The Butchered Man

By Harriet Smart

The_AlienistSo, I’d read The Alienist over twenty years ago in college, and only vaguely remembered  it being about applying the very young field of psychology to the profiling of serial killers, and that the serial killer in question preyed on young boy prostitutes. I didn’t remember any details, including any of the central characters or the final solution, so the miniseries was almost a brand-new story for me, and I loved it! The acting was all excellent, overshadowed only by the lush cinematography highlighting the dramatic differences between the very wealthy and the very poor at the end of the nineteenth century. I am very much hoping that TNT decides to tackle the sequel, The Angel of Darkness, next!

Butchered_ManAnyway, The Butchered Man reminded me strongly of The Alienist, in a good way. It takes place a good fifty years earlier and in rural England, but the two central protagonists fit right in. Giles Vernon is an ex-military man and current police chief, who is working to transition the local police from a loose watchman structure to a more organized unit based on his military experience. To that end, he hires Felix Carswell as a full-time police surgeon and forensic pathologist.

So, both characters are on the cutting edge of their professions and struggling against the status quo to push advancements. Carswell is a particularly interesting character; as the acknowledged natural son of one of the local bigwigs, he struggles with not quite fitting into any social strata. I was immediately engaged in both the characters and the mystery, and am looking forward to continuing with the series. My one caveat, though, is that the overall story does not necessarily show women overall in the best light, and I’ll be on the watch for that in the subsequent novels.

FalletAnd going back to TV, can I also recommend “Fallet” on Netflix? The preview seem to show a somewhat generically dark police procedural, but there was a subtle quirkiness to it that attracted me. Let me tell you, in the actual show, the quirkiness is not subtle: “Fallet” is an extremely funny satire of the popular Nordic mystery genre. The characters and dialogue are laugh-out-loud funny, but the actors, director, and cinematographer all play it extremely straight, which makes it even funnier. The whole season is eight half-hour episodes, so it is a quick and easy watch, though it is subtitled, since half the characters speak Swedish.

Crooked House

By Agatha Christie

Crooked_HouseI’m a fan of Agatha Christie, but I find both Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot kind of tiresome. So, I’m mostly a fan of her stand-alone books. (Though for a truly bizarre experience, read her faintly supernatural Harley Quin short stories.*)

Anyway, Crooked House was new to me, and was extremely entertaining! I mean, of course it was – Agatha Christie is a master at plotting and characters! It is sort of a classic English country estate mystery, with the patriarch dying under mysterious circumstances, and all members of the extensive family, who naturally all live together in the sprawling estate (the titular ‘crooked house’), are under suspicion. It takes an outsider to sift through all the relationships, in this case the fiancé of the beloved granddaughter, who is coincidentally also the son of the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard.

It is all very genteel and English, and because Agatha Christie is so good, I basically rotated through suspecting pretty much every character, with in retrospect the obvious exception of the actual culprit. The ending came as a huge surprise to me, which I always appreciate. There are also shenanigans around the will, which is always a fun bonus to a murder mystery.

A movie of it came out last year, which has an amazing cast, though somewhat odd choices for some of the characters. I’m very much looking forward to seeing it as soon as I can figure out how to access it without Amazon Prime. (For the most part, streaming has made movies more accessible, but a few times, it makes it more difficult to track down a specific movie that I know a local video rental store would have had, if those were still around.)

* That’s right, Christie had a Harley Quin, way before DC finally figured out it would benefit them to invest in some of their female characters. Christie’s Quin, though, is male and reads so obviously gay by today’s standards that it makes me wonder whether Christie was being fairly subversive for her time.)

Murder on the Champs-Élysées

By Alex Mandon

Champs-ElyseesInspector Guillaume Devré is a closeted gay man in Paris in 1900. He is also extremely cranky and a bit authoritative, so I had less sympathy for him than I’d expected. He’s still an interesting character: torn between his drive for truth and justice, and his own necessary deception.

