Review: The Case of the Missing Servant

The Case of the Missing Servant
by Tarquin Hall
Simon & Schuster

Cozy Contemporary Mystery

I did a Debut Showcase on this novel a while back and I always meant to go back and read it. Now, I finally have.

The Case of the Missing Servant is about Vish Puri, a Delhi detective. Unlike most detective stories that I’ve read, this novel is not about Vish’s origins as a detective. He is a well-established detective, highly competent, with contacts in every nook and cranny of Delhi life. He is portly and unassuming, and is happy to have people underestimate him–including his clients.

The cover above is wonderful. The picture of the traffic is not exaggerated–which will be a bit unbelievable to Western readers, who are accustomed to orderly traffic, with well-enforced traffic laws. One of the running gags in the story is Vish is trying to get his driver to abide by traffic laws–including following the speed limit laws–which is just a bit unreasonable to the driver, who lives on the verge of quitting over the matter.

I’m not as happy with this cover, for the UK. What were they thinking?

Anyway, the reader is immersed in the world of Delhi’s upper middle class, with its household servants, corrupt court systems, and gentlemen’s clubs. It’s fun. What it’s not is suspenseful. Don’t expect a nail-biter, here. The reader is presented with a small set of cases that Vish is involved in during the span of time it takes for him to solve the main murder mystery. This includes the investigation of a man for a potential marriage match, and the the investigation of Vish’s attempted murder (which he shrugs off) by his mother (who is considerably more upset by the matter). Oh, and the missing servant.

It is also fairly critical of some aspects of Indian life, especially it’s court system. Remember Bleak House? That novel was so bleak that I couldn’t get through it. As in Dickens’s England, cases take years to churn through the court system. People go broke while waiting for their cases to be solved, and they grow old and die to have the matter taken up by their children. Bleak? Yeah. Fortunately, Mr. Hall does not dwell on it overmuch, but I’m not sure if actual Indians will enjoy this novel.

I enjoyed this novel quite a bit, reading it from cover to cover in just a few days. The next Vish Puri book is out, The Case of the Man who Died Laughing. It’s on my buy list. If you like cozy mysteries, then this is one to check out.

Debut Review: The Alchemy of Murder


The Alchemy of Murder
by Carol McCleary
Forge Books
Hardcover – 24.99 (discounts available)

Reviewed by Superwench83.

The Alchemy of Murder by Carol McCleary is one of those high-concept ideas that made me say, “Okay, I have got to read this.” It teams the first woman reporter Nellie Bly of the New York World with the famous French author Jules Verne as they track a mad scientist who is murdering street women in Paris. With legendary microbe hunter Louis Pasteur and the flamboyant Oscar Wilde at their sides, Nellie and Jules work their way through seamy Parisian streets, hospitals, and laboratories in search of the killer Nellie met in New York years before.

Nellie Bly is a perfect protagonist for a story such as this. She may have more enthusiasm than common sense, but she is spirited and strong, a reporter devoted entirely to getting her story. You just can’t help but root for her. A woman who purposefully has herself committed to a notorious insane asylum for the sake of an expose is a character who is sure to keep you guessing page after page. There is just enough character development to keep you invested in the characters, but not enough to bog down the fast-moving plot. It’s a delicate balance, and I think the author handled it quite well.

The setting is also vividly drawn, in all its grittiness. The Alchemy of Murder is set in a time and place which simmers with turmoil and rage. There are people starving and dying on the streets, and the muddled, floundering government has trouble doing anything effective. It’s a breeding ground for discontent, and communist revolutionaries abound—some whose plans go no further than philosophical café conversations, and some who will murder and steal and scheme to bring about their new regime. Combine this already turbulent era with the World’s Fair in Paris, toss in a crazed scientist and a biological weapon, and you’ve got a page turner in classic thriller style.

The only major issue I had with this book was the abundance of typos, misspellings, and improper punctuation…which I know is a silly thing to be upset about, but they were so numerous as to be distracting. It’s actually a trend I’ve noticed in new releases quite a lot these days. It makes me wonder if publishers are cutting back on copyediting to save money in these unstable economic times. It’s only speculation, of course, but I do wonder. The Alchemy of Murder is far from the only new release I’ve read recently with such problems; it was just the final straw, the one which makes me say in a review, “Hey! What gives?” But I digress.

