Could a mysterious music box hold the key to unlocking the puzzle behind a gruesome murder for Detective Inspector Silas Quinn?
London, 1914. Despite a number of setbacks, rehearsals for The Hampstead Voices’ Christmas concert are continuing apace. The sold-out event is raising funds for war refugees, and both Winston Churchill and Edward Elgar are expected to attend. But the most disturbing setback of all occurs when the choirmaster, Sir Aidan Fonthill, is discovered dead at a piano, a tuning fork protruding from his ear. Detective Chief Inspector Silas Quinn and his team from the Special Crimes Department at New Scotland Yard soon discover that Sir Aidan had a number of enemies, but who hated him enough to carry out such a heinous crime?
Could the answer be linked to a mysterious music box delivered to Sir Aidan’s house shortly before the murder, and can Silas solve the puzzle of the music box enigma and catch the killer before the concert takes place?
What I Thought:
I’ve been following Roger Morris and his work for a while now, but have inexplicably only read two of the Silas Quinn novels. The series is right up my street being both detective fiction and set in the pre-WW1 era, and it shows policing in a time before gadgetry was a detective’s best friend.
There are common characters and small references to previous books in The Music Box Enigma but, if you come across it before reading any of the others, this book stands very well on its own.
The Hampstead Voices contains a regular rogues gallery of people who might have wished to do in the Musical Director who, it seems, is a little ‘handsy’ with the female members of the chorus but who also may have owed money to some shady characters and professionally shunned others – a hard character to mourn in many respects!
Nevertheless, despite the personal failings of the victim, it is Quinn’s job to find the killer before some of the suspects take themselves off to serve in the war.
This book is hugely entertaining. The mystery plot is challenging but, when you find out who did it, all the pieces are there if you were only to take notice of them. The politics around the Hampstead Voices – and a personal beef with Sir Edward Elgar – act as comic relief in a book that does have some dark moments, especially surrounding a personal loss for Quinn.
Definitely recommended, and if you fancy going back to the beginning with Silas Quinn, Summon Up The Blood is (at time of writing) only 99p on Kindle, so well worth grabbing…
In 1943, Contessa Sofia de’ Corsi’s peaceful Tuscan villa among the olive groves is upturned by the sudden arrival of German soldiers. Desperate to fight back, she agrees to shelter a wounded British radio engineer in her home, keeping him hidden from her husband Lorenzo – knowing that she is putting all of their lives at risk.
When Maxine, an Italian-American working for the resistance, arrives on Sofia’s doorstep, the pair forge an uneasy alliance. Feisty, independent Maxine promised herself never to fall in love. But when she meets a handsome partisan named Marco, she realizes it’s a promise she can’t keep…
Before long, the two women find themselves entangled in a dangerous game with the Nazis. Will they be discovered? And will they both be able to save the ones they love?
What I Thought:
I think, so far, I’ve read four or five of Dinah Jefferies’ books and her work just gets better and better. Although The Tuscan Contessa moves away from her more familiar settings of the Far East, it is just as compelling and has clearly been deeply researched.
I always think historical novels carry a higher level of work, purely because the author has to not only keep in mind the location, but also the language, technology, clothing and many more factors of the period. This is always outstanding in Dinah Jefferies’ books and so too here.
I’m a sucker for a war story but this book touches on a side of World War 2 that people are less familiar with than D-Day, the French resistance and the French campaign – in this book, we see the war in Italy and the work of the Italian partisans in and around Tuscany.
It’s always heartening to read about the contribution of women to the war effort – the popular perception of WW1 and WW2 is that they were very much – for obvious reasons – about the men but, whether they were frontline nurses, working at Bletchley Park or – as in this book – providing whatever support they could through their homes and connections, women were instrumental in winning the war.
I was lucky enough to take part in the book launch for The Tuscan Contessa – via Zoom in these strange times – and one of my fellow participants noted that Dinah Jefferies is ‘the colourful author’ and I think I would agree. The colours of Tuscany are beautifully brought to life in her descriptions of the location. It’s easy to picture the places the characters inhabit as they are cleverly brought to life.
Dinah Jefferies also mentioned at the launch that she does a huge amount of research on her books, including travel to the locations and reading widely. You really can tell the depth of research she does, without it ever feeling like you’re being lectured to – it’s a great skill to be able to create a truly immersive novel and that is exactly what she does.
Another recommended title from Dinah Jefferies – she said at the launch that she was already working on her next book… I can’t wait!
You can call me Ella. You generally assign me a whole host of other preposterous monikers. I think the least imaginative name I’ve heard is “the devil”, but I’ll answer to it if I must.
After making the courageous decision to leave her abusive husband, Perdie and her three young children start over and finally find the safety and love they deserve. But years later, when tragedy strikes, Perdie is left wondering if the choice she made to leave has led them to this moment.
If she were given the opportunity to take it all back and stay, would she?
In a frantic bid to protect her family, Perdie makes a deal with the devil to do just that. But in a world where the devil pulls the strings, can Perdie really change the past?
