The Maid

By Nita Prose

I’d been on the waiting list for this book for several months, and when it finally came in, the librarian mentioned that it’s been coming in and out constantly. I’d heard it recommended as a mystery in the form of Agatha Christie, which of course sold me on it, but I’m not sure that I get the comparison, other than it is a mystery and a twisty one. Perhaps also that the narrating protagonist is as overlooked as Miss Marple often is?

Molly is a very skilled maid at a high-end hotel, and also very clearly autistic. I have no idea how accurate the author’s portrayal of autism is, but it certainly creates an interesting perspective. Whole scenes told one way in Molly’s perspective are clear to the reader as having entirely different interpretations under the surface that she’d not recognizing. Many of these are fairly unsubtle, but it does create an interesting puzzle for the reader to figure out exactly how is being missed or misinterpreted.

It’s a bit agonizing at times, to be honest. Molly is such a decent person, left on her own after the death of her grandmother and trying so hard, and we as the readers watch people manipulate and use her. Some scenes are vaguely funny, which made me a bit uncomfortable (Molly herself worries about not knowing if people are laughing with her or at her, and I sometimes wasn’t sure if I as the reader was, either), but more are depressing at the ugliness of people who will do anything to get even the slightest edge in life.

Fortunately this is balanced out by the charming handful of people who appreciate Molly and are ready to help when she finds herself in deep trouble. This begins when she finds a guest has died in one of the rooms, a wealthy man who had enough enemies to make his death suspicious. Molly’s unemotional reaction to it quickly attracts the attention of the police, so she and her growing number of friends scramble to discover what really happened before it can be pinned on her. I very much enjoyed the book, and read it within a few days, which is very quick for me, but the occasional lack of subtlety made the story feel somewhat unrefined in places. It has already been optioned for a movie due to come out next year, with the excellent Florence Pugh as the lead, which I think may actually be even better than the book. My sense is that the more obvious parts of the book will read better on screen than on the page, so I’m already eagerly anticipating the movie.

The Angel of the Crows

By Katherine Addison

Someone had recommended The Angel of the Crows as Sherlock fanfic with the serial numbers filed off, and as Rebecca pointed out, they weren’t filed off much. For me, though, this had the benefit of the book feeling immediately comfortable even in the unique setting. Set in an alternative Victorian Era, angels guard most of the public spaces of London, while their fallen numbers rampage in war zones. Doyle has returned from war in Afghanistan (a depressing constant) with incapacitating wounds and a couple of secrets that are slowly revealed over the course of the book, and finds housing with the titular Angel of the Crows, who solves mysteries to pass the time and keep London safe.

Doyle, of course, quickly gets roped into assisting the angel Crow, and both of them are so eminently likeable with their various flaws and idiosyncrasies, and their relationship was so sweet, I could have read twice as many stories of their adventures. Crow’s lack of understanding of many human traits makes much more sense and is much more sympathetic, coming from a literally unearthly being. Addison also builds off of a variety of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous stories, including the Hound of Baskerville and the Speckled Band, and I really enjoyed seeing the reinterpretations in a world where werewolves and vampires exist openly.

Rebecca read it first and warned me that the book has very episodic plotting, with many shorter cases solved within the arc of the longer Jack the Ripper investigation. Knowing what to expect, I read the book somewhat like a collection of short stories, and found that especially accessible, too. None of the mysteries were as complex as one would get in a single dedicated novel, but I could read one each night and then set the book down satisfied. It’s been such a nice end to my day all this week that I’ve got a bit of a book hangover now, even though my to-read stack is towering.

Devil House

By John Darnielle

John Darnielle is the lead singer of The Mountain Goats, who I’d never actually listened to, and also a big supporter of and frequent guest on podcasts, which is where I heard of his new novel, Devil House. The main premise is that a true crime author moves into a house that was the scene of a supposed devil worship sacrifice during the satanic panic of the 80s, in order to immerse himself in the scene while writing about the event. Darnielle explained that he tried to construct the novel itself like a house, which I didn’t fully understand, and still don’t even after reading it. There certainly was a lot of description of the house, if that’s what it means?

This very lukewarm review is likely due to me as a reader, rather than the book itself, though it is also a much different book than I was expecting. This was just not the book for me (I also listened to a couple of Mountain Goats songs out of curiosity, and they were also Not For Me, so I guess that’s something learned all around). On the one hand, I was immersed enough in the entwined stories that at times I struggled to put the book down, and there was never any question in my mind about finishing it. On the other hand, I was viscerally and generally annoyed for pretty much the entire week I was reading it.

