For my first two reads of 2023, I chose mysteries set in the Shetlands, by new-to-me author Ann Cleeves. I got Raven Black as a Kindle deal, and then followed up with White Nights. There are six more books in the series. I think I had heard her name before, but had never come across her books, although they are apparently popular—this series, and also her Vera Stanhope books, were both made into TV shows, possibly still accessible via Netflix or other networks (Shetland aired first in 2012, and the Vera Stanhope TV show, with three seasons, is older than that). She started writing a new series, Two Rivers, in 2019.
The primary appeal of these novels is location. The Shetland archipelago lies between Orkney, the Faroe Islands, and Norway, and is the northernmost part of the United Kingdom; there are 16 inhabited islands. They used to be owned by Norway, and there is a heavy Norse influence on the population’s culture, including fire festivals and music. They are also known for both the Shetland sheep dog and the Shetland pony, and many of the islands are seabird refuges.
Cleeves has done an excellent job of giving her books a dual atmosphere: There is the free, wild aspect of being so close to nature, buffeted by the elements, with ocean on all sides; and then there is the somewhat claustrophobic experience of living on an island with a small, fixed population where everyone knows everyone else and secrets are hard to keep. All of this plays perfectly into the mysteries she creates—murders and missing persons investigated by a local police officer with assistance from a supervisor transplanted from the mainland.
Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, descended from a shipwrecked member of the Spanish Armada, is the laconic native son who is responsible for law and order in his small island community. In complete contrast, the impatient, forceful, and fidgety DI Roy Taylor has been sent from Inverness to coordinate when a murder takes place, bringing most of the forensic people along with him by boat or by air. Although the two initially struggle a bit for dominance, since one has both the authority and the overwhelming personality while the other knows the community intimately, they eventually figure out a way to work side by side to discover why and how murder has invaded the Shetlands.
These are not slick, fast-paced mysteries; they are slow-moving, with lots of intricate low-key exploration of the island personalities, and the solutions to the crimes evolve with each revelation rather than yielding an explosive disclosure. They are, to an extent, police procedurals, although the team is small and most of the focus comes from DI Perez. But if you enjoy arriving at a conclusion simultaneously with your “host detective,” you will like these very well. There are also some romantic elements for various characters, Jimmy among them, and lots of beautiful descriptions of the environs. I found them quietly enjoyable and will at some point continue the series.
After reading that somewhat grisly dystopian, I have been in the mood for less intensity; I picked up and started reading two separate fantasy books—one a continuation of a series I loved last year, the other a stand-alone quirky one that’s been on my TBR list for a while—and couldn’t get into either one. So I went instead for a combination of relationship reads and light mysteries.
First up was An Island Wedding, #5 in the series of books Jenny Colgan set on the island of Mure, in Scotland. It was lovely to be back with a cast of familiar characters in a magical (not literally, just in terms of pristine scenery) place where I have enjoyed previous stories so much. In this one, Flora and Joel are finally to be wed; but Joel, product of a violent childhood followed by a long line of foster homes, doesn’t seem to “get” what it means to Flora, only daughter of a large and affectionate family and member of an extended community to which she has belonged since birth, to have a traditional wedding. Unmeeting wishes become exacerbated when another “daughter” of the island, a glamorous trend-setter, decides to hold her wedding on Midsummer’s Eve (the same day as Flora’s) at the grand hotel Flora manages, and Flora has to put up with Olivia’s overboard plans while being distinctly underwhelmed by her own. Since it’s Jenny Colgan, you know that it will all work out, but it’s fun to experience it along with your favorites. There is also movement in a side story involving the island’s immigrant doctor and its favorite schoolmistress.
After listening to a student in my readers’ advisory seminar wax poetic about Beach Read, by Emily Henry, in last week’s book-talk for the class, I picked that up and read it one more time, and enjoyed it again by noticing different things this time through. I do have to agree with Taylor, though, that neither the title nor the book cover is appropriate, considering the beach in question is the shore of one of the Great Lakes in Michigan, and it’s mostly too cold to go there for more than 15 minutes! And if the title was meant to reference one of the books that the two author protagonists were writing, that was off base as well. Still a good read, though.
