New Release Review: Lady Cop Makes Trouble

Amy Stewart, Lady Cop Makes Trouble (2016)

LadyCopThe second entry in Amy Stewart’s historical mystery series based on the real-life Kopp sisters is as compulsively readable and effortlessly enjoyable as the first. Constance Kopp has become the first female deputy sheriff in New Jersey — or thinks she has. But politics and a devious criminal get in the way, and Constance finds herself demoted to prison matron. That doesn’t stop her from engaging in the exciting chase after a dangerous fugitive, with her own unique blend of determination, guts, and luck (of both kinds).

These are books that combine character- and relationship-building with the pure fun of a detective story. I found that the first book, Girl Waits with Gun, was heavier on the former, while this one emphasizes the latter. I would definitely recommend reading them both together to get the full story, for the important history of Constance and her family doesn’t get much play in the sequel, nor do they have many scenes with each other since Constance is often off on her own. I hope this element will come back in future volumes, but for now it was fine to de-emphasize that aspect in favor of more action. The relationship of Constance and the sheriff (and the sheriff’s wife) does come a bit further here, in some interesting ways that make one wonder where it will be headed. Not in any conventional or hackneyed direction, I would guess.

The way Stewart mixes fact and fiction might be controversial for some, but I found that she does it in a responsible way. She makes it clear that she has played around with characters and incidents for narrative purposes; I can accept that this is a sort of fictional alternate reality to be enjoyed on its own terms. On the other hand, the real-life nuggets she’s pulled from the headlines and archives of the past give verisimilitude and ground the story in reality. Stewart expertly plays imagination and research off of one another in a way that is a pleasure in itself; for example, she comes up with a reason for Constance to appear as she does in a particular real-life newspaper photo that is perhaps not factually accurate, but plausible enough in the context of the world she has created, and also an amusing comic touch.

So bring on more of the Kopp sisters! I can’t wait to see what they get up to next.


Reading New England: A Visit to Amesbury with Author Edith Maxwell

Delivering the TruthCoverWhen I heard of Edith Maxwell’s new “Quaker midwife” mystery series, I was immediately intrigued. What a fun way to investigate a corner of New England history — the series is set in late nineteenth century Amesbury, Massachusetts, a former mill town at the mouth of the Merrimack River north of Boston —  from an unusual angle.

In Delivering the Truth, Quaker midwife Rose Carroll becomes a suspect when a difficult carriage factory manager is killed after the factory itself is hit by an arsonist. Struggling with being less than a perfect Friend, Rose delivers the baby of the factory owner’s mistress even while the owner’s wife is also seven months pregnant. After another murder, Rose calls on her strengths as a counselor and problem solver to help bring the killers to justice before they destroy the town’s carriage industry and the people who run it.

I enjoyed the character of Rose, an intelligent and caring young woman, and was fascinated by all the details of her midwifery practice. I also loved learning more about the Quaker community and about poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, a real-life citizen of Amesbury who appears in the book. The story is well-paced and keeps you guessing as Rose races to try to find the killer before there is more loss of life. I sometimes was distracted by a modern-sounding word or phrase, but the language in general flows easily and serves the storytelling.

Maxwell’s love for and knowledge of her historic home town are especially evident in the way she brings it to life on the page. I’m looking forward to a visit some day, but until then I’m so happy that the author agreed to share a description of a recent tour she gave to celebrate the book launch. Enjoy this glimpse of Rose’s world, and I do hope that you’ll look into her adventures — book two is coming in 2017.



Because my new historical mystery, Delivering the Truth, takes place in the northeastern Massachusetts town where I live, I decided to create an historical walking tour to help launch the book two months ago. I ordered up a custom-made Quaker dress for myself from a local seamstress, made myself a bonnet, acquired an apron, and we were off!

Many of the buildings still standing in Amesbury were already built and in use in 1888 when my Quaker midwife Rose Carroll is walking around delivering babies and solving crimes. I started the tour in Market Square in front of one of the many Hamilton Mills buildings. The square was the center of activity in any old New England town.


