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All Historical Mystery Coverage

STARRED REVIEW
August 7, 2023

Five excellent midcentury mysteries

The period between the end of World War II and the close of the ’60s has always been a fruitful setting for mysteries. There’s something irresistible about seeing the seamy side of an era that was oh-so put-together—on the surface, that is.
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The period between the end of World War II and the close of the ’60s has always been a fruitful setting for mysteries. There’s something irresistible about seeing the seamy side of an era that was oh-so put-together—on the surface, that is.
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In William Kent Krueger’s exquisite The River We Remember, newspaper editor Sam Wicklow wants to write a book about the experiences of the Dakota Sioux people of Jewel, Minnesota. One character describes his project as telling “The history of this place. The whole history. The true history.” And that’s exactly what Krueger so adroitly achieves in this novel, excavating both the history and truth of a memorable town through one compelling mystery: Who killed the town’s wealthiest landowner, a tormented bully of a man named Jimmy Quinn whom no one seemed to like, and left him lying in the Alabaster River to be gnawed on by catfish?

The acclaimed author of 19 Cork O’Conner mysteries, Krueger is no stranger to the form. He sets the scene beautifully, beginning with the discovery of Quinn’s body on Memorial Day 1958, as Sheriff Brody Dern and his part-time deputy, retired sheriff Connie Graff, begin to investigate. The author is a superb director of his large cast of characters, including café owner Angie Madison, who lost her husband in World War II; her 14-year-old son, Scott, who is eager to meet life head-on despite the congenital hole in his heart; and female attorney Charlie Bauer, who, after the war, worked on behalf of Japanese American families who had lost their lives, savings and livelihoods while incarcerated in camps. The aftermath of WWII—and war in general—haunts The River We Remember. Brody, a veteran who has PTSD, is an intriguing central protagonist, and holds several surprising secrets; one of his early actions in the investigation is particularly jaw-dropping.

William Kent Krueger dives into the darkness of 1950s America.

In this page-turning, but also rewarding read, Krueger deepens the tightly-plotted central mystery by examining many horrors of history that reach out to affect the present day. Suspicion for Quinn’s murder soon falls on Noah Bluestone, a Dakota Sioux veteran who has recently returned to Jewel with a Japanese wife, Kyoko. Numerous prejudices run deep throughout the novel, including those against Quinn’s German widow, Marta, and Wendell Moon, a Black cook at Angie’s café. Krueger excels at embracing both the beauty and the sordid side of his characters’ lives, making them feel alive and all too human. 

At one point, Sam’s wife asks her husband, “This book you’re going to write, if you ever do, I wouldn’t count on it being a bestseller. . . Why don’t you write a mystery instead? Everybody loves a good mystery.” The beauty of The River We Remember is that it’s an excellent mystery but also so much more, making readers care about all of these flawed lives while unearthing painful truths about the xenophobia and racism nestled within small-town America.

William Kent Krueger’s page-turning, rewarding mystery The River We Remember is a superb exploration of the prejudices and complexities of post-World War II America.

Julia Kelly has written numerous international bestsellers in the realms of contemporary and historical romance as well as historical fiction (The Last Dance of the Debutante). Now, she’s setting her writerly sights on historical mystery with the new Parisian Orphan series, set in London during the Blitz.

In the meticulously researched, murder-and-intrigue-laden A Traitor in Whitehall, Kelly turns the locked-room trope up a notch by beckoning readers deep underground to the Churchill War Rooms (CWR), a command center established by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It was constructed to be safe from bombs and prying enemy eyes, cloaked in concrete and characterized by tight security measures—but although every employee is extensively vetted, the CWR is not immune to the darkest human impulses.

Why Julia Kelly decided to set a murder mystery within Churchill’s secret headquarters.

Evelyne Redfern learns this the hard way in the most horrifying first week at work ever. After a patriotic-yet-unchallenging stint at a munitions factory, she is hired for the CWR typing pool by an old family friend, Mr. Fletcher, who knew Evelyne’s parents, French society page regular Genevieve and louche British adventurer (as well as neglectful parent) Sir Reginal Redfern. Their bitter and highly publicized divorce when Evelyne was a child earned her the media nickname “The Parisian Orphan.” 

Now in her 20s, Evelyne has been enjoying the relative anonymity of London but, after months of boredom at her factory job, is ready to make a more meaningful contribution to the war effort. She’s keeping an eye out for anything unusual at the CWR, per Mr. Fletcher’s instructions. Certainly, stumbling across the body of a recently murdered co-worker fits the bill. It’s a shocking yet fortuitous discovery: Since age 16, Evelyne has been a constant reader of mystery novels, and she thinks, “having adjusted to the reality of there being a dead body in my presence, I had been drawn to investigate.”

