A Stroke of Malice (Lady Darby, #7)

A Stroke of MaliceA Stroke of Malice
by Anna Lee Huber
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780451491381
Series: A Lady Darby Mystery #7
Publication Date: April 7, 2020
Pages: 372
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley Prime Crime

A solid, dependable series, which makes it sound like a beloved pair of sneakers, but I can’t think of one of the books in the series that’s really let me down, although some are better than others.

A Stroke of Malice takes place during a weekend at a Duke’s castle in Scotland, celebrating Twelfth Night, with Keira 6 months pregnant.  Call me unnatural, but this might be part of the reason it’s not my favorite of the series; there was much rubbing of the belly and cradling of said belly with heaps of overly sentimental musings about the sanctity of life and blah blah blah.  Just not my jam, but the mystery was extremely diverting and for almost all of it, I had no clue, though I should have.  Which makes the writing even better, in my opinion, since the answer was right there but she managed to keep me from seeing it.  A secret paternity is revealed too, which kept things interesting.

So generally, a good one but not the best, and likely other readers with even an ounce of maternal feelings won’t be as critical as I’ve been.

An Unexpected Peril (Veronica Speedwell Mystery, #6)

An Unexpected PerilAn Unexpected Peril
by Deanna Raybourn
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780593197264
Series: Veronica Speedwell Mystery #6
Publication Date: May 8, 2021
Pages: 340
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

Not every book in a series can be the best, not even in a series as fabulous as this one.  There’s always one that just doesn’t quite meet expectations.  This is that book in the Veronica Speedwell series, for me.

In previous books, Veronica has always been larger than life and proactive, doing what must be done, and damn the consequences.  She’s strong, independent, confident in who she is, and makes no apologies.

She’s none of that in An Unexpected Peril.  She’s still running full steam ahead, but this time it’s a reactive sort of running, going against the grain of her own personality by charging into an investigation that does not involve her as a means of running away from her own anxieties.  A woman who willingly discussed anything in the previous 5 books, now avoids discussing anything of import.  And given her character and Stoker’s, it’s a bit of a letdown in its predictability, something neither character had been thus far.

Still, putting that aside, the rest of the story is fun and kept my attention.  Veronica gets to pretend she’s a princess, giving her the opportunity to see what she’s missed all these years, and the killer was a mystery until the end when it all came together beautifully.  It would have been a far better story overall without the angst and repression, but I suppose it had to happen at some point.

I’m still eager for the next one and hope that in book 7 the true Veronica will return in all her bossy, outrageous glory.

Death Comes to the Nursery

Death Comes to the NurseryDeath Comes to the Nursery
by Catherine Lloyd
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781496723222
Series: Kurland St. Mary Mystery #7
Publication Date: February 3, 2020
Pages: 264
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

Meh.  A generally solid cozyish historical series, this one fell flat for me.  It wasn’t bad, but it felt too busy and a tad too contrived.  Some characters veered into tropes, which is something previous books avoided.  That a woman (a nursery maid) so beautiful could come on the scene and suddenly make historically staid and responsible male characters start following her around (3 of them, at least), forgoing their responsibilities and breaking out in fisticuffs over who gets to walk with her is just too far beyond reasonable for me.

Further adding to the mediocrity of the story, the man who turns out to be the murderer was obvious from the start, because the author’s red herrings were just too, too red.

I have the next one and still have hopes it will be enjoyable.  Though this historical series is cozy in its atmosphere, the author doesn’t shy away from bringing real issues to her characters: women who struggle through miscarriages, women who don’t want children at all (a challenging thought in the 1700’s), a bit of PTSD for the main male character, making the characters more interesting, rather than more romantic.

A Pretty Deceit (Verity Kent, #4)

A Pretty DeceitA Pretty Deceit
by Anna Lee Huber
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781496728470
Series: Verity Kent #4
Publication Date: October 14, 2020
Pages: 362
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

In the aftermath of the Great War, the line between friend and foe may be hard to discern, even for indomitable former Secret Service agent Verity Kent, in award-winning author Anna Lee Huber’s thrilling mystery series.

Peacetime has brought little respite for Verity Kent. Intrigue still abounds, even within her own family. As a favor to her father, Verity agrees to visit his sister in Wiltshire. Her once prosperous aunt has fallen on difficult times and is considering selling their estate. But there are strange goings-on at the manor, including missing servants, possible heirloom forgeries, and suspicious rumors—all leading to the discovery of a dead body on the grounds.

