City of Ink by Elsa Hart
I read this book while preparing for a book discussion of Jade Dragon Mountain, the first of three historical mysteries featuring exiled librarian Li Du and storyteller Hamza. The second book is The White Mirror. All three stories are set in early 18th century China, with very different settings. With City of Ink, Li Du is working as a secretary in Beijing for Chief Inspector Sun. The city is abuzz with preparations for the imperial examinations, which Li Du passed many years ago. Thousands of students who have passed two earlier levels of exams are trying to study, pick out the best ink and brushes, and preparing for several very intense days of exams which only a few hundred will pass. Li Du and Inspector Sun investigate a double murder at a tile factory, but a quick and tidy solution is preferred by the magistrate rather than an in-depth inquiry. In this gated city, Li Du and Hamza get caught outside their neighborhood after curfew, and have to find lodging for the night. Returning to Water Moon Temple, Li Du discovers that his room has been searched. Tension eases when Li Du travels outside the city to teach calligraphy to the grandchildren of his late mentor Shu, whose name he is still trying to clear. Lady Chen of Jade Dragon Mountain is now living in Beijing, and may have useful information for Hamza and Li Du. If you enjoy intricately plotted mysteries (or historical fiction) with vividly detailed settings, I think you’ll really enjoy this outstanding mystery series.
The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz
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.
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.
To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear
In 1940, London psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs and her assistant, Billy Beale, are asked to look for Joe Coombes, a young painter’s apprentice. His parents, Phil and Sally Coombes, own a local pub and are worried they haven’t heard from Joe, who had been complaining of frequent headaches. Maisie and Billy learn that Joe had been applying fire-retardant paint at aerodromes, and wanted to apprentice to a sheep farmer in Hampshire. Billy notices that the Coombes seem to be unusually well off.
Maisie finds a weekly respite at her country home in Kent, visiting with her extended family, including young evacuee Anna, who has the measles. The British Expeditionary Force in France is in retreat, and Maisie’s godson Tim runs off to help with the evacuation at Dunkirk.
I learned that the World War II experiences of the author’s family inspired this story, especially her father’s work as a young painter’s apprentice. This compelling mystery with engaging characters and strong sense of place would be a good place to start reading this series, especially readers who enjoy historical fiction, British mysteries, or strong female protagonists. I especially enjoyed this book because Maisie and her family are happier than in recent books. This book will be published on March 27.
Murder in an English Village by Jessica Ellicott
Ladylike Edwina Davenport advertises for a lodger after her mother’s death. American adventuress Beryl Halliwell replies to her ad by crashing her car into a pillar at the end of Edwina’s drive. After Edwina is attacked while walking her dog, the odd couple, former classmates, pair up to investigate a the disappearance of Agnes, a Land Army girl who went missing two years earlier. Then they find the body of a young film buff in a field. A strong sense of place brings the 1920 English village of Walmsley Parva to life, and the engaging characters and their investigation of the village’s secrets delight in this leisurely-paced British cozy, the first in a new mystery series.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
Part mystery, part coming-of-age story, this first novel is set during the British heat wave of 1976. One Monday, Mrs. Margaret Creasy goes missing, and Grace Bennett, her 10-year-old neighbor, decides to investigate, along with her friend Tilly. They visit all the neighbors on their street, even Walter Bishop in #11, who has been shunned after being suspected of stealing a baby. Flashbacks to 1967 reveal some of the villagers’ secrets, but don’t solve the mystery. A possible image of Jesus captures the neighborhood’s attention at the peak of the heat wave, and almost everyone, even the new Indian family from Birmingham, gathers in the shade to visit and play canasta. I thought the plot quite clever, with some twists, and I enjoyed the occasional humorous scenes, the refreshingly ordinary girls, and the 1976 English village setting.
The Dry by Jane Harper
To begin with, three people in a small town in southeast Australia are dead. Not an opening that draws me, but this first mystery novel is on several best books of the year list and I felt challenged to give it a try. Aaron Falk is back in drought stricken Kiewarra for the funeral, and is asked to do a little investigating by his friend Luke’s parents. Falk is a federal agent in Melbourne and soon finds that Kiewarra’s new police sergeant, Greg Raco, also questions the obvious solution. In general, Falk is no more welcome in town now than when he and his father left, suspects after a friend’s drowning. Newcomers to town, including Raco and his wife, school principal Scott Whitlam, and bartender McMurdo, are pleasant enough, as is Luke’s old girlfriend, Gretchen. Mal Deacon, his old nemesis, is as nasty as ever, even though he’s getting old. Short flashbacks to other points of view keep the reader one step ahead of Falk and Raco, but this is not at all a predictable book. The Dry is suspenseful and riveting, very cleverly written, and on my own list of best books of the year. Film rights have been sold, and another book featuring Aaron Falk is being published in February.