Review: The Plague Letters by V.L. Valentine


Title: The Plague Letters

Author: V.L. Valentine

Published: 1st April 2021, Viper

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Viper/Netgalley

+++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The Plague Letters is a debut historical mystery from V.L. Valentine set in 1665 as the Bubonic Plague sweeps through London.

I came perilously close to DNF-ing The Plague Letters at about the 10% mark, though I can’t really articulate why, however since I make a point of reading at least 100 pages before giving up on a book, I persevered. It’s wasn’t a decision I regretted exactly but in the end I thought the story as a whole was lacking.

The premise of the mystery is strong. Among the victims bought to Reverend Symon Patrick’s churchyard for mass burial as the Plague spreads through his parish, is a young girl whose body is marked by more than the weeping buboes characteristic of the Black Death. Fresh bruises, cuts, inked lines, and strange circular burns mar her skin, while twine is wound tightly around her wrists and ankles. The Reverend notes the horror, but it’s not until more similarly violated body’s are discovered, that something is considered seriously amiss.

Suspicion falls on the members of the Society for the Prevention and Cure of Plague with which the Reverend is associated – physician Dr Alexander Burnett, surgeon Lodowick Mincy, apothecary William Boghurst, and Valentine Greatrakes, a mystic healer. Any of the men seems capable of the crime, every one a buffoon, occasionally a source for horrifying hilarity, they are uniformly arrogant, ambitious, and essentially amoral, all of whom display the casual indifference to human life common to medical men of the 17th century, (except where it may reflect on their status within society). This, however, is where the issue lies with the plot for me, though there are at least five suspects proved capable of committing these crimes, I believe there is an absence of specific clues that suggests a single guilty party. It’s certainly possible I overlooked something, but I experienced no feeling of vindication or surprise when the guilty party was revealed, one or the other of which I personally find necessary for a mystery novel.

Sadly few of the characters did little to engage me either. Symon seems to have very little agency in the novel. He is a weak man, who spends most of his time trying to be invisible, largely ignoring the plague and his parishioners, distracted by daydreams about the attentions of a married woman. Having little inner strength or courage, Symon is easily led, which is just as well for Penelope, who has rather more than you’d expect from a 17th century, young, orphaned, homeless girl.

Penelope is really the catalyst and driving force for the development of the plot. Though she’s rather an improbable character for the times, her remarkable intelligence, determination, and bravery ensures that the dead girls aren’t ignored. She wedges herself into Symon’s life, refusing to allow him to shirk his responsibility, and relentlessly pushes for someone to be held account. With her brazen attitude and surprise gifts, I found Penelope to be the strongest and most appealing character.

Where I think the author excels in The Plague Letters is in their vivid descriptions of London under siege from the plague. The imagery is at times disturbing, though accurate, of victims tormented by the deadly progression of the disease, and the desperate acts of the medical men to stop it, of bodies piled in ‘dead carts’ chased by hungry dogs down the street, of pits dug in churchyards, tended to by young boys, filling with layers of the dead sprinkled with caustic lime as the overburdened ground begins to rise. Between each chapter a map shows the spread of the disease through the city and the mounting death toll. All of this also invites comparisons to the current pandemic, which may be uncomfortable for some.

In the end, I’m not sure the strengths and weaknesses of The Plague Letters quite balance each other out, as historical fiction I might recommend it, as a mystery I’d not, so overall sadly, somewhat disappointing.

++++++

Available from Serpent’s Tail

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Review: The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions by Kerry Greenwood

Title: The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions: The Ultimate Miss Phryne Fisher Collection

Author: Kerry Greenwood

Published: 30th March 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read March courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

If you are not yet familiar with the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, then this collection of short stories is a wonderful introduction to the elegant, sensual, and sassy lady private detective, while established fans will enjoy the opportunity to again accompany the intrepid investigator on her adventures in 1920’s Melbourne, and occasionally further afield.

In her introduction to The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions, Kerry Greenwood shares a little about how she developed Phryne, and her writing process. Greenwood also reminds readers that there are several significant differences between the world of the book series and that of the television series – Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. That said, anyone familiar with only the show will recognise Phryne’s companions, as well as several settings and scenes.