Then I jumped back to the mystery series I started at the recommendation of a librarian friend a few weeks back, and read the next two books in the Andy Carpenter legal thrillers by David Rosenfelt, First Degree and Bury the Lead. I am continuing to enjoy these, despite my initial reluctance to tackle a legal mystery series. As another person on Goodreads commented, Rosenfelt (i.e., his character, Andy) is “quick with a quip,” and I am enjoying the mix of humor, exasperation, frustration, bafflement, and creative thinking that seems to propel him towards the solution of these mysteries. I do wonder how many more books in this series Carpenter can sustain by presenting a defense of SODDIT (“some other dude did it,” acronym made famous by Dismas Hardy)—his clients can’t all be the victims of frame-ups…can they? But so far he has done it well…
Given my preoccupation with the last few weeks of my readers’ advisory class combined with some recent health challenges that make me tend to lose patience with long, intricate narratives, I may keep reading this kind of distracting, pleasurable fare for the rest of this year! We will see if the mood turns…but in the meantime Andy Carpenter #4 (Sudden Death—he’s fond of the sports metaphor) is next on my list.
I was talking, this past week, with my Readers’ Advisory students about the peculiarities of mystery fiction, one of them being the prevalence of the series. I’m sure some are saying to themselves, But, fantasy! and yes, other genres, notably fantasy and science fiction, are also heavy on series. The difference is, the series exists in those genres specifically to advance the story, while in mystery fiction that’s not true or, at least, true in a different way.
Mystery readers love their series because they get attached to the protagonist. If you think of some of the series out there that have not just been popular on the page but also on the television or the big screen, it is the character who is the prevalent element around which everything else circles. Harry Bosch, Kinsey Milhone, Walt Longmire, Stephanie Plum—in every case, readers keep reading (or watching) because they find the character compelling. It doesn’t seem to matter so much what the story is, as long as the dynamic and charismatic detective is at the center of it.
For this reason, mystery readers can be more forgiving than readers of some other genres. If the character is one they like and with whom they identify, and if more details are revealed about this character in each subsequent book in the series, mystery readers may go along a book or two or even three further even if the mysteries themselves—the plots—aren’t so great, just because they enjoy the familiarity of the character’s world and person.
This doesn’t mean that mystery readers can’t be hypercritical of a poorly plotted novel—a clumsy reveal, a red herring that doesn’t go anywhere, an epilogue for an ending instead of the direct action that they crave—but they will hang in, hoping for a renaissance of their writer’s story-telling skills, just to be with the character.
I have found myself being a perfect example of this with several mystery series over the years (Elly Griffiths, I’m looking at you), none more obvious than my abandonment of John Lescroart’s legal mysteries that all take place in the courtroom long after the (initial) crime was committed. The masters of this oeuvre are, of course, Grisham and Turow, but Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy definitely held his own until…he didn’t. The first two-thirds of the series was fresh and exciting, starting with #1, Dead Irish; I liked the protagonist, the side characters, and the setting (San Francisco). But after a while I could have written many of the scenes myself, because they were based on and exceedingly repetitive of similar scenes in every single volume. I think I finally gave up at about #17. To give him credit, Lescroart did try to shake things up by going with different characters from the same world (Abe Glitsky, Wyatt Hunt), but since they all worked in the same or adjacent venues that had already been exhaustively portrayed (and ate lunch in the same dismal hole that had been described at excessive length in each and every volume), it just didn’t work, and I gave up on Lescroart.
This soured me for quite a while on the subgenre of legal thrillers itself, but I’m happy to say I may have discovered a new one for which I can muster enthusiasm. I read the first book—Open and Shut—in David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter series, and found it fresh, somewhat humorous, and possessed of a mystery both satisfying and entertaining, so now it’s only incumbent on me to keep reading and see how long it lasts—there appear to be at least 25 more books behind that one.