A minister’s aide named David Poole joins Evelyne’s crime-solving efforts; he’s been on the hunt for a mole, and it’s likely the murder is linked with treason. Kelly emphasizes the duo’s relentless search for the killer via tense, realistic interrogations and nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse sequences through underground hallways and the streets of London. A cast of opinionated side characters and a wealth of fascinating historical details add to the fun in this engaging, atmospheric series kickoff.

A murder takes place in Winston Churchill’s secret war rooms in Julia Kelly’s engaging, atmospheric A Traitor in Whitehall.
Review by

PI Evander “Andy” Mills’ first adventure, Lavender House, was an intriguing mix of gothic and noir elements. In his second Andy Mills mystery, The Bell in the Fog, author Lev AC Rosen outdoes himself, while also firmly establishing the series in the tradition of noir detective novels. Set in 1952 San Francisco, The Bell in the Fog is not only a solid mystery but also a glimpse into the trauma and camaraderie that marked the LGBTQ+ experience of that era.

After being outed and losing his job with the police force in Lavender House, Andy is now offering his services as a detective to San Francisco’s queer community, who cannot seek justice or assistance through traditional means as their very lives are criminalized. Andy’s struggling to make ends meet when he finally lands a case substantial enough to cement his reputation as a trustworthy PI.

His former lover James, a closeted naval officer, is being blackmailed with photos of himself with another man. James is expecting a promotion to admiral, and needs Andy to track down the blackmailer and the photos in order to keep his life from imploding. For Andy, the case is bittersweet—James more or less ghosted him, giving him no explanation for the end of their relationship. His investigation uncovers a scheme targeting many of San Francisco’s queer residents, and when he finds one of the blackmailers dead, Andy is suddenly embroiled in a mystery worth killing over.

The Bell in the Fog brings readers to the underground LGBTQ+ scene of the 1950s and explores the habitual traumas, like police brutality, and ever-present fear of exposure that queer people endured. Rosen balances this by also showing how found families were created and how the community supported each other: Andy is assisted by Lee, a performer who would be understood as gender fluid today and whose network of friends brings Andy vital information, and he’s also given medical care by Gene, a bartender who would have been a doctor had he not been outed himself. The result is an atmospheric historical novel as well as a gritty noir mystery that will thrill both readers who already love Andy Mills and those meeting him for the first time.

The Bell in the Fog is an atmospheric historical novel, a gritty noir mystery and a worthy successor to author Lev AC Rosen’s Lavender House.
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A fictitious waterway plays a major role in William Kent Krueger’s mesmerizing new novel, The River We Remember, so it seems more than fitting when Krueger says, “Your first order of business as a storyteller is to hook your reader.”

And boy does he, like a seasoned angler reeling in a prizewinning bass. At the end of a short prologue, after describing how the Alabaster River snakes across Black Earth County, Minnesota, in “a crooked course like a long crack in a china plate,” Krueger describes the catfish that feed along the bottom before announcing “This is the story of how they came to eat Jimmy Quinn.”

“I had that opening in mind for a very long time before I actually sat down to write the story itself,” Krueger says, speaking by phone from his home in St. Paul, Minnesota. The author of 19 Cork O’Connor mysteries adds, “I’m very fond of both prologues and epilogues,” which he believes have distinct purposes: the prologue gives readers “a sense of the story that they’re about to be a part of,” and the epilogue is his way of not leaving them “high and dry, wondering about what happened to characters after the story ends.”

“That’s really where my heart is. . . . Whenever I write a story, I love to just tap into that small town sensibility.”

The River We Remember is set in 1958, when the gruesome discovery of Quinn’s body in the river casts a deep shadow on the town of Jewel’s Memorial Day festivities. Quinn is the richest man and largest landowner in the area—and someone whom no one seems to like, not even his family. It’s up to Sheriff Brody Dern to get to the bottom of how Quinn came to such an ignominious end. Upon hearing the news, Brody is playing chess in the county jail with a prisoner, an otherwise law-abiding widower prone to frequent, disruptive Wild Turkey-fueled benders that land him temporarily behind bars. The friendly, avuncular scene is reminiscent of “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Krueger laughs at the comparison, saying, “I don’t have a Barney Fife in my story, but yes.” Although The River We Remember is far from a comedy, he imbues Jewel and its intricate, long-established community with rare authenticity and warmth. The author explains that although he and his wife have lived in St. Paul for many years, he spent much of his childhood moving from place to place, living in farm towns in states like Ohio, Oregon and California. “That’s really where my heart is,” he admits. “Whenever I write a story, I love to just tap into that small town sensibility.”

