The Paper Bark Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu

The Paper Bark Tree Mystery
Ovidia Yu
Originally Published 2019
Su Lin #3
Preceded by The Betel Nut Tree Mystery

In spite of the historical mystery being one of my favorite sub-genres of crime fiction, it seems to have been a really long time since I last read one for this blog. Not sure what happened there. In any case, I am happy to resume coverage with a look at the third book in Ovidia Yu’s Crown Colony series set between the two world wars featuring her Singaporean sleuth Su Lin.

While each novel does tell a self-contained story, I would suggest that this is a series you really want to read in order. The reason is that the author cultivates a sense of change between each book meaning that if read in order you see Su Lin gain in confidence while Singapore and the British Empire’s relationship also shows some signs of change. While you could follow what is going on in The Paper Bark Tree Mystery without reading the previous stories, I think you would miss out on the thoughtful characterizations and the sense of these adventures taking place in the context of world history.

This particular story opens with the discovery of the death of “Bald Bernie”, a man who has been responsible for getting Su Lin removed from her post as an assistant at the Detective Shack. She discovers the body when she turns up at the office to her help successor, Dolly, get to grips with the filing system.

As the first on the scene and given her history with the deceased, Su Lin is an obvious suspect but it soon becomes clear that the Police believe the death may have links to the rumors that an Indian revolutionary is at large in Singapore. When her best friend’s father is arrested on suspicion of being in league with the revolutionaries, Su Lin investigates the crime herself in the hope that she can clear his name.

There are lots of aspects of this series that appeal to me but the part that fascinates me most is its presentation of Singapore in this time period. Each novel has been able to utilize and comment on developments within the British Empire and this volume in no different. For instance, this story reflects the rising tensions within the Empire about the risk of revolution and the relationship between the colonial authorities and the natives. Su Lin’s dismissal after all comes as a consequence of an administrator’s fear that being a Singaporean her loyalty might be questionable.

This book also incorporates wider concerns about the political climate in the region. We read about Indian revolutionaries and the Congress party as well as the perceived threat that is posed by an expansionist Japan. What I think Yu does really well is to show these ideas and conflicts from several different perspectives, showing that there is a diversity of opinion and individuality within each of the cultures depicted.

The other idea that really comes over strongly is that many of the Singaporean characters are practical in their responses to these challenges and threats. While we do not spend time with Su Lin’s grandmother in this volume, we do hear her thoughts and plans reported to us. It is these details that I think make these characters feel rich and interesting enough to support multiple stories and that leave me curious to see how they will adjust to the changes that will take place over the decade that follows.

I also appreciate that each volume in this series attempts to move Su Lin’s personal story forward. While the first novel showed her building a relationship with Le Froy and the second had her working closely with him, here she is on the outside and feeling angry toward him.

Her reasons are quite understandable – she feels that having promised he would serve as a mentor for her, he did not stand up for her keeping her position in the Detective Shack. The novel explores how that choice has changed their relationship though Su Lin retains a strong bond to the group of detectives she used to work with.

One parallel that is explored throughout the novel is the contrast between Le Froy who has sought to build relationships and understanding with the Singaporean community leaders and Colonel Mosley-Partington, a more recent arrival. They have different personal styles and while the conflict is rarely direct, I felt the contrast between the two characters was interesting and helped draw out and show different aspects of Le Froy’s character.

Having discussed the background to the story I ought to also discuss the mystery itself. Opening the book with the discovery of the body does allow a certain compression of the case itself, throwing us straight into the investigation portion of the novel. This means that much of the background to the case is provided to us through the narration which can feel a little awkward and were this one death to be the sole focus of the book I would have been disappointed.

The story quickly expands its scope and focus, giving us a second body and placing that first death in a much broader (and more interesting) context. The reader’s challenge is to understand the connections between the different elements that have been introduced. I felt that the answers given were interesting and pretty satisfying, tying these various strands of the story together well.

