Maisie Dobbs in Gibraltar on the Periphery of the Spanish Civil War

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs murder mysteries are always interesting and enjoyable.   A Dangerous Place is no exception.  Maisie, a recent widow, is working her way through a period of great personal trauma when she stops in Gibraltar on her way home to England after sojourns in Canada and India.  The setting is the sinister, troubled period of the Spanish Civil War, and Gibralter is right on the brink of it, literally.   There is a lot going on, and perspectives keep changing.   In addition to Winspear’s inspired choice of setting and an unexplained murder, she gives us Maisie Dobbs.  Dobbs is a different kind of detective — thoughtful to the extreme about the crime in question and the people around her.  In this novel, Dobbs is also compelled to give a great deal of thought to her own well being.  She is trying to center herself even as she unravels the murder she has discovered.

I really like this series because of Maisie Dobbs and the way she approaches her cases.  This particular novel is especially good because of the horrific yet fascinating political context presented by the Spanish Civil war and the inexorable  approach of fascism.

S.D. Sykes’ Plague Land Presents an Complex Murder Mystery Against the Back Drop of Britain After the Plague

S.D. Sykes has written a masterful murder mystery set in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death in Britain.  Plague Land has an unwilling hero.  Oswald de Lacy, the third son of a minor British lord, was destined for the religious life, despite his lack of faith.  When Oswald’s father and two elder brothers are killed by the plague, Oswald inherits his father’s title and returns home literally to become the lord of the manor.  

In the course of an interesting plot and intriguing characters, S.D. Sykes tells her readers quite a bit about how the Black Death

I Will Have Vengeance, The Winter of Commissario Riciardi — A Very Noir Neapolitan Mystery

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I Will Have Vengeance – The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi is Maurizio de Giovanni’s first book in the Commissario Ricciardi series.  Based on the two books I have read thus far, this is a great series.  Commissario Ricciardi is a compelling  and mysteriosly driven detective struggling in the dangerous muck of fascist Naples.   The few friends he has are intriguing in their own right, and Naples provides a dangerous and romantic backdrop.

Since I Will Have Vengeance is the first novel in the series, De Giovanni takes his time describing Commissario Ricciardi, his environment and what makes him tick.  Ricciardi is an unusual, tragic soul with a mystical approach to solving crimes.   I found the mystical twist to be an unnecessary distraction, but I still loved this book.  Ricciardi is plenty smart; he doesn’t need to “see things” that others do not see.  Mysticism aside,  Ricciardi is a compelling and clever detective whose remote and forbidding demeanor intimidates his boss and vaguely offends most of his colleagues.

The historical and operatic context of I Will Have Vengeance is its greatest strength.  A nasty yet immensely talented opera singer is bumped off, and Ricciardi faces intense political pressure to solve the case immediately.   The year is 1931, and Mussolini’s fascism has overtaken Italy, but this particular mystery is driven by opera.   As it happens, Ricciardi knows little about opera, so an enthusiastic opera buff is recruited to educate the detective about the opera and its singers.   It is a nice twist to have an Italian detective know so little about opera, and we learn as Ricciardi learns.

Even so, the prevailing political mood is sinister and opportunistic.  Fairness and justice are early casualties, although this book doesn’t have the cold and deadly atmosphere of terror that dominates a later book I read in this series.  Clearly things will be getting much worse in fascist Italy.

I happen to love European noir mysteries.  This excellent series stands out because it is set in Naples, which combines its own blend of poverty and corruption with deadly fascist terror.  With the benefit of hindsight, I recommend that you read this series in order to take full advantage of De Giovanni’s brilliant depiction of the creeping horror of fascism, while at the same time developing a complex picture of an unusual and oddly pragmatic detective and his friends.

A Bullet in the Ballet – Hilarious Ballet Murder Mystery

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Now for something completely different.  Caryl Brahms & SJ Simon’s A Bullet in the Ballet combines a  1930’s British mystery with the wonderful world of ballet, and the result is hilarious.  A Bullet in the Ballet was first published in 1937, but its artistic lunacy is timeless.  In this  giddy mystery, artistic temperament runs amok.  A struggling, second-rate Russian ballet company is performing ballet Petroushka in London when one of its stars is murdered.   It comes as no particular surprise that the victim wasn’t very nice, had lots of enemies and isn’t much missed.  Indeed, the ballet company remains pretty much unfazed by the murder, except to fret about how it will affect scheduling and, more importantly, offer the chance for a lesser dancer to snag a starring role.  “The show must go” definitely trumps solving the murder for this company.

