Category Archives: Mystery March

YotH: The Ninth Daughter

The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton. Berkley Trade, 2009.

This is my second March entry in the 2010 reading challenge Year of the Historical.

In 1773 Boston, Abigail Adams goes to visit Mrs. Rebecca Malvern and instead discovers the corpse of a woman face down on the floor. At first Abigail fears it is her friend but she soon realizes that the body belongs to a stranger. Her relief is short-lived however because Rebecca Malvern has disappeared.

Aware of Rebecca’s ties to the Sons of Liberty, an underground organization of patriots, Abigail calls Samuel Adams to clear away any incriminating evidence before the British are aware of the crime. But Samuel is distressed to find that Rebecca is not the only one to disappear – gone too are a book of ciphers which contains the pen names used by the Sons of Liberty to submit articles and challenge British authority. Set during the tension between the British and the Sons of Liberty that will culminate in the Boston Tea Party, the situation grows worse when John Adams is suspected of the murder. It is up to Abigail to find her friend Rebecca and solve a murder in order to clear her husband’s name.

Although The Ninth Daughter focuses mainly on Abigail, many other historical figures play minor roles. Abigail meets with noted Sons of Liberty Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere, and the rest of the Adams family (husband John, daughter Nabby, and son Johnny) are also included in the novel.

While it is well-known that Abigail Adams addressed her correspondence with her husband to “My Dearest Friend”, the pen names she used, and that Hamilton uses within the story, were new to me. Historically, John and Abigail began corresponding during their courtship and continued to write letters back and forth throughout their marriage when separated by distance. Abigail was just seventeen and John twenty-six when they began writing to one another, adopting pen names as was the custom. While John called himself Lysander, after the Spartan war hero, Abigail was named Diana, for the Roman goddess of the moon. She addressed her letters then as she famously would for the rest of her life to “My Dearest Friend.” After they married and had begun a family, Abigail changed her pen name to Portia, wife of the Roman politician Brutus.

What Barbara Hamilton does so well is to recreate the atmosphere of the times. She not only includes period details like the work being done, but also offers descriptions of the sounds and smells of 1770’s Boston so that the reader feels a part of the era. The tension between the British and the Sons of Liberty can be felt throughout the novel and Hamilton does a great job of building up to what will be known as Boston Tea Party.

When it comes to historical sleuths Abigail Adams is an inspired choice. Feisty, opinionated, and smart, she makes a great protagonist and, just as importantly, Hamilton writes her well. Abigail’s thoughts and words reminded me of the passionate woman portrayed so wonderfully by Laura Linney in the HBO miniseries John Adams, and as I read I could hear Linney’s Abigail in my head speak each line. Hamilton also does well to include Abigail’s social and political thoughts on the rights of women and slaves in a subtle but noticeable way.

The mystery itself was interesting and enough clues were given that the reader can take on the amateur sleuth role alongside Abigail. This is the first of a planned series and I look forward to reading more Abigail Adams mysteries in the future.

Verdict: Atmospheric with an intelligent and realistic historical protagonist. Well worth a read.


Leave a comment

Filed under American History, Mystery March

Sunday Spotlight: Crime Thru Time

I’ve been falling behind on ‘Mystery March’, but if you’d like to sneak in a last mystery before the end of the month I suggest a visit to Crime Thru Time. Established as a discussion list in 1999, this independent historical mystery novel website has since grown to include “information about upcoming releases, series/author book lists, timelines, and links of interest.” This fabulous resource for the mystery reader even includes a subsection for young adult historical mysteries.

Of course the definition of ‘historical mystery’ depends on who you ask, so Crime Thru Time has a Definitions page to explain what is and is not a historical mystery. Even if you understand the distinction, the Definitions page is worth a read for the interesting discussion it raises on period as character.

Like the wonderful, which I mentioned in a previous Sunday Spotlight, Crime Thru Time provides a listing of historical novels by era beginning with the ancient world and continuing into the 20th century. Entries are alphabetical by the last name of the author and also note the protagonist if the author has written a series of mysteries featuring one character, such as George Herman’s Leonardo Da Vinci mysteries. Clicking on an author name brings you to a description of the historical or fictional protagonist, the geographical location and time period in which the novel is set, and a list of published mysteries with their respective dates of publication.

With more than 700 members, Crime Thru Time has clearly not abandoned its discussion list origins. The list can be subscribed to by e-mail and a voluntary group read is held each month. The description reads:

“On our discussion list we talk about history, culture, authors and mysteries. We often share information found on the net about the historical periods written in the novels. We are an ever growing list made up of both authors and readers. We welcome historical readers and writers of all kinds.”

