Historical Mystery Reads: The Lady Sherlock Series by Sherry Thomas

Sherry Thomas is a USA Today bestselling author who has a wide catalog of published works ranging from romance to fantasy to mystery to even a wuxia-inspired duology. Thomas also won the Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA award twice. Sherry Thomas had previously been known to me through her romance novels, but this past year, I discovered her Lady Sherlock series, which leans towards historical mystery, but has some elements of romance. Let’s get into the first book!

(But first: author photo courtesy of Jennifer Sparks Harriman at Sparks Studio)

A Study in Scarlet Women is the first book in the Lady Sherlock Series by Sherry Thomas. It’s a delightful upside-down take on Sherlock Holmes that I found riveting from the start. As of right now, there are six published works in this series, but we’re going to focus on the first one below:

Charlotte Holmes has never felt comfortable in society, let alone in her own family. Ladies are expected to be demure, but she has an incredibly inquisitive mind and speaks the truth even when it’s uncomfortable for others. While she has curbed her habits to make herself more attractive to others, there are certain parts of her life that frankly Charlotte doesn’t understand why others would be interested in. As a result, Charlotte makes one particular decision that turns her into a social pariah and that also dampens her family’s social standing as well. She soon finds herself trying to ferret out a living in London, a task that is much more difficult than Charlotte ever dreamed.

When Charlotte learns of three unexpected deaths within the city, her interest is piqued. When both her sister and her father fall under suspicion of murder, Charlotte is desperate. It isn’t fair that her family’s name be even more destroyed. She knows neither of her family members could have committed murder. Charlotte decides to use her intellect to find the real murderer (or murderers). Since Charlotte is a woman however, certain avenues of inquiry are of limits. She begins her investigation under an assumed name – throwing doubt onto the police’s investigation and challenging society’s expectations even if it’s hidden at first. Solving the case falls to Charlotte, as even the police are looking to the ever-remarkable Holmes for help and clues.

This book is available in the following formats:

The Lady Sherlock Series

    1. A Study in Scarlet Women (2016)
    2. A Conspiracy in Belgravia (2017)
    3. The Hollow of Fear (2018)
    4. The Art of Theft (2019)
    5. Murder on Cold Street (2020)
    6. Miss Moriarty, I Presume? (2021)

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

If you know me you know I love a good retelling, and that I fanatically loved Lyndsay Faye’s retelling of Hamlet. Recently I picked up her 2016 Jane Steele, a tongue-in-cheek retelling of Jane Eyre, in which rather than bearing up stoically under adversity, Jane turns to murder to escape her various oppressors. Once again Faye perfectly captures the spirit of the original while adding certain improvements – with both style and modern sensibilities.

Jane Steele has decided to write her memoir, after reading an interesting book called Jane Eyre. However, while she admires Jane E, Jane S has taken a rather different approach to her own life of suffering. It all started with her uncomfortably attentive cousin Edwin, after Jane’s beloved mother dies. In the spirit of honesty, Jane admits: “Reader, I murdered him.” Through her various trials – a cruel boarding school, her time in London – Jane often resorts to this problem-solving method, until one day she discovers that someone has bought her childhood home. Curious, she makes her way there, and is surprised by her feelings for new owner Charles Thoringfield. But can someone as admittedly wicked as Jane really get her happy ending?

I was impressed at how well this book echoed Jane Eyre‘s narrative style, while also feeling like an original story. Jane manages to be simultaneously sympathetic, relatable, and unique in her unflinching homicidal instincts. The murders themselves become a sort of feminist commentary – at the time this book (and the original) are set, the options for women to succeed are few, and the opportunities for them to suffer are boundless, and so from the beginning Jane’s victims are archetypes for those who oppress women: Jane’s cousin is a sexual predator as well as a demanding relative, the school’s headmaster shames and torments the girls in the name of religion, a later victim abuses his wife, and so on. This allows the reader to feel righteous glee as through murder Jane rejects and destroys these individuals’ harmful and/or misogynist messages.

To balance out the gore and social justice, Jane has her share of tenderness, love, and friendship from her mother, school friends, and others along the way – in most cases Jane only takes drastic measures in self-defense or to protect those she loves. There’s also a good amount of intrigue, mystery, hijinks, and romance, and of course, to lighten things up, the whole thing is shot through with frankness and humor. I think the story works particularly well because it follows the general structure of the original Jane, but puts even more focus on Jane Steele as an individual with power in her own hands doing her best to protect herself and her loved ones from many very real dangers.

