Friday, December 31, 2021

Winter 2021-22 Bookshelf

As the old year gives way to the new and the days slowly, slowly lengthen, it’s time to check in on some of the books destined to occupy my evenings for the next few months.

Christine Ezrahi, Dancing for Stalin
(Elliott and Thompson, 2021)
Although it’s true that I mostly read historical fiction these days—with my podcast channel, it’s hard to find time for anything else, and I enjoy visiting the past without having to worry about its dirt, quack medicines, and misogyny—I do occasionally tackle nonfiction. This study of a Soviet ballerina and choreographer sentenced to the Gulag in 1938 but eventually freed and returned to her former position thanks to her husband’s tireless efforts on her behalf, is a major draw for me. In addition to the human interest angle, I have loved ballet for as long as I can remember, read and enjoyed the author’s Swans of the Kremlin, and spent several years researching the life and times of Agrippina Vaganova, who revolutionized Soviet dance education between 1917 and her death in 1951. I look forward to learning more.


 Andrea Penrose, A Question of Numbers
(Andrea Penrose, 2019)
In addition to her Wrexford & Sloane mysteries, featured in last month’s interview with the author for New Books in Historical Fiction, Andrea Penrose self-publishes a second series set in Regency England, this one featuring Lady Arianna Hadley and the Earl of Saybrook and originally put out by Signet/NAL. This series focuses more on the political intrigues associated with the Napoleonic Wars. Lady Arianna, the daughter of a disgraced earl who absconded to Jamaica to escape his creditors, has an unusual past for a society lady and a talent for flirtation and deception, as well as an instinctive grasp of mathematics. On several occasions she also doubles as a chef—in male clothing, of course.

Lord Saybrook, a veteran of the Peninsular War, doesn’t quite fit society’s expectations either because of his Spanish blood. The two share a love of chocolate, then just expanding from a drink to the confection we know today, and by this point in the series their marriage of convenience has blossomed into a love match and a true partnership. In this fifth book, Napoleon has just escaped from Elba and seized the French throne once more. Arianna and Saybrook have no desire to become involved in stopping the emperor’s latest schemes, but Lord Grentham, the head of Britain’s secret spy network, has other ideas …

The puzzles are genuinely puzzling, the couple’s adventures guaranteed to keep you at the edge of your seats, but the true appeal of this series for me is the delightful and well-rounded characters—not only Arianna and Saybrook but their friends, family, and even enemies.


Deanna Raybourn, An Impossible Imposter
(Berkley, February 15, 2022)
Another historical mystery series, already advanced to book 7—this novel has been on my radar since last year, when I conducted a written interview with the author on this blog. Veronica Speedwell is an independent-minded young woman with a mysterious past, living in Victorian England, and she works as a lepidopterist, in part as an excuse to travel to foreign lands. Her partner, known as Stoker, the third son of a noble family, works as a taxidermist.

It would be unfair to go much more deeply into their respective backgrounds and how they reached their current position sorting through the massive collections of Lord Rosemorran. Suffice it to say that Veronica and Stoker have a knack of stumbling over murder victims and at times are charged by their lofty relatives with discovering the perpetrators of such crimes. In this case the summons comes from Sir Hugo Montgomerie, head of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, and involves one of his family members who may—or may not—be the heir to Hathaway Hall, declared dead during the eruption of Krakatoa some years before the story opens in 1889.

The whole series is delightfully tongue-in-cheek and engaging, and I look forward to talking with the author for New Books in Historical Fiction in about three weeks.

Irina Shapiro, Murder at Ardith Hall
(Merlin, 2021)
These novels came to me via an Amazon recommendation, and I purchased the first book more or less as a test. I was soon hooked, though, and tore through the next four without stopping for breath. The series features Jason Redmond, a US Civil War veteran and surgeon who has unexpectedly inherited an earldom from his grandfather, and Daniel Haze, a local constable in an English village who abandoned a promising career as a London policeman after the accidental death of his young son.

As the series progresses, Redmond slowly grows accustomed to his unwanted status as an aristocrat, and he and Haze develop a satisfying partnership that leads to the solving of several difficult crimes. Here in book 6 the victim is a guest at a séance, and the suspects include Daniel’s wife. These fast-paced mysteries have twisty, clever plots and a host of interesting secondary characters. I look forward to finishing the series in time to interview the author in April 2022.  


Bryn Turnbull, The Last Grand Duchess
(MIRA, February 8, 2022)
The final years of the Romanov family are not on my list of favorite subjects for fiction, not least because it is such a depressing and ultimately tragic tale. But that said, the prospect of a book set in Russia by a writer whose earlier novel, The Woman before Wallis, I enjoyed was enough to draw me in. As in The Woman before Wallis, the author approaches her subject—in that case, the combined scandals of the future King Edward VIII’s love life and the Vanderbilt custody battle—from an oblique angle, permitting a new perspective on familiar territory.

Here the subject is Grand Duchess Olga, the eldest daughter of Nicholas II, who acts as a window onto the dramatic family and societal events that led to the collapse of the dynasty amid war and revolution. The book title must have been a marketing decision, since there were many other grand duchesses—not only Olga’s sisters but her aunts, and those who escaped into emigration continue to pass the rank down even today. Still, that’s a quibble in reference to what looks like a rich and sympathetic portrait of a young woman who came to a brutal end through no fault of her own.

Last but not least, I have been reading and re-reading my own latest novel, due for release by Five Directions Press in late January. Song of the Sinner picks up a month after the end of Song of the Sisters and follows the developing if star-crossed romance between the widowed Solomonida Sheremeteva and Anfim Fadeyev, a government official and merchant, over the course of the next two years. Despite her exalted rank, Solomonida faces the same dilemma that affects many women today, especially in these troubled times: can she meet the needs of her children at the same time as she cares for herself? Read on for a short description.

Song of the Sinner

After surviving marriage to a brute, Solomonida Sheremeteva has sworn never to take another husband. As a boyar’s widow, she at last has the right to choose her own destiny, and she intends to devote her attention to securing a happier future for her daughter. Never mind that she has feelings for a handsome official. His inferior rank means that any association with him can only damage her own child’s prospects.

