Category Archives: Reading

Victoria Thompson’s “Murder on Sisters’ Row”

I sometimes think the hardest thing for a writer of historical mysteries, particularly when the protagonist is a woman, is to give the woman the freedom and ability to get out and garner information in order to solve the crime du livre. Victoria Thompson’s Murder on Sisters’ Row, makes use of the social and cultural restrictions on men and women in the Gaslight period to facilitate her characters sleuthing.
Sarah Brandt, the amateur detective in Thompson’s series is a midwife in New York City. She was born to an elite family but married “down” and learned the trade of midwifery. She is a widow with a daughter she adopted after her husband’s death and a nanny who stands in the stead of a daughter as well (Murder on Mulberry Bend.) Her job takes her all over New York and introduces her into the lives of people spanning the economic spectrum. She is a liminal character. She belongs in no place but is everyplace. She is associated with numerous classes by dint of birth and connection and employment. Her gender restricts her from personally engaging in certain actions but her relationships with various male characters allows her to use them vicariously to get to where she needs to be.
In Murder on Sisters’ Row, Sarah delivers a baby for a young woman in a brothel. The young woman asks for help in leaving the brothel and Sarah complies, contacting a rescue group whose mission is assisting prostitutes who are trying to escape “the life.” The mystery appears at first to be the young woman’s behavior. She is on one hand apparently terrified of the life she in in and on the other, well, a spoiled brat. Sarah is duly mystified but not engaged until later when the founder of the rescue group is murdered.
Victoria Thompson has a good handle on what women could and couldn’t do during this time period. In this book, Sarah’s detecting introduces us to the contradictory attitudes held at this period by women and men about women and their roles, women and their abilities, women and their morals, and, women and poverty. She introduces some of the contradictory attitudes about the causes of poverty and prostitution as well as the competing perspectives on remediation of those problems. Thompson uses socio-cultural forces to impel the murder in this book, social pressure that alienates and destroys and really has little to with a prostitute giving birth.
As a type A personality, I have to justify my “fun”. I think that is why I love reading historical mysteries, (or mysteries that teach me how to fix my house or brew my tea.) I learn from them while actually enjoying myself. Murder on Sisters’ Row provided me with food for thought regarding how we consider women and sexuality and whether “now” is really different from “then”. It has also made me consider the blame attributed, and damage done, to innocent bystanders associated with one who has done harm to others.
I recommend Murder on Sisters’ Row, it is well written, you’ll enjoy figuring out “who dun it”, and, if you so desire, you can get some mental exercise at the same time.


Dead Reckoning keeps Sookie on the right path

Years ago I read something that mentioned a series about a blonde, telepathic waitress who was involved with vampires. The idea intrigued me and I found a copy of Charlaine Harris’ “Dead Until Dark”. I laughed myself silly as I read and I proceeded to get a copy of everything Harris had published as of that time. I focused on the Sookie Stackhouse series first and read “Dead Until Dark”, “Living Dead in Dallas” and “Club Dead”. Then I had to wait for the Sookie saga to continue. In the meantime I found Lily Bard and Aurora Teagarden. I fell in love with Lily Bard and would love to talk movies with Aurora but I waited patiently in the between times for the next Sookie Stackhouse book. The Harper Connelly stories have been so welcome; a terrific story line and I love watching Harper’s character develop but still…
My copy of “Dead Reckoning” came in the mail yesterday. I had papers to grade and a lecture to prepare so I could only get so far into the book then, but tonight, I started reading and miraculously, about three hours later, I had discovered more family secrets, connived at an assassination, witnessed the end of one of Sookie’s bète noire and attended a baby shower.
I wondered, when Sookie’s world began to encompass more than vampires and the two natured, whether Ms Harris would be able to maintain the quality of her story line. One of my favorite aspects about Sookie’s story is the sense of fun, the humor that Harris brings into the improbability that is Merlottes and Bon Temps. She has. “Dead Reckoning” incorporates all the interesting characters that inhabit Vampiric Louisiana. Sookie’s blood relations get expanded, she learns more about her fae ancestry and Harris intimates the possibility of more interesting events in the future. Elves are on the scene, at least one of them is, and he is definitely not Legolas. By the end of the book, relationships are shifted and shifting and Dermot is remodeling the attic. One of my favorite characters, Mr. Cataliades is on the run, literally (as a recovering lawyer, I have a fondness for him.) Harris finishes with one of her best cliff-hanging endings ever and, “Fiddle dee dee, I’ll think about that tomorrow” has now been replaced in my canon with “Dangerous Creatures for two hundred, anyone?”
Now, I wait, again… but no, summer’s coming. I could start at the beginning and read the series all the way through once more!

