Holmes Entangled, by Gordon McAlpine

35569734I’ve only read a few of the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. For some reason, I’ve been more interested in the character’s afterlife in other authors’ hands. In Holmes Entangled, by Gordon McAlpine, we have a fresh take on the immortal detective. The novel begins with a discovery by writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges. Borges takes a manuscript he found to an unnamed PI that Borges dreamed of but who inexplicably exists. The manuscript appears to be written by Sherlock Holmes and covers what might be his real last case.

The manuscript begins with Holmes’ retirement. Instead of becoming a beekeeper in Sussex, Holmes began disguising himself as academics, studying up on various subjects, and lecturing at Oxford and Cambridge. The game seems to help keep his brain occupied, but it’s clear that it’s not a thrilling existence. Then, out of the blue, Holmes gets a visit from Arthur Conan Doyle, who tells him a very strange story about a séance, a ghostly prime minister who is still alive, and someone taking a shot at the author. Holmes leaps back into action, only to find a case that is weirder than he could have anticipated.

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Image via Wikicommons

Because Holmes (or, this version of Holmes) is writing his own story, we learn a lot more about his beliefs, insecurities, values, and the like. He reflects on what it was like having John Watson tell his story for him, for creating the great Sherlock Holmes out of his cases. He also laments his fame. I think he likes having to outsmart people but, at 73, he’s getting a bit tired of dodging fans and going around in disguises.

What Holmes turns up in his investigation is truly incredible. I won’t reveal exactly what Holmes finds; that would ruin it. I can say that I love this take on Holmes and on the nature of fiction and authorship. Holmes Entangled is a great book for readers who like to think of characters as having a real life of their own.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.

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Rainbirds, by Clarissa Goenawan

33026565Ren Ishida arrives in Akakawa, Japan, for the worst reason. His sister was murdered there. He has come from Tokyo to pack up her things and scatter her ashes. When he learns that there are no suspects and that no one seems to have a clue about what happened, Ren stays. Rainbirds, by Clarissa Goenawan, is an unusual novel of grief and discovery.

Akakawa is a strange place. The first thing that we know about its strangeness is the way that Ren is invited by the people who knew his sister, Keiko, to take her place. He is offered her job teaching English. Her landlord lets Ren stay in her room under the same conditions Keiko was given: getting lunch for his wife and reading English novels to her. Keiko’s friends talk to Ren about her. It’s puzzling. And yet, no one is very forthcoming about her murder. Still, Ren asks questions and learns more about the secrets his sister was keeping.

Apart from the murder, Ren struggles with his sorrow and aimlessness after her death. Their parents were mostly absent while they were growing up. Keiko took care of her brother, cooked for him, and quizzed him about his girlfriends. She was the most important person in her life. Rainbirds is as much about Ren processing her death and absence in her life as it is about finding out who killed her.

Rainbirds is ostensibly a mystery, but this does get a bit lost at times as Ren learns more about his sister’s life. He does eventually figure things out, though I wasn’t entirely satisfied with his solution. I suppose it’s sort of fitting that Keiko’s life is treated as more important than her death. This is a bit frustrating for readers looking for a mystery. I admit to being a bit frustrating my life. What I found instead was a story about the ripples a woman’s life can cause to the lives around it, and the hole that’s left when she’s gone.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018

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Forty Dead Men, by Donis Casey

36035804George Tucker doesn’t know what he wants when he returns to the family farm in Boynton, Oklahoma after serving in World War I. He has blackouts and is hiding from memories of things that happened in France. George, known as Gee Dub by his family, retreats to a quiet wood every day to get some quiet and avoid his mother’s insightful questions. One day, he sees an exhausted woman walking in the rain. His protective instincts take over and land him in a world of trouble. Fortunately, his mother, Alafair, has experience investigating crimes. Forty Dead Men, by Donis Casey, is the tenth book in the series.

Forty Dead Mean is leisurely about setting up its mystery. It’s hard to be sure what’s relevant and what’s a red herring—which is something I very much enjoy. Sorting clues from dross adds verisimilitude to mysteries, I think, because a genuine investigation is going to kick up all kinds of interesting information about the people involved with a crime. And this case is certainly interesting. By the time the main crime actually happens, we have a soldier dead from Spanish Flu, bigamy, and mistaken identities.

The characters in Forty Dead Men are my favorite part of the novel. Even though this is the tenth book in the series and I haven’t read any of them, the characters are fully realized. I felt for Gee Dub, who is clearly a good man but who doesn’t consider the possible consequences of his actions. He struggles with post-traumatic stress and a brain injury. I also felt for Holly Thornberry, the woman who was walking in the rain. She is he unfortunate victim of an unscrupulous man. She is even less considerate of consequences than Gee Dub, which makes them an entertaining pair to watch. Gee Dub was always there to rescue her when she did something dramatically foolish. Alafair, however, is the beating heart of this book. (I expect she is in every series entry.) She is sharp and deeply caring. She’ll do anything to protect her kin. When Gee Dub gets in trouble, she mobilizes her vast family to help him. No one can resist her—at least, not for long.

I enjoyed Forty Dead Men a lot. More than I expected, to be honest. When I first learned that the primary detective was an Oklahoma grandmother, I was dubious. I requested this book from Edelweiss because of the soldier-with-PTSD element. The more I read, the more I liked Forty Dead Men. The mystery (which I have tried not to spoil in anyway in this review) is wonderfully constructed. It kept me guessing right to the end. And that ending! It was….I’m afraid any adjective I use will give things away. Let’s just say that I thought the ending was terrific.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 February 2018.

Seven Dead, by J. Jefferson Farjeon

34862888One might think that the worst thing that could happen to a burglar would be getting caught. But, in J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Seven Dead (a rescued mystery from 1939), not only does the burglar get caught, he also gets caught fleeing the scene of a country house with a room full of dead bodies. From there, Inspector Kendell and journalist Ted Hazeldean take the case. Seven Dead has twist after twist; some these may strain credulity, so be warned.

Seven Dead begins as a locked-room mystery. A burglar discovers six dead men and one dead woman. The bodies show no wounds and, before their deaths, were clearly in straightened circumstances. The shutters were nailed shut. The chimney was stuffed with paper. And the lock to the door is on the outside. Oh, and there’s a bullet hole in a portrait of a young girl. Inspector Kendall, who has a dim view of the abilities of the local constabulary, jumps into action. Ted Hazeldean, a journalist who was in the right place at the right time to capture the fleeing burglar, becomes Kendall’s eager partner in figuring out what happened.

First, we follow Hazeldean as he tracks the owners of the house to Boulonge, France. It is immediately clear that there’s something not right about the owners and the people they’re staying with in France. He gets followed from the docks, locked in a room, and worse—all clearly signs that he’s on the right track. Next, we switch over to Kendall, who draws on all his resources and skill for lateral thinking to work through the puzzle. When they join forces once more, things get really exciting.

I didn’t like Seven Dead as much as I liked the novels of Raymond Postgate (Verdict of Twelve, Somebody at the Door), two other books that were rescued from obscurity by Poisoned Pen Press. Though I suspect that has more to do with my own personal preference for books that mess around with genre and metafiction. Seven Dead is more traditional and provides plenty of clues and red herrings for readers to ponder over. I also had some issues with where the central conspiracy went but, again, that might be a matter of preference.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 6 February 2018.

On the House, by H.P. Maskew

36011536The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was, like many laws before and since, supposed to make life better for people so poor they had to rely on the charity of their communities while also discouraging dependence on that charity. Unfortunately, there are always people who are more than willing to take advantage of people who have no other options and know they won’t get caught because their employers feel that the poor should somehow be punished because they are poor. On the House, by H.P. Maskew, is set in the crosshairs of the problem of what to do with the people who are too poor to support themselves and can’t find work.

The first half of On the House is narrated by Edgar Lawes. Edgar has a good position in Seddon, Suffolk. He’s independently wealthy, a landowner, and works as the local justice of the peace. It’s clear at the beginning of the novel that he’s got a little too much time on his hands and his utilitarian upbringing is goading him to do more than hand out fines and drink sherry in parlors while avoiding marriage-minded mamas. When his radical and excitable friend, Ted Lake, reports that there are sinister things going on at the local poorhouse, Edgar joins the poorhouse board and starts investigating. Edgar moves slowly, like a good lawyer cautiously building an ironclad case. Edgar does some good, but doesn’t work fast enough to prevent a suicide and a nasty murder.

The second half of the book is mostly narrated by Henry Millhouses, aka Ambrose Hudson. Henry is an investigative journalist for a London newspaper who has built a reputation for going undercover and reporting on the horrible conditions of factory workers in northern England. Henry and his editor have turned their sites on conditions inside poorhouses for their next exposé. Henry is eligible for the Seddon poorhouse and lies his way inside. Edgar’s section only hints at how bad things are inside the poorhouse; Henry’s explicitly lays out how bad it really is. He also gives us a few more hints about what happened to the dead men.

On the House is not constructed like a typical mystery. The deaths don’t happen until a third of the way through the book and, while there are investigations into those deaths, Edgar and Henry’s focus is clearly on reforming the poorhouse. Throughout the book we meet characters who are only minimally sympathetic to the poorhouse inmates. Even though most of the people in the poorhouse are only there because of bad luck and accidents that are no fault of their own, the poorhouse board are reluctant to do anything more than what the law requires. They let their employees, the monstrous Mr. and Mrs. Calman, run the house as cheaply as possible and overlook their abuse of the poor.

Readers of Dickens or mid-nineteenth century social history will enjoy this book, I think. I did, because I am fascinated by historical fiction that looks at the realities of the past rather than presenting a nostalgic version of history. Readers who want a more straightforward mystery may be irritated by the way the Henry and Edgar’s attention moves on from the deaths so quickly. I admit to being puzzled by this, personally. It seems odd to me that a justice of the peace with a passion for fairness would act the way Edgar does. Apart from these problems, I rather liked On the House and am curious to see where the series goes.

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

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, by Alan Bradley

34837078Flavia de Luce cannot go anywhere without discovering a dead body. In her ninth adventure, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, by Alan Bradley, is no exception. Flavia is on a holiday with her sisters and the faithful Dogger when she sticks her hands into a drowned man’s mouth while boating. Her sisters are, naturally, distressed. Flavia and Dogger go right to work. They identify a number of clues before the local constable can even get to the scene. But it takes a lot of legwork before Flavia can figure out what happened to the dead man—and unravel a possible miscarriage of justice from two years earlier.

Flavia and her sisters are in a difficult spot at the beginning of The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place. Their father died six months earlier. Flavia has been kicked out of boarding school. And their dreadful Aunt Felicity has plans for them that none of them like. Dogger’s suggestion of a holiday in Volesthorpe is a relief for the trio. Flavia is most intrigued by Volesthorpe because it was the home of Canon Whitbread, who was convicted of poisoning three elderly women in his parish. Discovering a dead man who turns out to be the canon’s relative gives Flavia plenty of opportunities to ask questions and get into trouble.

The trouble with reviewing mysteries is treading the fine line between revealing just enough to tempt other readers into reading the book and not giving away so much that it gives away the game. I can say that there are plenty of twists and turns in The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place. I enjoyed how messy it was. This is not an easy case to solve. I honestly gave up trying to beat Flavia to the punch. Instead, I tried to keep track of the clues and the red herrings and witnesses/potential suspects and let the answer come to me without forcing it. I wanted to applaud Flavia and Dogger when they arrived at the solution.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 30 January 2018.

King Zeno, by Nathaniel Rich

35259559Nathaniel Rich’s King Zeno is the second novel I’ve read recently that takes on the Axeman Murders of New Orleans—which is fitting since it’s been a century since the still-unsolved murders were committed. (Read my review of The Axeman, by Ray Celestin.) This fictional take on the murders rotates between a police officer with PTSD, a widow who heads a major construction project in the city, and a jazz cornet player. King Zeno is stuffed with the sights and sounds of New Orleans in the winter of 1917-1918. At times, the Axeman Murders get a lost as the characters witness the evolution of hot jazz, weather the Spanish Flu epidemic, and the construction of the city’s industrial canal.

New Orleans police officer Billy Bastrup, one of our three narrators, is having a hard time doing his job. Being a cop in New Orleans has never been easy, but Billy is haunted by an incident that happened while he was a soldier in France during the Great War. He’s not always sure he’s not hallucinating. Meanwhile, his marriage is falling apart, two Black men are committing armed robbery on the city streets, and the Axeman Murders are immanent.

Beatrice Vizzini has all the makings of a criminal mastermind. She inherited her husband’s “shadow business” after his death, but now she wants to go legitimate by having her company build a canal connecting the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Unfortunately, her disturbing son is reluctant to let go of the shadow business because it gives him such an excellent outlet for his violent urges.

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Kid Ory, seen here with Louis Armstrong in 1918, appears as a character in King Zeno.

Our last narrator is Slim Izzy Zeno, a jazz musician who has a gift for making his trumpet talk and shout and howl. While Billy and Beatrice are interesting, fully realized characters, I really enjoyed reading about Izzy because he provides an entrée to the world of hot jazz, one of my favorite music genres. Whenever I read an Izzy chapter, I wanted more and was kind of reluctant to go back to reading about the other narrators’ woes.

King Zeno is a bit of a mishmash. If you’re not familiar with the Axeman Murders, it might be hard to see how things are going to link up. Because I read Celestin’s The Axeman, I knew about some of the intersections in advance. I’m actually glad about this. Knowing ahead of time about some of the book’s twists kept me from getting frustrated with Rich as more and more things happened to his characters that weren’t about what I would’ve thought was a major point in any story set in 1917-1918 New Orleans.

Perhaps a better way of selling this book is to say that it’s a story about a time and place, not about any particular event. King Zeno is a book to slide into and is one of the best representations of the idea of what New Orleans is (at least to people who don’t actually live there). This book is full of sin and music and I enjoyed those parts immensely.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 9 January 2018.

The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey

35133064Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill rings a lot of my bells: tough, original female protagonist; intriguing mystery; and a richly described setting that teaches me about a time and place I’ve never read about before. In this book, we are whisked away to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1921 to tag along with the first female lawyer. Perveen Mistry, a Parsi woman, usually works on contracts, wills, and other legal paperwork (since she’s not allowed to appear in court) when she finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation.

Perveen has a protective streak when it comes to women who have been wronged by the legal system. (We find out why in increasingly heartbreaking flashbacks to Perveen’s marriage.) When she sees some suspicious things in paperwork asking for three widows’ dowries to be transferred to a wakf (Muslim charity). The signatures are wrong and the whole thing seems strange. So, Perveen takes her briefcase and heads over to their home to start asking questions. The widows live in purdah, which means that Perveen’s gender is a virtue for once. She can enter the zenana, the secluded part of their home. Unfortunately, Perveen’s questions stir up trouble. When she has to return to pick up her misplaced briefcase, she discovers that the man who runs the household for the women has been murdered.

Even though the practice of purdah is meant to keep women hidden away from the rest of the world, these widows’ zenana is full of secret scandals. Each chapter takes us deeper into the three widows’ lives and their worldly concerns about money, security, and their children’s futures. Perveen is a sensitive advocate for the widows. Because of her upbringing as the daughter of a renowned Bombay lawyer, she’s grown up knowing that lawyers have to weave between secular, traditional, colonial, and religious legal systems. Where another woman might have tried to push the women out of purdah, Perveen understands the widows’ boundaries and acts as a fierce advocate for them as the police blunder their way through the murder investigation.