I was surprised, pleased, and a little concerned that sixty people showed up, but all went well. I introduced the book and the tour, and read a short scene that takes place as Rose walks through the square the morning after a disastrous fire.

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We moved up Main Street, pausing to admire a mural that depicts carriages and life in the period when my book is set, as well as the lower falls of the Powow River rushing below, where one of my (fictional) bodies was found. We proceeded to the Josiah Bartlett statue. This tribute to the native son who was the first signer of the Declaration of Independence was dedicated on July 4, 1888 – which is the opening to my second book, Called to Justice (April 2017).

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I led the group to the historic Friends Meetinghouse, a thriving Quaker church (mine, actually),which John Greenleaf Whittier help design and where he worshiped. I shared a short scene from the book before we moved on to Whittier’s home on Friend Street. My guests got a quick tour and listened to part of a scene with Rose talking to Whittier in his study.

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We moved on, pausing to talk about the original library and the Opera House, neither still standing, then walked along the upper falls of the Powow, with a brief stop to talk about the mill industry and mill girls like Rose’s niece. The tour ended with a last reading in the amphitheater.

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People seemed to very much enjoy the stroll, the history, and the readings. I conducted a second walk in late June during Amesbury Days, also well received. You can see a taste of the walk on my YouTube channel.

I’m delighted that the Amesbury Library and the Whittier Home are sponsoring Delivering the Truth as an All-Community Read this summer. Several high school teachers are also assigning it to their classes, which I’ll be visiting in the fall. The summer activities will culminate in a staged reading by two costumed actors of the four scenes in the book that feature both Rose and Whittier, and the event will take place in the Friends Meetinghouse.

Readers: What’s your favorite historical site? Have you ever gone on a walking tour connected with a mystery? Would your town like to host an All-Community Read of the book, too?

Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Foods Mysteries, the Country Store Mysteries (as Maddie Day), and the Lauren Rousseau Mysteries (as Tace Baker), as well as award-winning short crime fiction. Her short story, “A Questionable Death,” was nominated for a 2016 Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The tale features the 1888 setting and characters from her Quaker Midwife Mysteries series, which debuted with Delivering the Truth in April, 2016.

Maxwell is Vice-President of Sisters in Crime New England and Clerk of Amesbury Friends Meeting. She lives north of Boston with her beau and three cats, and blogs with the other Wicked Cozy Authors. You can find her on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, and at her web site,



Top Ten Funniest Books by Women


When I was writing my review of Lucky Jim, one of the most acclaimed comic novels of all time, I looked around to see what else was included on lists of the funniest books. I found that they were heavily dominated by male writers; this one from AbeBooks, for example, was chosen by British readers and only includes two female authors, Helen Fielding and Sue Townsend.

Now, it’s not to say that these women’s books are not hilarious, nor to denigrate the comic talents of Wodehouse, Vonnegut, Bryson, and Pratchett, all of whom I adore, but there are some other writers out there whose works really deserve our attention as well. I find it quite depressing that when New York Times editors were asked to choose the funniest novel, not a single woman made the list. I can only imagine that those editors’ reading habits are very different than mine, because when I started making a list featuring female authors who make me laugh, I found it difficult to stop. Here are ten or so of my personal favorites — sorry, I was laughing too hard to count.

BrandonsPeriod Piece – Gwen Raverat
Written and illustrated by Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, who became a fine artist, this marvelous memoir of the Victorian age affectionately pokes fun at the habits of our ancestors.

The Brandons – Angela Thirkell
For fans of Trollope, Thirkell takes us back to Barsetshire with a social comedy full of witty phrases and sly allusions.

Friday’s Child – Georgette Heyer
One of Heyer’s funniest, sunniest Regency romances, this is about a young couple who have to grow up — and fall in love — after they get married.

Christopher and Columbus – Elizabeth von Arnim
When unsympathetic English relatives send a pair of half-German twins to America during World War I, nothing turns out quite as expected. The absurd dialogue of the Twinkler twins is the highlight here.

