Saturday, March 30, 2013

Good Mysteries for Keeping or Giving: 2 -- Sara J. Henry, Charles Todd

This weekend the snow is vanishing rapidly, quite a feat considering how long it's been in place on this northern ridge. Where the sunshine heats the ground, mud lingers -- because under it is a still-frozen boundary. But this too shall pass; no regrets about seeing the end of winter.

Still, I was glad it was snowing while I read Sara J. Henry's 2013 mystery, A COLD AND LONELY PLACE. Set in the Adirondacks in midwinter -- at the time of the Winter Carnival, when an ice palace is erected and athletic competions and merry parties enliven the area around Saranac Lake.

Here, freelance writer Troy Chance, reporting for the local paper, is on the scene when a body is found in the ice of the lake. It's a man she knows, and the quick conclusion is that he must have fallen through the ice when it was still fragile, and drowned in the muscle-numbing water just under the surface. That's a grim and gruesome way to die, and of course, it could have been an accident, perhaps with some malice setting it into motion.

Yet Troy keeps discovering puzzles about prep-school grad Troy Winslow, and his death becomes an increasing obsession for her. Fortunately, her editor at the paper gives her leeway to dig into the life story of this elegant young man. Not so good, though, is the tangle of relationships and attitudes that first drags one of her housemates into police attention, then opens up the social fractures in the town, and finally takes Troy herself into danger.

This is Henry's second mystery, a sequel to Learning to Swim. Although the emotions that enmesh Troy are less compelling than in the first book, they come across as realistic and deeply felt -- and position this unwilling but skillful sleuth for further adventures. I'll be reading more.

Another winter treat I gave to myself was the time to snuggle up around hot tea and buttered biscuits with the 2011 offering from "Charles Todd," A BITTER TRUTH. Todd, which is the pen name of a son-and-mother writing team, provides two engrossing series -- one set after World War I yet rooted in its disasters and pain, and the other, this series, set during the war and featuring battlefield nurse  Bess Crawford. A BITTER TRUTH is, I think, the best yet in this series (it's the third): The authors have escaped from the sometimes stilted feminine voice they started with, and Bess's reactions now are savvy, shrewd, and courageous. Yes, her life is shaped by being a woman at a time when even nursing could be seen as a betrayal of the role of the upper-class young woman. But her reactions to discovering a stranded and perhaps abused young woman huddled on the London doorstep of the house where Bess rents a room, and her determination in straightening out the woman's convoluted family drama tinged with wartime paranoia, are crisply courageous. Bess doesn't fumble or flinch; she probes, prods, and processes the information and actions around her. A top-notch sleuth, she is compelled to investigate by the same urge that takes her back to the battlefield: People need her insight, her skills, and her decisiveness.

The Todds endow the book with solid research and a multilayered, rich view of both the English social structure and the forces at play in the Great War. A great read, and worth keeping on the shelf for next winter as well.

No comments: