Medea in Chicago

Devil by the Tail by Jeanne Matthews

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a mystery set in 1867 Chicago with a plucky heroine navigating the corrupt and seamy city with the assistance of a former rebel soldier.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 252

Publisher: D. X. Varos, Ltd.

Series: Garnick & Paschal Mystery

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Historical mystery

From the publisher: Quinn Sinclair, who uses the name Mrs. Paschal professionally, and her wryly observant partner Garnick get two cases on the same day – one to help a man prove he didn’t kill his wife, another to help a lawyer find reasonable doubt that his client killed her ex-lover’s new bride. As the detectives dig deeper, they unearth facts that tie the cases together in disturbing ways.

Giveaway

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Jeanne Matthews has done a great job of starting the action of Devil by the Tail in medias res—I felt sure there was an earlier installment, but, no, there is simply a lot of backstory that is effectively ladled in so that you want to know more. Her depiction of Chicago in 1867 evokes a city bursting with postwar growth and riddled with corruption.

Only those with nothing to lose can afford to pull the Devil by the tail.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

This mystery drags her heroine, Quinn Sinclair AKA Mrs. Paschal, through a couple of whorehouses, which is problematic for a woman who wishes to stay respectable. However, Quinn comes to realize that she can’t be as judgmental as she had been in the past when she realizes how little stands between any given woman and prostitution in a world that doesn’t allow for women to make a living in very many ways.

Detective Paschal, self-styled heroine and daring non-conformist, afraid to lose her respectable, cozy niche at the boardinghouse breakfast table, afraid of the opinion of a bunch of prissy old hens.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

The themes of men and women and how they relate is interwoven through the story, as are the twin mysteries of the man claiming to be falsely accused of murdering his wife and the woman who is on trial for an arson that killed the bride of the man who jilted her as well as the bride’s father.

Quinn’s mind stretched in equipoise like a clothesline hung with contrary reasons and contrary feelings, not to mention a load of dirty linen.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

The misogyny of the period (which can still be seen today) is on full display, as is the tendency of people to judge on the superficial. Clothing, then as now, is a huge signifier of class, wealth, and respectability, and Matthews takes care to let us know what the ladies are wearing as well as how the dress is coded in that period.

Tightly corseted in a low-cut canary yellow dress, she resembled a belted balloon, the upper bulge near to bursting.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

Euripedes’s version of Medea is used to great effect to frame the mystery and its various suspects. In case you don’t remember the play (I was grateful for the reminder within the novel), Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts) dumps Medea, who has killed her brother for him, in order to wed another, and Medea takes her revenge upon the bride. As Matthews deftly insinuates, Jason is as much at fault as Medea, but society immediately makes Medea the sole problem, a horrifying corruption of womanhood.

Men could walk unmolested wherever they chose while women had to skitter about like prey.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

In this mystery, Medea is introduced by a reporter who has no regard for truth, only for the sales of the newspaper, and he threads Medea into his descriptions of the crime, knowing that the play had toured in Chicago relatively recently. Women latch onto this myth as much as the men, often becoming quite ugly about other women in the process.

The leech showed up in Rock Island penniless, a runaway from some little prairie town, all rags and fleas.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

Then there’s the recent Civil War, which is also handled cleverly. Garnick, the former rebel, had been a POW in Camp Douglas, a hellhole which is only lightly discussed, although the Confederate dead play a role in the story. Garnick has disavowed the Cause, wishing he’d never put on the uniform, which mitigates any issues a reader might have about a sympathetic Johnny Reb. Hopefully this history will be explored more in future installments.

No way to justify going to war to keep people in chains. At first I had some notion of loyalty to my neck of the woods, allegiance to kith and kin like the states rights firebrands preached.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

Another theme from the time that Matthews works into the story is that of the prejudice against the Irish. Quinn is often having to sidestep her Irish roots, hearing people disparage the Irish regularly. Her heritage is also at the root of her dispute with her former mother-in-law, who can’t stand to let Quinn inherit from her dead son.

You can wall people in, but I learned you can also wall them out.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

The characters are well-formed, the themes interesting, and the mystery absorbing. There’s a little bit of a let-down in that not all of the people we find out are engaged in nefarious dealings are served justice, but, of course, that can be one of the downsides of historical fiction: the constraints of the facts (unless, of course, you’re Quentin Tarantino). I’m really looking forward to the next installment of this well-constructed mystery series.


AMAZON | APPLE | BARNES AND NOBLE | KOBO

To investigate, or not to investigate?

Death on the Lake by Jo Allen

 Rachel’s Random Resources Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to watch how detectives balance competing cases as well as their personal/work lives in the context of a well-crafted mystery.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 392

Publisher: Self

Series: DCI Satterthwaite Mysteries

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

Contemporary traditional mystery

From the publisher: When a young woman, Summer Raine, is found drowned, apparently accidentally, after an afternoon spent drinking on a boat on Ullswater, DCI Jude Satterthwaite is deeply concerned — more so when his boss refuses to let him investigate the matter any further to avoid compromising a fraud case.