The Egg and I – Betty MacDonald
MacDonald turned a difficult life on a chicken farm in the Pacific Northwest into superb comedy. Her Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children are also both hilarious and psychologically astute, with their magical solutions to child-rearing problems.

UnderfootShowPlease Don’t Eat the Daisies – Jean Kerr
The wife of New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr was a playwright and humorist in her own right. Some of the humor in her 1957 book of essays has dated, but it remains a lively and intelligent take on family life.

Underfoot in Show Business – Helene Hanff
Hanff is mostly known for 84, Charing Cross Road (which is also a very funny book), but I wish more readers would pick up her delicious memoir of trying to make it on Broadway.

The Serial Garden – Joan Aiken
For over sixty years, starting about age sixteen and continuing right up until her death in 2004, storyteller extraordinaire Joan Aiken wrote tales about an otherwise ordinary British family who just happen to become involved in magical adventures, with wild and wacky results.

Bilgewater – Jane Gardam
Jane Gardam can take the painful realities of life and turn them into comedy like nobody else. Her early coming-of-age novel about a girl growing up in a boys’ school is by turns heartbreaking and hilarious.

YearoftheGriffinYear of the Griffin – Diana Wynne Jones
Jones’s delightful send-up of the “magical school” trope is also very likely the only book ever to feature a female griffin who goes to college. Please ignore the bizarre cover art; it makes Elda look like a menacing monster, but really she’s a sweetheart.

To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis
I haven’t yet read Three Men in a Boat, a popular choice for funniest book of all time, though it’s on my list. Even so, I found Willis’s slapstick time-traveling homage to Jerome’s Victorian classic a hoot.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered – Sarah Caudwell
First in an all-too-brief mystery series, featuring a group of young British barristers and their older mentor — who, in a tantalizing twist, narrates their adventures without revealing his/her gender. As is appropriate to legal mysteries, a highly stylized, double-edged writing style is key to the humor here.

And I haven’t even mentioned Lisa Lutz, Margery Sharp, Maria Semple, Shirley Jackson, Susannah Clarke … just thinking about them makes me smile. What are your favorite funny books and writers?



New Release Review: A Man of Genius

Janet Todd, A Man of Genius (2016)

ManGeniusWhat happens when an eminent scholar and biographer turns her hand to fiction? In the case of Janet Todd’s A Man of Genius, we get a highly distinctive, engrossing tale of mystery and madness, centering on a woman writer of one of those “horrid books” that were so popular around Jane Austen’s time. In Todd’s novel, Ann St. Clair has no respect for her own writing, seeing it only as a profitable and not too unpleasant way to make a living. She’s also glad to be independent of her uncaring, distant mother, who is entirely wrapped up in the memory of her dead husband.

The gothic elements of Ann’s fiction start to intrude into her own life, though, when she tumbles into a bizarre relationship with a male writer whose friends think him a genius-in-waiting, based on his one fragmentary work. Haunted by the bitter ghosts of her childhood, tying herself to an increasingly unstable man who neither needs nor wants her, Ann trails him across the post-Napoleonic landscape of Europe to a strange, shadowy existence in the underworld of Venice. The conclusion is shattering, surprising, and for me, unforgettable.

Ann’s story is not a comfortable or easy one to read, and this is not an amusing historical pastiche. Todd takes us into the dark heart of nineteenth century London and Venice, following her protagonist into a horrible form of emotional and physical subjugation. Her journey is harrowing, violent, and sad, and readers must have a strong stomach to follow her through to the teasingly hopeful end. But for those who do, the journey into the depths becomes a confirmation of the power of the self, which sometimes only lights up when threatened by utter eclipse.

Todd doesn’t attempt an imitation of the writing of the time — we are looking over the characters’ shoulders from a modern perspective, as it were — and yet her highly mannered style chimes well with the historical period. One can tell that she has immersed herself in it to such an extent that she can play freely with its language and people and ideas, so that her creation is relevant to both the “then” of the story and the “now” in which we experience it.

