Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review: Murder at the Mikado by Julianna Deering

Murder at the Mikado (A Drew Farthering Mysery #3)
By: Julianna Deering
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-1097-6


Just six short months since murder -- and the investigative bug -- entered Drew Farthering's life, he's found faith, purpose, and love. Preparing for his marriage to Madeline, life couldn't be sweeter, until a face from Drew's youth makes an unwelcome and shocking return to his life, bringing with her potent reminders of a past he'd thought long buried. Married to Farlinford Processing's new, and highly respectable, manager, by all appearances Fleur was a woman transformed. But when another of Fleur's former flames, the head of her old theater troupe, is found murdered and Fleur is allegedly seen feeling the scene of the crime -- she turns to Drew for help. Loathe to refuse help to anyone, even the woman who had broken his heart years before, Drew begins to investigate, determined to steer clear of Fleur and the temptation of any past entanglement.

The deeper Drew investigates Fleur's connection with the theater troupe and its murdered star, the more his proximity to his one-time paramour begins to strain his relationship with Madeline. When a second murdered member of the troupe is discovered, the evidence against Fleur mounts, but despite his personal dislike of Fleur, Drew cannot help but feel that the intrigues at the theater run deeper than they first appear. As the danger mounts, and Drew is forced to face the specter of his past, he must decide if his calling to investigate is worth the cost to his future.

Murder at the Mikado is perhaps Julianna Deering's strongest, must cunningly plotted Drew Farthering mystery yet. I'm so glad I elected to re-read the first two installments of the series prior to reading this book for the first time, as Deering's world-building and characterization shine all the brighter for seeing Drew grow over the course of each installment. She has mastered the tropes of the genre and the feel and rhythm of the time period with a facility that few of her contemporaries can lay claim to, all while incorporating a thread of faith that feels wholly organic to the characters' lives and experiences.

I was particularly impressed with how Deering handled the introduction of Fleur as Drew's first serious romantic entanglement. So often, in both inspirational and mainstream fiction, it falls to female characters to struggle with the fallout of past romantic indiscretions. Here it is refreshing to see a male lead grapple with such regret, and cope with the realization that the revelation of such knowledge has the potential to cause pain in the present. Deering deftly balances the moral view of the time period with eternal spiritual truths, testing Drew and Madeline's belief in the maxim of 2 Corinthians 5:17 -- "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come."

I absolutely loved every aspect of this mystery, from the exotic theater setting and its colorful cast of attendant characters to the wedding preparations spearheaded by Madeline's formidable Aunt Ruth. Carefully planted red herrings and misdirection make this Drew's most compulsively readable case yet. This investigation twists and turns at lightning speed, and Deering makes good use of having a -- supposedly -- former "bad" girl seeking exoneration at the center of Drew's investigative efforts.

It's fascinating see how Deering juxtaposes Drew's past experience with Fleur and her current peril to explore the concepts of forgiveness and spiritual renewal in the present. For all appearances both Drew and Fleur have moved on with their lives, but the full reality of each of their situations is far different. Without delving into a spiritual exegesis of Scripture, spelling out the concepts of confession, repentance, and forgiveness, Deering instead illustrates the profound impact of faith on a believer's life, redemption of both one's past and present, through Drew's confrontation of his past ghosts and ultimately, forgiveness of the woman who once took advantage of his naivete, thus allowing him to embrace a future with Madeline.

I confess that of the trio at the center of each investigation -- Drew, the irrepressible Nick, and Madeline, the latter continues to be the weakest link for me. Deering does such a good job bringing 1930s Britain to life on the page that I want to project a Myrna Loy style and attitude on Madeline's character, when the truth of the matter is, Madeline is -- as yet --   no spunky Girl Friday. While I understood her attitude toward Fleuer's reappearance in Drew's life, I grew increasingly frustrated with her refusal to explain, or to even attempt to confront, the real reason she has such a strong reaction to Fleur. Madeline has as yet so much untapped potential to be a sparkling foil to Drew's earnest, debonair sleuth, one that I hope -- now that the question of her relationship with Drew is settled -- is given room to grow in future installments.

Murder at the Mikado is Deering's most ambitious mystery yet, replete with twists, turns, and misdirection, wrapped with her signature wit and pitch-perfect period detail. This series continues to be a dream come true for this cozy, classic mystery lover, as Deering combines her affinity for the genre with razor-sharp characterizations and relational arcs that leave one ever more invested in Drew's world and life with each successive installment. While I may have to come to terms with the fact that Deering's conception of Madeline's character is less independent than I might wish, that alone is a small preferential mark against an otherwise stellar and wholly welcome modern take on the classic period mystery genre. This series shines, and Drew's investigation of the Murder at the Mikado is his twistiest and most stylish case yet! 

