It’s a Mystery: The Third Girl, by Nell Goddin

My rating: ⭐️⭐️ of five.

Forty-something, recently divorced Molly Sutton moves to a classic French village to begin a new life as the proprietor of a classic French gite (B&B). She falls in love with the ambiance and the villagers and already has some bookings. When a gifted English art student disappears, Those in town are especially worried, because two other young women disappeared a year or so earlier. Is there a serial killer living among them?

The gendarmerie begin investigating, but there is frustratingly little to go on. The narrative switches between the work of the three officers and Molly’s observations of the reactions of her new neighbors. There are a few moments of mild suspense, but basically The Third Girl fits snugly into the cozy genre. While there is plenty of conversation there isn’t much action. Surprisingly when the setting is in the south of France, the author frequently mentions the beauty and charm of the village without actually describing it. With the exception of Molly herself, the characters are rather bland, and Molly is prone to making iffy decisions based upon emotion. As for the mystery, there are no clues that could lead the reader to discover whodunnit.

Yawn.

Historical Fiction: Rags of Time, by Michael Ward

                                      
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thomas Tallant is a promising young spice merchant who has a lot going for him. After all, he is personable, intelligent, and handsome, his father owns a thriving spice business, and he enjoys working in the family trade. Returning to London from a buying trip to India, however,  he is shocked to find the city in a chaotic state. The religious and political struggles that will eventually explode into civil war are growing increasingly violent, and King Charles is too busy fighting with Parliament to intervene.  Expecting to return to business as usual, Tom soon finds himself named the prime suspect in the bizarre deaths of two business rivals. As the evidence mounts against him, he becomes desperate to clear his name, aided only by his best friend and a beguiling young woman whom he has only just met. 



Tom’s search for justice gives us a broad view of London society in the 1630’s – how to engage a Thames wherry man, attending opulent parties alongside powerful courtiers, political intrigue, crowded prison cells swamped in muck, tricks of the trade in falconry, the terrible inequalities of class.Ward clearly  knows how to research for historical detail. Particularly memorable sequences include “shooting” London Bridge; the descriptions of “taking the clergy” while pleading in a court of law, and of training falcons to hunt in pairs, were also diverting. The murder case itself is satisfyingly intricate. The thinness of the evidence against Tom makes one wonder how the accusation could be taken seriously, but because thr charges were made  by persons of influence, it was. (Some things never change.)

If you’re wondering what “rags of time” means, check out the poetry of John Donne. If you’re interested in murder mysteries set in historical times, check out Rags of Time.



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Historical Fiction: The Secret Supper, by Javier Sierra

 

 

 

My rating: 4 of 5 ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

 

The Secret Supper is  a mystery that involves my favorite topics, Renaissance art, Italy, religious history, symbols, codes, and conspiracy theories. It’s fashionable to bad-mouth The Da Vinci  Code on literary and religious grounds, but I enjoyed both book and movie, and I don’t rely upon novels to formulate my religious beliefs. The plot of the Secret Supper is in the same genre, focusing on DaVinci’s  other masterpiece, the Last Supper. Although much of the outstanding  art of the  Renaissance  was commissioned by the church to illustrate its orthodox teachings, many painters used artistic license to express ideas of their own. The Last Supper was highly controversial during its own creation, and The Secret Supper suggests what  some of those less mainstream ideas might be.

Chief inquisitor Agostino Leyre is dispatched to Milan to discover whether persistent allegations of heresy concerning Leonardo’s work are true. Father Agostino takes up lodging at the very monastery where The Last Supper is being created, but before he can launch a proper investigation, he must first solve a cryptic riddle that was provided by the accuser, the mysterious Soothsayer. Large segments of the story therefore involve learning about signs, symbols, codes, and numerology, during which the narration devolves into tutorials about hidden secrets and meanings.  The slower chapters are relieved by action sequences involving street scenes and  nefarious murders. It came  as a surprise when the history of the maligned Cathor religious movement became central to the plot, in quite a credible way. Less successful were the portrayals of Leonardo as having purely mystical intentions, and of a young Sforza countess as a direct descendent of Mary Magdalen.

Recommended for readers who enjoy complex mysteries and  intellectual puzzles, but not those who are super sensitive about religious dogma.

Books About Books: The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett

The Bookman’s TaleThe Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Books about books always grab my interest, and the addition of an English setting and a Shakespeare controversy made The Bookman’s Tale a must read. The story plays out along three different timelines, one contemporary, one Victorian, and one Elizabethan. All three involve the 1558 play Pandolfo, by Richard Green, which is widely accepted to be the source for A Winter’s Tale.

