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Archived Newsletter Content


Newsletter #127 September November, 2019

Who Dunnit–Short
Mystery Reviews
by Mary McKinley

        Back in the days when I was younger and fitter, I belonged to a Scottish Living History group and absorbed my historical knowledge by reading and portraying an herbwife. This was much more fun than sitting in a classroom being lectured at and fed names and dates with no real context. Sitting on out non-fiction shelves, we have the resources to make history interesting, and to meet the people that lived then. Starting with the reprinted trilogy by Frances and Joseph Gies, we have Life in a Medieval City (TPB $15.99), Life in a Medieval Castle (TPB $15.99), and Life in a Medieval Village (TPB$16.99). These books take us into the lives of the various people in the different classes, including what they ate, wore, did, and died from. These books are heavily researched and scholarly, but very readable. Covering much of the same information but in a distinctly different style written slightly more humorously, is The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England (TPB $16.99) by Ian Mortimer. He uses the extensive daily chronicles, letters, household accounts, and poems of the day to introduce us to living in the 15th century, and how to get by from simple greetings to how much it costs to stay at an inn. The last one is Medieval Women: Village Life in the Middle Ages (TPB $14.95) by Ann Baer, which follows the day to day life of Marion, a carpenter’s wife, and her relationships, on a month by month basis. Jumping ahead in time, we have The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England (TPB $18.00) by Ian Mortimer. This does for the Elizabethan Era what his Medieval England does for that time period. There are improvements in society, and it might be slightly easier for one of us to slip into that society, but it’s still a rough, highly structured and class society. Elizabethan Society (TPB $17.99) by Derek Wilson looks at the “society” of the times rather than the individual lives. He breaks it down to job duties such as lawyers, doctors, etc. and how and what they did. The Hidden Lives of Tudor Women (TPB $16.95) by Elizabeth Norton not only gives us snippets of specific women, but also of the various classes of the time period. Since most history is written by and about men, it’s always interesting to hear the woman’s side. There’s always the basics that childbirth was the #1 killer of women, but did you know that throughout the ages about 20% of children died within their first year? And rounding out some little known history, we have Tony Robinson’s The Worst Jobs in History (TPB $15.95). This is broken into the worst jobs by era - for instance, in Roman times, we have the Puke Collector. Moving along, (rapidly,) we have the Leech Collectors, which was seasonal work, and a fuller. Jumping ahead to Victorian times, there’s the Stone Pickers and Stone Breakers. According to Robinson, the worst job of all based on danger and boredom is the Tanner. It’s physically demanding, uses noxious items like dog dung and urine (and sharp blades), and is boring. Given my choices, I’m happy to live now with vaccines, antibiotics, good sewage systems, and clean running water. Oh yeah - effective anesthesia! These are great resources for those of us who like a personal touch to our learning, researching characters for various roles, or just to impress and/or disgust your friends and relatives.

        The latest Nicolas Meyer Sherlock Holmes book The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols (HC $25.99) was a pleasant surprise. Meyer stays true to the voice and the canon of Doyle, with all the characters we know and love. In this story, Sherlock and Holmes are asked by Mycroft to find the source of papers found on a murdered employee of Mycroft’s. This investigation takes them to France and then into Russia. This is a nice addition to any Holmes fan’s library.
        Other books by Meyer are: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1975 Gold Dagger Award), The West End Horror, and The Canary Trainer. The story starts with Meyer stating that he was given the opportunity to read a newly discovered diary which is said to be written by Watson - and moves on from there. Mycroft summons Holmes to the Diogenes Club, and hands him an assignment - to find out if the papers carried by a murdered agent about the Zionist plot to take over the world is fact or fiction. Meyer stays true-to-form as he writes, while still trying to do his best to wrap up inconsistencies such as how many times was Watson married? And to whom? Being a longstanding Holmes fan, I enjoyed this book - one of the rare “failed” Holmes solutions. Read it and see!

        Novelized true crime - See What I Have Done (TPB $16.00) by Sarah Schmidt, was a 2018 Ned Kelly Award finalist. This is another take on the Lizzie Borden murders, told in four voices - Lizzie, sister Emma, maid Bridget, and the stranger, Benjamin. Lizzie’s voice is that of a 5-year-old - disjointed, fantasy based, and not what I would expect from a grown woman who (probably) was clever enough to escape a murder conviction. Emma seemed the most realistic - responded as a 40 year-old woman to horrific circumstances. Bridget is clearly unhappy working for the Bordens, wanting nothing more than to go back to Ireland and leave the household violence she is a witness to and has inflicted on her. There’s the presence of John - Lizzie and Emma’s uncle - who brings Benjamin - abused and abandoned as a young man, and now willing to do “jobs” for money. The author relies heavily on evoking scent - heavy, cloying odors - to help set the scene, and everyone’s tongue swirls in their mouths - to the point of distraction. The ending, like most of the mystery, is ambiguous. I’m not sure if I liked this book - it’s a first novel and could use some polishing - get rid of the swirling tongues already! I didn’t understand if the author wanted to retell the story or create a new one - why the presence of John and Benjamin? If you’re a hard-core Lizzie fan, it’s an interesting take, but otherwise it doesn’t add anything new to her story.