About the book:

When a celebrated actor is found murdered in his dressing room, all signs point to Drew's old flame. But behind the curtains nothing is what it seems and this quickly becomes his most puzzling case yet.

Just as Drew Farthering thinks his life as calmed down some, Fleur Landis, a former girlfriend, reappears, in dire need of his help. She's married now, no longer an actress -- but the lead actor in her former troupe's production of The Mikado has been murdered, and Fleur is the police's number one suspect.

Drew would rather focus on his fiancee, Madeline Parker, and their upcoming wedding, but he can't leave Fleur and her family in the lurch -- even if she did break his heart once. As Drew, Nick, and Madeline begin investigating, they discover more going on behind the scenes of the theater troupe than could ever have been imagined. It seems nearly everyone had a motive, and alibis are few and far between.

Both the murder case and the presence of the beautiful, exotic Fleur put a heavy strain on Drew and Madeline's relationship. Will their still-young romance survive the pressure?

Monday, March 14, 2016

Review: Death by the Book by Julianna Deering

Death by the Book (A Drew Farthering Mystery #2)
By: Julianna Deering
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-1096-9


Just a few short months have passed since murder and mayhem ripped through Drew Farthering's life, earning him a certain measure of local notoriety and allowing him to put into practice his aptitude for investigation and analysis. But when murder leaps from the pages of one's beloved mystery novels to leave its indelible thumbprint on one's life, the murderous and macabre lose their fictional allure -- and now Drew craves nothing more than a quiet life, and an affirmative answer to his proposal of marriage to Madeline Parker, his late stepfather's American niece. Just as he begins to hope that normalcy is returning to the sleepy hamlet of Farthering St. John, Drew discovers the body of his solicitor, a cryptic message pinned to his body with a jeweled hatpin. The death strikes uncomfortably close to home, as its shadow casts a pall over Drew's efforts to court Madeline when they are interrupted by the arrival of her formidable Aunt Ruth, the latter determined to whisk her niece back to America, far away from the wiles of wealthy Englishmen such as himself who can't seem to escape association with murder.

When an unexpected scandal erupts surrounding his late solicitor's personal life, Drew is drawn into the investigation at the request of the widow. As Drew struggles to balance his amateur investigative efforts with his ongoing romantic suit, the latter becomes further complicated by the arrival of a brash young American that Aunt Ruth seems determined to pair with her niece. When a second murder strikes the country club, the victim also marked by a cryptic message pinned through the chest, tensions run high as fear of the "Hatpin Murderer" ripples through Farthering St. John. As the death toll continues to mount, drawing ever closer to Drew's home, he begins to wonder -- is he the intended target, or the recipient of a vicious game played by a ruthless killer? Murder used to be a game ensconced safely within the pages of a riveting novel -- but if Drew's to survive this twist, he must master the rules to a game that's become all too real...and deadly.

Julianna Deering's first Drew Farthering mystery, Rules of Murder, was one of my favorite reads of the 2013, the first of two times to date that I've lost myself within the charm of its pages. For any mystery set during the "golden age" of detective fiction -- the era that gave birth to authors such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers -- I want lightening-fast pacing, sparkling dialogue, and pitch-perfect historical detail. Deering's debut proved to be an unexpected delight, delivering the rapid-fire dialogue and smartly-paced plotting that I so adore in everything from Christie's novels to the Thin Man films, the latter becoming a gold standard template for smart and sassy romantic detectives.

What sets Deering's novels apart is the subtle thread of faith she weaves throughout the storyline, culminating in Drew's declaration of faith at the conclusion of Rules of Murder. As Death by the Book picks up shortly after that life-changing experience, Drew is still very new to examining life -- and crime -- through the lens of faith. Given the high bar set by the authors of the classic mysteries to which Deering both aspires and pays homage, in lesser hands the introduction of an explicit faith element could easily disrupt the narrative flow and atmosphere of the story. But Deering exhibits a refreshingly delicate touch, as any mention of Drew's newfound faith is organically incorporated into the storyline, if anything enhancing his charm and good humor rather than becoming the sole focal point. In Drew's world, murder mysteries just happen to be solved by Christians, allowing the exercise of one's faith in arguably the most worldly of contexts -- a crime scene.

