historical fiction · mystery · review

Innocents to the Slaughter, by H.P. Maskew

In their first outing, journalist Ambrose Hudson and Edgar Lawes tackled a corrupt workhouse. In this novel, set in 1839, Innocents to the Slaughter, Hudson and Lawes take on new evils of the Victorian era. This time, it’s child labor and baby farming. Child labor at this time was illegal. Children under the age of nine could not be employed in factories, mines, etc. But because poverty is endemic and large employers want every scrap of profit, there are a lot of blind eyes turned to the practice. On the other hand, baby farming is perfectly legal. There’s no law against paying someone to care for one’s child. But again, poverty tends to relax some people’s inhibitions and it isn’t long before the practice is turned to brutal profit. The two crusaders certainly have their plates full in this episode—especially when an old enemy turns up. 

At the beginning of Innocents to the Slaughter, Hudson and Lawes seem a bit bored with their day jobs. Hudson is eager to go undercover again to dig up material for a new exposé. Lawes isn’t far behind in his enthusiasm to set aside running his estate for a bit and return to being a detective. A letter sent from the north of England to Hudson—one detailing the abusive practices at a textile mill and hinting at possible infanticide—is like a bugle call for the pair. 

Unfortunately for us readers, Hudson and Lawes take a frustratingly long time answering that bugle call. Long chapters are devoted to planning. We are treated to descriptions of travel routes, cover stories, and the like and it’s only in the last third of the novel that things start to get exciting. I suppose, for a journalist and a lawyer, all that groundwork is necessary. After all, Lawes needs to be able to make a case in court if there really is something illegal afoot and Hudson needs to be scrupulous in his research if he wants to affect real change. There were several places were I skimmed over the dialogue because I was getting a bit bored. 

Even though this book isn’t a barnstormer from cover to cover, Innocents to the Slaughter does sterling work in re-creating the grinding poverty of the Industrial Revolution. The descriptions of miserable, cold, dangerous labor; degrading housing conditions; and despair of the working poor seem to come straight from the pen of Henry Mayhew himself. Like Hudson, I was outraged on the behalf of the people who have no recourse to unfair working conditions and no way out of their terrible situations. I was so relieved when Hudson and Lawes were able to get a little bit of justice for the wronged, even if they did have to pay a dreadful (really, really dreadful) price for it. 

Innocents to the Slaughter is, barring some of its slower passages, a rewarding read for people who want historical fiction that brings a time and a place back to life. Maskew is a deft hand at doling out research in such a way that it doesn’t feel like attending a seminar, even if she could have moved things along a little faster than she did. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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historical fiction · mystery · review

The Hangman’s Secret, by Laura Joh Rowland

I arrived late to the party for this series. The Hangman’s Secret is the third book in Laura Joh Roland’s Victorian Mysteries series. Fortunately, there are enough callbacks and exposition for me to feel like I wasn’t missing too much to understand the characters in this fair to middling mystery. There are problems with the writing in this book that almost put me off (discussed below), but the mystery itself was interesting enough that I just had to keep reading. 

Protagonist Sarah Bain, with her partners Lord Hugh Staunton and the very-much-ragtag Mick O’Reilly have become semi-official investigators by The Hangman’s Secret. Sarah has been hired to provide crime scene photos for the ambitious owner of a London newspaper, Sir Gerald. Hugh helps as bodyguard and investigative partner, while Mick keeps his ear to the street to sniff out gristly murders and useful information. Neither Sarah nor Hugh is very happy with this arrangement, but it does pay the bills. As The Hangman’s Secret kicks off, Sarah and Hugh have been summoned to the particularly messy death of a local pub owner and hangman. It might look like the man hanged himself if not for the fact that everyone knows that he was a consummate professional who would never have botched his own hanging. (The details of the botching are definitely not for the squeamish.) 

Sarah et al. are not allowed to treat the hangman’s death as just another job. Sir Gerald, in a fit of inspiration, declares that Sarah’s team and his new hire, a sexist reporter, will solve the mystery before the Metropolitan police. Sarah doesn’t want to be a detective. Her policeman lover definitely doesn’t want her to be a detective, either. But when the man with the purse strings gives an order, it has to be obeyed. Fortunately for Sarah and her partners, the people she interviews are generally willing to cough up all kinds of useful information. The ones who don’t go straight to the top of the list of suspects. 

