Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Issue 3 - December 2015

Mystery and history often go hand in hand. Academic and amateur historians, who have taken to writing crime fiction, show how little human motivation and corruption has changed, even as they expertly transport us to another time and place.

Three historical crime novels are included this month’s reviews, ranging from the War of 1812 to post World War I and World War II. Two more books take us away to exotic locales, and the sixth makes us laugh as well as think. What better escape from Canadian winter.

By Cheryl MacDonald
Heronwood Enterprises
Trade paperback $19.95

This fictional series, debuting with Colonel Nichol and the Murdered Maiden springs from solid historical research by author Cheryl MacDonald, a War of 1812 historian with several nonfiction titles about this time to her credit. But can an historian create a historically accurate fictional tale about life, death and political intrigue featuring memorable people like Isaac Brock, John Brant, Tecumseh, along with the novel’s detective, Colonel Robert Nichol (1780-1824)?  In a word…yes.

Nichol served as the quartermaster-general of the Militia for Upper Canada and advised and was befriended by General Isaac Brock. He knew the territory, Port Dover, Amherstburg, Windsor and Detroit, the location of much of the action in the novel.

The writing rings true. But it’s a chorus of bells with sharp dialogue; a plot that will make you stop and think how little has changed in the past 200 years, and a setting that encourages you to ponder about the people who lived in Upper Canada in 1812.

Nichol has a sidekick, Wallace, a young man of mixed black and white ancestry. They make a good team and solve this obscure murder while the son of Joseph Brant waits in the guardhouse to hang.
Colonel Nichol and the Murdered Maiden demonstrate that Canadian history is alive, well and full of intrigue, death and resolution. And author MacDonald has put it in an entertaining, yet honest framework. I’m looking forward to the next one.

By Sharon Johnston
Trade Paperback $24.99

Matrons and Madams is a fine example that life is the best mystery plot of all. Add a setting: a post WWI, Lethbridge hospital run by a female superintendent and on the other side of town, a legal brothel run by Nova Scotia trained teacher turned madam. A plot like that firmly puts to bed that great stories cannot be found in Canada.

Be it fiction, history or mystery, good storytelling is the art of weaving words into a tapestry of colour, texture, mystery, life and death. The weaver, in this case Her Excellency Sharon Johnston, the wife of Canada’s Governor General, has spun a determined tale that captures the essence of time, place and action with humour, compassion and guts.

British widow, Clara Durling takes on her duties at the Lethbridge hospital just as the vast collateral human damage of young, limbless soldiers arrive on her door step. Phantom limb crisis, blood poisoning, gas damage test her will as she demands cleanness, good food and better nursing while pissing off the male medial hierarchy.

On the other side of town, Canadian widow Lily Parsons arrives in Lethbridge to teach. She endures the tragedies that so often strike and becomes the Madam of a local brothel in order to feed herself and child.
And what a dynamic duo they become as together they respond to the highest rate of venereal disease in the province by opening the first clinic.

Be patient with the first few chapters while the context and circumstances lead these two firecrackers to Alberta. The reward is a story worth telling and a wickedly funny and poignant tale to read.  I will be first in line for this talented writer to bring more personal Canadian history to print.

A DEADLY VENTURE (A Max Dexter Mystery)
By Chris Laing
Seraphim Editions
Trade Paperback $19.95

Chapter one: no fooling around here. Max’s buddy, a local cop, is on the phone telling him that Max’s painter friend, Roger Bruce, is at the Barton Street jail on a charge of murder.

Max, the private eye with a limp and his gorgeous partner, Isabel are on the case.

The writing is fast, sharp with that rapid fire texture and gumshoe cadence. The setting post World War II Hamilton, complete with the Connaught Hotel, jars of beer at forty cents and an atmosphere that simply propels the story into that “I can’t put it down” category.
Max’s network is hard at it. High end waiters, war amp survivors selling pencils on the street corner, his cheap, with a heart of gold uncle reporter at the Spectator, all add to the inevitable but genuinely surprising climax.