At any rate, The Alchemy of Murder is a thriller with a twist. It combines mystery, history, and science to bring to life beloved figures from the past as they work to stop a madman from causing more death. From the way things ended in this book, I can see more Nellie Bly mysteries to come, following her from one adventure to the next. An exciting read, and I’m sure any subsequent books will be just as satisfying.

Katie Lovett, better known around these parts as Superwench83, is an aspiring novelist and published short fiction author. She blogs about writing, books, and the fantasy genre at her website, www.katie-lovett.com.


Series Review – Gaslight Mysteries Volumes 7 – 10

Gaslight Mysteries
by Victoria Thompson
Berkeley

I was hankering to read me some Gaslight Mysteries, so I spent the last week and a half gobbling up a bunch. Here are my impressions.


Murder on Lenox Hill

This volume was a great choice to restart the series after a half-year lapse. In it, Ms. Thompson takes on something other than a murder mystery for most of the novel. A mentally handicapped girl has turned up pregnant and cannot name the father. There is no murder at all until well into the book, and most of the mystery surrounds the girl, the pastor of the family church, a gang of boys who idolize the pastor, and the web of lies they are all involved in.

As far as the relationship between Sarah and Malloy goes, it continues to grow almost imperceptibly. Sarah is now busy with her foster-daughter and now has a homelife. In fact, her homelife is beginning to hamper her ability to solve murders.

This volume was excellent, but I wish it had not cut off so soon at the end, when Sarah and Frank were beginning to enjoy a tender moment, it it is not referred to again in subsequent volumes.

~*~


Murder in Little Italy

Unfortunately, I was not as happy with this volume. It was still a quick read, but it was entirely too plot-driven, and the ever-romance between Malloy and Sarah hardly progressed a nudge.

This is a fairly standard murder mystery. A new Irish mom has turned up dead in Little Italy, and a war between the Irish and the Italians is about to break out. Malloy is under a lot of pressure to solve this case. The members of the Italian family are prime suspects, and they don’t like either Sarah or Frank poking around. You get a taste of the predecessors of gangsters in this novel.

It was during this volume that Sarah’s fostering of a little girl, which took place in an earlier volume, starts to seriously hamper the plots of this and subsequent novels. While it was touching for Sarah to take the girl in, I think it would help the plot if a pair of loving parents turned up out of the blue to take her away. Sarah was funner when she was independent. The mysteries are becoming more and more Frank’s concern, and while I love Frank, I read these books for Sarah.

~*~


Murder in Chinatown

Unfortunately (and I’m using that word a lot, I know), I think Murder in Chinatown is Murder in Little Italy, remixed with Chinese instead of Italians.

In Chinatown, a lot of Chinese men have Irish wives. It seems that a lot of Irish girls have determined that Chinese men make better husbands than Irish men, which are in short supply anyway. In a comfortable, middle-class Chinese-Irish household, a teenage girl goes missing. Then, she turns up dead.

Unlike Murder in Little Italy, it is the Irish wife who keeps getting Sarah involved in the mystery, despite the fact that this makes Frank very cranky. It was a bit refreshing that Sarah didn’t have to be a busybody here, but it still seems that Frank is taking over all the investigations now that Sarah has a child to be responsible for.

This novel is almost entirely plot-driven. I hate to say it of a series I love, but you could skip this one and miss almost nothing of the over-arching story.

~*~


Murder on Bank Street

The title here is misleading — the murder didn’t take place on Bank Street, but since Sarah lives on Bank Street and this is the mystery about her husband’s murder, you know right away that this novel takes on his case at last.

The novel begins with a prologue, so right away you get the sense that this story is going to be different. And it is. Sarah is mostly on the sidelines in this story, which is fine because she could never been a good investigator into her husband’s death. Maeve, the nursemaid for her foster child, becomes a point-of-view character, and as such we get to learn a bit about her. Which is good because this series really needed some additional characters. (I still would like to see a friend for Sarah who is her own age.)

A good possibility might be a female private detective employed by the Pinkerton Agency, who helps Frank with this case. I really enjoyed reading about the Pinks and I hope they show up in future volumes.

One thing I object to is the way it ended. After ten books, we readers deserve a kiss between Malloy and Sarah. Surely Ms. Thompson doesn’t think that just because they kiss, we will lose interest in the novel. In fact, the opposite is true. If Ms. Thompson persists in the glacial pace of the romance, she will lose me.