Nerdy American protagonist and ultimate bibliophile Peter Byerly, still reeling from the death of his wife, relocates to England, hoping to resume his career as an antique book dealer. When he happens upon a volume of Pandolfo, which contains marginalia that appear to have be written by Shakespeare himself, Peter can’t believe his luck and sets out to confirm its authenticity. This could have been a compelling adventure, full of danger and intrigue. And there is some of that. The problem is that the two back stories, relating the history of the owners of the Pandolfo volume and the history of Peter’s love affair with his wife, continually impede the momentum of the central premise. The historical details are about Pandolfo are interesting enough, but the love story is so schmaltzy that it swamps the mystery.

The Bookman’s Tale contains a lot of material that appealed to the bibliophile in me, but the book is more romance than  mystery .

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It’s a Mystery: The Body in the Dales, by J.R. Ellis

The Body in the Dales (Yorkshire Murder Mysteries, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Body in the Dales is the first entry in a mystery series by an author new to the scene, J.R. Ellis. Very much a police procedural, its setting, the cave riddled limestone hills and fields of the Yorkshire Dales makes for an intriguing crime scene. The experienced and cerebral CDI, Jim Oldroyd, a man both experienced and cerebral, is strong, well developed protagonist who relies upon hard facts and intuition to solve his cases, and expects his juniors to do the same. In this case, they don’t make the grade, and as characters, fall pretty flat. Most of the dialogue is stilted and sometimes incredibly simplistic. The novel’s other standout feature is the presentation of the cave system almost as a character itself. The author must have made a thorough study of this deep, dark, and dangerous underground world, and its hazards played a huge role in both the commission of the murder and in Oldroyd’s quest to find the killer. This aspect was unusual, hugely informative, and enjoyable, snagging and captivating my interest to the very end. It also prompted me do do some googling about the Dales and its limestone secrets, which resulted in pictures and information that enriched the story even further.

Off to check out the setting in the second book in this series.

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Modern Lit: The Child Finder, by Rene Denfeld

The Child Finder (Naomi Cottle, #1)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Naomi Cottle is a civilian investigator specializing in finding children who are missing and presumed by police to have been abducted. Like many PIs in this genre, she is dedicated to her work to the point of obsession, driven by her own personal demons. Naomi’s unique set of experience, insight, and motivation stems from her own childhood, when she made an escape from the clutches of a pedophile. Her current case centers on Madison, a little girl who disappeared 3 years ago into the wilds of Oregon when her family ventured out to find the perfect Christmas tree.
While most mysteries focus on procedural details, The Child Finder is quite different. Readers do follow Naomi’s search, but her reactions and thought processes are the focus. Interestingly, those of Madison and her abductor are also revealed in chapters describing how she tries to adapt to her strange, frightening new life. Her abductor is a trapper, a loner who has learned how to live under the radar, his point of view is also presented.
Though very dark, this is a novel about the resilience of the human spirit and its ability to survive terrible, incomprehensible circumstances. The writing is intelligent, controlled, and frequently luminous. As Naomi begins to recall more of her own horrific past, as the abductor recalls his own fearful childhood, and as Madison finds creative ways to sustain herself through her own fear, it becomes possible for the reader to develop a glimmer of understanding about how and why crimes such as this occur.
Not an easy read, but a worthwhile one.

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It’s a Mystery: Pieces of Her, by Karin Slaughter

Pieces of Her
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Andrea Cooper has never wondered much about her mom, Laura, a respected speech pathologist living in a cottage by the shore. Like most of us, from time to time she’d question her about her past, in a general sort of way, always pretty sure about the woman Laura was. Then came the day when their mother-daughter birthday lunch was interrupted by gunshots which take down two customers. Understandably terrified, Andrea cowers helplessly behind Laura, and is stunned to witness her mom coolly take charge of the scene by killing the shooter before he can murder anyone else. As the media frenzy and the police investigation ramp up, Laura forces her daughter to go on the run, providing her with a detailed plan, a burner phone, and a handgun. Don’t, she warns Andrea, even think about returning to the state until she calls her with the all clear.

Thus begins a saga in which a hapless, badly frightened, and insecure young woman embarks on a harrowing mission to discover who her mother really is, and, in the painful process, discovers herself. This enthralling tale bounces between two separate narratives, one gradually revealing the shocking details of Laura’s past, and the other chronicling Andrea’s own coming of age in the present. There are countless heart stopping, heart breaking moments for each as they grapple with and dodge the deadly fallout from events that occurred thirty two years ago, shortly before Andrea’s own birth.

In an era in which strong female protagonists are valued in novels, Karin Slaughter comes in with two. While Pieces has a complicated plot, the complexities of their personalities are just as engrossing, as are the positive changes that we witness evolving within them. What fills the novel with topical relevance is that the themes over which the decades-old conflict of the plot was waged are still threatening ordinary citizens in the present day. It’s always heartening when a best selling thriller author    writes cogently about things that really matter, in addition to providing good  entertainment.