This is the sixth of Jo Allen’s DCI Satterthwaite Mysteries, and the second I’ve read, and she does not disappoint—this one is just as good as the last one I reviewed, Death at Rainbow Cottage. Allen has a talent for keeping you guessing, and, just like last time, I was constantly sure I had the riddle solved and then realized, nope, I hadn’t. In this case, there was one key fact that wasn’t disclosed that would have made the difference, but I’m okay with that, as that disclosure also would have made the whole thing rather obvious (or at least it seems that way to me in retrospect).

Shared secrets allowed you to love someone for what they were, just as confession cleared your conscience.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

I particularly enjoyed that Allen talked about the use of resources in this book, something I don’t know I’ve ever seen before. My retired cop husband’s constant bitch about TV shows involving police investigation (and one of many, many reasons we don’t watch them) is that they act like the full resources of the police are available for every case, and that every department has all of the latest scientific testing available. So having the prickly Detective Superintendent Faye Scanlon set some very difficult parameters for DCI Jude Satterthwaite’s investigation of Summer Raine’s death was quite rewarding.

Thirty-six years of insatiable curiosity had matured into a store of rock-solid local knowledge.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

I also really like the way Allen is investigating the romantic relationships of the recurring characters. Ashleigh and Jude are so much more honest about their relationship than most people are, and both understand how much a career in law enforcement complicates everything, particularly in a situation like theirs, where overtime is expected and required.

But he knew and she knew he knew, and the resulting tension was always there between them.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

Another lovely feature was grappling with the relative importance of various crimes. Police officers have a great deal of discretion, so when is it appropriate to bust someone for marijuana and when should you let it go? Which is worse, murder or money-laundering/fraud? Satterthwaite comes down firmly on the side that murder is worse, but money-laundering/fraud can, depending on the particular scam, ruin far more lives than a single murder, so which really is more important to stop? (If you’ve read anything on recidivism, you’ll know that most studies show that murderers tend to have a lower recidivism rate; my old criminal law prof joked it was because “you only have one mother-in-law.”)

There must have been a reason why everyone disliked him, but for all that he was her family.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

And then there are the characters who are around (presumably) for just this installment. The family at the center of the murder, fraud, and money-laundering questions, the Neilsons, are fascinating: a young wife trying to help raise privileged-as-hell twins of 18 with an oft-absent wealthy husband who came from the area and made his fortune after leaving. There are so many levels to explore in this family, and Allen does a good job of covering the waterfront.

It was rare she coveted anything, but the Neilsons’ summer mansion brought out the worst in her.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

And then there’s the setting. More so than the last book, the Lake District’s geography comes into play in this novel. I took some time to look at some of the landmarks Allen discusses in the book, and the difficulties the lay of the land create for observation and security become quite obvious.

Because fear, like loyalty and friendship, made you do terrible, terrible things.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

All-in-all, Death on the Lake is a triumphant installment of this engaging murder mystery series, marked both for the clever puzzle and the layers of depth in its treatment of the crimes and characters.


Rebecca goes to Thornfield

Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost by Lindsay Marcott

r/suggestmeabook: I want a contemporary mash-up of Jane Eyre and Rebecca.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 398

Publisher: Thomas & Mercer (an Amazon imprint)

ARC provided by NetGalley

Contemporary retelling of classic

From the publisher: Jane has lost everything: job, mother, relationship, even her home. A friend calls to offer an unusual deal―a cottage above the crashing surf of Big Sur on the estate of his employer, Evan Rochester. In return, Jane will tutor his teenage daughter. She accepts.

This is a fun read, and instead of doing the usual analysis as a retelling, I’m going to talk about why I titled it the way I did. The writing is good and fast-paced, the characters work, etc., and the plot is taken from greats. However, in retellings I have certain expectations about how the new version plays with the old one, so my gut take on how to treat this was to look more at that, as expectations play such a big part in whether we like a thing or not.

I pulled out my phone. Just one bar, which quickly spluttered out like an extinguished candle.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

I know, the book blurb says that it’s a retelling of Jane Eyre, but I kept thinking of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: the setting on the coast with an abandoned cabin was probably the part that kept me thinking of the later novel. Okay, I admit, I’ve only seen the movie[s] version of Rebecca; I have read Jane Eyre (and seen some movie versions). (More disclosure—I hesitate to say full—I only got around to reading Jane Eyre because of Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. Love that book.) That’s not a criticism; I like both Jane Eyre and Rebecca, and this modern gothic has taken bits of both and given a spin on them that works. But for fans of the former, this retelling may be a little different than they expected.

A heavy gust of fog obscured my view, and when it passed, the glimmer was gone, and there was nothing down there at all. Nothing except sand laced with gray foam and glistening rocks and the heaving sea beyond it.

Nothing could have disappeared so quickly.

Nothing except a ghost.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

Evan Rochester is hot, not really how I recall feeling after reading the description of Edward Rochester. Another detail that makes me lean toward the Rebecca feel.

I became aware once again of his intense physicality. His height. The breadth of his shoulders. The power of his musculature. The rage had faded from his face, and I no longer felt threatened. Just the opposite, I realized. I felt protected.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

However, it’s not hard to see similarities between Jane Eyre and Rebecca when you start looking, as they’re both Gothic, brooding sorts of novels. Both have the wealthy older man coupled with a naive and poor younger woman, in both the protagonist has no family, and in both, the male hero is stupidly withholding information. Both also have a current potential rival to the protagonist.

