Category Archives: Historical mysteries

THE HOUSE BETWEEN THE TIDES … by Sarah Maine (2016) Originally published as BHALLA STRAND (2014)

 

house tidesbhalla strand

Scottish Island Fiction

I am always looking for new books to read especially if they fall under the category of Scottish Island fiction – a  favoured topic  I’ve been pursuing for many years.  Recently a  review of THE HOUSE BETWEEN THE TIDES caught my attention because it has all the elements I enjoy in my preferred  novels but there was something strangely familiar about it.  As it turns out I had read this book a couple of years ago under its previous title – BHALLA STRAND.  I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t written about it back then but I decided to give it a reread.  My library only had a copy of BHALLA STRAND but the author says on her website that they’re the same book.  A quick gander at some reviews informed me that she changed the name of the house from Bhalla House to Muirlan House in its latest incarnation, but I will say Bhalla House because that is the name of the manor in the copy I now physically hold in my hands.

This is a dual narrative novel with Bhalla House, on an Outer Hebridean Island, being the  link between the two stories.  In the modern account (2010), Hetty has just buried her last living relative – her Grandmother – and subsequently finds herself the owner of an old estate on a sparsely populated Scottish Island.  She is bombarded with advice but most of her counsel is provided by individuals with self-serving interests.  One group – led by her sometime boyfriend – has ideas of making Bhalla House a hotel and playground for the very rich.  Another interested party has warned her that the estate is far too dilapidated to save.  Oh yes, there is a little matter of the skeletal remains found in the foundation.  She is confused by the conflicting advice but she arranges to visit the island and do some research of her own.

In 1910, a newly married Theo Blake, a renowned artist, is bringing his bride to Bhalla house for the first time. He sees his much younger wife as a delicate creature and he is afraid that she won’t love the island and the house as much as he does.  On the contrary, she adores the island; the wildlife, the clean air, the beauty, the ocean and natural plant life.  But the house she finds damp and gloomy and Theo won’t hear of her plans to brighten it up with paint.  It is also filled with dead things (stuffed and mounted but dead)  There are grievances still simmering among the Island people, many of them were cleared out of their homes by Theo’s father in another generation, so he could build Bhalla house.  During the summer, Theo and Beatrice entertain several groups of guests: mostly hunting enthusiast with bored wives.  Many of the birds shot or collected are endangered and this infuriates the factor’s son and it is a source of more tensions.  These underlying tensions and unexpected alliances prove to have consequences that will still be significant in Hetty’s time.

Hetty comes across as someone who is easily manipulated – at first.  But she grows. She is still young and she is without a single family member to support her ( a tough spot to be in )

The concern for the birds really caught my interest.  At one point Beatrice was attempting to keep Theo from finding out about a pair of divers setting up a nest on an island loch, before he could stuff and mount them.  I did a wee bit of research and I  discovered the divers are the same bird a Canada’s loons.  We love our loons (we even put them on our money) and their call truly is haunting. This is just me learning something. Yeh.

I enjoyed both the storylines and I found Maine’s descriptions of the Island  captured the untamed beauty splendidly.  Giving a house such a central role isn’t new (Thornfield Hall, Manderley, Tara, ) but it works.   This novel has mystery suspense, romance in a beautiful setting – a lovely novel.

Now I must explain why I didn’t write about this book when I first read it a few years ago because I do remember now.  I read three books, around the same time, that were set on Scottish Islands. All three books involved turning an old estate into a holiday home of some sort.  And (here’s the big one) all three books began with the discovery of human remains on the property.  But I can see, with hindsight, that despite those similarities they were all unique stories.*

See also *

THE SEA HOUSE  by Elizabeth Gifford (2013)

NIGHT WAKING by Sara Ross (2011)

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PLAGUE LAND (2014),THE BUTCHER BIRD (2015)…by S.D. Sykes

BUTCHERPLAGUE LAND

HISTORICAL FICTION

Before I have my say on these two books, I would like to introduce three quotes that I believe to be relevant to today’s books.

