The Wages of Sin, by Kaite Welsh

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The Wages of Sin

It seems like everything is against Sarah Gilchrist in The Wages of Sin, by Kaite Welsh. She’s enrolled in one of the first classes of women in the University of Edinburgh’s medical school, so she faces harassment by the male students and staff. Because of an incident in her past, she is shunned by several of the female students. Her aunt and uncle—the only members of her family currently speaking to her—are pious, traditional people who want to marry Sarah off as quickly as possible. As if this wasn’t enough to cope with, a patient Sarah sees at the clinic where she volunteers turns up dead in the University’s anatomy lab the next day. Sarah, being the determined young woman she is, dives right into the mystery.

I would have been hooked by The Wages of Sin even if it hadn’t been a mystery. I am a sucker for medical history and this book plunged me right into the thick of it by dropping me into Sarah Gilchrist’s head as she tries to overcome her trepidation in the anatomy lab. We spend a day with Sarah as she braves school and the free clinic—with its testy, unwashed patients—before the main action kicks off. At the clinic, we meet Lucy, a young prostitute who begs the doctor to give her an abortion (which was illegal at the time). The next day, Sarah gets a nasty shock when she recognizes Lucy on the anatomy lab table. Sarah begins to ask questions in places that are entirely unsuitable for a young lady of her status and reputation because she knows that no one else will. In Edinburgh of the 1890s, no one seems to miss one more prostitute.

While Sarah tries to manage school and her relatives, she digs deeper and deeper into Lucy’s life. Unfortunately for her, she often charges down blind alleys and makes enemies along the way. One of those enemies, her very own professor Merchiston, fascinates her in a way that readers of romance novels will recognize—though Sarah resists and the plot doesn’t make it easy for her to get past her first impressions of the man. Sarah’s blunders make the story that much more believable for me; I distrust amateur detectives who are too confident and capable on their first case.

The only thing I did have a problem with in this genuinely engrossing novel was the ending. I felt the solution to the mystery came too soon and didn’t make much sense considering where Sarah had spent her efforts. I can forgive this because I really enjoyed Sarah and Merchiston’s characters. (This is also a debut novel and I expect a few hiccups in a debut.) The ending of The Wages of Sin makes it clear that more adventures are in store for Sarah and the professor. I look forward to seeing them again in future novels.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017.

Snowblind, by Ragnar Jónasson

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Snowblind

In addition to all the other factors that make a book enjoyable—effective pacing, interesting character development, solid plotting—mysteries demand that writers carefully dole out information as needed for the reader to either solve the puzzle at the right time or trick the reader in a series of plot twists. Neither of those things happen in Ragnar Jónasson’s Snowblind, unfortunately. I don’t fault the translator, Quentin Bates, for the flaws in this novel. All the problems are structural. In fact, this book has so many fundamental issues that I wonder it’s garnered praise from the people who supplied the blurbs.

Snowblind is set in a remote town in northern Iceland. Siglufjörður is so far off the beaten track that it often becomes inaccessible in winter. The town is tight knit, the kind of place where everyone knows about everyone’s history and business. It would have been a tough nut to crack for any incoming policeman, let alone a rookie like Ari Thór Arason. He only take the job because the head police officer in Siglufjörður made him an offer and Ari Thór is used to being picked last, if at all. His first few days in the town lull him into thinking that Siglufjörður really is as boring as advertised. Then a famous writer is found dead in the local theater and a woman is discovered nearly dead in her own snowy backyard.

Snowblind should have been a tense, short mystery/thriller. It would have been if an editor had sat down with Jónasson and talked him out of the out-of-place victim’s perspectives, extensive histories of characters who turned out not to be involved in the crime, and the detective’s mooning over his distant girlfriend and the nearby woman he’s attracted to. (The editor should also have fixed the continuity errors while they were at it.) Of course, if you’d cut all that out, there wouldn’t be much book left.

I picked up Snowblind for two reasons. First, Iceland fascinates me. I very much want to visit some day and I love the fact that there are still people in the world speaking a Viking language. Second, I really enjoyed the Inspecter Erlender series by Arnaldur Indriðason. I was hoping to find something that could help fill the void. Although I enjoyed the descriptions of Siglufjörður, this book was uniformly awful.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 31 January 2017.

