The Battle for Beverly Hills: A City’s Independence and the Birth of Celebrity Politics, by Nancie Clare. St. Martin’s Press, 2018
While on a map it looks like the city of Los Angeles is a giant amoeba that has engulfed everything in the county, there is an island in the middle of it that stands out: Beverly Hills is an incorporated city to this day. It had not existed for very many years as a city (it was originally a lima bean farm) when it was proposed that it be annexed by Los Angeles- the denizens of Beverly Hills had huge gardens with water hungry plantings and the small well in city property wasn’t keeping up with demands. Allowing themselves to be annexed by LA would give them access to the Owens Valley water that was making Los Angeles green. But it would also mean they could no longer have their own school system and police force. In Prohibition Era Beverly Hills, having police that turned a blind eye to booze fueled parties was a very nice perk.
Not all Beverly Hills denizens wanted or needed these perks, and developers were dying to put in more housing but needed a good water source to do so. So it was put up to a vote. This was when the first instance of celebrity campaigning took place. Mary Pickford (and others, but she was the main one) took to speaking for remaining a separate city heavily. And it worked. This started the habit of Hollywood stars speaking out for politicians and issues.
The book is fairly short, and if you are into early century southern California history, it is fun. The celebrities, the horribly corrupt LA police force, the development of what Beverly Hills was going to look like; it all made its mark on the area. Well written. Four out of five stars.
The Mitford Murders, by Jessica Fellowes. Minotaur Books, 2017
“The Mitford Murders” is a little bit of a misnomer for this book; no Mitfords were harmed in the making of this book. The Mitford family is fairly central to the book, but not in a direct way, except for Nancy Mitford, the oldest of the girls.
The two main characters- other than Nancy- are Louisa Cannon, daughter of a washerwoman, desperate to escape her Fagin of an uncle who has moved in since her father died; and Guy Sullivan, a railway policeman. Louisa and Guy meet when she jumps off a train on her way to apply for the job of under governess for the wealthy Mitford family. At the about the same moment, there is a murder on the train. Florence Nightingale Shore, recently retired military nurse, is headed to visit a friend when she is found beaten and dying in her seat. When no murderer is found and the case is dropped, Guy finds himself obsessed with figuring out who did it. Fifteen year old Nancy Mitford shares this obsession and Louisa, as Nancy’s chaperone, finds herself deep into it also. Nancy also lives in fear that her uncle will catch up with her, or that her employers will find out that she used to pickpocket for him as a child.
The amateur investigation goes slowly- as a live in servant, Louisa has little time off. Guy also has little time on his own to follow things up. Louisa, however, has the advantage that Nancy can tell her parents that she needs Louisa to go with her to this place or that, thus getting them out of the house. The investigation threads (the author alternates between Louisa and Guy’s points of view) weave in and around the daily life of living in a manor house with lots of kids and servants, chaperoning Nancy to dress makers and a dance; and Guy being bullied at home by his numerous older and larger brothers.
The murder of F.N. Shore was a real event; her murder was never solved. Obviously that won’t do for a novel, so we are provided with a killer, as well as several red herrings. I enjoyed the way the author set the story well in the period with details. Most of the story is set in the below-stairs milieu rather than upstairs- Nancy’s parents don’t make many appearances. Sadly, some of the things that made the Mitford clan unique make no appearance; the kids had their own language that they made up, for instance. Perhaps that will appear in later volumes. (I understand that there *will* be further volumes, one with each of the Mitford girls as the star. I am not sure how she will make Hitler-loving Unity a sympathetic character…) I enjoyed the book, but don’t consider it stellar- 4 stars out of 5.
The Woman in the Camphor Trunk, by Jennifer Kincheloe. Seventh Street Books, 2017
The opening scene of this novel has the protagonist running down the beach, with a rotting head in a bucket, trying to escape a policeman. Hampered by long, tight, skirts and fancy shoes, she almost doesn’t make it, but in the end she escapes.
