The Portrait of Lady Wycliff

Cheryl Bolen begins a new series (The Lords of Eton) with The Portrait of Lady Wycliff, the story of Harry Blassingame, the Earl of Wycliff, as he searches for the missing portrait of his late mother. Harry has spent the last eight years restoring the family fortunes lost by his late father, a decent man sorely lacking in ability as a gambler. Harry would prefer to keep his own counsel as to exactly how he has refilled the Wycliff coffers, but it wasn’t through gambling. Well, not exactly, anyway.

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The Portrait of Lady WycliffThe last property on Harry’s list is the London house on Grosvenor Square, now in the possession of a young widow, Louisa Phillips. Surely it won’t be difficult to convince her to sell.

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Louisa holds no admiration for the aristocracy, and no grief over the loss of her much older and unloved husband, who bought her from her unscrupulous father when she was fifteen years old. In fact, she holds very little admiration for men in general. She prefers to be an independent woman, with a secret of her own.

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But, she discovers to her great distress, she can’t sell the house to Harry because she doesn’t own it. How will she and her younger sister Ellie manage now?

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Against her better judgment, Louisa teams up with Harry to peel an onion of mysteries: Who is the shadowy “benefactor” who actually owns the house and apparently owned Louisa’s husband, too? Did Phillips and his secret backer deliberately set out to ruin the Wycliff family? And what has become of the missing portrait of Lady Wycliff, which should have been hanging in the Grosvenor Square house?

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Louisa and Harry set off on a wild tour of Cornwall in search of answers, posing as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and (definitely against Louisa’s better judgment) sharing rooms—and, chastely, beds—in country inns along the way, fighting their growing admiration for each other, convinced an aristocrat and a bluestocking have no future together.

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Will they find the benefactor? The portrait? The answers? True love? Well, this is a romance, of course, but the road to Happily Ever After is always an adventure. In this case, a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, populated with charming characters—Louisa’s sister Ellie and Harry’s cousin Edward have a few adventures of their own—and the always interesting background of Regency England.

 

More Cozies

I’ve read been reading cozy mysteries lately, so here are a few I’ve enjoyed, one from a brand new series by Kate Parker, plus series entries from Annabel Chase and Cindy Brown.

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The Killing at Kaldaire House begins a new series from Kate Parker, this one set in Edwardian London and featuring Emily Gates, a young, talented, and reasonably The Killing at Kaldaire Housesuccessful milliner who inherited her shop from her mother. Unfortunately some of her aristocratic clients seem to see no need to actually pay their bills, and Emily is forced to take extreme measures, using the burglary skills she learned from her father’s disreputable (but highly successful) family to take their valuables (some of which turn out not to be valuable at all) hostage.

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On a late night visit to Kaldaire House, Emily discovers the dying master of the mansion lying on the floor of his study. Unwilling to abandon anyone in that condition, she alerts the household. When Lady Kaldaire promises to vouch for her (and pay Emily’s bill herself) if Emily will help her solve the mystery of Lord Kaldaire’s murder, Emily has little choice.

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She doesn’t have much choice when the attractive detective assigned to the case, James Russell, recognizes Emily as a member of the notorious Gates family and promises not to arrest her if she will help him keep an eye on her relatives. Needing her income to send the relative she cares most about, her younger brother Matthew, to a special school for the deaf, she finds herself juggling her investigating for Lady Kaldaire, her family, and her growing attraction to Detective Inspector Russell.

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With a range of entertaining supporting characters, lots of period detail, and a good mystery, The Killing at Kaldaire House promises another fun series of cozy mysteries from Parker.

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Better Than Hex is the fifth installment in Annabel Chase’s Spellbound series of humorous paranormal mysteries, following the adventures of Emma Hart, who didn’t know she was Better Than Hexa witch until she stumbled into Spellbound, a community of paranormals trapped in their town by a very old spell, and found she couldn’t leave. In this tale, Emma, now the local public defender (and witch in remedial training) takes on the case of a young were-lion who won’t explain why he was caught in possession of deadly nightshade. Meanwhile she frets over the impending marriage of her not-so-secret crush, fallen angel Daniel Starr, to mean-spirited (but gorgeous) fairy Elsa Knightsbridge. Has Daniel really fallen back in love with his ex-girlfriend, or has he been the victim of an Obsession potion administered by Elsa?