For an excellent retelling and feminist romp in the spirit of An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, don’t miss the vibrant and violent Jane Steele.

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Marie Benedict is a master writer of historical fiction. She is one of my favorites as she writes historical novels that focus on women. (Marie Benedict is actually a pseudonym used by Heather Terrell.) A list of her novels can be found below at the end of this review.

Her latest published novel, written with Victoria Christopher Murray, is The Personal Librarian. This novel tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, JP Morgan’s personal librarian. Belle grew to be an incredibly important and powerful woman in New York City, despite the fact that she was hiding a  secret that had the power to destroy her life and the lives of people in her family.

In her twenties, Belle was hired by J. Pierpont Morgan to curate his massive collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork. He had recently built the Pierpont Morgan Library and needed someone to organize its works. Belle and JP Morgan worked together for years to create a library that would hold up to his legacy. She traveled the world and became known for her impeccable taste, as well as her shrewd and unique ways to negotiate for works that both Morgan and Belle wanted to add to their world-class collection.

Belle had a major secret though. She is actually Belle Marion Greener, the daughter of Richard Greener, who was the first Black graduate of Harvard and was a well-known advocate for equality. Belle instead passes as white, by saying that she has Portuguese heritage. She doesn’t have Portuguese heritage though, as Belle is African American. Her mother’s decision to have her family pass as white tore her marriage apart, wreaking havoc on the small semblance of normalcy that they had created for their family.

The Personal Librarian tells the story of Belle, a woman well known for her intellect and style, but whose secret led her to carefully craft the white identity that let her have the lifestyle she desired. She spent her life walking a tightrope that could have snapped at any moment. Belle’s legacy lives on in this novel created by Benedict and Murray.

This book is also available in the following formats:

Marie Benedict’s other novels are listed below as well as who they are about:

  • The Other Einstein – Mileva Maric, Albert Einstein’s first wife, a woman who was a physicist
  • Carnegie’s Maid – Clara Kelley, lady’s maid in Andrew Carnegie’s household
  • The Only Woman in the Room  – Hedy Lamarr: inventor, screen star, and scientist
  • Lady Clementine – Clementine Churchill, Winston Churchill’s wife
  • The Mystery of Mrs. Christie  – Agatha Christie’s mysterious eleven day disappearance in 1926
  • Her Hidden Genius – to be published in January 2022, which tells the story of British scientist Rosalind Franklin who discovered the structure of DNA. Her research was used without her permission by Crick & Watson to win the Nobel Prize.

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce

To be honest, I’m not a big reader of historical fiction. Reading Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce, which is set in 1950, was a departure for me, but I was open to it after having read her previous – and in my opinion, profound – book The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I was pleased to find the story of Miss Benson an entertaining voyage into friendship, scientific inquiry, grief, post-war trauma, and how far we go to follow our dreams.

Our heroine is Margery Benson, who in 1914 at ten years old fell in love with beetles to help her deal with a personal loss, and became particularly fascinated by the golden beetle of New Caledonia, whose existence has never been proven. However, somewhere along the way she lost hold of her dreams, until she finds herself 46 years old, standing in front of a classroom teaching cookery, confiscating a note that turns out to be a less than flattering caricature of herself. Forced to face the difference between the life she wanted and the life she has, Miss Benson takes a leap of faith and embarks on a self-funded expedition to New Caledonia, determined to find the golden beetle once and for all. But she can’t do it alone. She’ll need an assistant. Enter the perky, flashy, enigmatic, blond-dyed, pink-hat-wearing, deeply unsuitable Enid Pretty, a woman with her own dreams to chase, and who will completely upend Margery Benson’s sense of the world, and herself.

I remain in awe of writers like Joyce who can weave together humor with grief and hardship with friendship to give you an engaging and meaningful tapestry of everyday life. I found this book funny and heartfelt, covering tough topics but not so heavily as to be depressing or off-putting. Also, like in her earlier Harold Fry, Joyce does a good job creating a journey for her characters that is both physical and emotional, and which leaves them forever changed.

This book is recommended for those who like books about female friendship, international travel, and the empowerment of women throughout history.

The Librarian of Saint-Malo by Mario Escobar

Mario Escobar’s latest novel The Librarian of Saint-Malo tells the story of a French librarian’s stand against the German occupation as they descend upon the small coastal village of Saint-Malo. While World War II novels are plentiful, the timeline covered as well as the perspectives shown during this particular title were refreshing and set this novel apart.

