“The Right Sort of Man” by Allison Montclair

The Right Sort of ManThe cover of this book reads, The Right Sort of Man: A Mystery. And that’s accurate, since it is a whodunit, and a very good one. However, it comes with a second, bonus mystery as well: who is Allison Montclair?

Usually, when I’m reading a book by an unfamiliar author, I Google them to find out a little bit more information. The Right Sort of Man seemed incredibly polished for a debut, and that’s because this is not the author’s first novel; “Allison Montclair” is a pseudonym. According to an interview, “she has written historical mysteries before, as well as ‘fantasy, science fiction, horror, non-genre fiction, and theatre.'” (By the way, if you click on that link, the man in the accompanying photo is the author of the article, Neil Nyren.) Montclair’s editor at St. Martin’s Press suggested the idea for the series, so presumably her previous historicals were also published by that house, which doesn’t exactly help narrow it down since they have a pretty large author list.

As a last-ditch attempt, I emailed my friend Cara Black, who blurbed the book, and even she had no idea—the person at St. Martin’s with whom she spoke refused to spill the beans.

So enough about the enigmatic author, let’s talk about the book. It takes place in London immediately after World War II. Rationing’s still in effect, and there are bombed-out buildings everywhere. Two very different women meet by chance at a wedding and decide to go into business together, opening a marriage bureau to match eligible singles—”The war is over, and people want to start normal life up again in a hurry.”

Iris Sparks is savvy and streetwise, having spent time during the war doing things she still can’t (or won’t) discuss. The aristocratic Gwendolyn Bainbridge was married to an officer in the Royal Fusiliers who was killed in the war; the shock of his death sent her to a sanitorium, and when she got out, she found out that her in-laws had assumed custody of her young son. She needs something to keep her occupied (and out of the house she shares with her domineering mother-in-law).

The business is a roaring success out of the gate, until one of their clients, Tillie La Salle, is found murdered, and the man Gwen and Iris had matched her up with is accused of committing the crime. Scotland Yard is so convinced they’ve found their man that they close the case. Iris and Gwen are equally convinced that he’s innocent, but there’s also the fact that the ensuing scandal could destroy their business, so they have little choice but to investigate.

The book really takes you into the world of postwar London, where desperate women scheme to buy nylons on the black market and bulldozers are busy scooping up the rubble left behind by the German air assault. The two lead characters are exceedingly well-drawn; Gwen must cope with her still-overwhelming grief and also try to fight for her son, while Iris lives in an apartment paid for by her married lover and sometimes has a penchant for acting recklessly (she carries a knife in her purse, and she’s not afraid to brandish it if she feels threatened).

While it would be fun to know a bit more about the author, the most important thing is that she’s written a captivating book, one which will make readers eager for the next installment in this promising new series.

“The Frangipani Tree Mystery” by Ovidia Yu

The Frangipani Tree MysteryChen Su Lin is “a bad-luck girl” in the eyes of her family in Singapore. Not only are both of her parents dead, but she walks with a limp, due to a bout of childhood polio. Now the 16-year-old’s uncle wants to marry her off, perhaps so she can become the second wife of a man who’s willing to overlook her faults thanks to a generous dowry. Su Lin, however, is determined to become a professional woman; all she needs is the money to pay for her training.

She seizes an opportunity to look after Dee-Dee, the 17-year-old daughter of Singapore’s English Governor, Sir Henry Palin, after the previous nanny died under suspicious circumstances. Dee-Dee may be a year older than Su Lin, but she is developmentally disabled, and needs constant care and attention. Sir Henry’s second wife, the unpleasant Mary Palin, certainly has no interest in looking after her stepdaughter herself, though sharing her home with an Asian girl strikes her as thoroughly disagreeable. (The dead nanny, Charity, was white.)

Since Charity may have been the victim of a homicide, Government House may not be a safe place for Su Lin, and the local Chief Inspector, Thomas LeFroy, is concerned that she may put herself in further danger due to her amateur sleuthing. But her position on the inside could provide him with vital information… as long as she stays out of harm’s way.

The Frangipani Tree Mystery is full of charm, with a clever and resourceful protagonist and a vividly-drawn setting. This is the sort of book which provides a pleasant escape into another world for a few hours, and I look forward to reading more of Su Lin’s adventures.

