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All Historical Mystery Coverage

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Veronica Speedwell returns in A Sinister Revenge, the eighth mystery in a series best described as Agatha Christie in the world of Victorian science and natural history.

Natural historian and butterfly hunter Veronica has been separated from Stoker, a fellow scientist who had become her sleuthing partner and lover. But Stoker’s brother Tiberius, Lord Templeton-Vane, reunites the couple by giving them a dangerous new case to solve. 

In his youth, Tiberius ran with a group of students who called themselves the Seven Sinners, but then tragedy struck at his family’s Devon estate when one member of their party died in an accidental fall while trying to claim a fossil from a cliffside. During the following years, two other members also met an early demise, and now a threatening letter has Tiberius believing that they may all have been murdered by one of their own—and that he might be the next victim. In a Christie-esque conceit, Tiberius invites the remaining members of the Seven Sinners to an elaborate house party, where he plans to confront them and, hopefully, where Veronica and Stoker will uncover the murderer. 

As the house party unfolds, it becomes apparent that the history of the Seven Sinners is more complex than Tiberius let on, with secret affairs and bitter jealousies complicating the past. Even as Veronica untangles the web of complex relationships, she struggles to reconcile Stoker’s distance from their own romantic partnership. As usual, Veronica’s keen observations and sharp wit contrast with her own occasional lack of self-awareness (especially when it comes to romance), making for a delightful read. Longtime readers of the series will be pleased to see regulars such as intrepid reporter J.J. Butterworth and ingenious chef Julien d’Orlande return. But ultimately, Raybourn’s masterful entanglement of Veronica and Stoker’s love story with the mystery at hand makes A Sinister Revenge a standout entry in an already excellent series.

Deanna Raybourn’s masterful balance between romance and mystery makes A Sinister Revenge a standout entry in an already excellent series.
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The Maltese Iguana 

Buckle up for another wild ride with Florida ne’er-do-well Serge A. Storms and his stoner sidekick, Coleman, in their 26th adventure, The Maltese Iguana by Tim Dorsey. The title, a nod to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, refers not to a precious statue but instead to its modern-day Florida counterpart—an iguana-shaped bong. The basic premise of the book is that Serge Storms, now fully vaccinated after a long COVID-19 lockdown, decides a celebration is in order, upon which mayhem ensues, both figuratively and literally. Meanwhile, a CIA operation goes off the rails in Honduras, and after barely escaping with his life, the agency’s local contact makes his way to Florida, putting both him and the agents the CIA sends after him directly in Hurricane Serge’s path. There are murders, explosions, drugs, mercenaries, Florida history and folklore, wild parties, an exotic dancer, an appearance by Captain Kangaroo, a boxing rabbit and enough pingpong balls to fill the trunk of an old Ford LTD. Imagine one of those newspaper articles in which the headline begins with “Florida man” and then imagine the article extending to 336 pages. That will give you a pretty good idea of what to expect in The Maltese Iguana.

Storm Watch

C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett mysteries have been excellent since the Wyoming game warden’s very first case, 2001’s Open Season. But Box’s latest novel, Storm Watch, is perhaps the most intricately plotted and fully realized of the bunch so far. Joe is on the trail of a wounded elk as an immense winter storm closes in, but he soon stumbles across something totally unexpected: a semi-decapitated body in a mysterious shed far off the beaten track. Joe only has time to take some photos before beating a hasty retreat in hopes of outrunning the snow. When he returns after the storm, the body has disappeared. What initially seems to be a lack of interest on the part of the sheriff soon morphs into a full-blown, high-level warning that Joe keep his nose out of matters that don’t concern him. (As if that could ever happen.) Conspiracies abound, reaching up to the highest levels of state government and involving uber-wealthy absentee ranchers, bitcoin miners and underground militias. There is a lot going on, but Box keeps all the balls in the air, culminating in an ending sequence that’s pure gold and extremely satisfying on multiple levels.

Murder at Haven’s Rock

Canadian author Kelley Armstrong is perhaps best known for her Rockton mysteries, a series of seven books set in the titular village, which is hidden in Canada’s Yukon wilderness and serves as a refuge for those who cannot be effectively protected by the authorities. The Rockton series’ protagonist, detective Casey Duncan, is breaking ground on a similar endeavor with her husband, Sheriff Eric Dalton. Their new village, Haven’s Rock, will differ from Rockton in only one major way: Casey and Eric plan to handpick the residents in hopes of eliminating some of the shortcomings of the Rockton project. But things do not get off to a good start. Murder at Haven’s Rock, the title of the new book, says it all. It starts when a couple of construction crew members break the cardinal rule—Do Not Venture Out Into The Forest—and never return. Casey and Eric launch a search for the missing workers but instead find the body of an unknown woman who has been stabbed to death. Just like Armstrong’s Rockton series, Murder at Haven’s Rock is an immediately intriguing mystery populated by well-drawn characters. It’s certainly accessible as a standalone read, but I wouldn’t be surprised if readers new to Armstrong immediately seek out her previous books after finishing this superb series starter.

