Historical Mysteries

A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee

NecessaryEvilAbir Mukherjee’s first mystery novel, A Rising Man, was one of my favorite reads of 2017. Because I read it several months before starting this blog though I have never really shared my thoughts about it.

That novel is a superb historical mystery that is set in India in the years immediately following the First World War. There are many reasons to recommend it, not least the author’s ability to convey a strong sense of place and culture and the two remarkable main characters. It is a page-turning read and one I find myself regularly recommending on the staff picks rack at my place of work.

A Necessary Evil is a sequel to that book and I am surprised and happy to be able to say I found it an even stronger read than the first one, though I think readers would be best served by starting at the beginning. Before I explain why, I ought to tell you a little bit about its plot.

The book begins close to a year after the events of the previous novel. The heir to the throne of the wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore seeks out Captain Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee (who, it turns out, is an old school friend) to consult them about some strange letters he has received that seem to suggest a threat to his life. As they discuss the matter his car is attacked in an ambush and he is killed.

While Wyndham is able to track down the assassin it is clear that further investigation is needed to understand why this has happened and how it was possible for an ambush to take place when the route they were travelling had not been prearranged. Though political considerations make it impossible to formally continue their investigation, Wyndham and Banerjee travel to Sambalpore in search of answers.

The novel contains an excellent mystery plot but it also reads like a thriller, particularly in the final chapters which have a page-turning, race against time quality. This is not a change of style but rather reflects how the circumstances of the novel manage to amplify the tension at key moments.

In each novel Wyndham is in a position where he is an outsider. In A Rising Man he is a stranger to India, learning to navigate Indian society while trying to solve a murder. Here he finds himself in a country where he has no legal authority and may be given the order to stop and to return home. He is isolated, has few resources he can call on and is treated with suspicion by almost everyone he encounters.

I also appreciated that Mukherjee reduces the amount of discussion of Wyndham’s opium addiction in this second book, though it remains an important part of his character and of the plotting. As a result the calmer, clearer Wyndham is able to show more of his detective skills as he works to understand the complex relationships within the palace and learn about the circumstances of the prince’s death.

His assistant Sergeant “Surrender-not” Banerjee, so named because none of his British colleagues can pronounce his actual name, remains a delight and gets a few moments to shine. I appreciate his steadiness as a secondary investigator and I like his relationship with Wyndham which is generally respectful and constructive.

A secondary character makes a return from the first book and she makes an important contribution to the investigation. Her involvement helps to reinforce one of the series’ most potent themes – that social status shifts and can be a matter of perspective.

That idea is crystallized in a wonderful exchange in the very first chapter of the book when the Prince points out to Wyndham that the question of precedence between the Indian prince, the British policeman representing the crown and his Indian sergeant from the priest caste is far from simple. Throughout the novel we see Wyndham confronting his own lack of status within Sambalpore as he is unable to gain access to people he wishes to speak with, impeding his investigation.

Speaking of that investigation, the mystery here is a good one and very well plotted. Mukherjee creates an intriguing cast of characters and while the identity of the villain didn’t surprise me, I felt the resolution was extremely powerful and effective.

The best historical mysteries do not simply entertain but they educate, inform and speak to aspects of our culture and society. A Necessary Evil does this, discussing aspects of British rule in India without becoming polemical and exploring fascinating themes such as of the nature of justice and the transience of social status. Its characters are compelling, as is the case they are investigating. If you haven’t tried the first one, I’d definitely recommend starting there (there are references made to events that take place at the end of the previous novel) and just know that you will be in for a treat when you get to the second. Highly recommended.

A copy of the novel was provided by the publishers through NetGalley for review though I have also purchased my own copy.

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Agatha Christie, Golden Age, Historical Mysteries

Death Comes As The End by Agatha Christie

DeathComesI have always been intrigued by Ancient Egypt ever since I saw a sarcophagus and set of canopic jars as a child. Lately I have been rekindling that interest while playing Assassin’s Creed Origins and it occurred to me that it would be nice to read a detective novel set in that historical period.