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Better Than Hex ends on something of a cliffhanger, so I immediately downloaded the Cast Awaysixth installment, Cast Away, in which Emma is only slightly distracted from her concerns about Daniel by a new client (a macho young werewolf accused of peeing inappropriately in a peony bed) and a new mystery (the death of a likable troll found frozen under a bridge). Emma’s experiment with potions at the nightclub hosting Elsa’s bachelorette party goes awry, of course. Will she break the Obsession spell in time to stop the wedding? Or will the secret she’s been keeping trip her up? Chase answers these questions while leaving plenty of story lines for the next books in the series.

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Cindy Brown’s The Phantom of Oz is another fun theatrical mystery, this one set in an elegant old theater haunted by the Lady in White. Ivy Meadows is a hardworking young The Phantom of Ozactress who also works for her Uncle Bob’s PI firm (Duda Detectives), so naturally when her best friend, Candy, disappears from the touring company of The Wizard: A Space OZpera Ivy dives in to investigate, landing herself an understudy role with the company in the process. Props include spaceships and Trekian costumes, and the cast includes munchkins and flying monkeys (played by children ranging from adorable to creepy), a famous director, a toxic reality star, a costume mistress who might be a witch, and Toto. Misunderstandings with her boyfriend and her brother only make Ivy’s life more complicated, not to mention the wardrobe mistress’ well-intentioned cold remedies. I love this series, with its madly scrambled theatrical productions and hilariously close-but-not-quite-there movie titles.

 

Phyllis Whitney Revisited

When Phyllis A. Whitney died a few years ago, at the age of 104, most if not all of her novels were out of print. Out of print, but not forgotten by two or three generations of mystery readers. I found a few of her late novels (she was 94 when the last one was published) at Half Price Books and enjoyed them, so I was delighted when Open Road Books began releasing Whitney’s tales of mystery and suspense in digital format, and I’ve been stashing them away on my Kindle.

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The premise of Listen for the Whisperer (first published in 1972) intrigued me, perhaps because it involved a reclusive former Hollywood star (and I was reading a novel about Mary Pickford at the time), and it hopped to the head of the digital TBR shelf. The novel is set in Bergen, Norway (Whitney visited all her settings, right up into her 90s, and made them near-characters in her plots), and centers around Leigh Hollins, a young woman seeking to meet her birth mother, one-time movie star Laura Worth, who abandoned Leigh to her father at birth and abandoned Hollywood after a scandal involving the murder of her director. Leigh is very angry with Laura, but she soon sees that her mother may be the victim of a campaign of fear—or she may be delusional.

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The novel seems slow by today’s suspense/thriller standards, the violence is mostly off-page and never graphic, and the romantic element is very low key and far from central to the story. (Although her books are now sometimes called romantic suspense, Whitney considered herself a mystery writer and was frequently honored as one.) But Whitney uses her atmospheric setting skillfully throughout the book (sending me to find pictures of the Fantoft Stave Church, an important location in the story, on the Internet), throws suspicion on everyone, and saves her truly dangerous suspense for the climax of the book.

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I probably read Listen for the Whisperer back when it came out (the Mystery Book Club was my lifeline back then when I lived far away from bookstores and didn’t have much money), but I have no memory of it. I enjoyed it this time around, and I have quite a few more waiting on my Kindle.

The Birth of Hollywood

In Melanie Benjamin’s novel The Girls in the Picture, the girls are screen writer Frances Marion and actress Mary Pickford, each of them new to Hollywood as the story begins. Told from both points of view (first person for Fran, third for Mary), the novel runs through the growth of the movie industry from 1914 through the late thirties. It centers around the friendship and collaboration between the two women (Marion wrote many of Pickford’s most successful movies, as well as some not so successful), and their eventual drifting apart, as Marion continued to be one of the most successful screen writers (”scenarists,” as they were once known) in the first half of the twentieth century, while Pickford faded away, trapped in her own image as Little Mary, the Girl With the Curls.