Anfim Fadeyev could not agree more. He knows as well as Solomonida that a priest’s son should not aspire to the hand of a noblewoman, whatever his achievements in the government and in trade. He needs a mother for his children, not a highborn lover. So when passion overwhelms him and Solomonida one winter’s night, they both face a dilemma: how to respond when the demands of the heart contradict those of the head?

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Gender-Bending Shakespeare

One of the best developments of the last few years has been the willingness to acknowledge that human identity and sexuality are more complex and layered phenomena than the bifurcated he/she many of us grew up with. I still remember learning in school that unidentified persons must be referred to as “he.” These days, even he/she raises eyebrows.

But although society’s willingness to talk about diversity has increased, the diversity itself has existed for millennia, probably since the dawn of time. Jinny Webber’s latest novel—Bedtrick, the subject of this month’s New Books in Historical Fiction interview—explores the fluid understanding of gender in Shakespeare’s plays, which was in part a response to the strict limitations placed on women in Elizabethan England. Webber tackles this question through her fictional interpretation of the life of Alexander Cooke, an actual actor in Shakespeare’s company about whose real life little is known. Read on to find out more.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.

As Jinny Webber explains in this interview, a “bedtrick” is a literary device through which a character is deceived into spending the night with someone unexpected, trapping that character into an unwanted commitment. William Shakespeare used the device in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. So it is a fitting title for this novel about the gender-bending that was so much a part of Shakespeare’s comedies—most notably, Twelfth Night. There were practical reasons for having female characters appear as men throughout much of a play, but Webber takes this historical reality and twists it into the essence of her plot.

Her main character, Alexander Cooke, is a gifted actor with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company where Shakespeare serves as playwright. Sander, as Alexander is known to family and friends, specializes in female roles, which in Elizabethan times could be played only by males—usually pre-pubescent boys. Only a select group of confidants knows that Sander was born Kate Collins, a village girl who fled her home to avoid an unwanted marriage and found her place among the traveling actors of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

When Sander’s brother—Johnny, another member of the acting company—gets his lover pregnant and refuses to marry her, Sander steps in to protect the mother-to-be, Frances, and her unborn child. Although it is illegal for two women to marry in sixteenth-century London, Sander persuades a priest to perform the ceremony. Frances’s position as Elizabeth I’s Silkwoman is secured, but the story of Sander and Frances is just beginning. Like all married couples, they must find a way to live together, even as England itself suffers from unrest and uncertainty caused by the aging queen’s reluctance to name her successor. Filled with quotations from Shakespeare and an insider’s view of his plays, this is a charming story of love triumphing in the midst of intolerance.


Image: C. Walker Hodges’ conjectural reconstruction of the Globe Theatre (1599–1613), Folger Shakespeare Library, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 17, 2021

The Recommendation Algorithm

One of the down sides of an Amazon account is the slew of “you may like” messages that deluge my e-mail account at the rate of half a dozen or more per day. It beats me why anyone, even a computer programmer, might decide that because I just spent $50 on a salad bowl combo that wasn’t even shipped to my house, I must be in perennial need of salad bowls. But this is the world we live in, and most of the time I just click delete and move on.

There are other reasons why I don’t put a lot of stock in Amazon recommendations. Most important is that I often search books for work, so I have no desire to read them for myself. I also buy books—and other items—for family members, who have quite different tastes from mine. Those purchases, understandably, mess up the algorithms and result in a lot of suggestions in which I have no interest.

That said, the Amazon recommendations have had their uses. The best example is the time I searched for a particular book on the French Revolution (again for work), which generated a “you may like” for Baroness Orczy’s classic, The Scarlet Pimpernel. My grandfather gave me an illustrated copy of that book for my fourteenth birthday, and I loved it, but the copy itself had vanished long ago. I bought the book, re-read it from the perspective of a long-married adult, and seven years later that chance find led to my first published novel—The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, which simultaneously paid homage to and gently critiqued Orczy’s original.

Recently, for whatever reason, the Amazon recommendations have been on a roll. First, when I was looking into Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series for a New Books Network interview, the computers directed me to Andrea Penrose, whose Wrexford & Sloane (and Lady Arianna Hadley) books I love every bit as much as Lady Sherlock. My interviews with Sherry Thomas and with Andrea Penrose can be found at New Books in Historical Fiction (just click on the authors’ names in this sentence).

Then the recommendations threw up Irina Shapiro’s forthcoming Murder on the Sea Witch, book 7 of her Redmond & Haze mysteries. Again, I read the first one, enjoyed it thoroughly, and am working my way through the others, in preparation for talking with the author sometime next spring.

Most recently, the recommendations directed me to Pam Lecky, the author of three mysteries (so far) featuring Lucy Lawrence. I’ve yet to dive into those, so I don’t necessarily have plans to do more than enjoy them, but the opening of the first one looks good. I look forward to reading them as soon as I’m caught up on Lady Arianna and Redmond & Haze.

So the story has, at least temporarily, a happy ending. Three out of three is pretty good results, although if we go beyond the last few weeks, the rate is more like three out of three thousand.

Now, if I can just convince the algorithms that, honestly, one salad bowl is enough …

Friday, December 10, 2021

Swords into Plowshares

If asked to summarize in one word what ended the Napoleonic Wars, most people would say “Waterloo.” And indeed, the Battle of Waterloo, fought between Napoleon’s legions and the Allied troops under the leadership of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, did wreak such havoc on the emperor’s reputation that it eventually brought to a close the ongoing conflict for supremacy between France and Great Britain, which had simmered throughout the previous century.

To say that Waterloo brought peace to Europe would be an exaggeration: conflicts within states continued, as did wars between Russia and Turkey and attacks by colonial powers on communities in other parts of the world. But between 1815 and the outbreak of World War I ninety-nine years later, Europe did not experience an all-continental war of the type launched by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Even so, as we can see from Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Assassin: Richard Sharpe and the Occupation of Paris, published by Harper in the United States this past Tuesday, Waterloo did not mark the actual end of the war so much as the beginning of the end. As Cornwell himself notes in his nonfiction book Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (New York: Harper, 2014, 316), although Napoleon may have lost 30,000 men during the battle on June 18, he estimated that he could field 300,000 a few days later. “All is not lost,” he wrote to his brother Joseph.