Jocelyn is determined. Having just married her high school sweetheart Antoine in August 1939, Jocelyn wishes to begin their married life in bliss. But soon after they are married, Antoine is drafted to fight against Germany, leaving Jocelyn behind in the village of Saint-Malo to manage the tiny library there. World War II brings destruction to their doors, while Jocelyn works to bring comfort and encouragement to those residents who can escape to the library to check out books.

Wanting to do more, Jocelyn begins writing secret letters to a famous author who lives in Paris. Having someone smuggle those letters to him is a great risk, but Jocelyn is desperate that her story, as well as that of Saint-Malo, lives on in the face of the war’s destruction. When France falls and Nazis start to occupy Saint-Malo, Jocelyn wants to do more. With the city now a fortress, the devastation only worsens.

Across the country, Nazis begin to destroy libraries. Armed with lists of unsuitable books, Nazis burn books and even steal the priceless and more rare books. Jocelyn refuses to let her library be destroyed, so despite the risk to herself, she manages to hide the books the Nazis seek to destroy. While terror reigns around her, Jocelyn waits for news from Antoine, who is now a prisoner in a German camp.

The more Jocelyn writes, the more readers see that all she wants is to protect people and her beloved books. This novel tells the story of those who were willing to sacrifice anything to save the people they loved, as well as the true history of their lives.

Online Reading Challenge – October

Hello! Welcome to the October edition of the Online Reading Challenge!

This month our focus author is Philippa Gregory!

Gregory is best known for historical fiction, especially novels set in England during the Plantagenet and Tudor eras. This is a period of time that is especially ripe for novelists – Henry and his multiple wives, the religious wars, the constant struggle for the crown and the lives of powerful and important people. Gregory’s books usually look at these turbulent times from a woman’s point-of-view. Often dismissed or misunderstood, the women have a different understanding of what actually happened beyond historical dates and famous battles.

While Gregory follows historical timelines, she sometimes speculates with alternative theories of what actually happened behind closed doors. This makes for fascinating and interesting reading, but remember to read these as fiction, not irrefutable fact!

Gregory’s Tudor series is probably her most popular, following each of Henry the VIII’s wives. I especially liked The Other Boleyn Girl which is told from the point-of-view of Anne Boleyn’s sister, who had been Henry’s mistress before he married Anne (so tangled!) Mary Boleyn was a real person who bore Henry two children, but was set aside when his interest turned to Anne.

If you’ve read everything by Gregory or would like to try another author, there are some very good ones to check out including Hilary Mantel, Sharon Kay Penman, Allison Weir and Tracy Chevalier.  If you prefer mysteries you might try the Shardlake mystery series by C.J. Sansom or hunt down The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. It’s an older book that attempts to solve the mystery of the Princes in the Tower; it’s very good and well worth borrowing. And if you want something a little lighter and lots of fun, I highly recommend My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, an alternate history of Lady Jane Grey that is simply delightful.

Of course, you can choose to read a historical novel from any time period or country you wish – be the boss of your online book club!

I am planning on reading A Perilous Alliance by Fiona Buckley, one from her Ursula Blanchard mystery series. Ursula is distantly related to Queen Elizabeth and helps the Queen’s advisors with some spying and occasional detective work.

Now it’s your turn – what will you be reading in October?

 

The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin

“Books are what have brought us together. A love of the stories within, the adventures they take us on, their glorious distraction in a time of strife.”

Published just this past April, The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin is a historical fiction novel set during World War II, offering a candid glimpse into life in London during the Blitz. While I have read several excellent novels in this time period before (as I’m sure you have, too!) , I don’t recall one exclusively focusing on the Blitz in London, so this title was a unique perspective I had not yet afforded!

After losing her mother and essentially being disowned by her uncle in a rural town in England, Grace and her best friend, Viv, journey to London to live with her mother’s best friend. While both women had long dreamed of coming to London, neither expected it to happen forcibly, let alone on the brink of a second great war. While Viv quickly finds a job at the glamorous Harrods, Grace is offered a position at a local bookshop which, as someone who didn’t read, was a less-than-ideal assignment. With the intention of working just six months to gain a letter of recommendation to find a better position, Grace begins working in a disheveled, dusty, and dingy bookstore with a seemingly irritable owner who barely tolerates her presence.

