Book Review: The Boy at the Keyhole by Stephen Giles

The Boy at the Keyhole
Stephen Giles
Hanover Square Press, September 2018
ISBN 978-1-335-65292-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Nine-year-old Samuel lives alone in a once-great estate in Surrey with the family’s housekeeper, Ruth. His father is dead and his mother has been abroad for months, purportedly tending to her late husband’s faltering business. She left in a hurry one night while Samuel was sleeping and did not say goodbye.

Beyond her sporadic postcards, Samuel hears nothing from his mother. He misses her dearly and maps her journey in an atlas he finds in her study. Samuel’s life is otherwise regulated by Ruth, who runs the house with an iron fist. Only she and Samuel know how brutally she enforces order.

As rumors in town begin to swirl, Samuel wonders whether something more sinister is afoot. Perhaps his mother did not leave but was murdered—by Ruth.

Artful, haunting and hurtling toward a psychological showdown, The Boy at the Keyhole is an incandescent debut about the precarious dance between truth and perception, and the shocking acts that occur behind closed doors.

On the surface, this book would seem to have elements of a dark, gothic story, something like Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, with a looming, cavernous manse, a creepy, sinister housekeeper and a protagonist who becomes more and more suspicious about what’s going on. Really, the main difference is that the protagonist is a child rather than a new young wife being intimidated by the housekeeper while the husband is apparently distant emotionally.

Certainly Samuel has reason to be suspicious, lonesome, baffled, all the feelings a child would have when one parent is dead and the other disappears, supposedly legitimately but without even telling him goodbye. Right there, my empathy went to this little boy who surely deserved better. How disappointed he must have been each day when she didn’t come home.

Ruth is undoubtedly an unpleasant caregiver and it’s no wonder Samuel begins to have dark thoughts about this woman and her peculiar behavior. These feelings are exacerbated by Samuel’s friend who, intentionally or not, hints at nefarious goings-on and the suspense begins to build while Ruth understandably becomes more and more frustrated by this child who dares to snoop and raise questions. Is this all just a child’s imagination run amok?

A promising beginning doesn’t quite succeed, as least not as fully as it could have, and the very slow pace doesn’t help. I also felt the ending was a bit lacking but, overall, I think readers who like a slow-building suspense will be satisfied.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2018.

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About the Author

Stephen Giles is the Australian author behind the lauded children’s series “Anyone But Ivy Pocket”, penned under the pseudonym Caleb Krisp. The series, published in the US by HarperCollins/Greenwillow and the UK by Bloomsbury, appeared on the New York Times Best Seller List, has been translated into 25 different languages and was optioned by Paramount Pictures.

Prior to selling his first book, Stephen worked in a variety of jobs to supplement his writing including market research, film classification and media monitoring. The Boy at the Keyhole is Giles’ first work for adults and the film rights for this book have been acquired by New Regency.

http://madeleinemilburn.co.uk/mm-authors/stephen-giles/

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Book Review: Death of an Unsung Hero by Tessa Arlen—and a Giveaway!

Death of an Unsung Hero
A Lady Montfort Mystery #4
Tessa Arlen
Minotaur Books, March 2018
ISBN 978-1-250-10144-0
Hardcover

From the publisher—

In 1916, the world is at war and the energetic Lady Montfort has persuaded her husband to offer his family’s dower house to the War Office as an auxiliary hospital for officers recovering from shell-shock with their redoubtable housekeeper Mrs. Jackson contributing to the war effort as the hospital’s quartermaster.

Despite the hospital’s success, the farming community of Haversham, led by the Montfort’s neighbor Sir Winchell Meacham, does not approve of a country-house hospital for men they consider to be cowards. When Captain Sir Evelyn Bray, one of the patients, is found lying face down in the vegetable garden with his head bashed in, both Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson have every reason to fear that the War Office will close their hospital. Once again the two women unite their diverse talents to discover who would have reason to murder a war hero suffering from amnesia.

Time has moved on since our last encounter with Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson and England is growing weary of World War I, only halfway through the horror, although their patriotism is still high and everyone wants to do his—or her—part. When a military hospital is opened in Haversham Hall, a property owned by the Earl of Montfort, some neighbors are not welcoming. This is no ordinary hospital treating the visible wounds one expects to see but, rather, a shelter for soldiers suffering a badly misunderstood emotional affliction. Shellshock is a condition that’s newly-recognized by the medical community but many civilians see it as a mere excuse for cowardice in the face of the enemy. Still, murder seems to be an unnecessarily strong reaction.

Lady Montfort and her housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson, are the perfect upstairs-downstairs team and their individual stations and personalities complement each other when they investigate. Unlike some similar situations, these women are equally intelligent and determined to seek truth and justice plus they truly like each other and work together like a well-oiled machine. Now, they turn their attention to the question of why someone would want to murder Captain Bray just when he was beginning to recover from his amnesia and who that someone might be.

Tessa Arlen has cemented her place among the best historical mystery authors and, in my opinion, each book is a wonderful evocation of period and setting. It was nice to learn more about Lady Montfort’s family and the earl has become another of my favorite members of the cast. This entry has the added drama of war and it’s clear that the author understands and has a passion for the times and her wonderful characters. I’ll be adding Death of an Unsung Hero to my list of best reads in 2018.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2018.

