Friday, September 27, 2013

Book review: The Paris Architect, by Charles Belfoure

Belfoure’s suspenseful and commercially oriented debut, set in 1942 Paris, follows a self-centered, ambitious man as he develops a moral conscience.

When a rich businessman persuades architect Lucien Bernard to adapt an apartment to create a hiding place for a wealthy Jew, he takes it as a challenge. Despite the dangers, Lucien likes fooling the occupying Germans, the money is excellent, and it comes with a lucrative opportunity to design a new factory for the Reich.

Tensions rise as he gets drawn deeply into the plans of both the occupiers and the Resistance. After one careless mistake results in tragedy, however, he begins reevaluating his life.

The plot doesn’t skimp on evoking the constant fear the Parisians face or the brutality the Jews encounter. Food is scarce, black market goods are costly, and neighbors rat one another out to save their own necks.

With his unadorned, zippy style and broad-brush characters, Belfoure writes like an up-and-coming Ken Follett but with more sex and violence and stronger language. There’s plenty of detail to interest architecture buffs, too.

The Paris Architect is out on October 8th from Sourcebooks Landmark (hb, $25.99, 384pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's July issue.

Other things of note:

- The author is an architect specializing in historic preservation, so he knows whereof he speaks when he includes all the details on building design and construction in the book.  It's all smoothly incorporated within the story and not overdone.

- I had a feeling when I made the Ken Follett comparison that I'd be seeing that bit quoted elsewhere later on... and I was rightThe Paris Architect isn't a doorstopping epic like Follett's newest books, but Belfoure's page-turning style is very similar (though note the added info above; there are some violent scenes, for example, that squeamish readers may want to skim).

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Kate Emerson's Royal Inheritance, a refreshingly honest novel of an uncommon Tudor woman's life

While other novels on flashier 16th-century subjects may get more exposure and critical attention, Kate Emerson continues to produce reliably engrossing novels about lesser-known women of Tudor England.

I was impressed by so many aspects of Royal Inheritance: the clear and easily readable style, how Emerson evokes her heroine's changing character through her dual-time structure, the detailed imagery of many aspects of London life, and the fact that it hasn't been molded to a formula.

The plot follows Ethelreda Malte, nicknamed Audrey, from childhood through her twenties.  In 1556, suffering from a lingering summer fever and believing she has little time left, Audrey decides she must tell her eight-year-old daughter, Hester, the story of her life and her true relationship with England's late king.  Her narrative begins in 1532, when she's nearly four.

Young Audrey has always had red-gold hair of an unusual hue, which causes rumors to spread. The child of a London laundress, she grows up knowing she's a "merry-begot," but is her real father the royal tailor who takes her in, John Malte, or someone of much higher station?

The circumstances for her upbringing are unusual for a tailor's daughter: music and dancing lessons, her own tiring woman, and frequent visits to the court to see King Henry, who gives her a "glove-beagle," a dearly loved pet she calls Pocket and carries with her everywhere.  And then there are the king's large grants of land to her father.  Her Malte siblings, especially the eldest, Bridget, are jealous and don't understand why Audrey gets special treatment.  

The story-within-a-story format enables readers to see Audrey's growth from a curious and vibrant girl to a pensive woman.  Audrey feels obliged to be up front about her background but debates how to do so without tarnishing the image of Hester's father, Jack Harington, her former music tutor.  For me, the realistic depiction of Audrey's not-quite love story was one of the book's great strengths.

Readers looking for Tudor court intrigue certainly have a smorgasbord of options, and if that's what you go for, the political backdrop here is finely drawn, in particular the ongoing rivalry between the Howards and Seymours and the lead-up to Wyatt's Rebellion.  Even more interesting for me, though, were the details of merchant life and country traditions.

The writing has a searching quality throughout as Audrey pursues the mystery of her birth, but in so doing, she uncovers even more questions. She gets drawn into exalted intellectual circles and is sought in marriage by an undesirable man, but she's always left to wonder why others seek out her company.  

In all I found Royal Inheritance a refreshingly honest and quietly daring novel, one I can highly recommend even to those who are experiencing Tudor overload.

