Rhys Bowen is a pseudonym of the prolific English author Janet Quin-Harkin, used for her mystery novels. She made her debut in this genre with Evans Above (1997), which introduced Welsh police constable Evan Evans and the remote town of Llanfair, snuggled close to sometimes dangerous mountains, peopled by a number of colorful characters. Evan lived away from Wales for much of his youth, where he grew to be a rather large man and studied to be a detective, although he finally returned to a humbler posting in his home town. He is lusted after by the barmaid, Betsy, but is more interested in the somewhat reclusive Bronwen Price. There are three other Evans in town, known by their professions – milk, meat, and post. Major Anderson is the rather pompous manager of a tourist resort and Charlie Hopkins is one of his closest friends. Evan also has a solicitous landlady who wants him to marry her niece.
In the opener, a climber goes missing on the mountain and on the following morning two separate bodies are found, both having either fallen or been pushed off the edges of cliffs. The police detective called to the scene dismisses them both as accidents but Evans – and the reader – will be less willing to accept such a remarkable coincidence. The two men are identified as a London police officer named Hatcher and a burglar alarm salesman named Potts. At the same time, a local woman complains that her prize tomato seedlings were trampled to destruction, the import of which is emphasized by a brief diversion to the viewpoint of someone lurking nearby. This seemed to me to be a tactical error. Not only does it break from the unified viewpoint of Evan but it also ramps up the tension in a very artificial way.
The clues emerge slowly. Both dead men were in the Army and another man, Danny Bartholomew, was found frozen to death during an exercise on that same mountain several years earlier. Clearly both men were involved and someone holds them responsible for the death, although it was assumed to have been accidental. Evans discovers that the three men were part of a unit with a fourth man, Marshall, whose full name and address are unknown. There is also a madman who confesses to killing the two men, though obviously he did not, and a mysterious killer who molested a young girl and whose presence is tying up most police resources in the area. Then another man’s dead body is found on the mountain, this one with his throat cut. Subsequent investigation reveals that Marshall has lied about his alibi and that the wife of one of the victims also made false statements.
SPOILER ALERT. This was a pleasant, straightforward detective story with minimal clues but a logical progression, though it does include perhaps a few too many coincidental encounters and has a less than satisfactory solution. The brief switches to the killer’s viewpoint do not add anything to the story and interrupt its flow. More significantly, the solution is rather a cheat, introducing a character we’ve never seen before, whom Evans discovers by accident, and who is foiled by yet another accident. It’s the brother of the man who died years earlier, who got lost after concealing stolen money which the present murderer wants to locate. The ploy of inviting his three former buddies to the site on the chance that they knew where the money was stashed is pretty thin, and the coincidental discovery of the site by the killer and by the third victim is just too coincidental to accept.
Evans returns in Evan Help Us (1998), which has a similar set up. Colonel Arbuthnot is an elderly visitor who comes periodically to Wales to walk in the hills and pursue his quest to find proof of the existence of King Arthur. Shortly after noticing someone in the village whom he knew in the past, and to whom he has an aversion, he is found dead in a stream, apparently having fallen from a bridge. Evans suspects otherwise despite the skepticism of his superiors, and a medical examiner confirms that it was probably murder. The problem is that virtually every resident of the town has an alibi, and only two of the characters are not recurring ones from the previous book. These two are Ted Morgan, a ne’er do well who made a fortune in London and has returned with development plans for the village, and Annie Pigeon, who moves in with her young daughter, speaks little of her past, and has no obvious source of income.
Bowen provides some clues early on. The Colonel’s mood abruptly changed while he was celebrating the discovery of some ruins in the local pub, as though he had just seen someone whose presence disturbed him. A short while later, Pigeon mentions that she poked her head into the pub about that time, but didn’t enter because she noticed the clientele was exclusively male. Nor is Ted Morgan accounted for. There is also a hint of tension between the two strangers, as though they might have known each other elsewhere, and Pigeon thinks that someone was in her house when she was gone, although there’s no proof.
Morgan gets into a heated argument with a local man and is found shot to death the following morning, arranged to look as though he committed suicide. There is a brief side issue about a businessman from a nearby town whose daughter died of a drug overdose in London, seemingly irrelevant, but I was suspicious immediately. Why the side trip if this isn’t going to be significant? The murder weapon, it turns out, belongs to Pigeon, who insists it was stolen by whoever broke into her house. Given that she is at this point the only non-recurring character still alive, she has to be our prime suspect. The fact that she called Evans to report the break in at just about the time Morgan was killed suggests she wanted an alibi, particularly since she went to considerable effort to keep him at the house long after his investigation was complete, and she was obviously shaken at the time. She also refers to the Colonel’s death as murder even though publicly it is still believed to be an accidental death.