Set in 1908 Los Angeles, Anna Blanc, society girl, has (in the last novel, which I did not read) turned crime solver and spurned her arranged engagement. This has caused her father to disown her and cast her out without a penny. She is living in a rundown apartment, surrounded by fancy furniture and fine dresses and hats, shoes unfit for walking the disgusting streets of LA, and a few pieces of jewelry that she had loaned out the day her father kicked her out. She lives on a diet of Cracker Jacks and tinned kippers, having, at the beginning, no income and a lot of back rent to pay.
She has now been hired as assistant matron at the LA precinct house and jail; her job is to chase down runaways, deal with ladies of the night, interview women who feel uneasy talking to male police, and basically not do anything exciting. But when she gets taken along on an interview in Chinatown, the case gets interesting. The body of a white woman is found in a trunk- in the room of a Chinese man. Given the rampant racism of the time, this could ignite riots. The investigation must take place quickly and quietly. Add to this an incipient tong war over kidnapped child prostitutes, and a personal angle with the slain white woman, and we have a complex narrative. Of course there is a romantic thread, too, one that started in the previous book, with a detective who wants to marry and have a family. Anna refuses to swear obedience to anyone, and does not want to have children. And then there is that rotting head…
I loved the writing. Kincheloe brought old Los Angeles to life for me, including the non-tourist part of Chinatown where much of the story takes place. The author puts details about things like dress, enough to show the era, but not *too* much detail. I liked Anna, although she is a little bit too full of her ability to take care of herself. Like it or not, a woman in heavy skirts and a corset, untrained in weapons or self-defense, cannot wander into just any situation and expect to fight her way out! The other characters are good, and I hope they get fleshed out more as the series continues. The killer was one I didn’t expect, but the killer had reasons that made sense for the time and place. Five stars.
The Whispered Tales of Graves Grove, edited by J.S. Bailey & Kelsey Keating. BHC Press, 2017
This is a collection of short horror stories, but it is a sort of concept album: The editors created the town of Graves Grove, gave it a short backstory, and then said Go! Every story is set there, there are some repeating characters, and an assortment of various supernatural beings. As with any anthology, there are some stories that were rather weak, and others that were good- a couple very good. Depending on what your taste is in supernatural and horror, you will surely find something enjoyable in this book. I only felt a couple of stories were poor. Some have graphic violence but most are lower key; some have mainly a feeling of horrible dread. A nice, solid collection.
In the Land of Dreams, by Lawrence Swaim. Top Hat Books, 2017
starts the story by telling us about his intake into a transitional residential facility in New York. He has knowingly made his way there (by talking about suicidal ideation at the emergency room) because he wants to be in the area when an ancestor of his comes to visit, an ancestor who is stalking him. This ancestor has knowledge of treasure of vast worth- and of a curse. When he shares this with the therapist and the other residents of the shelter, he is declared delusional. But it isn’t very long before the shelter has another new person: the ancestor, Barnt.
Most of the rest of the story is Barnt telling his story. Back when New York was barely New Amsterdam, his family was there. We learn about his business dealings, how he met his second wife- the most beautiful person on earth-, how they married, what happened after, and how the family came to be cursed by his actions. It is a very, very long story. He travels back and forth between New Amsterdam and his home in the wilds. He and his wife have sex constantly (no graphic sex, just saying it happened). We are left in the dark as to whether Barnt is a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, a ghost, or the person in the flesh, doomed to roam New York like some Ancient Mariner, telling his tale.
I have to say I had trouble sticking with this book. Every action Barnt took is told in great detail. In the end it is an unsubtle moralistic tale, which seemed like a very abrupt finish. I am afraid I can only give it three stars out of five.
Hounds of the Underworld, by Dan Rabarts & Lee Muray. Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2017
Set in near future New Zealand, in a world where cars are too expensive for most people to own, water is rationed, and the skies are smoggy, this is a CSI-ish police procedural mixed with horror.
Penny Yee has just opened a crime lab with a large loan from her parents- who want her to marry for money instead of working- and this is her first case. She is saddled with her brother/cousin (cousin, but adopted into her family) Matiu, an ex-con who is somewhat psychic and has a personal demon that just may be real. He works for the family car service, and is Penny’s official driver/body guard.
