Nicola Upson: The Secrets of Winter Tuesday, Oct 6 2020 

Nicola Upson’s ninth historical mystery novel featuring Josephine hey, The Secrets of Winter, takes readers to a Cornish Christmas in December 1938 with a devastating opening that will proved to be key to the resolution.

Hitler is on the rise, trying to gather friends, even celebrities, for support. But Josephine and Marta have been issued an invitation by their good friend, DCI Archie Penrose, to be part of a special Christmas celebration in aid of charity taking place in the castle high on St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.

Accessed at low tide by a causeway and by ferry boat at others, the Mount has its own medieval church, and the castle, filled with history, seems barely changed from its origins with the exception of a few modern conveniences. The charity being bolstered by Miss Hilaria St. Aubyn of the current family in residence is in aid of bringing thousands of Jewish children out of Nazi Germany to be cared for in hostels and private homes.

When Archie and soon the assorted company, which includes a famous film star, are faced with a murder in the small town at the foot of the Mount and a second murder on the castle premises, it’s easy to feel the chill of the cold stone as a blizzard keeps the gathering cloistered at the castle during what should have been merry Christmas festivities.

Now Archie, aided by Josephine with her keen sense of human nature and her discerning eye, will need all of their attention turned to figuring out who amongst their company is a murderer, before death strikes again.

This is the UK cover for the same book, titled The Dead of Winter. Both covers and titles convey the story inside, based on real history and real people. Auntie M had the great good fortune to visit St. Michael’s Mount, off the coast of Marazion, when she stayed in Penzance on a setting research trip. It’s a must-stop for anyone traveling to Cornwall, despite the steep walk up to the castle. The dizzying height and glorious gardens on the island, plus its innate charm, will surely delight any traveler.

Upson perfectly captures the charm and essence of the community in this era who live and work on the island, and the families who keep the castle at its summit running. A better setting for murder and intrigue could not be imagined, and Auntie M is only sorry Upson got there first.

For this story is full of twists and compelling intrigue, perhaps not quite the Christmas holiday Josephine had envisioned, but one that will have readers enmeshed in the lives of those who have gathered to celebrate Christmas in a castle on top of a high hill. It’s to her credit that Upson manages to create a world where Tey and her friends survive and live on, one that is built on reality but imbued with the authors’ knack for the telling detail and her character’s inner lives.

Another solid entry from an award-winning writer whose work has been shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger, this one is definitely Highly Recommended.

Mary Westmacott: Absent in the Spring Sunday, Aug 23 2020 

Agatha Christie wrote six non-crime books under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. Absent in the Spring is the one about which she is quoted as saying:
“The one book that has satisfied me completely–the book I always wanted to write.”

The story is a character study of Joan Scudamore, returning from a visit to her youngest daughter, son-in-law, and baby granddaughter in Iraq. Barbara’s husband works there and the young woman has been ill. Joan rushed out to tend to her daughter, despite the arduous journey to get there.

On the trip home, she finds herself stranded in an isolated rest house by rains that prevent her train from getting through flooded tracks. Forced to have only herself for company, Joan decides to treat the unexpected time alone as a retreat of sorts.

She’s not a person who often pauses to examine her life. Quickly running out of books to read, and soon after, paper to write letters to friends, she takes to wandering in the desert near the rest home and ends up taking a good hard look at herself and her life.

She finds that the person she’s believed herself to be is perhaps not the person she has been, in actuality, to others. With the words of her former headmistress from school running her head, Joan has what could be called an epiphany.

The question remains: what will she do about it?

A completely different kind of book, short and bittersweet, from the woman who is outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible.

Lindsey Davis: The Grove of the Caesars Wednesday, Aug 19 2020 

In her 28th outing over two series––Marcus Didius Falco is the other–Lindsey Davis brings Falco’s adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, to another case in The Grove of the Caesars.

Following her father’s footsteps, Flavia’s investigations have their become known. Inadvertently, it’s Flavia’s husband, away on business, who puts her in the position to become involved in the hunt for a serial killer who has used the public gardens as his dumping ground.

Exploiting women goes against Flavia’s nature, and once a wealthy man’s wife is claimed as the latest victim, she puts aside her loathing of the man she must work with whose been assigned the case, Julius Karas.