His investigation of a murdered man almost immediate takes him to “the infamous, most celebrated woman in all of Paris…known as La Balise.” La Balise, aka Lucie-Geneviéve Madeleine, is a famous courtesan, and treated by the media, at least, as a cross between a super model and a rock star. She has a Past, that is alluded to, but not explained, and is also an utter delight!

The mystery itself takes many twists and turns, left me guessing the entire time, and is satisfyingly scandalous in the end. There were also enough teasers of the various characters that I have high hopes of future mysteries featuring the detective and the courtesan, not to mention the terse American forensic pathologist they both admire.

Since no sequel has yet appeared, here’s a recommendation for another historical novel featuring gay protagonists, though much different in pretty much every way:

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

By Mackenzi Lee

Gentlemens_GuideI think this might be the type of YA romance that we will see more of, written by and for the millennial generation, and I have to say, I’m here for it! Though it is set in Regency England (and Europe, as the main characters embark on their Grand Tour), it to an extent anachronistically inclusive of diverse races and sexualities. I had a moment of GenX crankiness over it until I realized that no one (including me) is reading this book to get a detailed historical look into the time. It is sweet, flirty, swash-buckling, and just a whole lot of fun!

Strong Spirits

By Alice Duncan

Strong_SpiritsUgh, I can’t believe that it is March already. I’ve been reading a ton, but haven’t done a great job of actually writing the reviews. I’m still having a great time with BookBub’s recommendations, getting most of my recent books from them, and have a fair number back-logged that I need to review. (Which is good, because I’ve also been reading a fair amount of smut, which will not get reviewed here.)

Strong Spirits, from BookBub, of course, is very much a first-person narrative by protagonist Daisy Gumm, who is poor but spunky, with an extremely chatty narration. Having married young to her childhood sweetheart, who returns from World War I paraplegic, she ekes out a living as a spiritualist and fortuneteller for the wealthy communities in Pasadena.

The novel makes a slow start, with a lot of background on Daisy, her husband, her work, her neighborhood, etc., but she is likable and funny, with decided opinions on all sorts of things, and her husband is (somewhat) sympathetic.

All of this changes, however, once the mystery occurs and the primary detective is introduced, and Daisy appears to lose her damn mind. She takes such an instant dislike to the detective that she’s like a dog going after a bone every time he appears.

I have a suspicion that he will become a romantic figure in sequels (I see the writing on the wall for her poor frail husband), and suspect that these early scenes are supposed to be witty repartee, but Daisy instead comes across as having a huge, unjustified chip on her shoulder that is really hard to empathize with.

Honestly, by the end of the book, I was so fed up with her that she felt like one of those people who seem great when you first meet them because they are so open and out-going, but then you realize that was them being shy and reserved, and once they are actually comfortable with you, they are so extreme that they try your last nerve. I’m cutting off all contact now, though, so I won’t know.

Blackmail in Belgravia

By Clara Benson

Blackmail_in_BelgraviaIf my previous review, Death Comes to the Village, didn’t quite live up to its comparisons to Georgette Heyer, Blackmail in Belgravia feels like it fits into her style completely, just without the overt racism and covert homophobia. If you have ever read any of Heyer’s novels, you will recognize Benson’s protagonist Freddy Pilkington-Soames from every Freddy that Heyer has ever written. It must be the go-to name for an affable but not super intelligent young man of leisure in the 20s.

Part of the upper-crust, but living beyond his means, this Freddy barely manages to hold down a job as a newspaper reporter, while spending most of his time out drinking with friends. When a friend of his mother’s dies while at a dinner party with her, Freddy is prodded into investigating by his delightfully manipulative mother.

The mystery itself is rather easily guessed, but the characters are just so entertaining that it didn’t bother me at all, watching them blunder around, overlooking the obvious culprit.

By contrast, the police are actually surprisingly competent, for this type of book, which was also refreshing. They stay just a step or two behind Freddy in the investigation throughout the book, and are clearly far more professional and skilled at this. Freddy is only able to solve it for them in the end because he has direct access to all the suspects, knowing them all socially.