I was a little disappointed to find that of the seventeen short stories offered in The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions, there are only four new tales, set around the same time as the 21st book in the series, Death in Daylesford which was published earlier this year. The bulk have been published previously in a 2008 collection, A Question of Death, though Greenwood comments that some of these have since been edited to fit better with the chronology of the series.

Regardless, whether Phryne is searching for a missing husband, or a hat, outsmarting a blackmailer, or a cheat, or identifying a murderer, I found all of the story’s in The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions to be engaging. As always, I love Phryne’s dry observations and quick wit, her disinclination for suffering fools and her bent for natural justice.

Clever, entertaining, and charming, I found The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions to be a delight to read,.

+++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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International Women’s Day and Southern Cross Crime Month

 


It’s International Women’s Day today-March 8th – and March is also Southern Cross Crime Month hosted by ReadingMattersBlog, so to honour both, I’m sharing 8 crime fiction books by women writers from Australia or New Zealand which are published internationally, and therefore should be available in most book markets. 

*Covers may vary between markets – click on the cover to learn more

The Dry by Jane Harper

A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh

Gathering Dark by Candice Fox

Bound by Vanda Symon

Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic

The War Widow/Dead Man Switch by Tara Moss

Shanghai Secrets by Sulari Gentill

The Girl Who Never Came Home by Nicole Trope

 

This March perhaps you’d like to support an Australian or New Zealand female crime fiction writer by reading one of their books and sharing it via #SouthernCrossCrime2021 

Happy International Womens Day!

#ChooseToChallenge

A challenged world is an alert world. Individually, we’re all responsible for our own thoughts and actions – all day, every day. We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.

Review: Other People’s Houses by Kelli Hawkins

Title: Other People’s Houses

Author: Kelli Hawkins

Published: 3rd March 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy HarperCollins

+++++++

My Thoughts:

Imagining the life that could have been as she wanders through ‘open houses’ on Sydney’s north shore every weekend is just one of the ways Kate Webb copes with the ‘incident’. So is drinking every night until she passes out. One afternoon, as she pockets a pebble for her collection of mementos, Kate overhears the estate agent talking about an exclusive listing. Walking through the front door of the ‘Harding House’, Kate loses herself in the fantasy of living in the large, beautifully appointed mansion, and for a heart stopping moment when she spies a photograph of the family that lives in the home, she imagines their teenage son is her own, sparking an obsession that soon spirals out of control.

Kate is not a character to admire, she’s a drunk, and as such is self-serving and frequently reckless. However, it’s impossible to condemn her completely, her loss – referred to as the incident- is an unimaginable tragedy. Grief is a personal thing and while ten years mired in self-pity, anger and depression may seem excessive, when you know the full story, I dare you to judge her.

That said there is only the barest of justifications for Kate’s obsession with the Harding family – Pip, Brett and their son, Kingsley – though she is in such a state it’s not like she needs much. In theory her heart could be said to be in the right place, but her thinking is so disorganised that Kate triggers a hellish mess when she interferes. Hawkins builds the suspense as Kate blunders around, making the situation worse for herself, and the Harding’s.

To be honest I cared more about Kate’s fate than any one else’s, and it was mostly my investment in her emotional turmoil that kept me turning the pages. I didn’t find the major reveal to be a surprise, but the confrontation that followed was tense and the conclusion was satisfying.

Offering a compelling protagonist and an interesting storyline, I really enjoyed Other People’s Houses. This is a well-crafted crime fiction debut from Kelli Hawkins.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

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Review: The Silent Listener by Lyn Yeowart

 


Title: The Silent Listener

Author: Lyn Yeowart

Published: February 2021, Viking

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Silent Listener is a disquieting tale of a dysfunctional family, draped in tension and dread, from debut novelist, Lyn Yeowart.

Unfolding primarily from three perspectives over three time periods, The Silent Listener tells the story of the Henderson family. In 1943, Gwen is swept of her feet by George Henderson, who courts her with a singleminded determination. In 1960, their eleven-year-old daughter, Joy, is terrified of her father’s rages that regularly culminate in brutal beatings. In 1983, George is dying and Joy has returned to the family farm in rural Victoria with the goal of unmasking her father’s secrets.