But it was, and this novel explores the reasons why. Sharpe’s Assassin follows Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe, the hero of more than twenty books and by now advanced to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, from Waterloo to Paris. Sharpe’s job is first to free an English spy being held in the town of Ham, then keep that spy safe as they travel to Paris, full of sullen citizens who still support the emperor (the return of the Bourbons in the form of King Louis XVIII pleases no one in this book) but are tired of fighting for him. Yet a small (fictional) secret group of loyalists known as La Fraternité (the Brotherhood) has sworn to protect Bonaparte in life and avenge him in death or defeat. Does the group exist in fact as well as in name? Does it really plan to assassinate the Allied leaders, starting with Wellington? Can Sharpe discover the members in time to prevent any such plot? And what will Sharpe himself do once the war that has consumed so much of his adult life finally staggers to its end?

Although the Sharpe series is Cornwell’s longest-running, the previous installment appeared in 2007. In the interim, we have made the acquaintance of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the Saxon lord raised by Danes and adamant rejector of Christianity as a proper faith for warriors. Lord Uhtred has become the star of thirteen novels and a hit Netflix TV series, The Last Kingdom, now entering its fifth (and final) season. For those—like me—who first encountered Cornwell’s work through Uhtred, two things about this latest novel are important to know. First, you need not have read any of the previous Sharpe books to enjoy this one. Selected parts of the hero’s past are presented as needed, and the whole is easy to follow.

Second, Sharpe is not Uhtred, but he does resemble Uhtred in certain ways that should appeal to readers of the Last Kingdom series. Sharpe goes his own way, whatever orders he receives from the military brass. He has risen through the ranks from a disadvantaged background, making him both prickly about being given the respect he deserves and fiercely loyal to his men (most of whom come from the same social class that he does) and strong in their defense. He is smart and experienced, a man who fights hard when fighting becomes necessary but doesn’t embrace violence for its own sake.

Sharpe doesn’t quite have the complexity of Uhtred, the split loyalties that force the Saxon lord into constantly questioning what matters to him most. That makes Sharpe a little less interesting to someone like me, who skims through the war scenes in search of interpersonal conflicts and development. But Sharpe has his friends and foes, his loves and losses, his own version of split loyalties more appropriate to the early nineteenth century, which draw readers into his story. And the writers among us will appreciate Cornwell’s note at the end, where he mentions that Sharpe got to pick his own ending, which proved as much a surprise to the author as it perhaps does to the character. Sharpe’s story may not yet be over, but it does come to a place of rest—and the war-torn nations of Europe find a respite from their struggles as well.

Image: Jan Willem Pienamen, The Battle of Waterloo (1824), showing the hatless Duke of Wellington mounted in the center and the wounded Prince of Orange being carried from the field in the left foreground (an incident attributed to Sharpe in the novel)—public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Not Austen's London

I stumbled onto Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford & Sloane series through an Amazon recommendation and decided to give it a whirl. I ripped through it in a couple of days and immediately read the rest of the series. Having enjoyed Wrexford & Sloane so much, I’m currently working my way through another, loosely related series by the same author—this one featuring Lady Arianna Hadley and the Earl of Saybrook. We talk about both in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction

The series opens with Murder at Black Swan Lane, which features a brutal murder in a London church, ca. 1811, committed over the possession of a book by someone identified only as the “Golden One.” Charlotte Sloane—a young artist who supports herself under the pen name A.J. Quill—arrives in time to produce a detailed sketch of the body but flees the scene when the Bow Street Runners arrive.

Switch to the next morning, when the Earl of Wrexford roars with outrage to discover, first, that A.J. Quill has ridiculed him yet again over his romantic liaisons and, second, that there’s a Bow Street Runner on the doorstep convinced that the earl has committed murder. Why? Because the victim in the church turns out to be a clergyman who has been conducting an escalating and vitriolic public feud with Wrexford, known throughout the city for his hair-trigger temper and his absolute refusal to tolerate fools gladly.

In Regency England, peers can be tried only in the House of Lords, so Wrexford is not in immediate danger of being hauled off to Newgate Prison. But sufficient evidence will doom even the highest nobleman to conviction and execution. So the hunt is on for the killer, with Wrexford forced to ally with the one person who seems to have his—or is it her?—finger on the pulse of criminal London: A.J. Quill, aka Charlotte Sloan.

The series continues with Murder at Half Moon Gate, Murder at Kensington Palace, Murder at Queen’s Landing, and (as of September) Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Through each book, Charlotte’s and Wrexford’s relationship deepens as more of their past, especially hers, comes to light. The characters are complex, the plots challenging, and the solutions satisfying. But what really sets this series apart is its rich and varied portrayal of Regency London itself and its focus on the scientific developments of the period, which paved the way for life as we know it. This is the London of Jane Austen’s time, but it is not the London depicted in Austen’s novels. 

As ever, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.

Great Britain’s Regency Era (1811–1820) has long been wildly popular as a subject of historical fiction yet overly focused on the romance genre. The towering figures of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer have tended to dominate the field to the point where even novels that are not primarily romances exist within Austen’s world.

But as we can see from Andrea Penrose’s  Wrexford & Sloane mystery series, far more was going on during the Regency than parties and marriage politics. Penrose’s London is a gritty place filled with canny urchins, men and women of science, engineers and international businessmen, gamblers and disgraced lords and satirists who make their living off the foibles and follies of the well-to-do.

One such satirist is Charlotte Sloane—a young artist who writes under the pen name A.J. Quill. Her network of contacts—including the two urchins who live with her, known as Raven and Hawk—proves invaluable in untangling a series of murders, the first of which Bow Street is all too eager to blame on the Earl of Wrexford. She and Wrexford become reluctant partners, then friends, and by the time we reach book 5, Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens, they are planning their wedding.

Wrexford is an acclaimed amateur chemist, an interest that brings him into contact with most of London’s scientific elite and accounts for his and Charlotte’s attendance at a symposium being held at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. The death of a prominent botanist, visiting from the United States (then at war with Britain), is first written off as the result of a weak heart. But certain clues point to murder, and Wrexford and Sloane’s friends and family urge them to investigate. They soon realize this crime may have international implications, and the hunt for the killer is on.

As with the Lady Sherlock mysteries, it’s best to read this series from beginning to end, as each book develops Charlotte’s and Wrexford’s relationship, revealing new insights into their past. The characters are fascinating, the plots fast-paced and complex, and the settings richly described. If you’ve been avoiding novels set in the Regency because you associate the era with pale and predictable romances, this series will open your eyes.

