both are determined to solve the crime.

Claudia Gray reveals why Mr. Wickham had it coming.

The Murder of Mr. Wickham is not a novel for Austen purists. The reader must accept the conceit that the characters are all acquainted (in a foreward, the author explains how she tweaked the timeline) and, furthermore, that one of the beloved characters may be a murderer. On the way to reaching the mystery’s satisfying solution,, readers also get to see that all the couples still have struggles within their marriages. Those who believe Austen’s novels ended with a firm happily ever after may be dismayed by this development, while others will be fascinated by how Gray complicates the relationships between the various characters.

Readers looking for a charming mystery will adore this book. Gray captures Austen’s tone perfectly, allowing fans to step back into the Regency author’s beloved world. And despite the presence of iconic characters such as Emma Knightley and Lizzie Darcy, the newly invented characters of Jonathan and Juliet are dynamic in their own right. They quickly become adept at working together, and there is a hint that romance is on the horizon.

The Murder of Mr. Wickham will allow many Austen fans an opportunity to revisit the characters they treasure, and solve a mystery to boot.

Claudia Gray’s The Murder of Mr. Wickham is a cozy and charming mystery set in a world populated by Jane Austen’s beloved characters.

If you’re a Jane Austen fan, chances are you’ve always wanted to see your favorite couples from her various novels interact with one another. (Indeed, reams of fan fiction have been written on this very topic.) But what if you could do that and watch them deal with a murderer in their midst? In Claudia Gray’s The Murder of Mr. Wickham, the titular cad is killed during a house party at George and Emma Knightley’s estate. It’s up to Catherine and Henry Tilney’s daughter, Juliet, and Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s son, Jonathan, to catch the culprit. We talked to Gray about revisiting Austen’s most beloved characters in their married lives and why George Wickham was her first and only choice for her novel’s victim. 

What is your favorite Jane Austen novel?
Pride and Prejudice: the answer everyone gives, probably, and for very good reasons. Name another novel written more than 200 years ago that still gets read regularly, by nonacademics, purely for pleasure. I don't think there is one, at least not in the English language. That said, I truly love all her novels, and the one that perhaps intrigues me the most is Mansfield Park. The one that moves me the most is Persuasion. And I have to stop now, because you didn't ask for a treatise about my feelings regarding all six novels. 

“I imagined the book I wanted to read, which then became the book I wanted to write.”

What made you want to write a mystery set in Austen's world?
It was reading Death Comes to Pemberley and . . . not digging it. I love P.D. James, so my anticipation for the book was sky-high. It comes out, I get it, and I discover that the murder victim in that book is (SPOILER ALERT) Denny, a minor character in Pride and Prejudice. My first thought was: Who cares who killed Denny? None of the beloved characters were suspects, as I had assumed they would be. So I had this big crash of disappointment that had less to do with the quality of James' writing (which is, of course, superb) and more to do with my assumptions. I imagined the book I wanted to read, which then became the book I wanted to write. 

How did you create and then navigate the conflicts between the members of each couple?
For the most part, the conflicts the couples face call upon issues they dealt with before they married, but in new ways. Darcy and Elizabeth are burdened with grief, but that grief is worsened by Darcy's refusal to reveal his emotions. Emma's been chastised by Knightley for her meddling, so how does she react when he feels obliged to intervene in someone else's life? Colonel Brandon and Marianne have yet to work out how much his past will determine their future, and so on. They're all the same people they were during courtship, and though they’re older and wiser, they can still fall prey to subtler versions of their previous mistakes. 

“The most fun to write [was] Elizabeth Darcy, of course . . .”

How did you stay true to Austen's voice?
I'm tremendously flattered that the voice rang true to you. I didn't mimic period style exactly, but I tried to let that be the guide as much as possible—which involved a ton of rereading Austen's work, some reading of other Regency-era novels, reading some of the Austen family letters and watching my favorite adaptations. 

Which character was the most fun to write? Were there any who were surprisingly challenging?
The most fun to write were Elizabeth Darcy, of course, and Marianne, as well as the new characters of Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney. Most challenging was Fanny from Mansfield Park: Her personality is naturally timid, her moods fragile, her responses often passive. She is the antithesis of what we look for in a main character in modern fiction, and yet Fanny is capable of great courage when she knows herself to be right. So making her both true to her depiction in Mansfield Park and engaging to readers today was definitely a challenge. 

What made you decide to make neurodivergence a part of Jonathan Darcy's character?
Honestly, that emerged from the writing process itself. At first, my only goal was for Jonathan to be more Darcy than Darcy. But as I dug into the story, I had to ask what might be driving that. Once I recognized that Jonathan might be neurodivergent, it opened up so many interesting questions about how he would navigate the Regency world. I did a lot of reading and research in the hopes that he would feel authentic on the page. 

One point that was important for me to remember, though, was that neither Jonathan nor his parents—nor anyone else in the novel—will ever think of him as neurodivergent. That's not a frame of reference any of them would have; that's not how he would be understood in that era. 

Read our review of ‘The Murder of Mr. Wickham' by Claudia Gray.

What led you to decide on Mr. Wickham being the murder victim? Were there other contenders?
Wickham was the first and only candidate I considered. The victim had to be someone whom many, many people would have a motive to kill, and who incites quite as much fury as Mr. Wickham? 