Enter Adam Quill, a not particularly successful detective, who wants to redeem himself and get this case right.  Poor Quill struggles to get the impresario Vladimir Stroganoff and the rest of Strigranoff’scompany to focus on the murder and answer a few questions.  Instead they keep offering him tea and diversions.  While Quill never entirely abdicates his professional responsibilities, he is charmed and inevitably swept up in the zany world of Stroganoff and his assorted dancers, both aspiring and aging out.   Ultimately solving the mystery plays a distant second fiddle to the wonderfully crazy atmosphere of artistic desperation and opportunism.

I generally avoid books with two authors, but am happy I broke my rule here.  Caryl Brahms was a dance critic, and SJ Simon was an expert bridge player and writer, of all things.  They lived in the same lodgings and wrote a bunch of books together.  They are a fantastic writing duo.

A Bullet in the Ballet evokes the madcap qualities of 1930’s movies such as “Bringing Up Baby.”  Let me just say that Cary Grant would have been an outstanding Detective Quill.  If you are in the mood for a funny murder mystery or happen to love ballet, this is a wonderful read.

It is worth mentioning that I only heard of this book because I read The Wall Street Journal’s  Saturday book reviews, which are a wonderful source of interesting books from the past. I don’t know if  A Bullet in the Ballet is still in print, but it was very easy to find a used copy on line.

Death Among Friends — Cyril Hare Short Story Mysteries with a Legal Twist

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If you like English murder mysteries, you need to know about Cyril Hare.  Hare was a London barrister who spent much of his long legal career in a chambers known for handling high profile criminal cases.  Throughout his long legal career, which culminated in a judgeship, Hare also wrote murder mysteries.  In Death Among Friends, a short story compilation, Hare proves the point that it never hurts to look at events from a completely different and somewhat skewed angle.

Hare’s murder mysteries, many of them written in the years between the wars, frequently turn on some arcane legal point.  In Death Among Friends, Hare offers both short and longish detective stories where the precise reason for a murder is often as obscure as the manner in which the murder is accomplished.   Greed is the overwhelming motive in most of these stories, and of course by itself that is not so unusual.  What makes these stories so interesting and fun to dissect, however, is the care and imagination Hare employs to develop and justify the basis and manifestation of his characters’ greed and expectations.

Hare’s legal bent is highly entertaining for lawyers, but these stories and his longer books engage anyone hooked on unexpected and clever plot lines.  Hare doesn’t spend a lot of time developing characters, except to the extent that he creates some very selfish, single-minded people.   I do prefer novel-length murder mysteries and highly recommend Cyril Hare’s longer books.  Even if they are out of print, they can generally be found as used books on line or in your favorite used book store.  To have a complete background in the English murder mystery you really need to read Cyril Hare.

A Beautiful Blue Death

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A Beautiful Blue Death is fantastic book title, and Charles Finch’s murder mystery lives up to the promise of its title.  It is always wonderful to discover a new author who has written a series of mysteries with an interesting detective.   A Beautiful Blue Death is the first in a series, and I have high hopes that the other books in the series will be equally interesting.

Charles Lenox is an English gentleman whose avocation is solving mysteries.  In A Beautiful Blue Death, Lenox can’t resist getting drawn into the murder of a young housemaid.  Lenox is an interesting man.  He clearly longs for something else in his life and loves to plan exotic trips he is unlikely to take  —  he knows somehow that something will get in the way.  All the book’s characters are well-drawn, and there is a potential romantic interest in the form of a thoughtful and content youngish widow.  In addition to an excellent detective, fine characters and a complex plot, Charles Finch draws an excellent picture of Victorian England.  The political context and the social order are an important part of A Beautiful Blue Death, and the book is the better for it.  All in all, this series holds great promise.  I’ve already ordered the next book in line.

Excellent Combination of Period Mystery and Contemporary Novel

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Elizabeth Ironside has written a beautiful and intelligent mystery, Death in the Garden.  The story goes back and forth between modern England and England between the Wars.  An unpleasant MP is discovered dead in the garden of his country estate during a house party weekend of old friends.  Most of the guests at the house party have an artistic or academic bent and also share grim experiences from World War I and its aftermath.  Their personal stories are complex and presented in overlapping layers.  That story along would support a novel.

