Jason Bourne in 1815 Paris!

You can judge a book by its cover when it’s a C.S. Harris Regency mystery.  The gorgeous covers are elegant, mysterious, evocative and haunting. And that’s the kind of historical mystery Harris writes, fielding a hero I dubbed the “Regency Jason Bourne” a few years ago.

He’s Sebastian St. Cyr, a Byronic English nobleman with some dark family secrets, a brilliant wife, and a powerful Machiavellian father-in-law with whom he’s often been at loggerheads.  A distant cousin of George III who wields tremendous power, this father-in-law is a “ruthless, eerily omniscient man with an enviable network of spies, informants and assassins.” 

But St. Cyr is more than a match for him or any opponent: He’s strong, clever, a gifted sleuth, blessed with supernaturally acute hearing and eyesight, and dangerous when threatened or crossed. 

Remember the scene in The Bourne Identity where Bourne is sleeping on a park bench in Switzerland and suddenly disarms and knocks out two policeman who want to see his papers?  That’s the kind of surprisingly quick, efficient act St. Cyr can perform as easily as tying his cravat.  He may look like a toff but he’s a bruiser when he needs to be.

Our hero is now in Paris searching for the mother who abandoned the family years ago, and that search of course leads to what seems like endless darkness before there’s light.  His journey starts with a shocking and heartbreaking discovery in the first few pages.   Harris is deft at writing opening chapters that grab you without feeling gimmicky and the opening chapter of When Blood Lies may be the strongest and most startling she’s ever written. 

It’s 1815 and France is “a witches’ brew of rumors and swirling threats of conspiracy” after over two decades of “death and heartache, terror and disaster, resentment and fury” due to revolution, war, and roiling regime change.

St. Cyr soon learns that his mother has been deeply enmeshed in France’s current turmoil in ways he cannot guess.  His investigation will require speaking to  a wide cross section of Parisian humanity including royalty, an executioner, the police, an inn keeper and many more.  This diversity is part of what makes the series so fascinating; Harris’s canvas is always large and colorful.

Looming over every interaction and conversation, it seems, is the shadow of Napoleon, seemingly trapped on Elba.  Ditto the echoing cries of mobs lusting for bloody spectacle when thousands of men, women, and children were guillotined during The Terror.

I can’t think of many crime writers who can so perfectly create a scene by appealing to all your senses the way Harris does.  Her fiendish plots, her deeply drawn characters and their tangled relationships are just plain thrilling.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres and was the crime fiction review for the Detroit Free Press for a decade.  He mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com

Elise Blackwell’s Novel About Musicians Is Dazzling

I was an early reader, and back in elementary school, if I liked a book, I read it many times. So often, in fact, that my parents would ask why I wasn’t reading something else. It struck me as a strange question and my answer was always “But I love this book!”

I still have my childhood copy of The Three Musketeers and the binding is loose, pages have disappeared and it looks like it might have gotten mixed up in one of their sword fights. My copy of Cheaper by the Dozen, a story of a colorful family of twelve kids, is almost as battered.  Just looking at them brings back happy memories of sinking into magical narratives.  Both books inspired me to become a writer myself.

Later on, I would find myself drawn back to favorite novels from college courses like Women in Love and The Portrait of a Lady.

But as my range of interests expanded, there were so many books I wanted to explore than I’d re-read something only occasionally. And when I became a book reviewer for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, and other papers, keeping up with my assignments meant that there wasn’t time to re-read books.

Now that I review less often, I’m able to visit with books I especially enjoyed and my latest rediscovery is Elise Blackwell’s An Unfinished Score.  This is actually my third encounter because I read it a second time when I assigned it in a creative writing workshop.  Students loved it, and it’s not hard to see why.

In glistening, powerful, evocative, poetic prose Blackwell takes us into a world many of us will be familiar with–a troubled marriage–and one more remote: the life of a woman violist who’s a member of a string quartet, is married to an aloof, unhappy composer, and has been having an affair with a famous conductor.

Despite her secret life, this world is full of camaraderie and joy.  However, making music itself can be sad because “something real and loud in the air…disappears from all but memory.  Sometimes Suzanne strains to imagine the music still living, playing on in some version of reality not organized by time, all its notes together like colors in black paint or white light.  It might be a place, she thinks now, in which you can love two people without diminishing either.”

The book opens with a shock: Alex, the conductor, dies in a plane crash and as soon as she hears the news, Suzanne’s life becomes painfully bifurcated.  There’s everything normal she does each day, and there’s the howling void inside of her. Not long afterward, a phone call from out of the blue changes her life, and the book becomes even more dramatic as Suzanne is drawn into a bizarre new relationship.

Blackwell deeply understands the routines of the musician’s life, and the mysteries.  As a writer, she excels at sense detail, at creating idiosyncratic characters, and imbuing every page with a love of music.  And there are plot twists worthy of a mystery.

Reading An Unfinished Score made me sorry I’d given up piano lessons years ago, but even if you’ve never played a single note, you’re likely to find Blackwell’s novel thrilling, passionate, and hypnotic.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery.