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.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

Flavia de Luce is an ordinary 11-year-old girl–she pesters her older sisters (who pester her in return), takes bike rides through the countryside, worships at the altar of chemistry–wait, what?

Let’s try this again.

It’s 1950 in rural England. Flavia de Luce lives near the village of Bishop’s Lacey with her father and two older sisters, in an old, rambling house called Buckshaw. For the most part, life at Buckshaw is uneventful–sure, her sisters lock her in a closet sometimes, but that’s only to be expected from older sisters.

One day, a dead bird turns up on the kitchen doorstep with a penny stamp skewered on its beak. It’s weird, but Flavia dismisses it–until early the next morning, when she discovers a corpse in the cucumber patch. What’s more, she’s reasonably sure the body belongs to the man she overheard arguing with her father late the night before. The police are duly summoned; Flavia, fascinated, tries to observe the proceedings but is sent away. So, of course, she decides to launch her own investigation into the death of the mysterious stranger. And a good thing, too, because her father is soon arrested and charged with the murder.

The clues lead Flavia down the path of history, to a mysterious suicide (or was it?) at a nearby school some 30 years before, over the loss of an incredibly rare stamp.

When it first came out, this book won all the awards, and it deserves every one of them. It’s an engaging mystery, brilliantly realized.

Flavia is one of the most original and engaging heroines in fiction today. She’s smart, she’s clever, she’s not always likeable–just like any other 11-year-old (except for the aforementioned obsession with chemistry, that is). But that brings me to another point. Despite the youth of the protagonist, this book isn’t YA. I don’t mean that it’s full of adult content or anything like that, but it’s not a kid’s book–it just happens to feature one.

Can Flavia follow the trail of clues and exonerate her father? What really happened at the school 30 years ago? Will she get revenge on her sisters? Pick up this book, dig deep, and see if you can find the Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

Favorite Line:

Was I now inducted, and would I be expected to take part in unspeakably bloody midnight rituals in the hedgerows? It seemed like an interesting possibility.

Don’t read if: you have any sort of problem with stamps, pie, overly inquisitive 11-year-olds, chemistry, or bicycles with names.

The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin

Sam Westing is dead. His sixteen heirs are summoned to hear the reading of the will. But something about the whole situation is…strange.

For one thing, many of the heirs had never met Sam Westing. For another, the ones who had met him didn’t like him. And then, of course, there’s the matter of the actual inheritance.

Westing died a millionaire, and is leaving it all to one of the sixteen. They’re split up into pre-assigned pairs, given envelopes with cryptic clues, and told to solve the puzzle. Only thing is, they haven’t been told what the rules are or what the clues are for; never mind the answer, they haven’t even been given the question! Within the walls of Sunset Towers (where all the heirs coincidentally [or is it?!] reside) live a cook, a judge, a doctor, a housewife, a bomber, a bookie, a thief–and, according to Westing’s will, a murderer.

This is another old favorite from my childhood. A teacher told me a little about it, and soon enough I was engrossed. I must have read it a dozen times as a kid, and even now I read it once a year. It’s so well done, so clever, that every time I read it I pick up some subtle clue or funny bit that I missed every time before. It never feels old, never feels stale, even now when I could probably quote the entire thing by heart.

Join the heirs as they try to solve the mystery (and figure out what, exactly, the mystery’s supposed to be). Everyone’s a suspect. Everyone’s hiding something–and some of them are even aware of the secrets they’re keeping. Pay attention, stay on your toes, and maybe you could be the winner of the Westing Game.

Favorite Line:

Friday was back to normal, if the actions of suspicious would-be heirs competing for a two-hundred-million-dollar prize could be considered normal.

Don’t read if: you object to doormen, braids, the stock market, spare ribs, painted crutches, or the Fourth of July.

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie

A murdered man, a transcontinental train, and every passenger a suspect…

Hercule Poirot, whilst traveling back to London from Istanbul, is approached by a man asking for his help. He says he feels threatened, that he is surrounded by enemies, and needs Poirot’s protection. Poirot, however, turns him down. When pressed to change his mind, Poirot only grows firmer in his decision. Something isn’t right about the man–a caged animal, dangerous, pretending at civilization and humanity.

The next morning, the man in question is found dead in his compartment. It’s clearly murder, as he was stabbed a dozen times. But who did it? And why?

As Poirot gathers the facts of the case, the why grows clearer, but not the who. No one could have left the train after the murder, but none of the passengers on the train could possibly have done it. Alibis and evidence, clues and suspicions, they all point in conflicting directions. Poirot, at the top of his game, needs to solve the mystery before the journey ends and the suspects scatter to the winds.

There’s a reason Agatha Christie is called the Queen of Crime, and this book is her at her finest. The setting, the characters, they’re all there waiting for you to puzzle out the answer. It’s intriguing and clever; the clues cryptic and arcane; and Poirot is at his pompous best.

An intriguing look at the desire for revenge and the difficult choice between doing what is right and doing what is just, can you solve the Murder on the Orient Express before time runs out?

Favorite Line:

If you will forgive me for being personal–I do not like your face.

Don’t read if: you can’t stand snow, trains, snowbound trains, mustachioed Belgians, or monogrammed handkerchiefs.