It’s a Mystery: The Durham Deception, by Philip Gooden

The Durham Deception (Tom Ansell, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Victorian fascination with spiritualism and sensationalism provides the fodder for The Durham Deception, the second in Philip Gooden’s cathedral mystery series. Tom and Helen Ansell, introduced in book 1, have been married for only a few months when Helen’s mother asks them to pay a cautionary visit to Aunt Julia, who lives in Durham. Julia, it seems, is involved with a shady medium, Eustace Flask, who has been relying on her for financial assistance, and the hope is that Helen can show her the light, so to speak. To prepare for their journey, Tom and Helen attend a seance, during which one of the participants, a policeman, tries to reveal the medium as a fraud. The next day, the medium commits suicide and the officer and his wife are found dead in their home, apparently from a gas leak. Saddened but not suspicious, the Ansells depart for Durham, never expecting history to repeat itself.

This is a novel full of colorful characters. While the Ansells are rather conventional, most of the others in this tale are anything but. Eustace Flask is suitably tricky and smarmy. Major Sebastian Marmount, a legal client of Tom’s who resides in Durham, has left the army to become a magician. He is suitably pompous. What begins as professional competition between the two escalates to murder, in which a mysterious dagger from India plays a large part. The prime suspect, it seems, has ties to the murder in London. Gooden has gotten period ambience just right in his choices of names, themes, and depiction of class differences, social expectations, and excitement over new “scientific” discoveries and cultures. Comic relief is provided via ancillary characters, including Aunt Julia’s boarder, Flask’s “niece”, and Marmount’s assistants. Though enjoyable, comic relief is not strictly necessary as there is very little suspense, even when Helen falls into the clutches of the villain. Still, this is a well composed, intellectual mystery that saves a twist for the very end.

Incidentally, Durham Cathedral has very little to do with the story…

It’s a Mystery: The Burning Room, by Michael Connelly

The Burning Room (Harry Bosch, #19; Harry Bosch Universe, #22)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The name of Harry Bosch is synonymous in my mind with melancholy. When I first began reading these novels, I did so in the hope that Harry would find some happiness, somewhere, with someone special. Alas, that has not happened as of The Burning Room, number 17 in the series. Harry is an admirable protagonist, moral, compassionate, and willing to take the hard line when it’s called for. He deserves better than he’s gotten so far.

The Burning Room focuses upon two cold cases, one ten years old involving the shooting of a musician who has only now died of his wounds. The second involves Harry’s new partner, Lucy Soto, who is young but has already begun to make her mark in the police force. When Lucy was a child, she was present when her day care center was torched, resulting in the death of several of her teachers and classmates. In fact, Lucy became a cop because of her desire to find out who committed that arson.

Sometimes the Bosch novels are action-laden, and sometimes they’re more internal. The Burning Room is one of the latter. As a result, it’s more of a police procedural than anything else, so don’t look for suspense and drama here. As always, politics in the department and in LA play a major role. But watching Harry as he mentors Lucy, in whom he sees himself as a young detective, and as he ponders the whole of his career, is rewarding in itself. This novel ends in a mild sort of cliff hanger, though if you look at chronology of the series, it’s pretty clear what happens next.

On to the next installment, The Crossing.

View all my reviews

President Lincoln and Fido

Heather on History is one of my favorites among the blogs I follow. She’s running a series on presidential pets, many of which I remember. But I never knew that the Lincolns were once dog owners, so am reposting Heather’ s article for You’re History readers. Heeer’s Fido!

Presidential Pets: Abraham Lincoln’s Dog Fido

Abraham Lincoln’s dog Fido was the first presidential dog to be photographed. Lincoln had the photo taken in 1861 just before he left Springfield, Illinois for his presidential inauguration. He told his sons Tad and Willie that they could take the photo with them to Washington, but not the dog.

During his time in Springfield Fido was a great companion to Lincoln. The yellow-and-brown mutt accompanied Lincoln on errands and often waited outside the barbershop for him. Unlike his master, however, Fido wasn’t meant for public life. After Lincoln’s presidential nomination, local politicians came to the house and tried to greet Fido, who retreated under the family sofa. Fido also was less than enthused about the fireworks and cannons going off when his master won the election.

img_0902

Mary Lincoln was not a big fan of dogs and she was probably happy not to have to clean up after Fido anymore. Lincoln, however, loved dogs and made sure that Fido had a good home. Lincoln gave the dog to the Roll family who were friends and neighbors of the Lincolns and their children.

Before giving away his pet, Lincoln gave the Rolls strict instructions about Fido’s care. For example, Lincoln insisted that Fido never be punished for coming inside with muddy paws. He also wanted the dog to be allowed in the dining room where he could beg for table scraps. The Rolls were also given the Lincoln family sofa to make Fido feel more at home. It was his favorite place to sleep. Finally, the Rolls promised to give the dog back when the Lincolns returned to Springfield.

Fido was never reunited with his master, though he did watch the funeral procession in Springfield after Lincoln’s assassination. Several months later Fido ran away from the Roll’s home. John Roll wrote, “The dog in a playful manner put his dirty paws upon a drunken man sitting on the street curbing. In his drunken rage the man thrust a knife into the body of poor old Fido. So Fido, just a poor yellow dog was assassinated like his illustrious master.” The Roll children buried Lincoln’s beloved dog in their yard.