It just so happened that I have been undertaking a project to read through all of Agatha Christie’s standalone mystery novels so I had little difficulty in settling on a title. Death Comes as the End was written in response to a suggestion from a family friend, the archaeologist Stephen Glanville.

The novel stands out for a couple of reasons but its biggest claim to fame is that it is Christie’s only historical mystery. While some reviews assert that it is a ‘typical Christie country house mystery’ that has been given a little Egyptian set dressing, I think such views ignore much of the thematic content of the novel and, in particular, its discussion of Egyptian views of death.

The book centers around an Egyptian family. The father, Imhotep, is away on business and has left his adult sons to manage his estate. When he returns he brings with him a much younger woman, Nofret, who he installs as his concubine. Soon the family realize that the operations of the household are changing to her whims and they worry that they are being disregarded.

An attempt to bully her into submission backfires horribly when she sends a message to Imhotep who is travelling again to tell him about his children’s behavior towards her. His response is to threaten to disinherit his sons and cast them out. Before he returns to make good on that threat, Nofret is found dead at the foot of a cliff. This does not end the drama however and soon the bodies are mounting up.

The body count here is certainly impressive and I think the comparisons some readers make to And Then There Were None are understandable. As with that book, the body count provides a sense of growing tension and impending doom that proves really effective and while there may have been relatively few suspects left standing at the end, I still failed to figure out the killer’s identity.

I also think that it is worth stressing what a good job Christie does of finding a convincing way to tell a mystery story set in the ancient world that still retains all of the hallmarks of her writing. Death Comes as the End is a psychological crime novel, even if it takes place a few millennia before that word was used. Our characters have no forensic science or independent witnesses to rely on. They have to utilize their own intuition and observation to understand the personalities within the house and to identify who would have killed and why.

One of the most impressive things about the novel is the balance she is able to find between the historical and cultural details and the details of the plot. This is a tricky thing for a writer to gauge and I have certainly read many novels by writers who specialize in historical mysteries that fail to keep those elements in balance.

I mentioned earlier that I think this book does a good job of reflecting aspects of Ancient Egyptian society and spiritualism. While some of the plot points could clearly take place in any period of history, the way those events are interpreted could not. This principally can be seen in one of the character’s musings on the relationship between life and death but I think some seemingly supernatural events are also taken more seriously by the cast of characters than they ever would be if the action took place in a contemporary setting.

While I found the book to be an impressive and enjoyable read, I do think there are a few issues. The biggest of these is that I am not sure the reader could reach the killer’s identity through logical deduction. Though there is certainly plenty of information that suggests who is responsible, this is not the sort of case where the attentive reader could only reconcile the clues in one way. Instead the killer really just reveals themselves at the end. Personally I enjoyed the ride and being uncertain of quite how it would all be resolved but your mileage may vary.

The other thing that I think didn’t quite work was the attempt at a romantic subplot. Wikipedia would have me believe that the ending was forced on Christie and later a subject of regret, though I couldn’t easily find out what her preferred ending would have been, and I do wonder if this was one of those elements that she was forced to include. While this is not the only Christie novel that features an attempt to bring a restoration of order with a romantic subplot, I am not sure that it fits with the otherwise bleak tone of the later chapters.

In spite of these less satisfying elements of the novel, overall I found Death Comes as the End to be a very enjoyable and entertaining read. I think it conjures up a strong sense of place and culture and though I think it may disappoint a little as a detective story, I felt gripped by the way it unfolded.

Finally, if anyone has an Egyptian mystery novel they’d like to recommend to me I’d love to hear your suggestions…

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: A historical crime (When)

Hardboiled, Historical Mysteries

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

SilverHave you ever had a book that you keep buying copies of, starting but never seem to get around to finishing? For me that is Lindsey Davis’ The Silver Pigs, the first of her series that features informer and imperial agent Marcus Didius Falco.

