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January into February Reads
The "mysteries read" pile is growing...
I started 2023 by reading 10 books in January.
This is consistent with the way each year feels to me: January lasts about six months and February is over in about five minutes. This week, I’m already booking client sessions for March and feel like I was just getting used to putting 2 in the month slot of the date.
Part of this is because one of our cats was ill last week and refused to eat, which has a tendency to cause time to do weird things. This was the only mystery I could handle for a few days. Apologies for being silent on here.
We are hopefully back to normal eating indefinitely and the extra week means even more books to discuss.
Here’s the list of mysteries I’ve chewed through since the last round-up:
Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, Juno Dawson
Age of Vice, Deepti Kapoor (Discussed with the author on the Oh! Murder podcast)
Death in Kew Gardens, Jennifer Ashley
Two for Sorrow, Nicola Upson
The White Lady, Jacqueline Winspear (Discussion with the author coming soon on the OM Podcast)
The Likeness, Tana French
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Ok, so technically this one is “Contemporary Fantasy” according to publisher, Penguin. However, it does have elements of a thriller and involves at least one murder, so I’ve decided to include it here.
There was a lot that grabbed me about this book. A secret government department of witches? Friendships over decades? Yes, please. The structure was part of what kept it from being a mystery as well as a fantasy- we see elements of the story from multiple points of view, revealing some details I suspect a mystery author would choose to conceal. I was happy with this as a reader.
However, the pacing of the book lagged for me slightly as we repeated story elements when the pace sped toward the ending. The tension was quite good, so to have to repeat things from multiple sides definitely felt like unnecessary weight on the events.
In addition, I find that an extended battle sequence at the end of a book doesn’t hook me as much. I can see others might disagree, but perhaps my mystery-loving self is far more satisfied by a psychological revelation or a juicy confession.
Overall, I can recommend it to someone looking for a pacey magical thriller. In addition, the sensitive treatment of a trans plot line was a welcome and beautiful element, informed by Dawson’s life experience, no doubt.
This book definitely leans thriller, but does so with several deaths right in the opening sequence, which remain unexplained through most of the novel, so I stand by including it in this list.
Author Deepti Kapoor has written an epic with this book, exploring class from ultrarich to most poverty-stricken, and the organized crime world that keeps these classes even further apart.
For those who enjoy deep dives into character, rather than cycling through different POVs as with Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, we shift from one point of view in a section to another section with a different character. This story also returns to various significant moments, but Age of Vice explores the larger context surrounding the events, so we have many pages between touching in with key plot points.
This is a slow burn of a book, and it is a commitment to read, at close to 500 pages. If you want to sink into a world and stay there, even when it gets quite challenging, this would be a good fit. As a journalist, Kapoor had a lot of experience looking at India culturally before writing this novel, and the experience shows. A light crime novel, this is not.
Still, the look at culture and class and the way money in unlimited amounts can change someone from entirely innocent to incredibly dangerous will appeal to the mystery reader and writer. There are also plenty of motives for murder floating around- I am surprised there weren’t many more based on the emotions and stakes each character faced. If you’re ready for a wallop by fiction, this would be a great choice.
After the intensity of Age of Vice, I was ready for a classic cozy, so I turned to Jennifer Ashley’s Below Stairs series. This turned out to be just what I’d been looking for: no death in scene, a challenging puzzle, and a glimmer of romance simmering under the surface.
In this installment, the next-door neighbor is murdered. I wonder how anyone living near the cook Kat Halloway survives more than a few weeks, but that’s a side effect of cozies we need to suspend disbelief for. The usual characters join to help solve the crime, including the mysterious Daniel who is connected in an unspecified way to law enforcement, his son, the niece of Ket’s employer who refuses to marry and prefers to run about in men’s clothing, and a few others regular readers will recognize.
I was able to whip right through this one, but had some hesitations about some of the cultural representation. There was a thread that included a man who’d come to England from China, and given that this story is historical, it brings up the issue of how to identify race and culture in a historically accurate, yet respectful way.
Part of the reason I haven’t attempted historical is that the challenge feels like one I couldn’t do justice to. I feel there was intent here to be respectful, and at the same time, historical language to race always gives me pause. The most important thing is to keep doing better and also to support those writing from direct experience. The publishing world has a long way to go, and I look forward to seeing more and more voices contributing to the genre as those already writing in it keep learning as well. If anyone can share historical mysteries that do this especially well, please do share titles and authors in the comments.
Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey series explores a challenging corner of history in Two for Sorrow, jumping between Tey’s time and decades earlier, as a case involving the hanging of two women arrested for baby farming (taking money from unwed mothers to get rid of their children after their birth) and subsequently hanged for murder.
Upson does admirably taking on not only infanticide, but incarceration for women nearly 100 years ago, and the challenge of those with criminal records re-entering society. The character development is subtle and the twists are skilled and satisfying.
Another element of the series as a whole is that the experiences Josephine Tey has had in her life build and impact her as the books continue. While we may move forward in time in many series, I am most delighted with the books that show the psychological depth of believable consequences of having been close to something as awful as murder.
It continues to mystify me why we read about murder as a passtime, and yet here I am, still writing my own and reporting back on many I’ve read. Perhaps this is the ultimate psychological puzzle. If so, Upson is one of the best struggling with it that I’ve encountered.
The second of Winspear’s stand-alone novels, The White Lady follows a character with some similar skills to Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, but one whose experience started far earlier in life.
Winspear tackles many of the themes we know and love in her books, including the impact of living through war and continuing after it’s ended, and the ways people can bring their wartime skills out of hiding when circumstances demand it.
Elinor White is no investigator, nor a willing detective, and this book operates much like a thriller, spanning both world wars and crime-ridden London in the 50s. I tore through this one, enjoying the characters all the way through, regardless of whether I’d want to meet them in real life (or even run like hell away from them, in some cases). The history of women’s involvement in war always fascinates me, as it was an is often overshadowed after the war ends through much of the women’s lives afterward.
This is yet another case where the Official Secrets act meant Elinor had to keep most of her life secret, although thankfully not from the reader. Lovers of Maisie Dobbs will be very happy with this novel, even as it takes a different approach to some of the same time periods.
I read this novel on the strong recommendation of recent Oh! Murder podcast guest Jennifer Herrera, and she was right to put it on my radar. It seemed odd that I had missed this book, as I love Tana French’s work.
One aspect of The Likeness, as well as all of Tana French’s writing, that grabbed be from the beginning, was the mood it creates. Jennifer Herrera said there was an echo or a sympathetic tone in this book that she felt in The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and I felt it loud and clear.
This book doesn’t just tell you a story, it holds you inside its world the whole time you read it. I found myself still in its thrall for a full day after I finished. The elements that made this book especially successful, in my opinion were these:
The main character steps into the role of the victim
We get to live as the victim and an outsider simultaneously
Undercover work is intoxicating and grants the main character access to a dream world she can escape into
Getting to enter into a series of nested experiences makes this feel like a series of treasures: we step into the world of the book just as the character steps into the victim’s world and we explore this together, each of us looking over the shoulder of another. As the main character says, the focus in a mystery is usually the suspects, the killer, and the detective, or sleuth if it’s that sort of story. This novel brings us solidly into the role of the victim, and does so expertly.
It wasn’t easy to shake this one off, but I’m glad it clung on as well as it did.
Comments for this post are open for all subscribers and I so look forward to hearing your thoughts on these books as well as what you’ve been reading and enjoying lately.
More in Iris Drake later this week…