Tag Archives: Murder Mystery

The Summer Wives: A Novel by Beatriz Williams

Summer Wives, or paramours, are perfect for the three months of June, July, and August for the men who love them prior to returning to those women who, for better or worse, take up the mantle as their duly married spouses. It kind of reminds me of the sign on our motor boat, “All marriages performed by Captain good one trip only”.

Here are young virginal girls full of passion who are attracted to men who aren’t necessarily destined to be their mate. When villager Bianca Medeiro gives herself to the handsome, prosperous Hugh Fisher she considers herself his wife, so imagine her distress when said husband intends to wed fellow socialite Abigail Dumont. Despite Hugh’s pledges of love and devotion, too late she realizes that it’s just a summer romance which he intends to continue each year when their nouveau riche family returns to Winthrop Island for the season. That’s in 1930.

Twenty one years later Hugh Fisher’s nineteen year old daughter, Isobel, is engaged to the affluent Clayton Monk, yet she’s not sure they’ll suit over the long haul. Anyway, her dad is remarrying and she needs to spend time with her new sister, Miranda Schuyler. Step sister “Peaches” is attracted to the son of the light house keeper, Joseph Vargus, who makes a good impression when he rescues an elderly Portuguese fisherman who fell off his boat. There’s an instant chemistry between the two, even though Isobel warns her “he’s mine”. Not to worry, they barely have any time together when a tragedy occurs which sends Miranda spinning off in a new direction.

Eighteen years after that, Miranda returns, now a successful actress who needs some time away to recuperate after a car accident. She hasn’t spoken to her Mom or Isobel since her departure and the house where she spent that fateful summer is in disrepair, especially since her stepfather is dead and the money has dried up. Isobel never married and Miranda’s husband, well let’s just say he’s the reason she’s hiding out in Long Island Sound. An added plus is the fact that Joseph might be somewhere around the island after his recent escape from prison, just a couple of years before he was set to released from his twenty year murder sentence.

The Summer Wives: A Novel by Beatriz Williams is told from three perspectives, Bianca Medeiro in 1930, eighteen year old Miranda Schuyler in 1951, and the now 36 year old Miranda “Thomas” in 1969 – each time period divided into the months of June, July, and August, where the details are eked out a little at a time until the complete picture (via the two epilogues) is revealed.

Is there a true villain in this saga, or a series of miscommunications which result in actions that simply can’t be undone? Either way, there’s a bunch of questionable plot points which make one wonder, “oh, no, you didn’t just go there” and though the end run isn’t exactly rocket science, this is still an enjoyable, if not predictable, read.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and the publisher for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Wolf On A String by Benjamin Black

If you are looking for a murder mystery, there is one here in Wolf On A String by Benjamin Black, but it is incidental to the historical aspect of this fictionalized tale of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II from Prussia, told during a brief span during the winter of 1599/1600. Yes, there’s a brutal death when Rudolf’s current young paramour is discovered frozen with her throat slit. The one who discovers her body, Christian Stern, is charged with finding her killer (but not until after he is questioned and thrown into prison as a possible suspect). Luckily the traveling scholar from Regensburg is taken under the Emperor’s wing, especially since Rudolf had a recent dream and our young hero fits the premonition of Christ appearing on a starry night with the appropriate name to match. Without any power or authority, Christian’s quest is hampered especially since the court intrigue leaves him at a loss of whom to trust. As Dr Kroll, the father of the slaughtered Magdalena warns, if you don’t chose a side, one will be chosen for you. Since this is medieval times, it’s either Rome and the Pope, or Luther. Either way, everyone is dispensable, including the ruler who is eventually dethroned by his brother.

This book reflects the constant threats surrounding the city of Prague which forces its residents to make the most of each moment. The Gourmond Fryer spends his free time enjoying luscious meals while Christian’s appetite leans more towards the delights of the female gender of his acquaintance. Everyone imbibes their favorite beverage. The taciturn dwarf, Jesse Schenckel is a pet of sorts for The Emperor, reciprocating the hatred he sees in the eyes of the courtiers, slinking around and turning up unexpectedly at the most inopportune times.

