Given that March isn't our most beautiful month, one would think there would be more reading done! But "Eleanor," a bio of Eleanor Roosevelt was very big! But it was fascinating, although I was definitely ready to move on. So, here are three worthy mysteries and a biography to kick off the spring season.
Fans of the series "Vera" who haven't yet explored Ann Cleeves' series of books upon which the television series is based are in for a treat. The "Vera" books so capture the characters as Cleeves writes them that as you sink into the TV stories, the characters of the novels are plainly visible!
"Harbour Street" is the sixth book in the series. The plot finds Vera and her team easing the schedule for the Christmas holidays. But then her DI, Joe Ashcroft, and his daughter discover a dead body on the metro train on which they were traveling after his daughter's concert. Suddenly, any sense of relaxation is off, as the team must catch the killer.
The victim, Margaret Krukowski, is an elderly woman, and one who appears to be deeply respected in the small community of Mardle. She lives in a small flat on the top floor of a bed and breakfast run by landlady Kate, who lives in the house with her two teenaged children. Margaret was a help at the B&B and known to not only the community but the transient residents who stopped for business to stay at Kate's.
But Margaret had secrets and some in the town know those secrets. Could it be that one of them killed her? The investigation finds the team digging deeply into the town residents -- as well as the past -- to finally solve the murder.
Cleeves can write and her characters are well drawn. It's a thick one but it moves quickly and you want to read just "one more chapter" before closing it for the night. I'll definitely be reading more Ann Cleeves.
"Murder Underground" by Mavis Doriel Hay
Written in 1934, "Murder Underground," one of the British Library Crime Classics, is an entertaining romp through the murder of a despicable victim (of course) and several likely (and because of this, unlikely) suspects. Set in London's Hampstead region, the body of the spinster Miss Pongleton is found on the underground steps of the Belsize Park tube station, strangled with her dog's leash.
Miss Pongleton lives in a house of rooms managed by a Miss Bliss and the residents include two young working women (Betty and Cissy), Mr. Slocombe (an investor), Mrs. Daymer (an author), and several others, along with Nellie (the maid) and Bill (the gardener). All of them are possible suspects, though the ones acting the most guilty are Miss Pongleton's niece and nephew (Beryl and Basil) and Beryl's fiancee.
It's all quite a handful and a bit of a comedy of errors as Basil embroils himself in a web of lies and must somehow unravel himself before he is charged with the crime.
I wouldn't call it my favorite of the BCL series, but it is entertaining.
"Eleanor" by David Michaelis
I've always had great respect for Eleanor Roosevelt and her role in American politics in the 20th century. But boy, this book -- as well written and interesting as it is -- was a bit of a slog.
It's not that Michaelis is a dull writer. He's not. He digs into Eleanor's deeply sad and trouble childhood, her emotionally cold upbringing, her neuroses (including shyness) that stuck with her much of her life, her feelings of inadequacy and never feeling as though she measured up, her ungainly looks which were mocked by no less than her own mother, and much more. He looks into her unique relationship and marriage with her second cousin and husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt. They lived quite independently and yet were extremely dependent on one another -- he, for her help and insight into politics and her ability to get things done; she, because with Franklin, she really had little choice.
In the 1930s and 40s, Eleanor was often more loved and admired than her husband for her ability to reach the common person, versus the elite. She was tireless, visiting hospitals, writing a daily syndicated newspaper column, visiting the troops in the Pacific during World War II, emphasizing women's rights to work and for equal pay, urging her husband to be more aggressive in civil rights issues and pushing aggressively for what would become the League of Nations, among others. If there was a power behind the throne, it was Eleanor and her story is a fascinating one.
It's just that it was so darned long! The editor in me kept thinking "What would I cut out of this to tighten it up" and I had no answer. Indeed, I would actually add a bit more about her own reactions to Franklin's affairs and how she managed (apart from affairs of her own).
I learned a lot about the political situation, not only during the FDR years (which included two World Wars and a Depression) but also about the Cold War, when Eleanor's widowhood allowed her a new freedom to advocate for peace and civil rights.
The thing that hit me most with this book is that if the Roosevelts were in politics in today's America, they probably wouldn't survive a primary. The media did not comment on FDR's paralysis or question his health, or write about either of the couple's affairs -- his with (among others) her private secretary and hers with Lorena Hickock, an AP reporter who gave up her career for Eleanor (among others, though some might debate the word "affair." Let's call them "great loves.")
Would I recommend it? Yes. If you enjoy history, politics, women's issues or are fascinated by the Roosevelts, it is worth the 600 oversized pages. But I was glad when I finished. Time for something lighter.
"The Sunlit Weapon" by Jacqueline Winspear
This most recent entry in the "Maisie Dobbs" series finds Maisie in 1942. As security preparations are underway for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's visit to England, Maisie finds herself involved in a case that may be connected. British pilots have been shot down over the coast of England -- presumably by other Brits and Americans. Maisie is tasked with finding out what happened to one of these pilots and along the way, a missing American soldier.
The American army, though not officially segregated in WWII, was far more so than one would like to admit, with servicemen of different races strongly discouraged from fraternizing. This plays into the plot as well, when a black American soldier is found bound and gagged in a barn and his white friend from home, also serving in the army, is missing. Now the black soldier is being held in a military prison. Might he hold a clue to any of the threads Maisie is weaving together?
As always, Winspear's work is historically well documented (if you are a fan, go to her website and check out her various newsletters) and she writes so well, the story flies. Of course, integrated into the case she is working on are her own family dilemmas, including that of her adopted daughter, Anna, who is facing bullying in her village school.
A note: I recommend reading this series in order as it follows chronologically and the characters develop over time in terms of relationships. That said, the mystery itself is self-contained.
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