The Paper Bark Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu

Book Details

Originally Published 2019
Su Lin #3
Preceded by The Betel Nut Tree Mystery

The Blurb

SuLin is doing her dream job: assistant at Singapore’s brand new detective agency. Until Bald Bernie decides a ‘local girl’ can’t be trusted with private investigations, and replaces her with a new secretary – pretty, privileged, and white. So SuLin’s not the only person finding it hard to mourn Bernie after he’s found dead in the filing room. And when her best friend’s dad is accused, she gets up to some sleuthing work of her own in a bid to clear his name.

SuLin finds out that Bernie may have been working undercover, trading stolen diamonds for explosives from enemy troops. Was he really the upright English citizen he claimed to be?

Meanwhile, a famous assassin commits his worst crime yet, and disappears into thin air. Rumours spread that he may be dangerously close to home.

Beneath the stifling, cloudless Singaporean summer, earthquakes of chaos and political unrest are breaking out. When a tragic loss shakes SuLin’s personal world to its core, she becomes determined to find the truth. But in dark, hate-filled times, truth has a price – and SuLin must decide how much she’s willing to pay for it.

In One Line
The strongest case so far in a historical mystery series with a fascinating setting and memorable main character.


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.

Bertie and the Seven Bodies by Peter Lovesey

BertieandtheSevenBodies
Bertie and the Seven Bodies
Peter Lovesey
Originally Published 1990
Bertie, Prince of Wales #2
Preceded by Bertie and the Tin Man
Followed by Bertie and the Crime of Passion

A few months ago I read and reviewed the first of Peter Lovesey’s novels that featured Bertie, Prince of Wales as a sleuth. Bertie and the Tin Man was a highly entertaining read, rich in humor and character, but the mystery itself disappointed.

Bertie and the Seven Bodies is the second of the three novels and I am happy to say that the plotting here is far stronger. It probably didn’t hurt that I find a week’s shooting holiday to be of more interest than the world of Victorian horse racing!

Once again Lovesey uses the device of presenting his story as a memoir of the case written by Bertie himself in later life. This enables him to inject his narrative with plenty of character, having Bertie pause at points to reflect on events and to go off on little tangents. Lovesey also has fun presenting us with situations where he has Bertie’s words and actions in the past contradict what the older Bertie claims he was doing.

The events the older Bertie recounts to us take place at a shooting party being held in the country house of an attractive young widow. During the dinner that takes place on the first evening Queenie Chimes, an actress who plays bit parts in West End productions, collapses face-first into their dessert and is rushed to a doctor for medical treatment. Near her place setting is a scrap of newspaper with the word Monday written on it and while the guests do not realize it yet, this is just the first in a series of murders that will take place during that party.

Before long Bertie has decided he will take command of the situation and find the killer himself. This is, in part, due to the practical consideration that he wishes to avoid scandalous press coverage of his proximity to several murders but it is also a reflection of his supreme (and somewhat misguided) belief in his own abilities.

Lovesey illustrates Bertie’s overconfidence in his detective prowess early in the novel with several sequences in which he attempts to make Holmesian deductions about people based on small pieces of physical evidence. These scenes are not only quite entertaining, they also establish one of the running themes of the Bertie novels – that those who orbit around him are obliged to be deferential to him regardless of his actual skill as a detective. In fact the reader may justifiably feel that Bertie’s role as detective is, in part, responsible for the book’s high body count as at several points he moves to reassure the other guests that he has identified the guilty party and it is all over.

A quick look at various Goodreads reviews shows that Bertie is quite a divisive protagonist with multiple reviewers labelling him as ‘unlikable’. Certainly he is a pompous figure and his philandering ways will likely prompt some eye-rolling but he can also be quite charming and self-aware showing that he is all too aware of some of his weaknesses. The comparison I would draw would be to the television character Frasier who possessed several similar faults – the fun is in them seeking to maintain their dignity in the face of potential humiliations such as their amorous misadventures.

As the title suggests, multiple murders await the reader and a large part of the fun is in figuring out who the next victim will be and how they will be disposed of. I appreciated the variety of methods utilized and how well this aspect of the novel pastiches elements found in several Christie works.

Lovesey provides us with an interesting mix of suspects from a variety of backgrounds and personality types. I might argue that the female characters are a little stronger and more richly drawn than the males though that really reflects Bertie’s greater interest in getting to know them. Each character is treated seriously as a suspect however and I think several possess interesting motivations.