Overall I found The Paper Bark Tree Mystery to be as entertaining and compelling as the two earlier volumes. Su Lin continues to be an appealing sleuth and I am enjoying seeing how she is developing from book-to-book. Because of those developments both in the character and in the historical background I would suggest however that these books would be best read in order rather than dipped into. If you did read and enjoy the previous installments in this series though I am sure you will enjoy this one every bit as much.

The Dragon Scroll by I. J. Parker

The Dragon Scroll
I. J. Parker
Originally Published 2005
Sugawara Akitada #1
Followed by Rashomon Gate

The subject of today’s post is a book that holds a special place in my heart and that certainly played a large part in reigniting my interest in the mystery genre. For that reason what follows is perhaps not really so much a review as a celebration of a book and a character that mean a lot to me and while I will try to discuss the merits of the book in its own right, I do have to give a warning that I may not be entirely impartial.

To explain why I have to take you back and explain my relationship with the mystery genre. As some of you may remember, I began reading mysteries at a young age. Early favorites included the Three Investigators and the Five Found-Outers though I also read a few classics of the genre. Getting older I transitioned to reading whatever titles I could find on my father’s bookcases which meant I dipped into stuff like Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries.

But then during my college and university years things changed. I didn’t exactly stop reading but my relationship with books changed significantly and I found that I was more focused on reading to support my learning than for the love of it. This continued after I graduated and started working, particularly because the type of work I was in at that time left little time for recreation.

In 2008 though everything changed for me. In that year I got married and emigrated to the United States where I spent eighteen months waiting to receive my employment visa and, for the first time in years, I had time on my hands. I decided to fill that time by watching a whole lot of Japanese cinema, developing an interest in Samurai movies, and from there I decided it would be cool to read some fiction set in that era.

I started out with Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro mysteries which were set during the era of the Tokugawa shogunate. In researching that series however I happened upon an article about I. J. Parker’s relatively new series which was set several centuries earlier during the Heian period of Japanese history.

The protagonist of the series is Sugawara no Akitada, a junior official in the Ministry of Justice who in this book arrives in the Kazusa province to investigate why several shipments of tax revenue have not made it to the capital. What complicates his mission is that the provincial governor who appears to be a prime suspect is about to become the emperor’s father-in-law, putting Akitada in a difficult and potentially career-threatening position.

A further complication arises when the former governor of the province, who had reached out to Akitada to seek a private meeting, is found dead having apparently fallen in his library. Suspecting foul play, Akitada decides to investigate this matter too with the help of his elderly family retainer Seimei and an impudent, womanizing soldier he meets on the road named Tora.

The least interesting of the various plot elements is the question of what has become of the tax shipments. Here the story suffers a little from a lack of suspects, essentially allowing the reader two possibilities, but this story strand leads to further, more challenging questions such as how the money is being hidden and transported. It likely won’t wow puzzle readers but I found it a solid starting point that justified Akitada’s involvement in the story.

I was more interested in the questions raised by the death of the former governor and the mystery about the information that he wished to share with Akitada. There are a few reasons for this, not least that I always enjoy seeing how a detective works out that a death that appears to have been natural or an accident is actually murder without witnesses or clear clue pointing at that explanation. Akitada begins with a suspicion but he is able to expand on it through logic and observation, helping to establish him as a skillful (if still fairly inexperienced) investigator.

There is a third strand to the mystery that is principally investigated by Tora that relates to some strange goings on in the streets of the provincial capitol and that introduces us to a set of characters from its underworld. Here I want to avoid giving away any firm details as it is the least expected and most creative part of the novel but I want to give some credit to Parker for the way in which this is developed. Essentially Tora’s investigation will be presented as its own story strand, incorporating different levels of society, and it runs parallel to the main investigation. Typically there is eventually some crossover between his adventures and those of his master and it is no different here but a large part of the fun comes from trying to figure out precisely how those threads will eventually converge.

This establishes a structure that runs throughout most of the novels in this series in which Akitada and Tora end up investigating several different puzzles that seem unconnected. Eventually we learn a piece of information that bridges these plots, drawing the action together and presenting what we know in a different light. I will say that The Dragon Scroll is not quite as intricately structured as some later entries in the series as many of the connections can be worked out relatively early in the novel but while it is not particularly surprising, I still found it to be quite entertaining.