SPOILER ALERT. It was very obvious to me that Morgan had killed the Colonel. There just wasn’t anyone else who was plausible. For a while I entertained the idea that Pigeon had then killed Morgan, and when Evans discovers that Morgan ran a string of sex clubs in London and that Pigeon was one of his entertainers, it seemed even more convincing. But the dead girl mentioned earlier bothered me and I realized that she could quite possibly have been another of the prostitutes, which turns out to be the case, and that her father might well be responsible, since he had met Morgan the night before he was killed. This seems to me a bit of a cheat since we never saw this character at all outside of a two paragraph outburst.
Next came Evanly Choirs (1999), which opens with more outsiders, and it’s another case where it is Evan who first notices anomalies that suggest murder in what appears to be an accidental death. Once again, the author’s ability to create an elaborate mystery is limited by her setting. Most of the characters are recurring ones, so it’s not much of a leap to decide which mysterious figures equate to which known individuals. The story this time involves an internationally known opera singer who spent his childhood as the son of a servant at the home of one of Llanfair’s two pastors. He rents their home and moves in with his wife, supposedly for a rest. He agrees to sing with the local choir in a competition but is found murdered – though initially it looks like an accident – before the event takes place.
There are several suspects to consider. The singer, Ifor Llewellyn, argued with his wife on numerous occasions, was known to be something of a playboy, and she herself belatedly admits to having an affair and being with her lover at the time her husband was killed. There is also the choir master, Austin Mostyn, who knew Ifor as a young man. Ifor teases the man relentlessly and although he seems an unlikely killer, the possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand. We also know that on the night of his death, Ifor entertained a guest – identity unknown even though there was a servant in the house – and the servant was herself murdered a short time later.
We also have two mysterious younger visitors to Llanfair. In the opening sequence, a young woman named Christine arrives looking for someone she knew in London and has an angry encounter with a young man in front of the pastor’s house. When we subsequently discover that Ifor has two grown children, it is obvious that these are in fact his son and daughter, although both claim not to have been in Wales at the time. Christine nearly dies when her car sinks in a remote lake, but she is saved by Evan’s intervention. Evan is quite sure that there was a man in the area at the time, but Christine insists she fell asleep at the wheel. Evan also considers the possibility that she tried to kill herself, but has insufficient evidence to act. It is not evident whether the man in question was the son, Justin, but Evan later recognizes him as the one who argued with Christine a few days before Ifor arrived. Since three of the four suspects are family members, the interactions of the family members are of primary interest, although there are also rumors that Ifor was visited by an unknown man with a foreign accent who threatened him. The latter turns out to be a lawyer who wanted his client’s name left out of Ifor’s memoires.
Ifor’s wife Margaret confesses to the crime, but she gets so many facts wrong that we and the police realize this is either a very clever ruse or more likely that she is trying to protect one of her children. Then, confronted by evidence that he had in fact visited his father, Justin confesses to the murder, but not very convincingly. It is only then that we discover that Christine is not Ifor’s daughter after all. In fact, the daughter’s name is Jasmine and there is no indication that she has ever previously visited Llanfair. This leaves Christine as the prime suspect, obviously one of Ifor’s conquests who didn’t take kindly to being dropped. Evan is able to track her down fairly easily. She confesses to having visited the house on the night in question but insists that Ifor was already dead. Still another twist suggests that Margaret and her lover, whom we have yet to see, were involved in a conspiracy, but given his absence this solution also seemed unlikely to me. The actual solution was my original theory, so it really didn’t come as much of a surprise, but it was still neatly done.
There’s a good bit of light humor in this one. Evan is temporarily forced out of his room to accommodate the fastidious pastor, who becomes the bane of his existence from that point onward. The pastor’s wife is a bit of a caricature, the domineering busybody who insists upon getting her own way, but she provides some comic relief as well. Evan’s romance with Bronwen shows some slight evolution toward seriousness, but he gets trapped into dating the sexy barmaid, causing fresh tension there as well. The mystery is very well done this time, but the attraction of the series for me is still the characters and setting.