I usually avoid books that are gleefully advertised as “dark” and “harrowing,” as I dislike the kind of prurient pleasure-in-others’-pain that they often seem to trade on, but Ann’s story offers something more complex and far more interesting than that. As we move with Ann from the fragmentary to the whole, from blind folly to a hard-won wisdom, we are touched by some of the deepest mysteries of the human heart. Janet Todd has beautifully translated her passion for and knowledge of the era and its literature into a compelling fictional creation. I hope she will give us many more.



New Release Review: The Lie Tree

Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree (2016)

LieTreeI think that Frances Hardinge is destined to become one of my new favorite authors. I loved The Lie Tree (as well as her previous novel, Cuckoo Song) for the interesting things she does with ideas and relationships and history and myth. Hardinge’s prose is vivid and distinctive without being overly stylized, and her concepts spring out of real imaginative power rather than gimmicky formulas. Her young-adult characters are striving toward selfhood in a complex, nuanced way that can be appreciated by readers on both sides of the child/adult divide. With so many ingredients that are very much to my taste, the result was a delicious treat for me.

In The Lie Tree, we are introduced to Faith Sunderly, a bright, talented girl on the threshold of Victorian womanhood. Neither her father, an renowned paleontologist, nor her social-butterfly mother have the least idea of what is going on inside her head, or that she might want to break out of the bounds of what society has decreed for her. But when the family suddenly moves to a remote island for a research project, Faith finds that the surface veneer of her family’s safe, conventional life is beginning to crack. What was the true motivation for this abrupt dislocation? Why have none of their servants been brought along? What is her father hiding in the summerhouse? And what is the inner and outer menace that threatens him? As she begins to investigate, danger comes close to her as well, and cannot be escaped without demanding a dark sacrifice.

The theme of lying and deception is intricately woven into the plot and embodied in the image of the Lie Tree. This is a fantastical creation that yet is plausible within the world of the story, which takes place during a time when science was opening up undreamed-of wonders and shaking the foundations of human knowledge. Theories and notions about the relationship between the physical and spiritual world proliferated wildly, and the notion of a plant that feeds on human mendacity would fit right in. Hardinge’s slow build-up of the insidious Tree made for a narrative that was both thrilling and psychologically astute.

Though I enjoyed much of the book immensely, I admit to feeling somewhat disappointed in the ending, which left me wishing for more development of certain characters. Friends turned into villains, villains into friends, but then the rising action culminated in a frantic chase that cut off any opportunity to explore these surprising developments further. I wouldn’t have minded another chapter or two in that direction.

That’s not going to stop me from reading Hardinge’s next book, though, and seeking out as much of her earlier work as I can. For thoughtful, emotionally satisfying, imaginative entertainment, she’s one author that I will treasure.


New Release Review: Journey to Munich

Jacqueline Winspear, Journey to Munich (Harper, 2016)

JourneyMunichJourney to Munich is the twelfth entry in the bestselling Maisie Dobbs series, which follows a former London parlourmaid through her career as a private investigator and beyond. If you’ve been reading the series all along, you will probably know already that you want to read this one. If you haven’t gotten into it yet, you might wonder whether you can jump in so late in the game.

To help answer this question, I purposely avoided reading earlier books in the series before starting Journey to Munich. (I had read the first book, Maisie Dobbs, but that was such a long time ago that I barely remember it.) Would it work as a standalone, or would it be too dependent on former episodes? A bit of both, I would say. The heart of the story, in which Maisie travels to Munich on the eve of the second World War to try to rescue a captured inventor, works on its own as a chilling glimpse into Hitler’s regime. Around the edges, though, there is a good deal of exposition about Maisie’s past experiences and acquaintances, which, while giving necessary information for new readers, tended to stall the action. For longtime followers of the story, this might awaken pleasurable memories of well-known characters and incidents, but without that context I found such passages somewhat dry and repetitive.