All great changes are preceded by chaos. Deepak Chopra

Without a struggle there can be no progress. Frederick Douglas

Any change is resisted because bureaucrats have a vested  interest in the chaos in which they exist. Richard Nixon

So I think I will be discussing change.

In 1350 England was a changed country. Between one-third and one-half of the population had been wiped out by the plague and the survivors were living in fear and accompanied by grief. The plague years had not been productive and many citizens were also starving to death. And the great manor houses had not been unaffected. Young Oswald was recalled from his situation in the monastery when the Lord of the manor, the heir, and the spare suddenly and quickly succumbed to the plaque. I am referring, of course, to his father and two older brothers. Oswald was probably not well suited for the job ahead of him – he had been in the monastery since the age of seven, and at 19 he had no practical training.  England was still operating under the feudal system (fortunately the author explains that a little in the glossary) but all was not running smooth. So many people had died that the able bodied labourer had become quite precious. It was a matter of supply and demand. Laws had been in existence for centuries that bound the various levels of tenants, serfs etc. to the manor house and the wages were also set in stone. But fields needed to be harvested and if someone else was willing to pay more coin in the next county then the labourers might think about relocating. Lord and labourer would both be breaking the law but the number of sheriff’s men had also been reduced in the Plague years. Desperate times bring desperate measures and all that. And young Oswald had more problems…After finding a murdered girl he needed to find the culprit and deal with the priest that was telling everyone that “dog head’ creatures are doing the killing to avenge their sins.

Both these novels center on a murder and throughout the investigations Oswald is hampered by the superstitions and beliefs of those involved.He also needs to appease his narcissist mother and sour sister (although I think I would have been “sour” too if I had been a woman in those times.)

I enjoyed reading both these book for the insight into a difficult time and because I like a whodunnit.

 

PLAGUE LAND by S.D. Sykes (2014) Hodder & Stoughton 324 pages

THE BUTCHER BIRD by  S.D. Sykes (2015) Hodder & Stoughton 336 pages

 

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World War 1 Mystery Series part 3

Capturewent waterafterlionMy last few blog entries have revolved around mystery series set during (or in the aftermath) of World War 1.  I would like to continue that theme with this post about three mystery series that may be of interest to anyone who appreciates historical mystery fiction of this era. All three of these mystery series take place after the war  but they all incorporate elements of he war, and in some cases the actual answer to the mystery can be found directly in something that happened during the war. All of the novels on this page feature strong, intelligent women as the main characters

Daisy Dalrymple is a character created by Carola Dunn with her first adventure being “DEATH AT WENTWATER COURT” (1994) and then followed by 20 more entries. The reader will learn early in the first novel that Daisy was the privileged child of an Earl but after the war (and because of the war) her circumstances changed dramatically.  Her beloved brother Gervais died during the fighting and was buried somewhere in France. Her father died immediately following the war from the Spanish Flu. The Dalrymple money and estate were entailed and thus it was left to a distant cousin. Daisy’s fiance was a Quaker and a “conscientious objector” but he worked as an ambulance driver near the front and he was also killed. To keep busy (and to make money) Daisy began to write successful magazine articles.  Her stories on the” Grand Old Estates” allowed for her to travel. In the first novel Daisy meets an interesting fellow – DCI Fletcher, himself a widower after his wife died from the Spanish Flu. Oh yeah…..and there’s a murder. These novels, although the subject matter can be intense, tend to be more like a cozy and less gritty than some other series of this era.

