In A Murder by Any Name, a new series debut for Suzanne M. Wolfe, Nicholas Holt, the younger son of a fictional nobleman, is a soldier as well as a spy for William Cecil. He is home in London to report on his mission from the Continent when he is instead assigned to investigate the brutal murder of Queen Elizabeth’s youngest, most innocent lady in waiting, right in the heart of the court. The murder is disturbing, not only because it strikes at a young and innocent girl, but because the body was posed in the chapel in a gruesome imitation of prayer.
When a second lady in waiting is murdered shortly after the first, the stakes get even higher for Nick, whose loyalty as a member of a recusant family might be in question if he cannot discover the identity of the murderer. The political overtones imply that someone is striking at Elizabeth herself, implying that her reign is illegitimate and that Catholics should be ruling England. Nick relies on the help of his friends - Spanish Jewish doctors Eli and his beautiful twin sister Rivkah, his childhood friend John, and his faithful and well trained wolfhound Hector - to home in on a cold-blooded killer who won’t stop until forced to by the Queen’s executioner.
A Murder by Any Name was a fast-paced and entertaining read. It held my attention throughout, even though I totally figured out who the killer was quite early on. I’ve read too many mysteries to be surprised by very much, and this plot was really pretty standard. However, the historical details and character development were really well done and more than made up for any lack of surprise for me. Wolfe’s attention to detail was such that I could practically smell the stench of the Thames - or Elizabeth’s breath from her black and rotting teeth! Gnarly. The atmosphere she created was rich and full of emotion, enhanced by the physical details surrounding the characters. The brittle cold, icy water, foggy riverbanks, echoing chambers or chapels, all contributed to the feelings of fear and paranoia that pervaded society at the time. So often, the Jewish communities were the scapegoats for anything that went wrong, as Eli and Rivkah had painful reason to know.
Skillfully, Wolfe crafted a protagonist who was sympathetic as well as empathetic while retaining historical accuracy, a tremendous balancing act in itself. Nick Holt was a product of his time, but he was not hardened or indifferent to the suffering of those beneath him on the social scale. Wolfe did a fantastic job of weaving feminism into her story while still being accurate to the social mores of the time – excellently done in fact. Nick was a wonderful, sensitive, believable character, and I wish there were more period pieces with men like him in them as opposed to sexist men who are written behaving like barbarians simply because the author seems to think that is how it was back in the day, or maybe because an author is himself a sexist? A Murder by Any Name is the best of what happens when you get a woman to write a well-researched historical fiction. I am looking forward to reading more books in this series, and I can happily recommend this one.
© Kristen McQuinn
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