Themes such as domestic violence, trauma, religious hypocrisy, mental illness, and poverty, makes for heartbreaking reading as George terrorises his family. Gwen’s dreams of a happy new life are quashed within days of her wedding. Her new husband’s charm is reserved for the townspeople who consider him an upright pillar of the community, ignoring the thick foundation Gwen applies to her face, arms and legs. Their children cower under their father’s control, their innocence slowly stripped with every brutal strike of the belt that leaves their bodies, and minds, bleeding and scarred.

Yeowart’s characters, both major and minor, are carefully crafted, though it is Joy who is the most compelling. Joy is a sensitive child, who seeks solace in God as she is instructed to, in her sister, Ruth, and words. A synesthete, words conjure vivid images for Joy, offering her an escape of sorts from the reality of her daily drudgery. It’s the disappearance of a young neighbour, nine-year-old Wendy Bascombe, and her older brother, Mark, that finally strips Joy completely of her innocence, and she finds secret ways to rebel.

With Joy’s return to Blackhunt, and George’s passing soon after, Yeowart creates another mystery that gives rise to some surprising twists and a shocking, pitiless conclusion. I’m not sure how I feel about the ending still, while it absolutely fits with the story, it’s sad and dispiriting.

Skilfully plotted, with vivid characters, and evocative writing, The Silent Listener is poignant, confronting, and gripping.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Review: The Second Son by Loraine Peck

Title: The Second Son

Author: Loraine Peck

Published: 4th January 2021, Text Publishing

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Text/Netgalley

+++++++

My Thoughts:

The Second Son is Loraine Peck’s impressive, thrilling crime fiction debut.

‘One. No friends. Two. No feelings. Three. No conscience. Only family. Everyone else is enemy.’

When Ivan Novak is shot dead in his driveway, his father, Milan is certain the leader of a rival Serbian gang is responsible and insists his younger son, Johnny exacts retribution. Johnny isn’t a killer and, not convinced the Serbs are responsible, is reluctant to perpetuate the war that began in Croatia on the streets of Sydney. Looking to deescalate the situation, Johnny develops a brilliant plan that he hopes will satisfy his father’s lust for revenge, and allow he, his wife, Amy, and son, Sasha, to finally escape his family’s stranglehold and start a new, legitimate life. But if the plan fails, Johnny risks losing everything.

Unfolding from the alternating perspectives of Johnny and Amy, The Second Son is an action-packed, (mostly) fast paced crime thriller that explores the themes of family, heritage, loyalty, revenge, and trauma.

Set in the western suburbs of Sydney, where the criminal underworld, often divided by ethnicity, competes for territory and illegal trade, Peck focuses on the animosity between the Serbs and Croats, their conflict imported from the Balkans civil war in the 1990’s. Milan Novak heads a gang of around 25, mostly family members, whose business involves drug trafficking, protection rackets, grand theft, armed robbery and money laundering, their territory abutting the Serbs, Italian, Asian and Bikie syndicates.

With his brother dead, Johnny is expected to step up and take his place as the second-in-command. Peck has given us a complex character, while his devotion to his wife and son are admirable, he is not exactly a good guy. He may not have a taste for killing, but he is not adverse to intimidation, or administering a beating, and his income is largely derived from illegal means. His relationship with his brutal father is complicated, and defying his orders seems impossible unless he can find an alternative. Peck cleverly plots a solution for Johnny, which I won’t share because it would spoil the surprise, but there is still great risk involved, especially in regards to keeping his marriage.

Johnny’s wife, Amy, has always turned a blind eye to the unsavoury elements of the family business, but when her safety and that of their son are threatened, she gives Johnny an ultimatum, demanding they move up north, far from the influence of her in-laws. Amy’s behaviour shows some naivety with regards to understanding the Novak family dynamic (though just enough nous to keep a dark secret), and she underestimates the danger her husband’s rivals presents. I liked her much more in the second half of the story, than the first.

In fact Amy was the cause of my only real issue with the novel as I found her perspective to be repetitive during the first half, which was a detriment to the pacing for me. The sag around the middle was soon forgotten though as Peck ups the stakes for both of her main protagonists, and the suspense drew me eagerly towards the conclusion.

There is quite a lot of violence in The Second Son but there are also flashes of humour. Peck’s writing is confident and engaging and I thought she showed a good understanding of both people, creating interesting, well-rounded characters, and setting, capturing a different aspect of Australian urban life.

The Second Son is an entertaining, tense and gritty crime novel, and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

++++++

Available from Text Publishing

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Review: Crackenback by Lee Christine

Title: Crackenback

Author: Lee Christine

Published: 1st February 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

+++++++

My Thoughts:

Crakenback follows Lee Christine’s bestselling debut, Charlotte’s Pass, featuring NSW Homicide Squad Detective Sergeant Pierce Ryder. It’s not necessary to have read the former however, as I found this story works very well as a stand-alone.

With the start of the ski season still a few weeks away, Golden Wattle Lodge proprietor Eva Bell is alone with her three year old, Poppy, when Jack Walker, bruised and bleeding, bursts through the door. Eva is terrified as he strips her of her phone and keys, irrationally convinced he has come for his daughter. Learning that Jack has instead come to protect them from a killer bent on revenge gives her only the smallest sense of relief.

Meanwhile DS Ryder and his small task force are searching for a new lead in the hunt for Gavin Hutton who is suspected of beating two men to death. Joined by Detective ‘Daisy’ Flowers, and new team member, Nerida Sterling, the investigation takes them from Sydney, south to Jervis Bay, north to the Central Coast and west to the Snowy Mountains, where their quarry is finally in sight.

Christine immediately captures the reader’s attention in Crackenback with a dramatic prologue, the relevance of which is revealed later in the story, but there’s plenty of action and tension to follow in this tightly plotted, exciting story.

I was as interested in the progress Ryder and his team were making in the search for their fugitive, as I was in Jack and Eva’s nervous wait for their attacker, though it quickly becomes clear they are one and the same. Both perspectives advance the plot and are neatly complimentary while building suspense. I thought the pacing of the story was very good, and I read it easily in one sitting.

Both Eva and Jack were appealing characters. I admired Eva’s determination to protect her daughter and her practical, sensible way of coping with the frightening situation she was thrust into. Jack has an interesting background, and he is obviously capable and resourceful. Though their relationship, which resulted in Poppy, was not much more than a one night stand, it’s obvious the pair are still attracted to each other, though Christine plays down the romance angle in favour of the action.

Unfortunately I hadn’t the opportunity to read Charlotte’s Pass so I’m not terribly familiar with Ryder, but I liked what I saw of him. It was his girlfriend Vanessa, who is also Eva’s sister, who had a larger role in that story. It seems likely to me that the third book will feature one of Ryder’s team.

While the main action takes place at the Lodge in Thredbo, and the deepening snow plays beautifully into the action, one of things I liked was the way in which Christine’s characters moved within the state of NSW. I was particularly delighted that my town of Taree even got a mention (though it wasn’t very flattering and, as far as I know, not true, given the Officer in Charge of our station is a woman).

With an intriguing storyline, fast paced action, and strong characterisation, I thought Crackenback was a great book, and I’ll definitely be reading Christine Lee’s next.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Review: Exit by Belinda Bauer

Title: Exit

Author: Belinda Bauer

Published: 2nd February 2021, Atlantic Monthly Press

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Atlantic/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

Belinda Bauer’s Exit is a delightful, offbeat murder mystery novel.

“Felix Pink found the predictability comforting – even if the predictable outcome was death.”

Seventy-five year old Felix Pink is an ‘Exiteer’, a volunteer with a secret group that aids, but does not assist, terminally ill people to end their own lives. A minor breach in protocol by Felix’s new partner, Amanda, seems innocent enough until they discover that they have in fact witnessed the death of the wrong man.

What follows veers between tragedy and comedy as Felix tries to understand how such a mistake could have been made. It soon becomes clear that the Exiteer’s were set up, but by who, and why? The answer is far more complicated than one might expect, and I’m loathe to spoil the smart twists of the plot that implicates more than one person.

Felix is a charming protagonist, he lives with his dog Mabel, enjoys puzzles, and considers himself boring but steadfast. The loss of both his wife and son is his motivation for joining the Exiteers and he believes he is doing important work. When he realises a mistake has been made he is horrified, eager to protect his partner, the group, and make to amends.

