A Proposal to Die For by Vivian Conroy

todieforA Proposal to Die For is a combined romance and mystery with the winning Lady Alkmene Callender. It goes quickly and is easy to read, with Lady Callender proving to be an enjoyable narrator. I like that she’s bored and this inspires her investigation, rather than thinking herself special.

From the book’s description: ‘With her father away in India, Lady Alkmene Callender finds being left to her own devices in London intolerably dull, until the glamorous Broadway star Evelyn Steinbeck arrives in town! Gossip abounds about the New York socialite, but when Ms Steinbeck’s wealthy uncle, Silas Norwhich, is found dead Lady Alkmene finds her interest is piqued. Because this death sounds a lot to her like murder…’

It should include the romance angle, since this features quite heavily in the book. There’s a mysterious reporter in the tall, dark and intriguing category. Lots of flashing looks and sizzling arguments.

The mystery of Mr. Norwhich’s death is a prominent part of the story. I love the setup for the crime and the host of suspects. The murder proves to be fairly straightforward and has few twists, but I enjoyed the book and would give the next one a try.

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.
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The Mirror Crack’d by Agatha Christie

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side by Agatha Christie

A bold, clever murder spirals into desperate measures. 

A clever Agatha Christie that’s lamentably too short, The Mirror Crack’d is almost like two stories. One is the classic mystery and the other is a dissertation of sorts on growing old, especially after WWII.

Set closer to the 1950s, Miss Marple is far less mobile and relies on the help of the annoyingly kind Mrs. Knight. Mary St. Mead is modernising, but not always for the better, as the townhouse style development shows. Like the last Poirot case, Miss Marple is definitely struggling with the physical indignities of growing old while her mind is still razor sharp.

The mystery itself is extremely clever, a classic Christie, where golden age Hollywood meets 1950s England. An innocent woman is poisoned by mistake when a beautiful, tragic actress was the intended victim. Who tried to kill Marina – her apparently devoted husband? The cool young secretary almost certainly in love with the husband? Or one of a slew of jilted lovers, ex-husbands or cast-off children?

This wasn’t my favourite book by Christie. My main complaint is how short it is – we don’t get as much chance to really dig into motives and personalities. The stakes could’ve been raised and the characters better explored with more length.

But there’s always the brilliant puzzle, so painfully obvious in retrospect, to buoy an otherwise decent read.

Guest post: Writing an authentic historical mystery

I was thrilled to ask debut author Cheryl Honigford about how she researched the 1930s. Her novel, The Darkness Knows, is a vibrant murder mystery that sparkles with energy and authenticity. I love her answer!

“My debut novel, THE DARKNESS KNOWS, is set in 1938. I was not alive then and very few of the people in my life were either. I do have, however, a passion for the era and a passion for history, in general. To me, writing historical fiction is a way for me to spend inordinate amounts of time researching and “living in” an era that is not my own with the added bonus of being able to produce something tangible from all that research and daydreaming.

So how did I write characters that are products of a time I have no first-hand knowledge of? First, I sought out media (movies, radio shows, newspapers, magazines, etc…) of the actual time period. Immersion in the pop culture of the period was key for me – the music, the hairstyles, the fashions. That gave me a good overall impression of life during the 1930s, but it didn’t tell me how people actually lived. The next thing I did was find memoirs and first person narratives of those that were living in the 1930s. For example, I found a memoir of a radio actor written only ten years or so after that time period. That gave me mundane details about how shows were produced and simply what it was like to be an actor/actress for the radio in the late 1930s. It was invaluable since most information about radio in the era has more of a history text book feel – focused on dates, and names and events. History books, in general, don’t usually document the average details of people’s daily lives, and it’s those details that will bring your historical fiction to life. Diaries and letters can be helpful – especially if you’re dealing with a time period pre-mass media. And if you’re lucky enough to be writing a time period in the not so distant past there are probably people all around you that actually lived it. They’re likely more than happy to share what high school was like in 1963, or how they started and drove a car in 1980.

My two main characters, Vivian and Charlie, are fictional but they are products of a very specific time in history. They were born in the early 1910s and came of age in the late 1920s. Vivian, especially, was formed by the devil-may-care atmosphere of 1920s. Their speech, their interests, their references need to be firmly rooted in that time. My only advice for getting something like that right is to immerse yourself in the time period so that it becomes second nature to you to write in that “voice”. Luckily for me, a lot of pop culture source material of the late 1930s still exists – magazines, movies, old radio shows themselves. I’ve watched countless old movies and listening to hundreds of hours of period radio broadcasts. It’s become second nature to me to know when what’s “period” 1930s or 1940s speech, and I can tell in a heartbeat if something is off or anachronistic (just ask my husband who has to suffer through my pointing them out if we’re watching anything set prior to 1950). Still, it’s difficult to get everything right. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve googled “First usage of <insert word here>”. Words have a way of worming their way into the language and acting like they’ve always been there.