Image: The Great South Sea Caterpillar, Transformed into a Bath Butterfly (1795), James Gillray’s satirical portrait of Sir Joseph Banks, a famous botanist whose contributions to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are mentioned in several of the Wrexford & Sloane novels, including Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens; public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Battling Prejudice

One of the things that historical novels do well is putting a human face—and, perhaps more important, human feelings—on difficult issues that plagued the past and often continue to influence the present. One such problem, which changes its superficial characteristics from one setting to another but never really seems to go away, is the tendency for in groups to discriminate against out groups, however those are defined.

Some types of discrimination are, of course, far more toxic than others. When prejudice is used to justify the murder of individuals or entire racial or religious groups, we witness humanity at its worst. This week’s New Books in Historical Fiction conversation with Dana Mack explores trends in late nineteenth-century Germany that in time gave rise to the Holocaust. In particular, she examines the paradox of the Wilhelmine era, when the emperor’s Jewish subjects were assimilating into and welcomed by society even as that same society marked them indelibly as outsiders because of their faith. Through the love story of Lisi and Wilhelm, we see both the factors contributing to and the destructive aspects of this societal conflict.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.

Despite all the attention paid to the two world wars of the twentieth century, not a great deal of historical fiction focuses on the period that preceded them. Dana Mack’s debut novel, All Things That Deserve to Perish, is an exception. Through its depictions of Berlin high society, the Junkers from the agricultural estates of old Prussia, and interfaith marriages, the novel explores the fraught transition to a modern, commercial economy that simultaneously promoted and complicated relations between Germans at all levels of society and their Jewish fellow citizens.

Mack focuses her story on Elisabeth von Schwabacher, the daughter of a successful Jewish financier who has just returned from Vienna to her parents’ home in Berlin when the book opens. Lisi, as she’s known, has been training as a classical pianist, and her great ambition is to perform in concert halls and private soirées.

Or is it? Lisi’s mother pushes the conventional future of wife and mother and rigorously oversees a diet and makeover program to ready Lisi for society, but neither of her parents wants to force their daughter into marriage, especially to a non-Jewish man. It’s Lisi herself who encourages the attentions of two noblemen, both to some extent fortune hunters—the widowed Prince Egon von Senbeck-Wittenbach and the impoverished Junker Count Wilhelm von Boening. And Lisi is also the one who decides, when her parents press her to choose, to start an affair with one of her suitors without considering how that may constrain her future.

The casual antisemitism expressed by many of the characters in this book is almost more jarring than the occasional outbursts of hatred and bigotry. But it is both true to the times and revealing of the fundamental social rifts in Wilhelmine Germany that, less than fifty years later, would explode in the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Images: Narrow-gauge train from a Pomeranian railroad, operating since 1895, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Franz von Lenbach, Bismarck in Retirement (1895), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Interview with Nicola Cornick

One of the historical mysteries—by that I mean an actual event that still provokes competing explanations more than five hundred years after the fact—that has always intrigued me is the controversy over Richard III’s role in the deaths of his young nephews, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. From the day I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, retrieved from my parents’ bookshelf when I was still in high school, I’ve been generally sympathetic to the idea that Richard was framed.

I’m not completely convinced: decades of studying the complicated politics of the Russian court at around the same time convince me that an uncle might, in fact, murder his nephews to take the throne—no doubt telling himself he was acting for the good of the country. A similar situation, after all, forms the backdrop to my Legends of the Five Directions novels, most notably The Golden Lynx and The Vermilion Bird. But my jury remains out to the point where I’m always ready to entertain a new approach to the subject, especially in fiction.

Even so, I could never have come up with the solution proposed by Nicola Cornick in her latest novel, The Last Daughter of York, released this week by Graydon House. To discover what that is, you’ll have to read the book. But to find out more, read on for her answers to my questions.

As you note on your website, each of your novels features an old house with a story. How do you find these houses?

Since I was a small child, I have loved visiting historic houses of all sorts, large and small, ancient and less so, and I find that whenever I do they always have a story to tell—of the people who have lived there, and the things that have happened over the centuries. Each house is different and has its own individual story to tell, and I love uncovering and sharing it.

In The Last Daughter of York, that house is Minster Lovell. What do readers need to know about the house itself? What drew you to writing about it?

Minster Lovell Hall is a ruin now and a very picturesque one, standing beside the little River Windrush, with a dovecote and ancient cottages nearby. It was the ancestral home of the Lovell family for generations and the place where Francis Lovell entertained King Richard III for Christmas during his short reign. In those days it was a grand, and modern, house. What drew me to writing about it was that five hundred years later you can still stand on the spot where all these events occurred and imagine what it must have been like in the fifteenth century. Minster Lovell has a very strong atmosphere. You feel as though you can almost touch the past there.

The story opens in the thirteenth century, with John Lovell and his young bride—whose past, to borrow a modern phrase, he probably should have researched a little more than he did. This is the setup for the entire novel, so please give us a capsule description of what happens in that first scene.

The first scene is based on the legend of the Mistletoe Bride, which is a very well-known local story. John Lovell thinks he is marrying a rich and beautiful young heiress, but in fact she is a thief who has tricked her way into his affections in order to steal a priceless artifact that has been in the care of the Lovell family for generations. Known as the lodestar, it has a reputation for powerful magic, including the ability to make people disappear…. At the wedding, as everyone is enjoying the feast and celebrations, John discovers too late that his bride has cheated him and that she and the stone are gone.

We next switch to the perspective of Serena, a young woman from the twenty-first century who lives in the UK but, when we meet her, is enjoying a well-deserved vacation in California. What can you tell us about her?

Serena has my dream job, which is to run a company offering heritage tours to British historical sites! She used to have a twin sister, Caitlin, and the two of them were very close when they were younger but started to drift apart in when they got into their later teens. Then Caitlin disappeared, and Serena’s life has to a large degree been shaped by that one event and how she has dealt with it in the following ten years.

Serena’s peace is soon interrupted by news from home. What calls her away?

Serena’s parents call to let her know that Caitlin’s body has been found and that she needs to come home. This is the start of a series of events that helps Serena uncover not only the mystery of what happened to Caitlin but the very unexpected links between her own family and events five hundred years before during the reign of King Richard III.