Deering's characters are an absolute joy -- crisply realized, they leap from the page with pitch-perfect dialogue and mannerisms. Drew in particular is a delight. Rarely have I ever found a characterization that does such justice to the speech patterns and manner of those found in the likes of Christie novels or the detective films of the 1930s. Aunt Ruth is a fabulous addition to the cast of players, a formidable force to be reckoned with, bringing to mind the persona of screen giants such as Edith Barrymore, or for a more recent comparison, the incomparable Maggie Smith. My only disappointment -- and it's a slight one -- is how Madeline's character developed, or to be more precise, didn't, over the course of the novel. Given her introduction I'd hope for more of a Myrna Loy-as-Nora Charles spark. Instead, she's more angst-ridden than Drew -- she won't say yes to his proposal (yet), but she won't 1) stop kissing him or 2) leave in order to consider it with the benefit of distance and perspective, until the end of the novel forces her hand. However, I have high hopes that she'll play an even more active role in future investigations as a result.

This updated review marks my second time to read Death by the Book, and while I enjoyed it just as much this time around, this time I was struck by the resolution to the central "Hatpin Murderer" mystery, even though upon review I didn't address that in my initial post. Deering masterfully peppers her plot with red herrings, constructing a serial killer case that grows ever more ominous with each successive killing, each more seemingly random than the last. While I appreciate the suspense and Deering's deft plot construction, I can't help but wish that the perpetrator played a larger role in this and the previous novel prior to being revealed as the murderer. There's a bit of a disconnect between the effervescent period tone of the novel and the shocking reveal of the I wish had been given more time to develop.

Drew's second outing as aristocratic amateur sleuth is a rare treat for mystery lovers. Smartly plotted, peopled with engaging characters, and peppered with enough red herrings to make Dame Christie's head spin, Death by the Book secures Deering's place as a shining star in the realm of period mystery fiction. While the "conflict" introduced by Aunt Ruth (exacerbated by Madeline's indecisiveness) in an attempt to keep Drew and Madeline apart feels forced, that issue aside this second installment of Drew's sleuthing adventures is a delightful way in which to while away a few hours. Smartly plotted, with sparkling, rapid-fire dialogue and delicious period detail, Death by the Book was well worth the wait, refreshing the tropes of the classic mystery with a carefully spun cord of faith and humor. I can't wait to see where Deering takes Drew & Co. next!

About the book:

When the village of Farthering St. John is stunned by a series of murders, Drew Farthering is drawn again into the sleuthing game.

Drew Farthering wanted nothing more than to end the summer of 1932 with the announcement of his engagement. Instead, he finds himself caught up in another mysterious case  when the family solicitor is found murdered, an antique hatpin with a cryptic message, Advice to Jack, piercing his chest.

Evidence of secret meetings and a young girl's tearful confession point to the victim's double life, but what does the solicitor's murder have to do with the murder of a physician on the local golf course? Nothing, it would seem -- expect for another puzzling note, affixed with a similar-looking bloodied hatpin.

Soon the police make an arrest in connection with the murders, but Drew isn't at all certain they have the right suspect in custody. And why does his investigation seem to be drawing closer and closer to home?

Note: This is an edited and expanded version of my original review, first published in April 2014.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Review: Rules of Murder by Julianna Deering

Rules of Murder (A Drew Farthering Mystery #1)
By: Julianna Deering
Publisher: Bethany  House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-1095-2


Drew Farthering, society playboy and heir to the Farlinford Processing fortune, returns to the family estate in Hampshire seeking a respite from the meaningless whirl of social obligations -- only to find his home playing host to one of his mother’s parties. The guests include one very unwelcome David Lincoln, who inherited his position on the Farlinford Processing board at his father's death, his increased intimacy with the Fartherings' business soon giving way to rumors of an affair with Drew’s mother, Constance. But Drew is soon distracted from David's odious presence by the arrival of his stepfather Mason's American niece, the beautiful Madeline Parker. Drawn to Madeline's warmth and wit, Drew begins to hope that he's finally met a woman of depth with whom he could plan a future, one to give meaning and purpose to his directionless -- albeit privileged -- existence.

But when Drew and Madeline discover the mangled body of Lincoln during a party, the two are drawn into a web of deceit and danger that casts a shadowy pall over their blossoming romance. A longtime mystery aficionado, Drew determines to launch his own investigation with the help of Madeline and his best friend and valet Nick. But real-life detective work is nothing like the fiction he loves, his amateur efforts breaking every rule of crime-solving in the book. His investigation casts a shadow of suspicion over family and friends, soon calling into question everything he thought he knew about himself. The more Drew persists, the greater the danger, and after second and third tragedies strike, all that stands between him and those he loves may just be his unconventional thinking...if only he can uncover the truth in time to unmask a killer before he strikes again!

