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.

The Zig Zag Girl

By Elly Griffiths

Zig_Zag_GirlAnother mystery series set in Brighton! I don’t know English geography nearly well enough to know why Brighton would be a popular setting for murder mysteries, but the Magic Men series has quite a different tone than Brighton’s #1 Private Detective.

For one, it is set in the early 1950s, during the recovery from World World II. Our main protagonist, Edgar Stephens was part of an undercover unit called The Magic Men during the war, where a group of stage performers create illusions to trick the Germans. (As crazy as this sounds, it is actually historically accurate, and the author gives some good background into it in the afterward.) It is a fascinating subject, and I wish the book had given a little bit more focus to it.

However, at the time of the novel, Stephens has become a detective in the Brighton Police Force. When the body of a showgirl is discovered, cut up and stored in three trunks, it brings to his mind the magic trick called the titular zig zag girl. He calls up his old friends from the Magic Men to consult, and the storyline becomes a confluence of the current mystery and their experiences during the war, which led up to this point.

While the mystery is engaging, the real strength lies in the characters and the period setting, which almost seems like its own character. It is a time of transition, and everyone is trying to make sense of the past and face the future in their own way. It’s not comedic, though it has funny scenes, and it is not grim, though the murder(s) are pretty brutal – The Zig Zag Girl just has a very thoughtful tone that really pulled me in as a reader.

I immediately picked up the sequel, Smoke and Mirrors, and it is even better – the characters have continued to grow from their experiences in the previous book, and face new challenges based on that growth. Also, for what it’s worth, the first book sets up a romance for Stephens that I don’t altogether approve of, and the second book introduces a competing romantic interest that I much prefer.

Choose Your Parents Wisely

By Tom Trott

Choose_Your_Parents_WiselyOf course, the title caught my eye. It sounded cheesy as hell, but it is actually one of the most competent modern-era noir mysteries I’ve read in a very long time. Our protagonist, Joe Grabarz (the juvenile pun of his name is the weakest part of the book for me) is, naturally, a down-and-out private detective in Brighton.

My favorite thing about it, though, is that Joe is possibly the crankiest (anti)hero I’ve ever read. He has a very vague moral compass, but goes on random internal rants about everything, ranging from understandable (tourists) to completely out of left field (rice).

The story also does a very interesting plot devise, where we follow two cases in parallel. In present day, Joe investigates the disappearance of young daughter of an upper-middle-class family. This case contrasts with the disappearance of another girl from a poor immigrant family, his very first investigation years ago. The chapters jump between the two cases with very little warning, and it keeps you on your toes as a reader as the two plots weave together.

Choose Your Parents Wisely is actually the second book in what I hope will be a lengthy series, but it was a BookBub special, so I jumped on it. I enjoyed it so much, though, that after finishing it, I immediately bought the first book, You Can’t Make Old Friends. Since the second book covers two different periods in the detective’s career, this first book actually takes place between the two periods, so both chronologically after and before the sequel.

The first book even alludes to events in the second book that I think would seem confusing and out-of-place if I hadn’t read it already. The second book also refers back to events in book one, but obliquely enough that I didn’t find it distracting. The circular plotting of each book, and both books together, just make for a really unique read.

Learning to Swim

By Sara J. Henry

Learning_to_SwimI was pulled into this book just from the back cover description alone. A woman sees a child fall from the back of a ferry, and jumps in to rescue him. The ferry has continued on without noticing, and by the time she gets to shore with the alive but unresponsive boy, there is no one around. There are no desperate parents waiting for him, and when she calls the police, they doubt her story. I just love how simple the premise is: suddenly there’s this child, and what are you going to do?

The plot alone probably could have carried the whole book for me, but rescuer Troy is now one of my favorite protagonists. She is a journalist for a small-town newspaper in the Adirondacks, mostly covering local sports, and she lives a mostly commitment-free life with a house that she rents rooms from to visiting athletes training for various winter sports.

The writing style matches her perfectly: clear and crisp without a lot of unnecessary stylistic nonsense. A wide range of characters are introduced, as well, and they are all interesting and distinct in their own ways, and in their relationships to Troy. I can’t fully describe how realistic everything felt – the situations that came up didn’t seem particularly outlandish, and the characters were all so well-grounded.

Up until the end, that is. I did think the final reveal got a bit jarringly melodramatic compared to the rest of the book, but not enough to mar my enjoyment of the book as a whole. After finishing, I immediately went and got the sequel, in what I hope will be a continuing series.

A Cold and Lonely Place

By Sara J. Henry

A_Cold_and_Lonely_PlaceIf anything the second book is even better! The mystery was more nuanced and subtle: a rich-kid tourist is discovered dead in a frozen lake, and gossip spreads about one of Troy’s roommates, who was dating him. Troy starts to investigate only enough to clear her roommate, but soon gets journalistically attached to the tourist’s life story, which unfolds along with the mystery. It is a quieter book, in all, than the first one, but even more realistic, and I couldn’t put it down. In fact, since I’ve finished it, I’ve been sulking that there isn’t a third book out.

Both books reminded me a bit of Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike mysteries, not so much in any concrete way, but just in how much I cared about the characters and was interested in their general lives, as well as the mystery.

Sandman Slim

By Richard Kadrey

Sandman_SlimOh, man, this book is like if author Richard Kadrey took everything I love in fiction and put it all in one book – dark and moody hero detective in a noir-ish mystery, with violent action and Judeo-Christian mythology thrown in. (Have I mentioned before my love for schlocky Judeo-Christian horror movies, like “The Omen” and “The Prophesy”? I have!)

I was having trouble figuring out what else to say about it, really, so I went to see what people wrote on amazon, and more than a few mentioned how immature and dislikable the protagonist was, which embarrassed me a bit, since I rather liked him. James Stark, aka, Sandman Slim, was literally sent to Hell during a magic-ritual-gone-wrong in his late teens, and the novels opens with him finding his way back to Earth eleven years later, set on revenge toward those who sent him down.

He returns a bit psychotic, with some serious impulse-control issues, but I give him a lot of leeway, what with his early adulthood in Hell. As the backstory began unfolding, I realized that it reminded me a bit of The Magicians. Kinsey has previously favorably reviewed The Magicians, but when I read it later, I didn’t like it much at all – I thought all of the characters were spoiled brats who made everything and everyone around them worse. Sandman Slim felt like a natural conclusion to The Magicians – all of their arrogant blundering has finally bit them in the ass, and the one bitten the worst has grown up (a little) and is going to make the rest of them pay. It was just very satisfying, and has seriously been the best thing in the last couple really crappy weeks.