Over the past fifteen years I know I have bought at least three paperback copies and one audiobook and I can remember starting it and abandoning it on two different occasions. This was not because I didn’t care for it but because real life got in the way and by the time I was ready for it again too much time had passed and I felt like I’d have to start over. Would I ever actually finish it?

Obviously I did (I never write about books I didn’t complete) and I am very pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think it probably helped that I listened to the audiobook reading by Christian Rodska whose gravelly voice seemed a perfect fit for Falco’s hardboiled narration. I certainly had no difficulty motivating myself to keep going this time and once the second phase of the novel began I finished the rest of the book in two sittings (a task that is fairly tricky to do with a ten hour audiobook!).

The novel begins with Falco encountering a sixteen year old girl in the forum being hassled by some thugs and his stepping in to protect her. After taking her on as his client, he learns that she has been hiding a silver and lead ingot in her lockbox stamped with the imperial seal. The ingot comes from the British mines but what was it doing in Rome?

Falco is soon on the track of a political conspiracy that spans the Empire but his world is turned upside down when the girl turns up dead. He agrees to work for her family to find the murderer and uncover the conspiracy, setting sail for Britain…

In a sense I am glad that I delayed reading this for so long. Back when I first picked up the book I had little knowledge of the hardboiled form and doubt I would have extracted quite the level of enjoyment I did reading this now. While the idea of placing that sort of character in a historical setting seems like it shouldn’t work, I quickly embraced it. Rather than pulling you out of the historical period, it serves to make that culture more accessible.

Falco is a wonderful creation. His cynicism and grouchiness instantly endeared him to me and I think Davis does a good job of building up a good cast of colorful supporting characters around him that help his Rome to come to life. Favorites included Lenia, a laundry owner whose shop is far below Falco’s apartment, his overbearing mother and his dodgy landlord Smaractus who employs training gladiators to collect his overdue rent. I also think Davis presents us with interesting takes on the various members of the Flavian family (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian).

This novel, as I hinted at before, takes place across quite a wide canvas and involves a fairly large number of characters yet I had little difficulty keeping track of who everyone was and what role they were playing. I think that speaks to the quality of Davis’ characterization. Rather than just present us with historical figures or confining the narrative to one strata of Roman society, Davis’ story presents us with characters from a variety of professions and social classes.

The case itself is a good one and perfectly reflects some common hardboiled themes. We get to see government corruption, grift at every level of society and our hero is often in completely over his head. Somewhat surprisingly the trope that isn’t present is the femme fatale, although it would be true to say that Falco is encouraged into action at several points because of his feelings towards certain female characters.

I particularly appreciated Falco’s interactions with Helena Justina, the Senator’s daughter he encounters while visiting Britain. The pair develop quite an enjoyable sparring relationship and I appreciated that as the novel progresses Davis is able to flesh out the character and help us understand what she wants out of life and why her marriage her failed.

Towards the end the reader is likely to get a step or two ahead of Falco and I think one attempt at misdirection is less effective than I think it was meant to be but that did not bother me too much. Even once it becomes clear how the story will end, I think Davis maintains interest in her characters and in how their personal lives will be resolved. I also felt that the ending does a good job of setting up further adventures for Falco, giving readers a reason to quickly return to the character.

While it may have taken me fifteen years to finish it, I really enjoyed reading The Silver Pigs and am looking forward to continuing the series with Shadows in Bronze. Hopefully I will be able to finish that one in a little more timely fashion!

Ellis Peters, Historical Mysteries

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

morbidWhat causes a book or a character to become popular? In the case of the Cadfael books, perhaps a better question would be to ask what caused them to cease to be so.

I am a child of the nineties and for those who were interested in mystery fiction in that period, Brother Cadfael was one of the biggest names in the genre. While I didn’t watch the television series, Ellis Peters’ novels were a fixture in the mystery sections of any competent booksellers and I remember other historical mysteries being sold with recommendations from TV star Derek Jacobi emblazoned on their covers so clearly the character had a following.

