Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini take you on a journey as twisted and complex as the streets and alleys of San Francisco’s Chinatown in their latest work The Body Snatchers Affair. John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter, former Pinkerton detectives now operating an independent detective agency, have seemingly unrelated cases. John is searching the back alleys for illicit opium dens in the hope of finding a prominent attorney who has gone off the rails. Sabina is trying to retrieve a corpse snatched from the vault of a recently bereaved wealthy family and foil the blackmailers’ ghoulish scheme. Operating in Chinatown under the imminent threat of a tong war, John and Sabina must negotiate the corruption in both the police department and the city’s underworld. They are also negotiating their increasingly complicated relationship as Sabina is wooed by a prominent gold engineer and John deals with his jealousy. Lurking in the shadows is a crackbrain character claiming to be Sherlock Holmes.
Rich with the atmosphere of late 1890s San Francisco, the author’s passion for the city’s culture and history shines through every page. They are the only living married couple to be named Grand Masters by the Mystery Writers of America. Marcia Muller is considered to be the mother of the female hardboiled detective genre, introducing Sharon McCone in Edwin of the Iron Shoes in 1977. Bill Pronzini is known for his Nameless detective series set in San Francisco. The Body Snatchers Affair is the third entry in this series, but is an excellent read even without reading the previous titles. Fans of Shirley Tallman, Victoria Thompson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will enjoy the period, while fans of Agatha Christie will enjoy the plot twists and turns.
Christopher Scotton's ambitious debut novel The Secret Wisdom of the Earth generated such a torrent of in-house support from the publisher that the novel's first printing was bumped up to 100,000 copies. Scotton, CEO of a software company, took 15 years to write this story of a 14-year-old boy who spends a fateful summer with his grandfather in Kentucky coal country. Widely appealing and whispering of second chances, the coming-of-age tale mines the burden of loss for those living in a poor rural landscape that will never look the same. Recently, Scotton answered questions for Between the Covers.
Between the Covers: You capture so eloquently your characters' voices. What was the process for making them come alive for your readers? Was there anyone from your background who was the inspiration for your protagonist, Kevin?
Christopher Scotton: I create a deep written study for each main character, detailing everything about them and getting to know who they are — their hopes, fears, histories and dreams. Then I just let them combust in the plot. The old English 101 chestnut, show don’t tell, is probably the best single piece of advice about creating great characters. If one describes a character through their actions it’s just a more fulfilling experience for the reader — it allows the reader to better build out the wireframe of the characters in their mind. Kevin is very similar to the kind of kid I was at 14 — insecure, unsure, a bit nerdy. Fortunately, I had none of the grief and guilt that life has layered on him.
BTC: You have multiple stories and themes coursing through the small town of Medgar. How did you prepare yourself for telling the story of this unique local culture since you are not from Appalachia?
CS: I visited the region often in my teens and 20s and again when I was writing the novel. I let the feel of the place seep into my marrow so that, when back in London, I could transport myself there. On my trips I would just listen to the stories folks would tell, listen to the rhythm of their dialect. What I found was that small town Kentucky is not that different from small town Maryland where I grew up.
BTC: The setting for your novel is 1985 Kentucky coal country, where the earth seems to languish as much as your characters. Were you looking to make a statement about the devastation of mountaintop removal?
CS: I was not trying to make a statement so much as present the truth of mountaintop removal — the argument is not as simple as big bad coal vs. the people. The issues are much more nuanced than that. There really are few economic options for the hard working folks in the region so they are left with some very hard choices to make about their future. I’m personally against mountaintop removal, but I hope the novel presents a more balanced approach to the problem.
BTC: Your readers may be encountering a “madstone” for the first time. Why was introducing this folklore important to the story and your characters?
CS: A madstone is an old folk remedy to cure snake bites and fevers. It’s a calcified hairball-like thing from the intestine of a cud-chewing animal. You’re probably thinking, “Cool, where can I get one!” If someone is bitten by a copperhead or a rabid dog, the madstone would be applied to the bite, and the poisons would be drawn out of the bite. Madstones vary in strength and effectiveness — a madstone from a cow is only mildly effective, a madstone from a deer is considered quite powerful. However, the madstone from a white deer is the most powerful of all and unicorn-like in their scarcity. Interestingly, madstones can’t be bought or sold or they’ll lose their power; they must be found or given.