The solution to the puzzle is quite clever and fairly clued but I did find that I guessed at it after drawing a parallel to another work. This didn’t hugely bother me as I think the manner of the confrontation at the end is interesting but it did dull the impact of the revelation a little. Your mileage may vary however and if you have not read the book it draws from it will likely come as quite a satisfying revelation.

While this is the second book in a series, you do not need to have read the first in order to understand this and so I would suggest that you skip ahead to this one. Also, if you are an audiobook fan I can recommend the splendid readings of the first two books in this series by Terrence Hardiman whose plummy, rich voice is a perfect fit for Bertie and he handles the comedic elements brilliantly

Overall I found Bertie and the Seven Bodies to be a funnier, more tightly plotted outing than his first. It is not just a very good Christie pastiche, it is a fine mystery novel in its own right and I think it managed to blend its comedic and serious elements together very well to create something quite special and surprisingly original.

Shadows in Bronze by Lindsey Davis

Shadows
Shadows in Bronze
Lindsey Davis
Originally Published 1990
Marcus Didius Falco #2
Preceded by The Silver Pigs
Followed by Venus in Copper

Several months ago I wrote about the first Falco novel, The Silver Pigs, which I noted I had been trying to read for about fifteen years. I came to the conclusion that I rather liked it and I had been looking forward to seeing more of the character but unfortunately this book reminded me why I struggled to finish the first book for so long.

The novel picks up shortly after the first book left off with the Informer now on Caesar’s staff. He is frustrated with the work assignments he is being given, most of which involve tidying up loose ends from his previous case. The task he is set at the beginning of the novel is to find and bribe or threaten the living conspirators to ensure that they fall in line with the new regime.

That is, unfortunately, about as much as I can say about the plot because what you have in store for yourself is a long, winding novel with new goals emerging in a hydra-like fashion as he completes each task he has set for himself. It gives the plot a sort of rambling, unfocused feeling and I think if you are reading this for the mission you will probably feel frustrated. Davis’ focus, it turns out, is actually on another aspect of Falco’s life.

Now I am not necessarily opposed to an entire novel detailing the status of Falco’s relationship with Helena Justina. She was probably my favorite part of the first novel and I enjoy the interactions between the two and the disconnect we see between Falco’s opinion of his knowledge of women and the actuality where he is clearly quite clueless. The problem from my perspective comes from the lack of surprise in the way that plot unfolds.

Davis is clearly heading somewhere from the moment they first encounter each other again but she plays her hand too clearly, showing exactly where their story is headed in a somewhat testy exchange between the pair. You might argue that this is intended to build suspense except that is not how the rest of their interactions unfold – my belief is that this was meant to be a subtle hint that is anything but and the ending seems to play out as though it is intended to surprise the reader.

This would not be an issue if the case Falco is working on had a stronger sense of urgency or mystery about it but actually for the first half of the book everything feels very straightforward. It can sometimes be interesting to follow how Falco will deal with some of the discontents and to share in his cynical observations about the political elites but there is little here to surprise or shock.

This does change when Davis pulls off a very effective twist in the second half of the novel, giving Falco more immediate stakes in the case and also heightening the danger he faces. I will admit to having been completely surprised by this moment in the novel and it does give the plot a much-needed boost but by that point I was already feeling quite disengaged from the story and that a lot of my time had been wasted with unnecessary details of Falco’s journey and with little purpose.

Which brings me back to the problem that this story is more focused on Falco’s relationship drama than establishing anything approaching a mystery. The reader cannot really predict that twist or many of the developments that follow and by the time it happens it feels like we have strayed a long way from the original mission Falco has been given by Vespasian. Even if I were to focus on appreciating it as a romance rather than as a mystery, the book feels slow and filled with unnecessary padding.

In short, this was a big disappointment given my high expectations for the novel. The characters are still enjoyable but the story here could have been told in half the page count and I do not think much would have been lost. As invested as I am in Falco and Helena’s relationship, the weaknesses in the mystery and adventure elements undermine the novel and make it feel somewhat directionless. My hope is that the subsequent volumes get the series back on track and I will at least be curious to see what becomes of them after the events of this book.