In the decades that have followed the series seems to have suffered a decline. Some of that would be an inevitable result of the television series having long since ended but from I also feel there has been a rising critical sentiment expressed towards the books. Take for instance this review of the book I’m writing about today from Puzzle Doctor in which he expresses the view that this is something of a snoozefest as well as not being a very well plotted mystery or this more tepid one from Rhapsody in Books which likens it to drinking light beer.

I first read A Morbid Taste for Bones when I went off to university, pilfering a copy from my father’s bookshelf (long since returned, I should add). My memories of the novel were quite positive so I was curious to see whether, having since become much more widely read in the genre, I would think it held up. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I still felt it did though, reading it with some of those criticisms in mind I can certainly acknowledge that there are some very valid criticisms to be made. Before I do so however I should probably outline the book for those few readers who didn’t try it back in its heyday.

Brother Cadfael is a former crusader who, upon his return, has opted for a monastic life of tending to the gardens at the abbey of Shrewsbury. The book opens with one of his fellow monks claiming to have had a vision of an obscure Welsh saint. This prompts the abbot to a party to set out on a journey to Gwytherin to claim her remains as a relic for their order and while Cadfael is a skeptic of this mission, he arranges to come along to act as an interpreter for these English-speaking monks.

After easily winning the assent of both the local church and secular authorities, they assume that it will be an easy matter to convince the community to relinquish the body but they encounter some unexpected resistance from a village leader. When that man is found murdered, Cadfael finds he is suspicious of everybody except the man blamed for the crime and starts to investigate.

Well, I say investigate but beyond looking at the body, inferring some aspects of how the man died and presenting a strong reason why the accused was innocent, his investigation mostly consists of setting traps that don’t work. In this respect I grant that Puzzle Doctor has a valid point – the mystery elements are weak and the plotting is far simpler than fans of historical mysteries may be used to. I think however that to judge the book purely as a mystery sort of misses the point.

Ellis Peters did not invent the historical mystery but she is widely credited with their popularization. What I think makes her work important is that she is able to create and sustain a series detective in a pre-industrial setting, creating a background that provides him with the skills he will need to be a credible investigator and finding natural ways to bring him into each case.

We may take it for granted these days that crimes took place in every period of history and could be solved but I think readers accept this because of Peters’ efforts. Even if later authors refined the techniques and improved on her style or storytelling approach, telling more conventional mysteries, Peters demonstrated that a character could credibly prove that someone committed a crime by looking at evidence and making logical deductions. She proved that if you provide readers with characters they could connect to, that they would be able to appreciate a story set in a period or region they may not know very much about.

Let’s go back to the specific details of this book. Cadfael is able to deduce from the state of the victim’s clothes, the geography of the crime scene, the appearance of the arrow and his personal knowledge of the suspect that they would be extremely unlikely to have committed the murder in the way assumed. From that he is able to suppose that if the person the evidence suggests did not do it then the evidence has been made to suggest it for a reason. None of this involves forensics or psychological analysis and yet from these judgments a whole set of ideas arise that will inform the rest of the investigation.

The critics are right to charge that the mystery is simplistic but then we need to keep this book in the context of the era in which it was written. Peters had every reason to question whether audiences would accept that a figure from this period could possibly engage in anything approaching ratiocination and the fact that the mysteries and their solutions are more simplistic reflects an effort to ensure that audiences could accept that.

Similarly, the introduction of romantic subplots may come off as manipulative and repetitive but it is hardly without precedent in the mystery genre. How many times did Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr, for instance, end a story with seemingly doomed lovers pledging themselves to each other? I don’t think the two romances in this novel are particularly interesting but I equally don’t find them objectionable – they just provide credible character motivations.

What I do find compelling are the politics of the ecclesiastical characters and the cynicism the author ascribes to some of their motives. Writing about religious characters can be inherently tricky, particularly when discussing some aspects of belief that some readers may find difficult to take seriously such as the background given to Saint Winifred, but Peters manages to avoid making blanket statements and instead focuses on the individual decision making of human characters. Other books, such as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose may take these ideas further and do more interesting things with them but I think Peters deserves credit for integrating them into her own work.

The other most frequent complaint about the novel relates to its pacing which is certainly leisurely. The murder does take place until well into the novel, meaning that the first part of the book is largely about an argument. I believe that this not only reflects that the book is conceived of as a mixture of historical fiction and mystery fiction, discussing themes of sainthood and the development of religious tradition in addition to telling its mystery story rather than conceiving of the historical themes and the mystery itself as a single cohesive idea. Remove the murder from this book and I think the story still works as a historical and theological drama. Remover the debates and the mystery would still make sense. The problem for the reader is that if you’re not interested in one of those two elements then whole chunks of this novel are bound to be dry reading.

To take all of these points together, I think it is clear why this book and the series it spawned was groundbreaking at the time and why it found an audience. A consequence of its success has been that the second and third generations of historical mystery writers do not feel the need to simplify or to convince their readers that a medieval person really could solve these sorts of crimes and this, as a result, feels a little old fashioned and awkward.

Personally I still enjoy the book immensely, in large part because I do find the religious politics so interesting and also because I liked the characterization of several supporting characters. I do recognize though that such things have a fairly narrow appeal and I would certainly not suggest that just because a book is historically significant means that it should be liked. Its popularity in the nineties was exaggerated and I think its ubiquity is at least partly responsible for the subsequent backlash against it.

Lastly, for those who haven’t tried it but are interested, I can recommend the excellent audio book reading by the marvellous Patrick Tull. This is one of those great cases of the right narrator being given a book that suits their style and I think he does a wonderful job with this material. The simple approach to plotting makes this easy to digest in audio format and I think his gravelly voice is absolutely perfect for Cadfael.

 

Historical Mysteries, John Dickson Carr, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The Witch of the Low Tide by John Dickson Carr

WitchoftheLowTideAfter having two very positive early experiences with John Dickson Carr’s work, I was keen to get back to him quickly. I decided however that I wanted to mix things up a little by selected one of his novels that didn’t feature Dr. Gideon Fell to get a better sense of his range as a writer.

Unfortunately as many of you will be aware, the selection of Carr titles available is patchy at best and of the few ebooks available this was the one that seemed most promising. The Witch of the Low Tide is a standalone historical mystery, which is a style I tend to enjoy, and features not just one but two impossible crimes.

The first is an attempted strangling that takes place in the home of a friend of our sleuth. When the would-be strangler is interrupted they run down into the cellar which they lock from the inside. In spite of there being no exit however when the cellar is searched the strangler is found to have mysteriously vanished.

The second crime is also a strangling and takes place in a pavilion located on a stretch of wet sand. Our hero discovers the body there but is struck by how there have been no footprints left in the sand. The Police quickly jump to the conclusion that his lady friend, Betty, is responsible so he decides that he will play detective and find the killer himself.

This setup of a male taking responsibility for proving the innocence of a female character seems to be a common theme in Carr’s work from the little of it I have enjoyed so far. The Problem of the Wire Cage featured its male hero trying to cover up for his love interest and having to solve the crime himself while The Problem of the Green Capsule had a detective character fall in love with a female suspect.

While each of those stories featured a younger male fulfilling that role, the romantic lead here is an older analyst who has formed an attachment to a much younger widow. What makes that situation more intriguing is that near the start of the book that character is told by Inspector Twigg that the object of his affections may have a scandalous secret, setting up an antagonistic relationship between the two men that runs throughout the novel.

That antagonism was, for me, one of the most successful parts of this novel and I think it is a very effective source of tension in its second half and makes both characters more interesting. Certainly I think Garth, the analyst hero, becomes more interesting once he has an adversary to pit his wits against and we see his resourcefulness come through.