What I Thought:
What an interesting idea Idle Hands is! We’ve all heard myths of people standing at a crossroads and making a deal with the devil (especially people who watch Supernatural!), but what if, instead of a physical crossroads, deals are made at a metaphorical crossroads?
This is the crux of Perdie’s story. Many years after escaping an abusive husband and going on to make a new life with her three children, she finds herself in a situation that may never have happened if she had stayed – would she now unpick her new life to return to her old one?
In a world where people take so much of what other people are responsible for onto themselves, it really is an interesting and multi-faceted question. Is that one decision that Perdie made 12 years ago really what caused her current situation? Or are there so many decisions made over the course of twelve years that all combine to lead to a single point, any of which could be unmade?
Often, as humans, we tend to think very much like Perdie does, that it’s the large decisions that define our life when in actuality if we stop off for a coffee one morning on a whim, it could change our whole lives.
Whichever path Perdie takes, there is no happy ending in this book and that fits beautifully in the scheme of the character known as Ella. A person of many names, we might also call Ella the devil and she certainly gets her view of Perdie, her community and humanity across in an extraordinarily strong voice.
I found myself highlighting a lot of what Ella has to say as she gives her view, explaining that the Devil is never really determined to turn people bad – she just catches the ones that are already on their way. Some can be gently guided into the Devil’s hands often, over a number of years, and some have to suffer through a single, large event to be persuaded.
In essence, this novel examines what it is to be human and gives us all hope that the complete garbage fire that the world is at the moment is only temporary. That people, ultimately, will do good when given the chance. It also shows us that even when we feel the weight of our decisions, we have to try and feel confident that we’ve taken the right path as, most often, an alternative path would not have made things turn out any more happily.
This book is definitely recommended, although I would add a TW for domestic abuse.
Fraser Island, Australia 1882. The population of the Badtjala people is in sharp decline following a run of brutal massacres. When German scientist Louis Müller offers to sail three Badtjala people – Bonny, Jurano and Dorondera – to Europe to perform to huge crowds, the proud and headstrong Bonny agrees, hoping to bring his people’s plight to the Queen of England.
Accompanied by Müller’s bright daughter, Hilda, the group begins their journey to belle-époque Europe to perform in Hamburg, Berlin, Paris and eventually London. While crowds in Europe are enthusiastic to see the unique dances, singing, fights and pole climbing from the oldest culture in the world, the attention is relentless, and the fascination of scientists intrusive. When disaster strikes, Bonny must find a way to return home.
What I Thought:
The world of Victorian ‘freak’ shows and the like seem to be popular at the moment – perhaps led by The Greatest Showman’s depiction of PT Barnum. But where that film shows a somewhat rosy and empowering view of exhibiting people, books like Paris Savages and Christina Henry’s The Mermaid depict the distasteful underbelly of exhibiting people for an audience.
Katherine Johnson’s latest book formed the basis of her PhD so, as you can imagine, there is a depth of research here that is really to be admired. Where she is forced to include her own narrative, where details of the real-life Badtjala are sketchy, she is still able to evoke the Victorian period in detail.
At the start of the book, Hilda Müller is living in paradise with only the death of her mother adding clouds to her horizon. Her life on K’Gari (Fraser Island) is carefree as she and her father live among the Badtjala people, teaching them and learning from them. But Herr Müller has plans to take three of the Badtjala people, Bonny, Dorondera and Jurano, to Europe – for what he claims is to show Europeans Aboriginal people with a view to establishing a protected reserve for the Badtjala on K’Gari. Whatever his motivations at the start of the trip, they begin to change as the exhibition of Bonny, Dorondera and Jurano begins to bring in large sums of money.
One of the most hard-hitting aspects of this novel is that the exhibition of living humans is so easily undertaken by entrepreneurs in the so-called civilised world and that so many are willing to pay to gawp at the ‘exotics’. Aside from the group from K’Gari, Katherine Johnson touches on many real-life groups of people who were exhibited and taken advantage of during this period. Eskimos (in the language of that time), Senegalese people, Samoan people, Native Americans and many more groups from colonised nations were exhibited in Europe and the US, often for much less that their fair share of the profits made and at the detriment of their own health as they came into contact with new diseases and poor living conditions.
Bonny, the assumed leader of the group, has his own reasons for travelling to Europe – he wishes to petition Queen Victoria for the protected reserve. He has no ambition for money and fame, and yet even he is disillusioned when he and his friends are pressed into performing as ‘savages’ when they have skills, knowledge and language enough to walk among any crowd of people.
As expected on starting this book, there is tragedy in it which is hard to read. Good intentions so very often warp and change and so to do they here.
Katherine Johnson does a fantastic job of bringing us into the Victorian period, but is very careful never to speak for Bonny, Dorondera and Jurano, which I think is important. She allows us a glimpse into what they may be thinking and feeling using a ghost character without presuming to speak for them. It’s an interesting device and it strikes the right note here.
Although fiction, this book is so rich in research and detail that it reads very much like non-fiction in places. It’s a great starting point for those interested in this period and the so-called Human Zoos of the Victorian era.