Perhaps the thing I like most about this series is the development and evolution of its protagonist, Akitada. Born into a noble but impoverished family, I love the complexities and contrasts Parker finds in the character. As with the plot structuring, I think later titles in the series showcase this better (and explore some of the less likable parts of his character) but there is still plenty of dimension to admire and appreciate here.

This story serves as a good introduction to the character because of the way it pushes him out of his comfort zone. When he travels to Kazusa he finds himself stumped by some awkward social situations he has to resolve according to proper etiquette. Some of the situations he finds himself in are quite fascinating, exposing different aspects of Japanese culture and society such as attitudes towards the Buddhist clergy and the nobility.

The most awkward situations Akitada finds himself in are those which involve women. He is pretty inexperienced in that area anyway but in the course of this story he finds himself attracted to two quite different women and unsure how he should respond and where to take things. These two situations explore different aspects of Akitada’s personality, personal background and values and help to bring him to life.

The supporting characters of Tora and Seimei have an interesting and complicated relationship that also evolves over the course of this novel. Seimei has a relatively limited range as a character, often falling into particular patterns of behavior though Parker gifts him a wonderful and surprising moment later in the adventure that I find extremely entertaining and shows a slightly different side to him. Tora, by contrast, is a fuller creation and I enjoy the energy and passion he injects into the story, even if some readers find it unbelievable that he would be so openly insubordinate to Akitada.

So, how do I feel about The Dragon Scroll on revisiting it (for the third time)? Well, I think it succeeds as an introduction to these characters and the world. The mystery itself is quite serviceable, if a little slanted towards adventure storytelling, though I think that the style feels appropriate to the historical setting. Perhaps the storytelling is a little slow, sensual and detail-oriented though once again I found that fit the tone and setting of the story very well.

Based on this I can certainly see why I was so drawn to read more about these characters and why it spurred me on to develop an interest in historical mystery fiction. My memory of the series is that the next novel, Rashomon Gate, was even more compelling and I will look forward to revisiting that one at some point soon.

Note: The series order for the Akitada mysteries can be confusing as Parker’s first publisher opted to release the stories out of chronological order. The Dragon Scroll is the intended starting point and when Parker changed publishers it was issued as the first title in the series.

The Murderer’s Tale by Margaret Frazer

The Murderer’s Tale
Margaret Frazer
Originally Published 1996
Dame Frevisse #6
Preceded by The Boy’s Tale
Followed by The Prioress’ Tale

It is pretty rare for me to start a series anywhere other than with the first book. When I do it is usually because the series has long been out-of-print or, more usually, I just didn’t realize that the book was part of a series.

When I picked up The Murderer’s Tale I was aware that it was not the first Dame Frevisse mystery and I did have easy access to those earlier titles in the series. The reason I chose to skip over them though will be an entirely predictable one to those who have followed this blog and taken a moment to consider the title of the book.

Yes, the reason is that The Murderer’s Tale is an inverted mystery (for those who are new to this blog, this is my favorite type of mystery). I am nothing if not predictable.

The novel begins by introducing us to the members of the Knyvet household who are travelling on pilgrimage. The group are led by the wealthy and jovial Lionel Knyvet who enjoys sharing riddles with his fellow travellers. We soon learn that this is just one of many pilgrimages that Lionel has made, hoping to find a cure for what he understands to be a demon (but readers will recognize as epilepsy).

Joining him on this journey is his cousin Giles who possesses a far more sour disposition and clearly resents his cousin’s wealth and being dragged across the country on what he sees as a futile endeavor. He is the heir to the estate and given that Lionel has vowed not to marry because of his condition, he expects to inherit.

Meanwhile Dame Frevisse, a nun at St. Frideswide nunnery agrees to undertake a pilgrimage with Sister Claire. The pair agree to take some papers to the lord at Minster Lovell that relate to a land dispute on behalf of the nunnery and on their journey they meet up with the Knyvet party, travelling with them until they reach the hall.