The way witnesses repeatedly give up information so easily was one of the things that bothered me about this book. It didn’t seem realistic to me the way that characters in late 1880s London would trust Sarah or that they all had such good memories. I was also bothered by Rowland’s missteps in the dialogue. There are a lot of too-modern phrases and sentences that a British English speaker would not say. The wrong notes irritated me. I stuck around because I had my own theories about what happened that I wanted to see confirmed. If nothing else, after reading the complicated Vita NostraThe Hangman’s Secret was a chance for my brain to cool off. 

I’m not interested enough to go back and read the first two books in the series and I doubt I will be keeping an eye out for future entries. I feel let down by The Hangman’s Secret because I know Rowland is a better writer and researcher than this. I really enjoyed her Sano Ichiro series, which is set in Shogunate Japan. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.

mystery · review

The Belting Inheritance, by Julian Symons

Christopher Barrington, the narrator of Julian Symons’ frequently twee mystery The Belting Inheritance, has a complicated relationship with his family. It’s not the kind of complicated relationship we usually see in fiction. Christopher has a fairly good relationship with Lady W and his uncles; it’s only when he’s older that he learns that very few people actually like the Wainwrights of Belting. He also learns, when a possible long-lost relative returns, that the Wainwrights are their own worst enemies. 

Christopher begins his narrative in a way reminiscent of Tristam Shandy. It takes him a long time to get to the point. This may annoy some readers, but the opening of The Belting Inheritance sets up the quirkiness and eccentricity of the Wainwrights. Uncle Myles has the mind of a crossword puzzler. Lady Wainright and Uncle Stephen seem like stock characters from Dickens. Aunt Clarissa and her bull terriers are also from central casting. Christopher seems to be headed towards caricature himself when a man claiming to be one of his uncles, David, believed to have died after being shot down over Germany in 1944, sends a letter to Belting. The letter sets the cat among the pigeons. Lady W is over the moon, but her sons are very much not happy at the thought that their mother is being duped and that their inheritance might be even more diminished. Everyone’s problems get that much worse when the “lost uncle” turns up with a shady lawyer in tow and Christopher trips over a corpse the very next day.

After the corpse appears in the shrubbery at Belting, self-described aesthete Christopher develops “detective fever.” He starts asking his own questions alongside the police. It’s lucky for Christopher that he meets Elaine Sullivan fairly early in his investigation. Elaine is much more savvy than Christopher is, having grow up outside of the strange Belting bubble. Not only did she grow up in the real world, Elaine has some actual experience asking questions and putting the answers together from her work with a small newspaper in Folkestone. Christopher hilariously looses his head when he and Elaine follow the clues tying the mysterious, possibly faux uncle and not just one but two murders over the Channel to France. Thankfully, Elaine keeps him from drifting into a someone’s art project as the clues start to come together on a sea of pastis in Christopher’s brain. 

The Belting Inheritance is another re-published mid-twentieth century mystery and, as such, bears some of the hallmarks of the genre: fiendish puzzles, plenty of surprising reveals, etc. That said, this novel is far from a masterpiece. It’s overly complicated. Christopher’s narration seems more interested in creating little character studies and obscure jokes than anything else. Readers who don’t like twee novels should probably avoid this book; it is unbearably silly at times. Readers who like lateral thinking and possess an English public school education will feel right at home with this novel, even if it does wrap up too neatly at the end.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

literary fiction · mystery · review

The Woman Who Fed the Dogs, by Kristien Hemmerechts

Trigger warning for rape and domestic abuse.

Odette tells us at the beginning of Kristien Hemmerechts’ The Woman Who Fed the Dogs (translated by Paul Vincent) that she is the most hated woman in Belgium, even more than the woman who murdered all five of her children. We don’t know quite what Odette did to land herself in prison, but it has to be bad. Really, really bad. Before we learn what Odette did, we learn everything about how Odette came to be the person who did those things. There’s a tension the runs all the way through The Woman Who Fed the Dogs is how much we believe Odette, and how much we can excuse her in light of what landed her in prison for sixteen years and her husband, M, in prison for the rest of his life.

Odette was probably destined to be the unwitting (possibly unwitting) accomplice to a predator. Her mother was desperately attacked to her, to the point of threatening to harm herself if Odette wanted to go away to camp, sleep over at a friends, or express her sexuality. When Odette meets M, who excites her so much sexually, that it doesn’t take much for her to adjust from her mother’s prickly neediness to M’s more violent, unpredictable, controlling ways. From the outside, both of these relationships are very clearly abusive. Odette’s lawyers and some of the more sympathetic journalists portray here as a weak person, who was manipulated by M. Odette’s version of events belies this, somewhat, because she constantly shows herself to be as fierce a mother as she can be to her three children. 