At the risk of waxing hyperbolic, please indulge me when I say that I have been waiting for this book for the better part of my adult life. As a teenager I cut my mystery-loving teeth on tales of murder and mayhem by the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, in due course expanding my reading scope to fall in love with the works of her contemporaries such as Rex Stout and Dorothy L. Sayers. Whether in print or on-screen, memorably portrayed by actors the like of David Suchet as the inimitable Poirot or Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple (my personal favorite portrayal of the character), I've long devoured classic mysteries and the film versions remain some of my consistently favorite television. This type of storytelling, told with intrigue, intelligence, and panache, never gets old -- but I began to lose hope of ever discovering an author capable of telling a tale in the vein of the masters in the inspirational fiction market.

When it comes to period mysteries, I want pitch-perfect historical detail, smart, fast-paced plots, and sparkling dialogue -- and Rules of Murder delivers on all fronts. Deering is clearly passionate about the genre and has done her research, not only translating the feel of a classic Christie mystery into Drew's world, but her narrative shines with period detail, mannerisms, sparkling dialogue and a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. The latter quality is reminiscent of the classic Hollywood equivalent of a Christie mystery -- the Thin Man films that showcased the memorable sparring between William Powell and Myrna Loy as high-class amateur sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. Drew is every inch Nick Charles (sans the ever-present drink), from his razor-sharp intelligence to his perfectly tailored suit, with the added bonus of a British accent. 

Deering not only takes a stab at deconstructing the tropes of classic mysteries but manages to succeed at incorporating a very subtle faith thread through Drew's character arc -- an aspect that could have easily tanked the narrative flow of the storyline, stripping its characters of their charm and the mystery of its effectiveness. Drew, Nick, and Madeline either consciously address or accidentally break most of Ronald Knox's "Ten Commandments" for detective fiction. I loved having these fictional "contemporaries" of my favorite authors referencing and deconstructing the works that would make them famous. And the manner in which Deering touches on issues of faith, belief, and identity is masterfully done, staying true to Drew's personal and social position, using Drew's aristocratic status to explore the idea of how one who to all appearances *should* have it all approaches the concept of faith and belief. 

This marks my second time reading Drew's first adventure, and I loved it every bit as much as my first introduction. Deering is a master at incorporating period detail and best of all, the whip-fast dialogue patterns of the time, forever memorialized in the films of the 1930s. I was struck afresh by her facility at incorporating faith into the storyline in a wholly believable, generic fashion, that succeeds in not feeling forced and refreshingly authentic to Drew's character and social position. Authors, take note: Deering's subtly drawn incorporation of faith is all the more impactful and effective for its understated, emotionally authentic arc as Drew grapples with the concept of evil, betrayal, and his own shaken sense of self.

With Rules of Murder Deering has established herself as a voice to watch in period mystery fiction. The characters are established, the beginnings of a love story suggested, and the tantalizing promise of secrets hidden within Drew's past, sure to be explored in further installments of the series. Drew is an utterly charming hero, and the cast of supporting players peopling his world are well-developed. I loved Madeline's humor and depth -- I do hope that in future volumes she develops a bit more of the His Girl Friday-style spark and energy heroines in classic mysteries are known for -- a mix of Nora Charles and Christie's Tuppence. Deering's mystery debut is a charmer from start to finish, replete with delicious period detail, effervescent, bubbly dialogue and well-drawn characters. This book is, at the risk of sounding dramatic, a bit of a dream come true for this mystery-lover. Bravo, Ms. Deering -- I cannot wait to discover what you have in store for Drew & Co. next!

About the book:

Introducing Drew Farthering: From the tip of his black homburg to the crease in his cheviot trousers, he's the epitome of a stylish 1930s English gentleman. His only problem? The body he just discovered.

Drew Farthering loves a good mystery, although he generally expects to find it in the pages of a novel, not on the grounds of his country estate.

With the help of beautiful and whip-smart Madeline Parker, a guest from America, Drew proposes to use the lessons he's learned reading his mysteries to solve the crime. Before long, he realizes this is no lark, and no one at Farthering Place is who he or she appears to be -- not the butler nor blackmailer, the chauffeur nor embezzler. Trying hard to remain one step ahead of the killer -- and trying harder to impress Madeline -- Drew must decide how far to take this dangerous game.


While reading Rules of Murder I couldn't resist "casting" the character of Drew with an actor from the time period. Having read it twice now, I still cannot imagine an actor more suited to the role than a young Tyrone Power. To me this picture perfectly sums up Drew's earnestness and effortless charm:

Note: This is a slightly edited version of my original review, first posted in August 2013