Too Hot to Handel (John Pickett Mysteries #5) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When a rash of jewel thefts strikes London, magistrate Patrick Colquhoun deploys his Bow Street Runners to put a stop to the crimes. The Russian Princess Olga Fyodorovna is to attend a production of Handel’s Esther at Drury Lane Theatre, where she will wear a magnificent diamond necklace. The entire Bow Street force will be stationed at various locations around the theatre – including John Pickett, who will occupy a box directly across from the princess.

In order to preserve his incognito, Pickett must appear to be a private gentleman attending the theatre. Mr. Colquhoun recommends that he have a female companion – a lady, in fact, who might prevent him from making any glaring faux pas. But the only lady of Pickett’s acquaintance is Julia, Lady Fieldhurst, to whom he accidentally contracted a Scottish irregular marriage several months earlier, and with whom he is seeking an annulment against his own inclinations – and for whom he recklessly declared his love, secure in the belief he would never see her again.

The inevitable awkwardness of their reunion is forgotten when the theatre catches fire. In the confusion, the Russian diamonds are stolen, and Pickett is struck in the head and rendered unconscious. Suddenly it is up to Julia not only to nurse him back to health, but to discover his attacker and bring the culprit – and the jewel thief – to justice.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B

This fifth John Pickett mystery is a bit of a departure from the other books in the series in that our hero spends a rather large part of it unconscious, leaving his lady-love, Lady Julia Fieldhurst to the bulk of the sleuthing when it comes to solving the mystery of some missing diamonds. That said though, John is nonetheless a major presence in Too Hot to Handel, and Joel Froomkin’s hugely entertaining narration kept me engaged throughout, so I didn’t feel the slightest bit short-changed.

Note: There will be spoilers for earlier books in the series in this review.

It’s three months since Bow Street Runner John Pickett said farewell to the woman he fell in love with almost a year earlier, and a matter of weeks before the case for the annulment of the “irregular marriage” they inadvertently contracted in Scotland comes before the ecclesiastical court. At the end of the previous book, Dinner Most Deadly, he declared his love for Lady Julia Fieldhurst, but also said that they should not meet again; he has always known that the huge gulf in their stations makes any relationship between them impossible, and it’s become too painful for him to keep spending time with her while knowing she can never be his. For Julia it’s been three long, colourless months and none of her usual activities hold much interest for her any more. Even a night out at the theatre is dull until, on the way out, she hears a distressed older lady claiming that her jewels have been stolen. Recalling that the Duchess of Mallen’s rubies had also disappeared while that lady was at the theatre, and that they had been recovered by the Bow Street force, Julia suggests sending for a Runner, and for a few brief minutes, is excited at the prospect of seeing John again – only to come crashing down when someone else appears in his stead.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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Dinner Most Deadly (John Pickett Mysteries #4) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

dinner most deadly

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When Julia, Lady Fieldhurst, returns from Scotland restless and out of sorts, her friend Emily Dunnington plans a select dinner party with half a dozen male guests from whom Julia may choose a lover.

But Emily’s dinner ends in disaster when one of her guests, Sir Reginald Montague, is shot dead.

When Bow Street Runner John Pickett is summoned to Emily’s house, he is faced with the awkward task of informing Lady Fieldhurst that their recent masquerade as a married couple (Family Plot) has resulted in their being legally wed.

Beset by distractions – including the humiliating annulment procedure and the flattering attentions of Lady Dunnington’s pretty young housemaid – Pickett must find the killer of a man whom everyone has reason to want dead.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B+

Note: This review contains spoilers for earlier books in the series.

Sheri Cobb South’s series of historical mysteries featuring the charming young Bow Street Runner John Pickett continues apace with the fourth full-length novel in the series, Dinner Most Deadly. It’s another enjoyable mix of murder-mystery and romance, but here, the romantic angle is as much the focus as the mystery, as John and the love of his life, Lady Julia Fieldhurst, struggle to deal with the ramifications of their recent masquerade as Mr. and Mrs. Pickett in book three, Family Plot. This instalment is particularly angsty in terms of their continuing relationship; John has been in love with Julia since they met in book one, In Milady’s Chamber, and while it’s taken Julia longer to realise the truth of her feelings for the thoughtful, insightful and achingly sweet young man who is so devoted to her, she is finally starting to see them for what they really are. But… a viscountess and a thief-taker who earns the princely sum of twenty-five shillings a week? The social divide between them is too great to permit even the merest nodding acquaintance.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Family Plot (John Pickett Mysteries #3) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

The third installment of the John Pickett series of humorous Regency mysteries finds Bow Street Runner Pickett in Scotland investigating a woman found unconscious on the beach – a woman who bears a striking resemblance to the local laird’s daughter, a girl missing and presumed dead for the last 15 years.