A Fierce and Subtle Poison, by Samantha Mabry

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A Fierce and Subtle Poison

People have always told stories about the house at the end of Calle Sol. They say it belongs to a mad scientist whose wife cursed it. They say a green-skinned witch girl lives there. People throw wishes written on paper over the wall around the house, hoping that the witch will grant them. But no one ever goes there, so no one really knows what’s going on. In A Fierce and Subtle Poison, by Samantha Mabry, protagonist Lucas will get closer to figuring out the house’s mysteries than anyone.

Lucas lives a charmed life in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His father is a rich white developer and Lucas has never had to work. Every summer, he lives in his father’s hotel and lives it up with his three friends, drinking and trying to get into girls’ shorts. He’s spoiled, but at least he knows it. He tries not to be too much of a gringo. He’s always been curious about the house at the end of Calle Sol and, the summer he turns 17, he actually makes contact with someone who lives in the house. One night, Marisol, the girl Lucas is trying to hook up with, makes a wish and throws it over the wall. The next day, she disappears and a note appears in Lucas’s hotel room telling him that Marisol’s wish can’t be granted.

Over the next several weeks, Lucas will end up in the middle of a mystery involving missing girls, the aforementioned mad scientist, and a girl who poisons everything she comes in contact with. This is not a metaphor. The first time Lucas meets Isabel, she demonstrates her condition by blowing on a wasp and killing it in midair.

Isabel ends up being the most interesting character in A Fierce and Subtle Poison, followed closely by her father, Dr. Ford. Dr Ford fits it in nicely to the rich tradition of crazed scientists who are willing to do anything to achieve their goals. Isabel is something special, though. Her condition (for lack of a better word) has left her isolated, raised by her father’s strict rationality and his memories of her Taíno mother. She’s odd, conflicted, and longs to be independent.

I really wish that this novel had been narrated from Isabel’s perspective. Not only would her story have offered a fascinating insight into a juicy ethical dilemma, but I wouldn’t have had to put up with Lucas’s first world problems as much. There was a lot of build up about the house on Calle Sol and its mysterious inhabitants at the beginning of A Fierce and Subtle Poison and, despite Lucas’s very interesting hallucinations, the narrative didn’t do enough with the stranger elements of backstory for me. Instead, I was left with an easily solvable puzzle and a dose of disappointment.

The Infidel Stain, by M.J. Carter

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The Infidel Stain

One of the lesser tropes of detective fiction is that the detective knows he or she is on the right track when some goon appears and tries to warn them off, sometimes violently. The problem with this method of mystery-solving in M.J. Carter’s The Infidel Stain (sequel to the very enjoyable The Strangler Vine) is that Jem Blake and William Avery uncover so much dirty laundry that they get attacked by a variety of goons under orders from several different characters. It’s a wonder that the pair of them survive the book in one piece.

The novel opens in 1841, three years after Blake and Avery parted in India. Blake, who has become an inquiry agent for the wealthy, has received a new commission that also asks for his former comrade Avery. They have been asked to look into the ghastly murders of two printers in the poorer parts of London by Viscount Allington, a philanthropist and up-and-comer in Parliament. Before long, Blake and Avery turn up links between the murder victims, blackmail, and possible sedition. It’s all very interesting but nothing adds up to point to a viable suspect. There’s just no proof of anything.

In The Strangler Vine, Avery was very naive about world beyond the imperialist propaganda he’s grown up with. In The Infidel Stain, he’s more savvy about the world but still has much to learn about the way most people really live. In both books, he functions as our entry point into the London of Chartists, pornographers, Peelers, journalists, and desperate poverty. Through Avery’s eyes, we see just how bad life was for poor Londoners, many of them skilled craftspeople who were turfed out after industrialization. Welfare (other than the workhouse) did not exist in 1841. The franchise had not yet been extended beyond property owners. The parts of the city Blake and Avery roam through seem utterly hopeless.

Though motives and suspects proliferate throughout The Infidel Stain, I loved how Carter brought the mystery full circle by the end of the book. The clues to the real villain can been found here and there through the book, so the solution didn’t come out of nowhere. I found it very satisfying. I also enjoyed my trip around London in 1841. There are passages that reminded me of Charles Dickens’s and Henry Mayhew‘s writing about the London rookeries of the time. (No doubt this is on purpose because Dickens makes a brief cameo in this book and Mayhew has an important supporting role.) Carter has a gift for bringing it all back to grimy, miserable life.