The Cliff’s Edge

The mother-and-son writing team known in the publishing world as Charles Todd (the mother of which, Caroline Todd, died in 2021) boasts two hit series, each set in the years immediately following World War I. The first features Inspector Ian Rutledge, a cop haunted by the ghost of a wartime casualty, and Todd began the second in 2009, a spinoff series centered on Bess Crawford, a former combat nurse marked by her own war experience. As the 13th installment, The Cliff’s Edge, opens, Bess accepts a temporary nursing position to care for a wealthy woman after a surgery. While she is on duty, a tragic accident takes place nearby: Two men, Gordon Neville and Frederick Caldwell, fall from a rocky outcropping, with Frederick dying from his injuries. But things take an ominous turn when it is revealed that the two men shared a contentious past and that Frederick’s injuries seem inconsistent with his fall. It falls to Bess to care for Gordon, who has a dislocated shoulder and a badly broken arm, and she finds herself drawn into the mystery of what actually transpired at the cliff’s edge. Both men’s grieving and angry family members complicate the situation, as does a local cop bent on pinning a murder on Gordon. As is always the case with the Bess Crawford books, the writing is perfectly evocative of the period; the conversational style, relationships and manners are all very “Downton Abbey”-esque, making for an exceptionally pleasurable ride to the ultimate reveal.

Batten down the hatches—Serge Storms is back. Read our review of Tim Dorsey’s absolutely wild Florida-set caper in this month’s Whodunit column.
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You Know Her

Meagan Jennett’s You Know Her is a crackerjack debut thriller. A book about a serial killer is not necessarily notable; there are many of those on the racks at bookstores. Books about female serial killers are in somewhat shorter supply, and a book in which said female serial killer is a narrator is fairly unusual. But here’s the kicker: You kinda want her to get away with it. Our soon-to-be-murderer Sophie Braam is a bartender when You Know Her begins. She has seen it all, and most of what she has seen has not been pretty. And then one day, a minor grievance becomes the proverbial backbreaking straw. A stolen glass of wine should not be a death sentence, you might argue, but if you had that argument with Sophie, there’s a good chance she would bring you around to her way of thinking. Sophie’s new best friend (although it is a somewhat guarded friendship) is police officer Nora Martin, one of the investigators of the first of Sophie’s murders. Nora has also seen it all, or so she thinks, but nothing can really prepare her for Sophie. Which brings us to kicker number two: You also kinda want the skillful, hardworking Nora to solve the murders. She deserves a big win to help her rise to the rank of detective, which would be a reward to be savored in her toxic, good-ol’-boy, small-town police department. Only one can win—let the games begin.

The Last Heir to Blackwood Library

Hester Fox’s The Last Heir to Blackwood Library contains romance, fantasy, the occult and religious zealotry gone off the rails; in short, it’s not your standard whodunit. However, fans of supernaturally tinged mysteries from authors such as T. Jefferson Parker and John Connolly will be intrigued by this historical spin on the subgenre, and other readers will be enticed by Fox’s first-rate writing, which is engrossing from page one. In 1927 London, the fortunes of one Ivy Radcliffe have radically changed. One day, she is sharing a drafty bed-sit apartment with her best friend and living hand to mouth. The next day, she is anointed Lady Hayworth, complete with manor house, staff, motorcar, income and a couple of handsome potential suitors. However, the solicitor who informed Ivy of her windfall neglected to tell her about the previous title holders, all of whom met with a premature and mysterious death. The Last Heir to Blackwood Library hews more closely to the mystery and suspense genre than to any other, I would say. And even though it’s more of a “whatdunit” than a whodunit, mystery readers of all types will enjoy it.

So Shall You Reap

There are series that readers return to again and again for nonstop action or a “ripped from the headlines” vibe. And then there are series that readers devour because the protagonist is a person of evident strength of character. Martin Walker’s Chief of Police Benoit “Bruno” Courreges, for example, or Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti would emerge close to the top of any such list as well. As So Shall You Reap opens, Leon’s Venetian sleuth visits a lovely, albeit somewhat neglected, old palazzo to inquire for a friend as to whether the property is for sale. A Sri Lankan man answers the door and informs him that the house is not on the market. It will not be their last interaction: The following evening, Brunetti will identify the man’s body after it is pulled from a canal. The subsequent investigation unearths inflammatory political screeds both from Sri Lanka and Italy in the man’s personal effects, which seem to be at odds with his devout Buddhism and calm demeanor during his interaction with Brunetti. It tosses Brunetti’s thoughts back to his time at university, when he was somewhat more radical in his politics than he is now as a world-weary policeman approaching retirement age. Italy in Brunetti’s younger days was plagued with bombings, kidnappings and murders, some of which are still unsolved. But one of them is about to be solved, in part by the dogged persistence of Brunetti, and in part by the almost humanlike persistence of a dog. This is the 32nd book in the series, and if it is your first Commissario Brunetti mystery, you will most likely turn immediately to the other 31.

