Book Review: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

 The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
This book has been drifting around my TBR for a bit. But after my recent read of From Holmes to Sherlock by Mattias Boström, I find myself moving any and all Sherlock Holmes stories up on my to-read list. This book is significant because is is one of the only stories to win the seal of approval from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate, his heirs being determined to jealously preserve the Holmes mystique. So with all that in mind, there’s a lot of pressure on Horowitz to deliver not only a good mystery, but also a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

The story begins in typical fashion, with Holmes and Watson (visiting his old friend while his wife is away) sitting in their respective chairs by the fire. Sherlock delivers his usual uncannily accurate observations on Watson’s recent activities. Watson, per usual is totally flabbergasted until the requisite explanation is offered. From there we delve into a multifaceted mystery encompassing stolen artwork, Irish gangs, Pinkerton Detectives, and threats to the Baker Street Irregulars. 

Horowitz is careful to include many of the common elements from Conan Doyle’s stories. The House of Silk, written for a modern audience, is darker and more violent than the original stories. Horowitz, not needing to contend with Victorian sensibilities, is able to lay out what Doyle only hinted at. In all, though, this is a well done addition to the Holmes canon. Fans of Sherlock Homes (duh) or Victorian mysteries should add this book to their to-read lists.

Book Review: India Black: Madam of Espionage by Carol K. Carr

India Black Carol Carr
India Black by Carol K. Carr

 

“My name is India Black, and I am a whore.”

That opening line gives you a good idea what you’re getting into by delving into the first book in this series. Meet India Black, unrepentant and fairly successful madam of the Lotus House, which is just as bawdy as it sounds. It’s not easy for a woman to run her own business in 19th century London, but things always get more complicated when corpses are involved.

Alas, one of India’s regulars dies in the midst of a “game” with one of her girls. The man, a rather important figure in the War Office, cannot be found dead at Lotus House; such a thing would ruin India permanently. India sets up a plan to get the dead fellow (and his possessions) out of her house before his death is connected with her. Alas, as things so often do, events swerve sideways and sensitive documents belonging to the dead man are stolen. India now finds herself immersed in Victorian spy games in order to avert an international crisis. Aided by a British spy named French, India must help retrieve the stolen documents or risk losing Lotus House, and her freedom, forever.

I really enjoyed this book. It is set in the latter half of the 18oos, when Russia and England were rattling their collective sabers at each other. Carr couches this book in enough real historical events to add gravity to the plot. India herself is a strong female lead: smart, calculating, and more than a bit ruthless. Her reluctant partner in crime, French, is appropriately mysterious, and generally able to keep up with the leading lady. The pace of the book is fast, launching us from seedy alleyways to grand ballrooms to wild chases across the country side. The supporting characters are as well drawn as the leads, and I have little doubt that quite a few will make appearances in future books. This is a great book for an evening or two, curled up in a comfortable chair with a glass of whiskey.

Book Review: A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn

A Perilous Undertaking (Veronica Speedwell, #2)

A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn

The second installment of Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell mystery series picks up soon after the first book leaves off. Tiny warning: from here on out there will probably be a few spoilers for the first book. So if you haven’t read A Curious Beginning yet, you may want to stop reading here.

We begin with Veronica and Stoker, settling in after the events of A Curious Beginning at the Belvedere, working to turn the enormous collection into a museum. The two lead characters have settled into their atypical friendship. We find the two intrepid explorers chomping at the bit over a delay in an expedition to the South Pacific when a mysterious summons arrives for Veronica.

Arriving at a social club for intellectually-inclined women, Veronica is introduced to the enigmatic Lady Sundridge. The mysterious aristocrat sets Veronica a nigh impossible task: A renowned artist, Miles Ramsforth, stands accused of murdering his mistress, and will hang for the crime in a week. Lady Sundridge is set on absolving her friend and discovering the truth behind the heinous crime.

Reluctantly taking on the case, Veronica and Stoker are plunged into the 19th century art world. With the clock ticking against them, they must navigate their way past the bohemian glamour to the darkness and debauchery beneath.

In the second book in the series, Raybourn has the luxury of moving past the origin story and is able to let the two main characters’ personalities bounce off one another. Raybourn’s strength has always been in her female protagonists: they are witty and intelligent, determined and independent, and they hold their own against their male counterparts. Veronica Speedwell is no exception. In this book, we are also introduced to Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk, great aunt to Veronica and Stoker’s patron, and my new role model.

The mystery in A Perilous Undertaking is satisfying and deliciously debauched. In additon to the main plot, Raybourn continues to drop little tidbits about both Stoker’s and Veronica’s pasts. These morsels, sparingly dispersed through the book, add extra interest and leave me a bit sad that the next installment is so far away.

In sum, this is a great read for fans of historical mysteries. I think Raybourn has hit her stride with Veronica Speedwell: the characters have a great repartee, the pacing is spot on, and the mystery consistently interesting. I look forward to seeing where Raybourn takes this series and her characters.

An advanced ebook was provided by Berkley Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review. A Perilous Undertaking is due for release Janurary 10th, 2017.