Having said all of that, I think it’s also important to remember that people are people. Human beings’ main motivations remain the same no matter the time period. Love, hate, jealousy – that’s what makes the world go round. It’s the way your characters go about expressing those motivations, however, that may be a bit different depending on your time period. Vivian’s arch rival, Frances, can’t start name-calling on social media in 1938, for example, but she can wage a gossip war behind the scenes at the radio station that’s just as effective in undermining Vivian’s reputation. As long as you are true to your characters base emotions and motivations the historical voice is something that will fall into place if you’ve done your research.”

An excellent journey into writing historical fiction, thank you so much Cheryl!

The Darkness Knows by Cheryl Honigford

thedarknessA 1930s radio star is thrown together with a private eye when she’s next in line for murder.

Starting out as a secretary, ambitious Vivian lands an high-profile role on the radio show The Darkness Knows. After a platonic date with her smoldering co-star Graham, she discovers the body of Marjorie, an established star that nobody liked. The only thing worse than finding the dead body is discovering she’s named by the killer.

She’s protected by a handsome dark horse, the private eye Charlie Haverman, like a classic if somewhat kinder Philip Marlowe. The two of them end up in compromising and dangerous situations (sometimes both at the same time) in their quest to uncover a killer. Everyone’s keeping something back about the murder, even the private eye. And Viv’s dealing with the ongoing threat of her jobs being yanked away, especially with the equally ambitious Frances fighting her for every role.

The setting of Chicago in the 1930s is well captured without overwhelming. Vivian’s got gumption and she’s determined to have a career in an era where women were expected to work only until they got married. She isn’t perfect, but her flaws only serve to make her more human.

The mystery angle was well done and there were plenty of red herrings. The murderer was not obvious but seemed to come a little out of nowhere, I thought there could’ve been a few more clues thrown in.

Definitely looking forward to the next book, I hope to see more of 1930s Chicago and slowly learn more about Vivian and Charlie.

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.

Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham

A classic British mystery blending danger, suspense and eerieness. 

After Traitor’s Purse, this is my favourite Campion mystery. It combines just the right amount of mystery, danger and comraderie with a spookiness that remains with you even after the puzzles are solved.

The story opens with a constable handed a shilling to a poverty-stricken young man. Visible means of support was required to avoid arrest, and the constable has known the young man in his better days.

Val is homeless after being estranged from his father – it is just one of Campion’s jobs to return the young man to the ancestral home. More importantly, he must protect the Gyrth Chalice that has been in Val’s family for centuries.

Campion doesn’t share many details, even with his beloved servant and former burglar Lugg. If you’ve not read a Campion mystery, it is the chemistry between these two that makes the series so delightful. Campion’s amiable, vacuous personality conceals a brilliant mind. He’s inclined to make light of danger and act foolish, so the trucculent motherliness of Lugg provides a beautiful counterweight.

But this mystery is a doozy and puts both of them in extreme peril. The evil people seeking the chalice could be any number of vague people. What do the priceless chalice, the death of Val’s foolish aunt, a secret society and a living nightmare have in common?

These are the trials that Campion and Lugg must face, along with Val, his lovely sister Penny and a host of other well-rounded characters. In their quest to save the chalice, they must face the stuff of nightmares in a spooky old wood and survive multiple scores of violence.

This book more so than even Christie or Marsh mysteries thrusts you deep into the English countryside. Somehow it takes you deep into a tiny village in the post-war 1920s while simultaneously layering in the spell of a much older England.

Like our Sam Gamgee said that Lothlorien was like being inside an elven song, so is Look to the Lady like being transported into something quintessentially English.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

monogramA modern homage to Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

Writing under the Agatha Christie name, Sophie Hannah has crafted an immensely complicated murder. The premise is fantastic – a woman tells Poirot not to prevent her death at the same time that three people are murdered in an elegant London hotel, monogrammed cufflinks in their mouths.

Recounting this story is a detective named Edward Catchpool, modeled after many companions who do not understand Poirot. The main difference being Catchpool’s feelings are treated with equal weight to the murder plot. So we learn a lot about Catchpool’s fear of dead bodies, which made his chosen profession of homicide detective rather odd.

The three odd deaths are soon traced to a village tragedy, but Poirot and Catchpool struggle continuously against a parade of partial truths and side characters. During the final denouement, things twist around repeatedly and confusingly. Yet even when the entire story comes out, it remains slightly convoluted.