Open and Shut introduces Andy, a brash young defense attorney whose choice of profession pleases neither his father, a formidable former District Attorney for New Jersey, nor his financially and politically ambitious (and temporarily estranged) wife, Nicole. Then, after asking Andy to take on a seemingly unwinnable appeal for a man on death row who was convicted seven years previous, his father drops dead at a Yankees game, leaving Andy with two puzzles: Why would his dad, who was heavily involved in convicting the guy himself, put Andy in this position; and why did he hide the fact that when he died, his son would be inheriting 22 million dollars? It slowly becomes clear that these two seemingly unrelated facts are somehow tied together; but does Andy really want to know how his father acquired $2 mil almost 37 years ago, but never mentioned it or touched a dime of it for all this time?
Some things I liked about this book: The protagonist, a down-to-earth, pragmatic guy with his share of issues; his associates—sharp (though pessimistic) investigator and potential love interest Laurie; Kevin, who gave up the law to run a laundromat because he was too good to lose and felt guilty no matter who he prosecuted or defended; and of course Andy’s golden retriever, Tara, who is his best friend and tends to garner more attention than most of the humans in Andy’s vicinity.
I liked it well enough to keep reading the series; we’ll see how long it takes for Andy to wear out his welcome.
After dedicating a chunk of time to the Sydney Rye saga, I circled back to read the second book in the Veronica Speedwell series by Deanna Raybourn. Called A Perilous Undertaking, it is indeed a story fraught with potential missteps, as Veronica and her colleague, Stoker, must deal with royals, police detectives, high society eccentrics, and a whole slew of artsy bohemian hedonists as they try to figure out who committed a murder in 1887 London.
The catch is, someone has already been convicted of the crime; but at least one extremely high-up individual doesn’t believe Miles Ramsforth, art patron, to be guilty of killing his pregnant mistress, Artemisia, and has demanded that the unconventional duo prove it by discovering who did. Since the case is emphatically closed according to the police, there will be little assistance (or cooperation) from that direction, so Veronica and Stoker explore the original circumstances of Artemisia’s death with an eye to who benefits, and use a variety of stratagems to spend time with and focus on the many suspects.
I liked this book almost as well as the first. The various relationships are continuing to evolve, the new characters are fun and interesting, and the places the story goes are unexpected. I will probably continue with this series, though not right away.
That’s because, at the moment, I am rereading the first and second books in the Finlay Donovan series by Elle Cosimano, for two reasons: One is that the third book is due out in January, and I always like to review before continuing; but the other is that Ms. Cosimano has graciously agreed to be a guest speaker during the mystery genre segment of my readers’ advisory class at UCLA’s library school this coming Tuesday (via Zoom, since she is an east-coaster). We are all excited about her appearance; if you wish to read my review of her books about the hapless accidental hit woman, it can be found here.
After I am finished with her two books, I am quite excited to read the brand-new (out on Tuesday, and pre-ordered to arrive from Amazon that same day) Barbara Kingsolver novel, Demon Copperhead (with a nod to David Copperfield). I have loved every one of her books with the exception of her greatest success story, The Poisonwood Bible, which people tend to either love or put down after 100 pages of effort. I was one of the latter; but everything else in her catalogue is a winner for me. I hope this one is, too!
I can definitely be classified as a mystery reader, but most of the series I pursue are contemporary, with a preference for serious subjects and tending towards either character-driven or procedural themes. Every once in a while, however, I branch out to see what other mystery readers are discovering in such subgenres as Cozy, Historical, Noir, or Caper stories. I have occasionally taken a segue into legal mysteries, and I also enjoy a good thriller that may be related to mystery but not quite defined by that genre.
This week I tried out a couple of different subgenres, and I have to say that I am enjoying them enough to plan on continuing reading the series after this initial review is over.
The first book I read was A Curious Beginning, Deanna Raybourn’s series about lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell. It’s a historical, set in the Victorian era, and features an intrepid spinster who has never fit into a mold, and never intends to. Veronica travels the world in pursuit of scientific inquiry, makes her own living by selling rare specimens of butterflies, and occasionally has a discreet romantic dalliance.