The Archer by Betty Sullivan LaPierre

The Archer is the 13th in Betty Sullivan LaPierre’s “Hawkman” series.  The Hawkman is Tom Casey, private investigator.  His nom de guerre comes from his avocation as a falconer.

Laura King stumbles into the Hawkman’s office one afternoon.  She is being stalked and she doesn’t know who is doing it.  She keeps getting disturbing, almost pornographic, cell phone calls and she doesn’t know why.  Tom Casey is intrigued and takes on her case and with his entry into the matter, the situation escalates.  Someone starts taking shots at Tom with  bow and arrow, with a very serious bow, a compound bow.

Tom seeks out local arrow enthusiasts and correlates them with those Laura is involved with.  Laura is a nice girl, rather shy with little social life so the cause of the  malevolence focused on her is as much a part of the mystery as who the perpetrator is.

Tom utilizes modern technology and good old fashioned investigative technique to winnow away the multiple possibilities.  The answer to the questions of why and who are rooted in the age old reason of envy, greed and selfishness.

This story is a bit mannered, a little old fashioned, but in a way that enhances the character of the Hawkman.  LaPierre’s characters are of the times but Tom Casey’s relationships are just a little out of sync with modern sensibilities.  Casey’s character is informed by the back-story (this is the 13th in the series) but LaPierre manages to convey that back-story without slowing down the pace of this adventure. In LaPierre’s world bad acts do have consequences, whether those acts are mischievous or murderous.

The Archer is comfortable, almost cozy.  The characters are likable and knowable.  The story is not predictable and LaPierre manages to maintain tension until the very end of the tale,  where the good guys win.  This is a good book for a cup of tea and a rainy day… or whenever you want to just have a nice read.

Judy Clemens and the Grim Reaper

Embrace the Grim Reaper by Judy Clemens introduces us to a haunted Casey Maldonado.  Casey’s son and husband died in a car accident that was caused by a defect in the vehicle.  Casey was thrown clear and lived, because, as her traveling companion Death says, it wasn’t her time to die.   Casey took the auto manufacturer to court and got a settlement but the manufacturer’s representatives  seem to be dogging her heels, and she isn’t sure why.  Neither is she sure that the manufacturer is following through on their agreement that they would fix the defect that caused her husband and son to die.   Casey travels around, hitchhiking, staying here and there, not really seeming to care where she ends up, except that when she ends up there, she gets involved in the lives of the local population.

In Embrace the Grim Reaper, Casey, who has a background in theater and who is a competent martial artist, stops in a dying Ohio town where gets drawn into performing in Twelfth Night, replacing a woman who had committed suicide.  The woman’s friends can’t believe she committed suicide; it doesn’t ring true for them, but no one has any ability to prove otherwise until Casey comes along and provides the catalyst for investigating the death.  Needless to say, it was murder.

In The Grim Reaper’s Dance Casey has moved on and, is in yet another vehicle accident when Evan, the truck driver she has hitched a ride with crashes while trying to avoid hitting some construction vehicles.   Death takes Evan, but not before he tells Casey to keep “them” from getting something he has hidden in the cab of the truck.

The first responders to the scene are taken aback that Evan is dying; it is clear that they know him, but they are clearly more interested in obtaining whatever it is that Evan hid.  Casey maintains a low profile, hiding out in the cornfields of Kansas, working with a group of teenagers who help her find out who caused the accident that took Evan’s life, and why.

Death is the side kick here.  The Grim Reaper doesn’t give Casey any arcane help, he sometimes goads her into action but his role is more Casey’s sub-conscience than participant.  It is this more passive role that makes Clemens’s Grim Reaper stories interesting.  Casey is an intriguing personality, she is capable, but not super-capable, and she is haunted and hunted.  She creates much of her own tension, trying to stay below the radar, avoiding the auto manufacturer functionaries who show up here and there.  Clemens isn’t clear about why they are still in the picture and why Casey is avoiding them, but she conveys the message that there is a reason, and I’m waiting for her next book in the hopes that I’ll find out what it is.

