Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Real People Make the Best Book Detectives

Imaging the private lives of historical figures is good fun. No matter how detailed the record of someone’s life is, there’s still room to pretend. Turning real-life royals, artists, and especially authors into book detectives seems to be a particularly favorite pastime of mystery writers. In addition to their busy fact-based lives and the demands of their time (which range from the 15th century to the 1930s), these characters now have a wealth of crimes and clues to sort through. If you can’t get enough of a favorite old-fashioned celeb, all you have to do is turn these pages and play Watson to their Sherlock.

Wicked Will: A Mystery of Young William Shakespeare by Bailey MacDonald, 2009, Aladdin Books (Historical Mystery/ Children’s Fiction) 

Thomas Pryne is a young actor traveling in a players’ troupe through jolly old 16th century England. Except that Tom is not what he appears—he is actually Viola, a girl in disguise under the protection of her actor-uncle. When they arrive in the little village of Stratford-upon-Avon, Viola’s secret is threatened by an all-too-observant, overly-inquisitive, and rather annoying boy—who just happens to be named Will Shakespeare. Will is quick to drag Viola into his schemes and adventures, but when the town curmudgeon is found murdered, Will quickly turns from mischief-making to investigating. Viola, though skeptical of Will’s skill, is more than willing to play along—because her dear uncle is accused of the crime, and the brash young playwright-to-be just might be their best chance at uncovering the truth. Author Bailey MacDonald sprinkles her clever mystery with snippets from familiar plays and stays true to the lively spirit of the real William Shakespeare (1564-1616). As irresistible as the boy Shakespeare super-sleuth is, MacDonald has no current plans for a sequel. She does, however, have plans for a young Benjamin Franklin, who stars in his own rousing mystery debut, The Secret of the Sealed Room.

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor: Being the First Jane Austen Mystery by Stephanie Barron, 2008, Bantam Books, originally published 1996 (Historical Mystery)

Author Stephanie Barron sets her fictionalized Jane Austen in the seemingly mild-mannered world of 18th century polite society, with manor houses, horse-drawn carriages, and formal visits galore—and then gives her heroine lots of adventures and mysteries to solve. In the series opener, Jane has just caused a scandal by accepting a marriage proposal only to change her mind the next morning. Seeking refuge from wagging tongues, Jane goes to visit an old friend, Isobel Payne, who has just married the wealthy—and much older—Earl of Scargrave. When the Earl suddenly dies and anonymous notes accuse his young bride of murder, Jane determines to stay on and help her dear friend through this dark hour. There’s a tangle of suspects and motives to unravel—greedy nephews, airhead aunts, scoundrels, and ne’er-do-wells—not to mention a dashing Lord with a decided interest in Jane the detective. Janeites will recognize names and characters from the author’s life and novels and will surely get a kick out of seeing the prim-and-proper Miss Austen (1775-1817) turn snoop. It will come as no surprise that with her reputed wit and critical eye, Jane makes a formidable detective indeed.

Jane Austen Mysteries by Stephanie Barron
1. Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor
2. Jane and the Man of Cloth
3. Jane and the Wandering Eye
4. Jane and the Genius of the Place
5. Jane and the Stillroom Maid
6. Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House
7. Jane and the Ghosts of Netley
8. Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy
9. Jane and the Barque of Frailty
10. Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron

The Tale of Hill Top Farm: The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Book 1 by Susan Wittig Albert, 2004, Berkley Prime Crime (Historical Mystery)

The village of Near Sawrey is like many English villages—seemingly sleepy, but ready to jump to life at the slightest hint of scandal. When a resident dies unexpectedly, the rumor mill kicks into high gear. Into this frenzy of speculation comes Miss Beatrix Potter. It’s 1905, and the author is beginning to make a name for herself with her tales of Peter Rabbit and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. But she’s chafing under the protection of her snobbish parents and mourning the death of her fiancé. Seeking solace, Beatrix arrives in Near Sawrey (pet rabbits in tow) as the new owner of Hill Top Farm. Locals add her to their mix of gossip but Beatrix fits in quickly, especially when her quick eye and growing self confidence land her smack in the middle of a puzzle involving a trio of important missing items. It’s a cozy little mystery made even sweeter by the addition of village animals, who have as much to say as their human counterparts do. Author Susan Wittig Albert includes a biography that is sure to make readers as keen to explore the real life of Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) as they will be to solve mysteries with her.

1. The Tale of Hill Top Farm
2. The Tale of Holly How
3. The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood
4. The Tale of Hawthorn House
5. The Tale of Briar Bank
6. The Tale of Applebeck Orchard
7. The Tale of Oat Cake Crag

An Expert in Murder: A New Mystery Featuring Josephine Tey, Book 1 by Nicola Upson, 2008, Harper Books (Historical Mystery)

Josephine Tey, acclaimed mystery writer on par with the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, is on her way to London to celebrate the triumphant run of her play, Richard of Bordeaux. On the train she meets an avid fan, a young haberdasher named Elspeth whose enthusiasm and optimism make an impression on Josephine despite their brief acquaintance. So when Josephine learns that Elspeth was murdered shortly after they parted company, the shock hits hard. Detective Inspector Archie Penrose is a friend of Josephine’s, and the author of fictional mysteries is swiftly drawn deep into the dangers of a true crime that strikes far too close to home. Author Nicola Upson conveys the atmosphere of 1930s England to a tee. The mystery, too, is smart and genuine—Upson even went so far as to interview Richard of Bordeaux’s real-life players, though their names have been changed for the book. The real Josephine Tey (a pseudonym for Elizabeth MacKintosh, aka Gordon Daviot, 1896-1952) was one of the Queens of Crime back in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and mystery lovers unfamiliar with her novels will be flocking to the shelves for the likes of The Man in the Queue (1929) and The Daughter of Time (1951).

Josephine Tey Mysteries by Nicola Upson
1. An Expert in Murder
2. Angel with Two Faces

Groucho Marx, Master Detective, Book 1 by Ron Goulart, 1998, St. Martin’s Press (Historical Mystery/ Humor)

Hollywood, 1937. Groucho Marx (1890-1977), the cigar-smoking, wise-cracking, fake-mustache-wearing brother of Harpo, Chico, Gummo, and Zeppo, is about to star in a farcical radio show called Groucho Marx, Master Detective. It’s supposed to be an ironic title, but Groucho does in fact have quite the nose for mystery. When young starlet Peg McMorrow is reported to have killed herself, the comedian’s interest is immediately piqued. He didn’t know Peg well or for long, but he knew her well enough to rule out suicide. And sure enough, Peg’s death is being covered up quick—no news story, no police report, no funeral. Groucho enlists crime-beat-reporter-turned-script-writer Frank Denby to assist in his amateur investigation. Frank’s just fallen head-over-heels for a pretty young thing of his own, but like Groucho, his sense of right demands that justice prevail. Nothing, however, not murdered actresses nor gun-toting assassins nor corrupt policemen, can drown Groucho’s rapid-fire wit and comedic word play. Familiar with the Marx Brothers or not, author Ron Goulart’s cunning mystery series is sure to make readers chuckle and puzzle as they follow Groucho through the behind-the-scenes intrigues, passions, and crimes of glamorous old-world Hollywood.

Groucho Marx Mysteries by Ron Goulart
1. Groucho Marx, Master Detective
2. Groucho Marx, Private Eye
3. Elementary, My Dear Groucho
4. Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders
5. Groucho Marx, Secret Agent
6. Groucho Marx, King of the Jungle

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