The third perspective comes from Lady Anne Neville, whom we first encounter in 1465, when she’s just five years old. Unlike the others, she is a historical character, and hers is the “unknown woman from history” tale at the heart of the book. Why did you choose to interweave her story with Serena’s, rather than focus on one or the other?

I love writing stories where there is a historical mystery at the heart which is then solved in the present. In the case of The Last Daughter of York it’s Serena who holds the key to the mystery of the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower in 1483 and it is Anne who is the heroine of that particular story. Telling their two stories together was so much fun because they are two strong women five hundred years apart but whose lives have so many parallels.


And what do we need to know about Lady Anne and her husband, Lord Francis Lovell?

Francis Lovell was the closest friend of King Richard III and is a fascinating historical figure, renowned for his loyalty to Richard and the Yorkist cause in the Wars of the Roses. His wife, Anne, was a member of the powerful and influential Neville family. Like a lot of women from the footnotes of history, there isn’t a lot about Anne in the written record, yet you can piece together aspects of her story from letters and accounts. She lived at such a tumultuous time and saw and experienced great events of history. It was amazing to be able to write those events from her perspective.

And what of you? This novel has just come out. Are you already working on something new?

I’ve just completed my next book, which is another dual-time story, this one set in the late sixteenth century in the years leading up to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. There have been a lot of books about the plotters themselves, but I was interested in exploring the stories of the women who knew them, and the book is seen through the perspective of Robert Catesby’s mother, Anne, and his wife, Catherine. The modern-day story is about a woman who uncovers a Tudor garden created by Catherine Catesby.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Nicola Cornick, a historian raised in the north of England, has become an international and award-winning bestseller. She now writes dual-timeframe novels inspired by the history and legends of Wessex and the Vale of the White Horse. Her latest novel is The Last Daughter of York, released in November 2021. You can find out more about her at

Image of St. Kenelm’s Church, Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire, England © Alison Rawson, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Entree to the Bridgerton World

I no longer remember how I came across Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I. It was 2000 or 2001, a time when Amazon existed but was not yet the behemoth it is today, and I lived next to a college town with three to four bookstores nearby. Most likely, I found it browsing at the local Borders, which sat opposite my favorite grocery store and where I spent a lot of time. Books have always been my preferred form of relaxation, and even the Internet’s breadth of offerings can’t really equal the pleasure of browsing in a physical bookstore.

Be that as it may, I found The Duke and I, enjoyed it, and moved on. Indeed, over the next two decades I shifted away from the historical romance genre altogether, so I had little sense of the popularity the later books were achieving. I had more or less forgotten about that long-ago read when I logged into Netflix one day last year and saw an ad for Bridgerton, the TV series based on the books. I watched a few episodes, then hunted down the first book and re-read it.

The differences between Quinn’s Daphne and the version in the Shondaland series struck me as interesting. I began pursuing the idea of interviewing Julia Quinn about her series as a whole, and in preparation, I read the other seven books, as well as at least one prequel and the latest offering: The Wit and Wisdom of Bridgerton, which Avon Books released this past Tuesday. Another Bridgerton-derived title, a graphic novel of Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron, is due for release in January. According to rumors circulating on the Internet, Netflix will release the second season of Bridgerton early next year, and seasons 3 and 4 are already in the planning stages. That single novel from 2000 has become a juggernaut.

At some point, I still hope to interview Quinn for New Books in Historical Fiction, but that plan has been delayed for reasons that have nothing to do with the books. So instead I’m offering this brief look at The Wit and Wisdom of Bridgerton, which does an excellent job of capturing the series’ strengths and offering quick reminders of or introductions to the main characters.

So what does set the Bridgerton series apart? For me, the best part is the dialogue, which often sparkles with wit at the same time it offers insight into the characters. The Happy Ever After ending required of romances set in any period means that there’s little doubt about who will end up with whom—the fun lies in discovering how they get there—and heated love scenes can become repetitive when you read eight books in a row. But lines like “I do love my family, but I really just go for the food” (Colin) or “Men, [Daphne] thought with disgust, were interested only in those women who terrified them” are precious.

Then there’s Lady Whistledown, the pseudonymous society chronicler whose broadsheet the haut ton loves to hate but willingly supports at the outrageous rate of fivepence an issue. Her wry commentary foreshadows and reflects on the developments in each book, giving the whole series a refreshing tongue-in-cheek quality. Last but not least, the depiction of the interactions between various members of the Bridgerton clan are spot on, loving yet competitive, charmingly flawed, and often hilarious.

For those who don’t know, Bridgerton traces the romantic lives and marriages of a family of eight children, named alphabetically by order of age—Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth. They live in Regency England, and their adventures take place, more or less, from 1813 to 1824. Their father died just before his youngest daughter’s birth, leaving Anthony to become head of the family, as Viscount Bridgerton, at the age of eighteen. The children’s mother, Violet—another of the series’ great strengths—has been the mainstay of the family ever since. Hers was a love match, and she has chosen never to remarry, but she wants to see all her children settled happily, even though she’s willing to give them a say in whom they choose. Each book in the series explores the choices and eventual decision of one of the eight, starting with Daphne and ending with Gregory.

There’s only one way to enter this complex and by now fully realized world, and that’s to read the books in order. They’re all available in print and e-book, with splashy new covers to reflect the popularity of the television series. But if you know someone who fell in love with the Netflix version or is in general a Bridgerton fan who will appreciate the opportunity to revisit her favorite lines, then The Wit and Wisdom of Bridgerton would make a lovely present to stash under the Christmas tree or its winter holiday equivalent. It consists of thirteen chapters—one showcasing each child, one for Violet, plus chapters for three of the spouses (Kate, Penelope, and Simon) and one for Lady Danbury, a character who, although present throughout the novels, really comes into her own in the Netflix series. In addition, Lady Whistledown contributes a new set of commentaries, in addition to older quoted passages, and Julia Quinn herself adds an introduction.

And let’s leave it to Quinn herself to sum up the central point.

“A Bridgerton. To be such is to know that you are part of a family tightly webbed with staunch loyalty and unquestioning love. And laughter.

“Always laughter.”

—Julia Quinn, “Introduction,” The Wit and Wisdom of Bridgerton 

(New York: Avon Books, 2021), ix.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Putting Sherlock in Skirts

The best part of hosting New Books in Historical Fiction is that not only do I discover writers whose work—sometimes entire series!—has so far escaped my attention, but I also get to talk to them about their books and the choices they make.