In the novel, the earth becomes a madstone for several of the characters, drawing out the pain and poison from the losses they suffer. The healing properties of the earth — both to heal us, her caretakers, and to heal herself — are a major theme in the novel, and the madstone is an example of that theme.
BTC: You grew up outside of D.C. in an area not too different from your protagonist, Kevin. Can you talk about how your experiences impacted the writing of the novel?
CS: I was born in Washington, D.C., but moved out to the country 30 miles north when I was 9 or 10 — back then it was undeveloped land and a truly magical place to be a kid. Those summers of secret swimming holes, tree forts, mud pits and dammed-up creeks provided a rich influence for Kevin and Buzzy’s back-country adventures. In my early teens, developers bought up much of the land and the endless woods of my youth became tract housing. I tried to bring that same “loss of place” experience to the novel. Being an outsider, as is Kevin, allowed me a bit more freedom to write as an outsider — but ultimately the narrative needed to be authentic, and I hope it is.
BTC: These are exciting times for you. Hachette ordered a 100,000 first printing. Reviews have been favorable. Some have compared your book to To Kill a Mockingbird. Taking a breath now, how has this whole process of publishing felt to you as a new author?
CS: It’s been fascinating, fun and more than just a little surreal. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be in this place. Hachette is taking a huge gamble on me as a complete unknown, with zero writing credentials and no platform. It really does demonstrate their commitment to bringing new voices to the market. The support I’ve gotten within the company, especially from the sales team, has been overwhelming…I’ll start breathing again come summer.
BTC: What’s next for you?
CS: I’m working on my second novel. It’s a completely different time period and a different setting from Secret Wisdom. It takes place in 1875; two 14-year-old Irish twin sisters emigrate to New York to live with their aunt and work as domestics. After a few weeks in America, they disappear without a trace. Their 19-year-old sister comes over to try and find them and she follows their trail from New York, across the country and ultimately out west in an attempt to rescue them and bring them home. It’s a great story and based on an actual series of events that happened in my family in the 1800s.
In an English village, a son awaits the undertaker after the death of his beloved mother. In a Serbian town, the murder of an archduke sends turbulence throughout Europe. Little does Inspector Ian Rutledge know how profoundly these deaths will affect his life.
Charles Todd’s A Fine Summer’s Day carries us back to 1914, before the war forever damaged a young inspector and an entire European generation. Resented by his superior for his upper class credentials, Rutledge must convince the obtuse, results-driven Chief Superintendent Bowles there is a pattern in seemingly unconnected murders. On the face of it, they all committed suicide. No one would drink that much laudanum unless they intended to end their life. But too many men of property are dying for no reason. Despite instructions, Rutledge resolves to unearth the common denominator before more innocent people lose their lives. While doing so, he must convince his fiancé that his profession is a true calling, not simply a whim easily discarded.
Rutledge, destined for a brilliant career at the Yard, is in love with Jean Gordon. He is determined to marry her despite advice against it. The daughter of a career Army officer who believes there is no greater glory than to serve King and Country, Jean urges Rutledge to claim that glory quickly, before the war ends. After all, it will all be over by Christmas.
This is the 17th entry in the Inspector Rutledge series by mother and son writing team David Todd Watjen and Carolyn L.T. Watjen. If you are new to the series, it’s the perfect introduction to one of the best characters in historical fiction today. For current readers, it’s deeply poignant to see Ian as he was before the war; idealistic, insightful, confident, composed. The Watjen’s have won the Barry Award and were finalists for the Anthony, Edgar, Dilys, Macavity, Agatha and Nero awards. As we honor the memories of those who served 100 years ago, this outstanding historical fiction truly brings a lost generation to life.
Poet, playwright and novelist Greer Macallister inspires intrigue with The Magician’s Lie. While Macallister’s plays have been performed at the American University and she has been published in periodicals such as the North American Review, this is her debut novel.
The Amazing Arden is one of the few female magicians in the early 1900s, which is controversial enough without her being wanted in question for her husband’s murder. Virgil, a down on his luck police officer, stumbles upon Arden and, though he is able to restrain her, he is unsure of her. As the capture would substantially boost his status, Virgil is conflicted about how to proceed.
After bringing the magician to his office and restraining her with several pairs of handcuffs, he allows her to recount her story before deciding how to move forward. Arden’s story is so captivating that Virgil can’t help but be taken in by her resilience and attention to detail. It’s in the midst of the narrative when Virgil learns that Arden may just have something to offer Virgil that he can’t get elsewhere, leaving him with a tough decision to make.
