HISTORICAL THRILLERS: THE LOST HEIRESS AND THE DANGEROUS NEIGHBORS

Who says that historical novels can’t share characteristics of other kinds of fiction?  Two new historical novels at The Field Library could be read as mysteries or even thrillers, while still demonstrating all the depths of historical detail and research, still illuminating the past, that the best historical fiction shows.

For decades people have been fascinated with the doomed Romanov family, executed in Ekaterinburg after the Russian Revolution, and one of the reasons for this fascination is the possibility that Grand Duchess Anastasia might have survived.  Certainly there were people who claimed to be Anastasia, the most famous of whom was Anna Anderson, whose legal case to prove her relationship to the family of the Czar lasted for years. Out of this background comes the new novel, I Was Anastasia, by Ariel Lawhon, which looks at the Anna Anderson case and the facts, such as we know them, of the execution of Grand Duchess Anastasia with her family. The story starts with a young woman being pulled out of a freezing canal in Berlin in 1920, unable or unwilling to explain how she got there, but her body bears evidence of some horrible injuries. She looks startlingly like the famous Anastasia, and when she is able to speak, she claims to be that Anastasia. Some people want to believe her, others believe she’s just trying to steal the Romanov family fortune. Interspersed within this young woman’s story is the story of Anastasia and the fall of the Romanov family, all asking the big questions: what is identity? Who was telling the truth in this situation and what does the truth mean?  With the structure of the modern unreliable narrator/multiple voices thriller mingled with the actual known facts of Anna Anderson’s lawsuit and Anastasia’s life, I Was Anastasia is a fascinating “what if?”

While Mary Monroe’s One House Over starts in the 1920’s, as I Was Anastasia does, this isn’t an unreliable narrator book, but more the kind of book that sets a long slow fuse between the happiness at the beginning of the book and the horrible things that are going to happen to the characters as a result of subtle things going on in the plot.  As is often the case with this kind of thriller/suspense story, it starts out with the main characters in a happy place. Joyce and Odell Watson are living a good life in their small Alabama community in the 1920’s: a good, solid marriage, a thriving business, respect from their fellow residents, escape from poverty, a chance at a real family.  The only fly in the ointment at the beginning is their sneaking desire to just cut loose once, see what it’s like not to be constrained by respectability. When their new neighbors turn out to be bootleggers, living the high life, the Watsons have their chance to try to be different. As they find out more about their neighbors’ shady past and their secrets, they try to pull away from them, but they discover that it’s much harder to walk away from friends like that than it is to let them insinuate themselves into your lives in the first place.  And gradually, they find themselves in danger of losing everything they’ve ever valued.

 

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MURDER BETWEEN THE WARS: THE MITFORD MURDERS

A mystery set in the past is a difficult thing to pull off well, especially if the author chooses to use real events and real people as part of the story, though of course it’s the fun of seeing real life people and real life events we already know about being shown in a new light that makes historical mysteries work. For an example of how to do it right, we have Jessica Fellowes’ The Mitford Murders.

Jessica Fellowes has experience in writing historical fiction set in 1920’s England, since she’s been writing all the books set in the world of Downton Abbey.  Here she turns her attention to a real life unsolved mystery, involving some famous real life people, and creates a new Golden Age type mystery.

The protagonist is Louisa Cannon, desperate to escape a life of grinding poverty and difficulty with her widowed mother and obnoxious uncle in London, so when she hears of an opportunity to work as a nanny for a well to do family in Oxfordshire, she jumps at the chance.

At the same time Louisa is escaping from her uncle, a nurse, Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter to the famous Florence Nightingale, is murdered in broad daylight on the train on which Louisa is traveling.  There are no leads and the case seems likely to go cold, though one police officer is determined to make his reputation by solving it.

And so, it turns out, is one of Louisa’s new charges, the oldest daughter of the Mitford family, Nancy.  Nancy is 16 and dying for adventure, for a taste of the outside world. She’s bright and acerbic, a budding author, and she and Louisa find themselves drawn into the investigation of Shore’s death, even though it becomes more and more likely that they are running headlong into danger themselves.

The Mitfords actually existed (and were fascinating people in their own right), and the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore actually happened and was never solved in real life. Using real life people and real events adds just a little more verisimilitude to the vivid setting of 1920’s England, so if you’re a fan of Downton Abbey and the world of England between the World Wars, this should be just your cup of tea.

WOMEN’S SIDE OF AMERICAN HISTORY

There’s nothing like a good historical novel to open your eyes and give you new insight into an era or a place you thought you knew, and there are two new historical novels this month which bring into focus fascinating characters and periods of the past, from a female perspective.