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The Girls in the PictureBenjamin has clearly done a great deal of research, while also fleshing out the two women as real people, through their professional successes and failures as well as their personal lives. The book is also a fascinating look at the growth of an industry, from a light-hearted, fun-filled adventure in the early years to a serious business-focused industry—controlled by men. Although Marion was a successful (and highly paid) writer and Pickford a brilliant business woman and a founder (with Fairbanks and Chaplin) of United Artists, Benjamin also deals with the problems women faced in the first part of the twentieth century—not much different from those of the twenty-first. The very title, The Girls in the Picture, comes from Marion’s recognition, long years later, when looking through photos from those early days, that she and Pickford were almost always the only girls in the picture.

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Well researched and well written, the book teems with both familiar and forgotten names from the early days of the movie business, when everything was new and exciting in Hollywoodland. A fascinating read.

 

The Dead End Job Mysteries

I’ve been a fan of Elaine Viets’ Dead End Job mystery series since the first one came out in 2003, and I have all fifteen on a keeper shelf. The first thirteen have just been re-released with new covers (and prices) in eBook form. If you enjoy humorous mysteries as much as I do, you won’t want to miss them.

Dead End Jobs

The series gets its name from the dreadful jobs Helen Hawthorne works to stay under the radar and off the books. She’s fled St. Louis for the sunnier climate of Fort Lauderdale, a few steps ahead of the law. I’m not going to tell you exactly why Helen is on the run, because it’s too much fun to find out for yourself, but I’ll just say it involves her ex-husband, a neighbor, and a baseball bat.

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Helen finds a new home at the Coronado Tropic Apartments, run by chain-smoking, purple-clad, seventyish Margery Flax, a great character throughout the series. Helen also meets Peggy and her parrot Pete, and Thumbs the cat, and wonders about the pot-smoking hippie in one of the upstairs apartments (keep an eye on him). I grew up in South Florida (the suburbs of Miami), so I especially enjoy the Fort Lauderdale setting.

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Through the series, Helen works at some awful jobs. She’s worked at penny-pinching retail shops (a bridal shop, a book store, a doggy boutique, a resale shop, and a beauty salon), and cleaned hotel rooms and litter pans. She’s been a telemarketer and a yacht stewardess. All these jobs and more are tasks Elaine Viets has actually done as research for the books.

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As I write this, Helen’s first three adventures (Shop Til You Drop,Murder Between the Covers, and Dying to Call You) are available from Amazon for only $2.99 each, a perfect time to try one. One of these days I’m going to binge-read them all in order.

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You can check them all out and read the first chapters on Elaine’s site. (While you’re there, check out the Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper series, set in St. Louis—I’m a big fan of those books, too!)

 

The Boleyn King

What might have happened if Anne Boleyn had borne a healthy son? That’s the premise of Laura Andersen’s The Boleyn King. As the novel opens, Henry IX is turning 17. He has been King for several years, since the death of his father, but he has one more year to wait before Lord Rochford (his uncle George Boleyn) steps down as Regent. Known as William to those closest to him (his older sister Elizabeth, his cousin and confidante Dominic Courtenay, and Minuette Wyatt, an orphan born on the same day as Will was and raised in Queen Anne’s court), the young King is eager to rule on his own.

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The story centers on the lives of these four young people as they navigate the excitement and danger of the Royal Court. They deal with political intrigue, gossip, illicit affairs, and even a questionable death. Beyond the concerns of everyday life, there is war with France, tension with Spain (will Elizabeth marry King Phillip?), and diplomatic jousting on the rest of the continent.

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The Boleyn KingIn this version of Tudor England, Anne remains Queen Mother (and a controversial figure), and four of Henry VIII’s famous marriages never happened. Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, is long dead, but her daughter Mary (demoted from Princess to Lady and removed from the line of succession) lives on, doing her best to incite a Catholic rebellion. Lady Jane Grey is alive and well, suggested as a suitable wife for Henry. (I always thought poor Jane, with her nine days as Queen, got the worst deal of the period.)

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I love alternate history, and I thoroughly enjoyed The Boleyn King, but I have to say it reads as historical rather than speculative fiction, perhaps because the change in history occurs less than twenty years before the beginning of the novel. This leaves Andersen free to write her vision of the Tudor period without worrying too much about what’s going on in the rest of the world.