As the story opens, she is wrapping up the affairs of the second of her two elderly adoptive aunts to pass on, and anticipates, now that she has surrendered their cottage and has no further ties to England, embarking on her most ambitious trip ever. Her plans are interrupted, however, when ruffians attempt to kidnap her right off the street in daylight, and she is saved by a sincere but somewhat enigmatic German baron, who tries to convince her that she is in danger and offers her a ride to London. She doesn’t really give credence to his warnings, but since that’s where she was headed anyway, she’s happy to take advantage of the free trip. Once there, he places her temporarily in the care of his friend Stoker, a taxidermist with hidden depths, vowing to return and reveal all. Unfortunately, before he can impart to Veronica the specifics of the plot against her, the baron is murdered, and she and Mr. Stoker are left to their own devices to figure out why someone wants Veronica dead and gone.
I was hooked on both this protagonist and her story within about 15 pages. Veronica is a progressive female determined to conduct herself on her own terms, and uses her considerable intellect paired with feminine guile to make her own way. One reviewer on Goodreads styled her as “a cool Nancy Drew for the turn of the century,” and that’s not a bad characterization! The story itself is sufficiently endowed with plenty of action and enough exciting twists to hold a reader’s interest, but the heart of its success is the witty banter carried on between Veronica and her initially unwilling partner, Stoker. The development of both of these characters is what kept me reading and led me to check out book #2 in the series as soon as I was finished with the first.
The second series on which I embarked is the Sydney Rye mysteries, by Emily Kimelman, beginning with Unleashed, although as the first book opens, Sydney is known by her original name, Joy Humbolt.
Joy has had an active 24 hours: First, she dumped her boyfriend, Marcus, a possessive schmuck who was fixated on the idea she was cheating on him (she wasn’t); then she lost her cool at work and took down a pastel-clad woman with bad hair in spectacular fashion for not understanding the difference between a macchiato and a frappuccino, for which she was fired; and finally, she went to the pound in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and adopted Blue, the largest dog on the premises. Two days later, she was the new owner of a dog-walking business on the Upper East Side, purchased from a friend of a friend, and 24 hours after that, she found herself embroiled in a murder mystery after golden retriever Toby (one of her dog-walking charges) led her to a dead body in an alley. This discovery would prove to be the true game-changer of Joy’s week, and possibly of her life.
Although this protagonist’s story is completely different from that of Veronica Speedwell, it is her character, combined with the vivid depiction of her environs and the details of her life that immediately grabbed my attention. Joy is, like Veronica, a bit edgy, a bit feisty, and with a similar tendency to refuse to tolerate bullshit. The way the amateur sleuth story details Joy’s discovery that she was meant to be a detective and to right wrongs is engaging, and the characters who surround her to either promote or foil her task are equally personable.
Although I can be a creature of habit in my reading tastes, I’m really glad that I stepped away from my usual preferences to try out these two original and absorbing series.
Several people on the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook page have recently requested recommendations for historical fiction, but hastened to say, “But not World War II please!” and it does seem like that conflict has dominated recently published popular historical fiction for a while now. I just discovered (through one of those BookBub daily deals on e-books) an author who specializes instead in a past/present focus on the important landmarks of New York City and the people who were somehow significant in their history or creation. I picked it up not so much for the connection to days of yore but because the story was art-related, but I was ultimately drawn in by the history.
Fiona Davis definitely has a formula. I have read two of her books now, and the introductory chapters of a third, and she plots them all similarly: Two protagonists, one living in the late 19th or early 20th century (1880-1940), the other in a more contemporary decade (1970s forward), who are either directly related or tangentially connected through the device of an iconic New York building and also through the ploy of a mystery to be solved. They remind me in this way of Kate Morton’s books, although they are neither as lengthy nor as literary in their language.