Heart of the Nile

Although many readers regard Will Thomas’ Barker & Llewelyn mysteries as an homage to those starring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, I would suggest that they more closely resemble Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin mysteries. In both cases, the main sleuth’s assistant is the narrator, with both Goodwin and Llewelyn taking a decidedly tongue-in-cheek tone, especially in regard to the vicissitudes of their curmudgeonly senior partners. Both teams regularly run circles around the cops, be it NYPD or Scotland Yard, engendering awe (occasionally) and annoyance (much more regularly). Thomas’ latest mystery, Heart of the Nile, is the 14th installment in the series. It deals with the discovery of a mummy in the British Museum’s collection of ancient artifacts, the treasure trove of looted antiquities fondly known as “England’s Attic.” This particular mummy, however, may be the remains of Egypt’s most famous queen, Cleopatra. Supporting that notion is an immense uncut ruby laid in the chest cavity once occupied by her heart. The ruby disappears, people start to meet untimely and violent deaths, and Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn are summoned to unravel the mystery. This is an exceptionally entertaining series, jampacked with Victorian arcana and 19th-century London history, anchored by the quick wit and pithy observations of narrator Llewelyn.

In this month’s Whodunit column, Meagan Jennett’s crackerjack debut thriller tracks that doomed friendship. Plus, read all about the latest Commissario Brunetti mystery.
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In A Tempest at Sea, a twisty and turbulent installment of Sherry Thomas’ perennially entertaining Lady Sherlock mystery series, a glamorous Christie-esque cast sails into danger on the open seas.

A Tempest at Sea is the seventh adventure of Charlotte Holmes, a brilliant detective who solves mysteries while pretending to be the assistant of her brother, Sherlock, who in Thomas’ series does not exist and is merely the front for Charlotte’s exploits. The sleuth has recently faked her death in order to hide from Moriarty, a criminal mastermind whom Charlotte has tangled with in prior books. But now British spymaster Lord Remington has offered her a chance to return to her former life with his protection if she can find a missing dossier. The documents are soon to leave the country on the RMS Provence, protected by Moriarty’s minions. Charlotte disguises herself as a wealthy dowager and boards the ship, but then things get even more complicated. Two days into the voyage, one of the most notable passengers, a volatile self-made millionaire with a shady past, is shot dead. Charlotte and her beau, Lord Ingram, must get to the bottom of what happened, in addition to finding the dossier and protecting Charlotte’s secrets.

Thomas’ confidence and ease at the helm of the series is obvious, and she’s clearly having fun playing with the tropes and stock characters of the historical mystery subgenre. A Tempest at Sea recalls treasured Agatha Christie novels like Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express, which feature a divergent group of personalities assembled for a luxury voyage that soon turns deadly. The Provence is a state-of-the-art, first-class-only steamer vessel spiriting old money and new to a host of disparate destinations, and the mystery makes the most of this setting. It’s the ultimate locked-door location—days from land, in international waters—and unlike the equally popular country house setting, there’s no escape, no reprieve and few hiding places.

There are rumblings of trouble among the passengers even before their departure, with entitled, resentful old money bumping up against the nouveau riche (both literally and figuratively). Everyone seems to harbor a secret agenda, and Thomas excels at developing these characters, especially their petty biases. Charlotte’s mother shows up and proceeds to act out against those of lesser station, and an aristocratic passenger loudly embarasses the sister of the eventual murder victim. Even in these minor skirmishes, the danger is palpable.

Though it’s not all smooth sailing—there are occasional gaps in logic, even if the charm of the characters, settings and twists outweighs them—it’s a joy to see the well-oiled Holmes team spring into action and to watch Ingram and Charlotte’s romantic relationship thrive.

It’s a joy to see Charlotte Holmes spring into action (and to watch her romantic relationship thrive) in Sherry Thomas’ A Tempest at Sea.
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Jacqueline Winspear, author of the beloved Maisie Dobbs series, has created a new character for readers to admire. Part Agatha Christie, part “The Equalizer,” The White Lady follows Elinor White, a former World War II operative unafraid to leverage her past to help those who cannot help themselves.

It’s 1947, and Elinor has settled into a home in the British countryside, one granted to her by the government as thanks for her classified service to the nation. Her bucolic life is missing one thing, though: the sense of purpose that came with her wartime career. But when Elinor sees her neighbors Jim and Rose Mackie being violently harassed by Jim’s criminal family, she decides to use her skills to protect them. 

The White Lady alternates between Elinor’s quest to bring down the Mackie crime family in 1947, her work during World War II and her initiation into espionage as a Belgian teenager during World War I. Winspear’s writing is especially effective when conveying the incredible danger Elinor and her sister, Cecily, face as they work to undermine the German military, and the wrenching moral decisions that come with such work. 

The traumas of the past, especially the difficulty of leaving violence behind, are constant refrains throughout the novel. Elinor is haunted by the premature loss of her childhood innocence and, eventually, her family, while Jim and Rose struggle to escape Jim’s criminal birthright. Elinor’s quest to bring down the Mackie family is prompted by her affection for Jim, Rose and especially their young daughter, Susie, but it also provides her with a way to seek absolution for the terrible things she did as a spy.

The White Lady doesn’t shy away from dark subjects, and historical mystery readers searching for a bit of grit and a complex main character will admire its uncompromising storytelling.