As long as we are looking into the life of Rudolf II, The Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was known for his amazing collection of fine art, (many of the chartered works he commissioned were lascivious), as well as the rare artifacts he coveted such as a grain of sand from the Garden of Eden and a unicorn’s horn. His love of the unusual extended to mechanical moving devices including scientific instruments (his collection of clocks was world renowned) and he provided support for the studies of natural philosophers including botanists and astronomers. In the book Christian is given a tour of the “cabinet of curiosities” which represented the three kingdoms of nature (Rudolf’s massive set of gems and minerals were studied by scholars) housed in the northern wing built in the Hradcany Castle for just this purpose. A lion and tiger, part of his menagerie of exotic animals, were allowed to roam the castle. The Emperor was also considered an intellectual devotee of the occult arts, especially alchemy, and due to these interests plus the learning which he supported, his “hobbies” were believed to have led to the scientific revolution as a part of the Renaissance.

Between our protagonist’s visits to the royal chambers is the machinations surrounding court life, the ruthless players moving to expand their own power at the expense of others, often using Christian’s favor for their own needs, with the truth being covertly hidden despite the open acknowledgment of each other’s secrets. While our young scholar had dreamed of becoming indispensable to the monarch, he begins to realize that life in Prague is not turning out quite as expected with his life being dictated by the whims of others instead of through his own talents. We know he survives the ordeal since this is a story narrated by an older version of himself reflecting back on the decisions of his youth.

As the story comes to a close, the author presents a note to the reader explaining which characters are total fabrications, which are parodies of real individuals, and which are well known personages from that time period. He shares the fate of Rudolf and his Chamberlain which occurs about twelve years past the date of this story – but hold off on reading these after thoughts if you don’t want to be exposed to the clues necessary to solve the mystery. As an aside, Rudolf’s life long quest to discover the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone was obviously never realized and his massive collections were dismantled or neglected after his reign was ended.

A quick read with some clever turns of a phrase along with some occasional excessively long sentences and a few new words to add to ones vocabulary. I learned a bit about the musical term wolf on a string – an unwanted howling sound caused by a certain vibration of a violin. You are welcome to make projections based on the “significance” of the title.

Of note is that the name Benjamin Black is a pseudonym for award winning author John Banville. After seeing a picture of the author I felt he looked a bit like the country western singer Johnnie Cash, also known as the “Man in Black”. Coincidence? Four stars.

The Beautiful Mystery (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #8) by Louise Penny

Louise Penny is known for her murder mysteries, specifically those involving Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The Beautiful Mystery is book number eight in the series and for faithful readers there are several disturbing events which could easily be upsetting for those who’ve developed a bond with the central characters. As a newcomer, however, I had no expectations, although I was able to catch the gist of who was who and what was what from the narrative. References to former books in the series filled in the blanks, peaking my curiosity to perhaps go back to the beginning, especially since the first book, Still Life, is sitting on my counter (with a varied bunch of other titles) waiting to be read.

However, this is the one my Book Club picked, so this is the one I’ll discuss.

While the mystery comprises the predominant role in the plot, the interactions between the key players are a major component of the story. Inspector Gamache and his assistant Jean Guy Beauvoir head to a remote Gilbertine monestery, Saint-Gilbert-Entre-Les-Louis on an Island in Quebec, to try to determine who killed Brother Matthieu, the choir director. Not just any choir director, but the man behind the CD of chants which took the world by storm. The once unheard of Cloister, now flush with enough cash to do some modernizations, became famous after their Gregorian Chants hit the top of the charts, upsetting the order of monks who willingly maintained a vow of silence. Which one of the hand selected two dozen monks would want to kill the rector who inspired such beauty? Even with the order of silence lifted, Gamache has a difficult time getting the monks to “talk”, but slowly he determines that appearances can be deceiving noticing that the calmness and serenity in this ancient order is somewhat of a facade.

Complicating matters is the arrival of Gamanche’s nemesis, Chief Superintendent Sylvain Francoeur, the head of the Surete de Quebec, who likes to play mind games, successfully instilling anger and doubt into the minds of his subordinates. Mocking the detectives’ lack of success, he holds back the autopsy report indicating the true murder weapon which puts a different slant on the dead body found in the Abbot’s private garden. The best lead evolves around a weathered vellum full of unusual neumes and nonsense phrases in Latin which the rector was clutching. These neumes, a precursor of musical notes, indicate a haunting melody different from the normal chants. Their significance is another part of the mystery which borders more on a psychological drama than an action packed plot. It’s not until the last few pages that events begin to quickly happen leaving the reader with more than a few questions and the urge to read Mystery #9, How the Light Gets In, to discover how Penny resolves the conflict between the main characters. Four stars.