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The Boleyn King has a very different feel from Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories, set in a twentieth century Britain fair removed from the “hinge” that changed its history, in which Richard I stayed home and enjoyed a long and successful reign, and the Plantagenet line still rules Britain, or S. M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers, in which a twenty-first century British royal family rules from India, driven there by a nineteen century meteorite fall that destroyed much of Europe and derailed the Industrial Revolution.

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I know enough about the Tudor period to enjoy Andersen’s imaginings and not enough to troll for historical errors. Now, of course, I have to know what comes next, in the rest of the Boleyn trilogy (The Boleyn Deceit and The Boleyn Reckoning) and in the Tudor Legacy trilogy about the reign of Elizabeth (The Virgin’s Daughter, The Virgin’s Spy, and The Virgin’s War).

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Sigh. This is what happens when I download those interesting loss-leader titles from the daily ebook emails. Next thing I know I have another series to pursue, and even more books in my Amazon cloud.

 

And More Mystery Reviews

I’m running out of titles for these review collections—obviously my reading has leaned heavily to cozy mysteries of late. On the other hand, as I write this I’m reading one alternate history novel (The Boleyn King by Laura Anderson) and one alternate world novel (Within the Sanctuary of Wings, the last—alas—Lady Trent Memoir by Marie Brennan). More on those later.

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Meanwhile, back in mystery land, Diane Kelly’s Death and Taxes series comes to an end Death, Taxes and a Shotgun Weddingwith Death, Taxes, and a Shotgun Wedding, the twelfth adventure of Tara Holloway, gun-toting IRS Special Agent. I’m sure it’s no spoiler to admit that Tara and Nick do manage to get married by the end of the book, or that shotguns actually are present at the wedding.

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Before they make it to the altar, though, Tara tackles a home rental scam, pursuing the fake property manager through an undercover job with Backseat Driver, and all her colleagues lend their talents to track down whoever is sending Tara death threats. That search serves as a trip down memory lane, as Tara and her friends check in with folks they’ve met—and some they’ve arrested—over Tara’s relatively brief career as an agent. (She’s sure packed a lot of action into less than two years on the job!) If you’ve been following the series you’ll enjoy catching up with all the characters.

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I’m glad to see Tara’s Happily Ever After (complete with a five-years-later epilogue), but sorry to see the series end. Never fear, though—Kelly’s Paw and Order K9 team of Megan and Brigit will continue, and rumor has it Kelly has a new series in the works.

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Zara Keane’s Rebel Without a Claus continues the adventures (and sometimes misadventures) of Maggie Doyle, an American ex-cop starting over on the little Irish Rebel Without a Clausisland where much of her father’s family lives. Maggie and her friend and assistant P.I. Lenny are doing undercover work for their newly established Movie Reel Investigations when they find a body in a bathtub. And that’s not the last body Maggie, widely known as a corpse magnet, will find in the course of the book. Throw in a half dozen Bad Santas, some odd behavior on the part of Liam Reynolds, Maggie’s police officer boyfriend, and the unexpected arrival of Maggie’s estranged sister Beth, now a famous beauty vlogger, and you have the ingredients for another tale combining mayhem and laughter.

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I’ve read the whole Movie Club Mysteries series over the past year and enjoyed it thoroughly. I’ll be watching for the next one, Some Like It Shot, due out in the spring.

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Deadly Fashion is the third in Kate Parker’s series set in pre-WWII London. Olivia Denis, Deadly Fashiona young widow (she solved her husband’s murder in Deadly Scandal), works as a barely competent writer on the society page of a London newspaper, holding down the job because she’s also handling investigations for the paper’s publisher. In Deadly Fashion, an interview with a long-admired couturier, Madame Mimi Mareau, leads Olivia into murder investigations and another trip to the continent.

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Parker does a wonderful job of bringing her setting to life. London is still reeling from the Abdication, everyone knows that war is coming sooner or later, and no one is entirely sure whose side of the conflict their neighbor might be on. Olivia and her good friend Captain Adam Richmond know where they stand, and don’t hesitate to follow their investigations, even when the answers aren’t what they might have hoped for.

 

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