Historical mystery readers searching for a complex main character will admire the uncompromising storytelling of Jacqueline Winspear’s The White Lady.
STARRED REVIEW
April 11, 2023

14 marvelous Victorian mysteries

Maybe it’s the gaslight, maybe it’s the ever-present fog, maybe it’s the shadow of Sherlock Holmes looming over it all, but there’s something so very satisfying about a mystery set in the Victorian era. Here are 14 of our favorites—including some spectacular modern takes on Holmes himself.
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Art in the Blood

In Art in the Blood, author Bonnie MacBird revives the favored and famous detective Sherlock Holmes and the indispensable, recently married Dr. Watson.

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The Murder of Mary Russell

Sherlock Holmes groupies will need to adjust their sights while reading Laurie R. King’s latest Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell mystery, The Murder of Mary ...

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A Conspiracy in Belgravia

The game’s afoot—this time with a feminist, gender-bending twist—in a Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery that is sure to attract any fan of the Great Detective.

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A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder

If practiced well, the oft-maligned art of gossip can unearth as much evidence as a CSI team. Just ask the Countess of Harleigh, back for ...

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Murder on Cold Street

In her fifth adventure, Lady Sherlock must prove her longtime friend Inspector Treadles innocent of a double murder in which he was found with the ...
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Recent Features

Maybe it's the gaslight, maybe it's the ever-present fog, maybe it's the shadow of Sherlock Holmes looming over it all, but there's something so very satisfying about a mystery set in the Victorian era. Here are 14 of our favorites—including some spectacular modern takes on Holmes himself.
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Colleen Cambridge’s Mastering the Art of French Murder is a delightful cozy mystery set in post-World War II Paris with a cast of American expats, including Julia Child.

Tabitha Knight is settling into life in Paris, living with her grandfather and Oncle Rafe. Tabitha spends her days exploring the City of Light, tutoring her fellow Americans in French and learning how to cook from her best friend and neighbor, student chef Julia Child. When a young woman with ties to the Child family is found murdered in their apartment building—killed by a knife from Julia’s kitchen, no less—the police turn their attention to the chef-in-training. The investigation is further complicated when a note written by Tabitha is discovered in the victim’s pocket. To clear both their names, Tabitha sets out to discover who killed the woman and why. 

Cambridge skillfully blends fact with fiction in Mastering the Art of French Murder. Julia Child, along with her husband and sister, really did live in Paris in 1949, but Tabitha and her family are fictional characters. Cambridge captures Julia’s joie de vivre and passion for French cuisine, transporting readers into her kitchen during her early years at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. Cambridge’s Julia whips up several meals during the mystery, each more mouthwatering than the last. 

A figure as iconic as Julia could overshadow the rest of the characters, but Tabitha is a charming protagonist. She’s brave, resourceful and fiercely loyal to her friends and family, and while the former factory worker isn’t a perfect detective, her instincts are sharp. Her charming chemistry with the lead detective, Inspecteur Merveille, is an added bonus that will have readers rooting for their relationship to deepen in future books. 

Mastering the Art of French Murder is a love letter to the sights, sounds and delights of Paris, from the small daily markets to the thriving nightlife. Readers will enjoy navigating the city alongside Tabitha as she untangles the mystery, as well as getting to see a whole new side of the beloved Julia Child.

The charming Mastering the Art of French Murder follows Tabitha Knight—who just so happens to be Julia Child’s best friend—as she unravels a mystery in post-World War II Paris.
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The Magistrate

Police procedural novels set in China often have a decidedly different feel from their European and American counterparts. As public servants are paid so poorly in the Middle Kingdom, there is a thriving shadow economy of grift and clandestine deal-making. The rule book is scarcely more than a fairy tale, broadly ignored by law enforcement and the criminal element alike. Case in point: Brian Klingborg’s The Magistrate. His protagonist, Deputy Chief Inspector Lu Fei, is one of only a handful of honest cops, and thus he is roundly despised by most of the higher-ups. However, on the rare occasion when a fact-driven investigation is required, Lu is the go-to guy. As The Magistrate begins, someone is targeting corrupt officials and subjecting them to excruciating torture and/or death. It soon becomes evident that a series of medieval interrogation methods are being utilized, all on the orders of someone calling themself the Magistrate. When his longtime nemesis, Mr. Xu, a corrupt fellow cop, succeeds in sidelining Lu with a trumped-up murder charge, it will take some clever planning and more than a little assistance from some supposed bad guys for the canny policeman to prevail. With its nonstop action, suspense galore, fascinating locale and compelling characters (even/especially the nefarious ones), The Magistrate ticks all the boxes.  

Viviana Valentine Goes Up the River

Since last we checked in on plucky Viviana Valentine, she’s been promoted from girl Friday to full-time sleuthing partner in the private investigation agency of Tommy Fortuna, allegedly the Big Apple’s number one gumshoe. Oh, Tommy is still the boss, but Viviana proved her mettle in her first outing (Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man), and Tommy is practically a sensitive, New Age guy as 1950s male bosses go. Emily J. Edwards’ follow-up, Viviana Valentine Goes Up the River, is clever and witty, and it features some of the snappiest narration and dialogue in modern whodunits. This time out, Viviana and Tommy investigate some mysterious happenings in and around the home laboratory of Buster Beacon, a wealthy socialite/inventor. Their stay at Buster’s estate in upstate New York is punctuated by an evening gathering of neighbors and investors, all blissfully unaware of the impending snowstorm that will keep them imprisoned for some time in their gilded cage. This would not be so bad, were it not for the inconvenience of a locked-room murder in their midst, which will bring their jolly gathering to a screeching halt. The mystery has a pleasingly convoluted Knives Out vibe, Agatha Christie-esque but with a modern overlay of dry humor, much of it provided by Viviana’s narration. It’s good fun from beginning to end, with a surprise or two for even the most jaded suspense-o-phile.

The Eden Test

An upstate New York setting also figures prominently in Adam Sternbergh’s cinematic psychological thriller The Eden Test, even though it’s set seven-odd decades later. Daisy and Craig’s marriage seems, if not on the rocks, at least headed firmly in that direction. One of them has taken a lover, and there are more secrets bubbling not far beneath the surface. So Daisy takes matters into her own hands and books a week at a couples therapy retreat built on the concept of seeking seven answers to seven relationship questions in seven days. Phones are forbidden, and sometimes it appears that honesty has been proscribed as well. It doesn’t take long for things to go slightly off the rails, and then more than slightly. The counselors are a bit weird, as are the staff and the townspeople, and the whole scenario is filled with the sort of unease that you might find in “Twin Peaks” or at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining, minus the supernatural component. And just when you think you have anticipated the big reveal, author Sternbergh delivers “the big nope,” forcing you to reconsider your so-called aha! moment.


Read our review of The Eden Test audiobook, narrated by Carlotta Brentan.


The Body by the Sea

When I reviewed Jean-Luc Bannalec’s The Granite Coast Murders a couple of years back, I opined that the author’s portrayal of Brittany, France, was mesmerizing, noting that “it has been elevated into my top 10 places I need to visit, all thanks to Bannalec.” I would hope, however, that when I do finally visit Brittany, I can sidestep the murders that seem to bedevil Commissaire Georges Dupin. Bannalec’s latest Brittany novel, The Body by the Sea, opens in the seaside town of Concarneau, where Dr. Chaboseau, a noted cardiologist, has just taken a header from a balcony above Dupin’s favorite restaurant, the Amiral. Chaboseau had reportedly been involved in some contentious business relationships in the town, although perhaps nothing that should have risen to the level of homicide. Still, somebody was responsible; moreover, it will not be the last murder in this chain of events. Short-staffed thanks to a holiday weekend, Commissaire Dupin is the only on-duty cop save for a couple of very green recruits, so the case is rife with obstacles from the get-go. There is, however, a novel twist, so to speak: Some facets of Dupin’s current case echo plot points from a pre-World War II novel, which was in turn based on a real crime. Curiouser and curiouser, and it all leads to just the sort of surprise ending that readers long for. And as before, they are treated to fun facts about the food, landscape and denizens of Brittany along the way.

Start your summer early with two tales of vacations gone murderously wrong—plus a snappy 1950s mystery and an eerie marriage-centric thriller.
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Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney, amateur sleuths and the children of two of Jane Austen’s most beloved couples, return to solve another mystery together in The Late Mrs. Willoughby by Claudia Gray. 

Jonathan Darcy is attempting to fit in at a house party thrown by his former schoolmate and bully, Mr. Willoughby. Jonathan’s idiosyncrasies and difficulty with social situations made him an easy target at school, so he’s not exactly thrilled to see Willoughby again. However, he’s desperate to prove to his parents, Pride and Prejudice’s iconic Lizzy and Darcy, that he can make and maintain friendships. 

Willoughby is newly wed, although the marriage is already strained. His wife, Sofia, has realized her husband only married her for her fortune, and she is suffering from the simultaneous insults of his illegitimate child with a nearby village woman and his still-burning infatuation with his neighbor, Marianne Brandon.

Juliet, the daughter of Catherine and Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey, is visiting Marianne, having befriended her during the first installment in the series, The Murder of Mr. Wickham. Marianne is still traumatized by the events of that book, but she’s doing her best to reenter society, even if that means attending a dinner party with her much loathed former beau and his new wife. Unfortunately, it’s at this very dinner that Mrs. Willoughby dies of poisoning, right in front of Juliet and Jonathan. 

Jonathan and Juliet once again set out to find the killer. Jonathan’s analytical mind and Juliet’s facility for observing and understanding others make them a powerful crime-busting pair, despite being confined by the social strictures of their time. They quickly realize that Mrs. Willoughby may not have been the intended victim, given that her husband has no shortage of enemies.

Gray firmly establishes that Jonathan is autistic in The Late Mrs. Willoughby, having hinted at such in The Murder of Mr. Wickham. While Juliet does not always understand his quirks, her easy acceptance of them is heartwarming. This also allows romance to begin slowly blossoming between the pair, which will thrill fans who picked up on Jonathan and Juliet’s chemistry in the first book.