Otherwise, I’m glad the Dr. Brandt storyline is over, and that it resolved so satisfactorily. Ms. Thompson got her groove back with this novel, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

Mystery Review: SPQR I: The King's Gambit


SPQR I: The King’s Gambit

by John Maddox Roberts
Thomas Dunne Books – 14.95

I went to the bookstore specifically looking for John Maddox Robert’s SPQR novels, and bought the first two volumes. I was really looking forward to reading them. They are, after all, Edgar-nominated mysteries. Plus, they’re set in ancient Rome, which is what hooked me.

Unfortunately, the first volume, The King’s Gambit, was a disappointment for me.

Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger is a high-born but low-ranking official with a murder to investigate. And although he does his duty admirably, a lot of people don’t appreciate it — people in power like senators, gang leaders and even the Consuls themselves. One murder quickly turns to two, and then to three, and then the lives of hundreds of slaves depend upon Decius getting to the truth.

My problem with The King’s Gambit was mostly with Decius, the rather lacklustre protagonist. He is a man without the attachments that might have made him interesting. He is unmarried at about 28 or so, has no mother and an indifferent father. He apparently has no close friends, and no ladylove. His father seems uninterested in making a political alliance by having Decius marry someone. He is a completely empty slate.

This is a huge disappointment for me. There is so much drama infused in daily Roman life that Mr. Roberts failed to take advantage of. Decius’s father has complete legal control of him, and could have ordered him to marry someone who made his life miserable. Or, he could have been a widower, grieving for his lost wife. He could have been in love with a slave. But no. His heart seemed completely unattached. Oh, except for Claudia, with whom he carries a brief fling. But he walks away without any sort of attachment there, either. It was just a drug-hazed romp.

The mystery itself was serviceable with one big problem: Decius has no reason to care. He stubbornly continues the investigation, making political enemy after political enemy, with no clear reason why he is bothering other than a vague sense of justice. Then, mercifully, well into the second half of the book, the stakes rise when a man with a vast number of slaves is murdered, and they all face crucifixion if the killer is not found. Now that’s more like it!

The ending is fine and it all wraps up well. Decius has finally found a friend, or at least, a sidekick. And he is being kicked out of Rome for a while to get out of the notice of all the political enemies he accumulated.

It took me months to read this. I have the second book, The Catiline Conspiracy, which I’ll probably read eventually just to see if it gets any better. This is a vastly popular series with thirteen or so volumes, so I’m thinking it must.

However, on the strength of this first volume, I really can’t recommend it at all. The murder is uninteresting, the characters are flat and the relationships are tepid. The world-building and evident research is pretty good, as is the taste of everyday Roman life. But I already have a book on Roman social history, and I didn’t need another.

Mervi recently read this novel as well, and had a different impression.

Debut Review – The Manual of Detection


The Manual of Detection
by Jedediah Berry (blog)
Penguin
Hardcover and Trade Paperback

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berrywill probably end up in my year end “Best Of” list. It was just about perfectly conceived, perfectly executed, perfectly written, and perfectly charming. I’m hard pressed to think of any critiques. It’s that good.

With that said, it’s not for everyone. This review copy originally went to Raven, who thought it was good but perhaps she wasn’t the right reviewer for it. So she sent it to me. And by sheer luck, I read it just shy of a month after the paperback release date.

The Manual of Detection is a very quirky, well-mannered steampunk fantasy mystery. It is somewhat literary, but never boring. It’s the story of Charles Unwin, clerk of a huge detective agency, who is unexpectedly promoted to Detective shortly after the disappearance of the most famous Agency detective, Travis Sivart.

Mr. Unwin is a man who knows his limitations. He knows that he has no business being a detective. After all, he wears a green trilby hat rather than a fedora, and his shoes always squeak. So his goal is to find Detective Sivart so he can get his old job back.

Permit me to rave about the presentation of the hardcover edition. It’s designed to look like a manual. It has a government-issue green cover, with black embellishments, within which alarm clocks, fingerprints, keys and footprints can be found. It also has a prominent eye. The eye is on the back as well, along with the motto, “Never Sleeping”. It’s a treat, mostly because everything on the cover becomes significant as the story unfolds.