Now, let’s be clear: the whole purpose of the New Books Network (NBN) is to showcase authors, not put them on the spot. This approach in part grows out of the network’s academic roots: it’s the nature of scholarship to question and dispute. We can even consider it a benefit, in that the unwillingness to accept ideas as givens works to push science forward. But it can also prevent those who make the new discoveries from having a chance to open their mouths without having a fellow scholar wave a document from some dusty archive and shout, “But what about …?”

The NBN provides a platform for people to explain their views and how they came to develop them without having to defend them at the same time. And although novelists don’t face quite the same pressures, there are moments when they come close. Sherry Thomas’s decision to turn Sherlock Holmes into a woman might be one of those moments. But as she explains in my current interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, she had a very good reason for her choice—and it wasn’t to sell more books (although her publisher would be forgiven for embracing that angle).

The result is a reader’s delight, because Lady Charlotte Holmes, although remarkably like Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation in personality, has developed in ways quite different from her literary inspiration—not least because the constraints on women in Victorian aristocratic society force her to approach her cases and life in general in ways that a man never needed to consider. She is also surrounded by a cast of characters who are either entirely new or who share only a last name with their Sherlockian predecessors.

With the sixth in the series, Miss Moriarty, I Presume? Charlotte tackles her own (and Sherlock’s) master antagonist head-on for the first time. But Moriarty is a presence from the beginning, so do yourself a favor and read the books in sequence, starting with A Study in Scarlet Women. You’ll be glad you did.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.

Since Arthur Conan Doyle first created Sherlock Holmes, the great detective has gone through many permutations and been the subject of much study. As Sherry Thomas admits in this latest New Books Network interview, finding a new element to explore is not easy. But she has managed to discover one—perhaps an angle that is particularly fitting in this age of gender fluidity, although the Lady Sherlock series draws much of its punch from and plays off the stereotypes of the past, in this case Victorian England.

In Thomas’s re-imagining of the great detective, Sherlock Holmes is not only a fictional character but a front for the real detective, the disgraced younger daughter of a poverty-stricken baronet. Charlotte Holmes has an incisive intellect, an unflappable temperament, little respect for convention, and a love of books—traits that undermine her intended purpose in life as defined by her parents: to marry a wealthy, titled man. Charlotte cuts a deal with her father: if she’s still unmarried at twenty-five, he will fund her education so that she can earn her living as the headmistress of a girls’ school. But when Dad reneges on the deal, Charlotte takes matters into her own hands, with disastrous (from her parents’ perspective) but delightful (from her own) results.

This is the setup in the first book of the Lady Sherlock series, aptly titled A Study in Scarlet Women. By the time this sixth book rolls around, Charlotte has made a name for her alter ego and had several run-ins with the infamous Professor Moriarty and his underlings. In Miss Moriarty, I Presume? the tables are turned, and the professor seeks out Charlotte for assistance in finding his missing daughter. Unless, of course, the mission is simply a trap aimed at getting the meddlesome Charlotte out of the professor’s life permanently.

It’s best to read this engrossing series from beginning to end, as each book builds on those that came before. But watching Sherry Thomas turning the Holmes canon on its head is tremendous fun, and if you tear through the novels as I did, it won’t take long to reach Miss Moriarty, I Presume?.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Writing Like Crazy

With all the interviews I’ve conducted this year—both written and podcast—I don’t often have a chance to talk about my own writing. At this moment, though, I’m juggling no fewer than three novels in various stages of completion, with a couple more roughly plotted stories waiting in the wings.

Nuts, I know. Just keeping the different sets of characters straight is a challenge, never mind remembering the details of all those plots. And there’s a constant tendency to think What about this? and go haring off in a direction that might better be left unexplored for a while. But with a bit of self-discipline and switching from one intense focus to another, it can be done. So, in brief, where do things stand?

Closest to publication is Song of the Sinner (Songs of Steppe & Forest 4), which explores Solomonida Sheremeteva’s attempts to balance her own yearning for love against her daughter’s needs. Anfim, the man Solomonida loves, doesn’t equal her noble status—a gap that today would seem minor but that loomed large in 1540s Europe. Meanwhile, her cousin Igor—whom some readers will remember from the previous book, Song of the Sisters—has come up with yet another scheme to reclaim the Sheremetev estate, and when it fails, his animosity becomes personal.

I’m working on final revisions now and expect to have a finished product by sometime in November, but since Christmas supply chains are particularly tight this year, I don’t expect the book to release before January 2022.

Once I get through that, Song of the Storyteller (Songs of Steppe & Forest 5) will be right behind. I wrote a complete rough draft over the summer, although that means only that my story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Since I can’t outline worth a darn despite years of trying, the only way I can tell whether a book will work is to write it out before I even begin sharing with my writers’ group. I’ve started on that second stage, but at just about one-fifth of the way through I still haven’t had time to enter their comments or respond to their suggestions. I have three weeks of writing vacation coming up before the end of the year, though, so I hope to make significant progress then. 

It’s a fun book to write, because it’s centered around the first bride show held for Ivan the Terrible (in 1546–47), where both Lyuba and Anna are candidates who, each for her own reasons, desperately want not to be chosen. Becoming queen is, I know, the dream of many contemporary girls and young women, but really it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, especially if it meant marriage to Ivan the Terrible. He outdid even Henry VIII, wedding seven times—and although the first marriage lasted the longest (thirteen years) and is reputed to have been reasonably satisfying, his wife spent most of her time pregnant and may have died from sheer exhaustion as a result. Not a fate my heroines yearn for, especially when each of them has already lost her heart to a far more appealing young man. 

The Merchants’ Tale, the historical mystery I’m co-writing with P.K. Adams, is the third current project. In brief, it’s essentially finished, but having two authors creates certain financial complications that can best be resolved by finding an outside publisher. With that goal in mind, we’re querying agents while beginning to explore the advantages and disadvantages of individual small presses. But each of us has other writing projects underway, so we plan to make a final decision on Merchants’ Tale in the spring. Around then, too, we will start work on its  successor, The Privateers’ Tale.

The last of the lurking projects is Song of the Snow Maiden (Songs of Steppe & Forest 6), which ties off a long romantic thread begun in Song of the Sinner and opens the door to at least two more novels featuring even younger members of the cast. But all three of those are topics for another day.