Okay, so it will come as little surprise that things will turn murderous or that Giles will turn out to be that killer. We share enough of his thoughts from the start of the book to recognize that he is a thoroughly unpleasant man who treats his servants viciously and has little respect for the women around him. He certainly is not treated as a sympathetic killer, particularly given the details of the murder he has planned, and while I did not find the passages from his perspective to be as disturbing to read as, for example, those by Jim Thompson in his inverted story, Pop. 1280, or Roger Bax in Blueprint for Murder, he certainly is not a character you would ever want to meet or interact with.

Though Giles does some interesting things at points in this story, I do not think he is a particularly deep or interesting character. Frazer makes little attempt to explore his deeper motivations or the events in his life that have shaped him into a killer. Instead he arrives already formed with a plan in mind (though we are not party to it) and there is little introspection after the murder. This strikes me as a little disappointing, particularly as there clearly was room in the narrative to feature some developmental moments or reflections.

Given that we already know the killer’s identity, I do not want to share details of what his plan is or how he sets about carrying it out – figuring that out and later how he will be caught is really the mystery here. I can say though that it is quite simple, which is appropriate for the setting, and is not particularly memorable either in its details or in the way it is executed.

While Giles tries to contrive a crime scene that tells a story, Dame Frevisse is unconvinced by some elements and starts asking questions. At this point the reader’s focus shifts to trying to see what aspects of the crime or the killer’s behavior she will spot and be able to use to prove what happened.

Here once again I have to say I was a little disappointed. Dame Frevisse certainly observes several issues with the crime scene and she is able to explain why those inconsistencies matter but because the crime itself is quite simple, the investigation feels similarly shallow. This is not helped by several clues being quite visual in nature and while I could guess how the information might be used, I could not know what exactly could be determined from it.

There are some bright spots however, particularly those in which Dame Frevisse interacts with other characters to discuss Lionel’s condition. It is this aspect of the story that struck me as the most interesting, both in its discussions of how epilepsy was understood in this period and also the way the laws of this period took mental health into account. An author’s note at the end of the recent ebook edition provides a little more information about this.

Similarly, though I found Giles to be a fairly underwhelming creation, I was pretty pleased with Frazer’s characterizations of her other supporting characters. While this book does not boast a big cast of supporting characters, I think they are fairly distinctive figures. For instance, I enjoyed Lionel’s coarse joking and Sister Claire’s worrying about her friend’s meddling. Similarly I like Frevisse herself who is a little quick to speak and I do think Frazer does a good job of conveying her personality and values.

While I did enjoy quite a few elements of this story and would certainly try others in this series, unfortunately I did not find it to be a particularly memorable inverted tale. While the villain of the piece certainly makes an impression as a figure to hate and want to see brought to justice, I longed for a little more depth and background to flesh him out or to allow him a moment where he does something unexpected.

As it is, The Murderer’s Tale is a competent historical story. Those who enjoy exploring a historical period may appreciate its discussions of people’s perceptions of health conditions at that time and the workings of an estate in the lord’s absence but I found the mystery element fairly shallow while the villain sadly underwhelms.

Further Reading

The author shared some notes about this book on her website here. This was the novel that split up a writing partnership and according to this account the process of writing from the murderer’s perspective played a large part in this.

The Darkness Knows by Cheryl Honigford

The Darkness Knows
Cheryl Honigford
Originally Published: 2016
Viv and Charlie Mysteries #1
Followed by Homicide for the Holidays

One of the misapprehensions people have about librarians is that we get to read on the job. We really don’t – our days are spent assisting customers, planning programs and sorting out materials. I do however benefit from working with coworkers and customers who share my passion for reading and bring books to my attention I might otherwise have missed.

The Darkness Knows was one such suggestion made by a coworker who knew I had enjoyed other historical mysteries set between the wars. What really attracted me to the book though was that it is set against the backdrop of a 1930s radio studio. I am often drawn to books set within the entertainment industries and hadn’t come across a radio mystery before.