That was one obstacle to my enjoyment of the story; the other was the curiously convoluted plot. When she’s asked to help British intelligence for not-terribly-clear reasons, Maisie also has to come to terms with a person who betrayed her in the past, an act that led to an unbearable personal tragedy. The combination of straight thriller and psychological drama did not quite work for me, though it’s hard to put my finger on why. The tension and release that are hallmarks of the cloak-and-dagger type of story were strangely employed, and left me dissatisfied. There were several times when I expected something to happen and … it didn’t. Of course, this might be a conscious attempt to subvert expectations, but it came across more as sloppy storytelling.

tlc logoWhat I did like about the story was the character of Maisie, an independent woman trying to bravely make her way forward in the world; the the vivid evocation of a city on the edge of war; and the suggestion at the end that the adventures will continue and old relationships be revived. Before that happens, I am going to be looking back at some of the earlier volumes, and I suggest you do too, before taking this journey. Clearly, Maisie Dobbs has much to offer in the way of suspense and drama, with characters who grow and develop over time amid a fascinating historical milieu. Even though this installment in her saga had some problems for me, I enjoyed it enough to want to seek out more.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review Journey to Munich. For more reviews of this and all the Maisie Dobbs books, visit the Tour page.


Mystery on the Rock: A Dangerous Place

Jacqueline Winspear, A Dangerous Place (2015)

DangerousPlaceWelcome to the Maisie Dobbs readalong! TLC Book Tours is hosting a month-long celebration of the first eleven books in this popular historical mystery series, on the occasion of the release of number twelve, Journey to Munich, on March 29. I’ll be posting about that title next month, but in the meantime I had the chance to read and review one of the earlier books in the series.

I chose the eleventh book, A Dangerous Place, thinking it might be helpful as a lead-in to the new one, for although I’ve read the first volume, Maisie Dobbs, which introduced me to the former housemaid turned detective/psychologist in 1920s London, I never continued with the other installments. However, it turns out that Winspear does quite a bit of exposition in each book in order to orient new readers, so that wasn’t really an issue. More problematic is what she does to longtime followers of the series in this one: a seemingly happy event anticipated in earlier books is cut short by tragedy, with all the shocking events reported in a cursory manner through second-hand reportage, documents, and letters in the space of just a few pages. Other readers have complained that there should have been a whole book or even two to cover such an important stage in Maisie’s life, and I would tend to agree, even though I don’t feel betrayed in the same way as some of the fans of the series, who have invested so much time and emotional energy in following her adventures.

Once this extremely peculiar beginning is past, including at least 25 rather awkward pages of retrospect and flashback, we settle into Maisie’s point of view and get into the main thread of the story. It’s 1937 and Maisie has jumped ship in Gibraltar, unable to quite face going home to England after her traumatic experiences. She becomes involved in investigating the murder of a young photographer, whose death seems to be connected to the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War taking place just across the border. In trying to help others in this dangerous place, can she find the way back to life for herself?

Maybe it was because Maisie herself was still in a state of shock, or perhaps because of the oddly distant way her tragedy was reported, but I couldn’t feel much connection to her in this book. The descriptions of her grief and misery, which lead her even to the edge of suicide, left me cold. I’m all for a well-rounded mystery that gets us into the minds and hearts of its characters, but the inner drama here failed to pique my interest enough to outweigh a sluggish, slow-moving plot.

tlc logoThe historical setting is a fascinating one, and the outward events truly dramatic — the bombing of Guernica takes place during the novel, as Maisie observes Fascist planes flying over Gibraltar — but even this promising material failed to completely capture my imagination. I’m not giving up on Maisie Dobbs, though; along with following her into the next book, I’d like to pick up some of the earlier ones in the series to see if one of them will spark more more interest for me.

And don’t take my word for it — for more on all the books in the Maisie Dobbs series, do visit the tour page and see what other bloggers have to say!