I made it back to the cottage feeling shaken and chilled. Like a first rate martini, I thought. Except, no, the best martinis were stirred, and suddenly I began to crave one.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

For me, the strongest reason for thinking of Rebecca rather than Jane Eyre is the cursory treatment of this Jane’s family and upbringing and that she doesn’t lose her mother until adulthood. The original Jane’s childhood in her forbidding orphanage explains many of her adult choices. (Okay, I’ve got to use some kind of shorthand for the original Jane Eyre character—from here on, she’s OJ.) The Jane in LIndsay Marcott’s version has only lost her mother relatively recently, and there’s nothing to indicate the same kind of hardships that OJ underwent. At the opening of the book, Marcott’s Jane has been a successful TV writer, albeit on cable, which doesn’t parallel OJ at all.

An unwelcome surprise in my cottage. My bed that I’d left rumpled was now made up military tight. My breakfast dishes were no longer in the sink. Every surface gleamed. Anunciata had been here with her Swiffer.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

And the other stance that differentiates it from Jane Eyre and makes it more like Rebecca is that Marcott’s Jane knows of the existence of Rochester’s wife from the outset, whereas OJ doesn’t learn of Bertha until Chapter 26. (Hell, OJ didn’t even know Rochester existed until after she arrived at Thornfield.) Instead, like the second Mrs. De Winter, Marcott’s Jane is obsessed with the first wife (Beatrice in this version for reasons that are probably obvious) even though she doesn’t come to Thornfield because of her marriage. Indeed, the Rebecca analogy is strengthened by the stronger presence of the Bertha analog’s brother in this retelling, more like the cousin in Rebecca, whom Jane interacts with on various occasions throughout the book.

And now, with visible calculation, Richard McAdams tried another tack with me: his eyes softened; his mouth assumed a boyish smirk.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

The strongest reason to discard the Rebecca analysis is the absence of Mrs. Danvers’ psychological manipulation. The creepy housekeeper in this one is no Danvers; she barely speaks English (if at all; I don’t now recall if she said anything much), so her ability to bewitch Jane with insinuations is limited. If anyone is being a frenemy, it’s Jane’s friend Otis, an aspiring chef, who is the one who dragged Jane out to Thorn Bluffs (the Thornfield analog) to begin with.

Thickets of ferns glistened like otherworldly plants between the trunks. Hump-backed shadows flickered in the foliage beyond.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

Regardless of the Rebecca similarities, it’s still got Jane Eyre references. The names, of course, are the most significant, as well as the general plot, although, not surprisingly, there are key differences. The character of the girl Jane comes to Thorn Bluffs to tutor is much more developed in Marcott’s story, which I found to be a plus. The brother of the Bertha character is very well done and adds depth to the story.

With the air of granting a particularly nonsensical favor, Sophia yanked the belt across her chest. Tugged her short-shorts from between the cleft of her buttocks, excavated a pack of Bubble Yum from her back pocket, and ripped it open. Crammed two pink slabs in her mouth.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

So if you’re in the mood for a Gothic romance that is reminiscent of both these classics, check out Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost.


A little love, a little tolerance, and a little murder

Death at Rainbow Cottage by Jo Allen

 Rachel’s Random Resources Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a well-crafted murder problem nestled into a tight-knit community of well-developed characters.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 392

Publisher: Self

Series: DCI Satterthwaite Mysteries

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

Contemporary traditional mystery

From the publisher: The apparently motiveless murder of a man outside the home of controversial equalities activist Claud Blackwell and his neurotic wife, Natalie, is shocking enough for a peaceful local community. When it’s followed by another apparently random killing immediately outside Claud’s office, DCI Jude Satterthwaite has his work cut out.

This is the fifth of Jo Allen’s DCI Satterthwaite Mysteries, and as a first-time reader of her work, I can say I’m immensely pleased that this works as a standalone. I generally don’t review books that are several down a series unless I’m going to read the preceding books, but I apparently missed the part of the memo that this was number five, and I’m glad I did, or I’d have passed on this delightful mystery.

Because a murder in an isolated lane was one thing, but there was nothing to put the fear of God into the local population like a violent death on their own doorstep.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

I also generally skip police procedurals, because I’m married to a retired cop and I know enough by osmosis to get annoyed. But since this is set in the UK, not the US, and really fits more into the traditional mode than a mystery that is overly wrapped up in the CSI details, again, I’m glad I didn’t miss this one.

Allen does a marvelous job of the key ingredient that makes mysteries fun to me: she creates a deft puzzle, and I had different suspects pegged throughout the book, changing my mind with new information, but never guessed the actual killer until scant pages before the reveal. All the clues were there, and seem glaring in retrospect, but were laid with such skill that none clicked.