The townsfolk include a diverse cast of multigenerational characters, such as retired sheriff Conrad Graff, who helps Brody investigate, and 14-year-old Scott Madison, born with a hole in his heart, who delivers meals to prisoners from his mother’s cafe. This young character, Krueger says—one of his favorites—is much like he was as an adolescent, especially in his “desire to see the world, experience it, and somehow prove to everybody that he really is a man.” With his trademark finely chiseled prose and taut plotting, Krueger uses his characters to explore a variety of themes, including racism, prejudice, war, violence, manhood, justice and redemption. “One of the things that I’m aware of,” Krueger says, “is that if you write a popular mystery series, readers are going to be a little reluctant to follow you to a place that doesn’t have all of the series’ characters and elements in it. When I set out to write this book, I wanted to write a mystery first and foremost, and then use that mystery to explore other themes.”

When The River We Remember’s similarities to To Kill a Mockingbird are mentioned, Krueger says the book is his favorite American novel, “so it’s no surprise that I’m probably greatly influenced in every story by Harper Lee.” However, he says the comparison is more apt for his previous standalone novel, Ordinary Grace, which he calls “a kind of reimagined” Mockingbird. “War informs The River We Remember,” he notes, “although it’s not a war novel.” 

Book jacket image for The River We Remember by William Kent Krueger

Krueger first tried to write the book almost 10 years ago, inspired by his father’s experiences as an 18-year-old leaving to fight in Europe during World War II, as well as by similar ordeals suffered by his friends’ fathers. Each of them “were deeply wounded by the horrors they had seen, and the horrors that they had been a part of,” he says. “All my life, I’ve wondered, how did these men manage to heal from that, those great wounds? And what about the people they left behind—mothers and wives and sisters and fathers—who were praying desperately for their loved ones while they were far away, and who in the end may have lost them? What about those wounds? That’s really what I set out to explore.”

Brody is a World War II veteran, and Krueger writes that, “No one knew the details of his war experiences but they knew of the medals.” Brody has PTSD (although, of course, it wasn’t called that in 1958) after his experiences in combat and in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, while newspaper editor Sam Wicklow lost part of his leg in the battle of Iwo Jima. Many people in town suspect that Quinn’s killer may be Noah Bluestone, a Dakota Sioux veteran who returned with a Japanese wife, Kyoko. Krueger set his drama in 1958 so he could draw from some of his own childhood memories and because he “wanted a time frame that was soon enough after the war that the war experience is still going to be fresh in people’s minds. All of those deep wounds were still there, and yet we weren’t acknowledging them.”

However, Krueger’s first attempt at writing the story didn’t go well, so he put the idea aside for years, finally giving it another go during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I know the pandemic created a great deal of chaos in so many people’s lives,” he says, “but it was one of the most creative periods for me. I wrote two manuscripts for my Cork O’Connor series. I wrote three novellas, and then I turned my attention back to the original story for The River We Remember.”

“I don’t know what happened in the intervening years,” Krueger says. “Maybe I’d just grown wiser as a storyteller, or maybe it just required more time to gestate. But I saw how to write the story now. I heard the voice of the story speaking to me. And this time around, I was able to write a much tighter, more cohesive and more deeply felt narrative than I had created the first time around. I completely rewrote the story.” 

“If you wrap the ideas that you want to get across to a reader in a really good, compelling story, you get the point across so much more effectively.”

“I wanted to talk about racism,” Krueger adds. “I wanted to talk about war, the way we characterize it, and the myth that we continue to feed our sons, particularly. But I didn’t want to write a polemic. Nobody’s going to read that, so if you wrap the ideas that you want to get across to a reader in a really good, compelling story, you get the point across so much more effectively.” 

Krueger’s strong feelings against war emerged early and changed the course of his life. While a freshman at Stanford University in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, he joined a takeover of the president’s office to protest the university’s compliance in the production of military weapons. “They yanked my scholarship,” he says, noting that he had had a full ride. When asked if he was shocked, he says, “No, I was really inspired. And I have to tell you, when I called my folks to tell them what had occurred, they told me that they had never been prouder of me.”

“Vietnam,” he says, “for so many of us, was finally a look at the reality of the horror that war is, and the destruction that it does to everybody.” After leaving Stanford, he logged timber, worked construction and did a lot of physical labor. “I decided very early on that I wasn’t going to be a career person,” he says. “I didn’t want to have a job that was going to suck all of my creative energy out of me.” He was inspired by his father, who taught high school English, worked for Standard Oil, then returned to teaching. 

Krueger settled in St. Paul in 1980 and took a job researching child development at the University of Minnesota while his wife, Diane, attended law school. He wrote early in the morning at a coffee shop before work, and joined a mystery writers’ support group called Creme de la Crime. “That group was really tremendously important in my development as a writer,” he says, “because they never let an easy answer pass.” 

Read our starred review of ‘The River We Remember’ by William Kent Krueger.

Since those early days, his award-winning mystery series featuring private investigator Cork O’Connor, the half Irish and half Ojibwe former sheriff of Aurora, Minnesota, has sold more than 1.5 million copies. “In every book that I’ve written, even my standalones, the plight of the Native people here in Minnesota plays an important role,” Krueger says. “If you set a story in Minnesota, it’s hard to get away from the treacherous history of whites and the tragic history of the native people.” As he began researching the Ojibwe culture, he met and formed relationships with Ojibwe people, who, he says, “have guided me so beautifully. They’ve been so generous in their sharing.”

Krueger notes that if he were starting out today, he would probably refrain from writing about a Native character “because of the very volatile issue of cultural appropriation,” which was not as widely considered when he began writing the Cork O’Connor series in the early 1990s. The feedback that I’ve had from my friends in the Ojibwe community, and from Native readers who’ve contacted me, has been very positive. That encourages me, but I’m always painfully aware that I’m a white guy trespassing on a culture not my own, and I work very hard to get it right.” 

Krueger is currently penning his next Cork O’Connor mystery. “When I put that to rest,” he says, “I have another standalone that is just beating at my door, begging me to write it.” In the meantime, visit his website if you want to arrange a Skype or Zoom book club visit to discuss one of his many books. “I have zoomed with hundreds of book clubs,” Krueger says, “and I really enjoy it. It’s a great way to connect with readers. It’s not quite like being there in person, but you can still connect.”

Photo of William Kent Krueger by Diane Krueger.

A murder rips a midcentury Minnesota town apart in the author’s latest standalone mystery, The River We Remember.
STARRED REVIEW

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Recent Reviews

The top 10 books for September include the latest from Angie Kim & Zadie Smith, plus a compelling mystery from William Kent Kruger and a helpful guide for talking about food with kids.
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The Second Murderer

Many a mystery writer has taken a shot at reimagining the work of Raymond Chandler, usually with mixed results. But in The Second Murderer, Denise Mina seamlessly resurrects Chandler’s supersleuth Philip Marlowe, right from the opening line: “I was in my office, feet up, making use of a bottle of mood-straightener I kept in the desk.” As was often the case with Marlowe as penned by Chandler, our hero can be found in a high-society mansion in one scene and sleeping off a hangover in a Skid Row flophouse in the next, but he’s a breed apart in both milieus. The Second Murderer is a pre-World War II, Los Angeles-set PI mystery, but with a modern sensibility—and it plays much better than one might expect of such an amalgam. As Marlowe attempts to track down a missing socialite, he’s joined on the case by Anne Riordan, owner of her very own all-female detective agency. Mina has done what few before her have managed, ably resuscitating Marlowe for legions of Chandler fans yearning for one more installment.

A Killer in the Family

With last year’s inventive and suspenseful Little Sister, Gytha Lodge propelled herself onto mystery fans’ must-read lists (including that of this reader). I am happy to announce that her latest Jonah Sheen mystery, A Killer in the Family, is just as impressive. Aisling Cooley sends a DNA sample to an ancestry website in hopes of locating her long-missing father, but is horrified when she’s subsequently contacted by the police. Aisling’s DNA closely aligns with that found at a murder scene, one of the grisly tableaus created by the so-called “bonfire killer,” who leaves their victims on pyres in fields. Aisling’s sons—one lively and popular, the other brooding and taciturn—naturally pique the interest of the police, but Aisling’s father is of even greater interest. Before he disappeared 30 years ago, he left a cryptic note saying that he loved his family, but could not “keep living this duplicitous life.” Thus, Aisling finds herself caught on the horns of a dilemma: whether to assist the police or protect her family. Lodge has a surefire winner on her hands with A Killer in the Family, easily one of the most original mysteries since the aforementioned Little Sister.

A Chateau Under Siege

The medieval town of Sarlat is a bit outside the bailiwick of Bruno Courreges, everyone’s favorite French policeman since the days of Inspector Jacques Clouseau, but there is to be a reenactment of the liberation of the town from England during the Hundred Years’ War and Bruno is on hand for the festivities. When a horse slips and falls, its swordsman rider is forced to improvise his role in the choreographed performance. He winds up getting stabbed in front of the horrified onlookers and appears to be bleeding out. A doctor appears out of nowhere to take charge of the emergency and the patient is airlifted to a hospital, after which he vanishes from the face of the earth. Strange, right? It will get stranger, as Martin Walker’s A Chateau Under Siege, one of Bruno’s more unusual adventures, proceeds. Bruno is tasked with guarding the daughters of the victim, who may or may not have been a clandestine government agent of some sort. And, as happens with some regularity in the Bruno novels, our hero finds himself tangled up in a situation with international ramifications that would tax any small-town cop (other than Bruno, of course). Balzac the basset hound, always a welcome diversion, plays a minor but pivotal role, and as with all the preceding books in the series, A Chateau Under Siege is by turns suspenseful, amusing and, in its Gallic way, nothing short of charming.