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“The book is a delightful romp through a world of vividly
eccentric characters in a beautifully described setting. It was
pure pleasure to read, and it packed a punch.”
– Historical Novel Society

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About the Author

TESSA ARLEN is the author of Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman, Death Sits Down to Dinner and A Death by Any Other Name. She is the daughter of a British diplomat and had lived in or visited her parents in Singapore, Berlin, the Persian Gulf, Beijing, Delhi, and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. She came to the US in 1980 and worked as an HR recruiter for the LA Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Olympic Games, where she interviewed her future husband for a job. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Website // Twitter // Facebook // Goodreads

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“The way Arlen integrates the traumas of WWI into a
golden age whodunit plot will please Charles Todd fans.”
– Publishers Weekly

Book Review: Mrs. Jeffries Rights a Wrong by Emily Brightwell

Mrs. Jeffries Rights a Wrong
A Victorian Mystery #35
Emily Brightwell
Berkley Prime Crime, May 2017
ISBN 978-0-399-58420-6
Trade Paperback

Inspector Witherspoon has the best household staff in all of Victorian London. A wealthy man, he’s still dedicated to justice for everyone, and his staff is determined to help him bring that about. The hardest part is convincing him he discovered all the clues himself. when he’s called upon to solve a murder.

When a despicable shyster con artist is murdered in his hotel room, no one is particularly sorry. Apparently everyone he came in contact with had a motive, but do the seeds of this crime lie in the past or in the present? This is what Mrs. Jeffries, Inspector Witherspoon’s stellar housekeeper, has the staff trying to find out. They work like well-oiled cogs in a fancy machine as they work their way through the mystery. All this and they manage to keep up their other duties too.

These are quite a diverse and egalitarian group for Victorian England, enjoyable for their differences. The dialogue seems suitable for who is speaking, the action never falters, and the descriptions are good, putting the reader right in place to observe.

Mrs. Jeffries never fails to put the Inspector in the way of catching the crook. There must be at least two dozen of these tales for readers to enjoy, and you probably won’t be able to stop at just one.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, August 2017.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder, Four Furlongs and Hometown Homicide.

Book Review: A Death by Any Other Name by Tessa Arlen

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Book Review: Death at Dovecote Hatch by Dorothy Cannell

Death at Dovecote HatchDeath at Dovecote Hatch
A Florence Norris Mystery #2
Dorothy Cannell
Severn House, July 2015
ISBN 978-0-7278-8480-0
Hardcover

From the publisher—

November, 1932. Still reeling from the recent murder at Mullings, country estate of the wealthy Stodmarsh family, the peaceful little village of Dovecote Hatch is about to be rocked by news of another violent death. When mild-mannered Kenneth Tenneson is found dead from a fall down the stairs at his home, the coroner’s inquest announces a verdict of accidental death. Florence Norris, however – the quietly observant housekeeper at Mullings – suspects there may be more to it than that.

Florence’s suspicions of foul play would appear to be confirmed when a second will turns up revealing details of a dark secret in the Tenneson family’s past. Determined to find out the truth about Kenneth’s death, Florence gradually pieces the clues together – but will she be in time to prevent a catastrophic turn of events?

There’s something special about English country house and village mysteries, isn’t there? I’m not even all that particular about the time period but I do have a fondness for historical, especially those set in the 1700’s to early 1900’s. In the case of Death at Dovecote Hatch, we’re visiting a time when people (primarily the “upstairs”) had lost that certain innocence prevalent prior to the first World War but not yet aware of the coming horror. They’re all, no matter what class, in the grip of the Great Depression to varying degrees.

All that is background noise to the events occurring in the village of Dovecote Hatch a few months after the affair at Mullings during which housekeeper Florence Norris was seen to be an intelligent, thoughtful woman who became invaluable in solving the crime. Now, though, life has settled down and Florence is on a visit with her cousin, Hattie Fly, in London when Inspector LeCrane seeks a private conversation with George Bird, pub owner and Florie’s intended. LeCrane is quietly and unofficially looking into the recent death at Bogmire of Kenneth Tenneson, ruled an accident at the inquest, but LeCrane is acting on a hunch that something isn’t right. Having experienced Florence’s innate abilities in the Mullings case, he requests that George let her know her assistance—as well as George’s—this time would be most welcome. And thus begins their investigation.

Much of the appeal in this book lies in the village goings-on outside of the case, the day to day lives of its people, and I truly enjoyed spending time with them, as much as with the mystery (mysteries?). These are characters who are so nicely fleshed out that it’s easy to feel that they’re old friends and acquaintances, all with their own concerns whether they be happily content or worried about their circumstances. The interesting thing to me is that there is quite a large cast and, yet, I had no trouble keeping them straight, testament to Ms. Cannell‘s fine characterizations.

The mystery itself is a true puzzle with lots of potential resolutions and, as it happens, one or two other mysteries add to the fun. All in all, the author has once again offered a very pleasing tale.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2017.