Cover images © C. P. Lesley, based on paintings in the public domain; Ivan Aivazovsky, The Rainbow (1873), public domain via WikiArt.

Friday, October 22, 2021

A Sister's Legacy

For those who don’t already know, in my non-fiction-writing life I edit a Russian history journal. And despite my best efforts to keep everything moving at a steady pace, every three months—especially in the fall, where we want to have issues available at the annual convention—we end up mimicking Stalin-era shock workers as we pull out all the stops to ensure the issue gets in the mail on-time.

This was one of those weeks, and I hit “send” just minutes before sitting down to write this post, which is why I’m behind my usual 9 am release time. But as it turns out, it’s good that I was late, because I discovered just now that my latest New Books Network interview with Joanna FitzPatrick had gone up ahead of schedule. So, read on to find out more about Joanna’s latest novel, The Artist Colony, then listen to the interview. Carmel, California, as you may never have imagined it—and a satisfying historical mystery to boot.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

By 1924, Sarah Cunningham has spent years in France establishing her own artistic style, more contemporary than the landscapes that have made her older sister, Ada Belle Davenport, famous. She has just attained her goal—a one-woman show in an exclusive Paris gallery—when Ada Belle dies unexpectedly. Sarah temporarily abandons her own career, traveling to Carmel-by-the-Sea to find out what happened.

Sarah reaches California to discover that the local marshal has already closed the inquest into Ada Belle’s death, ruling it a suicide. The will that appoints Sarah as both beneficiary and executor has gone missing, as has a crucial series of portraits promised to a gallery in New York. Meanwhile, Sarah herself and many of Ada Belle’s friends question the suicide ruling, and as the details of Ada Belle’s final days resurface, the more striking the discrepancies become between the official verdict and the clues discovered by Sarah and her sister’s faithful Jack Russell terrier, Albert.

In Prohibition-era California, Joanna FitzPatrick constructs a fast-paced mystery in which a seamlessly blended combination of historical and fictional characters battle over uncomfortable truths against a background of brilliant sky- and seascapes, viewed with an artist’s eye.

Photograph of a Carmel beach by concalsec via Pixabay.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Christmas with the Royals

Back in the days when brick-and-mortar bookstores were common in suburban America, I was browsing the shelves at my local Borders when a title caught my eye: Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen. I picked it up, opened it, and fell in love. It’s 1932, and Lady Georgiana Rannoch, a twenty-something who is “thirty-fourth in line to the British throne,” has fled her ancient but drafty ducal castle in Scotland for the family mansion in London. Alas, the Rannoch family—although rich in property—hasn’t a farthing to its illustrious name due to the unfortunate gambling habits of the first duke, Lady Georgie’s father. And as a member of the royal family, Georgie can’t just go out and get a job, because the only destiny approved by her lofty relatives is to marry the fish-faced Prince Siegfried, who doesn’t even like women. Nonetheless, with a little help from her friend Belinda and a handsome but enigmatic gentleman named Darcy O’Mara, Georgie manages not only to survive but to solve a murder.

Since the day I finished that book, I have wanted to interview Rhys Bowen, the creator of Lady Georgiana and a number of other memorable detectives both amateur and professional. That time has come with Georgie’s fifteenth adventure (and second murder-filled Christmas), God Rest Ye, Royal Gentlemen (Berkley, 2021).

After fourteen books, Georgie’s life and financial circumstances have substantially improved. Georgie and Darcy have married, and they plan to entertain their friends for Christmas at their new estate. As fate would have it, except for Georgie’s beloved grandfather, the only guests able to attend are her brother, the Duke of Rannoch, and his wife, known as Fig—the last person Georgie wants to spend time with.

She’s just about resigned herself to Christmas with Fig when a letter arrives from Darcy’s eccentric Aunt Ermintrude, insisting that they all come at once to her home near Sandringham, close to the Royal Family. The Queen of England has requested Georgie’s presence, although she does not divulge why. Unable to say no to Her Royal Highness, Georgie, Darcy, and the Rannochs head off to Aunt Ermintrude’s house.

At Sandringham, Georgie learns that Queen Mary believes someone intends harm toward her son, the Prince of Wales, now deeply involved with Wallis Simpson. She wants Georgie to find out what’s going on. Georgie’s merry little Christmas is set to become a royal nightmare if she can’t get to the bottom of this mystery.

Bowen’s mysteries are complex and their solutions satisfying, but the real delight of these novels is the way they poke fun at the British class system, exemplified by Georgie’s own mixed heritage as the daughter of a duke and of an actress whose father, a retired Cockney policeman, acts as a constant reminder that being a member of the royal family isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. They’re also, to put it simply, hilarious. If this is your first encounter with them, I promise you have a treat in store.

Photograph of Sandringham House © Immanuel Giel CC BY-SA 4.o via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Bookshelf, Fall 2021

More than my usual amount of reading here—and that’s been true for the last four months, at least. And this list doesn’t include other recent books, such as Rhys Bowen’s delightful God Rest Ye, Royal Gentleman (Berkeley, 2021), like several of those below a Christmas book being released in plenty of time for the holidays. I’ll talk more about that one next week. But with so many titles to cover, let’s plunge right into the current list. 


Patti Callahan, Once upon a Wardrobe
(Harper Muse, 2021)
This charming and heartwarming novel explores the early life of C. S. Lewis and how it led to his creation of the beloved Chronicles of Narnia, as told to Megs Devonshire, a young Oxford University student whose eight-year-old brother George has a heart condition that may soon end his life. Although, for whatever reason, I didn’t read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a child (despite being an absolute bookworm), I did read it and its sequels to my own son.

The links that emerge between Lewis’s history and his fictional world are fascinating to any writer, but the true poignancy of this story lies in Megs’ struggle to reconcile the concept of emotional truth with her own search for a single right answer, the reason she is so drawn to mathematics. The contrast between her straightforward approach and George’s instinctive wisdom make this both a delightful and thought-provoking read. The developing relationship between Megs and Padraig Cavender, a fellow student working with Lewis, highlights and promotes Megs’ dawning awareness that reality can’t always be crammed into a mental box and imagination may have a value she has failed to see. I requested this book from NetGalley and was so glad to have the chance to return to Aslan’s universe through the eyes of an author I hadn’t encountered before. 

