Shadow of the Alchemist, by Jeri Westerson (Minotaur):
There’s no mystery about why I enjoy Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest yarns: they’re historical whodunits--or “Medieval Noirs,” to adopt her term. And though I don’t usually go in for honor-bound knights and elusive holy grails and such, this author’s combination of strongly fashioned characters, sword-clashing action, circuitous plotting, and incidental humor long ago won me over. In Shadow of the Alchemist, her sixth entry in this series (following last year’s Blood Lance), we find a storied French alchemist, Nicholas Flamel, venturing over to London in the year 1387 to engage in escapades of a notably clandestine nature. Flamel’s wife and youthful apprentice soon go missing, though, and the alchemist seeks out disgraced knight--and renowned “tracker”--Crispin Guest to find them. It sounds like a domestic matter; Flamel hints that the pair have absconded together for immoral purposes. And Guest, like his private-eye counterparts of the later 20th century, would prefer to stay away from such sordid matters. Yet, after one of the pair suddenly turns up quite dead, and Flamel is instructed that he’ll have to turn over knowledge of a fabled “Philosopher’s Stone” (said to be capable of transforming base metal into gold) if he’s ever to see the other alive once more, Guest’s involvement in the case deepens. A murderer is at large, one who’s fond of leading our hero on with obscure clues to forthcoming events. Westerson does a superior job of incorporating into this treasure-hunt tale the political and social complexities of Guest’s era, without hobbling her plot’s rollicking momentum.
* * *Speaking of historical mysteries, you should also check out Edward Marston’s Five Dead Canaries (Allison & Busby UK), the third of his World War I-set “Home Front Detective” novels. Here we find Inspector Harvey Marnion and Sergeant Joe Keedy (introduced in 2011’s A Bespoke Murder) on the hunt for whoever killed a group of munitionettes, or “canary girls,” determinedly independent women who worked in Britain’s munitions factories. The year is 1916, and Scotland Yard’s suspicions fall immediately on German spies. But Marnion and Keedy aren’t sure that easy answer is the right one. Their investigation will illuminate a variety of societal changes and ills, and leave them racing against the restrictions of time in order to save other “canaries” from being brutally plucked off.