Happily, Ironside also provides a complicated, yet sympathetic modern story, and the book goes back and forth between the two eras and their plots in an elegant, seamless manner.   In the modern story, Helena, an overworked London lawyer, inherits the country estate upon the death of an elderly aunt, who was the hostess of the house party and the wife of the dead MP.   Upon learning that her aunt had a hidden and scandalous past involving an unsolved murder, Helena tries to unravel what happened, even as she deals with complications in her own life.

I highly recommend this elegant mystery because of its plot, the wonderful period settings and its cast of troubled, yet sympathetic characters.

A Man Without Breath — An Excellent Bernie Gunther Novel

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I am a big fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, and A Man Without Breath is an excellent addition to the series.  Bernie Gunther would like to be an ordinary criminal investigator, but the Nazi regime and World War II make that impossible.  No one is untainted in Bernie Gunther’s world, but Philip Kerr still manages to present Gunther as a sympathetic character  —  hard-bitten with just a little bit of idealism left in him.  Humphrey Bogart would have played him very well.

This time Gunther finds himself in on the Eastern Front on an errand for Joseph Goebbels.  It is the Spring of 1943, and a lot of Germans have begun to realize the war may not end well for them.  Their frantic maneuvering doesn’t preclude still more atrocities, but it does muddy the waters for Gunther, who would really just like to solve his crimes and go home to Berlin.  There is a plethora of interesting historical detail, particularly with respect to the NKVD’s own atrocities and the growing interest on the part of certain aristocrats in assassinating Hitler.  It is a grim story, but the characters, plot and setting are really interesting.  Kerr adds some Casablanca-like repartee, a little romance and an excellent sense of the absurd to make this a really good novel.

Dark Mystery Set in Fascist Naples

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Murder mysteries set in Fascist Europe are dark and creepy.  There is something particularly ominous and exciting about a detective trying to do his job and solve a crime in an atmosphere of violent corruption.  Typically the detective’s efforts to solve the crime peel away layer upon layer of cruelty and horrific abuse, and no one is really a good guy.   This is the essence of noir, with the added dimension of knowing how much worse  things are going to get as Fascism plays out.  The reader knows that most of these characters are doomed and that they have no idea of the horrors that await them.

Viper, a dark Italian mystery by Maurizo deGiovanni, is a fine contribution to this gloomy genre.  Set in Naples in 1932, Viper involves a murder at a brothel in 1932, and Commissario Ricciardi has the case.  The characters are well-drawn and conflicted.  Ricciardi is very much a Humphrey Bogart sort of character.  He is smart and sarcastic, while at the same time displaying a closet idealism.  He fears what is to come.   Notwithstanding his scruples, circumstances compel him to play ball with terrifying thugs.  He has a few cards to play and uses them carefully, but the new Fascist order complicates everything and threatens everyone.  Much as Ricciardi and his colleagues might like to proceed with business as usual and simply solve the murder, the present reality drags them into bed with the regime and its representatives.  The solution to the crime is cleverly plotted, and fortunately the humor and understanding among Ricciardi’s various relationships mitigate some of the despair.  The unresolved romantic backstory adds some welcome humanity and a pleasing vulnerability to a very interesting detective.

I highly recommend this book, particularly to readers who are interested in Italy and in Europe between the two world wars.  I can’t wait to go back and read the first book in this series.

A Mystery for Downton Abbey Fans

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Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman is Tessa Arlen’s first mystery, and it is quite enjoyable.  The murder is set in a large country house during a lavish weekend party.  The time frame is just after Edward VII’s death and before World War I, and in the background it is clear that many things are changing in England and for the characters in this book.  The murder causes Lady Montfort and her housekeeper Mrs. Jackson to consult and work together in a damage control effort.  This is an interesting partnership, and in general the interplay between Upstairs and Downstairs is entertaining.  I found Mrs. Jackson to be the most interesting character, but the Lady Montfort character also held some surprises.  This is a relatively light book and a quick read, so I would have found it helpful to have a Cast of Characters section at the beginning of the book.  All the lords and ladies were confusing.  It was difficult enough to keep track of the host family and its staff, but the aristocratic visitors frequently appeared without introduction.  That small reservation aside, if you like Downton Abbey and enjoy light period mysteries, this is a very good read.