The familiar conventions of Austen’s world, cameos from beloved characters and a potential new romance will make The Late Mrs. Willoughby a sure hit for historical mystery fans.

With cameos from beloved Jane Austen characters and a potential new romance, The Late Mrs. Willoughby is sure to be a hit for historical mystery fans.
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The Lock-Up

John Banville’s latest Quirke/Strafford mystery, The Lock-Up, stretches the boundaries of the genre. Ostensibly a police procedural set in 1958 Dublin, The Lock-Up is far more interested in its protagonists’ inner lives than it is in their detective work, and rather than celebrate its sleuths as bringers of order and righters of wrongs, it shows how their efforts toward justice can be, ultimately, meaningless. That said, it is well worth the read, because Banville’s characters fairly leap off the page. Pathologist Quirke is irascible as ever, but also lonely and grieving: “The thing about grief was that you could press upon it at its sharpest points and blunt them, only for the bluntness to spread throughout the system and make it ache like one vast bruise.” Detective Inspector St. John Strafford is a Protestant in a Catholic country, and a cop to boot—something for everyone to loathe. Together they investigate the death of Rosa Jacobs, a young Jewish woman with possible links to Wolfgang Kessler, a German refugee who made good in postwar Ireland and now appears to be involved with some shady dealings in the newly established country of Israel. The Lock-Up is beautifully written, the sort of book that makes you pause, reread a line and chew on it for a bit before continuing. Oh, and the ending? Good luck figuring that out before the precise reveal ordained by Banville.

Beware the Woman

Megan Abbott is one of the most skilled architects of suspense alive and has won or been a finalist for just about every major crime fiction award. Her latest thriller, Beware the Woman, finds her in top form once again. As the book opens, Jed and Jacy have just discovered that they are soon to become parents. They plan a holiday in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to visit Jed’s father, Dr. Ash, who lives in a luxurious “cabin” deep in the woods. As experienced readers will know, going to visit reclusive relatives in remote forests is like opening the attic door in a horror movie: guaranteed drama. As a retired physician, Dr. Ash is solicitous to a fault about Jacy’s pregnancy. When minor complications arise, he becomes rather heavy-handed about directing her care, never mind that he has not been a practicing physician for decades. Understandably, Jacy takes some exception to this but finds, to her dismay, that her husband has aligned with his father, and she soon becomes a virtual prisoner, held incommunicado. For sheer escalating tension, Beware the Woman rates right up there with Stephen King’s Misery; it just shouts to be read in one sitting.

The Last Drop of Hemlock

Katharine Schellman’s second Vivian Kelly mystery, The Last Drop of Hemlock, is set in Prohibition-era New York City. Vivian is a seamstress and delivery girl by day but a waitress at a speak-easy by night, doing the Charleston with lonely men in return for drinks. Said speak-easy, the Nightingale, is decidedly illegal and only exists as a result of liberally greased palms. Thus, an element of criminal activity is never far from the forefront. This time out, Vivian uses her connections to take a second look at a death that was initially ruled a suicide. The victim was Uncle Pearlie, a bouncer at the Nightingale who had purportedly just made a fortune via mysterious means. But when Vivian and her band of ne’er-do-wells go to his home, they find that his secret cache of cash has been emptied. Any lingering doubts that he was murdered are erased when his pregnant girlfriend comes forward and reveals that Pearlie’s windfall involved some particularly unpleasant gangsters. In the first book in the series, Last Call at the Nightingale, Schellman introduced a large and interesting cast of characters while also spinning a consistently suspenseful yarn. That is certainly still the case in book two, as Schellman tops herself in nearly every category.

The Pigeon

Joe Brody, aka Joe the Bouncer, returns in David Gordon’s The Pigeon, the latest entertaining entry in the popular series. It should be noted that bouncer does not begin to encompass Joe’s duties. He serves as a sheriff of sorts for the criminal underworld of New York City, a mediator for organizations not exactly noted for solving disputes within the confines of the legal system. His longtime pal Gio sets him up with what should be an easy gig, and one that pays well too: recover a gangster’s stolen racing pigeon. The bird’s worth is in the neighborhood of $1 million, and Joe will collect a 5% reward upon recovery. Under normal circumstances, it would be a simple B & E—stuff the bird into a paper bag and exit stage left. But it turns out that the pricey Central Park-adjacent apartment building the bird is being kept in features one of the most sophisticated security systems this side of Fort Knox. Before Joe can snatch the pigeon, a squad of hit men is hot on his trail. He makes good his escape through a long-unused dumbwaiter, but his troubles are far from over. His FBI agent girlfriend is questioning her judgment in being associated with the criminal element, the gangster is still clamoring for his missing pigeon and the hit men know where Joe lives, works and plays. There is plenty of humor in the mix, as in an Ed McBain or Elmore Leonard novel, and plenty of action, too, realistically delivered without being egregiously graphic.