“A Dangerous Collaboration” by Deanna Raybourn

A Dangerous CollaborationAs I wrote back in February, I started the Veronica Speedwell series as part of a project to read the six novels nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Mystery. (Walter Mosley’s Down the River Unto the Sea, which I haven’t yet gotten around to, won the prize.) A Dangerous Collaboration, the fourth Speedwell book and the sequel to the Edgar-nominated A Treacherous Curse, was released last month, and as I was finishing it, I was struck with a terrifying realization: had it not been for Raybourn’s Edgar nod, I may never have discovered this series. I enjoy historicals but I don’t really seek them out, and I’d never read any of the author’s work before she made it onto the prestigious shortlist.

The reason it hit me so hard is because with A Dangerous Collaboration, I’m prepared to state that this is now my favorite current mystery series. I love these books so much. There are undoubtedly plenty of other novels I would absolutely adore if I only knew they existed! I read 100 books a year searching for just this kind of feeling. (For what it’s worth, my book group recently read the first Speedwell novel, A Curious Beginning, at my suggestion, and several members stated that they were planning to read the others, so I’m busy spreading the good word about Veronica.)

In A Dangerous Collaboration, Veronica is persuaded by her colleague Stoker’s brother Tiberius to travel to a remote Cornish island, which happens to be the home of the Romilly Glasswing butterfly, previously thought extinct. As a lepidopterist, Veronica is thrilled at the thought of encountering a rare specimen. However, it turns out that her trip to St. Maddern’s Island will be fraught with peril.

They will be staying with Tiberius’ old friend Malcolm, and Tiberius persuades Veronica to pose as his fiancée—they’ll still be sleeping in separate rooms, but it won’t be quite as shocking for the unmarried woman to be traveling with a man. Then, as they’re about to board the boat to St. Maddern’s, they find that Stoker is coming along for the ride as well. There’s a lot of bad blood between the brothers, which adds an extra layer of drama.

Malcolm has invited Tiberius to come to his home—a castle, complete with hidden passageways and mysterious hiding places—to help him figure out what happened to his bride, Rosamund, who disappeared on their wedding day, three years earlier. Also present are Malcolm’s sister-in-law Helen and her son, and his sister Mertensia. Malcolm cannot move on with his life until he knows what became of Rosamund. Did she leave of her own volition, or did she meet with foul play?

“There’s not a square inch of this island that doesn’t hold a secret,” one of the villagers on St. Maddern’s, a self-described pellar witch, warns Veronica. “Rosamund Romilly does not rest easy. Take a care for yourself and any you love.”

When a seance held by Helen to summon Rosamund causes some strange events to occur, Veronica and Stoker are faced with a mystery that tests their scientific and highly logical outlooks. (Though anybody who thinks Veronica Speedwell is going to come away from such an event thinking “Well, ghosts must be real, then!” doesn’t know her very well.)

Toward the end of the book, there’s an emotional payoff so powerful that tears sprang to my eyes. While Deanna Raybourn may not have taken home the Edgar, she’s created a series worthy of a gold medal.

The Veronica Speedwell Series by Deanna Raybourn

Each year when the Edgar Award nominations are announced, I quickly skim the list to see which of this year’s nominees I’ve read. Usually, there are at least a few. This year, however, I had not read any of the six Best Novel nominees, and I was only familiar with one of the nominated authors (Walter Mosley). My friend Janet, who reads even more mysteries than I do, was in the same boat, so we decided we should read them and see what we were missing out on.

A Treacherous CurseThe interesting thing about the Edgars is that they are the only mystery award where the nominees and winners are chosen by a panel of peers. The other awards are basically all popularity contests. But for the Edgars, each year, a small panel is selected to judge each award (Best Novel, Best First Novel, Best Fact Crime, etc.), and those folks have to read every single book that is submitted to them. The people on these committees are anonymous (and sign non-disclosure agreements), but they are all active status members of the MWA (Mystery Writers of America). I have known plenty of writers who have served as Edgar judges over the years, and the amount of work they put in is almost overwhelming.

Many years ago, I had the honor of visiting the late Barbara Mertz (better known by her pen name, Elizabeth Peters) at her Maryland home. She was in the midst of her year as an Edgars judge, and there were piles of books everywhere. I asked her how she could possibly read so many books, and she told me that she could generally tell 2-3 chapters in whether or not a novel would be worth reading all the way through.