The first that I read, The Masterpiece, follows the fortunes of Grand Central Terminal, featuring little-known details of its history. The “early” protagonist, Clara Darden, is a struggling artist who has managed to snag a position as a temporary teacher of illustration at the prestigious Grand Central School of Art, an uncommon feat for a young woman in 1928. But Clara is determined that her drawings will, someday soon, grace the cover of Vogue magazine, and she uses every opportunity, including the influence of the two men in her life—one a wealthy poet, the other a bohemian painter—to make her ambitions come true. None of them knows that the Great Depression looms in their immediate future.
Nearly 50 years later, in 1974, Virginia Clay is recently divorced and desperate for work. After failing as a lawyer’s secretary, she reluctantly takes a job in the information booth of the rundown, grimy and dangerous Grand Central, and becomes invested in the fate of the once splendid building, whose historic status is now being challenged in the courts by a group who wishes to build a skyscraper on top of it. One day she takes a wrong turn and discovers an abandoned art school on a top floor of the building, where she finds a powerful watercolor hidden behind a cabinet and is introduced to the mystery of the artist Clara Darden, who disappeared in 1931. Virginia becomes determined to discover her fate, but there are several people who don’t wish her to succeed.
The second book, The Address, is centered around the famous Dakota apartment house, “the” address at which to live. The first part of the story takes place in 1884, when Sara Smythe, a young housekeeper in a London hotel, is lured to the United States by one of the Dakota’s architects, Theodore Camden, with the promise of a managerial position at the brand new building on the verge of opening its doors. Theo, his wife and three children occupy one of the luxury apartments, and regular contact between Sara and Theo soon leads to a forbidden association that will have long-lasting implications for all of them
The second protagonist is Bailey Camden, descendent of a ward of Theodore Camden and his wife, Minnie, a hard-partying young interior designer whose addictions have caused her to squander her chances with a major design firm. Just out of rehab in September of 1985, Bailey is floundering, trying to keep herself from drinking while looking for any kind of work in her field, in a town where her name is synonymous with disaster. She turns to her cousin, Melinda, a direct descendent and heir of the Camden family, who hires her to supervise the redecoration of Melinda’s apartment at The Dakota. There’s no money in it until Melinda comes into her inheritance at age 30 (still a few months away), but at least Bailey has a place to stay (the servants’ quarters of the apartment), a job to keep her mind engaged, and a local daily AA meeting. But while finding storage down in the basement for some of the classic ornamentation Melinda is insisting be ripped from the walls of the apartment so it can be modernized, Bailey discovers some artifacts in an old trunk that indicate the past history of her family may not be at all what she has been led to believe.
Other books feature backdrops such as the New York Public Library, the Chelsea Hotel, the Frick mansion/museum, and the Barbizon. They all seem to stay true to form, with two protagonists separated by half a century, and a mystery to be solved that connects the two through the agency of the building. But despite this repetitive device, the books are enjoyable reads, with engaging characters and vividly painted scenes; Davis seems to rigorously research the entire history, not just that of the buildings but also the habits, mores, clothing, hairstyles, and other minute details of the time periods involved. I also enjoyed the diversity in age and occupation of her main characters—they are of all stages and all life situations, and their vulnerabilities and failures are poignant and ring true.
I have never been to New York City (though I’ve always wanted to go), but I imagine these books would be particularly impactful for those to whom these buildings are familiar sights in their daily travels. Even never having been there, the books make it easy to picture. I don’t know whether I will read on, but those teaser chapters at the end of the previous e-book definitely snare your attention before you know it, so more Fiona Davis may be in my future.
The Murder Rule, the latest book by Dervla McTiernan, departs from her mystery series starring Detective Cormac Reilly to stand alone. The supposed theme of the book is revenge, but it turns out to be more about misplaced trust.
Hannah Rokeby is a law student at the University of Maine, the self-sufficient daughter of a fragile and damaged single mother. Her father died before she was born, and she has no other relatives who acknowledge her; it’s always been just the two of them, with Hannah knowing from an early age that it will be her job to be the adult in the relationship. Her mother, Laura, has sought all her life to conquer her PTSD using the crutch of alcohol, and Hannah patiently stands by during her ups and downs and encourages her in a daily routine whose predictability helps to combat her volatility and maintain her sobriety.