The case is a locked room mystery- a room locked from the inside, with not even a dead body inside, just empty clothes, an inscribed bowl, and blood. Lots of blood. Matiu finds the bowl irresistible, and, despite the crime scene tape, picks it up and has a nasty vision, of the “We cannot stop here this is Lovecraft country” sort. Things get weirder with every encounter- a visit to a dog fighting camp turns into a full on horror fest.
There is a bit of an X-Files vibe, with Penny the rational scientist and Matiu the psychic. The world that the story is set in seems pretty grim, but it is not post-apocalyptic grim. The author uses present tense narration, which I frequently find annoying but he made it flow. My big gripe with the story is that it ends on a bit of a cliff hanger, and I was not aware ahead of time that it was a series. Four stars.
The World of Tomorrow, by Brendan Mathews. Little, Brown and Co 2017
The story starts with Scottish Sir Angus traveling from Great Britain to New York on the Britannic, first class, of course. With him is his grievously injured younger brother, Malcolm. The purpose of their trip is to seek medical care for Malcolm. His fellow travelers are very impressed with him, and plans are made to see him further after arrival in New York. The only problem is that he is Irish, his real name is Francis Dempsey, he is an escaped criminal (for selling French postcards and the like), and his money is stolen from an IRA safe house that he accidently blew up with their own explosives. He is on the run and doing it with style.
Michael (Malcolm) was caught in the explosion and has suffered hearing loss and a severe concussion. The only one he can hear now is the ghost of W.B. Yeats, who spends a lot of time with him.
Meanwhile, oldest brother Martin (he has no fake Scottish name) emigrated to the US years before and has been making a living (albeit a poor one) as a jazz musician. In the middle of preparing for his sister-in-law’s wedding, he is assembling an amazing jazz band that will cross color lines – something not yet done in 1939. He is also out of a job as a horn player, something which has upset his wife very badly. She’s taking care of two toddlers in a rundown apartment and wishing for something more than constant drudgery. So when Francis barges into their lives, with money and problems, she doesn’t know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing- but it’s probably bad.
Nobody kills IRA operatives and steals their money and gets away with it, no matter how far they run. An Irish gangster in New York finds Francis and gives him an ultimatum: do what I ask- a job which will no doubt be fatal to Francis- or his family will all be killed. Oh, and Michael, unable to communicate, has wandered off.
It’s a big, sprawling, book with numerous narrative streams. The characters range from the very rich to the very poor. There are gangsters, people who want to be EX gangsters, royalty, extremely neurotic people, artists, and every other kind of person. I enjoyed the story, although sometimes I had trouble remembering the narrative stream of one character after reading about others for many pages. Part of the enjoyment I found was the descriptions of everything that was happening in NYC at the time: the World’s Fair, the receding Depression, the burgeoning jazz scene especially in Harlem- NYC was alive with change. Four and a half stars.
Creatures of Will & Temper, by Molly Tanzer. Mariner Books, 2017
When Evadne Gray catches her younger sister, Dorinia, dallying with another teen aged girl right after the man Evadne loves informs her that he is marrying someone else, Evadne runs to their mother to tell and assumes it will put a stop to Dorinia’s planned visit to their uncle in London. (Dorinia has the ambition to become an art critic, and there is no art to be seen out in the country where she lives.) Instead, their mother decides that Evadne will accompany Dorinia, something Evadne has no interest in doing.
Upon arrival at their uncle’s house, they meet his friend Lady Henrietta Wotton, who goes by Henry and wears men’s clothing. Dorinia is immediately smitten by Henry, and Henry has taken it upon herself to introduce the girls to London. Evadne is shocked and revolted by Lady Henry because of her dress and open smoking. But Evadne has learned to fence and is thrilled to have an invitation to a fencing school from both Henry and the friend (and erstwhile boyfriend) who taught her. While still living with their uncle, Evadne and Dorinia go their separate ways.
Dorinia manages to convince Henry to invite her to a meeting of her secret society. The meeting seems totally harmless- a dinner devoted to one of the sense, so she cannot imagine why it’s considered secret. True, there is a short time where Dorinia is asked to step outside the room, but what could go on in that small space of time?