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It’s a Mystery: Dark Crimes, by Michael Hambling

Dark Crimes (DCI Sophie Allen, #1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michael Hambling is a newish author on the venerable English Mystery scene, having first been published in 2016. Dark Crimes is the first in a series featuring DCI Sophie Allen, a brilliant Oxford graduate who has devoted her career to serving the public good through law enforcement. She is also devoted to her husband and their two adolescent daughters. Though billed as a thriller, this novel is presented more in the tradition of the classic police procedural, with subplots involving the personal lives of the investigative team. This opening salvo in the series, which is set in Dorset, focuses on the murder of a young woman in a small town, a crime that is quickly followed by the deaths of other women. After a false start, Sophie’s team soon theorizes that all of them have been committed by a single man, perhaps a psychotically violent one. The cat and mouse game that follows is only resolved as Sophie, who has a Master’s degree in psychology, develops insights into the whys and hows of this man’s functioning.

Readers looking for unending suspense and graphic violence will not find them here. What can be found is a strong, talented, and determined female protagonist who is the driving force behind the plot. Other characters, including investigators, perpetrators, and those who are affected by these murders are also well developed. A plus is following the investigation into the cities and byways of
Dorset, which like all English counties, has a personality of its own. This is a thinking reader’s mystery that ultimately reaches a deeply satisfying solution.

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It’s a Mystery : Not Here, by Genevieve Nocovo

Not Here (Dina Ostica Novel 1)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dina Ostica, a 23 year old woman trying not to let her emotional issues control her life, is not the sort of protagonist I would normally choose to read about. When author Genevieve Nocovo approached me about reading and reviewing Not Here, the first book in a planned series, after giving it some thought, I agreed. Dina at 23 couldn’t be more different than I was at that age, many moons ago. While I followed the traditional route of earning a college degree and starting a career, Dina seems to be floating about wondering how to support herself without doing much to at least secure an entry level position with a regular paycheck. Her desire to make a living as a podcaster without a day job is unrealistic, and while she tries to be fiercely independent, she is living alone, broke and somewhat desperate, which only exacerbates her emotional instability. Hence, she makes choices that only a very young, very inexperienced, and very immature person would make. This girl needs a mentor, since she seems disconnected from her parents and is stuck in a quagmire that spurs even more insecurity and desperation.

At any rate, Dina’s pursuit of a podcasting “scoop” that will attract major attention succeeds, but not in the way she had hoped. She tries to expose a conspiracy run by a major real estate firm, aimed at getting rid of tenants living in rent controlled apartments by offing them, so the newly vacant flats can be rented at today’s much higher rates. To make matters worse, when she goes to the police, they brush off her concerns. As a result she is kidnapped and forced to work with the conspirators, knowing that when her usefulness runs out she will be killed. It is at this point in the novel that the action quickens, the suspense builds, and the reader’s interest level shoots up. Watching how Dina copes with her plight, basically alone and relying on her own resources (fortunately she trains at a gym learning self defense techniques, and where she has made a couple of friends who can help.) Her plight is truly horrific, and your heart, while stuck in your throat, goes out to her.

Not Here is a competently written debut novel, and surely its sequel will be even better, as the author hones her skills and ups the sophistication of her prose and presentation.

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It’s a Mystery: Dark Turns, by Cate Holahan

Dark Turns
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Nia Washington is a 22 year old ballet dancer recovering from an injury and a romantic breakup. She takes a temp position at a posh private school as assistant to the director of their elite dance program, until she’s strong enough to returning to auditioning for pro companies. Nia’s very first day on the job is marred by her discovery of a student’s body floating in the campus lake, apparently strangled. Dark Turns focuses upon the aftermath, as she tries to glean some insight into who might have committed the murder.

As a mystery, Dark Turns reads rather like a novel for teens and young adults. Nia is a likeable, earnest young woman who enjoys her contact with the students in her class. The other adults in the book come across according to type, including the school’s stern director, the officious head of campus security, and the local “just the facts, Ma’am” police. Somewhat more natural is Nia’s new love interest, Peter Anderson, English teacher. Scattered liberally through each chapter are explanations of dance terms, description of dancers, dances, and costumes, and details about the relationships among Nia’s students. The plot line is stretched pretty thin, and there is little attention paid to developing any of the characters. Also scattered about are thinly-veiled “tells”, from which the reader can can come up with a viable suspect but Nia apparently cannot.

Dark Turns would probably be better appreciated by teens, dance aficionados, and mystery readers who expect a more complex tale.

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