Royal Inheritance was published by Gallery on September 24th ($16.00, pb, 368pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Bristol School: a guest post by Lucienne Boyce

What can works of art tell us about how people in a particular era dressed, acted, lived?  Lucienne Boyce, author of To the Fair Land, a mystery-thriller set in the 18th century, tells us how art served as her inspiration and helped her color in many details not easily found elsewhere.  In addition to being a talented writer, Lucienne is a longtime Historical Novel Society member and an organizer of the HNS Bristol and South West Chapter, who have many fun autumn activities planned (would that I lived closer!).  Hope you'll enjoy her post... and there's a giveaway of her novel at the very end, too.


The Bristol School
Lucienne Boyce

Samuel Johnson wrote, “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”

Obviously Johnson didn’t have the internet, which is where a lot of writers do their research and reading these days – though it’s not a good idea to be too trusting about what you find out there. In her introduction to The Epicure’s Almanack, Janet Ing Freeman comments on the way the internet is all too often a vehicle for spreading false information, “with website after website placing Samuel Johnson beside the fire in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and Dick Turpin’s horse in the stables on the Spaniards Inn on Hampstead Heath.”

Of course, there are many trustworthy sites. For example, in my line of work, which is the eighteenth century, the Old Bailey Proceedings On Line is a fantastic resource. Even so, I think it’s a shame to rely too much on the internet. For one thing, if you spend all your time sitting at your desk peering at a screen, you’re not having as much fun as you could be. When I’m researching I like to get out and about to look at historic buildings, battlefields and museums. These are obvious resources if you’re researching history, but there’s another which I value as much as any of these: the art gallery.

For me, an afternoon spent in a gallery looking at eighteenth-century art is not only enjoyable (especially if there’s a good café!), it’s also informative. Portraits tell me how people dressed or wore their hair, and the best of them convey something of character too. I find some of Thomas Lawrence’s work so powerful that it can feel as if the subject is standing in the room with me. Land and city scapes tell me what places used to look like. Interiors tell me how rooms were furnished – there’s a wealth of detail in Hogarth’s conversation pieces such as The Strode Family (1738).

It’s not that I think paintings or drawings are necessarily literal representations of reality. Like a piece of writing, they have their own perspective, they reflect the artist’s point of view and measure of what is and isn’t worthy of note. Artists often change things in order to enhance a composition – move a tree or divert a stream, for example. But even cartoons and satirical prints, where everything is wildly exaggerated, supply a wealth of detail. While using the objects surrounding the Prince Regent to reinforce his satire, James Gillray’s A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion shows all sorts of detail: table setting, chamber pot, lighting, smoking chimneys.

But paintings do more than supply me with bits of information. They inspire me to write. That may seem odd. After all, aren’t artists and writers doing very different things? Perhaps not. One reason I find the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti so fascinating is the way he combined his painting and poetry, using his writing to comment on and expand his paintings. For The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, two sonnets he wrote to accompany his painting were attached to the frame when it was exhibited.

The idea that visual art can inspire written work is not new. The National Gallery has been promoting the use of paintings as stimuli for creative writing since they launched their Articulate Project in 2003 . Many English literature and creative writing teachers incorporate looking at a painting and writing about it into their lessons. This is something I don’t think writers need to leave behind when they leave school!

When I was writing To The Fair Land I looked at paintings by marine artist Nicholas Pocock of Bristol, William Hodges who travelled with Captain Cook, portraitist Thomas Lawrence and many others. One of the paintings I saw caught my imagination so much I wrote about it in To The Fair Land.

The painting was Broad Quay, Bristol, British School, c 1760 Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

And this is how it crept into my writing.

     Ben walked along the Quay, ignoring the small dog yapping at his heels. In the middle of the busy thoroughfare two children played seesaw on a plank of wood dangerously balanced across a barrel. Tall masts rose above Ben’s head, birds wheeled in the blue sky and ropes flapped against slimy steps. They looked like nothing now, those sailless ships with their battered paintwork, drooping in the mud of Bristol harbour. But any one of them could carry him a hundred miles, a thousand miles, thousands of miles – to Madeira, the Canary Islands, the Cape of Good Hope, India, China, Batavia... to a fair land.

The children on the see saw, the dog, the masts are all in that painting, and that’s how I managed to “see” them.

It’s fortunate for me that so much of the art of the eighteenth century has survived, but even for earlier eras there may well be resources that repay close study. Trajan’s column, for example, is a mine of information about the first century Roman Army (you don’t need to go to Paris to see it – there’s a cast of it in the Victoria and Albert Museum). Look closely at friezes, frescoes and funerary monuments and you might be surprised at how much you can glean from them. The closer we come to our own era, the more visual material is available: photographs, postcards and film (with sound too!). I’d caution against thinking these are any more accurate than paintings by Hogarth or Lawrence, though. The cliché the camera doesn’t lie is a lie!