The Bloody Black Flag by Steve Goble

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The Bloody Black Flag
Steve Goble
Originally Published 2017
Spider John #1
Followed by The Devil’s Wind

There is something about pirates that just instinctively appeals to me. One of the television shows that I have most enjoyed in recent years is Black Sails and ever since that ended I have been searching for my next piratical fix. It seems I have found it in the Spider John mystery novel series, the second of which will be released next month.

Spider John Rush and his friend Ezra reluctantly sign onto the crew of the Plymouth Dream after the ship they were on is sunk. Unfortunately it turns out that Ezra is known to one of the crew they join and that man broadcasts that he is a descendent of witches, suggesting that he will bring bad luck to their voyage.

When Spider John finds his friend dead with a flask of spirits and battering around his head he refuses to accept that it was a drunken accident. For one thing, he knows that Ezra didn’t drink. He vows vengeance on the murderer, even if it results in his own death.

The Bloody Black Flag is a literary mash-up of a high seas adventure novel and a traditional amateur detective story and I am very happy to be able to say that it does both genres extremely well. While most of my comments will be addressing this book as a mystery novel, I do want to stress that the adventure elements are suitably exciting and capture the danger of working on the seas and are full of details of life on the account. Even if the murder mystery element does not appeal to you, there is still plenty to enjoy here.

The idea of having a pirate character serve as a sleuth in a mystery novel feels so natural that I was surprised that I haven’t seen it done before. Pirates crews were made up of dangerous men living outside the law and keeping that kind of company it would not be surprising that they might come across bodies regularly enough to make a series credible. That challenge is finding a way to make the sleuth care about finding the truth given the danger that will surely pose to their own life.

Goble meets that challenge splendidly with the creation of his sleuth, Spider John. This is a man who has found himself living as a pirate not by choice but as a result of having been forced to enlist in a crew when he first went to sea and the boat he was working on was captured. He has a wife and child he wants to return to back in Nantucket though there seems to be no prospect of that in his immediate future.

John, by his own reckoning, is neither a good man nor a bad one. He does terrible things, being an efficient fighter, but he points out that he could have been far worse and that he does not enjoy that aspect of the work. For example, at one point he silently prays that a ship they are approaching will immediately surrender to avoid any bloodshed. He, like many real pirates, is a man who is simply doing what he needs to in order to survive.

Goble provides him with a strong motivation to look into this death by having it happen to his only friend among the crew. In the early chapters he establishes that the two men have sailed together for a long time and have developed an incredibly strong bond of trust. In spite of that though John might well have accepted the death as an accident if it were not for a clumsy piece of staging.

His skill set as an investigator is credible for a man with his background. He is naturally wary of others, has seen different types of injury (having caused a few of them himself) and is able to draw on his experiences of different crews to notice when someone is behaving abnormally. He is quite an instinctual sleuth but his reasoning for reaching the conclusion he comes to about why his friend was killed is solid and well thought through.

One aspect of his character that intrigues me but which doesn’t have much of a direct impact on this investigation is that he is largely illiterate, knowing little more than how to sign his name. This is not only an example of the author’s attention to historical detail, I can imagine that this might be an interesting challenge for future investigations and will be curious to see if it affects any of his subsequent cases.

The circumstances of the death itself are, appropriately, quite simple but what makes it challenging to solve are Spider John’s status as an outsider within the crew, making the other pirates wary of confiding in him, and a surfeit of suspects. Given how superstitious many of the crew are, their belief that Ezra might be a source of bad luck could be enough of a motive for murder in itself potentially making everyone on board a suspect. Several characters stand out as suspicious and capable of the murder (and subsequent cover-up) however and I enjoyed the process of discovering who was responsible.

The explanation of the crime is pretty clever and I did find the identity of the killer to be a surprise. There is a fair amount of repetition of a question by different characters in the final third of the novel that is frustrating and while the answer to that question will be important to the mystery, I think it does unfortunately feel a little clumsy and this is one of the few aspects of the novel that didn’t work for me.

Goble smartly combines the revelation of the murderer with some high seas action so fans of both genres will likely feel satisfied by the conclusion and he ends the novel on the sort of cliffhanger that will have you searching out the release date for the second volume (September 11th in the US). The Bloody Black Flag is a very accomplished mystery that introduces a compelling sleuth and I cannot wait to see if the second volume lives up to the promise of this first one.