Evan & Elle (2000) opens with an arson burning a cottage owned by an English couple and posting a note that they’re not welcome in Llanfair, although I immediately suspected this was a ruse designed to shift suspicion to the locals. There are several subplots developed early including a rebellious young boy whom I suspected might be a firebug, a police operation to interdict drug smuggling along the coastline, and a French woman, Madame Yvette, trying to make a success of her new restaurant despite letters warning her to leave Wales.
It was obvious from the outset that the fires were a ruse, that Welsh nationalists were not responsible. Rumors of a drug smuggling operation provide a red herring, although there is some peripheral involvement late in the story. The French restaurant burns to the ground, but Yvette survives. The body of a man is found in the ashes, despite her assertion that she was alone in the building, and an autopsy shows he was dead prior to the fire. The assumption is that the fire was to cover up the murder and Yvette is the chief suspect.
This suspicion grows stronger when Evan and another officer check into her background and confirm what I already suspected – that the woman is an imposter. The real Yvette apparently died and a friend took her place in order to collect the money on an insurance policy taken out on Yvette’s husband, who was lost at sea. But I’m always suspicious of missing bodies and rumors of at least one and perhaps two suspicious strangers in town convinced me I was on the right track. We also learn of an abandoned rental car rented by a Frenchman who used a false name and who is now missing. The pieces fall together so quickly that Evan almost catches up to the reader.
The plot involves a big coincidence – Yvette’s missing husband and the imposter’s homicidal husband both show up on the same night, leading to confrontation and murder. That’s not cheating. But Bowen cheats nonetheless because we have no hint of the second man’s existence until it is time to reveal the solution to the crime. The fires, it turns out, were set by another person entirely, whom I also suspected, and not the young boy who seems the most likely candidate. This one’s okay, but not as good as the ones that preceded it.
Evan Can Wait (2001) is a bit longer than its predecessors, and has a more convoluted plot. Once again we have a bevy of outsiders, a film company doing a documentary about the raising of a German bomber from a mountain lake. They are also interested after the fact in stories that famous paintings from London were stored in the local slate mine during the war. The two plots will coincide with destructive force.
The crew consists of four characters of interest. Grantley Smith, the producer, is an irritating egomaniac who needles everyone who comes within reach, which marked him very early on as the most probable murder victim, a suspicion eventually proven true. With him is Edward Ferrers, coincidentally once the husband of Bronwyn Price, Evan’s romantic interest, now Smith’s partner in a gay relationship. Also included in the company is Howard Bauer, a world famous director who claims to be involved as a favor to Smith, and Sandie, a production assistant who is clearly in love with Smith and unaware of his sexual preferences. Tensions among these four are very high and when Smith is found strangled and his body buried in an abandoned mine, I eliminated only Sandie from my list of suspects.
There are other possibilities as well. Smith arranged an unpleasant reunion for one of the local families which resulted in the older man having what proved to be a fatal heart attack. His hotheaded son blames Smith and even started to physically attack him on one occasion. There is also Gerhart Eichner, brother of the pilot of the bomber, who opposes having the grave site disturbed, but after one appearance, Eichner disappears and I never serious considered him either. Finally we have Trefor Thomas and his son Turdur. Trefor is an elderly man who was involved with concealing the paintings in the mine but who is now suffering from dementia. His son would not seem to have a motive, but there is another thread to the story.
Interspersed with the main narration are bits and pieces of Trefor’s recollections of his life during the war, when he plotted to steal a painting from the repository and sell it so that he and his ambitious lover could run off to America. Obviously something went wrong, but we don’t learn precisely what until very late. The very presence of this story line, however, suggests that herein lies the solution and – although I briefly wondered if Howard Bauer might be the son of the missing woman – I concluded that this eliminated both of Smith’s co-workers and probably the indignant son as well, except that Bowen cleverly mentions that he is married to one of the cousins of the missing woman.
SPOILER ALERT. Naturally everyone has opportunity as well as motive. Evan isn’t officially on the case but Bronwyn convinces him to intervene because of her lingering affection for her ex-husband, who is the prime suspect. As it happens, although he turns up some clues, he solves the crime by accident, noticing someone entering the mine who shouldn’t be there, and is nearly killed in the encounter. I was close on this one despite some confusion because Smith was almost killed in an earlier, unrelated mishap. The painting was in fact stolen by Trefor, who killed his lover when he found out she was going to throw him over and buried her in the mine. I concluded that Turdur killed Smith to protect his father, but I was only partly right. He did help conceal the crime but Trefor, not as senile as we were led to believe, is the real murderer. This was probably the best of the Evans novels to date.