Samuel Johnson was right. The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading, and these days a lot of our reading is done at our computers. In fact, as the links I’ve included in this article show, you can also look at paintings on your screen as well. There’s no denying that this is useful, especially for paintings in galleries you can’t get to. Of particular value here is the Your Paintings database which shows the entire UK collection of oil paintings on line.

But it doesn’t matter how good an image is, there’s nothing like seeing the real thing, and Your Paintings also tells you where you can go to see the paintings it lists. I’m always very excited when I first set eyes on a work I only know from the internet or books. There it is in its true colours, with all its detail, proportions and texture restored. And when I’ve finished studying it and jotted down a few notes, there’s always the café afterwards…


This marks the first stop on the To the Fair Land tour; click to see the rest of the schedule.

About the book:  To the Fair Land is a thrilling eighteenth-century mystery about the search for a missing author, a map of a land that should not exist and a vicious killer.

In 1789 struggling writer Ben Dearlove rescues a woman from a furious Covent Garden mob. The woman is ill and in her delirium cries out the name “Miranda”. Weeks later an anonymous novel about the voyage of the Miranda to the fabled Great Southern Continent causes a sensation. Ben decides to find the author everyone is talking about. He is sure the woman can help him – but she has disappeared.

It is soon clear that Ben is involved in something more dangerous than the search for a reclusive writer. Who is the woman and what is she running from? Who is following Ben? And what is the Admiralty trying to hide? Before he can discover the shocking truth Ben has to get out of prison, catch a thief, and bring a murderer to justice.

Lucienne Boyce was brought up in the Midlands and now lives in Bristol with her husband and hundreds of books. With its exciting maritime heritage, Bristol is the setting for many of her stories. When she is not writing she is happiest walking around the historic city and the surrounding countryside gathering ideas and inspiration. Find out more at To the Fair Land was published by SilverWood Books (UK) in paperback and ebook in 2012.

Thanks to the author, we have one copy of To the Fair Land up for grabs to a lucky winner.  Fill out the form below for a chance to win. Deadline for entries is Monday 9/30.

This giveaway is now closed.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Bits and pieces

A collection of news items from the historical fiction world and elsewhere.

The planning team for the Historical Novel Society's North American conferences is looking for board members and committee volunteers to work on their next event, to take place in June 2015 (location TBA).  I co-founded the conference, along with author Ann Chamberlin, and worked on four successive events as registration coordinator and treasurer (2005-2011).  It was a rewarding and informative experience, if occasionally a hectic one as the conference dates approached!  The board of directors is volunteer-based and needs new helpers and ideas.  If you'd like to get more involved in the historical fiction community, working directly with authors and others in the publishing field, this is a great way to do so.  Interested?  Want more information?  See their website for details.

For Sarah Waters fans, The Bookseller announced last week that she'll have a new novel out in autumn 2014: "Set in a tense London in 1922, in the wake of the First World War, with disillusioned ex-servicemen, and the out-of-work and hungry demanding change."

The HNS website has a new series of feature articles, written by Stephanie Renee Dos Santos, about the role that serendipity plays in the writing and publishing of historical fiction. Each of these articles features a different historical novelist who reveals an eerie coincidence or aspect of synchronicity that happened to him or her during the research or writing process.  New entries appear every Sunday and will continue over eight weeks in total.  So far the authors interviewed have been Maryanne O'Hara, Essie Fox, and Erika Mailman; Glen Craney is next.

From Variety: Roma Downey's Lightworkers Media has optioned Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers for a miniseries.

The Oxford University Press blog examines the six novels (including four historicals) on the Man Booker shortlist.

Finally, a giveaway opportunity.  I read Eugenia Price's Savannah Quartet in the 1980s, when they were first published.  They're classic historical sagas that bring to life the intertwining stories of three prominent families of antebellum Georgia from the early 19th century up through the Civil War.  These romantic "gentle reads" (no explicit sex or violence) introduce readers to the history, geography, and architecture of the quintessential Deep South city of Savannah while evoking the characters' lives, loves, struggles, and triumphs.  Here's a link to the series on Goodreads.

