Book Review: An Untimely Frost–Lilly Long Mysteries by Penny Richards

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Orphaned at eleven and raised in the theater, Lilly Long has not known anything but make-believe and role playing. After she is jilted by her husband—who steals both her innocence and her savings—Lilly decides she’s going to defend the many other helpless women in the world. To do this, she sets out to become a Pinkerton. Headstrong and determined, Lilly does whatever it takes to win over Allan Pinkerton and his two sons. She is conditionally brought on, and her first case is, on the surface, a simple one: locate a missing family—a local pastor, his wife, and their children.

When Lilly arrives in 1880s Vandalia, Illinois, she assumes that she’ll be able to wrap up her case quickly and return home triumphant. What she finds is a town that clamps down in an antagonistic silence at the mere mention of the Pastor or his family. Lilly is forced to draw on all her theater experience to wiggle her way into the fabric of a town whose wounds are close to the surface, and whose scars are still too tender to be dealt with. Beyond Vandalia’s resistance, Lilly begins to have concerns with a boxer who seems to be shadowing her every move. As the stakes, and threats on her life, rise, she begins to wonder if the two are connected.

Penny Richards has written a fun, feisty protagonist in Lilly Long. The prose is crisp and the tempo paces nicely to a finish that sees Lilly needing every bit of her cunning. The motives for the family’s disappearance and subsequent crimes I felt were a bit odd, but those did not impact the overall book. A nice read beside the pool.

Review originally appeared in the Historical Novels Review August 2016

Book Review: These Honored Dead by Johnathan Putnam

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A young store owner and an up-and-coming lawyer start a lifelong relationship in Jonathan Putnam’s These Honored Dead. Joshua Speed runs a general store in Springfield, Illinois. When he’s asked if he has room for a new man in town to bunk with him, Speed reluctantly agrees to share his bed—not an unusual circumstance in a town with too few rooms for bachelors to bunk down—with the young lawyer. But when Speed sees the tall, lanky Abraham Lincoln for the first time, he begins to question his generosity. However, the two men not only start a friendship, but they also embark on a tangled path of murder, deceit and illicit affairs. When Rebecca Harriman’s niece is murdered in her barn, Speed takes it upon himself to prove her innocence. His motives seem unusual to Lincoln, but he doesn’t know that Speed and Harriman had a secret affair. When two more murders occur, it is up to Lincoln to defend the man accused of the crime. Through Speed’s investigations (with help from his sister), and Lincoln’s crafty legal ruse, secrets come to light that no one could have suspected.

Putnam takes the real-life friendship of Lincoln and Speed and spins a wonderful fictional history of their first years together. As to the mystery part, it is not too difficult to piece together the murderer early on, but the story is engaging enough to pull you through to the end when you are given the whys. A well-researched book that will appeal to fans of historical fiction, and a book that should be on a Lincoln buff’s reading list.

Review originally appeared in the Historical Novels Review August 2016

Book Review: Villa Triste by Patrick Modiano (trans. John Cullen)

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Triste. French for “sad.” And that’s the mood of this short novel from Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano.

Villa Triste opens with the narrator wandering around a decrepit French resort town on the Swiss border where, in the 1960s, while he was a spry, idealistic young 18-year-old, he had a summer fling. Having fled Paris for reasons not clearly identified, the young man assumes the false identity of a Russian count, one Victor Chmara. At first, “Victor” just wants to blend in with the crowds in the bustling resort town; he wanders from casino to café to hotel like a ghost. But he is quickly noticed by two strangers—a young, beautiful, aspiring actress named Yvonne and her young doctor friend, Meinthe. Together they whisk Victor away from hiding and into a world of debauchery, beauty pageants, and late-night parties. While that sounds exciting, nothing of it is; in the end it’s all just sad. All too soon, summer comes to an end, and Victor realizes that he needs to return to reality, but his two friends want nothing to do with it. They want to live in their make-believe.

Modiano’s work is a story about nothing. We learn little about Yvonne. We know nothing about Meinthe’s secret work in Switzerland. Even Victor’s fears are left vague. The reader is dropped into a summer of fun that ends as quickly as it began. But in that nothing is a story about innocence and lost youth. Modiano is able to weave a story of a summer of fake identities and mystery into a revelation of our own search for identity and loss.

Ultimately, Villa Triste is anything but sad, but rather a languid and mysterious read.

Review originally appeared in the Historical Novels Review August 2016

Book Review: Constellation by Adrien Bosc (trans. by Willard Wood)

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This book is one of those strange mixes of fiction and non-fiction. Bosc carefully unravels the tragic fate of Air France’s Constellation F-BAZN that was on a routine transatlantic flight from Paris to New York on October 27, 1949. But the flight never made it, having crashed in the Azores and taking with it the lives of 38 passengers and eleven crew members.

The story is told in little vignettes split between the lives of the passengers—the famous violist Ginette Neveu and the boxer Marcel Cerdan; the inventor of the Mickey Mouse watch; five Basque shepherds; a divorcé flying to reconnect with his wife—the flight, the crash and recovery, and the funerals for the victims. Bosc’s writing is poignant and poetic; lyrical and heart-wrenching; humorous and insightful. As to be expected, the lives of the famous and wealthy dominate the chapters, but some of the other side stories have their charm. Readers may not connect with them, and the bouncing around of chapters between character portrait, flight, crash, recovery and aftermath may be a bit off-putting.

Nonetheless, Constellation, a Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française winner, is an intriguing story of the tragedy of fate; how coincidence and chance impacted the lives of the passengers—the rich and poor, famous and commonplace—and a reminder of how those same things impact our lives. More than a book about a plane crash, Bosc’s debut resonates best when he delves into the simplest moments of life.

Review originally appeared in the Historical Novels Review August 2016

Book Review: A Death Along the River Fleet by Susanna Calkins

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The last thing Lucy Campion, a printer’s apprentice, expected to see while walking along the River Fleet was a ghost. But that’s sort of what she finds in Susanna Calkins’ latest mystery set in post-1666 Great Fire London. The ghost turns out to be a young woman covered in blood, in tattered clothes and with no memory of who she is or what happened to her. Lucy takes the girl to a physician she knows, and they try to identify her. When they decide that the mysterious woman probably has a noble upbringing, Lucy agrees to become the woman’s personal caretaker, and together they begin to rebuild her memory. A memory that puts both girls in grave danger and could possibly dismantle a horrible plot that reaches deep into British high society.

Complicating matters for Lucy is the fact that the two men her heart yearns for—Constable Duncan and the wealthy Adam Hargrave—become involved in the search for the woman’s past, and this sets up a love triangle subplot that some readers may feel gets in the way of the true mystery.

Calkins’ London oozes from the pages. From the rank, vile Fleet River, to the lingering effects of the Great Fire, into the dark, foreboding and crazed Bedlam hospital, the reader is transported to a world far away but with a closeness of familiarity. Readers may need to suspend belief that Lucy, from a lower caste, would be so openly accepted into higher society, but that does not get in the way too much of a well-paced, historical mystery. An all-around fun book to read.

Review originally appeared in the Historical Novels Review August 2016