Evans to Betsy (2002) starts with the arrival of a man and a woman in Llanfair to conduct some kind of scam, details of which are not readily apparent. The woman, Emmy, is posing as a graduate student in psychology conducting research into fey abilities in Wales and claims Betsy, the barmaid, as her first experimental subject. Perhaps coincidentally, an American graduate student has gone missing in Wales, Rebecca Riesden, but they are clearly not the same person. Evan meanwhile is unhappy about being given a larger area to patrol even though it comes with a motorbike to help him get there faster. He has also moved out of his rooming house to his own place because learning to live on his own is a prerequisite to marrying Bronwyn Price.
Emmy convinces Betsy to take tests at a nearby New Age complex owned by Lady Annabel and her American husband, the supposed psychic Randy Wunderlich. A routine inquiry about the missing student turns up news that she worked at the compound for a week and left under hurried and uncertain circumstances. A few days later, Randy himself disappears and Betsy claims to have had a prescient dream in which she learned where his body was lying. Against his better judgment, Evan lets her and Emmy hustle him out of bed for an impromptu search and they find him drowned in a cave. He had been drugged.
There are a number of likely suspects including Lady Annabelle’s son, who was mindful of his inheritance, the family’s financial advisor, who had romantic feelings about Lady Annabelle, the chief housekeeper, a long time family servant intensely loyal to her mistress, and a Druid priestess whose dislike of Randy was clear from the outset. We never learned the identity of Emmy’s partner – other than that he was male – and my first suspicion was that she was working with the son, Michael, to arrange the murder and implicate Betsy. This really didn’t seem convincing, however, although it was clear that she was involved because she abruptly announces her intention to return to the United States after his body is found. My second theory was that she’d actually been working with Randy on some scam to promote his business, and that she was leaving because his death left her with no purpose.
My suspicion about an Emmy-Randy connection proved to be true, but that didn’t explain who killed him, or what happened to the missing college student. Then Betsy survives a murder attempt, and another worker dies, and it’s obvious that the killer still has another victim in mind. My leading candidates were the son and the housekeeper going into the final chapters.
The resolution is good but not exceptional, and the book is overall about average for the series. I was, however, annoyed by the very artificial contrivance to get Evan and Betsy in a compromising position just in time for Bronwyn to walk in on them. The entire sequence is unconvincing and unnecessary.
Next up was Evan Only Knows (2003), which steps outside the usual frame. Evan and Bronwyn are engaged and he takes leave to visit their respective families. He arrives just in time to discover that the young man who killed his father years earlier has been paroled and recently arrested for another murder, this time of the daughter of a local businessman. Determined to see that Tony Mancini gets put away for a long time, he convinces the local authorities to let him tag along, but he is disturbed by the growing conviction that Mancini is innocent this time.
Mancini admits to having sex with the victim on the grounds of her parents’ house only minutes before she was killed, but insists that he was leaving because someone had just driven up, and that he heard her arguing with whoever had arrived. Since she was a pampered princess whose parents had no idea she was sneaking out, I was immediately suspicious that one or both parents were involved, since it was her father who found her body, again only minutes later.
Since the local police consider it and open and shut case, Evan has lots of room to discover new facts. He uncovers Mancini’s connection to a local gang and the fact that he was supplying drugs to the dead girl. There is also a story about a disgruntled employee, a couple of young men who escorted her to social events, and a neighbor who may have seen something but who suffers from dementia. Evan is also ambivalent about helping the man who killed his father, and concerned about his mother’s reaction if he succeeds. The fact that Mancini lies to him repeatedly does not help.
There are a few red herrings to divert us from the truth. One of the escorts was stalking the dead girl. Another has mysteriously gone off to Scotland. We also learn that the victim’s father may have lied about his activities on the night in question. More significantly, pressure is put on the police to order Evan to stop investigating, which he gets around by convincing Mancini’s lawyer to take him on as an assistant. The real culprit is obvious all along, although there is an interesting twist at the end, but the story is engrossing enough that I didn’t really mind knowing the solution in advance.
Evan’s Gate (2004) opens with the disappearance of a five year old girl from a beach. Although her mother says that she believes her ex-husband abducted the child, there is considerable evidence suggesting that she is lying, that the girl was not on the beach in the first place. Elsewhere a brothers and sister, their father, and two cousins have come for an awkward reunion at the insistence of their grandfather, a sheep farmer, at which they skirt uncomfortably around the disappearance of a third sibling, who disappeared when they were all children.