Think a classic police procedural for a serial killer, set in first century Rome. And this a Rome Davis knows inside out, with the historical fiction she’s plumbed coming alive. Her extensive knowledge of the people, its mores and customs, and the city itself reveals Rome to be a vibrant city throbbing with a deadly, sinister undercurrent.

Davis interjects Roman’s casualness toward slaves, addresses immigration, and of course, women’s issues, all in a time where readers will be surprised to see these things considered.

Fans of historical fiction will revel in Ancient Rome brought to life and set amidst crime fiction.

Elsa Hart: The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne Wednesday, Aug 12 2020 

Elsa Hart’s historical Asian series set a standard for creating an atmosphere in a foreign setting, coupled with plotting that gives the reader suspense and shows the mores of the culture of the time.

She turns that same eye for historical detail from 18th century China to London in 1703 in The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne.

It’s a time when men wear wigs, and science has beckoned to collectors of strange objects in what is perhaps an attempt to understand the wonders of the world. Magic and merman rest alongside the known science of the day.

Lady Cecily Kay’s passion for plants brings her to the household of Sir Barnaby Mayne, whose huge collection has been garnered from across the globe and covers objects, books, maps and artifacts he’s gathered.

It’s the envy of many, who wish to acquire similar collections. Collectors, Cecily soon learns, can have their needs become obsessions.

With Cecily’s husband at his post in Smyrna, she has been extended an invitation into the Mayne household to identify plant specimens she’s brought with her. What she doesn’t expect is for her host to be killed.

With a confessed killer awaiting death in gaol, Cecily will lead an investigation into what has really happened in a house where the collections inspire greed, at a time when women’s roles were highly circumscribed.

A period mystery with an intelligent protagonist, who must battle a fascination with the fantastical alongside scientific principles to unmask a killer.

Anne Cleeland: The Spanish Mask Monday, Jul 27 2020 

Anne Cleeland turns from her modern Doyle and Acton series, set in London, to the seventh in her Regency series, The Spanish Mask, set in the Spanish countryside.

The time period is during the aftermath of the Napoleanic War, and beautiful Elena is a postulant at an Andalusian convent. She takes care of her ward, Eduardo, a young lad trusted to her care. When Frenchmen come to the convent, she hides Eduardo in the orchard she loves, only to be found by a band of others led by a British commander.

There is Spanish treasure, relics from the royal family, and Elena knows where it is hidden. Money and other valuable items abound, as does a Spanish mask, encrusted with precious jewels. This information must be withheld from everyone, even those she begins to trust.

Elena soon find herself traveling with Lord Raike, who mistakenly believe her to be a survivor of the royal family. But the chemistry between Elena and the British leader crackles, and adds to the delicious tension. Avoiding those who would kill them takes skill and the help of others along their route.

As they traipse the countryside, with Elena all the while explaining she is not the missing royal but knows where she is, the attraction between the English lord and the young postulant grows, as does the danger.

There will be switches in allegiance, battles, stolen identities, and intrigue galore before the truth is revealed.

An action-with-romance delight, with a mystery at its heart.

Marlowe Benn: Passing Fancies Saturday, May 30 2020 

Marlowe Benn brought readers her first Julia Kydd mystery, Relative Fortunes, and returns with the sequel, Passing Fancies. Set in the 1920s, I had the opportunity to speak with Benn about her books and their fascinating look at the era she’s chosen to delve into:

Auntie M: This is your second book set in the 1920s and your research is extensive, from manners to the clothing and food. What drew you to this era?

Marlowe Benn: First let me say thank you for this chance to share a bit about my books with your readers. I’m truly honored to be a part of this blog. I’ve always loved the style of the 1920s—the lively music, the daring fashions, the flamboyant determination to enjoy life’s pleasures. But while it looks like one big party, there was a lot of reckless desperation beneath all the rule-breaking fun. Notions like honor, duty, and moral responsibility seemed pointless after a crushing world war and global pandemic. With those old values discredited, new ones vied to take their place.

As I try to show in Passing Fancies, hopes for greater freedoms and opportunities for women and people of color struggled to compete with more cynical celebrations of wealth and power. I was drawn to this combination of eye-popping exuberance and deep social frictions. No shortage of mystery and crime fiction plot ideas there!

AM: Tell readers about creating the fascinating character of Julia Kydd, a thoroughly modern woman in this era, and one who has an unusual area of expertise that readers will learn about. How did your own past experience influence her development?

