The Gown by Jennifer Robson
Residents of postwar London are still dealing with rationing and a slow recovery. Ann Hughes, an embroiderer for designer Norman Hartnell, is thrilled to be chosen to work on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown, along with French immigrant Miriam. Decades later in Toronto, Heather seeks to learn more about her grandmother’s past. This is a sure winner with wide appeal, especially for Anglophiles and royal watchers, with appealing characters and a compelling plot. I could not put this book down, and really enjoyed reading about life in 1947 London, and how Miriam and Ann dealt with their challenges.
Diana Cowper visits a London funeral home to plan her own funeral and is killed later the same day. Coincidence? Or is her involvement in a fatal car accident almost ten years ago connected? Perhaps her son Damian, a famous actor in Los Angeles, has an enemy. Hawthorne, a police consultant, investigates, and wants the author to observe his investigation and write a book about the case. Hawthorne is brusque, brilliant, and secretive, and Horowitz is intrigued. Very clever writing from a versatile author who’s tackled Agatha Christie in The Magpie Murders, Sherlock Holmes in The House of Silk, written a series of thrillers about a teenage spy, and whose next project is a James Bond book. Next year look for another Hawthorne book, The Sentence is Death. Rory Kinnear is an excellent narrator for the audiobook.
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 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.
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.
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.