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The Wolves Chronicles, Part Two

Joan Aiken, The Stolen Lake (1981)
Joan Aiken, Dangerous Games (1998)

StolenLakeFor my next installment of a series of posts considering Joan Aiken’s “Wolves Chronicles” (for lack of a better name, the series begun with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and mostly featuring Dido Twite as the protagonist), I’m departing slightly from my general intention of reading the series in order of publication. Instead, I’m grouping together the two books that Aiken herself published out of chronological order. After The Cuckoo Tree (1971), which concluded a five-book sequence written within a single decade, Aiken waited another decade before publishing the next book in the series. And rather than picking up the story where she had left off, with Dido’s reunion with her friend Simon in England, she went back to an adventure that happened while Dido was en route from Nantucket to England on the HMS Thrush.

And what an adventure it is! The alternative history of the first few books in the series, with their marauding packs of English wolves and dastardly Hanoverians plotting to overthrow good King James III, appears almost plausible in comparison to Aiken’s radical revisioning of history and legend in The Stolen Lake. In place of South America we have Roman Britain, colonized by an unlikely alliance of Welsh and Roman settlers in the sixth century (and somehow, some Spanish has gotten mixed in there too, as shown by name combinations like Manuel Jones and Davie Gomez). The queen of New Cumbria has summoned Captain Hughes of the Thrush to her aid, and Dido is reluctantly dragged along. There Dido makes some appalling discoveries regarding the strange absence of young girls in the land, and the peculiar preoccupations of the queen, who is awaiting the return of her husband from a very long sleep…

Aiken’s wild imagination is abundantly on display in this book, and there’s definitely not a dull moment. While I enjoyed it overall, I found it somewhat less satisfying than the earlier books. The weirdness of Welsh settlers wearing togas amid Incan ruins is certainly original, but doesn’t quite gel into any meaningful cross-cultural satire, and the return-of-the-king plot ends up somewhat buried in the mishmash of different elements. The exuberant storytelling pulls us along, but at the end we may scratch our heads and think, “What was that?” The highlight, for me, was the series of brief stories told to Dido by the mysteriously appearing and disappearing minstrel Bran. Open-ended, ambiguous, and disconcerting, they raise the narrative above the ranks of mere page-turners.

DangerousGamesA full seventeen years later, after writing about Dido’s return to England and some of her further adventures, Aiken decided to go back and chronicle another episode from her sea voyage in Dangerous Games (Limbo Lodge in the UK). Here, we have an even more exotic location in the vaguely Indonesian island of Aratu, where Dido and co. are sent to find an English aristocrat who has been looking for games to help heal ailing King Jamie. I found this the weakest installment so far; besides the far-fetched premise, it has an unfocused story that wanders all over the place amid a cast of unconvincing pidgin-speaking natives with mysterious superpowers. The title seems to promise a kind of gaming showdown, but that never materializes; in spite of the “dangers” of Aratu there’s a strange lack of conflict and character development. This is one episode that even rabid fans of Dido could skip, in my opinion.

After this interlude in foreign climes, I’m definitely ready to go back to England with Dido and Pa. I find that Aiken’s imaginative world works best when it’s founded in her own culture and language, upon which she can ring changes like nobody else.

Read for the RIP X Challenge hosted by The Estella Society


New Release Review: The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse

Piu Marie Eatwell, The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse (2015)

DeadDukeThe best narrative nonfiction, for me, is as fluidly told and as riveting as fiction while still being solidly grounded in fact. In the Kingdom of Ice was one book that reached this ideal, a perfect balance of true-to-life detail and narrative skill. Less successful efforts tend toward either clunky, disjointed assemblage of facts, or frantic speculation in an effort to fill in the blanks.

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse doesn’t quite reach the summit of great nonfiction in this regard, but it’s still an absorbing story with a factually respectable basis. In 1897, a woman surfaced with the wild claim that her father-in-law, a London merchant, had actually been the fifth Duke of Portland, an ultra-rich, ultra-eccentric aristocrat who was leading a double life. This meant that her son was the the heir of the childless duke…and so a frenzied legal battle commenced, to be played out over decades on a very public stage. Corruption, madness, fortune-hunting, identify theft: it’s all here, in a plot worthy of a Wilkie Collins novel.