MB: Julia loves books. She likes to read, but it’s physical books she’s passionate about, as works of art. She’s been smitten by the Arts and Crafts “fine printing” movement, which revived the old hand bookmaking crafts. When I was in graduate school studying the history of that movement in the 1920s, I learned how to set type, print, and bind books by hand. As anyone who’s ever dabbled in today’s popular book arts can understand, it’s a heady thing to give visual and tactile form to a writer’s words. Julia is as addicted to that pleasure as I am.

AM: Julia’s family life is . . . complicated, to say the least, with several recurring characters. Care to comment on that?

MB: Complicated, and then some. In my first book, Relative Fortunes, Julia is vexed by her estranged older half-brother’s power over her money and thus over her independence. Although Philip is her closest relation, she barely knows him and seems to have nothing in common with him beyond a surname. Lacking conventional family attachments, in Passing Fancies Julia forges somewhat daring new bonds to take their place, both with Philip and with her lifelong maid and confidante, Christophine.

AM: In this second book in the series, Julia faces the racism of the era and has an epiphany of her own. It’s clear you feel strongly about that. Why choose that to explore?

MB: I often hear friends and acquaintances, who are white like me, talk about racism with sympathy for people of color, as if the problems don’t involve white people too. In fact, centuries of racism shape the experiences of all Americans, not just those of color. But because racist policies and values have always benefited white people—whether or not we condone or even perceive them—we tend not to see, or to deny or justify, our advantages. Julia is disturbed to realize this about herself, and readers may squirm too. Unfortunately, history is full of uncomfortable truths we cannot escape. As Faulkner famously put it, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

AM: What’s next for Julia?

MB: I wish I knew. Future publishing decisions are as uncertain as everything else these days. Julia has grand plans to get her Capriole Press off the ground, now that she finally has her printing studio, but we’ll all have to wait and see what happens.
AM: Thanks so much for these insights, Marlowe. And now on to discuss Passing Fancies.

Julia Kydd is trying to launch Capriole Press, a small press that will have limited but exquisite books that would be as beautiful to hold and admire as to read, and to that end, she attends society parties to find works she can produce. She’s also looking to find collectors who would back her and to be accepted into the publishing world.

It’s the Jazz Age in New York, and Julia is introduced to Harlem nightclubs. One particular performer she meets at a house party captures her attention, and even more so when Julia sees her perform.

Eva Pruitt is a black singer with a divine figure who has written an explosive novel. Despite being under contract, the novel is wanted by several houses until it goes missing during a murder.

The men in Eva’s life all want different things from her and go to great lengths to have what they want. The reality she has lived with and must continue to experience shocks Julia and creates a bond between the two women.

Julia steps in to help Eva while coming face-to-face with her own racial prejudices and assumptions. It will prove to be a life-changing relationship for Julia and those she loves.

In creating Julia, Benn has a young woman who chafes at the freedoms of the men who surround her. She’s bold and yet empathetic. She probably drinks too much at parties. Yet she holds the book together well and readers will be rooting for her to succeed as she matures.

Benn captures the era perfectly, and dazzles readers with the clothing, food, and excesses. She also takes a good hard look at the class and racial divides of the time, which still echo today.

Jennifer Ryan: The Chilbury Ladies Choir Wednesday, May 27 2020 

In this time of a forced stay-home with more reading time, Auntie M is catching up on several books she missed when they first came out that friends recommended.

The Chilbury Ladies Choir is Jennifer Ryan’s debut, set in the first days of World War II. The vicar has put up a notice that as the men of the town are mostly gone to war, the village choir is to close.

But he hasn’t reckoned on the strong women of the town, led by the colorful Prim, who knows music inside and out, and is giving Kitty singing lessons. The women continue the choir without male voices, a newfangled idea that soon catches on and leads to adventures even as they become the voice of solace for the village.

Ryan introduces us to the wonderful ladies of the village and tells their stories with devices such as “Excerpt from Mrs. Tilling’s Journal” and “Letter from Miss Edwina Paltry to her sister, Clara.” There’s the young Kitty Winthrop’s diary, too, and letters from Kitty’s sister, Venetia, to her friend from the village now living in London.

Introducing the characters in this way allows the different women to speak of their fellow villagers from their own points of view, and that vary from insightful to naive.

A clever map on the interior allows readers to plot the course of the action in a time when walking was how most people got around.

After Dunkirk there will be losses from the village, and more closer to home. There are intrigues, affairs, crushes, and even the hush of homosexuality. And could there be spies in their little town?