Vivian Witchell is an actress who has recently graduated from playing bit parts to voicing the part of a detective’s sidekick on The Darkness Knows, a popular radio serial. She took over the part from an actress who left to get married and is working hard to prove that she won the job on her merit as an actress as baseless rumors are circulating that she slept with the station manager while working as his secretary.

The murder victim is Marjorie Fox, a veteran actress who is unpopular with her coworkers and prone to drinking heavily. Viv finds her dead in the station’s lounge, beaten over the head with a bottle. When the Police arrive they discover a note with her body that suggests an insane fan may have been involved and that they may also have an interest in Viv.

Charlie Haverman, a Private Eye who is a consultant for the radio show, is hired to protect Viv. While he wants her to stay safe, Viv convinces him that the only way she will be out of danger is if they can locate the killer together and so the pair begin to investigate the case themselves.

The most successful part of The Darkness Knows is its depiction of the world of 1930s radio. Honigford seems to know that world well and includes details that bring it to life, not only in terms of the process of recording but also what it meant to be a radio star in that period in terms of the rivalries that might develop and how publicity was handled (such as the idea of staging dates between co-stars). In that regard I found it to be well-observed and convincing.

The novel’s protagonist, Vivian, is another example of the wealthy woman choosing to live an unconventional lifestyle trope that seems so common in recent historical mysteries. While I quite liked Vivian and certainly did not mind this characterization, I do think it requires some additional explanation or backstory to explain why she doesn’t want to conform to her mother’s plan for her or why she is so attracted to the idea of working in radio.

The second lead, detective Charlie, feels similarly loosely defined for much of the novel though I think his motivations and interests become clearer as the two characters get to know each other. The pair establish a Gable and Colbert-style bickering relationship that is clearly meant to be suggestive of romantic attraction. I am not sure that I found that aspect of their relationship completely convincing yet but I did at least buy Charlie’s jealousy towards another character and I do see the potential there for this relationship to grow in subsequent installments of the series.

The secondary characters make up an interesting mix of radio types. Almost everyone has some reason to dislike Marjorie so most of these characters are potential suspects and while some stand out more than others, I appreciated that the motivations are varied, credible and clear.

Turning to the mystery itself, I think that the initial scenario Honigford crafts is interesting and I appreciated that she provides a strong incentive for Viv to want to investigate what is happening. Similarly I enjoyed much of the process of conducting the investigation, particularly a sequence in which the sleuths snoop around the victim’s home. The action feels pretty varied and I did feel unsure of who the killer would turn out to be for much of the novel.

I was rather less impressed however by the way in which the killer’s identity is revealed as I think an argument might be made that Viv does not really solve the case herself but rather stumbles onto the answer. Much of the solution is gifted to her by the killer and so that solution neither feels fair or completely satisfying for those who want to play along and solve the case for themselves, reading more like an adventure as it reaches its conclusion.

That wasn’t exactly what I was looking for when I picked up the book though I was entertained for much of it. The setting is fantastic and while I wanted a little more backstory and character exploration, I did enjoy the time I spent with Viv.

Readers who enjoyed Lawrence H. Levy’s Mary Handley series or Amanda Allen’s Santa Fe Mourning and A Moment in Crime may enjoy this.

Mad Hatter’s Holiday by Peter Lovesey

MadHatters
Mad Hatter’s Holiday
Peter Lovesey
Originally Published 1973
Inspector Cribb #4
Preceded by Abracadaver
Followed by Invitation to a Dynamite Party

Peter Lovesey’s Sergeant Cribb stories hold a special place in this blogger’s affections as a book from that series was the subject of the very first post on this blog. Since then I have reviewed several other titles in the series but given it has been eight months since I last revisited the character I thought it was time to read another in the series.

Mad Hatter’s Holiday begins by introducing us to Albert Moscrop, a young man who has travelled to the seaside to people watch with his telescope and binoculars. During one of his observations he notices a young woman he had encountered briefly and follows her with his lens. He eventually contrives a meeting and introduces himself to her, learning about her husband and children as well as an issue that has been worrying her.

