Book Reviews: The Irregular by H.B. Lyle and Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

The Irregular
A Different Class of Spy #1
H.B. Lyle
Quercus, November 2017
ISBN: 978-1-6814-4026-2
Hardcover

It’s not easy for an author to come up with an original idea for a novel, much less a plot involving Sherlock Holmes.  But that is just what H.B. Lyle has done, albeit the great detective here only playing a minor cameo role, offstage, as it was.  Instead, he has grasped an historical development, the forerunners of Britain’s MI5 and MI6 in 1909 and using the “best” of the Baker Street Irregulars,Wiggins, as a protagonist.  Not only Holmes, but no less a personage than Winston Churchill plays a minor role in the plot.

The story revolves around Vernon Kell, who apparently headed up the original efforts to establish a counter-intelligence operation in Great Britain, hindered by his inability to find good agents until his friend, Holmes, suggested Higgins.  A substantial portion of the novel recounts Higgins’ exploits and a good deal of background on how the Baker Street Irregulars came to be.  And, of course, we learn a great deal about the conspiracies pre-dating World War I and espionage efforts by Germany and others not only to obtain secrets but also to sow discontent and confusion in London.

The novel is exciting, interesting and fast-moving.  It is an historical mystery, the beginning of what is promised to be a new series, and a welcome one. The author captures the atmosphere of 1909 London with sharp observations and dialogue.  We look forward to its sequel with great anticipation.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2017.

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Earthly Remains
A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery #26
Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly Press, April 2017
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2647-4
Hardcover

Commissario Guido Brunetti, in the midst of interrogating a suspect, suddenly collapses (intentionally, to prevent a colleague from committing a foolish act) by faking a heart attack. He is taken to the hospital, where no evidence of an attack is found, but just high blood pressure.  While waiting for the results of tests, he concludes that he no longer enjoys his job, and after discussing it with his wife, and on the advice of the attending doctor, decides to go away from it all alone.

His wife sets him up with a villa owned by a relative on an island in the lagoon, where he intends to rest, row and read.  He rows with the caretaker, Davide Casati, whom he befriends.  Incidentally, Casati and Brunetti’s father won regatta years before.  All goes well until Casati is found drowned following a violent storm.

Brunetti then undertakes to investigate the circumstances of Casati’s death to determine whether it was an accident or suicide, despite his self-imposed sabbatical.  Along the way, the Commissario learns a lot about his friend, nature, and our failure to protect the environment, as well as the result of one’s actions during our lives.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2017.

Book Review: Murder at Beechwood by Alyssa Maxwell

Murder at BeechwoodMurder at Beechwood
A Gilded Newport Mystery #3
Alyssa Maxwell
Kensington Books, June 2015
ISBN 978-0-7582-9086-1
Trade Paperback

Newport, Rhode Island, in 1896, is a place of fabulous wealth, gorgeous mansions, and opulent balls filled with privileged people in stunning clothing. Of course, not all of the people living in Newport are rich, and so, there are lots of very different lives being lived as well. While people might not like to talk about it, there are also numerous servants, prostitutes, and desperate people who are struggling to make a living in various ways.

Emmaline Cross, the heroine of the book, is uniquely positioned to be able to navigate both worlds. As a distant relation of the Vanderbilt family, she has an entree into most of the important social events, and she uses the invitations she receives to write a mild gossip column for the local newspaper. Having been left a small legacy from one of her aunts, Emma doesn’t have to work for a living. At the same time, however, she is not nearly as well-off as her famous Vanderbilt relations, which means she has to keep a tight rein on expenses, and is looked down upon by those who don’t have to watch their pennies. There are benefits to this scorn, as this means Emma isn’t held to quite the same strict, conventional standards of her wealthier peers. She has somewhat greater freedom in her personal choices, and she has made the decision to help those who are rejected by society. Her home is a haven to servants whom she considers friends, as well as a former prostitute.

With Emma’s reputation as a kind-hearted, helpful, non-judgmental person to go to in times of trouble, it is perhaps not entirely surprising when she finds that someone has left a baby on her doorstep. And so the mystery begins – what is the baby’s identity, who are the child’s parents, and would someone be willing to kill to cover up a possible illegitimate birth?

Emma is an appealing character, and Maxwell does a wonderful job of writing in great detail about Newport, vividly describing the houses, one-of-a-kind ball gowns, tea parties, and boat races. I hadn’t been aware that Newport was famous for the many mansions that were built there, and the book inspired me to google “Newport mansions”, where I found out that many of these houses were real, and have now been turned into museums that can be toured.

Despite all of these good points, though, I found that I never quite connected with Emma or the other characters in the book. Everyone’s motivations and behaviours felt a little stilted, or maybe just not quite deep enough. I think part of the problem was that Emma, and the life she was living, seemed more of a fantasy to me than a reality. Some of her actions seemed too contemporary for 1896, which also drew me out of the story. This is the third book in the series, and although Maxwell did a good job of writing it so that it can stand alone, it’s possible that I would have felt a greater understanding of Emma if I had read the other books first. Still, Murder at Beechwood is clearly a well-researched mystery, and it was pleasant to read for the unique setting alone.

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson, November 2015.