Turner Publishing has just reissued all four books with the classy cover designs above a big improvement over the ratty old paperbacks I own and since I enjoyed reading them so much way back when, I thought I'd share the following giveaway offered by the publisher.  Up for grabs is one set of all four books, to be given away to one US or Canadian reader.  Interested?  Please fill out the form below.  Deadline Friday, September 27th.  Good luck!

(Sorry, this giveaway has ended.)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Vanishing Vaudeville: A Guest Post by Mary Miley, author of The Impersonator

Mary Miley's The Impersonator (reviewed last week) has sparked my interest in all things vaudeville, and her essay on collecting rare memorabilia from the era does so even more.  I'm also looking forward to seeing some of the performers mentioned here in future books in the series.  Welcome, Mary!


Vanishing Vaudeville
Mary Miley

Consider for a moment how much Stuff you could find if you were collecting memorabilia relating to the theater, television, or movies. You’d discover an endless supply of books and magazines, posters and framed advertisements, and costumes and stage props, not to mention the actual movies and recordings to play at home. You could view Dorothy’s ruby slippers and Archie Bunker’s chair at the Smithsonian, and buy across old fan magazines and posters at every antiques mall in the country. But Stuff from vaudeville? Vaudeville has vanished.

Oh, all right, not completely. But hunting for vaudeville memorabilia is devilishly difficult because so little exists. And that is a mystery in itself.

For the past eight years, I’ve been on a mission to learn all I could about this uniquely American form of entertainment, and collecting relevant Stuff is an important part of that effort. Whenever I give a talk or teach a class, I bring Stuff with me to illustrate the era. (Show and Tell was my best subject in elementary school.) Things like antiques, recordings, images, ephemera—even edibles!—liven up the topic far more effectively than words or pictures.

Vaudeville is the setting for The Impersonator, the first in my Roaring Twenties mystery series that introduces Jessie, a struggling young performer who is persuaded to impersonate a missing heiress for a cut of the inheritance. “When people ask where I’m from,” she says, “I tell them vaudeville. It even sounds like a town.” Growing up in vaudeville meant Jessie moved every week to a new city, stayed in whatever cheap hotel would accept theater people, slept on trains, and ate stringy meat and boiled potatoes at boarding houses. Although vaudeville was family-style, variety-show entertainment, performers were still considered the social equivalent of prostitutes and crooks. Which, to be fair, some were. “Performers are toasted and admired as long as they are on stage,” Jessie says. “Off stage, we’re not respectable, like gypsies or immigrants.”

Creating an authentic setting for the series has been an adventure in itself. Primary materials are few and far between. I treasure my best source, a memoir titled Vaudeville by Joe Laurie, Jr., published in 1953. Joe reminisces about old vaudeville acts that he knew during his long career, some of which I’ve incorporated in my own books when their dates are right for 1924. The Kanazawa Japs, Baby Silvia, the Seven Little Foys, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and the Venetian Masqueraders all moved from Joe’s book to mine. One of my favorite acts is Cats and Rats, where trained rats performed acrobatic routines with cats. How on earth did they do that? “They stuff the cats and starve the rats,” says Jessie.

Sadly, most performers’ names and acts are lost to history. The only ones we know about today are those who later became famous in movies, radio, or television. A biography or autobiography about one of those performers usually gives me details about how that person started in vaudeville. Bob Hope, originally Leslie Hope when he played the Gus Sun circuit in the 1920s, becomes a minor character in one of my books, as do Jack Benny (then Benny Kubelsky), Mae West (Mary Jane West), Milton Berle (Milton Berlinger), Fred and Adele Astaire, and the Marx Brothers. If I can learn exactly where and when they were working and find some description of their acts, I can recruit them on Jessie’s behalf to help her solve the murder. I’ve tried hard to do this without sounding awkward—not always easy.

Almost no one alive today has seen a vaudeville show. What were they like? A selection of YouTube clips showing old acts gives us some idea. For a taste, see and . And here’s a charmer that inspired an act for a character who is a Little Person.

During the seventy years that vaudeville reigned supreme in American entertainment, millions of programs and posters were printed. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that so few survive—programs were trash to toss after the performance. But why are there not more examples of the posters and photographs that were tacked to the front of thousands of theaters across the country every week? I’ve combed eBay and local antiques shows for years and found one (one!) authentic poster (it was priced way out of my range) and a few programs (priced at $7 to $20) like the one below. I bring them with me to book signings and lectures for Show and Tell.