Evan coincidentally digs a ditch on his property and uncovers the skeleton of the previously missing girl right in the middle of the search for the new one, and he champions the view that the two incidents are connected. Certainly the various relatives seem to be hiding something. Not very much actually happens for a good portion of the novel, just routine questioning, theorizing, and some minor subplot progress. Despite the slow middle, events really accelerate late in the book and there are some genuine surprises that I never saw coming in one of the two cases, although the other was far too predictable. A few stumbles in this one but still pretty good.
Evan Blessed (2005) is probably the weakest in the series. A young woman disappears while hiking in the mountains after separating from her boyfriend. Searchers find instead an underground bunker furnished with various supplies and a set of handcuffs. Shortly thereafter, Evan begins receiving messages in musical notation from the villain, whose identity we don’t know but whom we do know has a missing finger and is obsessed with music. That all happens fairly quickly, but the bulk of the book consists of the police investigating various dead ends in which nothing very much happens at all. It probably seemed even longer in my case because I spotted the villain’s real identity almost immediately, in part because of one clue that is not successfully obscured and partly because the other possible candidates were all so obviously not the person in question.
Evan gets assaulted and Bronwyn is kidnapped during the closing chapters, restoring some forward momentum, but it’s too little and too late. The young girl’s disappearance appears to be unrelated but I pretty much suspected the truth in that case as well. There are some moments of humor as their wedding day draws nearer, but not enough to save a very disappointing entry in the series.
Evanly Bodies (2006) starts quickly but not smoothly. There’s been a reorganization of the local police force and Evan is seconded to a glory seeking martinet who’s investigating the murder of a college professor, shot while sitting at his breakfast. The martinet, Bragg, is too much of a caricature for me to take their dissonance seriously, although the murder itself is puzzling. Evan is also interested in a Pakistani family who have recently decided to open a grocery in Llanfair, and whose teenage daughter – a friend of Bronwyn – objects to the arranged marriage favored by her family, and particularly her rather militant brother.
The investigation of the shooting proceeds in normal police procedural manner other than the byplay among the members of the dysfunctional investigating team. The wife seems the most likely suspect but Evan is convinced she is innocent, which proves to be a more tenable stance when another man is shot over breakfast, a pizza parlor owner who seems to have no connection with the professor, although both were killed with the same weapon. My initial suspicion was that this was camouflage, designed to muddy the waters and perhaps suggest a random killer rather than one with an actual motive to kill the academic.
The third murder changed by theory. An unemployed machinist is killed in the same way, but his wife reports that he was very outspokenly anti-immigrant. Connecting this with the professor’s opposition to a Muslim speaker on campus and the pizza owner’s penchant for getting into violent arguments when he was drunk, I began to suspect Rashid, the brother of the missing girl, whom Bronwyn suspects may have killed her when she announced her refusal to marry the man her parents had chosen. The solution did catch me by surprise, but it’s a bit of a cheat since Evan stumbles upon the ultimate clue by complete happenstance. Still entertaining but the series seems to be running out of steam at this point, and in fact ended with this book.
As Bowen was winding up the Evan series, she began the adventures of Molly Murphy in Murphy’s Law (2001). Molly was an Irish peasant girl who accidentally killed a member of the English landowning class when he tried to rape her. She flees, knowing there will be no justice for her, and falls coincidentally into an opportunity to travel to America under an assumed name, arriving in 1901. The voyage is less than reassuring, however, as one of her fellow passengers suspects her impersonation. When he ends up with his throat cut at Ellis Island, she and a fellow passenger named Larkin are the two prime suspects.
Feeling obligated to Larkin, and wanting her own name cleared, she sets out to solve the crime on her own, succeeding in due course after some improbable adventures. The novel is quite entertaining as a portrait of its time, and Molly is an intriguing character, but the subordinate characters are colorless and uninteresting, and the mystery isn’t a significant part of the story until well into the second half. A light but interesting story, but not a particularly successful mystery novel.