Quirke and Strafford team up again, plus Megan Abbott returns with a terrifying pregnancy thriller in this month’s Whodunit column.
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The Devil’s Playground

I am a huge fan of noir mystery novels set in the early heyday of Hollywood, back when the iconic hillside sign still read “Hollywoodland.” This love likely started via books by Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West, and it carries through to the latest Tinseltown tome I have happened upon: The Devil’s Playground by Craig Russell. The year is 1927, and our leading lady is studio fixer Mary Rourke, who operates on the shady side of the law when necessary to cover up scandals that could threaten one (or more) of Hollywood’s Golden Age stars. Mary is summoned in the dead of night (a portentous phrase, to be sure) to the home of actress Norma Carlton, star of the supposedly “cursed” production The Devil’s Playground. Mary is stunned to find Norma dead, apparently by her own hand. This could tank the film, so a quick fix must be enacted to ensure that the public never suspects suicide. It all becomes more complicated post-fix, when the studio’s doctor discovers that Norma was strangled. Fast-forward to 1967, and journalist Paul Conway has been hired to find the one remaining copy of The Devil’s Playground, which is supposedly at a remote location in the California desert—if it even exists. If the search succeeds, Paul will be rewarded handsomely for his efforts. However, he will find more than he bargained for, including one of the most creative twist endings I have experienced in ages. The Devil’s Playground is definitely on my shortlist for best mystery of the year.

Dead Man’s Wake

You don’t have to wait long for the action to begin in Paul Doiron’s 14th novel featuring Maine Game Warden Investigator Mike Bowditch, Dead Man’s Wake. It starts with a literal bang in Act I, Scene 1: Mike and his fiancée, Stacey Stevens, are celebrating their engagement, but the festivities are interrupted by a speedboat crash on the adjacent lake. When they arrive at the scene, there is no wrecked boat in sight. But what is in sight is rather more gruesome: a recently severed human arm. The next day, the search team uncovers not one but two dead bodies, those of a local developer and his married girlfriend, and the whole situation begins to seem less like a tragic accident and more like a pair of premeditated murders. Homicide investigations don’t really fall under Mike’s purview, but as one of the local cops ruefully notes, Mike seems to insinuate himself into more such investigations than is usual for a game warden. There is no shortage of suspects: the cuckolded biker husband of the female victim; a pair of frat boys who had been racing around the lake; a female tourist who claimed to have witnessed the whole shebang but whose story seems less credible as the investigation wears on. Doiron packs in lots of twists and turns, and enough suspense to keep you reading well past bedtime.

The Guest Room

Tasha Sylva’s debut novel, The Guest Room, is a creepy psychodrama in which all the major characters have deeply disturbing weird streaks. Let’s start with Tess. Some time back, her sister, Rosie, was killed, and the murder was never solved. Still in a malaise of grief, Tess has taken to renting out Rosie’s room for Airbnb-style stays. Tess has a bad habit, though. When her guests are out, she gleefully rummages through their stuff. Tess’ latest lodger is Arran, who requests a one-month lease while looking for permanent lodgings. And naturally, the first time Arran leaves, Tess surreptitiously paws through his meager belongings and finds a diary. The diary reveals Arran to be a rather obsessive man—by many people’s definition, a stalker. He is affable, though, and quite handsome, which has not gone unnoticed by Tess. This brings us to Nalika, Tess’ beautiful friend. After Nalika and Arran meet, Tess reads the newest entry in his diary and realizes the latest object of his obsession might be Nalika. And maybe Tess is a bit jealous about that. Or more than a bit. The Guest Room is much more character-driven than plot-driven, but there are a couple of excellent plot surprises along the way. I will eagerly await Sylva’s next novel, and I bet you will too. 

A Stolen Child

A Stolen Child is Sarah Stewart Taylor’s fourth entry in her excellent series featuring American police detective Maggie D’arcy, who has relocated to Ireland and joined the Garda, the national police force of the island nation. Despite years of experience as a police detective in Long Island, Maggie is relegated to beat cop status upon passing the Garda entrance exam. But when a well-known fashion model is murdered and her toddler daughter is kidnapped, the force is stretched so thin that Maggie’s commanding officer decides to make use of her detecting talents. As Maggie takes charge of the two-pronged investigation into the murder/abduction, she quickly finds out that witnesses are few and far between and often reluctant to the point of intransigence. A Stolen Child is a nicely done, step-by-step police procedural, but it also offers much more than that: well-drawn characters; an insightful look at a rapidly gentrifying urban hub and its denizens; and off-duty relationships that lend notes of warts-and-all humanity to the players.

 

Craig Russell’s suspenseful look at the dark side of Old Hollywood blows our mystery columnist away, plus two perfect police procedurals and a deeply creepy debut thriller.
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Kirsty Manning’s new cozy mystery transports readers to 1938 Paris, where glamour and decadence collide with murder.

Australian reporter Charlotte “Charlie” James has just accepted her dream job: She’s the new Paris correspondent for a major international newspaper. After a devastating personal loss, Charlie is looking forward to starting anew in Paris and jump-starting her career. Her first assignment is to ingratiate herself with well-connected members of Parisian society while covering the extravagant Circus Ball, hosted by British expats Lord and Lady Ashworth. The lavish ball is a smashing success—until a wealthy investor is found murdered. Charlie covers the crime for her paper and her investigation reveals a growing list of suspects, all wealthy and powerful. As Charlie closes in on the truth, she brings herself closer to a murderer who may strike again.

