Short Story Review: The Duchess and The Doll by Edith Pargeter

The Duchess and The Doll is the retelling of an actual event that occurred during the reign of Henry VI, where the Duchess of Gloucester was accused of witchcraft and heresy.

Eleanor Cobham of Sterborough was the daughter of a minor noble who became the second wife of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, a Plantagenet prince.  Although the Duke was very popular amongst the commoners, she was not.  It wasn’t only her relatively low-birth that they took dislike to, but also the manner in which she became the Duchess.

And so, because of this, the Duke soon also fell out of favour with the people, and his opponents quickly capitalised on the situation.  They were just as happy to see him fall from grace because of his wife’s faults as his own.

The story takes us through the trials, both secular and religious, and introduces us to those who are named alongside her, before concluding with how it ended for those involved.  As a compelling case for witchcraft and heresy is made against the Duchess, the ultimate question is whether or not the intention behind it was treason.

I found this story surprisingly moving, to see how the wife viewed how the accusations levelled against her affected her husband.  It was all the more fascinating because it was based on something that actually happened.  The historical detail of the surrounding events added colour, context and interest to the tale.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read, one that commanded my attention from start to finish.

This short story was found in The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives, ed. Mike Ashley.

Book Review: Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

Cocaine Blues is the first in the Phryne Fisher Mysteries series of books by Kerry Greenwood.

The book begins in London, where the Hon. Phryne Fisher, using all her intelligence, foils a robbery at her father’s dinner party.  On witnessing her quick assessment of what was going on, she soon finds herself on her way home to Melbourne in the employ of Colonel Harper and his wife.  They have asked if she can make some discreet enquiries after their daughter, Lydia, who seems to be poorly and they suspect her husband, Mr Andrews is the cause.

Once Phryne is ensconced in the prestigious Windsor Hotel, she is very quickly introduced to the rich and well-to-do of Melbourne society, as well as the not-so-rich, including the cabbies Bert and Cec, Dot who becomes her maid, as well as the hard-on-their luck Russian dancing troupe, Princesse de Grasse and her grandchildren, Sasha and Elli de Lisse.

What started out as a simple investigation into the home life of Lydia Andrews turns dangerous as Phryne is drawn into the murky world of cocaine smuggling and backstreet abortions.  But can can Phryne untangle the threads and succeed where the local police have failed?

As I mentioned in my review of Except the Dying by Maureen Jennings, if I have yet to read a book before it has been adapted for TV or film, I often put off reading it for fear of spending my time making comparisons rather than enjoying the story.  This is another example where I have done that, having been introduced to the fabulous Phryne Fisher in the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries TV series, and again where I needn’t have feared, and I am so glad that I gave the book a chance.

The story is full of 1920’s period charm.  The characters are colourful and engaging and the setting captivating.  The dialogue as well as the plot flows smoothly and effortlessly, creating a story that holds your attention until the end.

Phryne Fisher makes a wonderful detective; she is classy, sassy, witty and smart.  She is certainly one of my favourite detectives and I hope to get round to reading the second book in the series, Flying Too High, soon.

Short Story Review: The Shoulder-Blade of a Ram by Edward Marston

It’s 1188, and Gerald, the Archdeacon of St David’s is accompanying Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury around Wales to recruit soldiers to send on Crusade.  When they reach Haverfordwest, in Pembrokeshire, they hear how the local Flemings can divine the future with the shoulder-blade of a ram.  On the morning the entourage is suppose to quit the town and continue on their journey, a local woman is found strangled, and soon this rather bizarre claim is put to the test in the search for the murderer.

Naturally, things are not as they first appear, and tensions between the Welsh natives and the non-native Flemish population only serves to the muddy the waters further.  But the question is, can you really solve a murder by studying the shoulder-blade of a ram?

This was an interesting, fast-paced historical murder mystery.  I liked the setting and the characters, and was myself intrigued to read how the shoulder-blade of a ram would help to solve the crime.  I would certainly re-read this short story again.

This short story was found in Murder Through the Ages: A Bumper Anthology of Historical Mysteries, ed. Maxim Jakubowski.

Book Review: Except the Dying by Maureen Jennings

Except the Dying is the first of The Murdoch Mysteries by Maureen Jennings.

February, 1895.  Toronto.  When a young woman is found murdered, her naked body discarded in a quiet lane one freezing February night, Acting Detective William Murdoch is determined to find the culprit, even though he soon finds himself up against some of the most prominent gentlemen in the city.

As Murdoch starts his investigation, no one is willing to talk, and those who are do not know who the young woman is.  However, he eventually discovers that she is Therese Laporte, a runaway maid from the Rhodes residence.  But he quickly realises this is only the beginning of the case.  It seems everyone connected to the girl has something to hide, but can he navigate his way through the lies and half-truths he is spun before anyone else dies?

I was first introduced to Murdoch via the fabulous TV show, which I love.  However, I was a little hesitant to a read the books that inspired it, worried that I would spend my time comparing the book to the show instead of enjoying the story.  However, I needn’t have feared.  I loved this book; I couldn’t find fault with it.  The characters differed enough not to allow for comparisons, which certainly helped.

The historical detail provided within the story easily brought nineteenth century Toronto to life.  It, like many Victorian cities, could be a dark, dangerous place, where life for many was often terribly harsh.  The descriptions the author provides within the story are vivid; when she described the cold, I could feel it.  When she described a room, I felt I was there.  The characters were especially engaging and life-like.  No detail was omitted, recreating an authentic time full of authentic characters.

If you like the show or the period in which this book is set, I can’t recommend this book highly enough to you.  The second book in the series, Under the Dragon’s Tail has already been added to my To Be Read list and I look forward to reading it.