It’s a Mystery: The Lake House, by Kate Morton

The Lake House

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Readers who enjoy historical fiction, gothic mystery, and family saga would do well to check out the works of Australian novelist Kate Morton, who knows how to combine these elements into an intriguing tale. The Lake House is set in Cornwall, at the family home of the wealthy Edevanes, who like most families, have their share of secrets. Nevertheless, life has rolled along along quite smoothly until in 1933, at their traditional Midsummer Eve party, two year old Theo Edevane vanishes without a trace. Decades later, disgraced detective Sadie Sparrow, on leave for leaking details about a 2003 missing child case to the press, stumbles upon the abandoned house while walking her grandfather’s dogs. Sadie has a secret of her own that led to her lapse of good judgment. The story leapfrogs between past and present, with Sadie putting her investigative prowess into finding out just what happened to Theo. The reader learns about the back story from chapters narrated by the reclusive Eleanor Edevane, now a successful writer of mysteries.

This is a lengthy novel that could do with some paring down. The descriptions are effectively evocative, but there are a few too many of them. With all the bouncing between time periods, it was easy to lose track of the many threads and to forget who some of the various characters are. But this is a mystery with many strengths as well. The historical sections bring alive the first three decades of the century, particularly those dealing with the First World War and its aftermath. Life among the leisured class is also portrayed, with all that it entailed for women; Alice is a decidedly forward thinking young woman. There are many well devised theories about what happened to Theo, which the Edevanes do not share with one another. Ultimately, the mystery is resolved only when Sadie tracks down the now eighty year old Alice, and the pair pools their talents to uncover the truth. For me, the ending demanded too much credulity, tying up the story in a neat but “Oh, puleeeze!” kind of way. But until that moment, The Lake House was a pleasure in spite of its flaws.

View all my reviews

It’s a Mystery: The Janus Stone, by Elly Griffiths

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ruth Galloway is a skilled forensic archaeologist working in Norfolk, England, the site of many iron age and Roman settlements. Ruth is single, stubborn, and tough, and now, she’s pregnant. The father is Detective Harry Nelson, as stubborn and tough as Ruth, and married. As she’s struggling to decide if and when to tell him, Ruth is called to examine the skeleton of a child found buried under a doorway at a demolition site where Roman ruins have been uncovered. An ancient sacrifice to the god Janus, or the more recent burial of a murder victim? The case gets even more perplexing when a second child skeleton is unearthed, this one without its head, and when the skull is found in an old well, things become downright sinister.
elly-g-janusstone_hres-us-wpcf_275x415
Elly Griffiths has turned out a complex plot rich with intriguing characters, some recurrent and others case-related. Her Norfolk is a watery, frequently misty county with just the right atmosphere for a murder mystery and she seamlessly works in lots of mythology and folklore. The tension ramps up incrementally for both Ruth and Harry, personally and professionally, and there is no shortage of possible perpetrators with viable motives. The final chase scene is masterful. The book has one major flaw, in that even after being on the receiving end of multiple threats, the usually intelligent and rational Ruth continues to return to the dig site alone at odd hours of the day. But it’s worth overlooking in favor of enjoying a gripping first rate mystery.

View all my reviews

 

Biography: Insubordinate Spirit, by Missy Wolfe

Insubordinate Spirit: A True Story of Life and Loss in Earliest America 1610-1665
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of this study is a bit misleading. Yes, there is information on the life of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, but there is much more info on the 17th century Puritan experience in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York (Amsterdam). With respect to Elizabeth, there is a dearth of evidence about her day to day existence, and Missy Wolfe has unearthed a bit more with a few interesting personal letters and diaries written by “Bess” and her family, especially her eldest daughter. Especially elucidating are their exchanges with John Winthrop, Jr. who, as Ms. Wolfe described him, was a true “renaissance man”, scientist, medical specialist, political innovator, and man of reason. There are sections on the founding and development of Greenwich and Stamford, which came about only following lengthy wrangling between the English and Dutch over the borderlands between their respective colonies. In and amongst these sections, Wolfe manages to establish Elizabeth as an independent thinker who had the courage to resist conformity regardless of the personal hardships that the Puritan government visited upon her as a result.

Missy Wolfe is an amateur historian, and as such, she sometimes uses anachronistic language and repeats timeworn myths. Elizabeth, for example, didn’t “date”, and colonial women did not turn into torches because their home fires ignited their clothing as they worked over the flames. Still, there are things to be gleaned from this narrative, particularly in the many details about the Native Americans living in the Greenwich area during Elizabeth’s time there; Ms. Wolfe also provides information about some of the names in the town of today that are directly related to them. Pinpointing the location of her last dwelling site, on a promontory that stood above Hell Gate, is interesting as well. The author also fleshes out the personality of John Underhill, infamous for his part in the Pequot massacre. At the end of the book, she reports what is known about the lives of the descendants of the key figures in her narrative.

View all my reviews

Historical Fiction: Friends of the Wigwam, by John William Huelscamp

Friends of the Wigwam: A Civil War Story

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Friends of the Wigwam is the debut novel of Civil War historian John W. Heulskamp, who is particularly interested in forgotten heroes of that conflict. The first section of the book relates the formation the strong friendship of six young men and women, and follows their experience of the social and political friction that leads to the war’s outbreak. The fact that these characters are based upon real people increases the impact of this section, which is further enlivened by the appearance of such soon-to-be icons as Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and Ulysses Grant. As the plot moves forward into the heat of battle, poignant in itself, knowing the backstory of the friends makes reading of their struggles even more so. Perhaps my favorite character is Jennie (Allie) Hodges, who fought as fiercely and courageously as any man and whose true gender was never discovered during the war years, and it’s great that her contributions are now being recognized.

Wigwam is a promising debut, but it is clear that Mr. Heulskamp is a novice at writing fiction. Many of the passages are overly descriptive, for instance, and his choice of words (quaint hands, stout uniform) sometimes baffling. But practice makes perfect, and with his skill at research and plotting, those are flaws that can be corrected.

View all my reviews