Sunday, July 23, 2006

US Historical Mysteries

The Mainly Mysteries Book Club met again last night in the Library Board Room to discuss American historical mysteries. It was a smaller group than usual, but being a smaller room, that worked out just fine. And there may have been fewer people, but those who were there were so enthusiastic that the discussion ran ½ hour over its usual time. Luckily we were fortified with all-American food – Mom’s apple pie (well, Marie Calendar’s, but baked right here at the library and didn’t that smell wafting through the halls drive everyone crazy…), oatmeal cookies, flat pretzels and artichoke tapinade (er, South America). To put us in the correct historical mood, the room was sprinkled with facsimile Civil War era newspapers, Declaration of Independence and illuminated Bill of Rights, Uncle Sam and “Remember Pearl Harbor” posters, pictures of a Civil Rights sit-in, a suffragette demonstration, Revolutionary War recruiting poster, a Native American, and a handful of small items – a squash blossom necklace, toy brass cannon, a fan, and – covering two eras – my priceless Edgar Allen Poe bobble-head figure. Also hanging from the wall was a recreation turn-of-the-century woman’s dress, complete with bustle (that we never did figure out how to rig up, and also led to a discussion on the relationship between “a bustle” and “to bustle” and an emergency telephone call to the reference desk. The official answer – maybe related, maybe not).
  • I began the discussion (being the only one without my mouth full) with Owen Parry’s Shadows of Glory, the second in his Civil War series featuring special presidential agent Major Abel Jones. I suspect I would have done better if I had read the first novel in the series – Faded Coat of Blue – though I can’t say I lost track anywhere. I read some of his Civil War short stories and enjoyed them very much (and I seldom even read short stories), but had a bit of difficulty getting involved in this one. The books are meticulously researched, well written from a Victorian gentleman’s point of view, and certainly had plenty of excitement, so I think it was just me. Abel is recovering from being wounded in the war (it is currently 1862) and typhus, and is sent to check out rumors of a possible rebellion by the Irish in upper New York State, and the murder of the government agent there. I won’t give away the actual conspiracy, but it does read more like international intrigue than a traditional mystery. It is full of the social attitudes of the time – toward the Irish, the “Negro,” Germans, Welsh (like Abel), spiritualism (a séance is held at a Methodist ministers house attended by Frederick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as well as Major Jones), the Temperance movement, etc. I recommend giving the series a try.
  • Our next member is a big fan of the Elliott Roosevelt series featuring his mother, Eleanor Roosevelt. She has read all of the series and liked them, but she feels one of the best is Murder and the First Lady. She loves how Elliott shows great respect for his parents, but never holds back on their personality quirks or other White House secrets. In this one set in 1939, the intrepid Eleanor takes on the Mob, learns to crack a safe, and deals with Scotland Yard, among other exciting skills and activities.