The Woman Who Fed the Dogs confronts the idea that knowing more about a criminal can mean excusing their behavior. Over and over, Odette excuses M’s behavior and her mother’s behavior by expelling why they are the monsters that everyone else can see that they are. But, even before I learned what M and Odette did, I knew that I could never excuse their behavior. M’s actions are so beyond the pale that it’s a marvel to me that Odette still feels the need to try and rationalize his abuse and his crimes. But she needs to rationalize M’s behavior because that rationalizes her behavior. If M’s parents hadn’t been a nightmare, M might have been able to be satisfied with a monogamous relationship. Because M is not and because he has “trained” Odette to always try to get him what he says he wants, Odette aids and abets M’s crimes. There is a chain of logic there. It’s a terrible logic, which a healthier person would never have to work out for themselves. And yet, to a warped personality like Odette’s, it’s baffling that other people can’t understand her. 

Odette blames her fatigue, her mental health, her need to care for her children on scant resources, and M’s abuse for everything. And yet, Odette lets slip things that make her less of a victim that she might want us to think. Later in the book, she tells us that she knew what was going on in the cellar of her husband’s house. (This is where the title is explained at last.) She chose not to do something for which she is down being punished because she says she was tired and overwhelmed. But I think that the prosecutors and the journalists who condemn Odette are right: her excuses wear thin when we examine them. 

The Woman Who Fed the Dogs is a hard read, even though it’s only briefly graphic. M’s crimes are referred to just enough to let us know what landed the pair of them in prison. Thankfully, Odette doesn’t give us any more. Paul Vincent’s translation perfectly captures her voice and her inconsistencies to give us Hemmerechts’ disturbing meditation on abuse and culpability loud and clear. I enjoyed this book a lot, even though the subject matter is very dark, because it’s one of the best psychological portraits I’ve read in a long time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 8 Junary 2019.

mystery · review · thriller

A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church

North Korea, as portrayed in James Church’s gripping novel,  A Corpse in the Koryo, is not just a place. It’s also a Kafkaesque nightmare of rigid conformity, alternate histories, and lots of things way above Inspector O’s pay grade. This first novel in the series set up not just Inspector O’s jurisdiction—the hotels, restaurants, and other commercial operations in Pyongyang—but his character. O is an unconventional detective in probably the worst place to be an unconventional detective. He doesn’t wear his pin with the Leader’s portrait. He has a habit of polishing wood that seems to drive everyone nuts. Worst of all, he keeps asking inconvenient questions when he’s repeatedly told to stick to his patch. All of this makes for a great read, with a great character, in a fascinating setting. 

We meet Inspector O in the middle of what seems to be a bureaucratic tangle of the right hand not knowing what the left is up to. He’s been tasked with taking a picture of a car from a certain hill, at a certain time. But the camera batteries are dead and O gets the impression that the driver of the car knows he’s there. This strange incident, paired with scenes obviously set later as O is being debriefed by an agent of British intelligence, tell us that O is operating in deep waters. If we needed any more clues that O had been caught up in someone else’s schemes, his supervisor (and friend) sends him away from the city to a border town. The spy shenanigans kick into high gear, with O (and us) none the wiser about what the hell is going on.

Because this is North Korea, nothing goes the way we might expect. There are bodies at the beginning of the novel, but O isn’t put in charge of an actual murder case until partway through the book. When O’s murder victim does turn up, a man who’s possibly Finnish in a hotel set up for foreign visitors in Pyongyang, he’s almost completely hand-cuffed by people who don’t want him to ask too many questions. Nothing is as it seems in the case, as O slowly starts to piece together clues and conspiracies.

A Corpse in the Koryo had me completely hooked even before the bullets started flying. The mystery had me engagingly puzzled, but I absolutely loved the moments when O reflects on his Revolutionary hero grandfather. This grandfather taught him how to create beautiful things from wood—and how to keep his private thoughts to himself, his doubts, to himself and navigate the place that their country had become. It’s hard to say whether or not O believes in the Revolution as he encounters scam artists, hypocrites, true believers, and fellow travelers. All I can say is that O is still loyal to his country, as strange and dangerous as it is. This is truly a fascinating book.

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Blood, by E.S. Thomson

40529262The Blood, by E.S. Thomson, sees the return of apothecary Jem Flockhart and architect Will Quartermain for their third mystery. This time, the pair keep stumbling across bodies as Jem tries to figure out what happened to her friend, an apothecary on a floating hospital, a decommissioned navel vessel called The Blood, now permanently docked in the Thames. The case sends Jem and her fiend Will deep into the world of the medical experiments and the lives of former sex workers in mid-1800s, low class London.