While Verity and her husband, Sidney, investigate this new mystery, they are also on the trail of an old adversary—the shadowy and lethal Lord Ardmore. At every turn, the suspected traitor seems to be one step ahead of them. And even when their dear friend Max, the Earl of Ryde, stumbles upon a code hidden among his late father’s effects that may reveal the truth about Ardmore, Verity wonders if they are really the hunters—or the hunted . . .

Aside from my subjective issues with the path Huber chose for these characters, I like this series; you could say I enjoy them in spite of myself.  But while this book was a 4 star read on the strength of its plot, it might have been a 4.5/5 star read if not for the weakness of the editing.

The narrative is much longer than it needed to be because Huber, with admirable motivation, spends a lot of time ruminating on the devastation wrought on both the soldiers who fought in WWI, and those left behind to cope in fear and anxiety.  She does bring light to many aspects of the horror that is war, especially the first world war, but she spends too much time doing it, and this is a murder mystery, after all.  I’m confident a lot of it could have been cut without losing the more important message, and the overall story would have been a lot better for it.

Still, the plot is a strong one, with aspects of scavenger and treasure hunting spicing up what would otherwise be an ordinary nemesis plot running parallel to a murder mystery.  I’m still kid enough to enjoy rhyming clues and secret codes, as well as the touch of cloak and dagger when used judiciously, and it is here.

As I opened the post with, I still don’t like what Huber is doing with the characters; while there are no love triangles or quadrangles, she has two other men in love with Verity who are dedicated to uncovering the series’ plot; there seems to be no plan for this to change and it’s tiresome.  Luckily, the murder mysteries have so far made up for it.  Can’t see that lasting much longer though.

A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Murder

A Lady's Guide to Mischief and MurderA Lady's Guide to Mischief and Murder
by Dianne Freeman
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Countess of Harleigh Mystery #3
Publication Date: July 24, 2020
Pages: 278
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

London is known for its bustle and intrigues, but the sedate English countryside can host—or hide—any number of secrets. Frances, the widowed Countess of Harleigh, needs a venue for her sister Lily’s imminent wedding, away from prying eyes. Risings, George Hazleton’s family estate in Hampshire, is a perfect choice, and soon Frances, her beloved George, and other guests have gathered to enjoy the usual country pursuits—shooting, horse riding, and romantic interludes in secluded gardens.

But the bucolic setting harbors a menace, and it’s not simply the arrival of Frances’s socially ambitious mother. Above and below stairs, mysterious accidents befall guests and staff alike. Before long, Frances suspects these “accidents” are deliberate, and fears that the intended victim is Lily’s fiancé, Leo. Frances’s mother is unimpressed by Lily’s groom-to-be and would much prefer that Lily find an aristocratic husband, just as Frances did. But now that Frances has found happiness with George—a man who loves her for much more than her dowry—she heartily approves of Lily’s choice. If she can just keep the couple safe from villains and meddling mamas.

As Frances and George search for the culprit among the assembled family, friends, and servants, more victims fall prey to the mayhem. Mishaps become full-blooded murder, and it seems that no one is safe. And unless Frances can quickly flush out the culprit, the peal of wedding bells may give way to another funeral toll. . . .

Historical mysteries seem to be all the rage at the moment, and fortunately, publishers have yet to monetise and ruin the trend to such a degree that you can’t find a selection of well written series to enjoy.  While the quality of cozy mysteries has been abysmal the last several years, Historical Mysteries have filled in the gap nicely for me.

A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Murder is the 3rd in a series I discovered at my first (and so far only) Bouchercon convention.  It’s a good series, and this book is a strong 3rd book, moving the characters’ arcs along quickly, while presenting an interesting stand-alone plot, with clues easily missed and writing that skilfully misdirected the reader down several false avenues.  As the story moved along, some of the misdirection became obvious, but some of it didn’t, rendering a delightful mystery well done.

My only groan over the book was the introduction of Countess Harleigh’s mother who was caricatured for most of her page time, only to do the whole mama-lion thing and achieving what to me was an insincere redemption in the final pages.  Fortunately she’s not around much in this book and it wasn’t enough to really weight the book down.

Death in Daylesford (Phryne Fisher Mystery, #21)

Death in DaylesfordDeath in Daylesford
by Kerry Greenwood
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781743310342
Series: Phryne Fisher #21
Publication Date: November 15, 2020
Pages: 321
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Surrounded by secrets, great and small, the formidable Miss Phryne Fisher returns to vanquish injustice.