As much as I love mysteries, especially murder mysteries, I hate reading true crime. And this is not true crime, in itself, but I think Darnielle probably does a good job of mirroring it, while writing about his author. I had previously thought I didn’t like the sensationalizing of real victims in true crime, but as I read Devil House, I realized instead of any sort of lofty ideals, I really just find the psychological delving to be boring. I’d much rather read about solving the logistical puzzle of a mystery than the thoughts and emotions of the killers and victims, and there’s a lot of the latter in this novel.

The bulk of the book shifts between three time periods, our author in the present day researching his book, the double murder in the 80s, and a separate double murder in the 70s that was featured in the author’s breakout book. I kept waiting for there to be some connection revealed between the three, but I think Darnielle was trying to do something more subtle, and he was giving three ostensibly different examples that come at the same core message from different perspectives.

The book ends with a lengthy treatise on truth, stories, what gets remembered and what doesn’t, and what gets amplified in stories and what doesn’t. Darnielle writes all this with an universality (“we all…”) that captured much of my frustration with the book as a whole. I often felt like I was supposed to be reading something poignant and informative about how humans all relate to memories, but it didn’t match my relationship with my own past or memory at all. So it’s alienating, at the very least, to read what is clearly supposed to be a reflection of humanity overall, and to find it so strange and unfamiliar.

As an aside, I think the cover reflects all of my feelings very well: it is a really striking graphic design, but I realized pretty quickly that the house pictured on the cover doesn’t match the physical description in the book at all, which was a continual irritant.

They Came to Baghdad

By Agatha Christie

I was first intrigued to read a spy adventure novel by Agatha Christie, rather than her more usual English murder mysteries, but it also turned out to be a disconcertingly timely read. Published in 1951, it is all very Cold War, with tensions running high between the United States and the Soviet Union, with a planned global summit in Baghdad in an attempt to ease those tensions and prevent a third world war so soon after the second. It’s been a very odd week to read a book with such similarities and equal disparities to current events! (The Iraq of 1951 is also strangely discordant, since it is both through Christie’s blatantly prejudiced eyes, though she in fact loved the country herself, and before many of the subsequent wars that tanked its economy and culture.)

For all the overarching motivation of preventing war between America and Russia, it is really a story of England and Iraq, with the many English expats converging on Baghdad for a madcap variety of reasons. The whole plot has Christie’s classic clues and twists, but has enough screwball comedy to it that I’m very disappointed that no one has adapted it to film yet. Our main protagonist, Victoria, is a mediocre typist recently fired in London, who impulsively follows an attractive young man to Baghdad. She is more gutsy than intelligent (thus her initial poor decision making), but to the detriment of all the espionage around her, she is unexpectedly observant and also a somewhat compulsive liar. Christie’s mastery really shines in the final denouement, when all the smallest clues, including some that I had chalked up to minor writing flaws, came together very quickly in a very satisfactory way.

A very minor spoiler, the central conflict is explained to Victoria midway through the book, and hit me like a flash of familiarity:

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Dreamland

By Nancy Bilyeau

I was positive that Kinsey had recommended this book to me, but when I texted her to tell her how much I was enjoying it, she was like, so, tell me about this book?

It’s a murder mystery, sort of: there’s definitely someone killing young women on the Coney Island boardwalk, but it is sort of in the background for most of the book. It’s also got a lot of the earmarks of gothic mystery: a very wealthy family with simmering tensions and a young woman trying to escape the strictures of the family.

The whole book is so delicately written: it is clearly much better to be super rich in New York in 1910 than it is to be super poor, but it still seems to suck pretty badly.  (It is probably by far the best to be comfortably middle class.) I didn’t expect myself to sympathize quite so much with such a wealthy and indulged protagonist, but Bilyeau does a great job of showing how imprisoning and insulating/isolating this level of wealth does. Peggy wants very much to be a good person, but her very existence within the power that her family’s wealth yields is a threat to everyone around her not equally protected by wealth.

After being coerced by her family into attending a summer retreat to Brooklyn shore, she falls into a star-crossed romance with an immigrant artist on the boardwalk. As her naivety with the everyday struggles of the rest of the world threatens his life and livelihood, I did wonder what exactly he saw in her. Peggy is incredibly sympathetic, but not always likeable, and I credit the writing immensely for that. She has such good intentions and tries so hard, but often falls back into arrogance and selfishness in times of stress. It illustrates so well how this type of upbringing can be corrupting despite one’s best intentions. (For me, the artist, Stefan, was the weakest character, sort of an unrealistic ideal that made me grudgingly suspect him of fortune-hunting, agreeing with many of the other characters.)

