Women-led historical mysteries, ruined by the male romantic interest

I’m just so tired, y’all. Thirty years of overlooking or excusing bad behavior by male leads and I seem to have hit my wall. Negging is not flirting, condescension is not fondness, and ignorance is not protection. How hard can it be for a man and a woman to treat each other with fairness and respect, especially in a work of fiction? Both of these mysteries started strong, but got problematic far too quickly.

A Girl Like You

By Michelle Cox

A_Girl_Like_YouA Girl Like You features Henrietta, a beautiful young woman trying to find decent work to support her widowed mother and numerous siblings in Chicago during the Great Depression. She waitresses in increasingly risqué venues, following better money while trying to hide it from her strict mother. After the manager at one club is murdered, the handsome and charming (?) Inspector Howard convinces her to go undercover at an even shadier club to get an inside view on a possible criminal network that may have included the deceases manager.

Though young, Henrietta is smart, brave, and increasingly cares what the inspector thinks of her. Inspector Howard, for his part, realizes that his age and station make him unsuitable to court Henrietta, but deals with this knowledge by blowing hot and cold in a frustrating way, including withholding information pertinent to her safety.

The author really shines in capturing the time and place across different sects of society. The shine is tarnished a bit by Henrietta’s chronistic disgust in the face of lesbianism among the waitresses and showgirls, written with just enough emphasis that I began to side-eye the author a bit.

Still Life With Murder

By P.B. Ryan and Patricia Ryan

Still_Life_With_MurderThis novel also features a beautiful young woman, working her way up socially from a shadowy past of crime and poverty in Boston, just post Civil War. Nell is first introduced as the assistant to a rural surgeon, who had rescued her from her upbringing, but in the first chapter she is hired as a governess to an old-money Boston family. Through complicated circumstances, the oldest son of the family is accused of murder, and his mother entreats Nell to do some background investigation.

Like A Girl Like You, the scene-setting and most of the characters are very well done, but the oldest son is awful! Broken from his experiences in the war, William is an enthusiastic opium addict who would rather hang for murder than try to be agreeable to his family, and by halfway through the book, I was ready to let him. Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for him, I guess, Nell is filled with the zeal of saving an innocent man and becomes increasingly smitten. When William isn’t moping over his circumstances, he is purposefully misleading Nell and then scolding her (playfully?) for making assumptions.

I would have washed my hands of him completely and it just made me feel old and cynical. With this string of recent books with intolerable male “romantic” characters, I am feeling a bit demoralized in general, like the older I get the more books I won’t like since I’ve already experienced so many other, better books.

—Anna

Midnight Crossroad

A Novel of Midnight, Texas

By Charlaine Harris

Midnight_CrossroadI enjoyed Charlaine Harris’ True Blood series, both the books and the TV show, at least the first few issues of each, so I figured I’d check out her Midnight, Texas series. I watched the pilot episode and the characters and acting were all flat enough that I couldn’t stay engaged, but I was curious enough about the mystery itself that I decided to try the book.

Well, if the protagonist was blandly irritating in the TV show, he’s downright dislikeable in the book – self-centered, arrogant, and deeply uncharitable toward the other characters. Manfred is a psychic – mostly scam artist but with the occasional true sight, which is of absolutely no help in this first book – who needs to lay low for as yet unexplained reasons. The ghost of his grandma directs him Midnight, a simple crossroads of a town in Texas just chock full of eccentric characters.

I sort of assumed he was starting off unpleasant to create an arc of finally realizing his place among all the other supernatural weirdos in town, but it never really materialized. If anything, the other characters got increasingly unlikeable as the book went on.

We first meet Manfred’s landlord, Bobo, who initially seems attractive and pleasant, but then increasingly “naïve” to the point of stupidity. His girlfriend has disappeared, without leaving a note or taking any of her things, and he is currently bummed about being run out on. Of course the girlfriend is soon found dead in ditch, and his “aw, geez, I’m just so sad my girlfriend is gone, but there’s nothing to be done about it” attitude naturally makes him the prime suspect.

Manfred is our primary protagonist, but a good chunk of the book is also told from the perspective of his next-door neighbor, a self-identified witch named Fiji, who is quickly established as the heart of the community and I guess this story. She has been secretly pining for Bobo for years, and quickly mobilizes the community in his defense. I would have liked Fiji a lot more if she hadn’t had quite so constant an internal dialogue about how much she didn’t care that she was “curvy,” and “softer” than the other women in town.

Harris’ writing is always on the pulpy side, but this one seemed especially thinly sketched out, even for her. It was written just a few years ago, and I wonder whether her success in television has led her to focus more on that. With the concentration of varied ensemble of characters and sort of loosely tied together action scenes, it reads much more like the outline for a script than a novel to me. Unfortunately, it didn’t make for an engaging show, either.

—Anna

Women-led historical mysteries, done two ways

I’ve been on a bit of a mystery kick, lately (instead of blog-posting, clearly), and read a couple set in different periods but with strong female leads. I got them both for free through Bookbub deals, and I liked neither of them but for very different reasons.