Click to enlarge and read!

Most of vaudeville’s glorious theaters are gone, casualties of urban renewal. Ephemera went in the wastebasket. I treasure what little I have and haven’t given up on finding more.


MARY MILEY is the winner of the 2012 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition. She worked at Colonial Williamsburg, taught American history at Virginia Commonwealth University for thirteen years, and has published extensively in history and travel. This is her first novel. Miley lives in Richmond, Virginia.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Impersonator by Mary Miley, a novel of vaudeville, deception, and mystery in the Roaring '20s

Although Mary Miley’s heroine may be a con artist, her fresh narrative voice and down-on-her-luck desperation invite you to understand the choices she makes and why. On the vaudeville circuit, Leah Randall’s youthful looks have helped her go far, but her newest gig stands to test her acting skills to the utmost.

When Oliver Beckett spots her on stage in Omaha in 1924, he’s less impressed by her routine than her eerie resemblance to his niece, Jessie Carr, a lumber heiress who disappeared nearly seven years ago, when she was 14. Jessie is set to inherit the Carr fortune when she turns 21, but now she’s nowhere to be found.

Oliver offers Leah the permanent role of Jessie under the condition that she’ll split the dough with him once she gets it. After she’s let go from her longtime role in a family act, she knows it’s a challenge she can’t refuse.

Leah is easy to root for, since she doesn’t have evil intentions. She’s just a young woman who has the talent and needs the money, and her story will make you forget where you are and lose yourself in the show. The part calls for improvisation, special training, and quick, intense study, with her greedy and unscrupulous “Uncle Oliver” feeding her many of the details she’ll need. To succeed, she must convince the trustees of Carr Industries that she’s really Jessie, then insinuate herself within Jessie’s family at the Carr estate of Cliff House, an enormous “summer cottage” along Oregon’s coast. And not everyone there is happy to welcome Jessie back.

The Impersonator, winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award for 2012, offers many mysteries in one, and they coil suspensefully together to form a complicated puzzle. Will Leah’s depiction be convincing enough? Why do dangerous accidents keep following her? What happened to the real Jessie, and will she resurface to put in her own claim?

To assuage her growing sense of guilt at deceiving her newfound relatives, Leah launches her own secret investigation into Jessie’s disappearance and stumbles into more than she bargained for.

Miley takes a world that has vanished into the shadows of nearly a century ago and pulls it back onto center stage. Her re-created atmosphere of Prohibition-era America hums with vibrant life: the decadent glamour of vaudeville, the crafty trade of smuggled hooch, and the racial tensions threatening to boil over in the culturally diverse Pacific Northwest. She also includes just enough period lingo to give a sense of the era without overdoing it. It’s a tightly woven performance, and a totally enjoyable one.

The Impersonator will be published on September 17th by Minotaur Books ($24.99, hb, 358pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.  Visit the author's website, her blog Mary Miley's Roaring '20s, and also her site on History Myths Debunked.  Tune in next Tuesday, also, when she'll be stopping by with a fun article about vaudeville memorabilia.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Aristotle and Accuracy in Historical Fiction: A guest post by David J. Cord

David J. Cord, author Dead Romans, is my guest today, and he's contributed a provocative essay about historical accuracy a subject of perpetual importance and the ways in which writers can choose to interpret their source material. For his discussion on the matter, he goes back to the classics.  Welcome, David!


Aristotle and Accuracy in Historical Fiction
David J. Cord

In the 2006 film Marie Antoinette, there is a scene of the young queen trying on shoes. Amidst all the footwear scattered across the floor is a pair of light blue Converse basketball shoes. The shoes were only one of many deliberate anachronisms put into the movie by Sofia Coppola. This loose adherence to historical accuracy annoyed many viewers and critics, but was it really all that bad?

One prominent authority might not think so, and he is a weighty authority indeed: Aristotle. Aristotle was one of the first thinkers to write about literary theory in his Poetics, and many of his ideas still form the backbone of drama today. He wrote about how to structure a plot, make the main character suffer, have a reversal of fortune and many other things that are integral parts of storytelling.

In Aristotle’s time, many of the plays dealt with characters and situations which were familiar to the audience. This was very similar to historical fiction today, where the reader knows the historical facts behind the story. Interestingly, Aristotle did not insist upon historical accuracy.