The main plot was genius. I would’ve loved a little more period detail, and a dash less moaning in Catchpool, to find it an utterly delightful Christie. The addition of the subplot felt unneeded and I was surprised by Catchpool feeling even a slight moral dilemma about the murderer.

A solid addition to Christie’s canon of works, I look forward to trying the next one.

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink by James Anderson

AffairofminkA tongue in cheek version of a classic whodunnit, but also an excellently constructed mystery.

The 1930s house party at Lord and Lady Burford’s is a very clever parody of classic whodunnits. It owes as much to PG Wodehouse’s ‘jolly good’ style as it does to Agatha Christie’s brilliant plotting.

First there’s the charming Hollywood actor, the irritable screenwriter and the movie producer determined to film a movie at their estate. But then things start to go a little sideways when there appear a distant cousin, an uninvited actress and the two rival suitors for Lady Burford’s daughter.

When a murder occurs, the gentle Inspector Wilkins claims himself to be unlikely to solve the mystery and calls in Scotland Yard. The name dropping of Lord Peter Wimsey and Roderick Alleyn finally clued me in that this was a parody.

The inspector who is called in, Mr. Allgood, is a good poke at all the classics with his disdain of the local constabulary and his stubborn insistence on “only the facts”. This book is really like 3 or 4 plots at once, I am amazed at how the author managed to hang them together.

The ending is like the movie Clue – each denouement is proven believably correct and then shown to be wrong. After Allgood is left gaping and insisting it is all a big conspiracy in Oriental Express fashion, Wilkins produces the correct solution.

All in all a very enjoyable and amusing parody that still manages to bewilder you and keep you guessing, rather like an elaborate shell game.

The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola Dunn

DaisyWinterGardenA bold, vivacious sleuth takes on the 1920’s  with style.

Daisy Dalrymple is a modern woman with incredible energy and enthusiasm. She is the opposite of Poirot, she rushes from clue to clue, place to place, with a mixture of determination and persuasion. Even the Chief Inspector is in awe of her.

She comes from wealth but chooses to make her own way as a magazine writer and amateur photographer. When she arrives at Occles Hall to write about the garden, she’s caught up in the discovery of a buried body. It is poor Grace Moss, the parlourmaid who supposedly went off with a traveling salesman.

After an absolutely bumbling investigation by the local police, who are terrified of the dragonesque Lady Valeria, the case concludes with the arrest of Grace’s fiancé. As a Welshman, he’s a foreigner and makes for an easy target, despite his grief. Unable to let matters stand, Daisy summons her favourite policeman from Scotland Yard, Chief Inspector Fletcher.

Like many recently written 1920s mysteries, Daisy had a fiancé killed in the war and she has two possible rivals for her affections – eligible and kindly Philip Petrie, or sharp but kind Alec Fletcher. But Daisy does not spend all her time feeling lovelorn, she gets right on tackling the case – complicated by the possibility of suspects right in Occles Hall itself.

The culprit was not a big surprise but nor was it instantly obvious. I was most impressed with Carola Dunn’s take on the modern woman – Daisy ends up saving the inspector herself.

The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

secretA simple murder turns into a twisted case of witchcraft, abduction and evil.

4 years after arriving to run a pub in the tiny and tight knit village of High Eldersham, Mr. Whiteman is inexplicably murdered. Constable Viney, a young’un who never dealt with worse than a drunkard, is suddenly confronted with a knifed man drenched in blood.

Poor Viney is hopelessly outclassed. While waiting for his superiors to arrive, he downs a pint and makes an effort to investigate. But luckily for him, Scotland Yard is called in and Inspector Young soon arrives.

I was a little sad not to have ‘met’ ex-policeman Mr. Whiteman other than the briefest mention at the beginning. The author captures character vignettes extremely well and Whiteman is the sort of jovial, good-natured person I’d get on with pretty well.

It soon becomes clear that High Eldersham is very odd and doesn’t care for outsiders. So why then did they tolerate Whiteman so long? And why kill him now?

The story takes a bit of a supernatural turn and Inspector Young soon calls in his “intuitive” friend Desmond Merrion. Mr. Merrion is a bit of an expert in the supernatural and agrees that something is up.

The book descends into an occult darkness that feels almost Sherlockian. It is difficult to tell how an entire village is involved from uneducated farmers to the wealthy Sir William and his pretty daughter Mavis, odd Mr. Hollesley in love with Mavis, and the cynical Dr. Padfield.

Whether truly supernatural, the plot is most certainly evil. Inspector Young and Mr. Merrion almost lose everything trying to uncover the devilish conspirator…

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.