Nicola Cornick, The Last Daughter of York
(Graydon House, 2021)
Another author new to me, although not on her first novel by any means. What drew me to the book description was the link to Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, a perennial interest of mine. But that is just one element in this novel, which blends historical fiction with elements of fantasy. For that reason, it’s hard to summarize without giving away crucial details. Suffice it to say that three threads intertwine: a thirteenth-century bride who steals the Lovell Lodestar, a treasure entrusted to the Lovell family, and disappears; a twenty-first-century woman, Serena, mourning the loss of her twin eleven years before the book begins and trying desperately to recover her memories of the night when that tragedy happened; and Lady Anne Neville, who marries Sir Francis Lovell in 1465, when she is five years old (he is only eight), and remains loyally at his side as the reign of Edward IV flowers, ends, and gives way to the rule of his eldest son, then his brother, and last the usurper Henry VII.

At first, the three threads appear to be quite separate, but as the story progresses, they intertwine ever more tightly until all becomes clear at the end. This novel doesn’t release until mid-November, but I’ll be hosting a written Q&A with the author at that time, so I needed to get my act in gear so as to draw up questions in time for her to respond.


Joanna FitzPatrick, The Artist Colony
(She Writes Press, 2021)
I’m interviewing this author soon, so expect more information about the book in a couple of weeks. In brief, it explores the thriving art community of Carmel, California, in 1924. Among the very real artists and intellectuals (Henry Champlin and Robinson Jeffers both make an appearance, and Katherine Mansfield, the subject of Fitzpatrick’s previous novel, provides an indirect but important clue), FitzPatrick constructs a mystery surrounding the apparent suicide of a talented painter, Ada Belle Davenport. Ada Belle’s sister, Sarah—also a painter but based in Paris, where she is about to break out with a one-woman show—has to put her plans on hold to act as executrix of her sister’s estate. 

But it soon becomes clear that there’s more to Ada Belle’s suicide than meets the eye, and Sarah decides to find out the truth. In addition to the mystery, this novel shines a light on Carmel’s Japanese community and the discrimination it suffered even before the internment camps made that underlying prejudice impossible to ignore.


Dana Mack, All Things That Deserve to Perish
(Dana Mack, 2020)
Another novel intended to form the basis of a New Books in Historical Fiction interview, this one is set in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany in 1896, and its heroine—Elisabeth (Lisi), a gifted pianist—confronts the reality of nineteenth-century expectations of women. Lisi herself is the daughter of a Jewish banker, but her wealth attracts the attention of several young noblemen, and her mother insists that Lisi marry one of them and forget about her music. But Lisi has other ideas.

I haven’t read this one yet, so I can’t say much more about it, but what appealed to me was the unusual time and place. Contrary to the belief of all too many publishers, many fans of historical fiction prefer to diversify their reading, and this book offers one way to do that.


Andrea Penrose, Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens
(Kensington Books, 2021)
This is the fifth murder mystery featuring the Earl of Wrexford and Lady Charlotte Sloane. I encountered the first one through an Amazon recommendation. The Kindle edition was on sale for $0.99, probably as a promotion for this new book (the price has gone back up now), and the publisher’s tactic worked: I figured it was worth a try. I downloaded and read it, then bought nos. 2 and 4, which were also on sale. By then I was hooked, so I approached the author to see if she’d be interested in an interview. Fortunately, she said yes.

I won’t say too much about this particular novel, to avoid spoilers. But the series, set in Regency England sometime after 1809, is distinguished by two things. First, the characters are wonderfully complex and compelling—not only Wrexford and Charlotte but many of the minor characters as well. Second, each book explores a particular area of scientific inquiry, at a time when science as we know it was just coming into being as something distinct from magic. So the first book deals with alchemy’s transition to chemistry, the second with the development of steam power, the third with electricity, and so on. But don’t be deceived: the science blends seamlessly into fast-paced mysteries that Wrexford and Charlotte race against the clock to solve, strengthening their relationship and revealing their secrets a little more with every adventure.


Anne Perry, A Christmas Legacy
(Ballantine Books, 2021)
As with Patti Callahan’s Once upon a Wardrobe, I requested this book through NetGalley. Over the last decade I’ve rather lost touch with Inspector Thomas Pitt and, in a series I loved even more, Inspector Monk. That’s not because I like the novels any less but because so many other things have claimed my attention. So I welcome the chance to return to the world of Pitt and his wife—or, in this case, their maid Gracie, who has left their household, thinking to make a clean break with police work in all its forms, only to discover a mystery of her own when one of her friends expresses concern about the treatment of the old lady she works for. The official release date for this novel is November 9, so I’ll be sure to finish the book and post my review on the NetGalley site by then.



Sherry Thomas, Miss Moriarty, I Presume?
(Berkley, 2021)
Sherlock Holmes has spawned an entire industry of fiction featuring his past, his loves, his putative children, and earlier adventures that Conan Doyle mysteriously failed to record. As someone who never quite got into the original stories, I tend to resist the spinoffs unless they have compelling hooks of their own. Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series is one example, Bonnie MacBird’s scrupulously canonical collection of Holmes/Watson adventures another. Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series is now a third. As with Andrea Penrose’s books, I encountered this novel by chance—although via a different route—and decided to read the first book in the series to get a sense of it before agreeing to an interview. Again, the characters drew me in; I read the rest of the novels, and I will be talking with Sherry Thomas in a couple of weeks.

In brief, these books go beyond adding to the Sherlock Holmes legend. They reimagine what it might have been if Sherlock (and Watson and several other important characters, as suggested by the title of this sixth installment) had been a woman. Enter Charlotte Holmes, a short blonde with a love of ostentatious fashion and of baked goods in all their forms, leaving her with something other than the typical Basil Rathbone physique. But despite her physical differences, Charlotte has a mind every bit as logical and penetrating as her brother Sherlock, whose imaginary presence makes it possible for her to ply her trade in sexist Victorian London.

To be honest, I can’t help thinking that Charlotte and her associates are so far away from the original Holmes that they might be better off in their own universe. The link seems more a marketing decision than a literary one. But that said, it’s tremendous fun to watch Thomas tweaking the canon, and the mysteries are fiendishly complex yet, in the end, wholly believable. I’ve read all six and thoroughly enjoyed the ride, but Miss Moriarty, I Presume? is the best of the lot.