Book Review: A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

A Study in Scarlet Women (Lady Sherlock, #1)

A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

 

Charlotte Holmes has a brilliant analytical mind. Unfortunately, as a society woman in Victorian England, the outlets for her brilliance are few and far between. Her parents expect her to be perfectly respectable, and not to scare off potential suitors with her uncanny powers of observation and deduction. Seeking an independent life out from under her parents’ thumb, Charlotte concocts a scheme to take herself off the marriage market permanently. Unfortunately, things go awry and Charlotte finds herself a social pariah. She now has her independence, but little else besides her considerable wits and the clothes on her back.

And then, naturally, death. Three upstanding members of society are dead, in different parts of the country, from different causes. When Charlotte, writing under the nom de plume Sherlock, writes to the police, pointing out the suspicious nature of all three deaths, the interconnectedness of the families involved, and the likelihood of poison as the true cause of death, she unwittingly causes the suspicion for committing the murders to fall upon her sister and father. Charlotte must now use her unusual talents to uncover the identity of the real murderer in order to save her family. With the help of a childhood friend, Lord Ingram, lively widow Mrs. Watson, and police inspector Treadles, Charlotte is on the case!

I was hesitant to read this book at first. I love the idea of a gender-swapped Sherlock Holmes, but I kept envisioning all the horrible ways such an endeavor could go wrong. I began this book with a healthy amount of skepticism, and I’m delighted to say that I was pretty much completely wrong! The strength of this book is that Sherry Thomas did not take the story “A Study in Scarlet”, or the character of Sherlock Holmes, and simply insert a woman into the assigned places. Thomas has made a story, and a character, completely separate from the original Holmes and his stories, yet bearing enough nods to the original to please a hardcore fan (like me).

Charlotte Holmes is blonde and cherubic. Her vice is not cocaine or hours of sawing on the violin, but fine food and plum cake. Her demeanor is very Sherlockian, though this Miss Holmes, being a woman, has had to curb the sarcasm and sharp edges Sherlock was entitled to. Additionally, investigating a murder as a woman in Victorian England is no small feat. Charlotte must be constantly inventive in order to continue her investigation and maintain the illusion of “Sherlock Holmes” to the public and to the police.

In all, Sherry Thomas does a great job in making this story her own. She also highlights the roadblocks a brilliant woman would face in Victorian England should she attempt to do anything considered to be “unwomanly”. Thomas’ characters are interesting and her plot misdirects and folds back on itself admirably. I wound up quite liking the character of Charlotte Holmes, and I can’t wait to read her further adventures.

An advance ebook was provided by Berkley Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review. “A Study in Scarlet Women” will be available for purchase on October 18th, 2016.

A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell #1)

A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell, #1)

A Curious Beginning By Deanna Raybourn

4 out of 5 Stars

 

Deanna Raybourn definitely has a type. Strong, intelligent women, and the rakish, flawed men who trail in their wake. Since her debut with Silent in the Grave (The first in her Lady Julia Grey series), Raybourn has featured refreshingly strong female leads in her books, women who are smart and capable, yet fully human and flawed.

I certainly enjoy the theme she has set for herself, and “A Curious Beginning,” was exactly as I expect from Raybourn.

This is the first book in a new series featuring protagonist Veronica Speedwell, and takes place around the same era as her previous series (the mid 1880s). Veronica Speedwell is a woman ahead of her time, an amateur lepidopterist, willfully headstrong, searingly direct, and far too independent (not to mention an orphan of unknown parentage). Returning from the funeral of her elderly aunt, she finds a strange man has broken into her cottage, and proceeded to wreck the place in search of something. From there a fortuitous meeting with a kindly stranger (who, naturally, seems to know something about her past) whirls her to the docks of London, where we meet the tall, dark, and brooding leading man of the series, Stoker (all leading men are tall and dark for Deanna Raybourn, and they all brood professionally). When the kindly stranger winds up dead soon afterwards, Veronica and Stoker are thrown together to try to solve the mystery not only of the murder, but of Veronica’s past.

I love Deanna Raybourn’s books for a fun mystery with well-researched historical details, and witty banter between her protagonists. “A Curious Beginning” didn’t disappoint in this regard, the book was an enjoyable day and half read, and her characters, while occasionally ridiculous, generally manage to be sympathetic and interesting. Raybourn is very good at layering mysteries; Stoker seems to have quite a few secrets of his own, and is quite loathe to share. Her plot is also loaded with the prerequisite red herrings and false revelations. And, if I can speak frankly, I always love having a strong female protagonist take the lead. I’m sexist like that.

I do feel, however, that this book isn’t as strong as her Julia Grey series. Veronica Speedwell as a character is in some respects so far ahead of her time as to be anachronistic. Let’s not forget that the book is set in the latter years of Victorian England, and sometimes it seems quite impossible for a woman to get away with the things that she does in the story. At times, her character seems like someone who would be more at home in a novel set in the 1920s or 1930s. Additionally, aspects of the mystery are a bit sloppy and overly telegraphed. A reasonably astute reader has a good chance of figuring out most of the plot with 100 pages still to go. Fortunately, I generally enjoy Raybourn’s writing style, so continuing on through the plot wasn’t difficult.

In sum, if you enjoy a fun and frivolous historical mystery, this book is a good bet. I’d say take it out to the hammock or down to the beach, and enjoy a nice, relaxing read.