Murder Down Under, and a bit ago

My last, “just sit down and read it”, mystery of the winter break is Robin Adair’s, “Death and the Running Patterer: A Curious Murder Mystery”. (2009) Nicodemus Dunne is a paroled convict in Sydney, Australia in 1828. He was transported for a very minor (at least by our standards) offense and shipped off to the penal colony. He had been a police officer in London before being shipped off and, after his parole, took up the job of patterer. He makes his living reading the news to those who can’t read for themselves or for those who simply want a digest of the news without all the bother of having to read the whole paper.
He is drawn into the investigation of a murder by the superintendent of the police, Francis de Rossi (a historic figure in colonial Sydney.) de Rossi knows Dunne and knows his police work and requisitions his assistance. Dunne gets pulled into a series of murders of soldiers, each of which is accompanied and connected by strange clues. His employment has enabled him to meet many of the characters inhabiting Sydney and he gets assistance from numerous citizens, free and convict. He ultimately reveals the killer (of course) but not until after having taken us on a tour of very old Sydney.
Adair is, I believe, a journalist, and one with a a good sense of humor. He knows Sydney and he knows old Sydney. He has a good understanding of the transportation/convict system and he does a good job bringing his characters to life. He has a dry sense of humor and occasionally manages to insert a modern cultural reference into Nicodemus Dunne’s 19th century Australia. The references don’t jar you out of the moment, they make sense and hopefully you’ll find them as amusing as I did. Adair mixes real characters and events with the fictional and manages to make the blend seamless, at least to someone like me (with only a moderate knowledge of Australian history.)
In a bit of serendipity, synchronicity (?), the day I started reading this was the day the New York Times did an article on finding Sydney’s convict past in its modern streets. I found congruence between the NYT article and the book and it created a connection between the then and now that I may not have developed otherwise.
I enjoyed this book. I was able to figure out whodunit fairly early on but if I let that stop me I’d never read another mystery again. Adair has a second book coming out in February, “Ghost of Waterloo”, another Running Patterer book. I’m looking forward to it.
I read this book in Kindle format on my iPad

Colourful Death and conferences

Well my conference is done, a week’s worth done, and I finally got to finish Carola Dunn’s, Cornish mystery, A Colourful Death.  It was tough.  The conference was on Intergroup Dialogue and lest you think me insane, I must tell you that is was the best organized and most useful conference I’ve ever attended.  I learned a lot.  I also made the mistake of commuting which was a problem on two counts, no one to process with at the end of the day and an hour and a half commute either way.  By the time I got home at night I was too tired to read and that almost never happens.

That being said,  I must disclose, I like English cozies, and this is an English cozy.  Eleanor Trewynn, the protagonist, has traveled and seen the world under less than privileged circumstances so she has a realistic perspective about people and life, not a dark perspective, just realistic.  She is willing to believe well of others but doesn’t seem surprised when they misbehave.

This is the second in what I hope is a series of Cornish Mysteries.  (I have now put Cornwall higher on my list of PLACES TO GO.  It has always been up there, along with Wales, but so far, when I get to that neck of the woods,water(?), I get stuck in Scotland or Ireland or Canterbury.)  I will be purchasing the first in the series when I venture out of the cornfield this week but there is just enough back story in Colourful Death that you understand the relationships between the characters (and don’t ruin the unread stories for yourself.)

Death is Colourful in this story because it involves artists and art and a body lying in a shockingly red pool of … well what is a body usually lying in?  Ms Dunn introduces the drama of unrelated people living and working together in a communal setting when one of their own is murdered.  Eleanor’s niece becomes involved when the police division she works in is brought in on the crime and the tension between the professionals and amateurs (Eleanor and company) never gets beyond levels of believability.

There was one note of discord for me, but it is more of a social question and verges into the reality/unreality of story telling.  Part of the storyline deals with difficulties Megan Pencarrow, Eleanor’s niece, faces in being a woman in the Cornish police force.  I kept wondering if the level of  the problems faced by DS Pencarrow was a current reality or a literary reality.  I guess I’ll just have to do some research.

The killer became apparent to me fairly early on but the how, and the why, that was not so easy to adduce.  Ms Dunn laid a trail to follow but always stayed at least one step ahead, which is the difference between a book one doesn’t want to  put down, no matter how good the conference you are attending is, and a book you close easily and finally.

I’m off in search of Manna from Hades, the first book in the series.  Dare I hope the manna is spicy, given the geography?  Then, I think I will start in on the Daisy Dalrymple mysteries and see how I like them.

Martha Grimes and The Black Cat

Just finished reading The Black Cat, Martha Grimes’ newest in the Superintendent Jury series.  It’s like catching up with old friends and acquaintances.  Jury is getting older and lonelier and Carole Anne is getting wackier.  Melrose Plant stays oddly eccentric.  The rest of the crew from Long Piddleton appear mostly in cameo but they are alive and well.  Any book that involves three black cats and Mungo the dog and manages to confound Harry Johnson even if he can’t be arrested ends well.  It was a quick read but a fun read.  I don’t want to write much more about the plot right now as it is so newly published and I don’t want to spoil the fun.

I look at the weirdly wonderful characters in books like these and I realize that there are people like this in the world. I’ve met folks like this in passing occasionally.  I wonder if I looked at the people I know with different eyes, whether I would see characters like this in my life.