The Unquiet Dead, by Ausma Zehanat Khan

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The Unquiet Dead

Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty are two Toronto police officers who have the unenviable job of working “sensitive” cases involving Canada’s immigrant community. Not only do they have to solve mysteries and see justice done, they have the added pressure of keeping a lid on things so that they don’t become a media nightmare for the government. The Unquiet Dead, by Ausma Zehanet Khan, is the first book in a planned series featuring the two characters. If the mystery at the center of this book is anything to judge by, Khattak and Getty deserve a raise. As The Unquiet Dead opens, it’s not clear that there is a crime to solve. A rich man appears to have died after an accidental fall. Khattak and Getty don’t know why they’ve been called in exactly, until evidence surfaces that the rich man might have been a Serbian war criminal.

Khattak is the senior officer and it’s clear he knows more about the case of Christopher Drayton than he lets on. When he brings in his partner, Getty, he deliberate keeps his suspicions to himself to avoid any hint of prejudice or rule-breaking. Eventually, Khattak reveals that a Canadian official who is an expert in war crimes has been sent letters informing him that Drayton is actually a former lieutenant colonel in the Serbian army and may have been one of the architects of the Srebrenica massacre and other atrocities. The more Khattak and Getty dig, the more problems they find: unexplained money, a repellant fiancée, threatening letters, and worse. In spite of a number of possible suspects who might have wanted to kill Drayton, the detectives can’t work out what happened the night he died. Nothing adds up.

As Khattak and Getty investigate, short interludes take us into the experiences of three different people who survived the Bosnian War. The brutal irony of the situation is that Drayton’s death is of more interest to law enforcement than the deaths of the survivors’ families and the crimes committed against the Bosnian people. Drayton should have been in The Hague facing war crimes long before this, not living as a rich man in the suburbs of Toronto. But then, that’s the the very issue The Unquiet Dead asks us to think about: how the international community should have responded to atrocities and war crimes during the war and how they actually responded. For the survivors—who resurface later in the novel as they must, like Chekhov’s gun—seeing Drayton’s dead investigated must have felt like the last straw.

I was much more interested in the ethics of the case than in the personal subplots in the book. While the subplots humanized the detectives, I like to wrestle with ethical complexity—especially when it deals with war crimes. When the main plot would take a break for a chapter about Getty and her troubled childhood or Khattak’s attraction to one of the suspects, all I wanted was more dialog about how the detectives would keep the news that Canada had harbored a wanted war criminal for years and done nothing about it.

The Unquiet Dead is a solid read, but I’m only a little curious what the rest of the series has in store for Khattak and Getty. (The next book will have to have a very interesting hook to get me to read it.) Also, by the end of the book, I liked Getty a lot more than Khattak. Perhaps its because we spend more time with Getty as she puzzles things out, but she had a lot of my sympathy while she worked and Khattak wandered around moodily. The Unquiet Dead was just not quite right for me as a reader, I think.

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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His Bloody Project

I would be a terrible juror. I overthink things so much that I would never be able to come to a decision with my fellow jurors. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project was just a reminder of just how bad I would be if I ever had to decide someone’s guilt or innocence. (Also, I’ve read too many mysteries and might be tempted to Jessica Fletcher my way through the trial.) His Bloody Project puts us right in the jurors’ box in the case of Roderick Macrae. In August 1869, Roddy murdered three people by bludgeoning them to death with farm tools. He admitted that he did it. The question for the jury (and readers) is whether he was insane when he committed the murders. Burnet’s novel is told through witness statements, court accounts, and Roddy’s own jailhouse biography. For readers like me, who love unreliable narrators and ambiguous stories, this book is catnip.

After a few witness statements to set the stage—in which neighbors give their recollections of Roddy Macrae as an odd, put upon teen—Roddy gets his turn to speak. His solicitor, Sinclair, has asked him to write an account of his life and the murders. Since he has nothing else to do, Roddy complies. He tells of his deteriorating family life after his mother’s death, his father’s violence and coldness, and the harassment the family receives from the local constable. He also tells us about his sister’s abuse at the hands of that constable along with a series of embarrassing episodes that culminate in the death of the constable and two of the constable’s children.

Throughout the biography, I was sympathetic to Roddy. He was young and the constable was harassing his family into penury. That said, there are small things in this account that make me wonder if Roddy is neurotypical. Some of the things he says and does might put him on the autism spectrum. Later evidence might point to a diagnosis of sociopathy.

After the biography section, Burnet gives us an excerpt from a report by an early forensic psychologist that turned my opinions of Roddy on their head in spite of all the weird, discredited “science” about inherited criminality, anthropometry, and tortured logic. After the psychologist has his say, Burnet recreates a journalist’s account of the trial, complete with witness cross examination.