Claud had struck him as a man who never let anything go, who worked long hours and never respected anyone else’s time off and now, it seemed, he had the proof of that.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

As if that wasn’t enough, the book is dense with great characters, none of them overly simple, and she does a good job of avoiding most of the usual tropes. It’s clear there’s more to the story than what is covered within it, but it struck me not as though I’d missed something by not reading the first four (which are now on my TBR), but more like the windup for a larger story arc that had elements yet to be revealed.

Church and folk music were Doddsy’s interests, two things that suddenly made him feel older than he was. The shadow of a mid-life crisis lengthened behind him, stealing ever closer to his shoulder.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

Allen’s prose is straightforward and crisp, with the occasional infusion of dry wit, and the pace is as brisk as that sounds. The insulated world of the police department is well done, as officers do tend to flock together as much as the book implies, and there is a certain disconnect between those on the inside and those family members who just don’t quite get how running an investigation can interfere with your social and family commitments.

Jet lag was a brute at the best of times, bestowing all the privations of a hangover with none of the fun that might have preceded it.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

My quibble would be that I wasn’t sure that DCI Satterthwaite was actually the protagonist, despite the name, although I suppose the same could be said for Hercule Poirot—in the novels, usually someone else is the protagonist, with Poirot managing to confound them. But the shifts of POV took me a little work to figure out who’s story was being told, although in the end, it was effective.

Civil twilight, her father called it—daylight was done, darkness yet to come upon them. Only the glow over the Lake District fells and the light from the car headlights offered her any comfort.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

My other quibble was the representation of various mental health issues: anxiety disorder and OCD in particular. It’s not that the representation was unsympathetic; it just felt incomplete. However, the inclusion of characters with these issues doesn’t mean you have to show the total array of how those mental health issues may manifest; it just that these representations hewed a little closer to some stereotypical representations (which, in all fairness, exist as well as other versions) and may cause some discomfort for those who do have those syndromes.

She wasn’t so simple that she didn’t understand her new boyfriend’s driving passion was a slow-burning determination for revenge on the old.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

This book also is an intriguing look into all the ways people can love and mate. At the core of it, the Rainbow Cottage is what it sounds like—the home of a man devoted to promoting understanding among straight cisgendered people and the rainbow of other sexualities. These themes are brought up explicitly in the sensitivity sessions that are not particularly welcomed by the busy DCI nor the gay officer who feels like he’s being pressured to talk more than he’d like, as well as the murders themselves, which begin with a gay man and a lesbian woman.

Though even the metrosexual parents, the ones who thing they’re right up with it…even those ones are perfectly happy for everyone else to be gay but they can’t help questioning things a little bit when it’s their boy.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

Allen sensibly took the time to employ a sensitivity reader for the topics, because although the protagonists and tone of the book is clearly meant to be LGBTQIA+ friendly, it touches on homophobia, particularly as a motivation for the murders, and some of the statements of certain characters are a bit distasteful. As a cisgender straight woman, I can’t speak for the experience of someone in the community, but it felt like a lot of effort was made to avoid stereotypes or tropes.

It wasn’t always self-doubt that held people back from being themselves, but doubt about the open-heartedness of their neighbors and friends, unspoken judgment behind a mask of tolerance.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

Not only that, there’s the romantic life—and its complications—of Jude and Ashleigh as well as the other members of their circle. The takeaway for me was that although we can be attracted to and love lots of different types of people, the problems we face in relationships seem to boil down to the same short list of problems.

Perhaps a lot of crimes took place behind just such a curtain of perfection, dramas playing out in the heart while the window on the world was one of false happiness.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

I particularly want to give a shoutout for the portrayal of the prickly Detective Superintendent Faye Scanlon. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve worked for this bitch before (although sometimes as a bastard)—and the paranoid, ambitious boss is a great person to love to hate. You just cringe every time she walks into a room.

Faye championed equality and fairness in the workplace but only for others. In personal matters ruthlessness and her own interests held sway.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

Although I wouldn’t call this a cozy, I’d recommend it to cozy mystery fans who also like Agatha Christie and the like. I vastly enjoyed my time in Cumbria with DCI Satterthwaite and the gang, and look forward to reading more of this series from the talented Jo Allen.


A funny thing happened at lunch in Panera’s

A Big 4+ review: Finlay Donovan Is Killing It by Elle Cosimano

r/suggestmeabook: I want a well-plotted mystery with a tinge of romance, a splash of humor, and a woman who’s finding herself as well as the perpetrators.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 368

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 1/12/2021

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

From the publisher: Edgar-Award nominee Elle Cosimano’s adult debut Finlay Donovan Is Killing It is the first in a witty, fast-paced mystery series, following struggling suspense novelist and single mom Finlay Donovan, whose fiction treads dangerously close to the truth as she becomes tangled in real-life murder investigations.

It’s not the first time I’ve read the premise: someone overhears a mystery author talking to someone else at a restaurant about her novel and thinks they’re talking about a real murder. This is the first time I’ve seen it taken on so effectively, and the novel is an enjoyable jaunt as Finlay Donovan considers the unthinkable because she’s been pushed into a corner.

The brochure had featured photos of happy families hugging each other on quaint front porches. It had used words like idyllic and peaceful to describe the neighborhood, because in the glossy pages of a real estate magazine, no one can see through the windows to the exhausted stabby mommy, or the naked sticky toddler, or the hair and blood and coffee on the floor.