The mystery and Perveen are wonderful, but what I liked most about The Widows of Malabar Hill was the way it took me back to the Bombay of 1921. This book brings a world back to life, full of sights and smells (there are a lot of meals in this book that made me want to rush to the nearest Indian restaurant). This book will be a great read for people who want to be transported while they try to out-investigate a mystery novel’s protagonist.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 9 January 2018.

The Coroner’s Daughter, by Andrew Hughes

32191820Andrew Hughes’ The Coroner’s Daughter is an entertaining book about a girl who refuses to stay put or stop asking questions. Abigail Lawless, unlike many other girls in early nineteenth century Dublin, was indulged by her coroner father, so she never “learned her place.” It’s a good thing she didn’t, because then the deaths of an infant, his mother, and several others would have remained a mystery.

In the Dublin of 1816, a ruling of death by suicide not only meant that cause of death might not be determined but also that the body could not be buried in consecrated ground. I bring this up because it encapsulates the major conflict in this book of science and rationality against religious fundamentalism. Abigail and her father get caught in the middle because they have to tread lightly between a powerful religious cadre, the status quo, and their determination to see justice done and truth outed.

I enjoyed the irrepressible Abigail a lot, but I found myself disappointed by the conclusion to The Coroner’s Daughter. At the risk of saying too much, I think the solution to the mystery was too muddled and too much of a commentary on the conflict between religion and science. When I thought the solution was a matter of human failings, I was much more engaged in the story. That said, Abigail makes up for a lot on this book and I’m glad that the coda at the end leaves an opening for a sequel.

Beloved Poison, by E.S. Thomson

28933550E.S. Thomson’s Beloved Poison is a slow burn of a mystery, at least until a third of the way through and someone finally gets murdered. Then the corpses proliferate and our protagonist gets followed by thugs and it’s clear we’re finally off to the races. In addition to the twisty mystery, Beloved Poison offers a look inside a London hospital in 1846, a time when the old guard surgeons (with coats so stiff with blood they could stand on their own) were starting to lose ground to up-and-comers who talked about radical notions like antisepsis.

St. Saviour’s Hospital is almost in worse shape than many of the Londoners who come there for treatment. The hospital governors have made a deal to sell the land to a railway company and rebuild elsewhere. Jem Flockhart, our protagonist, is not happy about this. Jem grew up in the hospital, working for her apothecary father, and does not want to start over somewhere else. (Jem is disguised as a man so that she can work. This isn’t a spoiler since Jem’s biological sex is revealed fairly early in the book.) She’s even more annoyed when she has to share space with Will Quartermain, the young architect who’s been hired to relocate the bodies in St. Saviour’s cemetery.

In the first third of Beloved Poison, we learn a lot about Dr. Bain and why several people at the hospital might want to kill him. He’s the first victim in this book, but only because Jem and Will discovered six strange, witchy paper coffins with dolls behind a decaying wall in the hospital chapel. Jem has an inquiring mind and she immediately starts to ask questions about where the dolls came from. Unfortunately, the dolls turn out to be the tip of a gristly iceberg. The mystery is baffling—both to Jem and Will, and to me—and it takes a lot of investigating, interviewing, and ratiocinating to get to the bottom of everything.

I really liked Jem. Her gender and sexuality are fascinating. She can’t fully be a Victorian man (because so many of them expect to spend time at the local brothels), but she can’t become a woman because she has neither the interest or the talent for it. Jem’s outsider status gives her a critical eye for how men and women relate to each other in her narrow, hierarchical world. The fact that she’s in love with the top surgeon’s daughter is a tantalizing addition to the story.

Between the setting and the unusual mystery, I was quite entertained by Beloved Poison. It could have used a bit more editing, I think, to smooth the rough transitions and develop the ending a bit more. I feel that the characters and their backstories threatened (often) to become more engrossing than the actual mystery. Beloved Poison could easily have become a sprawling, Dickensian slice-of-life bildungsroman—and I think I would have loved the book even more for it.