As rumblings of the war draw closer to home, however, Grace slowly finds herself becoming more and more committed and interested in her work at the bookshop. This is in no small part due to George Anderson, a particularly attractive and frequent patron who shares his authentic love of reading with Grace before leaving to serve as a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot. Although initially doubtful about the impact reading would have on her own life, Grace becomes enraptured with The Count of Monte Cristo (one of George’s recommendations) and quickly becomes a voracious reader herself. With her newly found love of reading, Grace naturally begins to develop special relationships with several patrons, as well as with the owner himself, as she works to make the bookshop as accessible as possible. Not long after this, though, London itself becomes suspended in the throes of war, putting everything Grace loves at risk.

All in all, this is a wonderful story about someone who comes to learn the value of reading and eventually helps others in the community not only survive, but thrive in the stories of others during the unbearably difficult circumstances of wartime; it is truly an ode to the power of literature, and there were many lovely and moving quotes that warmed my heart as a librarian. I also really appreciated reading about a female protagonist who not only immerses herself, but thrives in a wartime position typically reserved for men; on top of working at the bookshop, Grace volunteers as an Air Raid Protection (ARP) warden to help those impacted by the daily bombings that would occur overnight. Lastly, I reveled in the obvious research Martin did on the Blitz to portray a captivating account of life in London during this time in history.

While there were some moments toward the conclusion that seemed to tie up a little too conveniently, I would still highly recommend this novel to anyone looking to dip their toes in a new perspective on WWII or just for a new historical fiction read in general! I would also like to note that, while Martin is a well-known historical romance author, this novel was not primarily focused on romantic themes or aspects.

 

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

“It is a cruel, ironical art, photography. The dragging of captured moments into the future; moments that should have been allowed to be evaporate into the past; should exist only in memories, glimpsed through the fog of events that came after. Photographs force us to see people before their future weighed them down….”

Have you ever reread a book you love when you feel in a rut and need an escape from the stresses of daily life? I recently did this with The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. Originally released in 2007 as her debut novel, this enthralling plot simmers with family secrets, doomed love, and the ruthless influences of war to create a beautifully tragic story that will captivate you from the first page to the last.

Set in England and alternating between the historical backdrop of WWI and 1999, ninety-eight-year-old protagonist Grace Bradley relates her past as a young housemaid for an aristocratic family at Riverton Manor as she reaches the end of her life. It isn’t long, however, before you realize this reminiscing is not just for nostalgia’s sake. Upon receiving a visit from a young filmmaker planning to produce a movie about the dramatic and devastating events that eventually befell this renowned family, Grace begins to relive her past and experience her own role in the harrowing affairs that unfolded, tearing open a wound and exacerbating a guilt she has carried her entire life.

These calamitous events began with the apparent suicide of a young poet at Riverton Manor during a summer party in 1924. According to newspapers and official records, the only witnesses were sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, who never spoke to each other again, and the family was seemingly cursed with several additional misfortunes thereafter. What the official records don’t show, however, is that there was a third witness and much more to the story than the public eye will ever know. As Grace tells some of her story to the filmmaker, the biggest secrets of all are only revealed in recordings she makes for her grandson, Marcus, as both grandmother and grandson carry guilt of a tragedy in their lives in which they feel at fault, despite truly extenuating circumstances.

One of the things I love most about Kate Morton’s novels are the ways in which she creates authentically complex characters who display such genuine portrayals of the human condition. While I have read several books with phenomenal character development in the past, Morton does so in such a masterful and poignant way I feel no other author does; this is especially true when considering the innocuous ways in which tragedy strikes in her novels. These tragedies truly create a haunting aura in which characters live with scars and guilt, but also often come full-circle when their struggles are used to help others get through similar hurdles, which often span generations. I also absolutely love the ways in which Morton effortlessly and seamlessly moves back-and-forth in time within her storylines.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys well-developed fiction with rich, complex character development; historical ties, especially to WWI and the English aristocracy; and a suspenseful, haunting storyline that will leave you guessing until the very last page!

This book is also available in the following formats:

OverDrive eBook

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

“Books and ideas are like blood; they need to circulate, and they keep us alive.”

One of my absolute favorite genres to read is historical fiction, but this particular book hits the jackpot because it is also about libraries and the amazing people who work in them! Just published in February, The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles, weaves together two primary narratives spanning across time and place to create a beautiful and haunting story about the strength of friendship, family, and libraries in the face of betrayal, loss, and war.