        Sometimes, picking up a book in the middle of a series is difficult as you are lost in the established characters, sometimes it’s easy because there’s enough background to get you up to speed. Heart of Barkness (HC $25.99) by Spencer Quinn is one of the latter. It picks up the tale of Bernie, newly released from the hospital, and his dog Chet, who is the voice of the books. Previous books are: Dog on It, Thereby Hangs a Tail, To Fetch a Thief (Finalist 2011 Watson Award), The Dog Who Knew Too Much, A Fistful of Collars, The Sound and the Furry, Paw and Order, Scents and Sensibility. It’s fun initially to read from a dog’s viewpoint - why it’s important to sniff things, how to tell a “perp” from a former perp from a good person, and most importantly, how to bite a pant leg and not let go. This time, the pair go to hear Lotty Pilgrim, an old country singer, and of course, someone is killed. Lotty confesses to the crime but is (probably) innocent, there’s a cold case that may or may not include disputed song royalties, and a mysterious father. There were enough twists and tangles that I should go back and read the earlier books.

        I love to cook. I love to eat (which is obvious if you’ve met me!) and I love cozies with recipes. Cooked to Death Volume IV Cold Cut Files ($17.95) edited by Rhonda Gilliland is a fun read. This one’s stories are all about meat and sides - ham, roast beef, and more! As always, there’s a short excerpt from the original book the recipe appeared in, and then the recipe. Some of this volume’s recipes are for Corn Puddin’, Rhubarb Pie, Pistachio Encrusted Salmon, and Sancocho from South America with other sweets and savories. Others in the series are Cooked to Death Volume I Tales of Crime and Cookery ($16.95) with Meringue Pie, Lemon Curd, Peanut Butter Cookie Strawberry Fool; Cooked to Death: Lying on a Plate Vol. II ($17.95) including Chicken Wild Rice Soup, Lobster Macaroni Salad, Mounds Bars, Shrimp and Artichokes in Wine, oh my! Lastly is Cooked to Death for the Holidays Volume III ($17.95) with such classics as Candy Cane Drops, South African Curried Ground Lamb Casserole, and Puerto Rican Eggnog. OK. I think it’s lunch time for me now! As a bonus, most of the writers and ingredients are local and locally sourced.

        We’ve been cataloging a lot of old Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and many others of the 40s-60s era kids detective series. They start at $4.00 and go up, and are fun to read as an adult for the nostalgia, and a fun introduction for kids as well as a glimpse into how life was 50 or so years ago. Quality ranges from like new to pages intact but barely. Check them out!

        Also in kids books we have a lot of new writers and stories - my current favorite is Turn Left at the Cow (TPB $7.99) by Lisa Bullard. For anyone who lives or travels in any rural outstate area, we all know that directions are given by landmark, hence the title. Thirteen-year-old Travis runs away from his mom and new step-dad in California to try and find out what happened to his dad who is missing (after a bank heist) and presumed dead. He meets the next door kids, and there’s a bit of romance - hand-holding - and the search is on for the money, information about Travis’ dad, and why his grandmother has so much dead meat in her freezer. And a human head. This is also partly a coming-of-age book, as Travis learns more about his past and how he fits into the world. The ending was a complete surprise to me - which is always fun! I recommend it for 5th graders up.

        Also in the Juvenile section - Encyclopedia Brown! These slim books are new and updated stories of the ones I devoured as a kid - he and Nancy Drew instilled my sense of finding the solution before it was revealed. In my later years, that background helped me with research papers in school, taught me how to write coherently, and overall made me take a deeper look at what I was told, all traits I still find valuable. If you have a kid in your life that enjoys stimulation of the non-electrical kind, get them hooked on books!

        As I look at the Cozies I’ve decided my next job should be writing the titles for these books. I enjoy the cozies - bathtub books - when I want something light that I can easily pick up and put down, read a few pages before I fall asleep, or while waiting. Some of my old favorites are Aunt Dimity by Nancy Atherton (my sister got me hooked on her by reading to me when I was sick), the Bird series by Donna Andrews, and most recently the Juliet Blackwell Witchcraft series. I admit the cover caught me on this - she’s dressed in a vintage ‘20s wedding dress, and I love that era of clothing. So I had to check it out. Her other books in this series are: Secondhand Spirits ($7.99), A Cast-Off Coven, Hexes and Hemlines, In a Witch’s Wardrobe, Tarnished and Torn, A Vision in Velvet, Spellcasting in Silk, A Toxic Trousseau, A Magical Match ($7.99), Bewitched and Betrothed ($7.99). Lily Ivory has a vintage store in San Francisco and is a practicing Witch who is trying to keep her head down and not attract attention. Over the course of the series, her familiar Oscar - a pot-bellied pig, is kidnapped and found, more people are found dead and their killers brought to justice, vintage clothing styles are discussed, and Lily prepares for her own wedding while battling demons. A fun read, especially if you like a bit of the mystical and clothing history along with your mysteries.

        While it’s fun to read stories where everything is neatly tied up at the end, the unsolved cases are endlessly fascinating - was Lizzie Borden really the killer? And perhaps the greatest unsolved mystery - who was Jack the Ripper? The Five (new HC $27.00) by Hallie Rubenhold doesn’t pretend to answer that, instead giving us the history of the five women that were killed. Rubenhold did research and presents us with five living, breathing women who had lives and stories and just enough of misfortune to find themselves earning a living the best they could. As a side note, only one out of the five was ever proven to be a prostitute - the rest did their best to earn a living however they could. Being female and born into poor circumstances, they weren’t all educated or trained in a profession. Rubenhold wants us to remember that these were mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and lovers - not just prostitutes, not just victims, but humans who deserve the respect and honor that we would give to any victim of a horrific crime. This book is compelling - it doesn’t cover the gruesome details of the killings or how the bodies were found, instead it tells us that these women weren’t adjuncts to Jack, but real women with hopes and dreams. I highly recommend it - not only for the history of the women, but also the time, place and context of the slums that contributed to their early deaths.

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