The first, chronologically at least, is Carnegie’s Maid, by Marie Benedict (who also wrote The Other Einstein).  Starting in the 1860’s in Pittsburgh, the book follows the life and times of Clara Kelley, a young Irish immigrant who finds herself working for the famous Andrew Carnegie and his family. Clara comes from a poor farming family in Ireland, with nowhere to go and nothing to her name when she decides, out of desperation, to impersonate the experienced Irish maid who disappeared after being hired to work at the Carnegie house.  It would be hard enough for Clara to work as a maid anywhere, since she has no skills or experience, but her ruse is made much more complicated by the demanding lady of the house, who rules the place with an iron fist and has no tolerance for error.  However, Clara is tough and desperate (a dangerous combination) and keeps her head, working her way into the affections of the patriarch of the household, Andrew Carnegie himself. It’s not that she’s trying to worm her way into his bed, but first her business instincts and then her personality win him over. Clara, however, never forgets that she’s a fraud, and that if anyone in this household were to find out who she really is, it would mean disaster for herself and for her family back home. Her disappearance spurs Carnegie to look at the world differently, and to see that there’s more than just the making of money for its own sake.  A vivid look at a vanished world and the development of a ruthless industrialist (look up the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 if you want to see how ruthless he could be) into a great philanthropist.

And if the Gilded Age isn’t your thing (though it should be — it’s a fascinating period of American history), how about a trip through the earliest days of movie making in Hollywood?  The Girls in the Picture, by Melanie Benjamin, brings to life the silent movie era, focusing on one of the earliest and most brilliant stars of the medium, Mary Pickford (known as “America’s Sweetheart”), and Frances Marion, a screenwriter who seized on the potential for “flickers” to become something huge and wonderful.  The two women were good friends, both working in the same industry, both ambitious and hardworking, and both running up against all the limitations that industry, and the society around it, placed on women in the teens and 1920’s. All the larger than life figures of the world of movies make their appearances in the book: from Douglas Fairbanks, who was romantically entangled with Mary, to Charlie Chaplin, to Rudolph Valentino and Lillian Gish and Louis B. Mayer.  It was a wild time and Mary and Frances reached the heights women could achieve, though not without heartbreak and trials.  If you’re a fan of silent movies or the 1920’s, check out The Girls in the Picture.

A WOMAN’S PLACE: A FEMALE SOLICITOR IN 1920’S BOMBAY

Sometimes what the mystery genre needs is a completely new slant to illuminate the things that are best and most fun about the genre. Mysteries have their tropes, the usual settings, the usual issues, the usual cast of shady characters, and after you’ve read a certain number of Sherlock Holmes imitations, or Dashiell Hammett imitators, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all the same stuff.  Even the addition of women to the ranks of detectives, which has brought us the late Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone or Sara Paretsky’s V. I Warshawski, has led to more versions of the same or similar characters and situations.  Sometimes you just need to move the whole ball of wax to a different place and a different time to see things anew.

Enter The Widows of Malabar Hill, a new book by Sujata Massey. The story is set in 1920’s Bombay, India, and the protagonist, Perveen Mistry, is one of the first female attorneys in the whole country.  Admit it, you’re already kind of intrigued about the setting and the character, and the mystery she finds herself investigating isn’t the usual American murder story transferred to India, but a problem arising uniquely out of Perveen’s character and the setting she finds herself in.

Perveen is a Zoroastrian young woman, daughter of a respected attorney, who got her legal training in Oxford, England, and is now working in her father’s law firm, trying to prove herself. Because she’s a female solicitor, she’s only going to get paperwork, the kind of behind the scenes material that won’t attract much outside attention.

The firm is given the last will and testament of a prominent Muslim mill owner with three widows to probate, and Perveen notices some oddities about the widows’ situation.  All three of them have signed over their entire inheritances to the same charity, leaving them nothing to live on.  One of the widows signed with an x, indicating that she wasn’t even able to read or write her own name, and maybe not understand what exactly she was signing away.

Because these widows live in strict purdah, few outsiders are going to be able to investigate and figure out what might have happened and whether they are being taken advantage of. The women remain inside the zenana, women’s quarters, with their children, and do not have any contact with men who are not part of the household.  Here Perveen has an advantage over the men in her firm, and over the police: being a woman herself, she can enter the household and talk to the women and try to figure out what’s really going on.  She has another advantage as well, one not so obvious: Perveen has had her own encounters with the sexism of the Indian marriage system and as a result, she’s well aware of how women can be silenced, and determined to protect other women from the kind of abuse she is well aware is possible and even probable. The suspicious death of a man who’s the guardian of one of the widows, and the disappearance of a child, only make Perveen more devoted to finding justice, no matter what danger she might be putting herself into in the process.

Join Perveen in the multicultural, vividly rendered world of 1920’s Bombay, and settle in for the beginning of a new and different mystery series.