This story begins in 1939 France with the narrative of Odile Souchet, a fresh graduate of library school who interviews for a librarianship position at the American Library in Paris (ALP). She quickly finds herself at home in the stacks and among several new friends, including fellow librarians, devoted library subscribers, a volunteer who quickly becomes her best friend, and a police officer who becomes her beloved beau. Before long, however, Odile loses a part of herself as her twin brother, Remy, goes off to war and everything she loves, including the library, is endangered.

The second central narrative takes place in 1980s Montana through the eyes of a young teenager named Lily. After the death of her mother and her father’s eventual remarriage, Lily finds herself both lost and trapped in a small rural town she desperately wishes to escape. She eventually finds a sense of liberation in the friendship she develops with her elderly neighbor, who teaches her French, shares her love of literature and books, and essentially becomes a second mother during some of her darkest moments. Before long, Lily becomes curious about her neighbor’s past, as all she (and the rest of the town) knows is her status as a widowed war bride who left her entire life behind in Paris to come to Montana with her husband after the war. Despite the difference in age and background, these two characters have more in common than meets the eye and share a kinship of love and understanding that truly stands the test of time.

Overall, this novel is a heart-wrenching and tragic, albeit beautiful, story filled with memorable characters who are tested by unimaginable hardships. I reveled in the development of several characters, especially since I felt I was able to connect with their complex and flawed personas. While you learn the fate of many of these individuals, I definitely found myself wanting more information on others! I also really enjoyed Charles’s writing style – in addition to writing beautifully, it is obvious how much research she did in the creation of this book by the way she is able to truly whisk you away to another time and place as you read.

While I definitely loved the fictional aspects of this novel, I was delighted to learn that several librarians in the story, along with their remarkable and heroic actions, were based on real individuals. Despite the dangers and risks war posed to both the people and resources of the library, the ALP stayed open to subscribers, maintained a service in which they delivered around 100,000 books to soldiers fighting overseas, and risked their own lives to deliver books to Jewish subscribers who had been barred from entering the library. Charles first learned about this incredible history upon becoming the programs manager at the ALP and, feeling wholly inspired, decided to delve deeper into the history by writing this book. The result? An ode to the truly incredible and impactful roles libraries will always have in our society.

All in all, I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who loves libraries and books, remarkable character development, and experiencing the strength and resiliency of the human race, especially through relationships formed with others.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis

Fiona Davis has written another masterful piece of historical fiction: The Lions of Fifth Avenue. What hooked me about this novel is that the New York Public Library plays a major part in each characters’ story. Told through the view points of New York in 1913/1914 and New York in 1993, Davis has managed to create a historical novel that weaves together two generations centered around similar themes: book thefts in the New York Public Library.

In 1913 New York, Laura Lyons seems to have the perfect life. Her husband has just been appointed the superintendent of the New York Public Library which means that her family now lives in the library. Tucked in an apartment hidden within the library, Laura, her husband, and their two children make their life together. While Laura should be happy with what she has, she wants more. Confident and sure of what she wants, Laura applies to the Columbia Journalism School and soon finds her respectable life blown apart. Her studies take her all across the city where she meets people she never would have met before.

She is introduced to the Heterodoxy Club, a radical group of all women who have found a safe space to share their opinions that society frowns upon: suffrage, women’s rights, birth control, among others. The beauty of the Heterodoxy Club is that it is a completely safe space for women to share their thoughts as they are not allowed to tell what is happening to people outside the group. The more Laura attends the Heterodoxy Club, the more she starts to question her life. She wants more than just being a wife and mother. Right as she seems to be getting what she wants, issues surface. Valuable books are stolen from the library. Her family is under scrutiny and their home is threatened, forcing Laura to figure out her priorities or she could lose it all.

Flash forward 80 years to 1993. Sadie Donovan works as a curator at the New York Public Library. Her grandmother is Laura Lyons, the famous essayist. That is an uncomfortable topic for Sadie to talk about given her job as curator. Life is going pretty well until books, notes, and rare manuscripts for the exhibit that Sadie is working on start disappearing from the Berg Collection. This famous collection has limited staff that run it, so the culprits have to be someone she knows. As the investigation ramps up, Sadie works with a private security expert to find the missing items and whoever is stealing. Sadie learns some uncomfortable secrets about her family the more she digs; things that could destroy her current life but that could also solve mysteries from the past.

This book is also available in the following formats: