October is over, yet finally I am reviewing the September books! September brought more reading time than I'd expected and there are six books here to show for it -- four mysteries, a biography of sorts and an action novel are featured this month.
'A World of Curiosities' by Louise Penny
Chief Inspector Adam Gamache returns to Three Pines in this most recent of Louise Penny's wonderful series, as old cases and new connect with disturbing parallels. The earlier part of the novel moves between two stories. The first is a flashback to the first case Gamache and his now son-in-law, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, worked together. It involved the murder of a woman whose two children, Fiona (13) and Sam (10) were victims of their mother's sex trafficking operation. While Fiona is charged with the murder, Gamache has always believed that young Sam had far more involvement than known. In time, Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie, have somewhat taken Fiona under their wing, following her life after prison and education, finally graduating from Engineering College.
The current story begins with the graduation of Myrna's niece Harriet from that same college, a member of Fiona's graduating class. It is the site of a mass murder years before and the ceremony brings Gamache into contact with young Sam again, now a young man, and still, Gamache believes, one not to be trusted.
As the pair visit Three Pines, Myrna (through a hunch from Fiona) discovers a hidden room over her bookshop that has been bricked up for years. When they break through the wall they discover a painting -- a copy of a valuable 17th century work called the Paston Treasure, with some disturbing additions. Those additions are connected to yet another past case in which Gamache was responsible for the most notorious serial killer in his career, John Fleming. That painting, combined with other clues that emerge throughout the book (along with yet another murder) lead Jean-Guy and Gamache into a deep, dark and dangerous search that will threaten the peace of Three Pines.
Penny always weaves a good story and her best are when Three Pines and its delightful population of endearing offbeat characters play major roles and they are the stars of this one.
"The Devil's Cave" by Martin Walker
Bruno Courreges, Chief of Police in the Dordogne village of St. Denis, returns with a mystery that involves black magic and corporate crime. Once again, Martin Walker brings the village to life with the return of many of the town's favorite residence, including the town's mayor, the wealthy Baron, the communist Montsouris, and his law enforcement colleagues, Sergeant Jules and J-J, along with his soul mate, Isabelle.
When Bruno sees a body floating down the river in a small paddle boat, he is shocked to find the woman nude with a dead cockerel and black candles in the boat, along with a pentagram painted onto her stomach, As they struggle to bring in the boat in the rapid current, a man dives in, trying to assist as his friend watches on shore. We learn they are Lionel Foucher and Eugenie Ballontin, visitors to the town.
As Bruno ponders the crime he is also drawn into the proposed land development that the mayor is advocating. The deal would require a large expenditure from the town but could bring in new tourism and jobs. As Bruno learns more about it, it appears to be a shady deal and that the leaders of the corporation include a Count and Foucher.
As Bruno investigates, he finds that the cases come together in disturbing ways that involve not only the unexplained death from the river but the land deal, a deal between Lebanon and the French Ministry of Defense and The Red Countess, an aged heroine of the French Resistance whose chateau and lands will be a valuable inheritance for her heirs.
If that sounds complicated, don't worry! Walker weaves his story well, integrating the different themes and characters seamlessly and in an intriguing way that leads to a thrilling climax.. And, as always, you can count on his preparing some wonderful dinners. Just reading the cooking scenes will be sending you to the market for fresh produce and inspiring your own culinary skills!
"Elizabeth and Margaret: The Intimate World of the Windsor Sisters" by Andrew Morton
What more can be written about the late Queen Elizabeth II and her younger sister? Not much. Or so I thought. But Andrew Morton spins an engaging biography about the relationship of the "heir and the spare" -- at one time inseparable, later separated in many ways by Elizabeth's role as Queen.
In truth, this book is far more about Margaret than it is Elizabeth, though a common thread throughout the book is the great loyalty the sisters shared for each other and the monarchy, despite some very trying times that tested their close relationship.
Where Elizabeth was stable and controlled, Margaret was the wild child -- ebullient, creative, wildly fun. She was a fashion maven, the first royal to smoke in public with her long cigarette holder, and one who loved to sing and dance the night away. Yet she was also deeply religious and had an intellectual, curious mind that, despite being stilted as a youth by being denied a more formal education, was an informal and in-depth student of many subjects independently. And yet while her behavior often flew in the face of royal decorum, she never forgot for a moment her lineage -- and didn't hesitate to remind others if necessary.
As one might expect, the most attention is paid to Margaret's relationships, beginning with her first great love, Group Captain Peter Townsend, whom she desperately wanted to marry. Morton reveals more details about this relationship than I'd read in other books about the couple, including (despite the public perception) that Elizabeth was the deal-breaker in the break up of their relationship.
Her tumultuous marriage to photographer Anthony Armstrong Jones is covered in depth, as is her relationship with Roddy Llewellyn, eighteen years her junior. The relationships clearly paint a portrait of a woman who, despite her effusive lifestyle, was far from happy. Yet it was duty to her sister and the Crown that was a continual and guiding force in her life.
