What I Read in August

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Murder At Melrose Court: A 1920s Country House Murder (Heathcliff Lenox #1)
Karen Menuhin


A classic English mystery that hits all the notes. Major Heathcliff Lennox discovers the body of a fat man on his doorstep just as he’s about to leave to join some friends at their country house for the holidays. He has no idea who the man is or why he’s appeared on his doorstep. After being delayed in his departure while the police investigate, he embarks on his trip.
This is the first of three bodies that Major Lennox will encounter. The second is the Countess Sophia, a Russian émigré who is now the fiancé of his host, the uncle of his best friend, Edgar. Since she was shot with Major Lennox’s pistol, he’s the primary suspect, although he swears he had nothing to do with it.
Heavy snows keep the police from completing their investigation, so Lennox decides to solve the crime on his own. He collects evidence and questions everyone in the house, and, of course, discovers whodunnit. The weather clears enough for the police to arrive and hear his explanation.
A well-written story that I mostly enjoyed. There was a brief section in the middle where it did seem to drag a bit, but once I was through that, I was eager to read to the end.
There’s a second book in this series, which I’ve place on my to-read list.



Murder on Astor Place (Gaslight Mysteries #1)
By Victoria Thompson


I am amazed that I’d never heard of this series before running across it while doing an Amazon search. As the series name implies, the books take place during the Victorian Age, but (if you know the street name, you won’t be surprised at this) in New York City rather than England.
The heroine/amateur sleuth is a widow in her thirties, working as a midwife because her upper class family disowned her when she married someone below her station. Sarah Brandt, while performing her duties, discovers that a young woman she’d briefly met on a prior visit has been murdered. She remembers the girl because of strong resemblance to a childhood best friend and can’t help wanting to know more about how and why the girl was killed.
Sargent Frank Malloy is in charge of the investigation, and he and Sarah knock heads… until they decide to cooperate. Even then, they have their disagreements and aren’t always pleased with the way the other one is behaving.
It turns out the murdered girl, Alicia, is the younger sister of Sarah’s remembered friend, which gives her more motivation to find her killer and more access to information through her social contacts than the detective has. The story is told from both main characters’ points of view, which makes the story richer than if it were limited to only one.
I have to say this was a marvelous book, with an unexpected twist at the end. The quality of the writing was well above average and it kept me reading until the very end. In fact, it was so good, I immediately downloaded the next in the series to my Kindle.

What the Dead Leave Behind
By Rosemary Simpson


A Gilded Age mystery that takes place in New York City.

I was reminded that another Tucson author writes mysteries, specifically Gilded Age mysteries, and so, once I determined that the publisher had set the Kindle price beyond my self-imposed price limit, eagerly checked the hardcover out of the library.
In this book, Prudence MacKenzie, the daughter of a recently deceased judge, faces life with (I can’t say this any other way) a wicked stepmother and her brother. But things are due to change. Prudence has a fiancé, Charles Linwood, a lawyer, and before his death, her father carefully wrote his will to specify that Linwood, once married to Prudence, would manage the inheritance, and that should anything happen to Prudence, the portion set aside for his widow would go to charity.
Unfortunately, the Blizzard of 1888 intervenes, and Linwood, while attempting to fight his way through the storm with two of his colleagues, sits on a park bench for a brief rest and is killed by snow-laden branches crashing into his skull.
Maybe…
With the grief from the death of her father and fiancé close to overwhelming her, the stepmother thoughtfully provides laudanum to Prudence to ease her pain. It dulls her emotions and fogs her thoughts. Laudanum use was common among Victorian ladies as a cure for a variety of maladies. People overlooked the opium derivative’s addictive qualities. Women were thought too fragile to deal with life’s obstacles on their own.
With the help of a cast of characters, Prudence attempts to prove her suspicion that her father was murdered by Victoria, her stepmother, and that her fiancé’s death was not a natural calamity. On the other side, we have the allies of the stepmother, and a bunch of other shady characters.
The book is told in omniscient point-of-view, which has fallen out of favor for good reason. Now, I remember reading lots of books in omniscient POV in my teens, and it never bothered me. In fact, I had no idea that it’s hard to write omniscient because the authors I was reading did it well. But having the emotional reactions and thoughts of different characters appear in the same scene, sometimes with little warning, jarred me out of the story several times, particularly toward the end, as I determined that I was now reading those thoughts from a different point of view. There was even one paragraph that I’m pretty sure was told from the point of view of a horse. And then the next paragraph would continue in the same tone as that from before the intrusion.
I probably could have overlooked this if it were not for other problems with the novel, again particularly near the end of the book. There’s a concept in literature known as Chekhov’s Gun. Simply stated, it says:
If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there. - From Gurlyand's Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov
There’s also a corollary, which is if you fire a gun in the second act, it should be hanging on the wall in the first. In other words, solutions and objects should not appear when the sleuth needs them unless the author has previously introduced them. This is where “What the Dead Leave Behind” fails, in my opinion. Things happen and then the author explains how things got to that point. Prudence conveniently forgets an important fact, and then remembers it when the author needs her to know it.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

The end of the novel is a bloodbath, with all kinds of people dying at the hands of multiple bad guys. This really bothered me. Instead of having a clean resolution to the case, we have multiple villains popping up. Oh, they’re in the novel to begin with, but why do all of them have to kill someone?

*** END SPOILER ***

I was intrigued by the beginning of the book, had to slog through most of the second half, and didn’t like the way it ended. I really wanted to love this book, but I couldn’t.

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