There are several other characters of importance to the story including the Exiteer’s group leader, Geoffrey, Amanda, the family of the dead man, and the investigating officers, DCI Kirsty King and DC Calvin Bridge who astute readers may recognise from Bauer’s previous works.

This is a well crafted tale with a unique hook. Witty, clever and engaging, I really enjoyed Exit.

++++++

Available from Atlantic Monthly Press

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Review: The Lost Boys by Faye Kellerman

 

 

Title: The Lost Boys {Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus #26}

Author: Faye Kellerman

Published: 17th January 2021, William Morrow

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy William Morrow

++++++

My Thoughts:

I thought I’d missed no more than a handful of the Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series but this is Kellerman’s 26th book featuring the couple and I’ve only read just over half, the last of which was book #22, Murder 101. Thankfully however this seems to matter little, aided in part because Kellerman ages her characters in real time.

In The Lost Boys, Decker and his partner Tyler are called in when a man disappears while on a field trip with a group from a local care home. In searching the woods nearby, a body is found in a shallow grave, but this man has lain there for at least a decade.

With his customary doggedness, Decker attacks both investigations. The missing man is his initial priority, with growing concerns that he has been targeted by because of his parent’s wealth. When blood is found at the home of a nurse that may be connected, Decker fears the worst, but despite his best efforts the case soon stalls. Unexpectedly Kellerman employs a cliffhanger of sorts in this instance, though the missing man is eventually located, the circumstance spawns another mystery.

In the second investigation, the remains prove to belong to one of three young college men who disappeared while on a camping trip. The damage to his skeleton suggests that he had been shot, and Decker wonders if he is looking for the bodies of his two companions, or if the two men may have killed the third and gone on the run. Investigating a ten year old cold case is a difficult task, but thorough police work results in an important break. In general I liked how this case played out, however one flaw I had difficulty overlooking was an emphasis on a shovel being out of place on a camping trip. Perhaps Faye has never been camping because I wouldn’t consider it at all strange that campers have a shovel, a digging implement is essential when there are no bathrooms.

While Decker is busy with police work, Rina is offering moral support to their foster son, Gabe whose biological mother has suddenly returned to the States with Gabe’s half siblings. It’s clear Terry is in trouble and Gabe is torn when she asks for his help, but it seems inevitable he will be drawn into the mess she has got herself into.

With this, and the unanswered questions of the first investigation, Kellerman has laid the foundation the next book in the series, though I think it’s clear that it’s end is creeping closer. Peter is seventy or thereabouts and is making plans for his retirement from the force, but there are hints, I think, that Tyler could take up the mantle.

Kellerman offers up two well paced, and involving mysteries in The Lost Boys, but as a fan it’s the opportunity to catch up with Peter, Rina and their family that I enjoy the most.

++++++

Available from William Morrow Books

Or from your preferred retailer via Indiebound I Book Depository I Booko

Review: The Last Truehart by Darry Fraser

Title: The Last Truehart

Author: Darry Fraser

Published: 2nd December 2020, Mira Au

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Harlequin Au

“A woman alone and a charismatic private detective are caught up in a dangerous quest to discover her true identity in this thrilling historical adventure romance set in 19th century Victoria, from a bestselling Australian author.

1898, Geelong, Victoria. Stella Truehart is all alone in the world. Her good-for-nothing husband has died violently at the hands of an unknown assailant. Her mother is dead, her father deserted them before she was born, and now her kindly Truehart grandparents are also in their graves.

Private detective Bendigo Barrett has been tasked with finding Stella. He believes his client’s intentions are good, but it is evident that someone with darker motives is also seeking her. For her own part Stella is fiercely independent, but as danger mounts she agrees to work with Bendigo and before long they travel together to Sydney to meet his mysterious client where they discover more questions than answers.

What role do a stolen precious jewel and a long-ago US Civil War ship play in Stella’s story? Will sudden bloodshed prevent the resolution of the mystery and stand in the way of her feelings for Bendigo? It is time, at last, for the truth to be revealed..”

++++++

My Thoughts:

Captivating adventure romance set in 19th century Australia! Full review to come…

++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia at HarperCollins

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