Proud Sorrows

The latest Billy Boyle mystery from author James R. Benn, Proud Sorrows finds the wartime military investigator on leave in rural Norfolk, England, although it will prove to be the proverbial busman’s holiday, with little of the rest and recuperation the hero sorely needs after his adventures in the two previous novels, Road of Bones and From the Shadows. A downed German bomber that crashed two years prior resurfaces in a peculiar turn of the tides at a nearby bay. When one of the bodies found in the cockpit turns out to be that of an English officer, the case falls to Billy to investigate. It appears the English officer has been murdered, as his injuries are not consistent with the crash. It will not be the last murder tied to the bomber, however, as one of Billy’s informants, a shell-shocked veteran, gets stabbed to death in a melee following an air raid scare. Sir Richard Seaton, the father of Billy’s lover, Diana, is considered by police to be a good candidate for the perpetrator. To exonerate Sir Richard, Billy turns to his trusty allies: Kaz, with his powerful intellect; Big Mike, the tenderhearted muscle of the group; and quick-witted and lovable Diana. The mystery is first-rate, the dialogue is period correct and the series as a whole is the best set of wartime novels since those of the legendary Nevil Shute. Proud Sorrows is absolutely not to be missed!

The latest Bruno, Chief of Police and Billy Boyle mysteries impress (When don’t they?) and Denise Mina resurrects Philip Marlowe in this month’s Whodunit column.

Louise Hare’s second Canary Club Mystery, Harlem After Midnight, begins with tragedy: A policeman gazes down at a grievously injured young woman lying on the ground in front of a three-story apartment building. Did she fall from the topmost window, or was she pushed? 

Hare rewinds her story to the days leading up to this disturbing discovery, picking up where her series’ first installment, Miss Aldridge Regrets, left off. Lena Aldridge, a 26-year-old singer from London, is still reeling from her voyage on the RMS Queen Mary. It started with excited anticipation for a role on Broadway and ended in despair after a series of murders, the evaporation of her job opportunity and the revelation that a fellow passenger was in fact her New York City-based birth mother, the wealthy Eliza Abernathy.

Lena is relieved and grateful when Will Goodman, a handsome musician she met on the ship, suggests she stay with his friends in Harlem. Married couple Claudette and Louis Linfield are eager to get to know the first woman Will’s brought around in years. Will’s half sister, Bel Bennett, is curious, too, but her mix of effusive charm and snide duplicity leaves Lena feeling unmoored. 

While wondering whether she and Will will have a future together and the music careers they desire, Lena also resolves to learn more about her beloved late father, Alfie, a pianist who lived in New York some 30 years ago. Harlem After Midnight’s timeline moves between 1936 and 1908 as Hare juggles the compellingly conceived perspectives of Lena, Alfie and his sister, Jessie, whom Lena has never met. Will she find out why Alfie left New York for London, track down her aunt and perhaps even connect with her mother before she’s due to board the Queen Mary once again? And who is the unfortunate young woman from the beginning of the book, and what does her fate have to do with Lena’s quest?

Through Lena’s eyes, Hare conveys the glory of the Harlem Renaissance, shines a light on New York’s painful history of segregation and emphasizes the value of learning about—and from—those who came before us. The resonance of family history and the dangerous potency of long-held secrets collide as Lena reckons with her past and strives to create a new path forward.

Louise Hare gives readers a glorious tour of 1930s New York City in her second Canary Club mystery, Harlem After Midnight.
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You’ve got to hand it to Amy Chua. The Yale law school professor made a name for herself with her much-discussed 2011 parenting book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and now she’s written The Golden Gate, a jampacked historical mystery set in San Francisco in 1944. Detective Al Sullivan happens to be at the Claremont Hotel on the night that someone tries to kill wealthy presidential candidate Walter Wilkinson not once, but twice. The second time, the attempt is successful, and the high-profile murder leads Sullivan down a rabbit hole of an investigation that gives Chua ample opportunities to explore midcentury San Francisco, especially the many social and economic injustices of the era. 

Suspicion for Wilkinson’s murder largely falls on the three granddaughters of wealthy socialite Genevieve Bainbridge, shifting from one to the other and back again. One of them, Isabella, was part of another Claremont Hotel tragedy in 1930. When she was 6, her older sister, Iris, was found dead in the laundry chute after a game of hide-and-seek, and as Sullivan delves into the case, he suspects there may be links between that tragedy and Wilkinson’s murder. This aspect of the case as well as the Bainbridge characters are intriguing, although Chua’s repeated returns to Genevieve’s deposition regarding Wilkinson’s murder slow down the novel’s momentum.

Narrator Sullivan is a likable guide as well as a savvy investigator whose background gives him a unique perspective on the intersections of race, class and power that the case brings to light. His given name is Alejo Gutiérrez—he’s half Mexican, half Jewish American—and years ago, his father was forcefully “repatriated” to Mexico. He’s also caring for his 11-year-old niece Miriam, whose mother seems to have disappeared, and their relationship provides a snappy side plot.