It all adds up to a book that’s full of hope, absorbing to read, and a perfect way to wile away a few hours with a good cuppa and a few biscuits for company.

Jane Healey: The Animals at Lockwood Manor Wednesday, Mar 25 2020 

Jane Healey’s debut, The Animals at Lockwood Manor, illustrates how a grand atmospheric story with exhaustive research, backed by a great story, can bring a resounding mystery to life.

It’s 1939 and with London on the brink of World War II, a young museum director is tasked with moving the majority of the animals from the Natural History Museum out of harm’s way to Lockwood Manor.

The enormous country mansion owned by Major Lockwood is as overbearing as its owner. It’s a difficult adjustment for Hetty Cartwright, a young woman working in a man’s world with no friends nearby and the only ally the Major’s nervy daughter, Lucy, still reeling from the deaths a few months previously of her mother and grandmother in a car accident.

It doesn’t help that the villagers whisper about Lucy’s dead mother, mad by all accounts, haunted since her marriage by a woman in white. Lucy’s own nightmares center on a room she can’t find anywhere in the monstrosity she lives in of over ninety rooms, now stuffed with mammals and birds in some rooms in reality, but she soon makes her peace with the stuffed varieties.

With a friendship blooming between the two young women, countered by the Major’s abrasive manner and a haughty housekeeper, the huge house labors with a dearth of animals and a disappearing staff. Things don’t just go bump in the night, but move around or disappear. Lucy’s nightmares increase, her fragile emotions escalating, and soon Hetty’s own nightmares match Lucy’s in strength and foreboding.

Soon it’s apparent that not all of the ogres are stuffed. Just who is going mad?

After air raids start, things culminate when a party the Major holds runs amok with tragic consequences.

The gothic feel of the novel resounds with a haunting feel that matches the emotions of the two young women, who soon become entwined. With mirrors, sightings, and ghosts making their appearance, it is grounded with the research Healey has completed and absorbed at several natural history museums.

For fans of Rebecca, even Jane Eyre, and anything with a period or gothic feel, coupled with a darn good mystery. An impressive debut.

Karen Odden: A Trace of Deceit Sunday, Dec 22 2019 

Karen Odden returns with the next in her Victorian mysteries with A Trace of Deceit.

With its strong setting and hint of romance, there’s something for every reader as Odden introduces Annabel Rowe, one of the first female art students at the Slade School in London.

Despite the difficult relationship she had with her only brother, a talented artist, she’s determined to find who murdered the young man when she finds Scotland Yard’s Matthew Hallam searching his flat. The inspector soon comes to find Annabel’s knowledge of the art world helpful in his investigation, and the two team forces to flush out a killer.

With his checkered past, Edwin Rowe was restoring a painting for an auction house but it’s been stolen from its frame. Did Edwin surprise thieves, and was stabbed trying to prevent their theft? Or had his past caught up with him?

Things become more involved when it’s learned the painting’s owner had claimed insurance after it had supposedly been lost in a warehouse fire.

Odden uses her own knowledge of work at Christie’s, along with extensive research, to bring this period to life as the unlikely duo delve into corruption and politics of the art world.

Will Thomas: Lethal Pursuit Tuesday, Nov 12 2019 

Will Thomas returns with his Barker and Llewelyn series in Lethal Pursuit. The enquiry agents, whose chambers are in the shadow of Whitehall, have risen to annoy most of the higher-ups in government and Scotland Yard, yet continue to solve the most recalcitrant cases.

A Foreign Office agent has fled home to England carrying an important satchel from Eastern Europe, but murdered soon after arriving. With tensions rising between Germany and England, it’s imperative that the contents are kept out of German hands.

When no less than the Prime Minister gives them a simple assignment, newlywed Llewelyn, now a partner, can’t understand why Barker is taking his time to carry out the easy charge: deliver the satchel to Calais into the hands of a waiting monsignor from the Vatican.

Just what the satchel holds is unclear, but it’s rare and ancient, from the first century. Soon there are personal agents, secret societies, and political groups all vying to retrieve the satchel and its contents, and all putting Barker and Llewelyn at serious risk. And this time, Llewelyn has a bride waiting for him at home.

With his research nailing the details of the Victorian era, from the clothing and social manners to crimes and politics, Thomas delivers a satisfying read that advances both the characters and the times.

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