Pickett is surprised to discover that the woman was found by none other than Lady Fieldhurst and her three young nephews – and gratified to learn that her ladyship has registered at the seaside inn as Mrs. Julia Pickett. When old Angus Kirkbride dies only hours after announcing his intention of changing his will in his daughter’s favor, “Mr. and Mrs. Pickett” must join forces to discover the truth about a family reunion suddenly turned deadly.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B

Family Plot is book three of Sheri Cobb South’s series of historical mysteries featuring Bow Street Runner John Pickett, a sharply intelligent and quietly charming young man who was rescued from a life of crime by magistrate Patrick Colquhoun, and eventually became the youngest member of the Bow Street force.

In book one, In Milady’s Chamber, John was, by the happy accident of being in the right place at the right time, instrumental in proving the innocence of Lady Julia Fieldhurst, who was accused of the murder of her husband. John has been in love with the beautiful young viscountess ever since he first set eyes on her but is well aware that the vast difference in their stations makes any relationship impossible.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

For Deader or Worse (John Pickett Mysteries #6) by Sheri Cobb South

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

After a modest wedding ceremony, Bow Street Runner John Pickett and his bride Julia, the former Lady Fieldhurst, set out for a wedding trip to Somersetshire, where Pickett must face his greatest challenge yet: meeting his in-laws.

Sir Thaddeus and Lady Runyon are shocked at their daughter’s hasty remarriage–and appalled by her choice of a second husband. Pickett, for his part, is surprised to learn that Julia once had an elder sister: Claudia, Lady Buckleigh, disappeared thirteen years earlier, leaving no trace beyond a blood-soaked shawl. When Sir Thaddeus confides that his wife is convinced Claudia’s spirit now haunts her childhood home, Pickett sees a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of Julia’s family. He agrees to investigate and, hopefully, lay the Runyon “ghost,” whoever–or whatever–it is.

Matters take a grisly turn when Sir Thaddeus’s groom is discovered with his throat slit. The timing could hardly be worse, for the whole village is aflutter with the news that Lord Buckleigh has brought home a new bride, just when Major James Pennington, the vicar’s son who was Claudia’s childhood sweetheart, has returned on leave from war in the Peninsula. The major was apparently the last person to see Claudia alive, and Pickett is convinced he knows more about her disappearance than he’s telling. Suddenly it seems the distant past is not so distant, after all. It may not even be past . . .

Rating: C+

For Deader or Worse is the sixth full-length novel in Sheri Cobb South’s series of historical mysteries featuring the young Bow Street Runner, John Pickett who was first introduced in In Milady’s Chamber. In that book, the newly appointed runner encountered Lady Julia Fieldhurst, a beautiful young viscountess who was accused of murdering her older, abusive husband. John was immediately smitten with his prime suspect, which naturally led to a conflict of interests as he raced against time to prove her innocence in the face of the mounting evidence against her.

Through the ensuing books, readers have watched the couple become closer, even though the huge gap in their social stations would seem to make any relationship other than casual acquaintance impossible – until finally, the previous book – Too Hot to Handel – saw them thrust into a situation that meant they could no longer deny their feelings for each other. At the beginning of For Deader or Worse, John and Julia are married and on their way into Somerset, where John faces the prospect of meeting his in-laws, Sir Thaddeus and Lady Runyon.

As well as the development of the relationship between John and his lady, each book is also a self-contained mystery, so they can be read as standalones, although readers will undoubtedly gain more of an understanding of the ongoing romantic relationship if they have read the others. And in fact, this is undoubtedly the most interesting thing in the book, because the mystery is weak and easily solved by the end of the first chapter or so. Oh, there is a bit of a twist before the end, but it’s not exactly surprising or particularly suspenseful, and the ending is so rushed that it’s almost of the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ variety.