Evadne is taken on by the top instructor at the fencing school, and finds herself invited to a secret club, too. And she is shocked to discover that there is some common ground between that club and Henry’s…
The story took a very long time to get moving. There was a lot of gorgeous description, perhaps too much. There is a lot of going and coming and eating. I found it hard to really like any of the characters- I didn’t *dislike* them, but they just left me flat. I found it hard to believe that Evadne, who attends a fencing club where she is the only woman, is shocked and disgusted by Henry’s wearing of male attire, especially since she is unshocked by homosexual love. (yes, I know that homosexuality and cross dressing are two different things. But it just seems to me that if a person is okay with one, they’d most likely be okay with the other) I found it equally hard to believe that their uncle, who had left the secret society, would allow Dorinia to go. The book *almost* made me love it, but not quite. It’s a first novel, so I have great hope for this author. And the cover is absolutely gorgeous. Four stars.
The Queen’s Prophet, by Dawn Patitucci. Turner, 2017
Maria-Barbara is middle aged when the Countess of Walther, her owner, dies. The Countess’s family doesn’t want her, which leaves her future up in the air. On a trip into town, Mari encounters a traveling street magician who quite quickly convinces her that she could make a living as a seer. Mari takes him up on it, figuring that making her own living, even as a fraud, beats an unknown future. Middle-aged dwarfs are not in high demand in 1600s Germany.
Dwarfs of whatever age, however, are in demand in the Spanish court. They are entertainers, dancers, buffoons, good luck charms. The Queen has heard that Mari is a prophet. In a court where everyone is plotting, a good luck charm and prophet can be very useful. Mari is terrified; she knows nothing about prophecy. What will happen when they find out she is a fraud? Some good luck, some knowledge of astronomy and math, and a quick mind help her make her place secure, at least as secure as anyone can be in a court full of intrigue and backstabbing. Even the Queen is insecure.
The story was inspired by a painting by Velasquez, ‘Las Meninas’, in which the focal point is the beautiful Infanta of Spain, but rather than focus on her or the Queen, the author chose Maribarbola, who stands to the side of the painting. This outsider’s view of the court has a very different feel from what it would have if the author had made the Queen the protagonist. The story also takes liberties with time; she condenses several years into a short time, making for more exciting reading.
The author paints the court of King Philip and his niece/wife Queen Mariana vividly, bringing it to life with lush descriptions of the clothing, the buildings, the plantings, the food, the drink. Lots of food and drink. I knew nothing about this period but found it extremely interesting and I was completely drawn into the story. Mari came to life with her fears, her triumphs, her physical pains, her hangovers, and her concern for the Queen. Four and a half stars.
Bryant & May: Wild Chamber. A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery, by Christopher Fowler. Bantam Books, 2017
The story starts with a ‘locked room’ murder- a woman is killed in a locked park, accessible only to flat owners and the gardener. The gardener doesn’t look good for the crime, but who else could have gotten in and back out when there is only one key per flat owner? The crime is odd enough that it lands in the laps of the Peculiar Crimes Unit.
Bryant and May are the old codgers who are the heart of the PCU. May plays straight man to Bryant’s over the top eccentricities. Bryant is a little more eccentric than usual right now; the meds he took to overcome a serious illness have left him with some delusions: he likes to have a chat now and then with hallucinations of people both dead and alive (QEII is one of them, as is Samuel Pepys). Thankfully, these hallucinations help him think things through, rather than being detrimental.
Another murder in a park, with similarities to the first, raises the specter of a serial killer. Because it, too, takes place in a park in London, a higher up in the police department decides to shut down all the city’s parks, and blames it on the PCU. If they would solve the murders, he’d reopen the parks. He seeks to gain monetarily if the parks can be privatized and locked. But the murders go on. Can the PCU solve them before the case is taken from them and given to the regular police force, and they are shut down for good? More bodies pile up- including those of suspects- as more and more pressure is put on the PCU.
While this is I think the 14th novel in the series, it is the first one that I have read. I thought from the description that the Peculiar Crimes Unit would be about supernatural crimes, rather like the Rivers of London series. It seems that they are not, but I am sure I’ll be picking up more of the series as I have become quite fond of the staff of the PCU, including Crippen the staff cat. What other police unit has a secret tunnel entrance through a bakery, a tunnel that has a medieval sarcophagus in it? I loved this book. Five stars.