When a mysterious invitation arrives for Miss Phryne Fisher from an unknown Captain Herbert Spencer, Phryne's curiosity is excited. Spencer runs a retreat in Victoria's spa country for shell-shocked soldiers of the First World War. It's a cause after Phryne's own heart but what could Spencer want from her?

Phryne and the faithful Dot view their spa sojourn as a short holiday but are quickly thrown in the midst of disturbing Highland gatherings, disappearing women, murder and the mystery of the Temperance Hotel.

Meanwhile, Cec, Bert and Tinker find a young woman floating face down in the harbour, dead. Tinker, with Jane and Ruth, Phryne's resilient adopted daughters, together decide to solve what appears to be a heinous crime.

Disappearances, murder, bombs, booby-traps and strange goings-on land Miss Phryne Fisher right in the middle of her most exciting adventure.

I’ve been a fan of this series from the beginning but this one was phoned in, either by the author herself or Allen and Unwin, or, possibly, both.  I still enjoyed the hell out of catching up with Phryne and friends, but in quality, this was disappointing.

Death in Daylesford is one of her longer entries, and the story meanders quite a bit across at least 3 different plot-lines taking place in two different places: Melbourne’s mystery being solved by Phryne’s three adopted kids and her assistant’s fiancé (a police detective), and one in Daylesford, a spa town about an hour away from Melbourne, spear-headed by Phryne and her assistant Dot.

The Melbourne plot could have been scrapped and I’d have never missed it.  While I like Jane and Ruth as characters, I found their plot/mystery to be too Nancy Drew for my tastes.  The death they investigated was tragic, and it’s solution sad, but it was superfluous to requirements.

Phryne’s mysteries were more interesting and more diabolical, but poor editing and the inclusion of the Nancy Drew parallel plot detracted significantly from what it might have been.  The poor editing is obvious – and surprising – in the form of missing words, and one scene where the dead body is removed from the scene twice.  Blaming the parallel plot is just speculation on my part, but so many things in Phryne’s mysteries were glossed over and she reached conclusions with no discernible process to the reader, that I have to believe Greenwood just didn’t have the page space to expand on plot points the way she might have.  Which is a shame, because the plots were interesting and deserved more than they got.

In spite of all this, I enjoyed the read, and I’m thrilled to see a new Phryne Fisher mystery out, after I’d started to believe the series was over.  I hope there will be more, and I hope the author and the publisher both get their groove back.

The Last Mrs. Summers (Royal Spyness Mystery, #14)

The Last Mrs. SummersThe Last Mrs. Summers
by Rhys Bowen
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780451492876
Series: Royal Spyness #14
Publication Date: August 6, 2020
Pages: 290
Genre: Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

Bowen’s homage to Rebecca, this entry might or might not be a disappointment to those who have read du Maurier’s classic – I’ve never read it myself, so the plot here was new to me, though I could appreciate the allusions and the tip of the hat to the gothic atmosphere.

The story, homage or not, is well-written enough that I don’t think fans of the series will be disappointed.  It’s not her absolute best (The Twelve Clues of Christmas, imo) but it’s well-plotted and the characters are well drawn.  Darcy has little page time, as usual, but we get a lot more of Belinda and her background, which I enjoyed.  Queenie makes a thankfully brief appearance, but otherwise it’s a whole new cast of characters in the wilds of Cornwall, in what ends up to be a delightfully crazy plot.

Eventually though, I’m going to have to cave and read Rebecca.

A Murderous Relation (Veronica Speedwell, #5)

A Murderous RelationA Murderous Relation
by Deanna Raybourn
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780451490742
Series: Veronica Speedwell Mystery #5
Publication Date: March 10, 2020
Pages: 308
Genre: Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

A royal scandal’s connection to a brutal serial killer threatens London in this new Veronica Speedwell adventure from New York Times bestselling and Edgar® Award–nominated author Deanna Raybourn.

Autumn 1888. Veronica Speedwell and her colleague Stoker are asked by Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk to stop a potential scandal so explosive it threatens to rock the monarchy. Prince Albert Victor is a regular visitor to the most exclusive private club in London, and the proprietress, Madame Aurore, has received an expensive gift that can be traced back to the prince. Lady Wellie would like Veronica and Stoker to retrieve it from the club before scandal can break.

Worse yet, London is being terrorized by what would become the most notorious and elusive serial killer in history, Jack the Ripper—and Lady Wellie suspects the prince may be responsible.
Veronica and Stoker reluctantly agree to go undercover at Madame Auroreʼs high-class brothel, where a body soon turns up. Secrets are swirling around Veronica and the royal family—and it is up to Veronica and Stoker to find the truth, before it is too late for all of them.

A fan from the start of the series, I always thought the mc being based on a real historical figure gave the books that little extra something, but when I finished this one, as much as I enjoyed it, I thought ‘the author certainly took some creative liberties in this one’.

Which shows how much I know about history; every part I found fantastical turned out to be based on true events.  So all I can say now is, poor Prince Albert Victor; even if some of the more spurious speculations about him took place long after his death, his memory seems unfairly tarnished.

Veronica and Stoker’s story was a good time though.  The plot was well crafted, though not a mystery, really.  This was much more about foiling a two-pronged conspiracy, and while murder was done, there was no mystery as to who did it.  Raybourn also used the storyline’s backdrop of Whitechapel and the Jack the Ripper murders to spotlight the social inequities of the Victorian age.

And finally, after 5 books, there is finally some advancement between Veronica and Stoker, which, while the romance isn’t the thing for me, is a relief, because I find tension of any kind, too long strung out, to be tedious in the extreme.

It took me too long to get this book because of the pandemic, but the upside is the next one has already been announced, so I know I’ll have another to look forward to soon.

The Paper Bark Tree Mystery (Crown Colony, #3)

The Paper Bark Tree MysteryThe Paper Bark Tree Mystery
by Ovidia Yu
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781472125248
Series: Crown Colony Mystery #3
Publication Date: June 27, 2019
Pages: 327
Genre: Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Constable

Su Lin is doing her dream job: assistant at Singapore's brand new detective agency. Until Bald Bernie decides a 'local girl' can't be trusted with private investigations, and replaces her with a new secretary - pretty, privileged, and white. So Su Lin's not the only person finding it hard to mourn Bernie after he's found dead in the filing room. And when her best friend's dad is accused, she gets up to some sleuthing work of her own in a bid to clear his name.

Su Lin finds out that Bernie may have been working undercover, trading stolen diamonds for explosives from enemy troops. Was he really the upright English citizen he claimed to be?

Meanwhile, a famous assassin commits his worst crime yet, and disappears into thin air. Rumours spread that he may be dangerously close to home.

Beneath the stifling, cloudless Singaporean summer, earthquakes of chaos and political unrest are breaking out. When a tragic loss shakes Su Lin's personal world to its core, she becomes determined to find the truth. But in dark, hate-filled times, truth has a price - and Su Lin must decide how much she's willing to pay for it. 327

I enjoy this series for the setting, the time, the history and the characters, but The Paper Bark Tree Mystery was a poor entry structure wise.  The plot was good, but marred by the fragmented delivery; characters would transition from point A to point S without the reader knowing anything about B-R, making for a disjointed and often confusing read.  Ultimately, this is the fault of whomever edited it, but it’s a shame because the story and the series has so much going for it and a lot of potential ahead.  I’ll read the next one if there is a next one, but I hope for a much smoother narrative.


Revenge in Rubies (Harriet Gordon, #2)

Revenge in RubiesRevenge in Rubies
by A.M. Stuart
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781984802668
Series: Harriet Gordon #2
Publication Date: September 15, 2020
Pages: 368
Genre: Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

Sylvie Nolan, the new and much-younger wife of Lieutenant Colonel John Nolan, has been bludgeoned to death in her bedroom. The tightly knit military community in Singapore quickly closes ranks to hinder Curran’s investigation, and Harriet realizes that her friendship with the colonel’s sister might prove useful. But to get close enough to the family’s secrets, Harriet must once again face her painful past, and Curran is forced to dredge up some long-buried secrets of his own. And when more shocking deaths occur that all seem linked to Sylvie’s murder, Harriet and Curran discover that they too are in the sights of a callous killer. . . .

My issues with this one remain the same as the first, but I realise after some thought, that I am the victim of the romantic tension trope.  Possibly a willing victim, as it turns out.  I understand that Stuart is bucking the trope by having the two MCs not being romantically available to each other, but alas, I don’t like it.  It feels like something is missing, in spite of my not being a fan of romances.  Given the time period these are set in, and  the general attitude of society that a man and a woman can’t really be partners and bond on any level other than romantically – and should they try everybody accuses them of being romantically involved anyway, I can’t see this going anywhere that isn’t going to irritate me.

Still, the mysteries are good, and the Singapore setting is threatening to become trendy.  The characters are growing on me in spite of the lack of oomph.  The plotting is intricate enough, though one scene gave away the villain just a few pages before the big reveal.

I’ll definitely read a third one and who knows, maybe the character dynamics will go somewhere interesting without all the silly angst.