Along the way, readers are briefly introduced to a variety of historical figures, including Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, architect Julia Morgan, Margaret “Mom” Chung (the first female Chinese American doctor in the United States) and Berkeley police chief August Vollmer, called “the father of modern policing.” The Golden Gate is an overly sprawling novel, but readers will be both entertained and enriched by its historical details

Readers will be entertained and enriched by Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother author Amy Chua’s debut historical mystery, The Golden Gate.
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When Peregrine Fisher receives a mysterious letter from The Adventuresses’ Club of the Antipodes, she’s the definition of down on her luck: Grieving the death of her mother, she has just been fired from her latest job and is living in a van. The letter’s mention of an inheritance piques Peregrine’s interest, and even though she doesn’t know what The Adventuresses’ Club is or who would have left her money, she eagerly makes her way to Melbourne, Australia, to find out.

Peregrine discovers that the Adventuresses are a group of exceptional women, all highly skilled in their respective fields, and that she’s the niece of Phryne Fisher, a brave private investigator who’s gone missing in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Her long-lost aunt’s will indicates that Peregrine should inherit Phryne’s fortune: her home, car and, most importantly, her seat in the Adventuresses’ Club. When another member is accused of murder, Peregrine sets out to prove her innocence, live up to her aunt’s reputation as an investigator and earn her spot in The Adventuresses’ Club.

Just Murdered is the novelization of the first episode of “Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries,” a spinoff of the TV show based on Kerry Greenwood’s popular Phryne Fisher mysteries. While Phryne’s stories take place in the 1920s, Peregrine takes up the investigator’s mantle in the ’60s, and author Katherine Kovacic does an excellent job placing readers in the swinging decade with references to music, fashion, cars and more. 

A fun, fast-paced read, Just Murdered also has a great heroine. Peregrine is intelligent and independent, and her jack-of-all-trades background allows her to cleverly unspool the threads of the mystery. The other Adventuresses make for intriguing characters, too, like former spy Birdie Birnside and Dr. Violetta Fellini, a renowned scientist. While Peregrine begins the novel simply hoping her mysterious inheritance will offer some financial security, she finds a much-needed family in her fellow Adventuresses and a calling in detective work. Just Murdered will leave readers anxious to get their hands on Peregrine’s next case so they can follow more of the Adventuresses’ exploits.

Just Murdered is a fun, fast-paced introduction to Peregrine Fisher, the niece of beloved sleuth Phryne Fisher, as she solves mysteries in the 1960s.
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Reykjavik

In what must be one of the more unusual writing pairings of the past hundred years or so, bestselling Icelandic novelist Ragnar Jonasson has teamed up with the current prime minister of Iceland, Katrin Jakobsdottir, to craft Reykjavik, a mystery about the 1956 disappearance of a teenage girl named L&aacutera from Videy, a small island near the titular city. Thirty years after the baffling disappearance, dogged reporter Valur Robertsson and his sister, Sunna, believe they have the answer almost in hand. But apparently, someone else thinks the pair are getting too close to the solution, and soon their lives are in danger. If you’re a fan of Nordic noir, you’re gonna love Reykjavik. Both writers are in top form, and their tale is deftly plotted and skilfully rendered. And as one might expect given Jakobsdottir’s political bona fides, the mystery makes good use of its 1986 setting and leverages a crucial moment in Icelandic history as a poignant and powerful backdrop: the Reykjavik Summit, a pivotal meeting between Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Murder by Invitation Only

Imagine a real-life version of the board game Clue, orchestrated in the manner of Agatha Christie and set in the English countryside. And while there may not be a conservatory or a ballroom in the home of “murder party” hosts Mr. and Mrs. Wokesley, nor for that matter a Colonel Mustard or a Professor Plum among the guests, this version one-ups the board game by offering up a real live (dead) body—that of the aforementioned Mr. Wokesley. It falls to Agatha’s loyal housekeeper, Phyllida Bright, to lead the investigation, given her credentials as confidant to the noted author and the fact that she is something of an amateur sleuth in her own right. Murder by Invitation Only is the third book in Colleen Cambridge’s series and the redoubtable Phyllida grows more confident and skilled with each installment. Murder by Invitation Only straddles the line between historical fiction and intricate, Christie-esque suspense quite well, without the cloying cutesiness that can sometimes plague mysteries on the cozier side of things. And Phyllida Bright is simply a gem.

The Traitor

Emma Makepeace, the titular heroine of Ava Glass’ well-received Alias Emma, returns for her next mission in The Traitor. Emma works for the British government intelligence service MI6, in an exceptionally clandestine division known only as “The Agency.” This time out, Emma takes over the caseload of a murdered colleague who met his untimely end while investigating a pair of Russian oligarchs suspected of dealing in chemical weaponry. Emma secures an invite to the uber-yacht of one of the oligarchs, unaware that there is a potential double agent in the Agency fold, and that her cover has likely been well and thoroughly compromised. If by some chance she survives the long odds against her, she will rightly earn her place in the pantheon of superspies alongside James Bond, John Drake and the first avenging Emma, Mrs. Peel. I nominate Charlize Theron for the role of Emma Makepeace if there is ever a film adaptation of this series, which it richly deserves.