The next series is actually one of my favourites during this era–the DANDY GILVER series by Catriona McPherson  with the first entry being “After the Armistice Ball (2005). This  first novel is set among the struggling upper classes, in the aftermath of World War 1. We meet a character named Alex who has just inherited an estate , even though he was a second son. His older brother died in the war. A lot of things just aren’t the way they were meant to be. Dandy and Alex become WORK partners and I just love their witty banter, and the droll insight. They are at their absolute best when their  investigations bring them to areas of Scotland where the superstitions and customs may seem ridiculous but they’re brilliant at separating the chaff from the wheat. And the war does figure directly in some of the entries, for example, they have a case that involved a “conchie”–that would be slang for conscientious objector. In one telling but simple scene, Dandy is talking to a woman about her  own school age sons and, without thinking she asks the woman if she has sons. She realised her mistake immediately as the woman’s face crumpled in on itself.  After the war a person NEVER asked a stranger about their sons. This series has 10 titles.

Jade del Cameron is  another strong female character written by Suzanne Arruda with the first entry of the series called “THE MARK OF THE LION”(2006) Jade was an ambulance driver during WW1 where her pilot boyfriend downed his plane very near to where she was working. His dying wish was for her to travel to Africa and find his illegitimate brother. In truth I found this to be more of an “African Adventure series ” rather than a “WW1” series but an interesting read all the same.

I am very excited about my next blog post–I will be combining two of my favourite elements of fiction.  I love fiction about Scottish Islands, I have written many blogs about this subject in past posts.  And I also love World War 1 fiction so I am going present some Scottish Island fiction set during World War1.

 

 

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World War 1 Fiction—–Mystery Series (Part two)

spellerIn World War 1 they called it “shell shock” in Wold War ll they called it “battle fatigue”, and now they refer to it as” PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)” but whatever the label it was definitely clear after WWI that not all wounds were physical. I bet there were more than a few traumatized soldiers who would have liked to punch Friedrich Nietzsche in the nose — that would be the pinhead who came up with “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”  um, I don’t think so. (actually Nietzsche died in1900) My point is that a lot of men came home from this war at a time when mental problems were considered weaknesses and instead of receiving much needed support they were shunned and stigmatized. Some men left for the war as strong, self-sufficient, family breadwinners—-and returned as broken versions of themselves and a burden to their loved ones. Many of the survivors returned with missing limbs and many had compromised lungs from the  mustard gas. At times it was a sad “welcome home” after 5 years of hell to find no job vacancies. Many of the novels that grace these pages cover some of these atrocities and more. These pages are my tribute to mystery series set  during WW1 and its aftermath. Many of these mysteries have their roots in WW1, even if they are being investigated many years later.

“THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN JOHN EMMETT” by Elizabeth Speller (Houghton, Miffin, Harcourt 2012)  Lawrence Bertram series #1. .  Lawrence Bertram is having difficulty adjusting  to a “normal” life after the war especially since he has recently lost his wife and infant son.  Into his life comes the sister of his childhood  friend asking him to look into her brother’s suicide. His investigation leads him to his old friend’s army buddies and he finds things more complicated than he originally imagined. This is an interesting mystery with a likable main character.  I would like to mention the sad but lovely prologue featuring the wives, mothers, children, sweethearts and relatatives of lost soldiers watching the train carrying “The Unknown Soldier” to his final resting place in London.The crowds were silent or quietly sobbing , each person wondering if that could be my boy!!! The second book in the series is called “The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton” (Houton, Miffin, Harcourt 2013)  In this book Lawrence finds himself in a village that has been totally wiped out of young, able bodied men. So far there are only two books in the series  but Elizabeth Speller released a stand-alone novel about WW1 this year called ‘THE FIRST OF JULY’. (Pegasus, 2014) and this novel is set in the trenches. I will not comment on this novel because I have not read it.

I had hoped to cover more series in this post but I kind of yammered on a bit. I have more so I will release a new post in the next couple of days.  It will be Part 3!

