Tag Archives: historical mystery

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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IN THIS GRAVE HOUR by Jacqueline Winspear (2017) …A Maisie Dobbs Novel

in this grave hour

Mystery Fiction

Historical Fiction

“In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.  For the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war. ” — The opening lines of a speech given by King George Vl of England, on the day it was announced that England was at war with Germany. (September 3, 1939)

 The 13th novel in the MAISIE DOBB’S series begins with Maisie rushing to the home of her dearest friend Priscillia, so they can listen to the Prime Minister’s announcement on the wireless: war has been declared. This is a time period the British often refer to as the “phoney war”, or Churchill’s term “the twilight war” where nothing much happens on land, involving the Allies,  for about eight months – ( although the seas are a different matter). The children of London are evacuated to country homes and the adults of London must carry gas masks and adhere to strict blackout rules. The initial  chaos contributes to the cases that Maisie must confront since the police force,  and the bureaucrats are overburdened.  Maisie is employed to investigate the murder of a man who was a Belgium refugee in the first war and she also attends to a little girl who is an evacuee with a mysterious background.

Fans of this series will remember that the first novel (MAISIE DOBBS, 2003) began in 1929 with Maisie, also a psychologist, opening her inquiry agency.  Many of the early cases had seeds in the first war and many of the characters were physically or mentally wounded by that war. But there was also healing and new life.  It is therefore terribly heartbreaking that many of the children that offered up hope throughout the series are now eligible to fight in the new war. And here is what separates a series from a stand-alone novel; the reader may become totally invested in the characters in a series. I thought the last book ( JOURNEY TO MUNICH, 2016) was the weakest in the entire collection but I still wanted more Maisie (and friends).

The author manages to convey an overall sense of incredulity among the older characters that there is – indeed – another war.  And some acceptance.  But the younger characters – meaning those who weren’t yet born during the 1st war or those who were too young to remember – often display a sense of excitement.

Overall I felt this was maybe not the best entry in this series – but it was good – and I will look forward to reading about the next chapter in Maisie’s life.

IN THIS GRAVE HOUR, a Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear, (2017), Harper Collins, 332 pages.

 

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HIS BLOODY PROJECT by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015)

Fiction

project

This novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and, although it didn’t win, the nomination will give the novel oodles of exposure. It’s a historical thriller that is a little difficult to categorize but the author himself has said it’s “a novel about a crime rather than a crime novel” That sounds right. The multiple perspective format allows the reader to almost be the detective; taking in the information and sifting through the often contradictory evidence.

This is not a whodunnit since we learn almost immediately that the protagonist -a youth by the name of  Roderick Macrae – had readily admitted to the killing of three people in his Scottish Highland crofting community in 1869. But why? Roddy’s advocate (lawyer) tasks him with writing an account of his life and the circumstances proceeding  the murders along with details of the actual killings.  The resulting narrative is a grim and gloomy representation of a life saturated with hopelessness where the churchy types embrace providence -” it is the will of God”- sort of thinking.  The death of his mother and then the wrath of a bully-man add further darkness to an already bleak existence.

Roddy’s personal narrative accounts for over half of the novel but there are other perspectives to consider. The reader is privy to the court proceedings, newspaper stories, medical and coroner’s report, character assessments, and other cronicles. An expert on lunacy examines Roddy and gives testimony that might have been darkly funny if it hadn’t been so disturbing.

Of course nothing is straight forward…and that is the point, I think.  Extenuating circumstances — maybe —maybe not!

I found this to be a fascinating and rewarding novel.

HIS BLOODY PROJECT Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae… by Graeme Macrae Burnet   Contraband Publishing (2015) 288 pages

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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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MURDER AT THE BRIGHTWELL….by Ashley Weaver (Minotaur Books 2014)

brightwell

A MURDER MYSTERY

This is a delightful murder mystery reminiscent of the work of Agatha Christie and primarily set in an upscale British seaside resort during the 1930’s. Lots of fun characters (suspects?) and a dead body or two, along with some complicated relationships, amateur sleuthing and a few interesting subplots — what more could  a fan of the British cozy mystery want? The witty banter between husband and wife, Amory and Milo, is more Nick and Nora Charles than Christie but their relationship is a little more complicated. Five years earlier Amory chose to marry the cad over the gentleman– and wouldn’t you know it–both are at the Brightwell (one by design and one by surprise) I sincerely hope that this is the first in a series because I just want MORE. I am already casting the characters, in my head, for the film version. Wonderful book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Historical Mystery

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a delightful Mystery featuring 11-year-old Flavia de Luce in 1950 England. I will describe Flavia but first  I would like to relate an anecdote about my own daughter. Years ago she was driving me crazy-I thought I  had bred the she-devil herself and then a wise person gave me some very good advice. She asked me to list words to describe my daughter-I did. Then she had me take that list and counter each negative word with a positive word, for example stubborn became determined and selfish became confident. And that is the story of how my stubborn, argumentative, selfish and unmanageable daughter became my determined, assertive, confident and independent daughter.  And here is my point; Flavia is a feisty,  independent, brilliant, and creative young lass. (and not a brat). She lives with her widowed father and her two sisters in a grand but decaying old mansion.  The family is “old money” but the money is mostly gone and the sisters are left  to raise themselves since father spends most his days studying his vast stamp collection. The estate also includes a shell-shocked gardener and a hopelessly incompetent housekeeper. And then a body appears on the doorstep. Father is implicated and Flavia goes to work uncovering the murderer. She is a self-taught chemist who uses her abilities to expose the culprit. The plot has some interesting twists and turns  and unfolds with a clever outcome.  This is the first of  four books with more likely to follow. Some of the background (like the mystery of the mother’s death) is revealed a little in each novel.

The other books in the series….                                                                                                                                                                             

The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag  (2009)

A Red Herring Without Mustard (2011)

I Am Half-sick of Shadows (2011)

I highly recommend that this series be read in order. These are delightful books with an interesting and original heroine.

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BOG BODIES…. otherwise known as my bog blog

Yes this is a book review but I thought it was timely since Halloween is just around the corner. Bog bodies are actual human bodies discovered in Peat bogs in Northern Europe. They can be thousands of years old but they are well-preserved by the naturally occurring conditions  in the earth; acidic water, low temperatures and lack of oxygen. They have allowed scientists to uncover a wealth of information regarding the food, health and customs of early man and some of  these bodies have  undeniably  been murdered……talk about a cold case! The corpses are usually discovered while the peat is being cut to use as fuel.

Bog Bodies are the focus of a series of books by Erin Hart; HAUNTED GROUND (2003) LAKE OF SORROWS(2004) and FALSE MERMAID(2010). The setting for these books is primarily Ireland although the third book has some action in America.  Nora Gavin is a pathologist and Cormac Maguire is an archeologist and they are called in as a team to investigate when a body is found.(Are they a couple……?) What follows in each book is an old mystery and a new mystery interwoven along with plenty of Irish folklore and legends. In the third book the cold case murder of Nora’s own sister  takes center stage.  I love these books but it seems as though Hart writes in spurts and thus far no new title has been announced.

 If you want to see a bog body 2,000 -year-old Lindow man (often referred to as Pete Marsh) is on display at the British museum.

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