The Eight, by Katherine Neville

Mireille is a novice at Montglane Abbey in France. It’s 1790, and the French Revolution is well under way, so the Mother Superior is closing the abbey before the army arrives. But it’s more than just the nuns she is trying to save: the abbey has long been the hiding place of the Montglane Service, a chess set once belonging to Charlemagne himself. Massive, exquisitely wrought pieces encrusted with gems, the board a meter square and made entirely of silver and gold, the service inspired greed and rage in nearly all who saw it. So it was hidden away for a thousand years, safe from the evils of the world. But with the Revolution seizing the contents of all convents and monasteries, it’s only a matter of time before the Montglane Service comes to light again. Unless she can smuggle it out, piece by piece, dispersed with her nuns across the length and breadth of France. And Mireille is a perfect candidate to help protect the pieces…

It’s New Years Eve, 1972, and Catherine Velis is late for a party. When she finally arrives, a bizarre fortune-teller rambles something at her about her hand being foretold, not trusting anyone, and an endless battle of white. A bit confused, she shrugs it off. After all, she’s only got a few months left in New York before her company ships her off to Algeria, and she wants to enjoy it. But an acquaintance is pestering her about finding a rare, extremely valuable chess piece while she’s there, and there’s something…off…about his request. And the weirdness keeps mounting: the strange man on the bicycle, the shooting at a chess tournament, the body on a slab at the United Nations. And the job in Algeria doesn’t seem quite right, either.

As Mireille struggles to protect the pieces, as Catherine comes closer to uncovering the secret of the Service, can they succeed against rising odds and mounting violence?

The Eight is best described as a quest novel, told in two concurrent timelines (Don’t worry, eventually they meet up). It’s a riveting thriller taking readers from New York to Algiers, France to Russia. Mireille and Catherine are engaging heroines, bound by fate to protect the Montglane Service. If you’re looking for a thrill, some history, some chess, or just something a little different, I seriously suggest giving The Eight a try.

Favorite Line:

“How did you know which [car] was the secret police?”

“I didn’t.” Lily gave me a smug smile as she took off down the street. “So to be safe, I drilled them all.”

Don’t read if: you get uncomfortable about chess, Rolls-Royces, historical figures in fiction, or the French.

Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin

It’s 1171, Cambridge, England. Children are disappearing, and the townsfolk blame the Jews. To prevent a wholesale slaughter, the sheriff has moved every Jew in the area to his castle for their protection. But the locals are angry, and it’s only a matter of time before they act. Meanwhile, the children are turning up–dead. Tempers flare, and the populace is howling for justice, retribution, blood.

Enter Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar. Sent by the king of Sicily, she’s a Salerno-taught physician who specializes in postmortem studies–she’s a doctor to the dead. She, her companion Mansur, and the Sicilian king’s fixer Simon are tasked with solving the murders and restoring peace to the Cambridge fens.

But England is not Salerno–anti-Semitism runs rampant, doctors are mostly quack-medicine peddlers frowned upon by the all-powerful Church (suffering is sent from God, they reason, so only God can relieve it. Looking elsewhere for a cure suggests a lack of faith–or worse), and women doctors are even worse: at best ostracized, more likely to be branded witches and dealt with accordingly.

Adelia and her companions have to tread carefully–let no one know what she really is, or why they’re really there. But she finds a few unlikely allies along the way–and one incredibly likely suspect, a tax collector named Rowley Picot. As her suspicions mount and tensions rise, can she find the killer before they strike again, before the villagers storm the castle, before the Church brands her a witch and a heretic?

This book is wonderful; I love it. It’s a great mystery with an equally great protagonist, set in a much under-used era. This history is pretty accurate, which (for the most part) adds a wonderful aspect to the story. It’s accuracy, however, can make some parts uncomfortable, especially because at that time in history anti-Semitism was everywhere and it’s upsetting to read about how acceptable and prevalent it was, even in England where they weren’t actively persecuted.

But I do highly, highly encourage you to read this book: for the history, for the place, and to discover just why Adelia merits the title of Mistress of the Art of Death.

Favorite Line:

And however vile the creature it was laid for, a trap was always a trap.

Don’t read if:  you take issue with determined career women, 12th century England, Crusaders, relics, or incredibly smelly dogs.

