Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce
Emmy Lake, with her fiancé Edmund overseas, wants to do her bit for the war effort. Volunteering at a fire brigade station answering phones helps, but she’d really like to be a journalist, maybe even a war correspondent. But instead of landing a job at a London newspaper, Emmy’s hired as a typist for Henrietta Bird, advice columnist for a women’s magazine. Mrs. Bird won’t tolerate any unpleasantness, and most of the letters are to be shredded. Secretly, Emmy sends advice to some of the women, signing her name as Mrs. Bird, which upsets her friend and roommate Bunty. Emmy is worried that Bunty’s boyfriend Bill is taking unnecessary risks as a firefighter, and then gets an unexpected telegram from her fiancé. Emmy wonders who is supporting the women on the home front, who are expected to send cheerful letters to men in uniform, but are struggling themselves. Life in wartime London in 1940 is vividly described, as Emmy is encouraged to find out what she can do best. I raced through this terrific first novel, which made me laugh, cry, and want to cheer on Emmy and Bunty. This Library Reads pick is a good readalike for The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch
The latest book featuring Victorian gentleman sleuth Charles Lenox is a prequel, and a good place to start reading this excellent mystery series. Only 23, Charles is out of college and wants to be a detective, but isn’t taken seriously by his friends or Scotland Yard. Charles and his valet Graham keep a file of crime stories they clip from London papers. Reading an announcement bragging about a perfect crime, the pair get to work. A very clever mystery and some fine detecting set up an exciting chase to find a murderer. On the personal front, Charles is hopelessly in love and his father has a health crisis, which somehow doesn’t prevent horseback rides in the country or a quick trip abroad with Charles. Charles, Graham and their London of 1850 are very agreeable company. Recommended for Anglophiles and readers of historical mysteries. A Beautiful Blue Death is the first book in the series.
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Tom Hazard only travels through time in his memories, but they are vivid and go back to Elizabethan England. A member of the Albatross Society, Tom ages very, very slowly. As he has to move and reinvent his life every eight years to keep his condition a secret, he isn’t supposed to fall in love. Back in London as a history teacher, Tom has only to look out the window to see places from his own history, where his true love Rose was a fruit seller, and where he played the lute at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. French teacher Camille thinks Tom looks familiar and may tempt him into a relationship, but Hendrich, the head of the society, sends Tom on a quick trip to Australia to recruit surfer Omai, who Tom first met while sailing the Pacific with Captain Cook. Enthralling yet bittersweet, full of history and adventure, a sure bet for readers of historical fiction or time travel. This novel is a February Library Reads pick.
Odds Against, by Dick Francis
Former jockey Sid Halley has spent the last two years at a London detective agency, but is assigned only routine cases. After fourteen years as a steeplechase jockey, he’s restless and unhappy. On a simple assignment, he is shot in the gut and can’t eat solid food for a while. While he recovers, his father-in-law, Charles Roland, invites him for a visit, even though Sid and his wife Jenny are separated. Charles has borrowed an expensive gem and mineral collection and wants Sid to help him impress and investigate another guest, Howard Kraye. Kraye may be connected to a string of bad luck at nearby Seabury Racecourse. Sid learns that a developer wants to buy out Seabury’s shareholders and build houses on the land. At a visit to a stockbroker, Sid encounters secretary Zanna Martin, who hides an injury from the world, just as Sid does with his damaged hand. Thefts and explosions add to the suspense of this intricately plotted mystery, published in 1966. During an exciting pursuit behind the scenes at Seabury, Sid’s injured again, and his future at the detective agency is uncertain. I enjoyed the fast pace, well-developed characters, and some witty dialogue. Sid appears again in three more mysteries, and this book was made into a television series, The Racing Game.
British Library Crime Classics
Recently I’ve read three of the British Library Crime Classics, mysteries originally published in 1935 and 1936. The series is described as “forgotten classics from the golden age of British crime writing”. 18 titles so far have recently been published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press. I think that the books I’ve read will have broad appeal today.
The Cornish Coast Murders, by John Bude, is set in a small village on the coast of Cornwall. The mystery is discussed and partly solved during fireside chats in Reverend Dodd’s study, where he meets with the local doctor and Inspector Bigswell. When a local magistrate is apparently shot through a picture window, there are very few clues, suspects, or motives.
Death in the Tunnel, by Miles Burton, involves the death of a wealthy semi-retired businessman while alone in a locked train compartment, in a railway tunnel. There is no obvious motive for murder or suicide. The mystery is solved by the combination of careful detective work by Inspector Arnold and other, unnamed police officers, and the imaginative ideas of of Arnold’s friend, amateur criminologist Desmond Merrion.
Death on the Cherwell, by Mavis Doriel Hay, is set at a woman’s college at Oxford University. An unpopular member of the college staff is found dead in a canoe on a cold January afternoon by several of the students, who proceed to help police investigate the death.
The settings of these novels are charming to a modern reader, the intricate plotting is first-rate, the violence level is low, and the writing is compelling and richly detailed, making for quite a pleasant reading experience.
Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders
Kate Saunders, the author of a number of books for children and adults, introduces Victorian widow Laetitia Rodd in her first mystery. After her clergyman husband’s death, Letty moves to an unfashionable part of Hampstead, London where she rents a townhouse from Mrs. Bentley. Letty’s brother Fred, a barrister, pays her to make discreet inquiries for his clients. Letty is sent to the Calderstone estate, Wishtide, as a governess to the young ladies of the house, although she’s really there to investigate the background of Helen Orme, a widow that young Charles Calderstone is determined to marry. Naturally, there is a murder or two, and hints of scandal. Letty, her brother, and Letty’s inquisitive landlady use their skills and contacts to unravel the mystery and save an innocent man from death. Appealing, well-developed characters, clever plotting, and a variety of settings, from drawing rooms to London inns, a prison, and the kitchen of Letty’s home add to the charm of this debut British cozy. I look forward to enjoying more books featuring Mrs. Rodd.
Into the Dim by Janet Taylor
After her mother’s funeral, teen Hope Walton reluctantly travels to Scotland to meet her aunt. She learns that her mother is alive, but is trapped in London in 1154. Homeschooled Hope can remember everything she reads, is claustrophobic, and has recurrent nightmares. Only the memory skills are helpful when she travels back in time to the coronation of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II with her cousin and her new friend Phoebe. Caught up in the drama and intrigue of London and the Court, Hope’s cousin gets arrested and Hope encounters Bran, a handsome teen she met in Scotland. Is Bran going to help Hope and Phoebe, or is he one of her family’s enemies? Fearful Hope is an unexpected heroine, but pretty good company in this first novel full of drama, adventure, fights, and some romance. The historical London setting is vividly drawn, and readers will look forward to Hope’s next time travel adventure. Kerstin Gier’s Ruby Red trilogy is a good readalike.