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World War 1 and Mystery Fiction Series

maisie I love mystery series – I suppose that started with Nancy Drew – but I still watch closely to see when my favourite authors are ready to release the next entry in their series. I will stalk them on the internet and the new release section of my library hoping to get near the beginning of the queue. I like to see the characters grow and change and develop and sometimes they even encounter set-backs. (It has just crossed my mind that Nancy Drew is not at all like that – she was always 18, dating Ned Nickerson and palling around with Bess.)

The first series is MAISIE DOBBS …By Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press, 2003) Maisie is a woman who is easy to admire. She spent many of her early years “in service ” until one day she was caught by the lady of the house using the library.  This transgression might have resulted in immediate dismissal but instead the lady took an interest in Maisie and her informal education had begun.  She went on to a more formal education but at the onset of WW 1 she trained to be a nurse (lying about her age). She saw many years service at the front lines in France. The novel actually begins in 1929 as Maisie is opening her office as an “Inquiry agent and Psychologist” but her cases constantly bring her back to the war and her earlier years are usually recounted as a flashback memory.. She deals with shell-shocked soldiers and many injustices that still stem from the war. She also manages to straddle the world of the upper and lower classes . Personal grief, depression, anxiety are all examined in the books. The Maisie Dobbs books now number 10—-in order MAISIE DOBBS 2003, BIRDS OF A FEATHER 2004, PARDONABLE LIES 2005, MESSENGER OF TRUTH  2006, AN INCOMPLETE REVENGE 2008, AMONG THE MAD 2009, THE MAPPING OF LOVE AND DEATH 2010, A LESSON IN SECRETS 2011, ELEGY FOR EDDIE 2012, LEAVING EVERYTHING MOST LOVED 2013. I highly recommend these novels. In a side note—-Jacqueline Winspear did not write a Maisie Dobbs book this year but instead she came out with s stand-alone (also about WW1) but I didn’t like it. Unfortunately I can not tell you why because it would be a spoiler. But rest assured Jacqueline Winspear fans, it was well reviewed by the REAL press. It is called THE CARE AND MANAGEMENT OF LIES 2014.

Another series I like also features a WWI . nurse.  The books are by Charles Todd and feature a British nurse–Sister Bess Crawford. The first novel begins on Tuesday 21 November, 1916, 8:00 am aboard the HMHS (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) Britannic. Britannic had been requisitioned as a hospital ship with the onset of WWI and was travelling to collect wounded from Greek Macedonia, Palestine, and Mesopotania. The time and the date are important because 12 minutes later, at 8:12 a.m. an explosion rocked the ship. (Probably a mine)  Fifty five minutes later the Britanic was lost beneath the sea. The Britannic had been the sister ship of the Titanic and many improvements had been undertaken so this ship could avoid the fate of the Titanic. Unfortunately simply human error was probably responsible for the quick sinking; the nurses had opened all the portholes on the fresh and breezy day to air out the chambers. There were adequate lifeboats (unlike the Titanic) and the final death toll was 30 lives. Even these  lives could have been spared but several lifeboats left before the captain called”abandon ship” and they were swept into the propellor. This is a fairly accurate account of the sinking of the Britannic – I know , I researched it–(Okay, okay I googled it)   And then the fiction…..Our heroine Bess is sent home to recover from a broken arm and she uncovers a mystery. I almost did not read this novel because of the author. Charles Todd—-I just had to wonder what a man could know about the emotions of a frontline nurse. Well guess what…Charles Todd is the pen name of a MOTHER and SON writing team.The first book is A DUTY TO THE DEAD 2009, AN IMPARTIAL WITNESS 2010, A BITTER TRUTH 2011, AN UNMARKED GRAVE 2012, A QUESTION OF HONOUR 2013, AN UNWILLING ACCOMPLICE 2014. One of the books deals pretty heavily with that other enemy–the spanish flu.

Charles Todd also writes a series featuring WWl veteran Inspector Ian Rutlege. I have read some good reviews BUT I have not read themduty to the

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Maisie Dobbs…by Jacqueline Winspear (2003)

I am continuing to write my blogs about fictional novels set during WWI including the prewar and post war  years. These books  feature strong female characters and the stories of people and families as opposed to say –military strategy. I explained in my blog on December 21, 2011 my reasons for wanting to visit this time in historical fiction.

