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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Book Review: fall mysteries from coast to coast

My two top picks for fall reading span the continent.   Both are set in the 1920’s, one in Oregon and one on Grand Manan Island (New Brunswick).      

The Impersonator, by Mary Miley
Minotaur/St. Martin’s, Sept. 2013. ISBN 9781250028174 

In high school freshman English we learned about the doppelganger theory – the idea that people have look-alikes.   Novelist Mary Miley and I were classmates and we both remembered that lesson.  Years later, Mary has used the literary device to great advantage in her first novel, The Impersonator. 

The vaudeville circuit in the 1920’s was an often-tough way to make a living.  Leah Randall knows that all too well.  She’s been on stage since she was a tot.  Now she’s playing adolescent characters as long as she can though she’s in her twenties.  After one performance in Omaha as one of the Little Darlings, a man meets her backstage.  He has a business proposition for her. 

Leah is a dead ringer for Oliver Beckett’s niece Jessie Carr.  In 1917, when Jessie was 14, she disappeared.    It’s seven years later.  If Jessie does not step forward to claim her inheritance by her 21st birthday, the family fortune will be distributed.   “Uncle Ollie” wants to hire Leah to play Jessie.  When she claims the money they will split it.    

Leah agrees to take on the role of a lifetime.  Ollie coaches her in Jessie’s life story.  They return to the Carr family mansion on the Oregon coast where “Jessie” is warily received by her grandmother and stepbrothers.   Carefully staying in character, Leah seeks to find out what really happened to Jessie.  Someone in the house knows she’s acting and tries to stop her before Jessie’s birthday. 

Mary is a historian by profession.  Her extensive research  ( means that the period slang and other details are authentic.  The story is suspenseful and lively.  This is a book that both Mary and I would have loved to read when we were in high school – and it is every bit as enjoyable now. 

Discussion questions
·         “You look just like…” Has anyone said that to you?
·         Did your grandparents or parents have stories about Prohibition?
·         Would the story be as effective set somewhere else? 

Note:  Mary received the Minotaur/Mystery Writer of American First Crime Novel award for The Impersonator.

On the Rocks, by Sue Hallgarth
Arbor Farm Press, 2013. 978-09855200-0-7 

Grand Manan Island is in the Bay of Fundy.  It is part of New Brunswick though it is just 15 miles from the coast of Maine.   Once a port for privateers, it became known for its fisheries and shipbuilding.  In the late 19th century it was discovered by tourists – an island haven, private but not too remote.   

Novelist Willa Cather and her companion Edith Lewis found Grand Manan in 1922.  They were among the intellectuals and artists who spent their summers on the island.  The quiet allowed Willa to write and Edith to paint.  Their close friends were “the Cottage Girls,” a group of independently wealthy, well-educated women. 

The mystery story is set in 1929.  Edith is out on the cliff above Whale Cove, painting, when she sees a flash of red – and watches a man fall off the edge to his death.  Who was it? And more importantly, who pushed him and why?  How were the other Cottage Girls connected?  Willa and Edith help the island police chief to answer those questions and solve the mystery. 

Sue Hallgarth is a former English professor who has studied and written about Willa Cather.  Her portrait brings the novelist to life as she describes the challenges of literary fame and the need to write to meet the publisher’s deadline.  Cather is known as a Midwesterner (her girlhood in Nebraska, setting for O Pioneers and My Antonia) and for her love of the southwest (Death comes for the Archbishop).  I didn’t realize that she spent so much time on the east coast as well.  I will re-read Cather’s work while I wait for Sue Hallgarth’s next Willa and Edith mystery.    

Discussion questions
·         Were there “independent women” in your family?  How did their life experiences affect you?
·         Prohibition was a U.S. law that had an impact on Canada.  Would the border between the countries have been less, or more, significant without prohibition?
·         How much license can an author take when using a real historical personage in a made-up story?


  1. Two books with Nebraska connections. I'll have to read these!

  2. these sound like they could invite you in not give you up until the very end, and maybe you'll be thinking about these books well after the end. Now to find them.

  3. Very cool. Thanks for sharing for selections. I always love your book selections. - Lori Switzer


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