Roddy’s case was tried twenty-six years after the M’Naghten case, which established an insanity defense. From the journalist, we can tell that the judge and the prosecutor are deeply skeptical of Sinclair’s attempts to establish that Roddy was insane at the time of the murders. Yet we have Roddy’s very calm biography as evidence that, even though we don’t know exactly what was in his head at the time, he was not consumed with anger or jealousy or any of the other emotions blamed for crimes of passion. On the other hand, evidence is revealed during the trial that Roddy might have been motivated by something else entirely, which is supported by the psychologist.

I inhaled His Bloody Project. I could almost feel my brain churning as I read, trying to work out what was behind Roddy’s explanations, what the physical evidence actually indicated, and how much of the forensic psychologist’s reasoning to accept. This is one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a while.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 4 October 2016.

A House Without Windows, by Nadia Hashimi

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A House Without Windows

Nadia Hashimi’s A House Without Windows is the kind of book tailor-made to make feminist Westerners seethe. Hardly a chapter goes by without a new variation on injustice to Afghani women. And yet, Hashimi is a skilled enough writer to keep her message from overwhelming the very interesting mystery that anchors the novel. We get to ponder the abuses of women accused of zina (sex outside of marriage, prohibited by sharia law) for being troublesome while also trying to figure out if Zeba, the protagonist, really did murder her husband with a hatchet.

When the novel opens, circumstantial evidence stacks up against Zeba. We learn within a few pages that her husband is a violent drunk and that she has just seen him do something awful. The next thing anyone (even us readers) know is that Kemal is dead with a hatchet buried in the back of his head. The local policeman has to act quickly to keep the dead man’s brother from killing Zeba in retaliation. He quickly arrest Zeba, writes her “confession,” and has her shipped off to a women’s prison.

Half of the novel stays with Zeba as she adjusts to life in prison, with dozens of women who were accused of some kind of zina. I don’t think we meet a character who’s in prison because she committed a crime that Westerners would recognize. The women soon develop a game of coming up with rhyming couplets to express the absurdity and unfairness of their situations to relieve the tension. It’s not much help because, on top of her anxiety about her children and her looming trial, Zeba’s memories of the day her husband was killed are coming back.

The other half of the novel centers on Yusuf, Zeba’s lawyer. In alternating chapters with Zeba, Yusuf does his best to cobble together a defense for his client. Almost every meeting with the judge in Zeba’s case is an exercise in banging his head against a wall as, between Afghanistan’s sharia law, Zeba’s refusal to talk about the murder, and his status as an American (Yusuf was born in Kabul, but was raised and taught in New York), Yusuf has the deck stacked against him. To his credit, Yusuf does learn a few things about navigating the legal and social environment as the case develops.

A House Without Windows can be a tough read, but I’m glad I read it. I worry that most Americans have put Afghanistan into their mental “done” file and don’t think about the country and its people much anymore. Hashimi’s novels put the spotlight back on a place that is strange, broken, and angry. This book only asks that we look back and learn about day-to-day life among people who’ve lived through near-constant war, terrorism, and a twisted form of Islam. It’s a wonder that there are women as brave as Zeba and the other women in the prison featured here.

The Darkness Knows, by Cheryl Honigford

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The Darkness Knows

After reading The Little Red ChairsI needed something lighter. Cheryl Honigford’s The Darkness Knows, thankfully, delivered. This series debut is set just before World War II in the Chicago studios of WCHI. Vivian Witchell is on the lower rungs of the radio star ladder, but she’s just landed her first regular role in the series The Darkness Knows playing a detective’s sidekick. Viv has been on the show for about a week before she lands smack in the middle of a real murder mystery. Viv has all the pluck and gumption of a vintage screwball heroine, making this book a cracking read.

After Viv discovers Marjorie Fox—the lead in a long-running and popular soap opera series—dead in the staff lounge and is named in a threatening letter, Charlie Haverman is assigned to protect her. Charlie is a private detective who consults for The Darkness Knows (though he later reveals that he cribs heavily from Black Mask because real detective work isn’t exciting enough for radio). Viv is terrified to be the possible target of a deranged fan, but not too terrified to insist on finding out who killed Marjorie. She metaphorically puts the screws on Charlie to help.