Book Review: Death Sits Down to Dinner by Tessa Arlen—and a Giveaway!

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Title: Death Sits Down to Dinner
Series: A Lady Montfort Mystery #2

Author: Tessa Arlen
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: March 29, 2016
Genre: Historical Mystery

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Death Sits Down to DinnerDeath Sits Down to Dinner
A Lady Montfort Mystery #2
Tessa Arlen
Minotaur Books, March 2016
ISBN 978-1-250-05250-6
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Filled with deceptions both real and imagined, Death Sits Down to Dinner is a delightful Edwardian mystery set in London.

Lady Montfort is thrilled to receive an invitation to a dinner party hosted by her close friend Hermione Kingsley, the patroness of England’s largest charity. Hermione has pulled together a select gathering to celebrate Winston Churchill’s 39th birthday. Some of the oldest families in the country have gathered to toast the dangerously ambitious and utterly charming First Lord of the Admiralty. But when the dinner ends, one of the gentlemen remains seated at the table, head down among the walnut shells littering the cloth and a knife between his ribs.

Summoned from Iyntwood, Mrs. Jackson helps her mistress trace the steps of suspects both upstairs and downstairs as Hermione’s household prepares to host a highly anticipated charity event. Determined to get to the bottom of things, Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson unravel the web of secrecy surrounding the bright whirlwind of London society, investigating the rich, well-connected and seeming do-gooders in a race against time to stop the murderer from striking again.

It would be difficult to find an historical period that’s more interesting than the Edwardian Era, particularly in England. This is a time when injustice could be found everywhere and, yet, progressive moves were being made in areas like women’s suffrage, child labor and racist attitudes and it’s the last period of a certain gentility before the first global war, just a few years away. Aeroplanes have brought an excitement not seen since the early days of the automobile and class differences are beginning to fade ever so slightly.

Lady Montfort is a progressive lady herself with an eye for ferreting out secrets when crime is afoot but she understands her limitations due to society’s class restrictions and enlists the assistance of her housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson, in keeping an ear to the ground belowstairs. These two ladies proved themselves in a previous situation and, if anything, have become even more adept at getting to the truth.

Clementine and Edith have become favorites of mine in the sleuthing world, most especially because of their high regard for each other. Each has particular abilities to offer and a good deal of intelligence and they find ways to work together within the confines of their society. Tessa Arlen has a fine hand with her characterizations and with settings that are truly vivid in their evocation of 1913 England. Secondary players are every bit as engaging and I particularly appreciate the author’s inclusion of a cast of characters.

As for the mystery itself, red herrings are in plentiful supply and, although Ms. Arlen certainly plays fair, the final denouement is as unpredictable as a mystery fan could wish. This second entry in the series is another winner and I’m already craving the third.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2016.

About the Author

Tessa ArlenTESSA ARLEN, the daughter of a British diplomat, had lived in or visited her parents in Singapore, Cairo, Berlin, the Persian Gulf, Beijing, Delhi and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. She came to the U.S. in 1980 and worked as an H.R. recruiter for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Olympic Games, where she interviewed her future husband for a job. DEATH OF A DISHONORABLE GENTLEMAN is Tessa’s first novel. She lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

For more information please visit Tessa Arlen’s website. Read Tessa Arlen’s blog at Redoubtable Edwardians. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Subscribe to Tessa Arlen’s Newsletter.

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Book Review: Little Pretty Things by Lori Rader-Day—and a Giveaway!

Little Pretty ThingsLittle Pretty Things
Lori Rader-Day
Seventh Street Books, July 2015
ISBN 978-1-63388-004-7
Trade Paperback

You probably know a place like the Mid-Night Inn. It’s got twenty rooms, only twelve of them are habitable. Seedy looking Billy, the manager, lives on the premises. There’s a bar, no pool, and no continental breakfast. The customers are two types—the bargains and the desperates. Juliet Townsend makes the beds at the motel, after the bargain seeking travelers have scurried away. After high school, she went away to college for one semester, eager to escape her dead end life in Midway, Indiana. She had to come home to take care of her mother, and she remained cleaning toilets years later, not able to muster the will to break out of her rut.

When Juliet saw gorgeous Madeleine Bell at the front desk, wanting a room for the night, she thought she was hallucinating. Maddy had been the golden girl of high school, the track star, and Juliet’s good friend. Was Maddy in town for their tenth reunion? Maddy says she’s in town for business, but wanted to see Juliet. Odd, thinks, Juliet, since we haven’t spoken since that last track meet our senior year. They wander over to the bar, and Maddy makes vague small talk for a while. The next morning Maddy is found hanging from the motel’s balcony railing.

Did Maddy take her own life or was she murdered? Juliet can only remember all the track meets in school, where she was always second to Maddy’s first. If it hadn’t been for Maddy, Juliet might have won a track scholarship and left Midway for good. The author skillfully weaves the memories of the high school days into the present day mystery. It’s a story with multi-layered characters, tattered around the edges atmosphere, and revelations about relationships and reality. One of the best mysteries I’ve read this year.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, September 2015.

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