The chapters are each accompanied by a quote from the fictional Manual of Detection. Each quote applies to something that’s going to happen in that chapter. One of these chapters becomes part of the story, and when I read that chapter number, I had to laugh out loud.

The Manual of Detection is a novel of typewriters, if immense filing cabinets, of umbrellas, of alarm clocks, of dumbwaiters, of bicycles, of telephones and of record players. It’s also a novel of steam trucks, of dream recording engines, of ever-winding watches, of traveling carnivals that travel no more, and of unofficial trips for unofficial reasons. No year is given, but I’d guess it takes place in the thirties or forties. There are telephones, electricity, radios, and cars, but no hint of anything like computers, which might have existed in a huge detective agency by the fifties.

Although the novel is told strictly from Charles Unwin’s point-of-view, you never know exactly what he is thinking until he speaks, or what he’s going to do until he’s already doing it. He’s both fussy and bold. When he sneaks into the archives, he gets caught, but then manages to get the archivists to trust him. All three of them. And he’s completely sincere when he is doing it–he takes advantage of no one. He’s an expert clerk, bicyclist, and umbrella wielder. And, he’s a meticulous dreamer.

The only thing I would have wished for was more of the detective agency in its “before” state. Because once it goes “after”, there’s no going back. However, I understand that to include any more might have bogged down the story.

If you read this novel, my advice is to pay attention. Try to read it over a short timespan and pay particular attention to characters who seem to talk about irrelevant things. All is relevant. This will be a wonderful book to reread.

Mr. Barry has achieved critical acclaim with The Manual of Detection, and it is well-deserved. I can’t wait to read his next book.

Mystery Review – An Incomplete Revenge


An Incomplete Revenge
by Jacqueline Winspear
Picador – Trade Paperback – $14
Historical Mystery

An Incomplete Revenge is Ms. Winspear’s fifth installment in her excellent Maisie Dobbs series. I read this novel because the sixth novel, Among the Mad, came out in paperback in November, and I intended to review it during that timeframe. That plan went awry — I read it in plenty of time, but I’ve needed to write this review for a month now.

This is one of the more interesting installments. In it, Ms. Winspear resolves a long-term stymied love affair and takes the reader on a fascinating journey into Rom subculture.

I’m afraid I can’t write this review without referring to events in previous novels. So I have some mild spoilers, which I will confine to this paragraph. The long-stymied love affair is, of course, Simon. Ms. Winspear finally puts this storyline to an end, in a way that I really didn’t think was necessary, but turned out to be welcome. A tragic love-affair that can’t go anywhere can only be played out for so long. It was high time — in fact, it was beyond time — that the author moved on. The Ever Romance plot device that plagues the mystery genre is probably worth a post in itself, and Ms. Winspear is as guilty of this as any author I read. It works like this: two people are interested in each other, but certain things keep them eternally apart. Therefore, the romance progresses at an absolute crawl. In book one, they touch. In book two, they must enter each other’s social distance for some reason or another. In book six, they kiss, but both pretend it never happens. In this book, Maisie and Simon do everything but the Deed in book one (which is called Maisie Dobbs), but then, tragedy strikes. Maisie Dobbs (the novel) really is excellent and it rightfully won Ms. Winspear a laundry list of mystery awards. It was subsequent novels that occasionally got annoying.

I understand that it is hard to keep a romance interesting once they’ve had their happily ever after. But this is a mystery series, not a romance. The romance is like icing. Tasty, but not necessary. If you’re going to have one, resolve SOMETHING in every book, please.

Rant over.

This really was a very good book. I loved the glimpse into Rom life.  Maisie softens up a bit in this novel, even if she expects Billy to work through his vacation (don’t worry–he gets paid for it, and he still gets to go on vacation).  It had a very twisty plot. Maisie must investigate a land sale transaction, and she mainly needs to find out if there is anything undesirable about the property that her patron, James Compton, is to purchase.

What she finds is a long-unsolved mystery. During the Great War, a zepplin fired upon this sleepy England town and a family perished. Except things didn’t quite work out according to how they ended up in the history books.

One critique — Ms. Dobbs resolved a potentially troublesome plotline by having most of the people in the town do a sort of mass confession. It felt a trifle convenient to the plot. At the risk of another spoiler, the entire lot of them should have been hauled off to jail. With prejudice.