What makes A Deadly Venture stand out? It’s fine story telling with no presumptions other than to entertain and turn the clock back to the days when the QEW was just open. Cities across the free world were picking up the pieces, and people were trying to create new lives with what they had left. Add the shadow of the local mob that are out to discourage Max and Isabel, this becomes a series to look forward to, one with staying power and a unique take on the historical mystery.

Winnner of the 2015 Kerry Schooley Award, Hamilton Arts Council

By Allan J. Emerson
Five Star Publishing
Hardcover $27.95

Death of a Bride and Groom…yes, it’s a mystery, a police procedural, albeit with a force of three usually handling the mundane, small town mischief…it might also be a cozy but certainly one I’d label as a cozy on steroids. Other than that, it’s an awarding winning first novel waiting for the spotlight.

Above all, it is a cleverly plotted story where the solution is the result of old fashioned digging, talking to people, provoking them, reading the signs and putting the pieces together wrapped in some very funny writing. The action is sharply drawn and the imagery convincing.

Author, Allan Emerson achieves this and more with finely tuned dialogue, creating a sense of place with a few words that trigger the imagination along with a touch of the theatre of the absurd wrapped in humour. And occasionally the humour is the “slap the armchair and laugh out loud” variety.

Honeymoon Falls, B.C., a local famous author is found in full bridal attire on top of a wedding cake float, dead, accompanied by her equally dead ex-lover. A thus begins the tale of public embarrassment, town council interference, nosy, persistent media, a frazzled local cop with two of the three stooges along to help. It’s funny but the intent is serious and ugly. The success lies within the story telling’s exposure of secrets and half-truths.

By Peter Mayle
Alfred A. Knopf
Hardcover $24.95

A diamond caper maybe a reader’s best friend. Add time spent in Provence, a healthy splash of wines that would leave a credit card in cardiac arrest, had it not already suffered palliative care from first class flights, shopping in Marseilles, and parties to end parties and you have another successful Mayle novel.

The Diamond Caper is an amusing tale to be taken while resting in a hammock, on a deck, gentle waves close by and something bubbly to lubricate the page turning. Author Mayle plots a crime the way he brings Provence to life. Descriptions set the scene with an elegant buzz while pricy estate owners are removed of their diamond treasures. It’s gone on for too long, even the insurance companies are complaining.

Along come a pair of amateur sleuths who can always be tempted to solve a crime if the champagne is chilled just so and the menus are at least Michelin two stars.  There is a gently lingering taste of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. The Diamond Caper is the fourth in this Caper series, all worthy of your attention with an eye to some innocent escapism under the summer sun.

By Ian Hamilton
House of Anansi Press
Trade Paperback $19 95

If you enjoy story-telling told in a frank format using a maze within a labyrinth enriched by a conundrum that can kill, then Ava Lee’s seventh tale is one you’ll not put down. I classify The Princeling of Nanjing as one of those grip tight novels that makes one read “just one more chapter” and you discover it’s 3am.

The novel is built on complicated webs artfully woven into clear, magnetic story-telling. I wrote in an earlier Ava Lee review that she was a character we all could use at one time or another.

Ava is in Shanghai for the launch of a new fashion line.  Xu, an invited guest is hesitant to attend this champagne and glitz evening.  Ava learns that Tsai Lian, governor of Jiangsu province and a princeling, is pushing Xu to enter the drug business. Ava, with the memories of Uncle in her soul, sets out to discourage this Princeling as the vicious web reaches the peak of political corruption.

Author Ian Hamilton delivers the intrigue within complex and relentless webs in high style and once again proves that everyone, once in their lives, needs an Ava Lee at their backs.


  1. Oooh, lots of these appeal to me. Especially the Diamond Caper - I loved A Year in Provence AND Tommy and Tuppence. Thanks for the great blog!

    1. Thanks, Michelle. Spread the word... there will be more books reviewed every month.