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

Elle Cosimano’s descriptions of the struggles of a mother with young children are quite funny; the opening segment of how Finlay is trying to deal with her five-year-old’s attempt to cut her own hair is one of those insane things parents do when sleep-deprived. Not everything in the book is as original, though. The cheating asshole of an ex and the conniving bitch the ex left Finlay for are fairly standard characters (perhaps because they’re not unknown in real life), but other characters in the book make up for it, and the writing is crisp.

Sylvia was everything you’d imagine New Yorkers to be if you watched too much television. Probably because she was from Jersey. Her office was in Manhattan. Her shoes were from Milan. Her makeup looked like it had flow in on a DeLorean circa 1980, and her clots might have been skinned from a large jungle cat.

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

Probably my favorite character in the book is Vero, the nanny cum accountant who is completely unflappable and utterly competent, able to wrestle babies, exes, criminals, and cops with equal aplomb. Finlay, by comparison, is just making it up as she goes along, and doesn’t seem to have a clue about much of anything. However, it’s her growth over the course of the book that makes it stand above the typical murder mystery of its type.

Because banging your real estate agent isn’t a reason to want your husband dead. It might be a legitimate reason to want his balls maimed in an accident involving a Weedwhacker, or to wish him a horrific veneral disease hows symptoms include the words “burning discharge.” But killing a man for cheating on his wife would be wrong. Wouldn’t it?

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

The mystery itself is fairly far-fetched, but executed well enough that it didn’t make me feel the need to stop reading. Most people can believe that a woman would be willing to do anything to hold onto custody of her kids, but the mechanics of the deaths in here give me some pause. On the other hand, it was hard to sympathize with the level of guilt as much as the anxiety about being caught, as the victim was a terrible human being.

My back stiffened, one chilled muscle at a time. As I lifted my head, my focus jumped from the van to the garage door. The details of the night before were still fuzzy in my mind, blurred by champagne and panic, as if someone had taken an eraser to the edges, but I remembered.

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

My biggest gripe about the book is that it felt like it had ended at least three times before it actually had. You shouldn’t turn the page and think, “What, it’s not over?” It would have been nice had not each of the next to last three chapters hadn’t ended with lines that sounded like the ending, but rather lead into the next one. But that’s a relatively small complaint.

All in all, it’s a solid, enjoyable read.


Philadelphia freedom: magic and mayhem

Big 4+ review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

r/suggestmeabook: I want a book about a formerly enslaved couple, previously conductors for the Underground Railroad, who practice magic and detection in Philadelphia.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 432

Publisher: Houghton Millan Harcourt

Series: Murder & Magic

Publication date: 3/2/2021

Historical fantasy mystery

From the publisher: As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Hetty Rhodes helped usher dozens of people north with her wits and magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband, Benjy, have settled in Philadelphia, solving murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch. When they find one of their friends slain in an alley, Hetty and Benjy bury the body and set off to find answers. But the secrets and intricate lies of the elites of Black Philadelphia only serve to dredge up more questions.

Nicole Glover has executed a wonderful debut novel, creating a world in which there are two magic systems, as segregated as the society in which they are found. Despite the suggestion of the cover and title, this story does not live in the period of the Underground Railroad, but in the immediate aftermath, with a couple celebrated as conductors trying to get on with their lives in a community that seems to wish to forget the past.

Sorcery overpowered. It devoured. It put people in chains and destroyed nations in the name of gold.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

There are many layers in Glover’s world, with Hetty and Benjy not quite at the bottom of their social order, but not near the top, either. The formerly enslaved and the always freedman don’t always mix, and Hetty and Benjy’s old friends, many of whom they personally conducted out of the slave states, seem to be trying to rise to the top of Black society, which means downplaying their former condition.

Hetty took another deep breath, and as she had done many times in the past, she pushed down her thoughts and feelings until they were tucked away and out of sight.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

It’s a dark world in this Philadelphia after the Civil War, and they are troubleshooters within it, trying to make sense of murders and kidnappings and body snatching. Not surprisingly, there’s bigotry to contend with, but also how to make a society among the various Blacks in this population: always free, freed by buying themselves out, freed by running away, and freed in the wake of the war. This particular story revolves around the murder of one of the first men they brought to Philadelphia, a man all about making a fast buck, feeling that money will make him more secure, but many other concerns radiate from that central story.

We aren’t slaves anymore. No more slipping away in the night to hastily dig graves and whisper prayers. We should be able to take care of our dead.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

As a typical admirer of the Underground Railroad, it threw me when there was a scene where a woman excoriates them for having helped people escape slavery. But it makes sense; those left behind probably did have to endure more for the sin of deliverance of a few, and some were probably bitter, either because they were left behind or they had complex feelings about not running. I just hadn’t thought of it as being anything more than inspiring, and it was good pause for thought that no matter how we now take something for granted as a positive, most activists in any era have detractors, even from those they are trying to benefit.