  • Our next book is a return to a favorite author among members, Nevada Barr’s Flashback. Though it takes place in the present on the Dry Tortugas National Park off of Key West, letters related to the mystery of alleged Lincoln assassination conspirator Dr. Samuel Mudd are integral in solving the present day mysteries. The reader thought it was Barr’s best so far.
  • Next we return to a title discussed (with gusto and too little time) last month, The lost German slave girl: the extraordinary true story of Sally Miller and her fight for freedom in old New Orleans by John Bailey. The mystery at the time was whether or not the slave Sally Miller was actually a light-skinned slave, or actually Salome Mueller, a German immigrant enslaved in 1840s New Orleans. The reader was enthusiastic in recommending it, said it was full of fascinating facts and stories, and had about 2 pages of notes with various “did you know that…?” points of interest.Death of a winter Shaker by Deborah Woodworth is one of a series that focuses on Sister Rose Callahan and the Kentucky Shaker community of New Homage in the 1930s, their lifestyle and beliefs, and the occasional murder. The mysteries are good, but secondary to learning about the lifestyle of the Shakers (such as that the Shakers lived celibate lives and sustained their population by taking in orphans).
  • We move now to the northern Great Plains in 1870s. In The contract surgeon by Dan O’Brien, Dr. Valentine McGillicuddy (“guess what day he was born on?”) is a civilian surgeon contracted by the army during the Indian Wars. He keeps coming into contact with and forms a friendship with an Indian who turns out to be Crazy Horse. The mystery is What will Crazy Horse do? and What was done to Crazy Horse? The reader was impressed and recommends it.
  • We step further back in time now to 1763 Boston in A wicked way to burn by Margaret Miles, part of her Bracebridge series of light historical mysteries. This particular story deals with the aftermath of the French and Indian Wars, and all the neutral French left in America after the war, and the repercussions of a new king in England. This was considered light and enjoyable, and recommended (others who had read the series agreed).
  • Ann McMillan in Dead March confronts the Civil War era from a different perspective, two Confederate women from opposite ends of society – a young Virginia widow and a free black “conjure” woman. Together they must, very carefully, probe for the truth of a murder and grave robbery despite the legal inferiority and social isolation of women and blacks in that period in Richmond. The member said the book was very well written, well researched with good description. It’s the first in a series.
  • Our next member shared Black Maria: a mystery of old Philadelphia by Mark Graham. This is set during the great 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia (one of the displays is the arm of the statue of liberty – the rest of her will come later), and is described as a dark mystery of madness and brutal murders and very psychological. It was a bit dark for her taste, but well written, and the background information was very interesting.
  • The Benjamin January
  • series by Barbara Hambly was the next item shared. Benjamin January is a free man of color, a surgeon and a music teacher in 1830s New Orleans, and because of his education and position drawn in to investigate various murders and situations. The reader said all the mysteries were good, but it is the setting and sociological information that riveted her. The first in the series is Free man of color which focuses on the free black contracted mistresses of white gentlemen, a rather original quirk of the New Orleans culture of the time. Graveyard dust focuses on voodoo (still commonly practiced), and the one “that really grabbed” her, Sold down the river, in which Benjamin goes undercover as a slave, and reveals conditions that “just made her want to cry.”
  • We now move forward to 1904 and …New Orleans (a definite pattern is developing here). In Chasing the devil’s tail by David Fulmer, Creole detective Vincent St. Cyr
  • lives investigates the murders of two prostitutes in Storyville, the then legal red light district of New Orleans, where each bordello had their house pianist, and the new music of jazz was emerging. The author combines the legend of the lost “jassin’ around” musician with historical figures (including Jellyroll Morton) in a mystery full of murder, madness and corruption. Recommended (and first in another well-reviewed series).
  • Our next person found another tale in which the past played into the present in Snakeskin Shamisen by Naomi Hirahara. This takes place in the Japanese-American community of Los Angeles, and focuses on Mas Arai, a 70-year-old gardener, who realizes an instrument, a “shamisen,” left at a murder scene ties the event to Okinawa during World War II. The member found it very Japanese, and hard to read.
  • Several members were fans of Miriam Grace Monfredo and her Seneca Falls series. This is the Seneca Falls of the suffragette movement in the 19th century. The first member read The stalking horse which focuses on the niece of the original main character of the series, who is now a very intrepid Pinkerton agent at the time of Southern secession. It is her duty to help prevent the execution of a plot to assassinate President Lincoln. The other member, unfortunately, read several in the series at the same time. She doesn’t recommend this to anyone else. She said be sure to read them in order, because new characters are introduced to the series, and she kept getting confused, “But this hasn’t happened yet!”
  • The first member is an avid reader of historical fiction, mysteries and otherwise, but of all she has read, the Seneca Falls series and the Hilda Johansson series by Jeanne Dams are her favorites. Hilda Johansson is a Swedish immigrant working as a maid in the home of the Studebaker family (yes, those Studebakers) in South Bend, Indiana at the turn of the century. The first title is Death in lacquer red and comes highly recommended.
  • The second member who liked the Seneca Falls series also recommended Confessions of a teen sleuth by Chelsea Cain. This is a parody of the Nancy Drew children’s series (come on, you know you read them), and relates the exciting adventures of our favorite teen sleuth in 1926-29, with guest appearances by Trixie Beldon and Cherry Ames. A fun read.
  • Our next member was still enthralled in last month’s theme of ethnic detectives. He dove into several authors recommended at the last meeting, Eliot Pattison's Shan
  • Tao Yun and I.J. Parker's Sugawara Akitada, and was especially impressed with the Pattison series. He thought it is especially interesting to compare the Pattison series with the Yasmina Khadra titles he described at the last meeting. In Khadra, the Algerian characters were overwhelmed by political and social events and the senseless violence, but in Pattison, the Tibetans were continuing to resist the extremes of Chinese occupation.
  • He also commented on several titles to fulfill his obligation to this month’s theme. He read Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club, and the alternative history/SF The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Unfortunately he found both very dull, as soon as interesting people appeared in the story, they just as quickly disappeared. The Gibson and Sterling title presents a world in which the computer was invented in the 19th century, instead of the 20th, and the subsequent changes to world history (the present U.S. is now 3 separate nations – North, South, and Texas). Interesting ideas, but dull people. The Dante Club is one I had brought up at a previous meeting, and while this other member related how dull he thought it was, I was making gagging motions on the side. People just don’t seem to understand that when I say it was horribly graphic, I don’t mean Patricia Cornwell/Kathy Reichs/CSI graphic, I mean really really horrible. I think that the next time we have some super special edible treats at a meeting, I’m going to read a few paragraphs to the group, and all those treats will be left over, so HA! (I mean seeing the horrendous death through the eyes of the victim as maggots eat his living brain, I ask you, Is this not a bit much? And it just gets worse; there are murders to go with each rung of Dante’s Inferno, all to be experienced with the victim). Stepping down from my soap box now….
  • Our final title is Devil in a blue dress by Walter Mosley which features the black detective Easy Rawlins in 1948 Los Angeles (and made a dandy movie starring Denzel Washington). Easy is a sharecropper’s son from Houston who moved to Los Angeles in search of work in the defense industry. He has his own bungalow and its corresponding mortgage, so that when he loses his job at the plant, he is drawn into the dark underworld of L.A. to make ends meet. His first job is to track down a woman in the jazz clubs for people who “just want to talk to her.” Yeah, right. The member said the language was so good, that even though she wanted to race ahead to see what happened, she kept slowing down and backing up to enjoy the writing. There is strong violence, strong language and real evil, but she says she was totally convinced that it was all accurate. Highly recommended.

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