The first of the Edgar nominees I picked up was Deanna Raybourn’s A Treacherous Curse, third in her Veronica Speedwell series of historical mysteries. After reading the first couple of chapters, not only did I want to keep going, but I realized that I wanted to start at the beginning of the series. There was obviously a ton of backstory there, and while it was smoothly laid out for the first-timer, I had the luxury of not being obligated to plow through stacks and stacks of books by a certain deadline, so I could delve into A Curious Beginning and A Perilous Undertaking.

A Curious BeginningOne of the reasons I mentioned Elizabeth Peters above is that Veronica Speedwell is a true heir to Peters’ beloved Amelia Peabody series, and I’d be shocked if Raybourn didn’t count her as an influence. The Speedwell novels are set during the Victorian era, and like Amelia, 25-year-old Veronica is an unconventional woman, an adventurous soul who does not care to live by society’s strictures of how a “proper” lady should behave. She’s been around the world three times, collecting butterflies for wealthy patrons willing to pay a handsome price for a fine specimen. Orphaned at a young age, Veronica was raised by two guardians she referred to as her aunts; when A Curious Beginning opens, the last surviving one, Nell, has just passed away, and Veronica is planning to leave the little village where they had resided for the past three years.

Before she can depart, however, the Baron von Stauffenbach, a man she has never met, turns up at her cottage, warning her that her life is in danger. He insists on taking her to London, where he leaves her in the care of his old friend Stoker, the black sheep of an aristocratic family who works as a taxidermist in a cavernous warehouse. Despite Veronica’s protestations—“I am the least interesting person in England, I assure you. No one could possibly want to harm me”—she soon learns that the reason her guardians kept moving from town to town during her childhood was to protect her from some dark and possibly life-threatening secrets having to do with her parentage.

The growing bond between Veronica and Stoker is at the heart of this series; they grow to depend on one another, and they have a lot of respect for each other’s unique abilities. Will their friendship eventually turn to love? While Veronica finds him attractive, he has a lot of mysteries in his background, and he’s rather dark, brooding and damaged. Plus, having a romantic relationship would go against Veronica’s personal code of conduct: “Although I permitted myself dalliances during my travels, I never engaged in flirtations in England—or with Englishmen… Foreign bachelors were my trophies.”

A Perilous UndertakingA Curious Beginning deals with Veronica finding out the truth about her parentage, and the ramifications of what she learned in the first book continue to reverberate in A Perilous Undertaking. So far, I’m about a quarter of the way through A Treacherous Curse, which seems to be taking a deep dive into Stoker’s past. As a bonus for fans of Elizabeth Peters, there’s an Egyptology-related mystery as well.

Whoever you are, anonymous Edgar judges responsible for selecting A Treacherous Curse for this year’s shortlist, I am very grateful to you for introducing me to Veronica Speedwell. Happily, her fourth adventure, A Dangerous Collaboration, is due out next month. Whether or not Raybourn wins the Edgar Award, she has written an eminently prize-worthy series.

“The Alice Network” by Kate Quinn and “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

The Alice NetworkWhen last week’s book proved to be a little too much of-the-moment, I decided to retreat into the past and read a pair of historical novels. Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network offers kind of an “if you think things are bad now…” perspective, since it features two alternating storylines, one set during World War I and the other in the aftermath of World War II.

Charlie St. Clair is a young American from a wealthy family, pregnant and unmarried. Her mother is taking her to a clinic to Switzerland so Charlie can have a discreet abortion. Charlie has other plans, though; when their ocean liner stops in Southampton, she escapes her mother’s watchful eye in order to search for her beloved French cousin Rose, who disappeared during the war. All she has is a name and an address: Evelyn Gardiner, 10 Hampson Street, Pimlico, London. Eve worked in a bureau helping to locate refugees after the war, and Charlie has reason to believe she may know something about what happened to Rose.

The book’s second chapter goes back in time 32 years to May 1915. Eve is twenty-two but looks much younger; a stammer gives the mistaken impression that she’s simple. Her ability to speak fluent French and German gets her recruited to join the Alice Network, a ring of female spies. Her cover story: she’s a French country girl who neither speaks nor understands German. She gets a job as a waitress in German-occupied Lille, working at a posh restaurant owned by the profiteer René Bordelon, who is more than happy to serve the Kommandant and his officers. Her mission is to eavesdrop on the Germans, who have no idea she is absorbing every word they say in order to report it to the brave and resourceful Lili, leader of the network.