“MAISIE DOBBS” is the first book in a series written by Jacqueline Winspear. There are presently 8 books in the series and each book deserves its own discussion but for the purpose of this blog entry I will just be discussing the series as a series.

Maisie is an exceptional character because she  manages to straddle the worlds of the upper and lower classes.  She begins her life in very limited circumstances in London around the turn of last century. Her beloved father makes the difficult decision to put her “in service”when she is only 13 years old because he thinks it will be a more comfortable life for her.  Maisie thinks she will be fired when her employer discovers her utilizing her library but instead, The Lady is impressed and decides to assist with Maisie’s education. Maisie’s education progresses for many years but WWI changes everything and everyone and Maisie lies about her age to become a nurse.

In 1929, Maisie opens her own office as an “Inquiry Agent and psychologist”.  The people in her life and the cases she examines are always  affected by the war even some 13 years later.  Maisie is also affected by the war and has to deal with some horrible memories.

If there is a reoccurring theme in the MAISIE DOBBS books it is  INJUSTICE.  Through her cases and the other characters in the books Maisie deals with some pretty hefty issues. 

 Many of the soldiers that fought for their country and sustained injuries are being forgotten by their country.  Some of the shell-shocked soldiers are being ignored. The depression of the 1930’s has people starving yet there are people with scads of money to waste.  And people are nervously watching this upstart named Hitler as he comes to power in Germany.

  Personal grief, depression and anxiety are all examined in the books. And through it all Maisie crosses  through many barriers. She is a professional  woman in a predominately male world and a lower class kid with lots of ties in the upper classes.

Maisie’s methods are also interesting.  She is a student of some Eastern arts like meditation and she believes in the power of intuition.

These books are character-driven and provide a fascinating look at the time-period.  Sometime they are a little dark but I highly recommend them.

Maisie Dobbs  (2003) by Jacqueline Winspear

SOHO press, New york

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The Dark Enquiry…by Deanna Raybourn

Historical Mystery, Fiction

This is the story of a married couple.  The wife is deeply in love with her darkly handsome, olive skinned husband and she wants to be part of his career.  She wears disguises and follows him, and she tries crazy experiments that blow up, oh and they also make wagers with each other.  He loves her but she really can frustrate him and………hey wait a minute……..I know this couple………it’s Lucy and Ricky!

Actually, it is the fifth book in the Lady Julia series, a wonderful Victorian mystery series featuring witty Lady Julia and her handsome complicated husband Nicholas Brisbaine.  This book begins with Julia and Nicholas visiting a “Spirit Club” These clubs were popular among the “ton” in the Victorian age. The mediums  in the clubs offered hope to participants that they could reach their dearly departed loved ones.  A good   setting  for a mystery!

The characters in these books are great. Julia has nine siblings  and each book involves some of them.  This installment we learn a little bit more about Brisbaine”s  background.  For those people new to this series, the first book is called “Silent in the Grave”

MIRA Books 2011

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Death Was the Other Woman…by Linda L. Richards (2007)

Mystery, Historical Mystery                                                                                                                                                                                 

This is a book that sat on my for later shelf for a long time because I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. I thought it was a hard-boiled detective novel and I didn’t want to read an entire book as seen through the eyes of a boozy,weary and cynical Private Investigator . But this book has a twist. The narrator is a gently raised young lady who works for a boozy,weary and cynical P.I. 

 On October 29, 1929 Katherine  Pangborn is yanked out of Miss Beeson’s Finishing School for Young Ladies and told her father has committed suicide and  she is poor. Good-bye. She needs to find a job but her skills include  flower arranging and planning dinner parties.  She meets a man named Mustard, while pawning her late mother’s jewelry, and he sets her up as a secretary for P.I. Dexter Theroux.