On arrival at Runyon Hall, John is dismayed to realise that while Julia had written ahead to inform her parents of her visit, she had made no mention of her remarriage, believing it best to tell them in person. This only adds to John’s apprehension, and he doesn’t make a particularly good impression on first meeting. Both Julia’s parents are aghast that she has married so far beneath her and her father even offers John money to disappear – but the couple is stronger than that, and Julia makes it clear that she married John for love and that what is done is staying done.

Interspersed with these earlier chapters is the story, dating from some thirteen years earlier, of the young Viscountess of Buckleigh, who, at just seventeen, was married off to an unpleasant, older man.  She is about to receive a visitor – her neighbour and the son of the local vicar, Jamie Pennington – when the viscount accuses her of cuckolding him with Jamie and beats her badly.  When Jamie appears, he is horrified and furious – and takes Claudia away with him, refusing to leave her to the mercy of such a brute.

Back to 1809, and Jamie – now Major – Pennington has recently returned to England following the death of his aunt to survey the property she has bequeathed him in her will.  For years, there have been rumours to the effect that he had something to do with the death of the late viscountess; the smashed tea-things in her parlour, the discovery of a bloodied shawl in a ditch and the fact that Jamie disappeared the day afterwards and joined the army … none of them things in his favour, but were not enough to warrant an arrest.  All these old memories and rumours are stirred up again when Sir Thaddeus’ head groom – previously employed by Buckleigh – is found in the woods with his throat slit – and John decides to investigate.  After all, this murder is clearly connected to his wife’s family and it’s the least he can do.  Plus, he hopes it might help to improve his in-laws’ opinions of him.

The first thing that might surprise readers – as it is a surprise to John – is learning that Julia has (or had) an older sister, Claudia.  One day thirteen years ago, her horse returned to its stables without a rider, she was never found and was presumed dead.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it’s obvious that she isn’t dead; John is pretty much ahead of the game in working out the truth of the matter, but the reader is ahead of him by several chapters.  Given that what is actually going on is very clear from early on, I suppose one could term this a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit, but that doesn’t really help to inject any element of tension or suspense into the mystery.

The best thing about the book is the still-evolving relationship between John and Julia, which is clearly headed down some rocky paths considering they don’t appear to have really discussed their future as a couple.  John isn’t rich; he works for a living and has a man’s pride in that he wants to support his wife to the best of his ability.  But Julia is the daughter of a baronet, was married to a viscount, has a good income of her own and clearly intends to pick up the threads of her former lifestyle when she and John return to London.  This portrait of an unequal marriage with all its issues and pitfalls is far more interesting than the lukewarm mystery, and if I do pick up the next book, it’ll be purely to find out what happens to John and Julia and how they navigate their differences.

John Pickett is a particularly likeable and unusual central character.  He’s not darkly brooding or rakishly handsome, he’s just a normal young man who has risen above difficult family circumstances (his father was transported to Botany Bay for thievery) doing his best to make his way in the world.  He’s young (not quite twenty-five) and his inexperience sometimes shows, but he’s determined and learns quickly, so that by the time we meet him here, he’s quite confident in his investigative abilities, and able to hold his own with Julia’s father, Buckleigh and Pennington, with whom he strikes up an – at first – uneasy friendship. The secondary characters – Julia’s mother, Buckleigh, the new Lady Buckleigh and her mother – are fairly one-note, although Sir Thaddeus is a little more rounded-out.  The difficult relationship between Julia and Lady Runyon is nicely done, and there’s no question that Ms. Cobb South really knows her stuff when it comes to the attitudes and conventions of the time.

If you’re a fan of the series, then I’m sure that For Deader or Worse will appeal, but as far as I’m concerned the mystery is far too un-mysterious and lacks any element of real suspense.  If you’re reading primarily for John and Julia, then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, but if you’re looking for a complex and satisfying historical mystery, I’d suggest you look elsewhere.

 

In Milady’s Chamber (John Pickett Mysteries #1) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

in-miladys-chamber

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

Estranged from her husband through her failure to produce an heir, Lady Fieldhurst resolves to repay his neglect by taking a lover. Fate takes a hand when she and her would-be lover enter her bedchamber to find Lord Fieldhurst lying on the floor – with her nail scissors protruding from his neck.