From there, we switch between the two stories as Charlie convinces Eve, still deeply scarred by her experiences during World War I, to join her hunt for Rose; and Eve’s adventures behind enemy lines. Both stories are exciting, though not surprisingly, there is a lot of loss, trauma and some descriptions of wartime atrocities that can be painful and difficult to read.

Still, The Alice Network is primarily a story of female bravery and the power of women’s friendship, and isn’t that something we should be celebrating right now? I heartily recommend this book to fans of historical fiction and spy sagas.

TranscriptionMuch of Transcription by Kate Atkinson is set during World War II, but protagonist Juliet Armstrong, a girl of just 18, is not involved in anything as exciting or dangerous as the Alice Network—she is hired by MI5 in 1940 to transcribe recordings of fascist sympathizers’ clandestine meetings. The “fifth column” has been infiltrated by British intelligence, and the London flat in which they meet has microphones hidden in the walls. The conversations, recorded to disc, are dull and often difficult to understand (“‘Oh, do speak clearly,’ Juliet thought crossly.”)

Eventually, Juliet does get to go undercover herself, and things get a bit more intense. It’s a fascinating story, and I enjoyed reading about Juliet’s relationships with her fellow MI5 agents, even though there are so many characters and code names to keep track of that I constantly found myself flipping back and forth in the book. Atkinson must expect her readers to have superhuman memories; for instance, one character begins a sentence on page 10 (“My father was—”), and that thread isn’t picked up again until page 185 (“What was your father, Lester?”).

That wasn’t an insurmountable problem for me, though, but I must admit that I was incredibly disappointed by the ending, which came out of left field and came close to throw-the-book-across-the-room territory. Unfortunately, for that reason alone, I find it hard to wholeheartedly recommend Transcription, despite the interesting characters and compelling subject matter.

“Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan BeachJennifer Egan’s last novel, 2010’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, was such an unabashedly postmodern work, with its shifting narratives and unconventional storytelling (one large chunk of the book takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation), that many readers no doubt wondered whether her follow-up would be even more experimental. Instead, Egan has written a historical novel set during World War II, which is more conventional but no less ambitious.

According to a New Yorker profile, Egan had been working on Manhattan Beach for 15 years before it was finally published. The book displays a prodigious amount of research, albeit the kind that is seamlessly integrated into the plot, and into Egan’s lyrical prose. Here, for example, is a paragraph describing protagonist Anna Kerrigan’s solitary walk through midtown Manhattan:

“She decided to head back home. Walking toward the IND on Sixth Avenue, she passed a flea circus, a chow-meinery, a sign advertising lectures on what killed Rudolph Valentino. Gradually she began to notice other solitary figures lingering in doorways and under awnings: people with no obvious place they needed to be. Through the plate-glass window of Grant’s at the corner of Sixth, she saw soldiers and sailors eating alone, even a girl or two. Anna watched them through the glass while, behind her, newspaper vendors bawled out the evening headlines: ‘Tripoli falls!’ ‘Russians gaining on Rostov!’ ‘Nazis say the Reich is threatened!’ To Anna, these sounded like captions to the solitary diners. The war had shaken people loose. These isolated people in Grant’s had been shaken loose. And now she, too, had been shaken loose. She sensed how easily she might slide into a cranny of the dimmed-out city and vanish. The possibility touched her physically, like the faint coaxing suction of an undertow. It frightened her, and she hurried toward the subway entrance.”

We first meet Anna at the age of 12 when she accompanies her father Eddie on a visit to the lavish seaside home of Dexter Styles, whose own pampered daughter has more toys than Anna could ever dream of. The need to provide for his younger daughter, severely disabled Lydia, ultimately drives Eddie to work for some dangerous men. A couple years later, Eddie disappears, leaving his wife to care for Lydia on her own.

At the age of 19, Anna goes to work in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, measuring and inspecting parts. Bored with her work, Anna dreams of becoming a diver, working underwater to repair ships. But that is not a job open to women. Anna decides to fight for the position, despite the dismissive attitude of the officer in charge of hiring divers. She also has a chance encounter with Dexter Styles, whom she remembers clearly from the day she visited his home, and wonders if he might possibly know what happened to her father.

We eventually learn much more about Styles and his background, and as his story begins to intersect with Anna’s, she is finally allowed to dive. While the individual pieces seem like they may be ones we’ve encountered before—mobsters, World War II, New York in the 1940s, grief, survival in the face of great odds—Egan’s skill is that she has combined them into a tale that is unique and beautifully told.