A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang

1918 was a difficult time in United States history. There was a war going on – The Great War – and more men were needed for the fight. With each draft calling on younger and younger boys to “enlist”, even eighteen year olds were in danger of being called to duty. Then there was the highly contagious Spanish Influenza which was killing people faster than the war. It seemed the young were more susceptible to its deadliness than the elderly. Hospitals couldn’t keep up with the demand and wards were filled to capacity with not enough personnel to properly care for their patients. Medicine also left much to be desired as antibiotics, such as penicillin, would not be discovered until 1928, readily available in 1942. Yet science wasn’t totally ignorant. Autopsies were useful in diagnosing cause of death with forensic science an up and coming field. All this and more is explored in A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang.

Allene Cutter, while celebrating her engagement to Andrew Smythe Biddle with a houseful of guests, is disconcerted when socialite Florence Waxworth collapses, falls down the stairs hitting her head and ends up in a literal “dead” heap. While everyone thinks it’s an accident caused by too much alcohol, Allene and her friends suspect arsenic as the cause. The distinctive smell of burnt almonds tips them off, especially since Jasper’s own parents committed suicide using that same substance. Jasper Jones works as a janitor at Bellevue Hospital and wants to check out the deceased “friend” to test their hypothesis. Through a convoluted series of events, the medical-wanna-be ends up an assistant to Forensics Chemist, Dr Gettler, in the hospital’s morgue. Unfortunately, since the police have determined Florence’s death accidental, he must secretly perform his own autopsy to confirm his suspicions.

Allene, from society’s upper crust, secretly has feelings for her former friend Jasper as well as for her childhood companion Birdie Dreyer, even though they have lost touch these last four years. Now that marriage looms, Allene wants to reconnect while she still can be somewhat independent. Her old friends aren’t sure they want to resume relations after being previously cut out of her life, yet their previous closeness is easily restored as they try to discover who is sending the little notes discovered near each of the increasing number of victims – all people who are known to them. Together they are determined to solve the mystery and stop the madness.

Each has their own obstacles to overcome. Birdie, despite her general feeling of malaise, maintains her focus on her younger sister Holly. Allene must deal with her upcoming marriage to Andrew who expresses his expectations for her behaviors which do not include the chemistry experiments she adores. He won’t even allow her to carry an electric lighter in her pocket, as this device is inappropriate for women. Jasper strives to make enough money to support himself and his sickly, alcoholic uncle plus save a little for medical school tuition.

There are several potential perpetrators of the crimes, but there are also a lot of misdirections, until the shocking truth is finally revealed. In between, the three eighteen year olds deal with their lot in life, often aggravated by the adults who don’t seem to understand (or care about) their needs and desires. The restrictions on females during the early 1900’s, before women were even allowed to vote, becomes a secondary focus as Allene and Birdie push the limits of their gender, determined to come up with solutions. While not everyone gets a happily ever after, the conclusion resolves most of the issues, with the bad guys getting their just desserts.

Each of the characters is selfishly wrapped up in themselves which make them less than likable, although they did, on occasion, have their honorable moments. The one nice guy, Ernie Fielding, was despised by everyone. There was also too much going on in the plot and while historically accurate, the various secondary crisis were overplayed when combined with the murders. I would have liked a simpler, cleaner plot without so many side issues.

Lydia Kang, a medical doctor, also coauthored Quackery, a book I recently read, with details about the radiation poisoning mentioned in this book. The use of radium in Clock Factories during this time period is also the subject of The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (another nonfiction book I am currently reading). The reviews for these books can be found on this blog, Gotta Read.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Lake Union Publishing for providing this ARC In exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

As an aside, at one point in this book Allene goes to a location at Flatbush and Church in Brooklyn. When I was a child I lived around the corner from that very spot. I can picture the Dutch Reformed Church complete with a small graveyard on one corner, Garfields -a restaurant where my grandfather often ate his meals on another, and a drug store with a decent selection of paperbacks on the third, plus not far down Church, the RKO Kenmore movie theater where I saw musicals such as Gypsy, My Fair Lady, and The Music Man. I didn’t even need to cross a street as I lived right on that longish block. If I had stayed in that neighborhood I would have attended Erasmus High School (where my parents went to vote) and perhaps gone to Brooklyn College (my father’s alma mater). A shout out to grads from PS 249. Just a little walk down memory lane.

Too Sinful to Deny (Scoundrels and Sinners, Book 2) by Erica Ridley

Susan Stanton loves gossip, so much that when she overhears a juicy bit from a wife cuckolding her husband, she finds herself on the wrong side of The Ton, despite the truth to her words. Her mother’s attempt to marry her off to a morally questionable but well off gentlemen was destined to fail (see Too Wicked to Kiss) so she ends up confined to her room until further notice. Yet Susan was determined to attend The Frost Fair in celebration of the Thames freezing over, a rare occurrence. Who knew that despite her stealthy attempts to sneak out, she was discovered when she fell through the ice and drowned. Luckily she was rescued and brought back to life, but only to be banished from her beloved London – packed up and sent to the end of nowhere at Moonseed Manor in Bournemouth, to stay with her cousin Lady Beaune with the closest center of civilization the town of Bath.

The situation is even worse that Susan expected when there is no Lady Beaune to greet her and she is “welcomed” instead by her cousin’s creepy husband, Ollie. The town folks don’t cotton to her overtures of friendship, especially the owner of the dress shop who resents her popularity with the only decent men around including Gordon Forrester, the local magistrate. Susan’s only interest, though, is to find a way home again, if only she can discover a way to get to the closest town where her recognizable family name will provide the means of the necessary escape. Things are looking up when Forrester offers to accompany her to the upcoming Assembly in Bath, occurring in about two weeks, but Susan is not sure she can wait that long. It seems that there have been a series of recent deaths, and the lingering ghosts can’t rest until she does them each a favor. Seeing and hearing spirits seems to be a new but unwanted talent she has acquired after her near death experience and she’ll do anything to shut them up. Of course, these are ghosts of the recently departed, so who exactly is the murderer? There is a plethora of suspects which only a Bow Street Runner could untangle. Then there is the question of her missing cousin. Is she buried under that unmarked grave or is it that freshly dug mound of earth the resting place of some other hapless soul? Nobody’s talking.

Complicatiog her life is Ollie’s friend, Evan Bothwick, a devastatingly handsome rogue tinkering in the Pirate business and bent on making her his latest conquest. If only she could trust him, but she worries that he will not only keep her from escaping, but also steal her heart. Her focus is to keep her eye on the prize – someone from The Ton who loves London as much as she does, ready to marry a chaste and pure innocent, a dream threatened by Evan’s carefree ways.

Too Sinful to Deny, Book 2 in the Scoundrels and Sinners series, never seemed to end. While Erica Ridley tried to capture a sense of gothic all she exceeded in doing was to create a horrifying scenario filled with mean spiritedness and senseless violence which could not be compensated for by the rest of the trappings of a Regency Romance. The ghosts actually provided a bit of levity, if you can believe that. While the love interests had a somewhat decent sensibility, the townsfolk were a horrid unredeeming bunch who I’d just as soon not meet again. The only scene which brought a smile to my lips was when the heroine buys a seemingly endless round of drinks resulting in a packed bar with a tab she can never hope to pay unless her parents cough up her allowance.

If you are a fan of the Saw movies, this one is for you, but if you avoid fare such as chainsaw massacres, then find another book to read. Two and a half stars.

This ARC was provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Too Wicked to Kiss (Scoundrels and Secrets, Book 1) by Erica Ridley

Miss Evangeline Pemberton has a gift or perhaps it’s better to describe it as a curse. The daughter of a gypsy, she has inherited the ability to see “visions”, whether from the past, present, or future, just by touching another. Her mother, forced to marry in the face of disgrace, has died at the hands of her sadistic husband, forcing Evangeline to run away or face the cruelty of a stepfather that feels he owns her and her power. Unfortunately the woman she has turned to in desperation is also quite despicable and she finds herself at a house party in a creepy mansion owned by Gavin Lioncroft, a known killer, with the task of helping compromise her friend Susan, Lady Stanton’s daughter, into matrimony to that very owner of Blackberry Manor. Little does Evangeline expect to develop feeling for the handsome, gruff man who has a tendency to react with his fists, nor does Gavin know how to combat the instant attraction they feel towards one another.