That all changes during Hannah’s third year in law school. When Hannah was a teenager, she discovered and read Laura’s diary telling the story of the summer of 1994, when Laura found and then lost a boyfriend and was brutalized by his best friend, a man who has since been convicted of the rape and murder of a young mother. When Hannah discovers that a prisoners’ rights group called the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia is seeking to overturn the conviction of the man responsible for damaging her mother so thoroughly, she concocts a scheme to insert herself into the process, posing as an idealist who seeks to help them with their mission so as to undermine it and consign him permanently to prison. But as she maintains her disingenuous façade and digs deeper into the case history, disquieting details come to light that throw everything she knows into question.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although there were some implausible bits, legally speaking, that might not happen in an American courtroom (McTiernan was an Irish lawyer for 12 years before turning to writing). Some readers have complained as well about the unlikeable protagonist, Hannah, and in general I prefer a sympathetic character, but in this book her cynicism and duplicitousness work perfectly to set up the story, as well as giving the character added depth. As events unfold, it becomes clear why Hannah is who she is, and enriches the story of her gradual awakening to different possibilities.
I don’t want to give away too many of the plot points here, since a big part of enjoying this book is arriving at them at the same time Hannah does, but the twists and turns as the story unfolds kept me reading enthusiastically from beginning to end. I was initially disappointed to discover that this wasn’t another of her Cormac Reilly series but, having read it, am duly impressed with her ability to write a compelling and entertaining stand-alone mystery/thriller outside of her proven formula.
I am a mystery reader, and I specifically enjoy British mysteries, although I have read my share of others. So I am always looking out for a new Brit-based series, and somewhere along the way I discovered the Bill Slider detective novels by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. They don’t seem to be terribly well known here in the States—I never see recommendations for them on any of the reading pages to which I belong—and the American version of the books is usually poorly designed and cheaply printed, with ugly art, crap paper, and inappropriate typefaces! But it’s such a fun series that I have persisted from the first—Orchestrated Death—to #21, Headlong, which I just completed, and I see that there are two more awaiting me, which happened while I wasn’t looking (i.e., teaching Young Adult Literature and reading for that).
They are police procedurals in the truest sense: Although Detective Chief Inspector Bill Slider is definitely the lead guy, he has under him a team of versatile and memorable officers, all working together to solve the homicides that come their way. From his main prop, Atherton, a literate, clever, fashionable ladies’ man, to the lowliest “plod” on the force, all have distinct personalities and specialties, and we are granted a multidimensional vision of the crime, the suspects, and the process through their eyes.
But lest the books be too concentrated on the whodunnit, Harrod-Eagles has also provided both Bill and many of his colleagues with lively and interesting partners, children, and private lives, which figure largely into each story in various ways.
She also has a wicked sense of humor and has created the higher-ups as wholly original versions of bureaucratic cliché; for instance, Slider’s direct superior, Porson, is the master of malapropism, and delivers twisted versions of every idiomatic proverb in the book, providing Slider and his minions with an ongoing challenge to keep a straight face while the reader is free to hoot with laughter.
This latest fulfilled its challenge of keeping the reader guessing. Ed Wiseman, a prominent literary agent, has apparently fallen to his death from the window of his study into the dug-out building site next door. Slider is assigned the case, but has been cautioned that Borough Commander Carpenter would like to see this quickly ruled an accident and quietly put to bed; it seems a young woman who was involved with the victim is also somehow related to the Commander’s wife, and he wants to keep any scandal out of the papers. But when the verdict is not accident but murder, Slider has to pursue a slippery group of clients, friends, ex-wives, romantic partners, and rejected authors in his quest to solve the crime, while assiduously avoiding involving the girl, who seems increasingly central to the case.