Manning highlights the opulence and decadence of interwar Paris in this engaging and delightful mystery. The City of Light comes alive through her descriptions of haute couture and Parisian cuisine. Charlie is an engaging sleuth, too: She’s intelligent, empathetic and a skilled reporter. She’s keenly aware that the 1930s news industry is a male-dominated profession, but she refuses to let that mindset hold her back. Her relationship with Inspecteur Bernard, the French detective heading up the murder investigation, is also a highlight. Journalists and police officers often find themselves at odds in mysteries, especially cozy mysteries, but Charlie and Bernard quickly strike up a cordial working relationship that benefits them both. 

The Paris Mystery is a fizzy, fast-paced caper full of glitz, glamour and intrigue.

The Paris Mystery is a fizzy, fast-paced caper full of glitz, glamour and intrigue set in the interwar City of Light.
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Sun Damage

If you reveled in the shenanigans of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, you’re the target audience for Sabine Durrant’s Sun Damage. A caper novel set in the sun-drenched south of France, Sun Damage follows a con man named Sean who plays Svengali to his acolyte, Ali, as they set up an elaborate scheme to relieve a young socialite of her fortune. It all goes sour when said socialite is killed in a boating accident that is perhaps not as much an “accident” as it appears. Ali realizes that she is at risk of taking the fall for the death, so she does what any good con artist would do: exits stage left. With any luck, that would have left Sean holding the bag, but of course, Ali’s plan soon goes remarkably awry. Durrant ratchets up the suspense as Ali does her level best to stay at least one step ahead of Sean, who is in hot pursuit, while also trying to elude the authorities. Or perhaps that is not what is really going on after all, because if there is one thing that Durrant is exceptional at, it is misdirection. This book needs to be read on a float in a swimming pool, or better yet, on a Mediterranean beach somewhere. But keep an eye on your valuables.

Fatal Legacy

Flavia Albia is a private informer, an ancient Roman precursor to the contemporary private investigator that conveniently utilizes the same abbreviation: PI. Flavia returns for her 11th case in Lindsey Davis’ intricate and entertaining historical mystery Fatal Legacy. The book starts out simply enough, with Flavia in pursuit of a pair of deadbeats who skipped out on their bill at her family’s restaurant. But after she deals with this infraction, the family of said deadbeats hires her for a much more complicated task involving a legacy that may not be entirely legal (would that be an “illegacy”?) and a surprising number of folks eager to obscure the truth for their own advantage. The debtors belong to the Tranquilla family, who were once enslaved but then freed by their former master’s will. But there isn’t any documentation asserting the freedom of one of them, Postuminus, and if Flavia can’t prove his status, his daughter’s impending marriage will be in jeopardy. Flavia is a witty observer of Roman family life and the low-grade skulduggery that was seemingly omnipresent in the ancient metropolis; it will be the rare reader indeed who does not get at least one unexpected chuckle per chapter. For my part, I will be seeking out Davis’ back catalog and paying regular visits to antiquity with Flavia. 

An Honest Man

Crime fiction icon Michael Connelly referred to Michael Koryta as “one of the best of the best, plain and simple,” and Koryta’s most recent offering, An Honest Man, supports that statement and then some. The titular honest man also happens to be a killer, and the book explores that dichotomy via two plots that dovetail nicely over the course of the narrative. The first follows Israel Pike, a convicted murderer and now prime suspect in a mass killing on an expensive yacht off the coast of Salvation Point Island, Maine. Israel’s accuser and nemesis is his uncle, the island’s police deputy Sterling Pike. The second storyline is about 12-year-old Lyman Rankin, who stumbles upon an injured, hatchet-wielding young woman who threatens his life if he should tell anyone she is hiding in an abandoned house on the island. Before Israel’s and Lyman’s stories resolve, there will be violence galore and the reveal of a seamy criminal underbelly, whose powers-that-be will stop at nothing to avoid prosecution. Koryta is a force to be reckoned with in modern suspense, and An Honest Man is one of his finest achievements to date.

The Lady From Burma

Allison Montclair’s author biography mentions that she devoured hand-me-down Agatha Christie paperbacks while growing up. Just as in Christie’s novels, murders abound in Montclair’s work, often in the most innocent of locales. Her sleuths, Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn “Gwen” Bainbridge, run a matchmaking service in post-World War II London. Their fifth adventure, The Lady From Burma, opens with a visit from the aforementioned lady from Burma, Mrs. Adela Remagen, who has a strange request for the duo: find a suitable wife for her husband. For she is dying and wants to ensure that her husband, Potiphar, has someone to care for him after she is gone. An eccentric entomologist with an affection for tropical insects, Potiphar is perhaps not the easiest client for Iris and Gwen’s small agency to match. And then Mrs. Remagen gets herself murdered. If you are in the mood for a modern-day rendering of Dame Christie, look no further. The Lady From Burma will be right up your alley.

Lindsey Davis’ latest Flavia Albia mystery reveals the criminal side of antiquity, plus two well-crafted novels of suspense and a delightful historical mystery in this month’s Whodunit column.

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