A Cold Highland Wind

It is hard to imagine a better opening line for a Scotland-set mystery novel than that of Tasha Alexander’s latest Lady Emily book, A Cold Highland Wind: “At first glance, blood doesn’t stand out on tartan.” The spilled blood belongs to the gamekeeper of Cairnfarn Castle, Angus Sinclair, with whom Lady Emily had shared a spirited dance the night before at the village ceilidh. But in the cold light of morning, it is painfully clear that Sinclair will never again spill a drop of blood, nor will he dance another Highland Reel. Although the main thread of the mystery is set in the year 1905, a fair bit is told in flashbacks to 1676 that are narrated by Tasnim, a formerly enslaved Moorish girl nicknamed Tansy, as her given name is too much of a tongue twister for the pursed English lips of the 17th century. Tasnim has been reluctantly apprenticed to a widow suspected of being a practitioner of the dark arts, which is particularly unfortunate, as witchcraft was punishable by death in 1676 Scotland. As is always the case with the Lady Emily series, there is suspense galore, a colorful cast of characters, spot on period research and whimsical humor throughout—such as a pet crocodile named Cedric. For a time, there is little to connect the two storylines, which initially seem to only share the setting of Cairnfarn Castle, albeit some 229 years apart. You might well ask just how two such disparate Scottish plots could possibly resolve, and in response to this I will simply paraphrase the Bard: “Read on, MacDuff.”

College Cambridge’s historical mystery charms our columnist, plus Ragnar Jonasson teams up with the prime minister of Iceland in this month’s Whodunit column.

When Evelyne Redfern is selected for a position in Winston Churchill’s underground cabinet war rooms, typical new job nervousness is quickly replaced by horror when a colleague is murdered. Soon, the clever and charismatic Evelyne finds herself teaming up with handsome and cagey minister’s aide David Poole in an effort to solve the murder and root out treason amid the ranks—even as bombs fall overhead.

Congratulations on kicking off a new series! Will you introduce us to Evelyne Redfern?
The daughter of a famous English adventurer and a glamorous French socialite, Evelyne Redfern rose to international fame in the 1920s when her parents’ contentious divorce and custody battle placed her firmly in the pages of newspapers and earned her the nickname “The Parisian Orphan.” However, when Evelyne’s mother suddenly died, her father uprooted her from her life in Paris and dumped her in an English boarding school. 

Now in her early 20s and working in a royal ordnance factory as part of the war effort, she’s recruited by an old friend of her parents to work as a typist in Churchill’s cabinet war rooms. However, when Evelyne discovers the body of a fellow typist, she finds herself at the center of the desperate chase for a killer.

You’ve written contemporary romance, historical romance and historical fiction, nearly all set in England. And you’re an American expat living in London. Tell us more about your connection to the U.K.
Although I grew up in Los Angeles, I have the good fortune to be both American and British by birth thanks to my British mother and American father. Because of this, my family has always had a strong connection to the U.K. I chose to study British history at university, and it seemed only natural to write about British history when I began seriously pursuing a publishing career while working as a journalist in New York City. 

Eventually, I decided to move to London to be closer to my immediate family, who had all relocated to the U.K. As I explored my new city, I kept coming across World War II monuments. I became curious, and as I began to read as much as I could about the period, the book ideas began flowing.

“A lot of my compulsion to write about the past is wrapped up in trying to understand the present.”

In your acknowledgements, you share that you’ve always wanted to write a mystery and followed a “long and winding path” to get here. What sorts of twists and turns did you encounter?
I’ve been toying with writing a mystery set in the Churchill War Rooms, which are now a museum, ever since I went to visit with a friend. However, at the time I was already writing historical novels highlighting what British women did during the war and I was also working a day job, so I didn’t think I could add a mystery novel to the mix and still find the time to sleep! That all changed in June 2021 when I quit my day job to write full time. After taking a month off to recharge, I wrote up the pitch for A Traitor in Whitehall and the Parisian Orphan series and sent it to my agent that same week. The rest, as they say, is history.

You do an excellent job of immersing the reader in Evelyne’s daily life, from the line for the shower at her boarding house to the shiver-inducing feeling of working deep underground. What was your research process like?
I really lucked out with living in London and having access to the Churchill War Rooms. (Note to other authors: It is incredibly helpful when there is an entire museum dedicated to the subject of your book!) The Imperial War Museum has a fantastic catalog available online as well as great books. I leaned heavily on an exhibition catalog for the CWR that showed everything from the orange passes that workers would carry to the type of typewriter that was used in the typing pool. 

When it came to researching the rest of the book, I had the good fortune of having written four historical novels set during WWII, so I had a lot of prior knowledge that I could draw on for the details of everyday life during the Blitz.