Macallister is able to use Arden’s story to pull the reader into history and what life was like for a young woman with few options in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With Arden’s success she is able to challenge the traditional gender roles for woman of the time, transforming her character into an inspiration. If after reading this you are looking for another historical fiction novel with a strong female protagonist, look to Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar.
Jane Austen apparently got the idea for Pride and Prejudice from an 80 year old minister named Mansfield. At least, that’s the general premise in Charles Lovett’s novel First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen which delves into possible connections between Austen and Mansfield. Told in chapters that jump back and forth between Austen’s time and the present, Lovett’s modern day heroine, Sophie Collingwood, is part Austen scholar and part amateur sleuth.
Sophie’s world has centered on her beloved Uncle Bertram who introduced her to great writers such as Austen. When Bertram dies of an alleged accidental fall down his stairs, Sophie begins to suspect that someone may have wanted her uncle dead. It all seems to be related to an obscure book in her uncle’s collection written by Mansfield that may shed some light on the true authorship of Pride and Prejudice. However, as she digs into the mystery of her Uncle’s death and the missing manuscript, Sophie puts herself into a very dangerous situation.
Lovett is at his best when he is engaged in the modern day writing of the conflicts and crises in Sophie’s rather than Austen’s world. While this book is a work of fiction, there are some historical facts mixed in. After finishing this book, readers may want to do some research on their own to discover which parts are invented and which parts are true.
When faced with a tragedy, it is common to reflect on what might have been if only we had done or said something differently. This is the theme explored by German author Jenny Erpenbeck in The End of Days. Set in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, the story begins with the sudden accidental death of an infant girl. The tragedy tears the family apart. But what if her parents could have found the baby in her cradle in time, and by some miracle had managed to bring life back into that little girl? What path would their lives have taken if only their baby hadn’t died?
Erpenbeck’s story is written in five parts, exploring the possible paths that this one life could take if only something different had happened. While the first part is her death as an infant, the second part begins with the girl as a teenager in Vienna just after the end of World War I. Her fate stems from her choices made as a rebellious youth, getting mixed up with the wrong boy and paying for those choices with her life. What would have happened if different choices had been made? Each of the following parts explore those possible lives, and by the fifth telling, her life spans almost a century.
Readers who enjoy the works of Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy may be interested in this book for its complex style of writing and bleak, haunting themes. I was drawn to this book because of the thought-provoking subject matter and because I enjoy historical fiction set in Europe. It is human nature to think about what might have been, and Erpenbeck deftly explores this subject with grace.
Keeping secrets is a tricky business and can be the death knell of a relationship. Two new romance novels present characters conflicted by secrets which threaten their happy-ever-after.
Sarah MacLean concludes her Rules of Scoundrels series in spectacular fashion with Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover. Lady Georgiana’s fall from grace before her first season was colossal. Pregnant and unwed, she was cast from society but rebounded with the help of three other ruined women and created The Fallen Angel, London’s most successful gaming club. But life in the fast lane is hampering her daughter’s future and Georgiana needs to marry well to clean up her reputation and re-enter society. Handsome newspaper tycoon Duncan West agrees to assist Georgiana in her efforts by using his resources as an outlet for planting articles shining her in a glowing light. As the two grow close, their chemistry intensifies and readers will be rooting for this dynamic couple to find forever love all while being shocked by the secrets revealed.
Marcus is the dissolute Duke of Rutherford in Megan Frampton’s The Duke’s Guide to Correct Behavior, the promising start to the Dukes Behaving Badly series. Marcus is stunned when 4-year-old Rose, his unknown child, arrives on his doorstep. He hires governess Lily to care for his newfound daughter and finds himself quickly attracted to Lily’s quiet beauty. His feelings are so strong that he vows to change his wicked habits and requests Lily’s help in becoming a proper gentleman in the hopes of one day securing her love. But Lily has a secret that could change everything, especially her future with Marcus. Readers will fall in love with Marcus and Lily who share quick wit, thoughtful conversations and a common love for Rose, all while their physical attraction grows impossible to ignore.
