Historical Crime Books – 2 Reviews

The Body in the Garden by Katharine Schellman

Available as book or ebook.

Link to Catalogue record for The Body in the Garden

Setting

Era: Georgian
Country: England
Year: 1812

London 1815. Though newly widowed Lily Adler is returning to a society that frowns on independent women, she is determined to create a meaningful life for herself. At a ball thrown by her oldest friend, Lady Walter, she expects the scandal, gossip, and secrets. What she doesn’t expect is the dead body in Lady Walter’s garden. Lily overheard the man just minutes before he was shot: young, desperate, and attempting blackmail. But she’s willing to leave the matter to the local constables, until Lord Walter bribes the investigating magistrate to drop the case. Aided by a roguish navy captain and a mysterious heiress from the West Indies, Lily sets out to discover whether her friend’s husband is mixed up in blackmail and murder. The unlikely team tries to conceal their investigation behind the whirl of London’s social season, but the dead man knew secrets about people with power. Secrets that they would kill to keep hidden. Now, Lily will have to uncover the truth, before she becomes the murderer’s next target.

Review

Lily Adler (and I have to believe that name was carefully chosen) is recently widowed – and while not in mourning is certainly still recovering from the loss of her husband. She moves to London on the urging of her in-laws. Where is has a good friend – Lady Walter, who is an interesting character I look forward to seeing in future books.

At Lady Walter’s party a man is shot.

The Bow Street Runners – one of the early police forces, are on the case but they are not the bobbies we know today and they can be bought to look the other way or to investigate more quickly.

Lily is unable to let the man’s death go unsolved and as she was almost a witness she is the perfect person to investigate.

In addition is the man’s old friend from the West Indies – Ofelia, and one of Lily’s husband’s childhood friends, a naval captain – Jack get drawn into the mystery as well. There is also the assigned Bow Street man, the group of servants in Lily’s employ and various other characters throughout the story. Both Jack and Ofelia are mixed-race, something that would certainly have been pretty common in England at the time but not something we always see in literature from this time and place.

I think this book falls nicely into the cozy mystery genre and while violent things happen the story is really driven by Lily and the other characters. The ending is satisfying and I bounced around a little in who I thought might have been involved until we came to the inevitable confrontation. I really enjoyed every character and the book ended with an obvious nod to the intended series to follow which I will definitely keep an eye out for so the library can add it to our collection and I can read it.

Many novels set in this time that I read are romances but there really isn’t any romance in this. The author has given us two male characters who may be intended to be romantic possibilities, but this book is firmly focussed on Lily solving a crime, the men around her helping only as she (or sometimes society) needs and then moving on.

Having Lily be a widow is an important part of the story as she is allowed much more freedom than would be afforded any unmarried woman, therefore she has her own household, she can go out with a chaperone, and this plays a big part in her ability to solve the crime. In addition, factors around women’s station/reputation/social limitations are explored in the book and do play a part in how things unfold. Factors around race and ethnicity are also discussed in a way that allows the reader to understand a little more about the social mores at play in a foreign time.

I have already recommended this book to two colleagues so hopefully they will enjoy it as well.

The Forest of Stolen Girls by Jane Hur

Available as book or eaudiobook.

Link to Catalogue record for The Forest of Stolen Girls

Setting

Era: Joseon dynasty
Country: Joseon (Korea)
Year: 1426

1426, Joseon (Korea). Hwani’s family has never been the same since she and her younger sister went missing and were later found unconscious in the forest near a gruesome crime scene.

Years later, Detective Min—Hwani’s father—learns that thirteen girls have recently disappeared from the same forest that nearly stole his daughters. He travels to their hometown on the island of Jeju to investigate… only to vanish as well. Determined to find her father and solve the case that tore their family apart, Hwani returns home to pick up the trail. As she digs into the secrets of the small village—and collides with her now estranged sister, Maewol—Hwani comes to realize that the answer could lie within her own buried memories of what happened in the forest all those years ago.

Review

I listened to the audiobook of this story and it was excellent to become submerged into a book from a place and time I haven’t read about or been to. The audiobook definitely helped here as the narrator pronounced everything correctly, and for me that added to the experience of the book.

I have never been to Korea and needed to do a little internet searching to learn a little more about the Joseon era; this mostly accompanied ideas that I wasn’t familiar with or wanting to know where Jeju is located.

Jane Hur has done an amazing job with this story; the characters are interesting, the mystery is compelling but the real heart of the book is the relationship between the two main characters: Hwani and Maewol. Both of these characters are teens but in a time when teenage girls were preparing entirely to finding a man to marry. Neither Hwani or Maewol want that even if they might think it’s what they should do and while Maewol still lives on Jeju, Hwani must travel from the peninsula back to her birthplace to solve her father’s disappearance. To do so, she dressed as a male because not to do so would be dangerous for a number of reasons. Hwani is only able to follow through on her mission to find out what happened through the compliance of men – especially those in power. Interestingly, through the story we find out that this was something that worsened during the Ming dynasty in China and that not all of Korea prescribed to the same beliefs where women were concerned.

The mystery of this book is tied up in the systems and practices that were in place in Joseon-era Korea and its relationship to Ming-era China so there is a lot to learn and unravel as the story progresses. As a result, the mystery in this book is even harder to unravel as I needed to learn about Joseon as well. I think this also adds to the intricacy of the mystery at least for me…I was convinced I knew who it was based on what I understood of the customs only to be wrong (more than once). To be completely honest, I’m always wrong at least once – I never want to read a book where I pick the killer too early/at all.

I can thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who wants a good mystery and characters.

Interesting Fact – I had no idea that Confucianism was a major factor in female subjugation in China until I read this book. I mostly knew some facts and have a magnet where Confucius says he didn’t say all that stuff. There is just a little passage in this book that hints at Confucius’s role but it was enough to make me go searching for more information. I love books that make me learn.

Lastly, look at that cover – it’s stunning.

In both of these books, the female protagonist is working against both the assumption that she cannot solve the case (because she’s a woman, because she’s not the police, because she’s working against the decided order of how things should happen) and the patriarchal belief of the time and place in which she is living.

Where Lily is a widow and therefore has some autonomy, Hwani is barely able to leave the house on the peninsula though she is afforded more freedom on Jeju. In both cases, not being the police or the authority figure helps solve the case because both are told things they would not be if they were ‘the man’ in both meanings of the phrase.

I know women can do anything. But, there is still something so satisfying about watching women succeed where they are expected to fail. For me, this is more enjoyable when the story happens in the past because I can forgive the men for being misogynists because ‘it was a different time’ – when it’s a present story they are just…bad and I start off disliking them so them coming around to realising how wonderful women are comes with a sense of ‘about time’ and I never stop disliking them.

Having read both books, it’s very interesting to see how many similarities there are between the stories even though they are 400 years and 9,222km apart.

Both books are part of the Newmarket – Thrillers and Crime collection.