Today I’m pleased to host Hannah Hopkins, author of Space Academy as she talks about writing women in fiction. I think we can all agree that often women are not fully realised in fiction, and I’d be interested to know your thoughts.
Writing women in fiction. How to help the feminist cause.
It’s strange to think that not so long ago, women were not allowed to be writers. Our voice was stifled in so many ways, but the limitations on a woman’s career in the literary world was a huge disadvantage to feminism, with women forced to take up pen names that concealed their gender and focus on male ideals and values in their writing. Indeed, even J.K Rowling was advised to change her pen name from ‘Joanne’ in order to sell more Harry Potter books. Although she may not have specifically been told to hide the fact she is a woman in order to be successful, the undertones are certainly there!
Now that we are finally (slowly) being allowed to use our voices, how can we use fiction and literature to further feminism? How can we use the written word in the fight against oppression? I’ve thought long and hard about what a ‘helpful’ portrayal of a female character means. There is a still a huge amount of debate around this topic, and in this post, I wish to express my own opinions only on what I think it means to create good representations of women in literature.
The first topic is one that has caused many debates between me and my friends. The simple question of whether male authors should write about feminism, or is it better for them to leave it to female writers? And further than this, can male authors write female characters that we can identify with, removing subconscious stereotypes that might slip through the net? My personal opinion is that male authors should allow the more complex issues of feminism to female writers, who have experienced oppression and sexism first-hand.
Similar to the issue of racism, which, as white authors, I don’t believe we should try and speak on with authority (but should instead try to make space for people of colour to tell their own story) I believe male authors would better ally themselves with feminism if they actively made room for women to use our own voice. It would be irresponsible to say that white authors should not include people of colour in their novels at all because they have not experienced racism. Instead, it is advised that they should do research, and seek to consciously unpick stereotypes from their mind that influence their writing in ways they don’t realise. It should absolutely be done, because omitting race from a novel (as I have learnt) is making just as strong of a statement as actively including it. The issue of race does, however, need to be handled with care and consideration. We all make mistakes, but being receptive to criticism and being conscious of our failings helps us to do better next time. With the same logic, I think it is important that any non-female identifying author should educate themselves around the topic before bringing their ideas to the page.
A good place to start is to research different depictions of women and how well they were received. They then need to work at becoming self-aware, understanding how the patriarchy and society might shape their female characters in ways they do not intend, furthering stereotypes and misogyny without conscious intention.
I think it is possible for men to create relatable representations of women, and that it has been done on occasion, most likely as a result of research and sensitivity! One example that I personally enjoy is George R.R Martin’s representation of women in A Song Of Ice And Fire. In my opinion, his female characters are varied and complex, and are treated with the same intricacy as the male characters.
So, what do female readers want? What can authors do to create well-rounded characters that support feminism and produce good and varied representation? My personal belief is that we need to just let our female characters be human! Let them be complicated. Let them make mistakes without condemning them. Allow them to be sexual or prudish without shaming them. Allow them to be ambitious without portraying them as cold and unfeeling. Allow an older female character to be single without also making her bitter and resentful. Let women make the choice to be alone, instead of portraying it as a punishment for her flaws.
Give women agency over their own lives! Give them some interests that don’t revolve around relationships. Let them wear makeup AND be clever. Let them be fashionable and academic. Remove the boxes and the pigeon-holes. Remove the stereotypes for both cisgender and trans women, and anyone else who identifies as female, and allow them to grow and develop without constraint. If we begin to give our women such freedom in literature, it will begin to translate into real life. Fiction is a great tool for advocacy, and if we can start to imagine women living without shame or oppression, one day we hopefully wont have to imagine anymore!
In 2017, Hannah Hopkins released a self-published novel entitled ‘The Split’; the story of four teenagers navigating life after Earth as they journey through space to a new planet. Two years later, the book was picked up by ‘The Conrad Press’ and re-vamped as ‘Space Academy,’ with a new cover, new title and new additions to the story. ‘Space Academy’ was released in 2020, kickstarting Hannah’s career as a writer.
Hannah is currently busy writing a historical fiction novel with a feminist twist. She spends the rest of her time working at a University and caring for her two young children in the UK.
It’s the year 2100. Earth is dying. A young woman, Elsie, has risked everything to get her newborn son, Will, aboard ‘The Mayflower’ – a spaceship that will transport a select number of people to a new planet they can call home. Elsie’s luck takes a turn when she discovers the captain of ‘The Mayflower’ is an old friend. He allows her to board with her son, giving them a place on the luxurious Floor One, where they live amongst the most honoured of ‘The Mayflower’s’ passengers.
Thirteen years later, and Will is ready to start school at Space Academy, an institute specialising in subjects such as Alien Studies, Technology, and Rocket Control. While a pupil there, Will starts to uncover secrets about his father’s death, becoming wrapped in a mystery that he and his friends must solve if they are to have any hope of saving humanity from the threat that lies in wait.
This post is part of a blog tour to celebrate the publication of Space Academy by Hannah Hopkins. Why not check out some of the blogs below for exclusive content and reviews?