Will we see Juliet and Jonathan again in future books?
I'm so glad you enjoyed them! It can be difficult to set new characters among known ones, but Juliet and Jonathan proved a delight to write. Rest assured, they'll team up again.

 

Photo of Claudia Gray by Stephanie Knapp.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a good dinner party must be in want of a murder. In this case, it's The Murder of Mr. Wickham, the dastardly villain of Pride and Prejudice, which was bound to happen, according to author Claudia Gray.

City of the Dead

Author Jonathan Kellerman published his first Alex Delaware mystery more than 35 years ago, but entries such as the stellar City of the Dead prove that this popular series has done anything but run out of steam. In the wee hours of the morning, in a tony neighborhood of Los Angeles, a naked man is struck headfirst by a moving van, rendering the now-corpse’s facial features totally unrecognizable. Meanwhile, a few doors down, a woman is found murdered in her bedroom. Veteran Los Angeles police homicide detective Milo Sturgis does not believe in coincidences, and as he is wont to do in these situations, he quickly solicits the aid of his longtime friend, forensic psychologist Alex Delaware. Alex is quite surprised to discover that he knew the murdered woman, Cordelia Gannett, a popular self-help influencer who once appeared as an expert witness in a court case Alex was involved in. Unfortunately for her, she was subsequently exposed as a charlatan who had created fake credentials in order to pose as a licensed psychologist. Despite this fraud, there is remarkably little evidence to suggest a motive for someone killing either Cordelia or the unknown man. This, of course, is where Alex steps in, probing the psychological profiles of everyone involved in the case, pulling on loose threads to see which ones might unravel and turning up damning evidence of previous murders in the process.

A Game of Fear

Charles Todd’s latest Ian Rutledge mystery, A Game of Fear, finds the intrepid Scotland Yard investigator chasing ghosts. This is fitting in a way, as Rutledge is no stranger to the otherworldly. The World War I veteran carries with him the “presence” of Corporal Hamish MacLeod, a man he was forced to execute for insubordination on the battlefield who now provides a snarky counterpoint to every one of Rutledge’s moods, reflections and decisions. An Essex noblewoman, Lady Benton, has claimed she witnessed a murder; the catch is, she has positively (-ish) identified the killer as someone who is already dead. In 1921 England, even an unlikely claim made by a member of nobility warrants at least a token investigation, so Rutledge is on the case. Another murder follows, seemingly unrelated save for proximity, and then there’s a too-convenient, evidence-erasing fire. The tension ratchets up when Rutledge himself bears witness to an event that seems to mirror Lady Benton’s apparition. Perhaps it’s a warning that he is getting too close for the comfort of resident evildoers, whichever side of the shadowy spectral divide they may inhabit. 

Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose

T.A. Willberg’s debut, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder, generated a fair bit of buzz in literary circles and among mystery aficionados. Now she returns with the second volume in the series: Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose, named for “The Florist,” a serial killer who brands his victims with a rose. The aforementioned Marion is an apprentice at Miss Brickett’s Investigations & Inquiries, an underground (literally) and quite clandestine detective agency in 1959 London. In the grand tradition of English mysteries dating back to Sherlock Holmes, Miss Brickett’s serves as consultant to Scotland Yard when a case proves too baffling for the authorities’ plodding detective work. This time out, Marion is summoned to assist in bringing “The Florist” to justice. Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose’s central mystery is as strong as that of any traditional, beloved whodunit.  The book also features a cast of well-crafted characters, including a delightfully despicable villain, and a host of unexpected twists and misdirections. But the similarities to other mysteries end there, as Willberg takes readers on a wild, genre-bending ride with touches of steampunk, a dash of sci-fi tech wizardry and plenty of dry British humor. Willberg has noted in an interview that her first book was rejected numerous times for not fitting neatly into any category. I trust that the authors of those rejections have since sought more appropriate employment opportunities.

One Step Too Far

In my review of Lisa Gardner’s first Frankie Elkin novel, I opined, “Before She Disappeared is billed as a standalone, but I’m thinking it would be the perfect setup for a terrific series.” In revisiting that sentence, the only thing I would change is to replace the word setup with springboard. As good as the first book was, One Step Too Far is better in every regard, a tour-de-force in suspense and red herrings with a twist ending I did not even begin to anticipate. Frankie Elkin is a finder of lost persons. She does this on an ad hoc basis, for the satisfaction of doing some good but also to atone for some of the damage wrought in her 20s, when she was addicted to alcohol. Frankie, who has no fixed address, no car and no possessions to speak of, is a Jack Reacher-esque loner (minus the military connections and the musculature). This time, she joins a search party about to embark on their fifth expedition into the Wyoming wilderness to search for the remains of Tim O’Day, who went missing on a bachelor party camping trip, never to be seen again. Other members of the party include Tim’s father; his companions the night he went missing; a well-respected wilderness guide; a cadaver dog trainer and her golden retriever; and a noted—albeit thus far unsuccessful—Bigfoot hunter. Virtually all of them have secrets and underlying motives, as Frankie will find out, initially to her dismay and then to her peril.

Lisa Gardner outdoes herself, and a steampunk-influenced historical mystery blows our mystery columnist away.

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.

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