The mystery plot is twisty enough to satisfy, but I loved the setting of The Darkness Knows. The WCHI studios are packed with great characters. The rapacious Frances who wants to steal Viv’s role and her doofus of a co-star who has delusions of being a playbook are particularly good. I had a good time reading this book; it was a great antidote to the heaviness of The Little Red Chairs.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley

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Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d

In Alan Bradley’s Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Flavia de Luce, chemistry genius and amateur detective, has returned to her ancestral home in England from the wilds of Canada. And yet, it doesn’t feel like she’s come home. Things are not right. Her father is in the hospital. Her sister has broken up with her fiancé. Everyone is preoccupied. Looking for something to do, Flavia volunteers to run an errand for a friend and stumbles upon a dead body. The discovery of a man hung upside down in an upstairs room perks Flavia up no end and she dives right into her own investigation.

The upside down man was called Roger Sambridge. He was a gifted woodcarver, but very much kept to himself. There are few clues in his house to tell Flavia who he is, let alone who might have killed him. The only thing that doesn’t make sense is the multiple collections of children’s books by a well-known author. Why would a reclusive woodcarver with no family have so many copies of these books? Because she really can’t help herself, Flavia starts asking questions and poking her nose into other people’s business.

Over the course of eight books, Flavia has grown more adept in her investigations, especially in getting information about people. It hilarious to listen to Flavia’s commentary about the people around her because she’s just a little out of step with the mores of her time and with people’s expectations. She remains a little childish—especially when the actual authorities fail to congratulate her for her discoveries, the ingrates. This series continues to delight.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 20 September 2016.

The Orphan Mother, by Robert Hicks

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The Orphan Mother

Two years after the end of the Civil War, the people of Franklin, Tennessee are learning to live with the new status quo. Black people are legally free and establishing themselves economically and politically in the town. Mariah Reddick, as a highly skilled midwife, is doing well for herself. But there are some (quite a few, actually) white men and women who very much do not like the new status quo and are willing to use violence to keep the newly freed enslaved people “in their place.” In The Orphan Mother, by Robert Hicks, Mariah and her son get caught in the chaos of an election season. When her son is killed, Mariah seeks justice. She’s not alone, because a former sniper is willing to go outside the law to punish the men who killed Mariah’s son.

Mariah told her son Theopolis not to go to the political rally that day in 1867. No one wants to hear a black man speak, even if things have changed since the end of the war. They haven’t changed enough. Sure enough, Theopolis is beaten by several men and is killed when fighting breaks out even before the speeches can start. We knew something was going to happen because Mariah is not the only protagonist of this book. George Tole’s story is interwoven with Mariah’s; they alternate chapters as protagonists. Tole has been hired by the man who essentially runs the town, Elijah Dixon, to assassinate a rival political, Republican Jesse Bliss. At the beginning of the novel, Dixon tells Tole that his “boys” will make trouble while Tole shoots Bliss. The boys make too much trouble and a riot breaks out.

The riot and the deaths of the innocent people caught in the fighting mean that Franklin will soon see federal investigators poking into everything. Grieving Mariah hopes that the investigators will punish the men who killed Theopolis, but she also relies on a network of friends and people who owe her favors to find the names of the men who beat her son. Meanwhile, Tole conducts his own rougher investigation into the events of the day, ignoring Dixon’s escalating fury with him. Tole’s motivations are a little murky. He is attracted to Mariah, but he hardly knows her and only knew her son by reputation.

Mariah and Tole’s opposing investigations were very interesting to watch. Some of the tension of the book comes from figuring out who would achieve some kind of justice for Theopolis first. Both characters have to operate outside the law to a certain extent. Mariah is optimistic, but not so naïve as to think that her son’s murder will be the primary objective of the federal investigators.

In the author’s note at the end of The Orphan Mother, Hicks addresses potential criticism some readers may have about a white man writing the story of a formerly enslaved woman and mother. Hicks makes the point that he relies on his sense of empathy to try and understand the emotions and actions of such a woman. I’m not sure he entirely succeeds, but only because so much space in the book is given over to Tole. I picked up this book for Mariah, but the tormented Union sniper fascinated me. His plot arc is more tightly composed than Mariah’s meandering path through grief. I don’t want to blame Hicks for this. I don’t know if there’s much an author can do when a more interesting character barges into a story.

While there are some problems with The Orphan Master, overall I enjoyed reading this portrait of life in Reconstruction Era Tennessee. The mystery elements of this novel are particularly well done. Hicks clearly did his homework on the political wranglings of the South after the Civil War and the tensions between black and white Southerners of the time.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 13 September 2016.