Bow Street Runner John Pickett, 24 years old and new to the Bow Street force, has spent most of his brief career chasing petty thieves and pickpockets. Nothing in his experience has prepared him for low dealings in high society – or for the beautiful young widow who is the chief suspect.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B-

Sheri Cobb South’s The Weaver Takes a Wife is one of my favourite traditional Regencies, and while I know it’s available in audio, I didn’t like the narrator based on the sample available at Audible, so chose not to listen further. But when the first of the author’s John Pickett Mysteries, In Milady’s Chamber (using a different narrator) came up for review, I decided to give it a go; I enjoy historical mysteries, and have heard good things about this series.

John Pickett made his first appearance in the novella, The Pickpocket’s Apprentice, which told the story of how fourteen-year-old John was taken under the wing of magistrate Patrick Colquhoun and, five years later, became involved in a criminal investigation that brought him to the attention of Bow Street. Now twenty-four, John is the youngest runner on the Bow Street force, and spends his days dealing mostly with petty crimes. But an accident which sees him in the right place at the right time catapults him into a murder investigation and into the rarefied world of the ton, a world outside his experience and which he is ill-equipped to deal with.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Weaver Takes a Wife by Sheri Cobb-South

weaver

Haughty Lady Helen Radney is one of Regency England’s most beautiful women and the daughter of a duke, but her sharp tongue has frightened away most of her suitors. When her father gambles away his fortune, the duke’s only chance for recouping his losses lies in marrying off Lady Helen to any man wealthy enough to take a bride with nothing to recommend her but a lovely face and an eight-hundred-year-old pedigree.

Enter Mr. Ethan Brundy, once an illegitimate workhouse orphan, now owner of a Lancashire textile mill and one of England’s richest men. When he glimpses Lady Helen at Covent Garden Theatre, he is instantly smitten and vows to marry her.

But this commonest of commoners will have his work cut out for him if he hopes to win the heart of his aristocratic bride…

Rating: B

This thoroughly charming Regency Romance, originally published in 1999 and now re-issued in digital formats, features a type of hero rarely found in historical romance. Mr Ethan Brundy isn’t titled, he isn’t a gentleman or a snappy dresser and while not unattractive, is no well-muscled Adonis. The one thing he does have in common with many an aristocratic hero, however, is that he’s incredibly wealthy.

The owner of a cotton mill and various other businesses in the north of England, Ethan is on a rare visit to London in the company of a couple of friends, when he espies the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and immediately determines to marry her.

His friends try to warn him off. Lady Helen Radney, daughter of the Duke of Reddington might be beautiful, but she is widely known for her shrewish disposition and her ability to wound an unwanted suitor at twenty paces with her sharp tongue.

But Ethan is well and truly smitten, and won’t be deterred. He discovers that the duke’s finances are in dire straits, and offers to pay him a large sum of money in exchange for Helen’s hand in marriage. Unsurprisingly, the lady herself is appalled – by Ethan’s working-class accent, his ill-fitting clothes and most of all, his lowly origins – and makes it abundantly clear that while she has no alternative but to obey her father’s instruction and marry him, she dislikes him intensely and has no intention of being an affectionate spouse.

The story follows a predictable course, it’s true, but what makes The Weaver Takes a Wife so enjoyable is the characterisation, the way the author develops the central relationship and most of all, Ethan himself, who is a truly captivating hero.

Ethan is a self-made man, a workhouse boy who, having shown an aptitude for the work to which he was assigned, was subsequently adopted by his employer who had no son of his own. Ethan learned the business, took the man’s last name – having none of his own – and eventually inherited his ‘father’s’ mills and other businesses. He refuses to be cowed by the haughty disdain of the members of the ton and one of the most attractive things about him is that he is a man who knows who he is and is comfortable in his own skin.

Helen is proud and cold, and has no intention of being anything else toward her husband, but can’t help being surprised by his kindness and generosity. Still, the idea of her coming to feel anything for her husband looks unlikely at best. When, on their wedding day, her bridegroom tells her that it would please him were she to call him Ethan, she replies –

”I wonder, Mr Brundy what makes you think pleasing you must be an object with me?”

– and takes every opportunity she can to slight him. Her progress from scornful bride to loving wife is accomplished beautifully as she comes to see what the reader has seen from the outset – that her husband is a true diamond in the rough – and that she (like the reader) wouldn’t want him any other way.

The Weaver Takes a Wife is a delight from start to finish; a real feel-good, pick-me-up read and one I’m sure I’ll be revisiting in future.