As with most of the rest of the series, this one is intricately plotted to realistically showcase the varieties of police work necessary. It’s also filled with red herrings, puns, wordplay, and humor, and continues to unfold the personal lives of the main characters with glimpses into their family dynamic. I’m glad to pick up this series again, and won’t delay long before moving on to the last two unread volumes.
The interesting thing about Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is that she is not specifically known for this series, and says that she wrote the first book as relaxation between other projects, with no intention of publishing it. Her “real” metier is historical fiction, and her reputation is tied to a massive effort called The Morland Dynasty, which began as 12 volumes that were to cover a 500-year period of British history, but evolved into 35 books as she discovered she wanted to spend more time (and pages) on the fictional characters embedded in the history. Outside of this mammoth family saga, she has also written other historical fiction, contemporary novels, a couple of fantasy books, and a dozen romances, with a total of more than 90 titles!
After enjoying the Slider mysteries, I wanted to read and experience something else she had written, but I didn’t want to embark on anything like a 35-book endurance test, so I chose the first book in a new series, The Secrets of Ashmore Castle, which seems to be a cross between historical fiction and romance with perhaps a whiff of the gothic (the description brought Victoria Holt to mind, although Harrod-Eagles’s prose is far more accomplished and the characters and plot more complex). (The publishing company compares it to both Downton Abbey and Bridgerton, but since I have only seen the TV shows for both of those, I can’t speak to their similarity.) I have come to regret this decision, because I enjoyed the book so much that I immediately wanted to continue on with its characters and plot line, but the second book in the series isn’t due out for another month!
The story begins in the year 1901. The Earl of Stainton and his family occupy Ashmore Castle, although at the opening of the tale several of the family members are widely dispersed. Eldest son Giles, who has always been at odds with his father despite his position as the heir apparent—not least for his choice of occupation—is in Egypt on an archaeological dig, while second son Richard is off fighting the Boer War in South Africa. Occupying the castle are the earl, his wife, and their two teenage daughters (plus a host of servants and, occasionally, their elder, married daughter and family plus Uncle Sebastian). But when the Earl breaks his neck in a hunting accident, Giles is called home from his beloved desert vistas to verdant but gloomy England to take up his duties as the new head of household.
What Giles is swiftly made to realize by his father’s men of business is that along with the estate and castle he has inherited a host of severe financial troubles that, if unchecked, will mean certain ruin for the entire family. He grimly digs into the details, hoping to find ways to alleviate the situation, but eventually comes to the dismal conclusion that his only real option is to marry for money. Having dedicated his adult life so far exclusively to his career, he doesn’t have a clue how to accomplish this, so he turns to his worldly Aunt Caroline for assistance.
Meanwhile, 17-year-old Kitty Bayfield, shy daughter of a wealthy but minor baronet and his social climber of a wife, has just graduated from her finishing school, along with her impoverished but vastly more socially skilled friend Nina, and is preparing to be presented to society during the Season. Kitty’s aunt comes up with a scheme to present Nina to society alongside Kitty to help Kitty overcome some of her reticence and feel more comfortable. Soon Giles, his brother Richard, Kitty, and Nina all meet, at teas, dances, and outings, and while Giles is powerfully attracted to Nina, he is soon made to realize that only Kitty can help him out of his financial predicament…
Harrod-Eagles is wonderful at both characterization and world-building, and all the protagonists come alive on the page; but equally compelling are the foibles of the servants behind the scenes, as well as the interventions in the plot made by secondary characters such as a cobbler turned industrialist, Giles’s French grandmother, and Nina’s Aunt Schofield. I spent several pleasurable hours getting to know both people and situations, and was dismayed to discover, when I arrived at the (somewhat abrupt) ending not knowing how certain significant acts in the evolution of the relationships would turn out, that the next book is not yet available. Now I am biding my time by filling in with other books, while anticipating the August 11th release date of The Affairs of Ashmore Castle.
Of course, I could embark on reading the Morland Dynasty books; but if I were to enjoy them as much as I did this, I would be dug in for a good long time, and I’m not sure I’m ready to commit a few months’ reading to the works of one author. Maybe I’ll just read the first one…