THE SOCIETY REVIEWS: Summer Fiction Sampling

With summer temperatures at sweltering heights and Covid cases spiking again, it's an excellent time to curl up with a cold glass of iced tea read. Below brief glimpse of some of the "nineteenish" novels we're reading this summer.

Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray turn the remarkable life of Belle da Costa Greene into splendid fiction in The Personal Librarian. Greene’s mother changed her surname and that of her children to Greene after her separation from her father, Richard Theodore Greener; from Belle’s teenage years forward, Belle, her mother and her siblings claimed Portuguese ancestry and passed as white in. Greene was in her late twenties when she began her forty-plus years working with the family of J.P. Morgan, serving as Morgan’s personal librarian before spending decades as the first executive director of the Morgan Library. Benedict and Murray capture Greene’s skill at acquiring world-class books and manuscripts for the library and the prominence the work brought her, but they also evoke the tension that comes from living with an explosive secret. The Personal Librarian does justice to Greene’s remarkable gifts as well as to an era in which her race alone was a disqualifying factor.

As a longtime lover of Philip Henry Delamotte’s photographs of Britain’s Crystal Palace, I was especially delighted to see that Jennifer Ashley’s latest Below Stairs mystery using that iconic structure as one of its settings. The Palace has been moved to its second location in Sydenham by the time the novel’s action begins in 1882, but still a spectacular edifice and a storehouse of miscellaneous wonders. As Death at the Crystal Palace opens, wealthy widow Lady Covington finds cook and crime solver Kat Holloway in the Egyptian Court, whispers that she’s being poisoned, and begs Kat for help, adding that she can trust no one close to her. Kat is nonplussed—they have only just been introduced by a mutual friend and the situation sounds unlikely—but she’s both too curious and too warm-hearted not to worry. Kat discovers that the Covington family is roiling with conflicts and motives; when one of them dies after eating dishes intended for the baroness, it becomes all too clear that Lady Covington is indeed in imminent danger. Private investigator Daniel McAdam and Scotland Yard’s Inspector McGregor help Kat clear up the mystery. As always, Kat is a staunch and clever sleuth and the series’ delightfully quirky secondary characters add fun color as well as lively subplots to the intricate main story. (Also, I want Kat as my personal chef. Just sayin'.)

The Barrister and the Letter of Marque,
Todd M. Johnson’s first historical novel, sets a suspenseful tale of legal, courtly, and commercial intrigue in Regency England. Though barrister William Snopes is most passionate about using his knowledge of the law on behalf of the underprivileged, he takes on a case presented to him by Lady Madeleine Jameson, who has invested what is left of her family estate in a merchant brig called the Padget. The ship’s captain, Jameson’s cousin Harold Tuttle, has used the powers granted under a royal letter of marque to seize the cargo of French trading ships sailing in the Indian Sea. But when the Padget returns to England, Tuttle is arrested for piracy, the goods he has amassed are seized, and the letter of marque that proves his operation was legal is nowhere to be found. Published by Bethany House, the novel's inspirational aspects are convincing but subtle, making it enjoyable for both general and faith-centered readers alike. Author Johnson, long a trial attorney himself, does an excellent job evoking Regency legal practice and balancing the novel’s more technical aspects with drama.