The first third of the novel builds up our understanding of these characters and suggests some points of conflict between them. We may well be wondering what crime is likely to be committed but when this section of the novel ends and Cribb is introduced we have little knowledge of what crime he is investigating, let alone how it relates back to these opening chapters of the novel.

It turns out that a severed arm has been discovered in a reptile display yet there is no sign that this might have been an accident or of the remainder of the body. While it is clear that someone has been killed, the Police have little idea who the body might belong to, let alone who is responsible. Fortunately for him, Mr. Moscrop is keen to share some evidence with him…

One of the joys of Lovesey’s historical mystery writing is his ability to depict and explore some of the more eccentric aspects of life in the period. Previous titles in this series have explored sporting events and the music halls but what this novel does particularly well is to convey the novelty of a spyglass or binoculars would have had at this time. For instance, the other characters are shown as being intrigued to take a look through a lens for themselves and Moscrop is still experimenting with different degrees of magnification.

While the idea of a man using a spyglass to watch people on a beach has uncomfortable and sinister connotations, Lovesey pitches Moscrop as a social introvert whose usual interest is to simply crowdwatch both to test his lenses and to feel that he is among the people. We are told that the intense interest he shows in Mrs Prothero is a new sensation for him and readers may be disturbed by some of his actions in observing and interacting with her. For instance there is a moment early in the novel where he decides to kidnap her unattended infant son to enable him to return the child and gain an introduction.

Moscrop is not intended to be the story’s hero however and once Cribb arrives he serves a different role within the novel, providing some of the information he has gathered to the police to help with their inquiries. They, understandably, are uncertain how to interpret his actions and behavior and consider him a suspect in that investigation.

The Protheros prove an interesting bunch. Dr. Prothero, for instance, is a vocal proponent of many of the medical ideas of his day and has an obsession with the idea that swimming in the sea is dangerous to one’s health. His son is fifteen but speaks like an adult and has little time for his stepmother who, we learn, is Dr. Prothero’s third wife. As for their nursemaid, Dr. Prothero insisted on her appointment and will not consider dismissing her, even though she is often inattentive in her care for their infant son.

In my review of Lovesey’s previous Cribb novel, Abracadaver, I felt that the characters of Cribb and Thackeray benefited from being introduced at the start. This novel keeps them back with the consequence that Lovesey has to reestablish them at the moment at which we are learning about the crime, slowing down that section of the story. One pleasant aspect of this choice however is that the reader is able to draw upon what they have already learned from following Moscrop to make some assumptions about what the crime will be.

We soon learn that Cribb and Thackeray have been called in to investigate a severed arm found in the alligator enclosure at the aquarium. As Thackeray notes this is even less to go on than in a previous case where they had to work with a headless body. In spite of this, even before Moscrop shares his account with them they have already deduced quite a few things from this section of a body, if not its identity, demonstrating their abilities as detectives.

Those who have not read a Cribb story before may be surprised at the rather leisurely pacing of the investigation but I consider that part of these stories’ charm. Cribb has a rather relaxed, some might say lazy, approach to policing and tends to allow things to play out, only swooping into action when he perceives someone to be in danger or that the criminal might get away.

That is not to say however that Cribb is inactive in this investigation. One of my favorite sequences in the novel takes place in a bathhouse where Cribb is attempting to speak with one of the suspects and even when he doesn’t care to act himself he is more than willing to volunteer Constable Thackeray’s help. Several of those moments are very funny and help establish these characters for those who are not already familiar with them.

The solution Lovesey creates is quite clever and aspects of it are well-clued though I would argue that one part of the puzzle is rather too technical to be considered fair play. It is debatable however and some might argue that Lovesey does give a hint about the nature of the specialist knowledge one might need to work it out. It is, ultimately, only one element of a much bigger and rather satisfying mystery puzzle.

Perhaps the most baffling thing about the book is its rather odd title which conjures up images of Alice in Wonderland, reinforced by a Tenniel illustration appearing on the cover of my recent edition of the book. There are not only no Carroll references, there is also a striking absence of hats. The title appears to come from a line of dialogue in the second half of the book but even that is questionable because that line feels jammed in as if to justify the title. It is a minor thing but the title set the wrong expectations for me and I will admit to being a little disappointed that it really has no relationship to the content.