Although Murphy’s Law won an Agatha award, the sequel, Death of Riley (2002) is a much better book. Molly’s romance with police detective Sullivan is going through a bad patch as she convinces Paddy Riley, a private investigator, to take her on as office assistant. Riley is murdered after one of his current cases turns up a surprising fact, which neither we nor Molly are privy to, and Molly decides to avenge her erstwhile employer. I rather liked Paddy, one of Bowen’s more interesting characters, and was sorry to see him go so quickly. He’s a lot more interesting than the rather predictable Sullivan.
Her investigation is systematic if amateurish, and she takes a lot of chances confronting people connected to the three open cases Paddy was working on. In fact, the crisis was precipitated not by these directly but by something he saw and overheard almost inadvertently. The mystery element is stronger in this one, but it’s still the setting that steals the show, a mélange of anarchists, snobs, struggling immigrants, and corrupt officials. The troubled romance with Sullivan contributes little and is mildly annoying, but otherwise this was excellent.
For the Love of Mike (2003) has Molly continuing her plans to take over the late Paddy Riley's detective business, even though she has virtually no professional training. One of her cases seems innocent enough, a missing young woman, but when the woman's body is fished out of the river and her friend Sullivan suggests that there may be more than one murder involved, she has second thoughts. Her stubborn nature overcomes her qualms, however, as she determinedly sets out to discover the truth. This time her investigations will lead into very dangerous territory, the world of criminal gangs that exists hidden, mostly, beneath the veneer of the city. There's as much adventure as detection and the format is more that of a Chandleresque detective story - though obviously with a very different setting - than the police procedurals and cosies that Bowen had written previously. Her evocation of the sordid underside of turn of the century America is quite colorful and convincing.
Continuing the string of Irish related titles, the next was In Like Flynn (2005). Molly is still caught up in an awkward romantic triangle with Sullivan and his fiance, and when he offers her a chance to get out of New York for a while and pursue a genuine investigation, she jumps at the chance. The mystery this time is a much stronger element. Molly goes undercover to penetrate the house of a prominent politician whose mentally questionable wife is consulting a notorious pair of spiritualists in an attempt to contact their young son, who was kidnapped several years previously and never returned. Sullivan - and the reader - suspects from the outset that the spiritualists are frauds, though very clever ones, and Molly is of the same opinion. The crime seems much less significant to her than the disappearance of the child, however, so her investigation takes an unexpected and decidedly chancier turn as she decides to find out what really happened five years previously. Naturally there is at least one person who doesn't want her to discover the truth, and who is willing to resort to rather drastic measures to make sure that she doesn't succeed. The series continues to match well executed historical settings with increasingly effective mystery puzzles.
At the beginning of Oh Danny Boy (2006) Molly is considering a change in lifestyle. Her experiences as a private investigator have soured her on that profession, and Sullivan's inability to free himself of the fiance he doesn't love has put a crimp on her love life. She decides to give up being a detective and find herself an easier personal relationship, but her resolve doesn't last long. Sullivan is framed for a series of crimes of corruption and imprisoned pending his trial, and he appeals to her to help him prove his innocence. Naturally there is no way she can refuse. In the background, we learn of the depredations of the East Side Ripper, a serial killer who specializes in prostitutes. There seems to be no way that the two plot elements can be related, but naturally they are. Another subplot involves the fixing of horse races, and she has to consider the possibility that either of these two cases could have precipitated someone into framing him to get him off the investigation. The fact that Molly is also pregnant, thanks to a one time weakness with Sullivan, just adds to the complications. This one is pretty good, more suspenseful than the earlier ones, but I didn't think the mystery element was as strong. There is also a tendency for Murphy to solve her cases more by luck than detection, but that was equally true of the Evans series.
The penultimate Molly Murphy mystery is In Dublin's Fair City (2007). Sullivan is still under suspicion but at least he's been released from jail. Molly, who is back in the detection business, agrees to return to Ireland to locate a missing relative for a wealthy immigrant, even though she could be arrested for murder by the Irish authorities if they should learn of her presence. I was not entirely convince that she would have taken such a chance, but given that premise, off she goes aboard an ocean liner. But before the trip is over, murder will rear its ugly head once again. One of the passengers disappears under mysterious circumstances and her maid is found murdered. In Ireland, she gets involved with the Irish nationalist movement and, once again, someone decides to murder her before she can complete her inquiries. All of the diverse plot elements are related as usual, but I thought there was some strain in the construction this time. I can't fault the background, however, which is brought vividly to life, and Molly continues to be an unusually interesting personality.