The mysteries themselves however feel a little unfocused and I felt some of the explanation given at the end did not make sense to me. Looking at the spoiler section of the review at The Green Capsule, I see that I am not alone in feeling that it did not make a lot of sense that the two crimes would play out the way they do.

While I think that explanation left something to be desired, I did generally enjoy the journey to get to that point. I particularly appreciated Carr’s attention to little period details that gave a strong sense of its historical setting. Some of those details are introduced in quite splashy ways but others feature more subtly such as the general lack of knowledge about psychoanalysis and the work of Freud. It is these sorts of touches that I think make this a genuine historical mystery rather than just a mystery that happens to be set in the past.

Though I enjoyed the interactions between Garth and Twigg, I did find one aspect of them to be very frustrating. This novel significantly spoils The Mystery of the Yellow Room, revealing the killer’s identity and how the victim was killed. While I understand Carr’s interest in having that book provide inspiration for a theory of how these crimes happened, it is annoying to have an ending spoiled. Guess I won’t be reading that next week like I planned then…

So, where does that leave me overall? I think The Witch of the Low Tide has some interesting ideas and I did enjoy the setting but I felt that the different elements didn’t come together quite as tidily as I wished, particularly in that conclusion. Still, I did enjoy the journey and would certainly be interested to try some of the other stories that Carr did without his series detectives. I may just pop back to Dr. Fell for another impossible crime or two first though…

Danish Crime, Historical Mysteries

Oathbreaker by Martin Jensen

OathbreakerI had been keen to read Oathbreaker since enjoying the first novel in Martin Jensen’s Halfdan and Winston series,  The King’s Hounds, back in November. While it was not a perfect read, I loved the vivid historical setting, striking characterization and the little historical details Jensen incorporates throughout the novel that bring the past to life.

The King’s Hounds seemed to be driven with the external pressures on the two sleuths to solve the crime quickly and tidily. Here we see them given more time to solve a mystery but also placed in a situation where they are not able to use the threat of the King’s displeasure to force compliance from unwilling witnesses. This case requires them to utilize a different skill set and the story has a slightly different texture and tone as a result.

The book incorporates an interesting mix of elements, some of which feel quite fresh while others will be more familiar to readers of early medieval mysteries. We have a monastic setting, a bitter dispute between two groups of priests and a monk who appears to be hiding from a bloody past. What elevates these familiar period elements for me is the way they are used as a starting point to explore the political and religious conflicts of this period.

A somewhat insolent monk who has been sent to the church to reflect on his conduct is discovered dead in the middle of the night. His body has been arranged into the shape of the cross and his right hand has been severed from his body. When a representative of the Thane recognizes Winston and Halfdan from the events of the previous book, he requests their assistance in investigating the matter. In doing so the pair must navigate that bitter rivalry between the two monasteries, discover the dead priest’s true identity and work out how these events relate to the threat of a possible insurgency in Mercia.

While this case may appear to offer lower stakes for our sleuths than their previous one, I appreciated the interesting mix of suspects and I enjoyed learning about the historical background for the crime. For those interested in the events, Jensen includes several pages of historical notes citing his sources and giving more detail.

I was a little disappointed that the most interesting and entertaining character from the first book, King Cnut himself, does not feature directly in this novel though this was probably necessary to give our two sleuths space to establish themselves independently of him. Still, though we do not see him though we are still aware of his presence and I continue to find him an intriguing, ruthless and complex figure even from a distance.

One of the aspects of the first book that I didn’t care much for was Halfdan’s aggressive sexuality and I was pleased that this second book tones that down quite considerably. He remains a letch and we still have to read his assessments of female characters primarily through their looks but the second half of the book gives one of its female characters more to do than any of the women in the first title.