So, where does that leave me on Mad Hatter’s Holiday? I found aspects of the story and particularly of the historical setting to be very interesting and I appreciated Lovesey’s ability to play off and subvert some of the reader’s expectations about what had happened. It is not the best Cribb story I have read but it is certainly not the worst and while I will always begrudge a late introduction for Cribb and Thackeray they are at least used effectively once they do appear.

A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill

Prophets
A Decline in Prophets
Sulari Gentill
Originally Published 2011
Rowland Sinclair #2
Preceded by A Few Right Thinking Men
Followed by Miles Off Course

A Decline in Prophets is the second in Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair series set in Australia in the early 1930s. When I read and reviewed the first story, A Few Right Thinking Men, I liked it a lot. The characters were enjoyable and the historical background to the case was fascinating. My only reservation in recommending it on this blog was that I felt the mystery element felt a little too straightforward.

One thing I should warn readers about up front is that this book reveals elements of the conclusion of the previous story. I have kept discussion of those specific elements out of this review to try to avoid spoiling anyone.

The book picks up shortly after the first left off with Rowland and his friends embarking on a world cruise. Among their fellow passengers are a collection of prominent Theosophists and an Irish Catholic bishop and his retinue.

One evening Rowland spots one of the male passengers aggressively propositioning his friend Edna and the men come to blows. When the man is found dead in the early hours of the next morning with Rowland’s walking stick embedded in his neck he finds himself inevitably under suspicion for murder.

The detective as chief suspect trope is not a favorite of mine so I was quite happy that the author acknowledges it but quickly moves past it, using it as an opportunity to show Rowland’s intelligence and reasoning. He demonstrates how the evidence suggests that he was not involved but while he is curious about the crime, for the first half of the novel he is not actively investigating the death.

These chapters are spent amassing information as we are introduced to the cast of characters which blends real historical figures with possible suspects. In my review of A Few Right Thinking Men I praised the way Gentill achieves this and I think her work here is equally impressive. While readers will likely work out which of the characters are real historical figures it is not because of any difference in the quality of characterization or dialogue.

Further crimes occur while aboard the ship with one incident in particular prompting Rowland to become more involved in discovering what is going on once they dock. As interesting as some of these incidents were, I preferred the second half of the book which mixes more direct investigation with a dose of Sinclair family drama.

Some of the novel’s strongest and most entertaining moments actually do not involve the crimes at all but the tension in the relationship between Rowland and his elder brother Wilfred who disapproves of Rowly’s bohemian lifestyle and friends. Many of these scenes are quite humorous such as an extended sporting sequence but there are also a couple of strongly emotional moments that give the relationship a good sense of balance.

That is not to say however that the mystery elements of the novel dissatisfy and I would suggest that this second Rowland Sinclair novel is actually a more complex and interesting case than his first. While I was disappointed that the solution to that puzzle was quite straightforward, this case is more complex and challenging.

The actual solution is quite complicated but I think it is explained well. Gentill makes it easy to understand the sequence of events that take place and the connections between them. I might question whether one key visual clue in the deductive chain could be noticed by the reader but I think that for the most part it plays fair.

While I enjoyed the book a lot, I should acknowledge that there are a few moments that feel quite extraneous to the plot and that some may feel is padding. I referenced the polo match above which was probably my favorite moment in the novel but there are others including a subplot where Wilfred’s wife is trying to set Rowland up with a friend of hers that perhaps do not add much to our understanding of the plot or these characters.

When I reviewed the first novel in this series I commented that while I thoroughly enjoyed it, it felt more like a piece of historical fiction than a mystery novel. This second installment does address that problem, developing a more complex plot than the predecessor while keeping its historical themes simpler, requiring less explanation and context. I still appreciated learning about theosophy and the lives of the historical figures depicted who I thought were interesting and depicted convincingly.