Molly's saga comes to an end in Tell Me, Pretty Maiden (2008). She's back in New York and her detective business is going strong, so strong that she can't keep up with the workload. So she decides to offer her romantic interest, Sullivan, a job working for her, a situation fraught with emotional trauma. Once again we have multiple ultimately interrelated cases. A young woman with amnesia is found unconscious in Central Park. A theater production is plagued by Phantom of the Opera style phenomena. A young man suspected of murder disappears, apparently confirming his guilt, although his relatives think otherwise. The novel ends with a good solution to the mystery but with the romantic tension between the two main characters unresolved. It is always possible that Bowen will return to this series and clear up that loose end as well, but for the moment it appears that Molly has investigated her last case. But that doesn't mean that Bowen has stopped writing mysteries.
Bowen’s most recent series started with Her Royal Spyness (2008). Her protagonist is Lady Georgiana, 34th in line to the British throne. Her branch of the family is not well off and her brother and his wife are pretty miserly, which leaves her in an uncomfortable situation. The Queen wants to send her off to be a companion to one or another elderly relative, but Georgiana wants to stay in London. To do so, she has to find a way to support herself, which she manages by setting up a cleaning service for the aristocracy, specializing in opening houses that have been disused in recent months. This enables her to then clean the houses herself with minimal risk of running into anyone who would recognize her – and that class would never actually notice a servant in any case.
In the opener, she comes home one day to find a dead body in her bathtub, a murder case in which her brother is the prime suspect, although obviously he’s not guilty. The killer also seems intent upon adding Georgiana to his list of victims, for reasons not immediately obvious. The mystery aspect is rather flawed in my opinion. Much of it involves a series of coincidental meetings that stretch my credulity even for a detective story. More seriously, I spotted the villain almost immediately and there was nothing to make me doubt my decision after that. What made the book appealing was the characters and situations, and the fact that Bowen continues to use a lively, clear prose style to tell her stories.
Georgiana returned in A Royal Pain (2008), still flirting with the idea of flirting with the young man she met in her first adventure. This time she is unable to deflect the Queen’s wishes, which are that she should act as companion and keeper to a visiting European princess who is more interested in drink, men, and trouble than she is in upholding the royal reputation. There are two murders in short order, the first appearing to be an accidental death at a party, the second a more deliberate and obvious execution of a Communist activist. In the latter case, the visiting princess becomes suspect number one.
SPOILER ALERT. Bowen resolves this one with a variation of the technique John Dickson Carr used in Below Suspicion. In both cases, the actual killer is the person whom the evidence suggests is the culprit, which all good mystery readers know is usually the mark of innocence. The additional twist here is that the princess is not the princess at all, but actually a fanatic revolutionary who is maintaining the masquerade in order to get close enough to assassinate the Queen and, presumably, throw England’s upper class into turmoil. Once again Georgiana saves the day, a bit more melodramatically this time. The faux princess is actually the most engaging character in this one, which is in some ways superior to its predecessor.
Royal Flush (2009) is the weakest of the mysteries, but still quite enjoyable. After an embarrassing gaffe in London, Lady Georgiana is coerced into helping the authorities investigate a series of odd accidents which have endangered various members of the royal family. To this end she travels to Scotland where everyone has gathered for the hunting season, to find her brother’s house full of unpleasant visitors including the Prince Regent’s mistress. One of the “accidents” nearly claims her own life. The two murders happen late in the book – and do not involve members of the royal family – but the identity of the killer was obvious almost from the outset, although not the details of the motive.
As with the first two, the plot includes a lot of coincidental meetings. There are actually two kinds of coincidence in a detective story. The first, and legitimate, is a combination of events which combine to make the mystery itself more interesting, complex, or misleading. This can be misused but it is a valid plot device. The second kind consists of a kind of shortcut a writer takes to speed things up. This can be done well and is often the method by which the protagonist is brought into the murder investigation. But my problem with this series is that there are too many peripheral, unnecessary coincidental meetings and this makes the world seem less real.
For example, Georgiana is nearly run down by a motorcycle that happens to have as its passenger Belinda, her friend from the previous books. Okay, not implausible. But then she is by mischance in a seedy bar when who should show up but Darcy, her on and off romantic interest, who rescues her from an aggressive male but never really explains what he’s doing there. It’s obvious that he did not expect to find her. Stretching things a bit here. Then she has to fend off the advances of an old friend of her brother’s while riding the train to Scotland, only to discover that he is one of the houseguests. Then she impulsively goes riding one morning and happens to encounter Darcy, who had also impulsively gone riding in the same place. And then she runs into Belinda again, and her mother, and so forth and so on. The frustrating thing is that most of this could have been gotten around quite easily. The mystery itself is nicely done, if not well concealed. The motivation of the killer is clear, though not particularly well established. It also involves a speculation about an historical character that I’d heard before.