Ethics and morality get trumped by passion and ambition in Saskia Goldschmidt's disturbing yet engaging debut novel, The Hormone Factory, translated from Dutch by Hester Velmans. Mordechai de Paauw is the Dutch cofounder and CEO of a slaughterhouse-turned-pharmaceutical enterprise. His new company, Farmacom, becomes a global success for its pioneering of hormonal treatments, including the contraceptive pill. However, it is deeply overshadowed by the flawed humanity of its owner.
Now on his deathbed, Mordechai reflects on his turbulent life, its towering achievements and its darkest failures. He revisits the early days of the family butcher business he and his twin brother Aaron inherited from their father. It is Mordechai who sees the pharmaceutical possibilities of extracting hormones from animal waste, but it is Aaron who pays a dear price. Mordechai seeks and forms an uneasy partnership with an equally ambitious German scientist, Rafael Levine. The two mount one breakthrough after another while Hitler charges toward Holland’s doorstep. World War II threatens Mordechai's interests, as do gross errors in judgment, personal and professional.
Goldschmidt, whose father survived the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen, found material for this story while conducting research for another book. "I came across the file of Professor Laqueur, a famous pharmacologist and clinician, one of the founders of the pharmaceutical company Organon and the man who discovered testosterone. More important, he also happened to be my father's first father-in-law." Professor Laqueur’s collaboration with the Van Zwanenberg slaughterhouse owned by two brothers from the town of Oss, Holland, eventually resulted in one of the country's first multinational pharmaceutical companies. To be sure, Goldschmidt's imagined story of the real players sheds an unflattering light on a young industry on the cusp of discovering miracle drugs. An intriguing book club read, this story will resonate with anyone who has ever swallowed an aspirin.
Life has always been in the details for Addie Baum, the 85-year-old protagonist in Anita Diamant's new historical novel, The Boston Girl. When her youngest granddaughter asks her to tell her life story, Addie starts at the beginning. Born at the turn of the century, this daughter of Jewish Russian immigrants endures disappointments and obstacles along the way to living a full life defined by plucky resolve and passion. In Diamant's capable hands, Addie's first person narrative is a gentle and lovely rewinding back to the soul of another time and place.
Coming of age as a Jewish woman in the 20th century, Addie endures the endless harping of her suspicious mother who sees America as the wrecker of young women. Home is in a tenement in the north end of Boston, where there is just enough money for food and rent. Staying in school becomes Addie's dream despite her mother's low expectations. It's her love of reading that opens doors to the world she will eventually inhabit. When she lands an invite to join the Saturday Club girls at their camp at Rockport Lodge, she forms friendships along with opinions and new experiences. For Addie, it is time of Parker House rolls and keeping boys from getting "fresh." When she tries on long pants for the first time she can't believe how liberating it feels.
Diamant, whose previous works include the highly regarded The Red Tent, wades through a significant period in American history, including sweat shops, the flu epidemic, World War I, the Depression and feminism, just as Addie matures and exploits her own personal potential. While this latest novel may be a lighter read than Diamant's previous works, readers will enjoy the plot-moving short chapters that capture the intrinsic nature of the early 20th century immigrant experience in America. The Boston Girl should make an excellent book club selection for those examining the breadth of connections that sustain us.
Imogen Robertson invites readers on a journey to Paris, 1909, the height of La Belle Epoque, where the alluring excess of the era comes to vivid life in The Paris Winter. Robertson introduces readers to three fiercely independent young women whose friendship is built on a common love of art, but who are quickly ensnared in a sinister plot.
For Maud, a destitute art student at the Académie Lafond, life is anything but decadent. Her inheritance only covers rent and tuition, leaving her no choice but to go hungry. School friends Yvette and Tanya quickly notice their proud friend’s state and secretly intervene to get her a job as a companion to wealthy Christian Morel’s sickly sister Sylvie. Maud can hardly believe her fortune as the position includes a warm, clean room and plenty of hot meals. The security of her employment also allows her to focus her energy on her art. But all is not well in the House of Morel as the private lives of the siblings are vastly different from their public personae. Sylvie is hiding an opium addiction and Christian’s aura of intrigue feels threatening.
Maud embraces their secrets as her own, but before long finds herself embroiled in sinister plots which take her and her friends from the gritty underbelly of Paris to the haunts of the upper class. The three young women grow as they work together to uncover the truth amidst so much deception. Robertson’s characters are memorable and her colorful, detailed descriptions serve to create a strong sense of place and time. Art lovers, history buffs and armchair sleuths won’t be able to put this thriller down.