Book jacket image for A Traitor in Whitehall by Julia Kelly

Evelyne and David conduct numerous interviews as they winnow down their list of suspects, and you’ve created a very in-the-moment feel for those encounters. How did you go about achieving that realism? 
I worked as a TV news producer for six years in New York City, and part of my job was to write the copy that my anchors would read. Writing words that are meant to be read out loud is a very different discipline than writing prose because you have to think about breath and tone and simplicity. (Case and point, that last sentence would be challenging to read off of a teleprompter!) That early training in TV writing still helps me to this day when tackling dialogue in my novels.

Evelyne’s own mother’s death wasn’t properly investigated, influencing her choices and actions. Is the theme of history repeating itself something you are drawn to while writing historical fiction?
A lot of my compulsion to write about the past is wrapped up in trying to understand the present. Most of my research at university was about the evolving role of British women in society, as well as changing class structures. Those two themes thread through a lot of my books because they’re still topics that feel very relevant today.

Evelyne understands the power of gossip in the workplace. Can you share a bit about why you made gossip an important element of the investigation?
When I started writing about an amateur female detective in 1940, I knew that one of the things she would inevitably have to contend with was men constantly underestimating her. Although the male detectives working on the case dismiss her, her eventual sidekick David Poole quickly understands that Evelyne has access to knowledge and information—like office gossip—that he never would. Being a woman is one of Evelyne’s great superpowers.

Female friendships are central to your story, from Evelyne’s long-term bond with aspiring actress Moira to her tentative new rapport with her coworkers and housemates. Why does that sort of affection and loyalty interest you as a writer?
My friendships with other women are such an important part of my life; it would be strange for me not to give my characters those kinds of relationships too. Female characters deserve rich, complex interior lives and relationships that reflect that. I hope that, just as we’re starting to see more layered female characters in television and movies, there will be even more of a push towards literary heroines with rich lives as well.

“Being a woman is one of Evelyne’s great superpowers.”

Evelyne is never without a book, and her favorite authors include Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham. Are you also a reader and devoted fan of these writers? Did they or their work inspire you as you created A Traitor in Whitehall?  
I have been reading mysteries for as long as I can remember, influenced in great part by my mother. She’s such an avid reader of crime fiction that we call the part of my parents’ house where all of those books sit “Murder Hall.” When I told her my idea for A Traitor in Whitehall, she recommended I read The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, which is a wonderful overview of the authors of the age and their works. I quickly realized that I had only scratched the surface of the genre, and I’ve been devouring golden age mysteries ever since to try to catch up.

Police detectives greet Evelyne’s penchant for mystery novels with patronizing dismissiveness. Do you think whodunits are underappreciated? Have you ever found yourself defending your fondness for them?
I think it’s sometimes easy for people to dismiss genre fiction because they think it’s all formulaic. However, I’ve always loved Nora Roberts’ quotation comparing writing category romance to performing “ ‘Swan Lake’ in a phone booth.” I will always defend genre fiction as deceptively sophisticated because, as a writer, you know that your reader will have certain expectations for your book. If you write a mystery novel, the detective needs to have figured out the central puzzle by the end of the book. However, there’s real challenge in writing a fresh, exciting story that manages to surprise the reader along the way.

Who’s your favorite side character (and why is it the slyly fabulous Aunt Amelia)?
Aunt Amelia is absolutely my favorite side character because I think she has the bold straightforwardness I would want if I was a little braver. She also is a woman with a past that’s only hinted at in A Traitor in Whitehall. While I have an idea of what that past is, I’d love to delve deeper into her background because I feel like she has some great stories to tell.

Read our review of ‘A Traitor in Whitehall’ by Julia Kelly.

While writing A Traitor in Whitehall, did any part of the story or characters surprise you?
When I sat down to write A Traitor in Whitehall, I don’t think I had any idea what I was in for. From the very first chapter, Evelyne sprung to life almost fully formed on the page. It felt a bit like she was a runaway train and I was just along for the ride. I think a lot of that comes from the fact that this is my first book written in first-person POV, and I really wanted to make Evelyne’s voice shine through. She’s a determined, curious, intelligent woman who is also a loyal friend. I hope readers will fall in love with her the way that I have!

What’s up next for you—any tidbits you want to share with readers?
I am currently working on the second book in the Parisian Orphan series, which has been such fun to write. The second season of the The History Quill Podcast, which I co-host with the historical novelist Theo Brun, is also underway. The podcast, which is all about writing historical novels, features interviews with well-known and debut authors. It’s been such a pleasure to speak with people who are so generous sharing their experiences with the craft and business of publishing.

Photo of Julia Kelly by Scott Bottles.

Julia Kelly’s first historical mystery, A Traitor in Whitehall, takes readers into Winston Churchill’s secret underground headquarters during World War II.

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