The Rookery

By Emily Organ

RookeryThis is actually the second in a Victorian-era series featuring intrepid reporter Penny Green, but other than the awkward progression of her relationship with a Scotland Yard Inspector, I don’t think I missed much by jumping ahead. And by that, I mean I didn’t actually care enough to miss anything.

Through sheer happenstance, Penny is on the scene of a murder in the London slum neighborhood called The Rookery. She discovers that this is one of a string of murders that have been happening in the last few weeks, and when it appears that the police are not taking it seriously, she naturally decides to investigate herself, with the enthusiastic support of her newspaper, which wants the scoop. It really isn’t a bad premise at all, if only Penny wasn’t such a ninny.

Penny Green is outrageously bad at her job, and I was consistently appalled that the inspector gave her any credence whatsoever. However, not only does the inspector take her advice to an extraordinary and dangerous degree (considering how much she jumps to conclusions and then changes her own mind during the investigation), he provides her inside information which should rightfully get him fired.

Anyway, she is convinced that the wrong man is being suspected, has second (and third, and fourth, etc.) thoughts, but then is quickly distracted by a run-in with a Fagin-type figure: “I’ve given it a lot of thought since I met him and I’m certain he must be responsible for the murders. He’s an objectionable man.” That’s the kind of judicious reporting and police-work that I like to see!

When an eye-witness is discovered, she entreats the Inspector: “If the description of him is even remotely similar to that of Ed [Fagin-type figure] then he must be arrested.” To my fury, the Inspector doesn’t shut her down at once. In better-written mysteries, she would be a side character that serves as a comedic foil interfering with the actual investigation.

One O’Clock Jump

By Lise McClendon

One_Oclock_JumpOne O’Clock Jump is basically the polar opposite. It is the first in a series featuring Dorie Lennox, a private investigator in Depression-era Missouri. She is tough, smart, and deeply sympathetic, and she just can’t catch a break, which is what really did it in for me. In the first chapter, Dorie is tailing a woman for a job and follows her up a bridge, which the woman then jumps off. There’s no heroic rescue, just watching the body float away in the current, which is more realistic, I guess, but also solidly sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The woman, of course, is not who she seemed, and neither is the supposed boyfriend who hired the tail, and wants the investigation to continue, even though he had claimed it was just about infidelity. Dorie’s boss, the owner of the investigative agency, is slowly dying from a combination of exposure to mustard gas in the first world war and a broken heart over his deceased fiancée. Her closest confidante (though she isn’t particularly close to anyone) is a homeless man who sleeps near her boarding house. She has a sort of half-hearted love interest in a shifty reporter with suspect intentions.

It’s all very well-written but unrelenting in the grimness, so I’m in the difficult position of admiring the book but not exactly enjoying it. If there could have been just the tiniest bit of levity, I think I could have really liked this series, but I just can’t with this mood right now.

Night Drop

(Pinx Video Mysteries Book 1)

By Marshall Thornton

Night_DropI have been hesitating over this review for a while because Thornton writes predominately gay mystery/romances, which is definitely a niche market and not for every reader. The Pinx Video Mystery series is written for a wider audience, though, and is just so good that I have to recommend it. The first book of the series, Night Drop, begins on the night that officers that beat Rodney King were acquitted and riots broke out across LA.

The riots are only tangentially related to the plot, and the characters themselves are only vaguely curious. At first, this complacency was off-putting, but I remembered having the same sense of distance myself. As much as they seem so recent to me, the 90s were a very different time, with the racism and brutality of police and greater society only starting to become clear to wider population.

On the one hand, I wish this book had given it a little more respect, especially considering how often we are now reliving this on a daily basis, but on the other hand, Thornton really does a masterful job of capturing the (white, middle class) cultural feeling of the 90s. It is very strange to read a well-done period-piece mystery set during your lifetime.

Our protagonist Noah Valentine (other than his name, he is the quintessential everyman) has isolated himself after the death of his partner, spending his day working in the titular Pinx Video store, which he owns, and holing up in his tiny apartment in the evenings, only socializing with his neighbors, a delightful, somewhat older gay couple that are trying to take him under their wing.

The riots only vaguely break through his apathy, and only to the extent that they affect him. He reluctantly closes his video store for the day, and learns on the following day that the camera shop down the street had gotten burned down. He had a casual acquaintance-ship with the owner, and half-assedly tries to find out what happened out of a hazy sense of social duty and curiosity.

As they run across clues that don’t seem to add up, Valentine, his neighbors, and his neighbors’ friends become more drawn into the mystery, as well as the official police investigation. Of course, the official police investigation includes a handsome officer who may or may not have more than official interest in Valentine, but all three books in the series stay in solid PG territory.

Thematically, the book has an odd but very readable overlap of noir and cozy mystery genres. It is packed with amusingly odd characters, all of whom tend to shrug off the crimes around them in a sort of noir-ish existential malaise. I very much hope that this is an ongoing series, but book 3, which came out at the end of last year, had a somewhat more final sense of conclusion than the others.