In Poetics, Aristotle says the difference between a historian and a writer of fiction (or poet) is “that one tells what happened and the other what might happen… poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts.”

This is because Aristotle says the primary job of a fiction writer is to arouse emotions and to create a representation of life and action. Her goal “is not to tell what actually happened but what could and would happen either probably or inevitably” according to the rules of the world in which the story is placed. Here is how I interpret Aristotle, using my book Dead Romans as an example.

One of the main characters of Dead Romans is Panthea, the mistress of the Roman Emperor Lucius Verus. She was a real person, but the information about her is limited. One source says she came from a poor family, another says she was very intelligent and beautiful, and a third claims she was uncommonly devoted to her paramour.

But I believe that it would make a better story if Panthea had not always been so devoted to her lover. I think it would be much more interesting if she was once habitually disloyal, in fact. Do we have any proof Panthea betrayed Lucius? No – in fact, we have proof that she probably didn’t, because Marcus Aurelius cites her loyalty in his Meditations. Yet to fit the rules of my story she is a frequent betrayer, and Marcus’ idea of her loyalty is eventually explained in the book. This was my way of prioritising the story but still remaining true to what we know of her based on our sources.

author David J. Cord
Many people (myself included, I admit) sometimes get angry when there is an inaccuracy in historical fiction. Sometimes we have a right to be upset, if the inaccuracy is because of carelessness. But sometimes the storyteller does this on purpose because her story is the priority. Hilary Mantel is a good enough writer to have won the Man Booker Prize twice, but still feels it necessary to justify herself if she tweaks the historical facts, like she did at the end of Bring Up the Bodies. If she hadn’t explained herself, the press would have been full of irate people talking about her “mistake.” Instead of insisting on accuracy reminiscent of peer-reviewed journals, maybe we should give the writer a bit more freedom and the benefit of the doubt to tell a story.

In the movie Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola did not try to accurately depict the life and times of the queen. If she had wanted to do so, it would have been a different movie. Instead she wanted the modern audience to understand the emotions of the character as a teenager, and to do that she used modern teenage images, like Converse sneakers. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even notice the shoes when I first saw the movie. I was so drawn to the story that I wasn’t paying attention to historical nuggets, and even if I had seen the shoes I probably wouldn’t have minded. I suspect if Aristotle was alive today, he wouldn’t have minded either.


David J. Cord is a writer living in Helsinki, Finland. Dead Romans was published by Stairway Press in September 2013 in trade paperback ($19.95). For more information, see the author’s website at

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Eric Brown's Murder By the Book, in which crime hits the literary scene of '50s London

Donald Langham now writes about crimes rather than solving them. A prolific mystery novelist in 1955 London, he’s happy with his sedate life, preferring to live vicariously through the exploits of his fictional detective, private eye Sam Brooke. But when his longtime agent Charles Elder approaches him about a “delicate matter” – Charles is being blackmailed with scandalous photos of himself and a male lover – Langham springs into action.

With the help of contacts from his former PI days and Charles’ attractive assistant, the razor-sharp Maria Dupré, Langham tries to find the culprit before the incriminating pictures become public. However, it soon becomes apparent this is no ordinary case of extortion.

This is a fun old-fashioned mystery set amid London’s bustling literary community. There are occasional references to the war, and the neighborhoods and environs of the city are vividly described, but otherwise the historical backdrop isn’t prominent. As the tension ratchets ever higher, Langham and Maria begin falling in love, and their sweet, un-angsty romance is a pleasure to follow. A good-hearted, portly man who appreciates the finer things in life, Charles is quite an entertaining character, although some phrases he uses are overdone. He calls Langham "my dear boy" over thirty times in all!

The best part involves just sitting back and watching all the literary types – agents, editors, successful authors, disgruntled hacks, and a grande dame novelist in the Agatha Christie mold – interact within the sometimes congenial, sometimes cutthroat publishing scene. Langham is also a freelance critic of some note, and after an old friend offers to meet him for a pint, Langham tells him, “You’ve saved me from a dull evening of reading for review.” This reviewer, fortunately, had no such worries with this book.

Murder By the Book, first volume of the Langham and Dupré mysteries, was published in July 2013 by Crème de la Crime, a mystery imprint of Severn House ($28.95/£19.99, hb, 224pp). This may be the first historical I've read with a book reviewer as protagonist!  This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review's August issue as an online exclusive.