All these conductors. They were looking for a fight and didn’t care about the harm it caused, and they still are. Pushing people to vote, staging protests, making too much noise, attracting too much attention, and then they die.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The magic systems are quite interesting. There’s Sorcery, used by wand-wielding whites and forbidden to Blacks. There’s not too much about it, which makes sense, as neither Hetty nor Benjy practice it. Then there’s Celestial magic, which Hetty and Benjy practice, based on drawing sigils based on the constellations, which can be used for mundane tasks or impressive feats of defense. The magic takes discipline as well as talent, and appears to mostly be generationally transmitted.

No laws stopped white folks from trying to use Celestial magic, just jeers and taunts. There were stories of genuinely curious who attempted to learn, and books written by well-meaning abolitionists talking about what they called Primal magic found in slave quarters. In these same books, the writers were puzzled by this branch of magic. But that was their own fault. They had this idea that magic existed to make their lives easier.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The protagonists are complex, and even after the conclusion of the book, it feels as though there’s more to learn about them. I had difficulty at first keeping the other characters straight, as the in media res choices lead to the narrative reeling off names as if you should know who they are, so it took a while to get into it because I was busy trying to figure out who was being discussed. However, after a few chapters I started getting more comfortable with them and enjoyed the cast.

Benjy was smart in a way Hetty did not have words for. It was something greater than the books he read, or his ability to craft something out of metal. It was in how he saw the world, not just for what was there but what it could become.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The other quibble I have is with the denouement, which felt a little hurried and not as clear as I would have liked, and the clues to the murderer were a little murky, but there, once you know the answer. But this was a book in which I had over 30 passages highlighted, so it’s truly just a quibble. Glover touches on so many social aspects of the world with insightful observations that it was a challenge to decide which ones to include here.

A story is a living creature, and they need a personal touch to live on. You breathe in your woes, your loves, your troubles, and eventually they become something new.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

All in all, an engaging book in an interesting alternate reality and a world I’ll be happy to return to.


Polluted town, polluted lives

To The Dark by Chris Nickson

r/suggestmeabook: I’d like a mystery with a strong sense of place and pacing set in Leeds in 1822.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 238

Publisher: Severn House

Series: Simon Westow

ARC provided by Random Things Tours

Publication date: March 2, 2021

From the publisher: Leeds, 1822. The city is in the grip of winter, but the chill deepens for thief-taker Simon Westow and his young assistant, Jane, when the body of Laurence Poole, a petty local thief, emerges from the melting snow by the river at Flay Cross Mill. A coded notebook found in Laurence’s room mentions Charlie Harker, the most notorious fence in Leeds who’s now running for his life, and the mysterious words: To the dark. What was Laurence hiding that caused his death? Simon’s hunt for the truth pits him against some dangerous, powerful enemies who’ll happily kill him in a heartbeat – if they can.

This murder mystery is definitely atmospheric, as the darkness, pollution, and smell of industrial Leeds is hammered home. The pace is like a thrum of a machine, the beat of it steady and measured. Chris Nickson does an excellent job of creating a sense of place.

All her anger and frustration had faded, hammered down in footstep after footstep. Men would always think the worst of women. There was nothing she could do to alter their minds.

Chris Nickson, To the Dark

Simon Westow and Jane are living through their slow season when they are enlisted by the unfriendly constable to investigate the murder of the small-time thief. The phrase “to the dark” is repeatedly used, but the mystery is not solved—not in this book, at least, which is disappointing when it is built up as part of the focal point of the story.

She ran her fingertips over the scars on her forearm. A rising ladder of lines, the places where she’d cut herself. Her catalogue of failures, the punishments she’d inflicted.

Chris Nickson, To the Dark

The characters are not all that well-developed. Simon and Jane are explained by the significant traumas in their pasts, but not much else. Rosie, Simon’s wife, is mostly a placeholder. The bad guys are pretty much all stock characters. Perhaps there will be more in later installments, but there was little depth or growth from the characters.

At their age his home was in the workhouse, every daylight hour spent working in the mill. Beaten, abused, feeling like he was going to be trapped there for the rest of his life and wanting to die so it would be over.

Chris Nickson, To the Dark

Despite these shortcomings, the murder mystery and the atmosphere are enough to carry the book, making it worth finishing, and the writing itself is strong enough that I’d check out another installment.


Rachel’s Random Resources Blog Tour

Spotlight on: Mint by S.R. Wilsher

Historical Thriller

From the publisher: It’s the summer of 1976, and after nine years in prison, James Minter is home to bury his mother. A history of depression and a series of personal issues has seen her death ruled as suicide. His refusal to accept that conclusion means he must confront his violent stepfather, deal with the gangster who wants his mother’s shop and, of course, face the family of the boy he killed.

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

Excerpt from Mint

The shop is all so familiar. This place I should have called home, yet only ever thought of as a place to return to. The address where my mother and half-siblings lived. Never home, more an approximation. I’m not connected to it like I imagine others are theirs. I hadn’t been safe here, nor welcome. My mother had been too controlled by her husband, and Sam too in his thrall. Lara had kept me here. All the time, I’d felt like the small bird being pushed from the nest by the bullying interloper. While he’d called me the cuckoo.

I restock the fridge with some milk and butter from the nearby shop and put the bread and cereal on the worktop. I open a new jar of coffee and put the kettle on.

Outside, I hear the whine of heavy machinery starting up, and the contact of whirring metal on stone.

I leave the kitchen and go out into the back yard, through the gate and into the alleyway running along the back of the houses before entering the yard of the Mason’s next door.

Along one side, slabs of rough-cut granite lean against the high wall, while black marble and white marble are stocked horizontally, kept apart by thick wood battens.  A corrugated plastic roof built off the garden wall opposite the stacked stone extends over the yard, shielding the work bench and tools and bench-saw from the elements.

White dust fills the air, billows fussily around the head of a man in a grubby blacksmith’s apron, safety goggles, and blue facemask, who’s guiding a huge slab of white stone along a bench and through a whirling rotary saw. Water sprays onto the slab and throws globules of wet white dust onto the floor. The saw reaches the end of the cut and, as the slab breaks free, he presses a red button on the wall and the machine shuts off.

The man notices me but doesn’t pause to invite me to speak, or offer to himself.

“I’m Abigail’s son,” I say, when the whine of the slowing blade ends. The dust has reached me and the air clears slowly with little breeze to disrupt it.

The man pulls the mask free. Dust has turned his thick black hair grey and clogged the deep lines of a weathered face. Years of wrangling stone slabs has built a powerful upper body with square shoulders, and large hands that hang at the end of strong forearms.

“I know who you are. I have to make the noise. Can’t work without it. That’s the last of the cutting,” he offers, as if there’s one purpose for my visit. “Your mother didn’t mind the noise, it soothed her.”

“I’m not here about the noise.”

“She liked the idea of hearing there were other people about.”

My mother had once admitted her weakness to me. ‘I don’t like being on my own, and I don’t like the company of women much. Which means I’m vulnerable to the attention of men. And women like her see only the baser reasons for that’. It had been her explanation for why Mrs Ayles had called her a harlot.

“Thought I should introduce myself, tell you I’ll be living in the shop while I’m here. In case you see the lights on.”

“None of my business.”

We face each other with our exhausted chitchat, whilst sensing there should be more.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” says the Mason, in the unpractised way of a man who doesn’t express emotion.

“I hear you found her?”

“Yes.”

“How come it was you?”

The Mason frowns, as if the answer has a multiplicity of paths for him to choose and he’s afraid he might opt for one it will be impossible to find his way back from.

“You mother and I…” He stops, already regretting the path taken. There is no way back. “We were friends.”

“Since when?”

“Since I arrived. More so after George moved out. Not before,” he adds, as if it might be important to me. “We were neighbours, so we’ve always talked. After George left, I used to go in and watch some TV with her in the evenings. She didn’t like being alone, certainly not since all you children have grown.” He stops talking abruptly, in the way of a man who’s aware he’s over explaining.

“Did George know?”

“He didn’t need to. Our relationship wasn’t improper. It was perfectly respectable.”

“I suspect George would see it differently.”

“I’m not afraid of him.” It’s a jarring boast, stuck into the conversation like a lone weed in a flowerbed. “We watched TV, that’s all.”

I don’t challenge his statement; can’t know if it’s truth or lie. It means little if it had amounted to more than his claim. My mother had been free to live the life she chose. But what had this reticent man talked to her about? Or had she talked and he simply listened. It struck me as the likely scenario of a relationship between them if sex wasn’t involved.

I catch movement in the right rear quarter of the image in front of me. A yellow flash through the doorway, and a slender woman wearing a sunny shirt tucked into jeans, bare ankles with flat shoes, and short brown hair hitched behind one ear, comes out.

“Dad, dinner’s ready,” she declares, before turning to me. “Hello,” she says shyly, and steps forward to offer her hand.

I’m struck by the contradiction of the diffidence set against the confidence of instigating a handshake. The skin is dry and the hand firm.

“Mint,” I say, and feel stupid, as if it’s a meaningless bark of a word. “Jimmy Minter,” I explain.

“Beth. Elizabeth Green.” She mimics my awkward delivery and smiles.

I’m not sure if she’s mocking me, or sympathising with me. I’ve spent nine years apart from women and I’m like a man who’s forgotten how to walk in a straight line. The need to leave overwhelms me, her presence making me feel unwelcome.

“Anyway, I’d better go. If your dinner’s ready.” I recall a long-forgotten line from the manual of social interaction.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

Their eyes are on my back as I leave the way I came, and I’m in the shop before I remember my unasked questions. I want to return, need to get to the end of that particular conversation. I battle with the pull of curiosity and the contra-tug of my self-consciousness. 

I’ll go back tomorrow, when my sudden retreat has faded from their minds.


Rachel’s Random Resources Blog Tours

Spotlight on: Circles of Deceit by Paul CW Beatty

From the publisher

Murder, conspiracy, radicalism, poverty, riot, violence, capitalism, technology: everything is up for grabs in the early part of Victoria’s reign.

Radical politicians, constitutional activists and trade unionists are being professionally assassinated. When Josiah Ainscough of the Stockport Police thwarts an attempt on the life of the Chartist leader, Feargus O’Connor, he receives public praise, but earns the enmity of the assassin, who vows to kill him.