I did think the ending fell a little short of the suspense leading up. The more I read, the greater appreciation I have for mystery authors – it is really hard to set up a puzzle and then pull off a solution that fits all the pieces while still being a surprise at the end. It’s a rarer skill than I’d realized, and this book doesn’t quite meet it, but it doesn’t negate the beautifully atmospheric pages leading up to it.

Also, I recommend the final author’s note, since her description of which real-life people and places she based characters and settings on is fascinating!

Not Getting Murdered by Johnson & Cooper

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village
by Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper
2021

I got this as a Christmas present right before dinner and finished it within a couple of hours, while also eating vast quantities of good food, hanging out with family. This is not a long or dense book. It is hilarious!

It’s clearly inspired by Edward Gorey and also by the whole genre of murder mysteries set in quaint English villages. Especially the long series’ where the amateur detective solves a murder mystery in their home village for each book, and the deaths sure do add up. In a very light-hearted and dark-humored way, this lists all the stereotypical places, peoples, and events of small quaint villages and how murderous they manage to be. (For example: if there are any vats described in the text of a book, it’s almost certainly because someone drowned in it. For safety: stay away from vats!)

The illustrations are frequent and the text is sparse, and it’s hilarious and morbidly adorable. There are also quizes! What do you do in each situation to survive the events? Each of them like a tiny choose-your-own-adventure! Hahahaha! I love this book so much!

Velvet Was the Night

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I am a big fan of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and I love following her across all her genre hopping: Gods of Jade and Shadow was a breathtakingly dreamlike and philosophic fantasy novel, Certain Dark Things an engrossing and gritty vampire/mob suspense novel, and Mexican Gothic a beautifully atmospheric and bizarre gothic (of course). And now, Velvet Was the Night is a picture-perfect noire in every way!

In the acknowledgement, Moreno-Garcia mentions that noir is a proud tradition in Latin America, and she has certainly done it proud with every character, scene, and even the descriptive tone of the writing. Velvet Was the Night centers around two very distinct protagonists: an apolitical, daydreaming woman stuck in a secretarial job she loathes, and a young thug hired to infiltrate and repress (i.e. beat) student and/or communist protests. Moreno-Garcia teases out throughout the book how similar they are to each other, regardless of their wildly different circumstances, as well as how each of them incrementally matures through the events that push them outside the ruts of their daily lives.

Like all good noirs, Velvet Was the Night connects the daily lives of these two individuals and the people around them to the wider scope of politics. In this case, the politics of 1970s Mexico are complicated and literally foreign to me, and yet Moreno-Garcia somehow manages to spin it out in a way that I could understand and follow along to, starting small and generalized and building up the complexity of the different factions along with the plotlines. It felt like some kind of magic trick and I have no idea how she kept me tracking all the twists and turns!

meh

I think I’m feeling a little cranky because I finished the complete Astreiant series, which just seemed to fit everything I like best in a novel, and now I’m vaguely disappointed in every novel I’ve read since.

Ladies’ Bane

By Patricia Wentworth

I’ve had Patricia Wentworth on the periphery of my to-read list for a while now. She’s a contemporary of Agatha Christie, and is often compared to her, and I do love my Agatha Christies! I picked Ladies’ Bane sort of random, thinking that it sounded pretty gothic, which I’m also partial to. And it was very gothic! A young lady marries a man in a whirlwind romance and disappears to his county estate, and when her cousin comes to check on her, she finds her much changed with no idea who to trust. Classic gothic! And Wentworth’s mainstay detective, an elderly ex-governess, doesn’t appear on the scene until a quarter of the way through. 

But I don’t know…I read it quickly and enjoyed it, but it very much lacked the spark of Agatha Christie. The characters were not quite dimensional enough, the mystery not quite twisty enough, and the personal touches were a little more crude and even a bit mean. I think this is why detective Miss Silver didn’t quite catch on to the extent of Miss Marple. She’s more judgmental and reproving, and her apparent signature quirk of quoting Tennyson doesn’t really help. I asked my mom, another big Agatha Christie fan, whether I was just missing something with Patricia Wentworth, and she agreed that she hadn’t taken to her at all either.