Jem, for those who aren’t familiar with this series, is a woman who has lived her entire life as a man. Women were not allowed to be apothecaries. (At the time, women weren’t allowed to do much of anything.) She has her own apothecary shop and an apprentice to help with the boring bits. Jem seems like she’s enjoying a bit of quiet when she receives a disturbing note from her old friend, Aberlady, the apothecary on duty aboard The Blood. The note took a week to get to Jem and it doesn’t take long for her to learn that it is much too late to save Aberlady. Bodies start appearing before Aberlady reappears and meets his own death.

For most of the book, Jem and Will fail to make traction in the case. So many of the witnesses won’t talk or only give up chickenfeed after extorting money out of the duo. One witness is sinking into dementia. On top of all this, Jem has taken on Aberlady’s duties and Will is busy working on a demolition of a warehouse near The Blood (where they find even more bodies). The clues refuse to come together, at least until near the end of the book when emotions run so high that something has to give. When that happens, all hell breaks us.

I enjoy these books for Jem’s unique perspective as a woman in disguise in a highly sexist society. The Blood, like the other books in the series, are very good at showing us the strange in-between place that Jem in habits. She lives among men. She’s spent her entire life pretending to be a man and doing nothing to raise their suspicious. Interestingly, she’s picked up a bit of casual sexism herself. She has more than one run in with the fierce Miss Proudlove, a wonderful character for more reasons than I can go into here. These run ins set Jem back on her heels, reminding her of her obligations to her gender and to people who are told they can’t be something because they’re not a white male of the right class.

Readers who are interested in The Blood should read the first two books in the series, Beloved Poison and Dark Asylum. Jem and Will are still dealing with emotional baggage from those outings; The Blood doesn’t waste time recounting what happened apart from a few references.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 4 December 2018.

mystery · review · thriller

Find You in the Dark, by Nathan Ripley

36632316Fiction is a lot tidier than real life. For the most part, anyway. Villains are punished. Heroes are rewarded. Lovers get together and families are reunited. But, every now and then, I’ll read a book that leaves me unsatisfied and unsettled. Find You in the Dark, by Nathan Ripley, is one of those. It left a bad taste in my brain because the protagonist, Martin Reese, does terrible things and nothing happens the way narratives usually dictate. Normally this wouldn’t bother me. After all, I love books that play around with expectations. My problem with Find You in the Dark is that the ending smacks of rich, white, male privilege. The mystery is resolved, but it feels completely unearned.

Find You in the Dark has a fascinating premise. I picked this book up because Martin Reese, a retired dot-com millionaire, spends his time looking for the remains of the victims of serial killers that were never recovered by the police. The reviews made Reese sound like a modern day forensic archaeologist who wants to bring justice and closure to people who never learned what happened to their loved ones. It wasn’t long, however, before the book starts dropping disturbing hints about Reese’s real motivation. Not only does Reese leave taunting messages for the police, sneering at them for their inability to find victims’ remains, he also gets a kind of pleasure from digging up remains that made me feel like I had lifted the lid off of something nasty.

The novel switches between Reese’s perspective and that of Detective Sandra Whittal, who is obsessed with figuring out who the “Finder” is, and a man who becomes Reese’s nemesis. The three come together, so to speak, at the site of Reese’s latest find. He thought he was recovering the remains of his wife’s sister, who was killed by a serial killer who was later caught and executed before the book opens. But when he digs up the body, Reese finds the body of a woman who was killed much more recently. The main action kicks off immediately as Reese panics and his unknown enemy starts escalating his mental torture of Reese.

Unfortunately, Reese remained creepy to me throughout the story. I was unable to completely sympathize with him because of his taunting of the police and the almost sexual pleasure he takes in digging up remains. On top of that, the writing frustrated me. Because Reese and his nemesis are so paranoid about physical evidence, Whittal can only try to Sherlock Holmes her way to a solution. There are some breathtaking leaps of deduction that are close-but-not-quite-right that bothered me. (Whittal’s partner chides her more than once for this.) Whittal’s initial thoughts are on target, only to go wildly off track. Reese does a bit of the same in trying to figure out who is tormentor is the same. Unlike Holmes, whose logic is invariable unassailable, Whittal and Reese’s struck me as flimsy.

What bothered me most about Find You in the Dark is the ending, which offended my sense of justice. I won’t reveal the ending, in case anyone wants to try it for themselves. I kept reading, in spite of the leaps of logic and my dislike of Reese, because I wanted to see how Reese would get himself out of his impossible situation. But while the plot threads are mystery are resolved in a way that ordinarily might have pleased me, Find You in the Dark just left me cold.