 

SHORT TAKES IN NEBULA LAND: THE NOVELLAS AT THE FIELD

In addition to the annual Nebula awards for best novel, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America also award Nebulas for best novella (defined as a work between 17,500 words and 40,000 words), and we have three of the nominees for best novella here at the Field Library as well, so if you’re interested in the best speculative fiction but aren’t ready to commit to a full length novel, give these nominees a look.

every-heart-a-doorway-cover

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, starts with an intriguing premise: all those children from the books where children travel to magical worlds (think Narnia and Peter Pan and the like) eventually return to their own mundane world, but obviously they have been changed by their otherworldly experiences, and maybe they can’t deal with the normal world anymore.  There’s a place for them, Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where there are no visitors, no solicitations, no guests, only other kids who have crossed over and crossed back, who understand what it’s like to lose your dream world, and how much you long to return.  When Nancy finds her way to Ms. West’s Home, she and the other children notice a change in the place, a new darkness, shadows behind the corners, and then tragedy strikes, and Nancy and the other inhabitants of the Home have to find out what happened, and why.  If you’ve ever wondered what Alice’s life was like after she returned from Wonderland, or how the Pevensie children dealt with life in England after Narnia, Every Heart a Doorway should give you an interesting insight.

the-ballad-of-black-tom-cover

Victor Lavelle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is a different kind of dark fantasy novel, grounded in the realities of racism in America in the 1920’s and touching also on the weird stories of H. P. Lovecraft.  Black Tom is the nickname of Charles Thomas Tester, a young man living in Harlem in the 20’s who just wants to keep food on the table and a roof over his and his father’s heads.  He wants to keep out of trouble and out of the way of powerful white people, especially police officers, but when he delivers a strange book to a powerful and dangerous sorceress in the heart of Queens, he’s taken the first step down a path that leads to terrifying possibilities, involving the return of the sleeping gods from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, which could destroy reality.  Bringing Lovecraft’s nightmare world into closer contact with the dark and dangerous realities of life in the Jazz Age for African Americans is a brilliant concept, and Tom is an intriguing character to bring that world to life.

a-taste-of-honey-cover

Sometimes a really good book is a little more difficult to read than an average book. Kai Ashante Wilson’s Nebula nominee, A Taste of Honey, has a somewhat nonlinear structure that might be a little off-putting at first, and the world in which the story takes place is more based on Islam and Africa than on Christianity and Europe, not to mention the convoluted gender norms which are not like those of most fantasy books.  However, if you can look past these details, you’re in for a fantastic love story between two characters who are attracted to each other immediately and then have to fight their way to each other over obstacles of gods and intrigues, magic and science.  If you read his earlier work, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, you’ll be interested to take another trip in that world (albeit in a different period) and spend some time with his intriguing characters.

 

HISTORY UNFOLDING AT THE FIELD

and after the fire

A thread of music — a hitherto undiscovered cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach — winds through the three stories interlocked in And After the Fire, by Lauren Belfer.  It first comes into the possession of Sara Itzig Levy in 1796, a gift from her music tutor, who happens to be the son of the great J.S. Bach himself.  When she discovers how anti-semitic the cantata is, though, she, a Jewish woman, is horrified.  Much later, in 1945, an American soldier takes an old music manuscript from a deserted mansion, and kills a young woman who’s living there, and later still, in 2010, Susanna Kessler, niece of the American soldier, traumatized by an act of violence that shattered her world, inherits the manuscript and begins to search into its provenance, with the hope that she can make things right again.  The more she learns about Sara and how that piece of music affected her and her family, the more she comes to see how her life and Sara’s are intertwined.  

book of harlan

A different kind of World War II experience is related in The Book of Harlan, by Bernice L. McFadden. The main characters, Harlan and his best friend Lizard, are African American musicians living in Harlem just before WWII.  Like many others in their position in that time, Harlan and Lizard are lured to Paris, to perform in a hot cafe in the Montmartre district, where their music is appreciated and they are likely to be treated better than in the segregated United States. Unfortunately for the two musicians, when Paris falls to the Nazis, the two of them are sent to the notorious concentration camp at Buchenwald, an experience that changes Harlan’s life forever after.

a fine imitation

Going back in time a little bit to the 1920’s in New York City, A Fine Imitation by Amber Brock presents us with Vera Bellington, a woman who seems to have everything worth having: breeding, money, marriage to a man in the right social circle, and a penthouse on Park Avenue.  Her life behind the shining surface, however, is lacking: her social connections are empty and her apartment too often is empty of anyone but herself as well.  When a charming French artist moves into the building to paint a mural, Vera is intrigued and curious but also suspicious.  She has some secrets of her own, from her days in Vassar College, when she became involved with a charming, exciting friend named Bea, who happened to be an art forger, and who nearly destroyed Vera’s future. Drawn into the secrets of the artist, Vera is forced to face her own past, and different possibilities of her future.

the risen

If you are, for any reason, looking for a historical novel set before 1900 (if, for instance, you’re doing the 2016 Reading Challenge), why not go farther back in time and read The Risen by David Anthony Durham, which takes us back to the days of the Roman Republic and the slave uprising led by the charismatic Spartacus, which nearly brought down the Republic and brought its legendary legions to the brink of unprecedented defeat.  The outlines of the story are well known, being the basis for a classic film and a more recent television series, but Durham brings the more familiar scenario to vivid life, making us feel the amazing rise of the rebels and their heartbreaking defeat.