P.S. – It wasn’t until I was telling Rebecca that all the books have titles relating to video rentals, that I realized that a video rental store might be the most 90s setting possible.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

mysistertheserialkillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer
by Oyinkan Braithwaite
2018

This book was very good and I highly recommend it, but it was also not at all what I expected even though I’m not quite sure what I was expecting. I’ll start by saying that it’s Nigerian noir. I haven’t read very much Nigerian literature or very much noir, so I’m not sure if it was one of those aspects or something entirely unique to the author that had the characters and their interactions fall into a sort of odd uncanny valley for me. It was unnerving and I was never quite sure what to expect. And despite it being less than two hundred pages, I had to take multiple breaks to relieve my poor nerves, as I walked around the house going, “oh no…., oh, no….”

The premise is pretty much exactly what the title says: at the beginning of the book, Korede’s sister Ayoola has just killed her third boyfriend “in self defense.” One time, sure: that’s terrible but good for her for defending herself. Two times, is terrible, how can these things keep happening to her just because she’s so beautiful. Three times, though, three times, Korede feels is just increasingly unlikely to be self-defense.

Then Ayoola shows interest in dating the guy Korede has a crush on. And events proceed.

The book was very factual and never gory but it sure ramped up the uncertainty of events as they happen while at the same time revealing in bits and pieces events from the past.

Anyway, I highly recommend this not only because it’s excellent but also because I desperately want to hear someone’s take on it. I’ve now read a bunch of other reviews online, but this is pretty much the perfect book for a bookclub where the members can get together later and talk about it with a lot of waving hands and inarticulate noises of amazement and distress.

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

By Stuart Turton

Evelyn_HardcastleThis is like Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey: the novel. The book is covered in blurbs raving about how original and fascinating it is, but I’m not sure that I ever got a full grasp of what was happening. Every so often, I’d get a spark of understanding, which was pretty cool, but then it would inevitably lead to even more confusion.

The novel opens with the narrator running through the woods, calling a woman’s name, with no memory of who or where he is. So, the reader starts as lost as the narrator, and it is a slow start as he puts together the pieces of the country house party he is attending. That’s basically as much as I can say without beginning to spoil things, but it isn’t really enough to get anyone interested in reading it. The basic publisher’s description realized this, too, so does provide some additional context.

The young society lady, for whom the party is in honor, dies at the end of the ball, and a mysterious cloaked figure tells our narrator that he must solve her murder. He has eight days to solve it, or rather eight cycles of the same day – the day of Evelyn Hardcastle’s death. The added twist is that each day, he will wake up in the body of one of the houseguests and he must run the detection through that person’s perspective. Which is really cool, and the author does a great job of showing how each different host affects the narrator (though it does lead to a chapter of some very uncomfortable fat shaming that made me like the book a little less).

It gets even more complicated, of course, with a slew of other houseguests and other strange characters in addition to the narrator and the eight guests he inhabits. Schemes, dangers, and suspicions abound, and I could never have predicted the final conclusion. (Like I said above, I’m not super sure that I understood everything, but I for sure did not anticipate it!)

Jane Steele

By Lyndsay Faye

Adobe Photoshop PDFHave you ever thought Jane Eyre would be improved if the heroine had simply murdered all the villains who cross her? Well, have I got a book for you! The very first sentence sets the tone: “Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important.”

The whole thing is much improved, actually, and I say that as someone who enjoyed the original. Thornfield (Rochester)*, in particular, is a breath of fresh air, as a soldier returning from East India after having “gone native” in the English army’s estimation, rather than a surly recluse. I always had to suspend disbelief that anyone would fall in love with Jane Eyre’s Rochester; Jane Steele’s Thornfield, of the other hand, has the perfect mix of charm and cynicism.

Like Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft Holmes, Lyndsay Faye takes a quintessentially British story and livens it up with a focus on other cultures that were always there historically but tend to be whitewashed out. Thornfield’s ward is the half-Sikh daughter of a fellow soldier, he has staffed his estate entirely with Sikhs, and the Sikh culture is woven throughout. An additional small but significant point that allows this revision to avoid seeming gimmicky is that Jane Eyre (the novel) actually exists in this world, and Jane Steele (the character) is a fan.

A few years ago, I read Jane Slayre, which does some of this – turning Jane into a murderer of vampires, which definitely added interest, but other than the vampires, it stayed pretty close to the original plot and even original prose. Faye, on the other hand, has revitalized the entire plot. Jane Steele retains a very similar feeling to the original, but skillfully updates the plot and characters for more modern sensibilities. (Reading this Jane returning violence against her with extreme prejudice is a real salve to the soul in the midst of the continually unfolding news of sexual exploitation and abuse by powerful men.)

When discussing the book at work, a coworker commented that she never really liked Jane Eyre because it was just so unrelentingly sad, with such terrible things happening to Jane, and I realized that the addition of the murders contrarily brightens everything up. It has quite a bit of sly humor, which kept me amused well after reading it.

*I only later realized that Thornfield is the name of Rochester’s house in Jane Eyre, so a clever little turnaround there.