Overall, An Inconvenient Revenge comes close to the height that Ms. Winspear never quite achieved again after Maisie Dobbs. In my opinion, the other books have not been as good because they are more plot-oriented than character-oriented. And I do love character development novels. Maisie Dobbs was equal plot and character development. None of the other novels since has had this ratio, and although I enjoy them, I do end up wishing there had been more character development.

If you’re a historical mystery fan, then this is a series you ought to be reading. Back in November, in anticipation of writing this review, I wrote an overview of the Maisie Dobbs series that might help you decide if it’s your cup of tea.

Maisie Dobbs Mystery Series

I can’t believe I’ve never reviewed any of these novels.

The Maisie Dobbs novels are one of my favorite mystery series. The author is Jacqueline Winspear, and her first novel was Maisie Dobbs. It introduced us to Maisie Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator. It begins in 1929, when Maisie opens her investigation office after serving an apprenticeship of sorts with a legal scholar who also worked as an investigator and scholar. Maisie was a nurse who served in a casualty clearing station in France during the Great War. Maisie Dobbs is a wonderful book, with frequent flashbacks to young Maisie, when she had to go work for the Comptons, a noble family, at the age of thirteen after the death of her mother. Through the Comptons, she meets her mentor, who is a family friend of the Comptons. Lady Rowan Compton eventually sponsors Maisie’s education.

Although it was a mystery, it was also a tragic romance and a historical novel, and it really didn’t fit into the framework of a traditional mystery. The remaining novels do settle into that framework, which is why Maisie Dobbs remains my favorite book of the series.

Although these are considered mainstream mysteries, they have light but unmistakable fantasy elements, mostly in the power of Maisie’s mind, which borders on psychic. The fantasy elements are very subtle, and exist mostly in premonitions that always come true, brief flashes of the future, and feeling a wrongness about certain areas.

These novels are sometimes more plot-driven than I like. I’m not really reading this mystery series for the mysteries. Maybe because of that, I’m not a true mystery fan. I read novels for the characters, and when I come back to novels again and again, it’s because of my love of the characters. Alexander McCall Smith understands this, which might be why his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is more about the characters than about the very light mysteries (and where the main character even got married and not only managed to continue her career, but whose career sucked in her husband).

Because of the plot-driven nature of each novel in the Maisie Dobbs series, events in her personal live progress at an arctic pace, even while the novels themselves are quick reads. She has a romance that lasts several novels before you as a reader realize that the romance is going nowhere. It takes Maisie a whole other novel to come to the same conclusion. And then you have an entire novel without any hint of romance whatsoever, except to drive the final knife in the love story of the first novel.

I think the reason I love this series so much is because it immerses the reader so well in another time and place. I rarely read contemporary novels because I love to be swept away to elsewhen when I read. There are little touches everywhere throughout the books, from the way Maisie answers the phone, to having to type out lengthy manuscripts more than one time because there is no document duplication, to the necessary proliferation of public telephone kiosks. London is called “The Smoke” because of the horrible pollution of coal-smoke, and people literally flee it at least once a year for some fresh air. The worldwide depression is more and more evident with each novel, and in the later novels (1931 and 1932), you see people beginning to worry about what’s going on in Germany. Widows and spinsters (like Maisie) abound because so many y0ung men were killed.

Maisie has her faults, and one of them is that she tends to hold on to a grudge. She doesn’t always do the right thing. But she always repents, which is why we always forgive her. The most intriguing thing about Maisie — and the most compelling — is that she really doesn’t belong anywhere. Because of her education, she no longer fits in among the humble people of her birth. Even her manner of speaking sets her apart. However, her birth will always separate her from those who are born higher. Her aging father is the only person she has left in the world.

Here are all the books in the series so far:

  • Maisie Dobbs (2003)
  • Birds of a Feather (2004)
  • Pardonable Lies (2005)
  • Messenger of Truth (2006)
  • An Incomplete Revenge (2008) (which I just read)
  • Among The Mad (2009) (which just came out in paperback, and which I will read very soon!)

I high recommend this series. Not a single novel has disappointed me so far.

Sorry about the lack of links. I just wanted to introduce you to the series before I posted my review. If you want more information, Jacqueline Winspear‘s website is the best place to look. Check it out and let me know what you think.