In fact, all the ingredients for a fantastic stranger-than-fiction narrative are present, but I was left just slightly unsatisfied. The large cast of characters (identified and listed as such in the front matter) is hard to keep track of, as many don’t have enough personality to be memorable. The device of announcing some startling turn of events but then abandoning it for another narrative thread was also confusing, and some obvious questions were not addressed for too long — where was the evidence of the movements of the duke and his supposed alter ego, for example? I was also a bit skeptical of the scenes that go into certain characters’ inner thoughts and experiences without apparent basis in diary or letters, though these are unobtrusive and plausible enough.

Still, I don’t want to dissuade you from meeting the Dead Duke and his manifold associates. You’ll be immersed in a colorful and dramatic slice of Victorian and Edwardian life, and learn about an example of media frenzy that rivals any to be found in our own times (whole companies were created for the purpose of floating shares to speculate on the outcome of the case). You’ll gain an understanding of historical legal issues that are a bit out of the common, like when it was acceptable to open a grave, and peek into the early days of our criminal justice system. You’ll be grateful for the author’s scrupulous research that turned up important elements overlooked for many years, putting together a puzzle left unsolved by history. And you’ll be tantalized by the still-unknown motive that sparked the whole spectacle. As it delves into the mysteries of the human mind and heart, The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse gives a fascinating window into an era that in many ways is not so far from our own.

Read for the RIP X challenge hosted by the Estella Society


New Release Review: Girl Waits with Gun

Amy Stewart, Girl Waits with Gun (2015)

GirlWaitsBestselling nonfiction writer Stewart (The Drunken Botanist) hits all the high notes in her fiction debut, Girl Waits with Gun. She gives us a meticulously researched historical setting (the factory district of New Jersey in 1914), a trio of gloriously unconventional and independent female protagonists, a tone that effortlessly ranges from wry humor to suspense to drama, and a first-person narrative voice that vividly evokes a personality and a period. What more could you want? If you’re wise, you’ll stop reading this review right now and go track down a copy.

But if you need more convincing, I’ll tell you that the premise — sisters Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp, after their horse-drawn buggy is wantonly destroyed by factory-owner-cum-thug Henry Kaufman’s automobile, find themselves unlikely assistants in the local sheriff’s crime-fighting efforts against Kaufman and his gang — is not only brilliant, but absolutely true. Kaufman and the Kopps really existed, as did Sheriff Heath of Hackensack. Stewart based her story on records and news articles of the time, which, incredibly, have been completely overlooked and forgotten since. The title, to begin with, is an actual headline referring to the formidable six-foot-tall Constance, who along with her sisters was issued firearms as protection against Kaufman’s reprisal attempts. Other actual documents have been worked into the narrative, adding to its authentic period flavor.

There are blanks in the record, which is why Stewart decided to present her story as fiction, and sees her characters as living a fictional existence parallel to the real ones. She’s invented a subplot that allows Constance to try out her detective skills and also reflect on the secrets of her past, and given Norma a rather noticeable hobby (raising carrier pigeons) that isn’t mentioned anywhere in the historical record. Some of the most astonishing details were drawn from life, though, according to an afterword that helps to sort out fact from fiction. It all merges together seamlessly in the reading, though, and storytelling is the focus rather than research.

This is definitely a character-driven mystery, not one with an elaborate or twisty plot, and though there are lots of threats there’s little on-stage violence. The pleasure is in getting to know tart-tongued Norma, flamboyant Fleurette, and especially Constance, whose search for a place and a purpose in life is tantalizingly given a direction at the very end. I’ve no doubt that readers will be begging for a sequel, and Stewart seems inclined to oblige us. I’ll be eagerly waiting for another installment in the story of the Kopp sisters.

Counted for the Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP X) challenge, hosted by The Estella Society