Although I’m not a member of Crime Thru Time, I do appreciate the time and effort that has gone into compiling such a wonderful list of historical mysteries. ‘Mystery March’ has opened my eyes to this growing subgenre of fiction and I look forward to finding future reads using Crime Thru Time.

Crime Thru Time can be visited here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Mystery March, Sunday Spotlight

Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance

Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance by Gyles Brandreth. Touchstone, 2007.

This is my first novel for the 2010 Ireland Reading Challenge.

Narrated by Robert Sherard, Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance is the first of a planned nine book series of mysteries featuring the witty writer as an amateur sleuth. The novel begins in 1889 with Oscar introducing Sherard to his new friend Arthur Conan Doyle, whose A Study in Scarlet is causing a sensation. When Oscar Wilde finds the naked body of his sixteen-year-old friend Billy Wood, an artist’s model, he is inspired by the fictional Sherlock Holmes to take on the case himself. Yet before he can investigate the murder, he must prove that there has been one. When Oscar returns to the crime scene the next day he finds that the body has been removed and the room cleaned, with a single spot of blood the only sign that any foul play has occurred. Not prepared to leave the case solely in the hands of Scotland Yard, Oscar uses deductive reasoning and observation to investigate the case himself. Robert Sherard, an aspiring poet and journalist in the middle of a messy divorce, serves as the Watson to Oscar Wilde’s Holmes.

Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance offers not one historical figure but three. Surprisingly, Wilde and Conan Doyle did actually know one another. Both were invited for dinner by an American literary publication called Lippincott’s Magazine, which was searching for talent. The dinner resulted in commissions for both men; a further Sherlock Holmes story from Conan Doyle (The Sign of Four), and a novel from Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray). In his autobiography Memories and Adventures Conan Doyle wrote that he and Wilde became friendly although it was a distant relationship that grew more distant as Wilde’s reputation became questionable.

Narrator Robert Sherard is also a historical figure. As noted in the novel, he was the great grandson of the poet William Wordsworth and a loyal friend of Oscar’s. He wrote some of the earliest biographies of Wilde, including The Story of an Unhappy Friendship (1902), The Life of Oscar Wilde (1906), and The Real Oscar Wilde (1917). As a historical biographer of Wilde he is the obvious choice for a Watson who can record his friend’s cases.

Part of what makes this story so enjoyable is the author’s use of Wilde’s trademark wit. In a Q&A at the back of the novel Brandreth explains that Oscar did actually try out lines on his friends and if he liked them would go on to use them in his works. Some remarks are instantly recognisable as lines Wilde actually used, such as “work is the curse of the drinking classes.” Brandreth also works in details such as the death of Oscar’s sister Isola in childhood and his tradition of dressing in mourning on his birthdays. In explanation Oscar once said, “this happens to be my birthday, and I am mourning, as I shall henceforth do on each of my anniversaries, the flight of one year into nothingness, the growing blight upon my summer.” Although Wilde was from an Anglo-Irish Protestant family, he had a life-long interest in Catholicism which culminated in a deathbed conversion. This interest is shown in the novel through his knowledge of hagiology.

I approached this novel hesitantly because the task of crafting original dialogue for one of the wittiest men who ever lived seemed nearly impossible to complete. How could any author hope to capture this extraordinary author and turn him into a sleuth? Rarely have I been so glad to be proven wrong. Brandreth so effectively shapes dialogue for Wilde that the reader can’t tell what lines the dramatist actually said and which have been invented for him. Wilde’s friendship with Conan Doyle and admiration for the deductive detective give him the perfect motivation to take on the role of sleuth and the flawed but loyal Sherard is an effective narrator.

I must confess that while I love mysteries, I don’t have the mind either to write or solve them. As a child reading the “Clue” series I often flipped straight to the answer instead of trying to solve the case, but in Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance even I could figure out some of the answers. Plot isn’t the number one reason to read this book though, that slot belongs to the charming and engaging Oscar Wilde. I thoroughly enjoyed his Holmesian deductive style and his easy wit.

Overall this is a fun romp through Victorian England that promises to be the beginning of a great series. There are two others currently published of a planned nine novels and I look forward to diving into the next mystery (which features Dracula novelist Bram Stoker and the introduction of Lord Alfred Douglas) and to spending more time with Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde.

Verdict: The title is a groaner but Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance is absolutely worth reading.


Filed under Ireland Reading Challenge, Irish History, Mystery March