I was prepared to write this one off as more royal fluff and nothing new. I was pleasantly surprised and if you are a royal reader, you might be, too.
"Shadowland" by Richard Lassin
Full disclosure here -- Richard Lassin is a friend of mine and as I read a proof copy of his upcoming book "Shadowland," I had to keep that in mind.
And, I should also mention that this is not the style of type of book I usually read or enjoy. I like my mysteries set in small towns with a nice, clean murder cleverly solved by either the police or some unlikely sleuth. Think "Midsomer Murders" or Louise Penny's "Three Pines" mysteries. So, when early on in the book a rather violent act of vigilante justice takes place I thought, "Oh no, what am I in for?." Vigilante justice is something I'm very opposed to in real life or fiction.
That said, I found the novel moved along very well with an intricate (sometimes too intricate) plot and engaging characters. I was pleased.
The story begins when a young woman's body is pulled from the river and during the autopsy and the coroner discovers that she has swallowed a flash drive. The contents show a number of prominent men, including those in high government positions, being serviced by sex workers (and, in some cases, younger children). Chief O'Hare shares this with former detective Dana Pettigrew, whose own network of researchers track down the site and perpetrators. It isn't long before another murder or two takes place and yes, some pretty violent retribution.
Some of the men in the videos are in the petroleum industry and at stake is a major U.S./Kuwaiti deal which it appears is being "fixed." Former detective Dana and company set out to sabotage the deal, adding to her coterie of cohorts several of the young women involved in the sex parties.
A second story running throughout the book focuses on one of Dana's gang, Harold Smeltzer, a widower who is beginning to feel he might be able to fall in love again, with a woman thirty years his junior. Will he self-sabotage a potential relationship with his lack of confidence? It's a lovely and sweet contrast to the action.
Lassin draws strong characters with the kinds of small details about their appearances and their lives that help them bounce off the page. Even the more violent of characters have redeeming qualities, guided by a sense of righteousness and compassion for the victims of crime, particularly the children.
I confess, there are parts of this book that stretched my credulity. But then, so does James Bond and just about every action movie ever made. There are also a couple of parts that might not make sense to someone who hasn't read Lassin's other books. They don't detract from the story, but perhaps slow it down a bit. That said, I was glad I read it. It's pretty good and I hope when it is published (via Amazon) it attracts new readers.
"Death of a Bookseller" by Bernard J. Farmer
This is the 100th volume in the British Library Crime Classics series and it was not only one of their best offerings, it was one of the best and most interesting mysteries I have read in a long time. The year isn't over but so far it's on my top ten or fifteen of 2023.
Written in 1956 it is set in the world of antiquarian books and the well-conceived plot is filled with information. (Farmer was a collector himself, as well as a retired police officer and consequently he knows about what he writes and writes it well!)
Sergeant Wigan is on his way home when he encounters a slightly tipsy Mike Fisk, a bookseller who has acquired a very rare edition of Keats and has been celebrating. Interested, Wigan escorts him home and it is the first night of a friendship that builds based on their love of books.
One morning Wigan goes to visit Fisk and finds his body, stabbed, and the Keats book has disappeared. Of course there is a murder investigation and because of his knowledge about the antiquarian collectors industry, Wigan is assigned to a Detective Inspector who believes he has found his suspect -- a bad tempered man whose knife was found at the scene and who admitted he had the Keats book. He's an ideal candidate for a jury to hate -- vile tempered with a shaky alibi. Yet Wigan is convinced of his innocence and even after he is sentenced to hang is determined to prove his innocence.
It's hard to imagine that a mystery about old books and the people who make a living selling them (in what appeared to quite literally be a cuthroat business) could keep you glued to the pages but this one did. The characters are well drawn, the plot ingenious, and the information about the world of book dealing fascinating.
"Through a Glass Darkly" by Donna Leon
Number 15 in the Guido Brunetti series, "Through a Glass Darkly" focuses on two key issues -- the environmental crisis of polluted water in the Venetian lagoons and the Murano glass industry, which is a leader in the chemical deposits that pollute those waters.
When Brunetti's sergeant Vianello is asked to help an environmentalist who has been arrested, Guido comes along and during their visit, encounters the man's father-in-law, a violent, badly tempered man who owns one of the region's largest furnaci or glass-blowing factories. Soon after, he is contacted by the environmentalist's wife, who is concerned that her father might kill her husband. Brunetti decides to question people to see if there is anything behind her concern.
One such person is Tassani, the night watchman of that factory and the one next door, owned by a man named Fassano who has political ambitions. Tassani is deeply concerned about the environmental conditions of the factories, feeling they were responsible for the disabilities of his young daughter. When he is found murdered, the plot becomes far deeper.
Once again, Brunetti is surrounded by the enigmatic Signorina Elettra, partner Vianello, and Vice Questore Patta, his opportunistic boss, along with his delightful wife, Paola, whose kitchen creations leave the reader salivating for Italian food!