A Decline in Prophets is entertaining, lively and often quite charming. Its characters are memorable while the murders are genuinely puzzling. While I think on balance I enjoyed A Few Right Thinking Men more, I do feel that this is the superior mystery. Because it spoils the first novel I would not suggest jumping in with this one but for those that are curious I would certainly recommend taking a look.

A Moment in Crime by Amanda Allen

MomentinCrime
A Moment in Crime
Amanda Allen
Originally Published 2018
Santa Fe Revival #2
Preceded by Santa Fe Mourning

A Moment in Crime is the second in a series of novels by Amanda Allen set in 1920s New Mexico (check out my review of Santa Fe Mourning here). The protagonist, Madeline Vaughn-Alwin, comes from a background of wealth and privilege but following the death of her husband in the War she settles in Santa Fe where she works as an artist.

This novel picks up shortly after the first with Maddie attending a display of her work in a gallery. She is surprised when her cousin Gwen turns up to the party looking on the verge of collapse telling her that she needs her help.

Gwen is an actress who has a role in a movie production that is in town to film some scenes on location. She tells Maddie that she had slept with the director, Luther Bishop, who had promised her a big role but that she was ultimately only given a bit part. He blames his wife, the film’s leading lady, for his reneging on the deal and when she has a pregnancy scare he tries to pay her off to take care of it.

Maddie soon discovers that other members of the cast and crew have grievances against their director and that he may have also made some enemies among the locals. The reader will not be surprised when Maddie discovers him dead, hanging from the ceiling in his office in a staged suicide.

Like the first novel in the series, I found this to be an entertaining and lively read. The setting is quite wonderful and appeals enormously to me both in its sense of place and time. There are plenty of interesting historical and cultural details about the city to pick up on and I do think those details help the setting to feel real and vibrant. Both books have given me an urge to travel to Santa Fe and visit the landscape and the La Fonda hotel which plays a prominent role in both stories.

The bohemian nature of Santa Fe’s artistic community in this period allows for a book that can incorporate those historical elements and themes while still feeling modern. Allen develops a great cast of supporting characters surrounding Maddie such as her housekeeper Juanita, best friend Gunther, her English doctor beau David and Chesterton superfan and crime solving buddy, Father Malone. They are all distinctive and charming, making it easy to enjoy their company.

The idea of setting a story around a film production coming to town is an interesting one. The casting couch element of the story feels particularly timely and I think it is handled quite well. Some readers may be surprised by just how messy, improvisational and chaotic a major film production might be in this period but I think the novel effectively conveys the idea that this is a time where the film industry was becoming glamorous but also that this is happening before the studio system reached its heights.

It makes a great setting for a mystery and I think the early part of the case is quite intriguing, setting up multiple suspects and giving them convincing reasons to want Luther dead. Once again Allen gives Maddie a convincing, personal reason to want to dig deeper into a case by having her cousin become the Police’s chief suspect and this works well to motivate her even when things become more dangerous.

There are some issues with the way the case develops that I think do detract from the book when judging it as a mystery. While this is set up to be a detective story, as with the first novel Maddie really stumbles onto the solution as a consequence of an action she takes rather than through deduction. This would not bother me if the reader could have solved it before the reveal but while the solution is clued, at that point there is little to disqualify some of the other suspects.

Similarly, I felt frustrated that Allen identifies several suspects early in the novel but never really does anything with them. One of those suspects has a particularly strong and interesting motive to want Luther dead that I think is at least as convincing as the killer’s and yet it goes unexamined. I do wish that space had been found to take a closer look at that suspect within the investigation as I think it would have not only helped with the case, it could have enhanced one of the novel’s themes.

Though I have a few issues with the manner in which the mystery is resolved, I did thoroughly enjoy the adventure that led to that point. This series has a wonderful sense of character and setting and I thoroughly enjoy spending time with Maddie and her circle of friends. I would certainly suggest these books for those who are looking for a historical setting away from the familiar environments of the big metropolises and I look forward to reading future installments in this series.

Copy provided by the publisher for early review. A Moment in Crime is set to be released on December 11 in the United States. The eBook will be released on the same date in the United Kingdom and on December 27 in print.