Some Danger Involved

By Will Thomas

This mystery is very consciously and closely inspired by Sherlock Holmes and Watson. It starts intriguingly enough with our Watson-figure, a down-and-out disgraced academic applying for the job as assistant to an enquiry agent who is demanding and idiosyncratic enough to run off all other applicants. The enquiry agent, the assistant, and surrounding characters are all interesting in distinct ways, but after a while I wanted deeper insight into their characters. The detective himself appears as a bit of a Mary Sue, with the universal respect he garners and his expertise in a range of martial arts. I was unsurprised to read in the author’s biography that he himself studies and practices several forms of martial arts.

The plot also centers around the Jewish community in London in the nineteenth century, and again, it was interesting, but I was a little uneasy that the author may not know enough about Jewish traditions and culture to write accurately and sensitively about it, especially with the lack of subtlety in other parts of the book. So, overall, I enjoyed the book well enough, but wanted more depth across the board. 

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Point of Hopes

By Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett

Melissa Scott may be my new favorite author, and I just ran across her by chance when browsing SmashWords.* I am so, so happy to have found her now, but also wish I’d had her on my bookshelf decades ago. Point of Hopes reminds me of the books I loved as a kid, Patricia C. Wrede and Andre Norton in particular, but with more detailed and progressive world building. This is the first in a five novel series, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so thoroughly drawn into world!

First, the whole society is built around a complex astrology system. Major events and decisions are scheduled around fortuitous star positions, and birth charts can determine individuals’ job and status. For instance, if you have water signs, you will make a better sailor, and if you don’t, captains are much less likely to hire you on. Our main protagonist is the equivalent of a police officer (strong presence of planets in justice signs), and while he investigates several minor crimes as the novel establishes the setting and characters, he is then assigned to the major case of a recent slew of missing children and the simmering anger and panic it is causing throughout the city.

Speaking of simmering anger and panic, this novel (written in 1995!) features a neighborhood convinced that a foreign-run pub is somehow hiding the missing children, despite no evidence from repeated searches, eventually culminating in an armed attack. I seriously had to check the publication date again (which actually gets a little confusing, because I think it was first published in print in 1995, and then later e-published in 2012).**

Second, while the society is strictly stratified by class and the culture most closely matches the late Middle Ages in Europe, it is all subtly matriarchal. The author has a nice show-don’t-tell style, so the society comes together in bits and pieces through the perspective of our solidly middle-class protagonists. There is a queen, who is childless and expected to name a female relative as heir to the throne, and the highest positions in society, such as the city council, are predominately held by women. Overall, though, both gender and sexuality are unrestricted. Our secondary protagonist is a soldier recently decommissioned in the city, under suspicion as an outsider, but fully acknowledged and accepted as bisexual. A relationship between the two protagonists evolves over the series, but the first book simply introduces their friendship.

*SmashWords is one of the primary alternatives to Amazon for self-published authors. The website is fairly clunky and difficult to navigate, but they give the authors 85% of sales, which is worth it to me.

** I am almost positive that the eBook was generated with an automated text reader, since there are unfortunately a number of typos that would come from that process: corner turning into comer,  and ever into even, for instance.

The Postscript Murders

By Elly Griffiths

I previously reviewed The Stranger Diaries, and promptly requested the sequel, published just last year. Griffiths wisely doesn’t try the same trope of an embedded mystery story within the novel, but instead creates a sort of homage to mystery novels, their authors, and readers, and I liked it even more!

An elderly retiree dies of seemingly natural causes, but her somewhat highly-strung caretaker, already uneasy over the death, finds a business card next to the body for a “murder consultant.” She brings her concerns to Detective Harbinder Kaur, who begins to look into it partly out of curiosity and partly because the caretaker is persistent, beautiful, and flirty.

Like The Stranger Diaries, the narrative rotates through four perspectives: Detective Kaur, the practical one trying to maintain a balanced perspective; Natalka, the caretaker excited for the adventure of an investigation; Edwin, the urbane neighbor of the deceased in their retirement home; and Benny, the shy owner of a local coffee shop. Whereas before the different perspectives lead to shocking reveals, The Postscript Murders is more like a screwball comedy, which I absolutely adore!

The mismatched group together dive into an investigation of what might not be murder at all, stirring up suspicious reactions right and left, and culminating in a road trip to a mystery authors convention. Throughout the book and especially in the convention setting, Griffiths is able to gently spoof mystery writers and readers, which combined with the delightful characters, is laugh-out-loud funny.

Griffiths is doing a lot here, and I felt the ending wasn’t quite as neat a solution as I like in mysteries, but that is a small bone to pick with an overall truly delightful novel.