It is interesting to note that Bowen’s three protagonists have had quite different personalities. Evans is fairly introverted, passive, and completely professional. Murphy is impulsive, assertive, and sometimes brash despite her amateur status. Georgiana lies somewhere between them, ambivalent but determined. All three have tumultuous romances, a device which felt strained in all three cases. Very few of the books have stronger mystery elements; they rely more on the characters and settings than they do on the art of detection, and in the case of the Evans books, the police work is occasionally the dullest part. It will be interesting to see how much longer Bowen decides to pursue Georgiana’s history, and what she will turn her hand to next.
Lady Georgiana's fourth outing, Royal Blood (2010), is a little like Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Much to her surprise, she is asked by the queen to attend a royal wedding at a creepy old castle in Transylvania. The bride to be is the dumpy child she knew in school, who turns out to have become a great beauty. She is accompanied by a hastily hired, accident prone, and very inappropriate maid named Queenie, and she encounters all of the usual characters, who have ended up there through one contrivance or another including her jet setting mother, he would be boyfriend from the secret service, her ghastly princely suitor, and her best friend.
The castle is replete with legends of vampires and other dire evils, but everything seems to be going well - despite the fulminations of a couple of Englishwomen, one of whom is facetiously named Deer-Harte - until one of the prominent guests is murdered by means of a poisoned glass of wine. Mishaps and misunderstandings ensue and the mystery is less the point of the story than usual. In fact, the killer isn't even introduced until late in the game, although I suspected from the outset that it was murder by accident, i.e. someone else was supposed to have taken that particular cup. The comic elements are dominant and often quite funny, and this was a refreshing and mild change of pace for the series.
Next up is Naughty in Nice (2011) which takes Georgiana and the various characters associated with her to France. The queen has prevailed upon her to retrieve a small antique which she believes was stolen by Sir Toby Groper, an industrialist, who is staying there with his wife, and sometimes his mistress. She also discovers that Darcy, her romantic interest, is also on the scene, apparently visiting with his own mistress and an illegitimate child, although the perceptive reader knows that this has to be explained at some point because the romance must continue. Although originally planning to stay with a set of dreary in-laws, chance gets her an invitation to model for a famous designer, and an even greater stroke of luck puts her flighty mother there in a large villa. Unfortunately, she is soon implicated in the theft of an expensive necklace also on loan from the queen. Even worse, the rich thief is murdered and the local police arrest Georgiana and charge her with the crime. There are plenty of other suspects. He just threw out his mistress, argued violently with his wife, and mentioned a major financial dispute with an art dealer. Unbeknownst to him, his son is in town, having just been expelled from college after writing a rubber check. Lacking obvious motives are the suave French nobleman, the overqualified valet, and Georgiana's unidentified double. There are two murders and a couple of surprises before the solution - actually two solutions since there are two separate criminals - and the expected explanation about Darcy's supposed secret love. This one is quite good. Rumor has it that the first in the series is about to become a movie.
The Twelve Clues of Christmas (2012). Lady Georgiana returns for her fifth case, this time traveling to a small village in Devon for Christmas where she is employed as a social hostess for two weeks. Her mother and grandfather are there and her love interest is hovering in the background so we know he’s going to show up at some point as well. Multiple coincidences move all of the recurring characters into place. The day she arrives she learns of the escape of three convicts from a nearby prison and the accidental shooting death of one of the locals, as well as the village curse that is supposed to recur around the holidays. When three more “accidental” deaths occur in separate incidents over the course of the next three days, she suspects foul play or supernatural intervention. The pattern continues, one death every day except for one upon which a major jewelry theft is committed, all of the deaths apparently accidents. The local constable admits he is out of his depth and Georgiana recruits her grandfather and boyfriend to help investigate on their own. Although Bowen cheats a bit - one of the two killers is never seen until after he has been identified - she provides a lot of clues to the pattern of the killings. The identity of the accomplice is also pretty obvious. If one character seems too good to be true in a mystery novel, then it's very likely that he/she is indeed too good to be true.
Click here for a review of Heirs and Graces
Click here for a review of Queen of Hearts