Truly Devious

9780062338051Waaaay back in 2012, I wrote a review about the first book in a new YA fantasy/mystery trilogy by Maureen Johnson. I really liked The Name of the Star but at the time the rest of series wasn’t out yet. Books two and three are now available, and I recommend tracking those down for a good supernatural mystery. Johnson’s latest book is also a mystery, but it takes a slightly different, non-fantasy angle on things.  Truly Devious follows two different story threads–in the present day teenager Stevie, a true crime aficionado, is starting the year at an exclusive and unusual boarding school that was the site of a notorious crime in the early 1900s. She wants to solve the historical crime, but gets swept up into a present-day mystery. But while we watch Stevie try to figure out what is going on in her world, we are also following actors in the original mystery and slowly uncovering what actually happened when the wife and daughter of a wealthy industrialist were kidnapped.

The downside of Truly Devious is that it ends on a cliffhanger with basically no resolution, and there isn’t even a publication date for the next one. This is clearly going to be a single story told over several books, but who knows when it all might wrap up. But this was a quick read with an engaging story and it would be perfect to read on a dark and rainy evening, since it’s a little creepy but probably won’t keep you up at night.

Also, Maureen Johnson is super fun to follow on Twitter (@maureenjohnson), where she is very funny and also posts lots of cute pictures of her dog. Plus, she just edited a YA essay compilation called How I Resist that looks really inspiring, that I may have to go track down.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Creepy, on-going mystery

You might also like:  One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus is a fun teenagers-solve-a-crime story, and if you’re looking for a quirky boarding school book, Looking for Alaska by John Green is a classic. The recent TV show about the Getty kidnapping called Trust also gets at quite a few of the period-piece thriller aspects of this. But considering that this is the story of someone obsessed with true crime, my main recommendation is the podcast My Favorite Murder, in which two mystery-obsessed women tell the stories of famous crimes to each other. Just this morning I was listening to an episode this morning about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, which feels like it was a bit of an inspiration for the historical crime in this book.

The Arnifour Affair

By Gregory Harris

Arnifour_AffairSometimes I worry that I’m getting too cranky in my old age – that books I would have enjoyed when I was younger, I now pick apart as trite since I’ve read so many other, better books by this point. I really wanted to like The Arnifour Affair: it is a Victorian-era murder mystery featuring a renowned detective, and his partner, both in work and life. Unfortunately, it reads like someone’s Sherlock/Watson fanfic with the names changed. Which, honestly, I would be all over, if only it was well written!

I swear every other line of dialogue included some synonym for “laughed”: chortled, smirked, snickered, chuckled, etc., until they all sounded like a pack of lunatics, laughing inappropriately at every single scene. This also clinched the idea of fanfic origins for me; smirking is a favorite of amateur writers, to the extent that I now hate the very word, and think it should be given a moratorium of use for at least a decade. See what I mean about me getting cranky?

The bare-bones of the character and the plot were there, so it could have been something really interesting. The Sherlock character sticks pretty close: son of a high-level government official, he is considered too eccentric for polite society, but still admired for his top-notch detective skills. Instead of recovering war veteran, though, the Watson character is an ex-street hustler and drug addict, who Sherlock…I mean, Colin Pendragon, has rescued. This could have been an interesting dynamic if they weren’t constantly chortling at each other.

All of the characters made little sense, switching personalities fairly dramatically whenever it suited the author’s purpose (though always maintaining a hair-trigger laugh impulse). This really threw off the plot since it was really hard to predict how any character would act in any given scenario and what their motivations would be. Everyone ended up being fairly unlikeable, and yet I was somehow still offended by which unlikeable character ended up the culprit. I’m still not sure what the final motivations were for the crime, though there were enough of them floating around that it seemed like Harris maybe just threw everything at the wall to see what stuck.

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.