Also at the gathering is Lioncroft’s sister, Rose, with her husband, Lord Hetherton, and their children, as well as Rose’s brother-in-law, Benedict Rutherford and his wife Francine, plus their cousin Edmund. An elderly, doddering gentleman, Mr Teasdale has also been invited (targeted) as a prospective husband for Rose’s eldest daughter Nancy. Hetherton turns out to be a real piece of work so when he turns up dead nobody, except perhaps his children, seem upset. His insulting behavior gives everyone a motive, but the prime candidate is the host who publicly threatened to kill his brother-in-law after witnessing the results of his spousal abuse. Somehow Evangeline’s gift has been revealed, although she claims her insight is because she hears messages from God, and she sets out to discover the truth, hopefully proving Gavin’s innocence. Mayhem ensues. While everyone wants to leave ASAP, it is Jane’s thirteenth birthday and she has been promised a party so they all stay to celebrate resulting in the best day of her life (despite her recent father’s murder), giving Evangeline time to discover the identity of the true murderer.

While this started out as an enticing read Too Wicked to Kiss by Erica Ridley turned out to be long winded with internal repetitive narratives which distracted from the whole. Disguised as a Gothic story, instead of being mysterious, much of this Regency Romance is nonsensical. While there were some potentially interesting characters, none of the secondary cast of players was fully developed. The reason Miss Susan Stanton (one of the better defined individuals) was banned from society and thus reduced to entrapping a husband, was lame and the reader is at a loss for the irrational behaviors of her mother. Edmund was constantly drunk which was perhaps a reason for his inappropriate crudeness which would never have been tolerated at a house party, and the other guests were just as one sided in their descriptions. The children, however, were a delight, and injected some light heartedness into a dark theme. I also couldn’t understand why the Lioncrofts blackballed their brother after their parents death since it was all obviously an accident. Under all the handwringing there was a decent plot, but you had to search to find it. This is Book 1 of the Scoundrels and Secrets series.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on my blog, Gotta Read.

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

What goes on in the minds of the people who surround us, individuals who are there but invisible, going about their daily lives while we are involved in our own personal minutia so that even if we notice their presence they are an afterthought?

That is the case in the novel Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka, a murder mystery which slowly reveals the guilty party via the personal reflections of three troubled souls who are somehow interconnected within the borders of the small town of Broomsville located in Northern Colorado. Fifteen year old Lucinda Hayes has been murdered on the carrousel at the playground of the local elementary school found by the night janitor, Ivan, an immigrant from Mexico with a criminal past. Cameron Whitley, Lucinda’s next door neighbor, has been obsessed with this beautiful teen, spending his evenings as a stone statue watching her movements. Cameron’s thought processes are a little strange as he has difficulty relating to others, becoming “Tangled” when situations are ltoo stressful for him to handle. Detective Russ Fletcher, a colleague of Cameron’s dad (a man who deserted his family several years previously), has vowed to watch over his former partner’s son keeping a promise to someone who ended up on the wrong side of the law. Cameron fears he will one day develop the evil characteristics which sealed his father’s fate, despite his inner sense of love for his long departed dad. Then there’s Jade Dixon-Burns, a girl who exhibits no empathy, not since she was rejected by her childhood friend who decided he’d rather hang out with the alluring Lucinda than remain cohorts with his fat, pimply companion from elementary school days. Through their collective thoughts the details of that fateful February night are slowly revealed with their paths intersecting as the surprising truth – clearly visible the entire time – finds its way to the surface.

Slowly is the key word. The reader must be patient as each trail is examined to see if it is a true path or a dead end. The bizarre contemplations of theseo three characters lead us to false conclusions time and again, yet within these premises are the clues necessary to solve the mystery. While I was curious to see how the author would reveal the perpetrator, I do wish she was a bit more purposeful and a little quicker in wrapping up a story which left a few too many strings dangling at the conclusion.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears as on Goodreads.