On a related note, Halfdan feels a much richer character here independent of Winston. We see him exercising more initiative in his investigations, coming up with some critical deductions at a key moment in the story drawing upon his own knowledge and background, and he clearly has a stronger sense of purpose than in the first novel. It is clear that he is more than just a Watson to Winston’s Holmes – he is a competent investigator in his own right. I did miss their interactions a little though.

Winston does not participate quite so visibly in the key moments of this investigation but he does have an entertaining if slight character arc of his own in the second half of the novel. There is one development in particular later in the novel that I felt promised an interesting change for the character and I am curious to see how that may affect him in the next novel in the series.

Overall I was more than satisfied with this second installment of the series and felt that the tweaks made to characterization and the shift of emphasis generally worked to the material’s benefit. Where the previous book was arguably a stronger historical novel than mystery, Oathkeeper is the more satisfying mystery.  I continue to find this setting fascinating and look forward to seeing what may be in store for Halfdan and Winston in the next volume at some point soon.

Historical Mysteries

Sitting Murder by A. J. Wright

SittingMurder.pngThis is the fourth title in A. J. Wright’s series of Victorian mysteries set in the industrial town of Wigan in the north of England. I have not read any of the previous titles as the series had somehow escaped my notice, but I was excited to see a Victorian-era story set outside of the well-trod streets of the City of London.

The setting is not simply a veneer for the story as Wright draws on the distinctive demographic makeup of a northern town such as Wigan to populate his cast of characters. Previous entries in the series have situated the action in more distinctly northern settings such as in a colliery but even a story whose setting is primarily domestic like this still possesses plenty of atmospheric touches and details.

Having picked up the series partway through, I did feel that the characters of the two detectives, DS Brennan and Constable Jaggery, seemed to lack a sense of a life beyond their actions in uniform though a rather wonderful moment in the epilogue left me feeling that the author may have built up these characters’ personal lives in previous volumes. While I may have missed out a little by jumping in with the fourth book, my lack of knowledge did not prevent me from following and enjoying the action.

Wright’s use of spiritualism as a key element of his story is interesting in what he choses not to do as much as what is in the book. Those expecting table tapping and elaborate theatrics may be surprised as the simplicity of Alice’s sittings which is at least partially a reflection of the setting. Instead the readings are plain and short but what attracts people is that rather than speaking in generalities, Alice seems to be able to specifically identify some things that she ought to have no knowledge of. She claims that these abilities manifested after the death of her husband in an industrial accident but DS Brennan is skeptical.

Following a series of successful sittings, Alice receives an anonymous message that seems to be threatening in its tone. Soon threats turn to murder and DS Brennan has to figure out who amongst Alice’s clients may have turned killer and why.

The novel spends quite a significant portion of its opening chapters establishing the characters and it is a surprisingly long time before the body shows up. The mechanics of how the crime was committed are very simple and so the investigation focuses exclusively on identifying the killer and their motive.

The assortment of suspects that Wright provides us with are nicely varied in background and personality although some feel more fully developed than others. Though I identified the killer early in the novel, I still enjoyed reading the interviews as they contain some interesting character moments as well as some small revelations that enhanced the themes of the book. In any case, I rather suspect that my figuring it out was more a result of happening on the right question to consider by chance than a reflection of any great weakness in the novel’s plot and I felt the solution hung together fairly well once all of the pieces were revealed.

On finishing the novel, I was not entirely sure what to make of it. I thought that the book had a potentially interesting premise but the mystery was a little slighter than I had hoped. I never wholly warmed to the two sleuths which kept me from really investing in those characters yet I found the supporting cast of characters to be an interesting mix. I was conflicted.

I suspect that I may have been more enthused by this novel had I checked out some of the earlier titles in this series first. Some of these sound quite interesting, particularly Elementary Murder which, according to its blurb, features a locked room component.

While my To Read list is currently bulging, I hope to give this series another try at some point. I enjoyed the fresh setting and felt Wright did a good job of incorporating historical elements and details while building an interesting mix of supporting characters.

Review copy provided through NetGalley.