What I Read in February

Friday, February 28, 2020

February has been kind of an eclectic month for me. I’ve been reading a lot of writing craft books and several history books. But I’ve still made time for some mysteries.

The Fourth Descendent
By Allison Maruska

When Michelle receives a call from a Richmond historian, she sees the chance for a much-needed adventure. All she has to do is find a century-old key.

Three others – a guitarist, an engineer, and a retiree – receive similar calls. Each family possesses a key to a four-lock safe found buried in a Virginia courthouse, though their connection is as mysterious as the safe itself. Their ancestors should not have interacted, had no apparent reason to bury the safe, and should not have disappeared thereafter.

Bearing their keys, Michelle and the other descendants converge in the courthouse basement and open the safe, revealing the truth about their ancestors - a truth stranger, more deadly, and potentially more world-changing than any of them could have imagined. Now it’s up to them to keep their discovery out of the wrong hands.

I love a good treasure-hunt mystery and, for the most part, this book fulfilled that classification. Unfortunately, the ending was a bit of a downer, and I was disappointed with the way certain elements turned out.

The Case of the Perjured Parrot
By Erle Stanley Gardner

One of the best plotted books in the series. I kept highlighting things in this book. I remember the ending being a bit of a let-down, which is why only 4 stars.

The Case of the Rolling Bones
By Erle Stanley Gardner

This book shows that all authors have their ups and downs. After loving The Case of the Perjured Parrot, I barely got through this one. As one Goodreads reviewer said “Convoluted plot, with too many characters and one of them with far too many aliases.”

The title of this book comes from a pair of loaded dice, but they don’t play an important part in the story. It’s almost as if Gardner needed a catchy title, then forced himself to work something into the plot to justify using it.

I found it very confusing to follow what was going on, and I wasn’t sure I really cared.

Surprisingly, the most enjoyable books I’ve been reading lately have been non-fiction, research for my historical mystery series. Even though I’m not finished with it yet, I have to recommend:

Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull
By Barbara Goldsmith

This is a fascinating story of the Victorian Age. As last week’s post alluded to, what we learned in school was only the tip of the iceberg. The women who led the the suffrage movement were complex human beings and often worked at cross-purposes to one another.

One aspect of this that I’d never known was how closely woman suffrage was tied to the fight to get black men the right to vote. Some wanted the two issues to be addressed in one amendment. Others thought it would be wiser to separate them, to assure the newly-freed black men the vote, and then attack the second issue. You already know which side won that argument.

Despite the title, Victoria Woodhull isn’t the focus of the story, at least not as far as I’ve read at this point. Yes, she’s mentioned, but I haven’t gotten to the parts I bought the book for yet: her career as a publisher and her run for president.

She wasn’t the only suffragette to run for office. Surprisingly, while it wasn’t legal for women to vote, there was nothing preventing them running for office. I don’t remember any of them winning.

None of this was covered in the history classes I took. I wonder if things have changed very much. If you have school-aged children, I’d be interested in hearing about history classes today.


A Passion for History

Saturday, February 22, 2020
History was always my least favorite subject. The way it was taught was an endless series of dates and events, mostly centered around wars. When I got to the age when I had to pass the New York States Regents Exams (do they even have those now?), we used to joke about the fact that the most important thing to know was three causes and three results of every war that ever happened.

The only history that had any interest for me at all was ancient Egypt. I think it was because of the pyramids and the odd writing that was pictures and the way kings were buried with gold and jewels and, yes, food and drink for the afterlife.

Needless to say, I didn’t take any history classes in college. Who needed to know more of that boring stuff?

I’ve figured out that the problem was (is?) history is taught all wrong. The part they leave out is that history is the story of people and ideas and a way of life.


Sneak Peek

Sunday, February 16, 2020
I’m all smiles right now because the first book in my Strong and Wade historical mystery series will be releasing next week. It’s been a long path developing this series, but the effort has absolutely been worth it. I love my new characters, Titus Strong and Elisabeth Wade, and the setting is one I’ve wanted to write about for years. I just needed to discover the story that belonged there.

This series is a little darker than my cozy mysteries, so it might not be to everyone’s taste. That’s okay. We can still be friends.

Because I don’t want anyone to buy the first book and be disappointed, I’m making the first two chapters available here on my blog, at least for a limited time. I hope you enjoy them.

Unsafe Harbor

Chapter One

Katie Sullivan leaned against the bar that ran the length of the wall, surveying the action. One of two gambling rooms in the Seaview Hotel, she found Golden Chances a congenial place to approach potential clients. The din of conversation almost drowned out the plinking of a piano a few feet away, but Katie thought she recognized the song as one by vaudeville star George M. Cohan. The combination of music and chatter made it impossible to hear anything spoken more than six inches away from your ear. But Katie wasn’t talking at the moment, so she didn’t mind. Supporting her weight on her elbows, Katie stopped her scan at a table directly in front of her on the opposite side of the room.
It looked like Ranson Payne, chairman of the Board of Selectman, had himself another victim. Three of the other players were regulars, cronies of Payne who often sat down for a friendly game of poker of an evening. But the fourth was a newcomer, someone Katie hadn’t seen in town before. There were always strangers in Whitby in the summer, but for some reason this one drew her attention. The middle-aged man wore a brown herringbone sack coat with a white shirt and tie. He’d already loosened his tie.
Despite the cooling sea breeze that came off the Atlantic Ocean in the evenings and blew through the open windows, his forehead shone with a sheen of perspiration in the light of the new electric chandeliers overhead. Katie preferred the old gaslit ones herself. They provided shadowed corners where you could talk privately, often essential in her line of work. The bright lighting seemed to discourage potential customers from speaking to her, afraid someone would notice them negotiating with the madam of the Honey House. But the patrons of the luxury hotels in Whitby expected such modern fixtures, and so electricity had been brought to this part of town.
The stranger’s eyes narrowed as he stared at his cards. He had an intriguing air about him. While his dark beard and mustache were neatly trimmed, he wore his hair considerably longer than a gentleman would, with the ends a good inch below his collar. It gave him a rakish look.
A small pile of cash was stacked in front of him. From the size of the pile in the middle, Katie could only assume he’d contributed substantially to Payne’s coming win. While the newcomer contemplated his next move, one of the waiters arrived at the table with a tray filled with drinks. He put a glass next to each one of the card players—except the stranger, who waved him off.
“Tony,” she called out as the waiter came toward the bar to refill his tray. The young man filled out his black suit nicely, and Katie knew from experience most of that wasn’t from the revolver in the shoulder holster under his jacket. The crowd in the gambling room could get rowdy, and waiters were often hired as much for their fighting ability as their serving skills.
Tony detoured from his target and beelined toward her. “Good evening, Mrs. Sullivan. What can I do for you?”
“Who’s the new sucker?” She indicated the stranger with a tilt of her chin.
Tony turned to see who she was asking about. His eyes widened with surprise, then he smiled at her. “Don’t you know?”
Katie shifted her weight so she was no longer leaning on the bar and gave the young man a steely stare. “If I knew, would I be asking you?”
“Well, I thought you would have seen him in the papers. That’s Titus Strong, the lawyer.”
Katie gave the stranger a closer look. Now that Tony had identified him, he was unmistakable, if you ignored the shaggy hair and beard. He’d been in the Boston papers often enough over the last few weeks, usually posed next to his celebrity client, Richard Davenport. Davenport had been found standing over the body of his dead wife, a wife it was rumored he didn’t get along with. Despite almost incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, Strong had gotten a not-guilty verdict. As always, money talked, whether in Boston or in Whitby.
“Anything else, Mrs. Sullivan?”
Katie shook her head without altering the direction of her gaze. “No, thanks.”
Strong pushed his remaining cash into the center of the table, then showed his cards. With a knowing smile, Payne spread his hand on the table, then gathered in the pot. Strong rose to his feet, and after a word or two, left the table and headed in Katie’s direction.
Katie gave him her welcoming-but-not-too-interested look as he approached the bar. Losers could often do with some consolation from one of her girls. She wondered if Titus Strong was one of those losers.
* * *

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A Clash of Kings
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