The Alienist, by Caleb Carr

As a crime reporter for the New York Times, John Moore has seen the darkest side of humanity–or so he thought until one night in March 1896, when a frenzied pounding at his door summoned him to a murder scene worse than anything he could imagine: a boy, a child prostitute, bound and horribly mutilated atop the Williamsburg Bridge. The worst part? This is the third such body so far this year.

The police commissioner is appalled. So much so that he decides to appoint a handpicked group to investigate the murders; a group separate from the notoriously corrupt Division of Detectives–a group that actually cares about the deaths of ignored, desperate children working a job most of society refuses to acknowledge could ever exist.

So John, a pair of Jewish brothers, and the NYPD’s first female secretary team up under the leadership of one of New York’s most controversial figures: Dr. Laszlo Kreizler.

Kreizler is an alienist–what we would nowadays call a psychiatrist (back then people with mental illnesses were considered “alienated” from themselves, and so the doctors who treated them were known as alienists.). A strong advocate of nurture over nature, Kreizler believes the group can come to understand the motivations of the killer by examining the dead and working backwards to establish patterns, and then using those patterns to find the killer’s identity.

John believes they stand a good chance of solving the murders, but powerful people are standing in their way–witnesses are bribed, beaten, threatened into silence. But who is silencing the witnesses? And why? The deeper the team digs, the stronger the pushback becomes, until they themselves are at risk.

I first read this book about twelve years ago, when a friend loaned it to me, telling me I’d love it. He was right. A dark, sometimes graphic, engrossing mystery, it’s got so much historical detail you feel like you’re actually there. Real-life people from history populate the pages of the book; rather than seeming out-of-place or overshadowing the fictional characters, they instead breathe even more life into the setting. Carr does a wonderful job painting a portrait of desperation standing alongside unimaginable wealth; of an hypocritical society determined to ignore its own darker side.

Can Kreizler and Co. find the murderer before another child dies? Before the city’s poor begin to riot? Before one of their own becomes the next victim? The Alienist is a thrilling chase through Gilded Age Manhattan that will leave you breathless.

Favorite Line:

If I’m the danger then I shall remove myself. Let this man keep killing. It’s what they want…without such creatures they’ve no scapegoats for their own wretched brutality!

Don’t read if: you recoil at Teddy Roosevelt, reformed criminal children named Stevie, long meals at Delmonico’s, or nervous grandmothers.

Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters

A recently-wealthy, opinionated Victorian spinster goes on a Nile cruise with a new friend–what could possibly go wrong?

Amelia Peabody has just come into a great deal of money. As a spinster with no ties holding her down, she decides that it’s time to travel to all the places she’s ever wanted to go: Paris, Rome–and Egypt. While in Rome, she meets another woman, Evelyn Forbes, and the two hit it off–so well, in fact, that Amelia insists that Evelyn travel with her to Egypt as her companion.

Before embarking on a trip up the Nile, they spend a few days in Cairo seeing the sites (the Giza pyramids, the Cairo Museum)–and meeting the Emerson brothers, Radcliffe and Walter. Walter is a good, kind man who swiftly catches Evelyn’s eye.  Radcliffe, on the other hand, is loud, rude, and irritating; and he and Amelia don’t exactly see eye to eye. Not that it matters, because Amelia and Evelyn are off on their cruise.

They stop at Amarna, famous city of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, and find a pair of archaeologists working to preserve and restore the site–it’s the Emerson brothers, in fact. Fascinated by the process, the ladies decide to stay awhile and help–but end up getting far more than they ever bargained for.

With suspicious accidents happening left and right, a mummy on the loose, and Evelyn’s past coming back to haunt her, Amelia knows it’s up to her to save the day.

This is a fun one. It’s a lighthearted, thoroughly enjoyable (and informative!) mystery featuring one of the most indomitable heroines I’ve ever encountered. Amelia knows her mind (and speaks it), takes no crap from anyone, and doesn’t back down, no matter what (It doesn’t hurt that the Egyptology is dead-on–Elizabeth Peters earned a PhD in Egyptology before she became a writer, so the history and archaeology are both accurate).

Travel up the Nile with Amelia Peabody, and have a Victorian adventure unlike anything you’ve ever read before.

Favorite Line:

Men are frail creatures, of course; one does not expect them to exhibit the steadfastness of women.

Don’t read if: you have a distaste for boats, Egypt, ambulatory mummies, or tapioca pudding.