I highly recommend this series (having read the first two novels), and the ebook is available on amazon for a dollar. I discovered later that the same author has another mystery series featuring a middle-aged female detective with a mysterious past, which I’d read previously and found mediocre. Apparently Freddy’s mother is a side character in some of the later books in that series.

Death Comes to the Village

By Catherine Lloyd

Death_Comes_to_the_VillageThe back cover of the book had blurbs comparing it to both Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, which makes sense because it features very similar characters and setting. Lucy, is the oldest daughter of a rural rector, who comes from a respectable family (her uncle is an Earl!), but without much money. She is responsible for most of the village duties of her late mother, including visiting the sick in the neighborhood.

This, of course, includes handsome, wealthy, but tormented Major Kurland, who has returned from the Napoleonic Wars broken in body and spirit. The murder mystery is introduced through a bit of a “rear window” premise, where the bed-bound major sees suspicious activity out of his bedroom window at night, and must recruit Lucy to be his eyes and ears in the village.

It doesn’t have quite the wit of Austen or the charm of Heyer; both Lucy and the major often tip over from feisty to downright cranky, and I could see myself easily losing patience with both of them. Peripheral characters are somewhat broadly written, as well. What really made the book stand out for me, though, was that Lloyd gives it just a touch a harsh reality among the genteel manners.

Lucy is intelligent and independent, and feels trapped by circumstances, both as a stand-in mother for her siblings and her religious responsibilities. Her father, in particular, is unpleasantly controlling and manipulative. The major is of course the romantic figure, but also battling very real PTSD and substance dependency. The novel manages to find a nice balance between the light-hearted and the gritty to create a very engaging read.

The Hanover Square Affair

By Ashley Gardner

Hanover_Square_AffaireAnother good British mystery for free on Kindle (courtesy of BookBub, of course), though not set in Brighton this time. Captain Gabriel Lacey has returned to London from fighting in the Napoleonic wars, with military honors but very little else. At loose ends, he runs across a tragedy and alleged murder, and through a strong sense of honor and nothing much else to do, he throws himself into investigating and trying to right wrongs. (As a quick aside, I often don’t even see the covers on my kindle, so I saw it for the first time when pulling the photo for this review, and I don’t recognize a connection to any of the characters, plot, or mood, so truly do not base this book on the cover.)

The mystery is very well plotted, with complex twists and turns, and the mood is nice and noire, with a cynical protagonist battling against an uncaring world. It is that protagonist that really makes the book, though. Captain Lacey is a complex character; from a poor but genteel family, he found patronage in the army that allowed him to rise in ranks. At the time of this first novel, though, he has been injured and discharged, severed from his patron, and has no money and no real way of making it.

The mixture of circumstances has given him access to a wide cross-section of society. He rents a room in a dilapidated boarding house surrounded by prostitutes and thieves, but receives invites to society events feting any returning war heroes of note that the hostesses can get their hands on.

Additionally, he describes himself as suffering from ‘melancholia,’ and it is fascinating, though somewhat agonizing, seeing the Victorian perspective on depression. Lacey is generally thoughtful and considerate of others, until he suddenly isn’t, and is either washed away in mindless rage, or completely debilitated, pushing all friends away from him.

The thing is, I tend to avoid books that give any more than a cursory description of depression. As someone with mild depression myself, reading about other people’s struggles can bring my own to the forefront. To some degree, it sucks because I miss out on finding familiarity and understanding, but it just isn’t worth it to me.*

All of this to say I probably won’t continue with this series, though I do still highly recommend it.

*As a solid GenX-er, I’m not always as open to the new concepts coming from the millennial generation as I’d like to be. It’s also clear that I’m not alone in struggling with the concept of “triggering.” Conservative pundits love to drag out being triggered as synonymous with being offended or insulted. I myself had thought of it in terms of veterans with PTSD panicking at fireworks, and that using the term in lesser circumstances was a bit overblown. However, the truth is that I don’t like to read about depression because of the likelihood that it will trigger my depression. It isn’t catastrophic if it does happen, but it makes my life a little harder, so I avoid it, and I have greater understanding now of others trying to do the same.