Circles of Deceit, the second of Paul CW Beatty’s Constable Josiah Ainscough’s historical murder mysteries, gives a superb and electric picture of what it was to live in 1840s England. The novel is set in one of the most turbulent political periods in British history, 1842-1843, when liberties and constitutional change were at the top of the political agenda, pursued using methods fair or foul.

About the author

Paul CW Beatty is an unusual combination of a novelist and a research scientist. Having worked for many years in medical research in the UK NHS and Universities, a few years ago he took an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University emerging with a distinction.

His latest novel, Children of Fire, is a Victorian murder mystery set in 1841 at the height of the industrial revolution. It won the Writing Magazine’s Best Novel Award in November 2017 and is published by The Book Guild Ltd. 

Paul lives near Manchester in the northwest of England. Children of Fire is set against the hills of the Peak District as well as the canals and other industrial infrastructure of the Cottonopolis know as the City of Manchester.

Selected quotes

Hands were steadied by friends so that older Chartists might sign for themselves. Those who could only make their mark had them attested by others, who initialed the petition forms.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

Of all things, he’s a Policeman, even though he went to grammar school. It’s a very common sort of profession, if you can call it a profession; even lower than being a manufacturer like Pappa.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

So now I know you, in your black and silver uniform. You who have only your fists and your pathetic stick with which to demand obedience. No rifle nor musket. No sharp sword or dagger. Nothing to protect you but the respect of the people. You are a servant, a humble servant, not a soldier, not a man of honour. You know nothing of true honour, nothing of true respect.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

Josiah had often heard it said that good news travels fast, but his own experience was that good news did not often travel faster than bad news.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

Small towns can have big crimes

Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook by Julie Butterfield

Rachel’s Random Resources Blog Tour

r/suggestmeabook: I want a murder mystery in a charming English village with a displaced city girl who’s still learning old-fashioned small town ways.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 222

Publisher: Self

Series: Isabelle Darby Cosy Village Mysteries

Cozy mystery

From the publisher: When Isabelle Darby moves to the delightfully cosy village of Lower Dimblebrook, she’s searching for peace and quiet as well as a chance to escape from heartbreak.

Julie Butterfield has created a lovely world in Lower Dimblebrook, even if there’s a not-so-lovely murderer in the neighborhood. The protagonist, Issie Darby, is easy to relate to—a woman who left her city home for a small town life, but hasn’t quite become part of the town yet. Many of us probably have that fantasy, and Butterfield does a good job of making the transition believable.

She passed the small row of cottages with their uneven thatched roofs, mullioned windows and hollyhock bestrewn gardens, skirted the front of Brook House and arrived on her crunchy, gravel drive to find that she had left her front door slightly ajar. It was a habit quickly picked up in the tranquil backwater of Lower Dimblebrook, a relaxed attitude to security.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

Butterfield also makes Issie’s gradual involvement in solving the mystery quite believable—more so than many amateur sleuths. Rather than jumping into trying to catch a murderer, Issie is more concerned with her murdered friend’s reputation, and that seems like the kind of mystery that a layperson would reasonably get caught up in.

I know Fiona wasn’t having an affair and I’m going to get to the bottom of who started this wicked rumour.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

The “deadly whispers” of the title make for an interesting exploration: how gossip, commonly thought of as a minor infraction, can be dangerous. The novel opens with the local gossips salivating over the murder, and it is easy to see why Issie would want to keep the townspeople at arm’s length. Doris Stokes, the prime mover of news, is saved from being a cutout character, and details of her relationship with Gertrude well-served the story, illuminating her in both good ways and bad.

In Wainwright’s experience, love was not a barrier to murder. On many occasions, it was love that set off the chain of events that resulted in death.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

Her fellow exile from the city is the detective, DI Dave Wainwright, who can’t wait to get back to a city, and who finds the instantaneous information exchanges of the village remarkably frustrating. I hope that Butterfield will develop him past being pretty but grumpy into a more three-dimensional character.

The lack of mobile signal in many areas was driving him crazy, the relaxed approach and total lack of urgency to any request was making him grouchy and village life, in general, was giving him a headache.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

The novel suffers from a couple of points that are common to cozies (and many mysteries generally, both print and film). First, the identity of the murderer becomes fairly obvious about halfway through the story, so the reader is just left with waiting for the denouement. Second, as a result of this, moments when you want to yell at the protagonist not to be stupid start arising with greater frequency as the story nears the end. Or maybe that’s just me, but I get very frustrated when the protagonists are being dense given the evidence both she and I, the reader, have. However, many readers of cozies aren’t particularly fussed by the puzzle being over early, and even with the aggravation, I wanted to finish the story.

Madeleine always used bone china, she never poured milk from the bottle and the biscuits were usually served on a two-tier cake stand inherited from her grandmother. But it was rarely tea in the teapot.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

The pleasant atmosphere of Lower Dimblebrook pervades the story, and the concrete details have me ready to book a cottage with the delightful Madeleine Halesowen, Issie’s landlord, murder or no. Save me some rhubarb wine.