Two years later she is Still working for Dex, clacking the typewriter to look busy, when a Client walks through the door.  And then the adventure begins.

Katherine is just the right mix of Finishing school proper and street smarts. And she is more of a baby-sitter than a secretary since her boss’s alcoholism leaves him unreliable.  Yet he is  sympathetic and likable character even though he is trying to drown his memories of WWI in a bottle. The demons he must face from the trenches in France are unimaginable.

This is so NOT a hard-boiled detective story that I think fans of traditional crime noir would be disappointed.  This isn’t gritty and there is no sex (explicit or implied). It would probably be more appropriate for fans of the cozy mysteries.

I loved it and hope to read the sequel soon.

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Instruments of Darkness….by Imogene Robertson

Historical Mystery, Regency Mystery

(2011, Pamela Dorman Books, Viking)

I suppose it is probably pretty obvious that I am a fan of historical Mysteries, and if they are in a series-well that is even better.  INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS is the first book in a new series that now numbers three books.  The heroine is a ship captain’s wife; a woman who spent many years at sea with her husband but , since the arrival of children, she has been running the family estate; a stay at home mom circa 1780 with wet nurses and servants. She is a no-nonsense person who has run this estate profitably.  Her neighbour is a gentleman recluse, a man who has rejected his own noble title and instead he stays at home and studies human  anatomy among other things. His name is Gabriel Crowther and he is  more at home with the company of dead things.

The sea captain’s wife (Mrs. Harriet Westerman) discovers a dead body on her property and she immediately seeks the assistance of her reclusive neighbour. They become a team as they try to unravel this mystery. Along the way they encounter a misplaced heir. The American war of Independence figures in to the plot and the action moves between a country estate and London. Harriet and Gabriel make an interesting pair of amateur sleuths and the murder mystery is satisfying.  We see small glimpses into Gabriel’s past that hints at why he is such a hermit.

The second book in the series is called ANATOMY OF MURDER  and there is also a third book called ISLAND OF BONES. The third book is available at bookstores but it is not yet available at my library.  I am in queue and look forward to receiving it to read.

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A Crimson Warning……by Tasha Alexander (2011, St. Martins Press)

A book review….Historical Mystery…Victorian Fiction…..Series…

I love historical mysteries, I love Victorian fiction, and I love fiction featuring strong female characters. Bingo! This is the seventh book in the Lady Emily Series and the reader is rewarded with an engaging mystery while being reunited with many of the characters from previous books in the series.  At the beginning of the book it becomes clear that many members of  the “ton”   (aristocracy )  are   being targeted by some deranged individual, determined to  reveal deep dark secrets about the targets.  The upper echelon of society is in a tizzy as friends, neighbours and  acquaintance regard each other with mistrust.    Invitations to balls are withdrawn, betrothals are ended, and family members stop communicating. Red paint splashed on the front door at night is a signal  that a secret lies within the house.

Along with the red paint case,Emily’s husband is investigating the death of a fine and fair-minded businessman when someone starts to threaten his fiancée. The  fiancée ( Cordilia) is in deep mourning and has no idea what the blackmailer wants.   It is soon clear Colin and Lady Emily are working together on a murder (He is an agent of the crown)….yet sometimes he must work alone. These various threads come together as the book progresses.

Sometimes I find Lady Emily is a little too perfect–beyond the fact that she is usually instrumental in solving the case–she speaks many languages (studies Homer in the original greek), collects and then donates rare antiquities,works for women’s rights and the rights of the impoverished–oh yes , and she looks smashing in a Mr. Worth gown. But this is the seventh book I have read in the  series so I like the books and maybe I am just a little jealous of Emily.    Of course  she manages this all within a very confining Victoria society.  You go girl, Emily!

Enjoyable read and very worthwhile series.

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Fans of this series should definitely try  the Lady Julia series by Deanna Raybourne.

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