A Moment in Crime by Amanda Allen

MomentinCrimeA 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.

Santa Fe Mourning by Amanda Allen

SantaFeSanta Fe Mourning is the first book in a new series of historical mysteries set in 1920s New Mexico. This setting caught my eye because while the time period is a familiar one for murder mysteries, I was intrigued by the Southwestern locale which I haven’t seen done before in a historical setting.

Allen’s protagonist, Madeline Vaughn-Alwin, has come from a wealthy background but after her husband dies in the First World War she settles in Santa Fe where she works as an artist to her family’s disapproval. There she has established a circle of friends and built a home.

The novel begins with Maddie returning home by train after a trip to New York. At the station she is met by Eddie, the son of the Native American couple she employs as her gardener and cook. He has some bruising on his face and she soon hears that relations between Eddie and his father have deteriorated, the latter having become increasingly erratic in his behavior, while she was away and that his mother is contemplating sending his sisters away to a convent school.

Soon Tomas Anaya is discovered dead near a speakeasy, covered with blood from what looks to have been a brutal beating. Eddie is arrested on suspicion of murdering his father and Maddie, feeling sorry for the family, decides to intervene to try to comfort them and make sure that Eddie is not mistreated or wrongly convicted for a crime she cannot believe he would have committed.

This brings me to the aspect of the book that I responded to most positively: that Maddie becomes involved not because she wants to snoop or out of a sense of danger, though she does exhibit a little of the latter as she gets deeper into the case, but because she has compassion for the family who live and work with her.

This is shown in the initial actions that she takes of trying to work out a way to expedite the release of the corpse to the family so that they can carry out the funeral rites and finding a lawyer to help Eddie come home to his family. What makes this approach feel so refreshing to me was because it feels truthful, simple and organic. I also appreciated the way it establishes and develops the novel’s central theme about how we experience and react to great losses because Maddie’s experience of losing her husband is part of what drives her to act.

Allen’s focus on that theme was, for me, the most successful aspect of the novel and I was fascinated by the various examples of characters who have suffered some loss and experience a rebirth or a new sense of purpose. In some cases this plays out quite subtly such as Maddie herself because when the novel begins she is already part way through that journey – in others it can be quite dramatic as when we learn more about the Anaya family’s past. This is variations on a theme but done very well with each subplot complementing the others.

Another aspect of the book that I think is successful is the author’s attention to historical and cultural details which feels authentic and quite on point. Some may quibble about the level of freedom that Maddie has at times, though I think Allen does address that by having her seek out her best friend to serve as a chaperone for some of the adventure. I do think that the background of the story feels very well conceived and I appreciated that she is able to give us some real locations and individuals without making it feel like a research project.

Unfortunately as much as I appreciated the themes and the setting, I cannot be quite so glowing about the novel as a piece of mystery fiction.

To be clear, I think the book is an entertaining read and I think the plot is clever and I appreciate that it is clearly developed out of the novel’s setting but there is little in the way of misdirection. Part of this reflects that the author spends a lot of time establishing the character and the dynamics of her household and circle of friends but I think the bigger problem is that almost all of the characters are ruled out as suspects from the beginning.

Even if you do work out the murderer’s identity you do still need to figure out how and why this has happened but here, once again, I think the attentive reader will be able to infer the solution quite early in the novel. This is a pity because there are some good ideas here and I think one aspect of the solution is quite neatly set up and revealed but I think the story would have benefited from devoting a little more time to building up the alternative killers.

While this frustrates me, I will say that this was not a deal killer. I found the book entertaining and enjoyed its setting and the way the author developed her ideas. I also liked that the novel ends on a cliffhanger, setting up a second volume nicely should this one prove to be a success. My hope is though that when that one does come out that a little more time will be given over to creating red herrings and alternative suspects to beef up the mystery element of the novel.

For those who like a dash of adventure in their mystery fiction or stories set in this time period or area of the world, I do think there is quite a lot to enjoy here.