KJ Charles: An Unsuitable Heir

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Title: An Unsuitable Heir
Author: KJ Charles
Series: Sins of the City #3

A private detective finds passion, danger, and the love of a lifetime when he hunts down a lost earl in Victorian London.

On the trail of an aristocrat’s secret son, enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz finds his quarry in a music hall, performing as a trapeze artist with his twin sister. Graceful, beautiful, elusive, and strong, Pen Starling is like nobody Mark’s ever met—and everything he’s ever wanted. But the long-haired acrobat has an earldom and a fortune to claim.

Pen doesn’t want to live as any sort of man, least of all a nobleman. The thought of being wealthy, titled, and always in the public eye is horrifying. He likes his life now—his days on the trapeze, his nights with Mark. And he won’t be pushed into taking a title that would destroy his soul.

But there’s a killer stalking London’s foggy streets, and more lives than just Pen’s are at risk. Mark decides he must force the reluctant heir from music hall to manor house, to save Pen’s neck. Betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust, Pen never wants to see his lover again. But when the killer comes after him, Pen must find a way to forgive—or he might not live long enough for Mark to make amends.

Rating: a fun but not very memorable artistic performance

Over the course of the Sins of the City trilogy, three couples find love (four if you count the background couples as well) and a case involving secret heirs, bigamy and murder is solved. I loved the twists and turns the mystery took and I enjoyed the romances in each book (admittedly some a lot *cough Justin and Nathaniel cough* and some more in a ‘It’s nice that these nice people get to be happy’ way) but the combination of both didn’t do the story any favours.

Romances often start with the couple’s first meeting and end with their happy end. So far so obvious. But due to various reasons connected to the overarching mystery plot Pen and Mark’s first meeting is halfway through An Unnatural Vice, the second Sins of the City book. And while we don’t see much of them in Vice, a decisions Mark makes leads to a huge event at the end of the book. So when I started An Unsuitable Heir I already knew what was going to happen and was then not too surprised when it did – almost 50% into the book. Since it is such an important and emotional moment in their relationship, knowing what was coming lessened the impact a lot for me. I went through the first half of the book going “So when are we finally coming to the stuff I don’t know, yet?”

I think that was the main reason why I couldn’t really get as invested in the relationship. Sure, there’s a difference: In Vice we only saw the events from an outsider’s perspective while we are in the heads of those directly affected by the events during Heir but I still found that knowing so much about what would happen removed a lot of the tension. 

In the end I very much like the idea behind the Sins of the City trilogy – an overarching background mystery plot with a complete romance in each book but the execution was simply lacking due to the timelimes that overlapped too much.

Max Allan Collins: The Titanic Murders

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Title: The Titanic Murders
Author: Max Allan Collins 
Series: Disaster #1

When a passenger is found dead inside a locked cabin aboard the opulent Titanic, it’s a crime worthy of “the Thinking Machine,” the popular fictional investigator who solves mysteries using formidable logic. So who better to crack this real-life case than author Jacques Futrelle, the man behind America’s favorite detective?

On board for a romantic getaway with his wife, Futrelle agrees to conduct a stealth inquiry. The list of suspects on the Titanic’s first-class deck is long and includes the brightest lights from high society, each with no shortage of dark secrets. As the mammoth ship speeds across the Atlantic toward its doom, Futrelle races to uncover which passenger has a secret worth killing for—before the murderer strikes again.

Rating: Sunk while leaving the harbour

If we ignore for a moment that this book is set on a not exactly unknown ship (and features a real person as sleuth) and just focus on the mystery…I am already not very impressed.

It starts incredibly slow. Partly thanks to the’manuscript in the attic’ opening. You know how Holmes pastiches often start with the narrator telling you about that manuscript he found in his attic and then he did some research and discovered his grandfather served together with Watson and that’s how they got involved into this case together? And he goes on and on about it, while you’re just sitting there going “I know Holmes wasn’t a real person. I know you made this all up. Just spare me and get on with the actual story.” Here, it’s not a manuscript but a midnightly mysterious phone call that leads to some further investigation and many descriptions of things nobody cares about before the story finally starts.

At least it sort of does. Because The Titanic Murders is one of those mysteries where rather obvious who is going to be the victim. One can tell pretty much as soon as the character appears that he won’t have to worry about getting a spot on one of the lifeboats. And that itself is not a bad thing. In some of the most enjoyable mysteries, it takes just a few pages till you can guess who will be killed. But the thing about those is: the person then does get offed pretty quickly. In this eight hour audiobook, it takes more than three till the murder finally happens; and that’s simply too long. Nobody wants to wait almost half a book for something obvious to happen.

At least, once the murder has happened Futrelle can start his sleuthing. And what a brilliant sleuth he is. He just goes from one person to the next and tells them “Hey, there’s this guy who has tried to blackmail me. Has he, by any chance, also tried to blackmail you?” And this sledgehammer approach obviously…works? Because who wouldn’t be inclined to answer such a question? Especially since Futrelle is pretty much a stranger to most of them. (Of course, any story featuring an amateur sleuth will require some suspension of disbelief because normally, people don’t welcome randoms strangers who ask personal questions with open arms but there’s suspension of disbelief and there’s whatever this is – overstretching of disbelief possibly).

And now for the elephant (iceberg?) in the room. This book is set on the Titanic. Now I like dramatic irony as much as the next person and I’m also not averse to some dark humour but this book really overdid it:

  • When the first class passengers learn that Captain Smith intents to retire after the crossing, they tell him that the White Star line should still let him on the ships as passenger so he can be a good luck charm (you see, it’s funny because Smith will have incredibly bad luck, the ship will sink and over a thousand people will die)
  • When Futrelle is asked to investigate the murder on the ship they ask him to keep it quiet and he says that he understands that they don’t want the Titanic to be associated with death forever (you see, it’s funny because the ship will sink and over a thousand people will die and it will be associated with death forever)
  • A passenger tells a story that is supposed to doom everybody who hears it. He explains that he doesn’t believe in such nonsense and laughs that if he did, he would have just doomed the whole ship (you see it’s funny because the ship is doomed. It will sink and over a thousand people will die)
  • Futrelle is reading The Wreck of Titan or Futility while on board so of course, he jokes that the Titanic will be fine as long as there’s no iceberg (you see, it’s funny because there will be an iceberg, the ship will sink and over a thousand people will die)

There’s more but you get the gist. While it does take a certain kind of person to go “A murder mystery set on the Titanic? Yes please.” and I am obviously one of those people since I picked up the book in the first place this kind of sledgehammer approach gets exhausting very quickly. And is really not that funny…just like it isn’t funny that he used the names of real Titanic passengers for all characters. The blackmailing murder victim has the name of a real Titanic passenger. His accomplice as well. And, of course, the murderer, too. Why is that necessary? Why not make up some names? With some minor tweaks to the story, it would have worked just as well without accusing real people who only died in the last century of blackmail and murder.

In my teenage years I was very obsessed with certain US procedurals and Collins wrote tie-in novels for the CSIs and Criminal Minds which I read and quite enjoyed. His plots were engaging and I appreciated his sense of humour, which is why I did have some hopes for this book and was even mildly curious about the Disaster series. But now I really doubt that I will continue.

Anna Lee Huber: Treacherous Is the Night

Cover: Treacherous Is the NightTitle: Treacherous Is the Night
Author: Anna Lee Huber
Series: Verity Kent #2

It’s not that Verity Kent doesn’t sympathize with those eager to make contact with lost loved ones. After all, she once believed herself a war widow. But now that she’s discovered Sidney is very much alive, Verity is having enough trouble connecting with her estranged husband, never mind the dead. Still, at a friend’s behest, Verity attends a séance, where she encounters the man who still looms between her and Sidney—and a medium who channels a woman Verity once worked with in the Secret Service. Refusing to believe her former fellow spy is dead, Verity is determined to uncover the source of the spiritualist’s top secret revelation.

Then the medium is murdered—and Verity’s investigation is suddenly thwarted. Even Secret Service agents she once trusted turn their backs on her. Undaunted, Verity heads to war-torn Belgium, with Sidney by her side. But as they draw ever closer to the danger, Verity wonders if she’s about to learn the true meaning of till death do us part . . .

Rating: E

My thoughts while reading the book of this National Bestselling Author:

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Verity and her husband have a slightly awkward conversation. Immediately afterwards the narration spends to pages on explaining how her relationship has changed because of what they saw in the war and what happened after the war. That their relationship will never be the same as it was before. That they both still have to work through all those issues but that both have problems opening up to the other because they feel they don’t really know the other person anymore.

When Verity’s friend asks her to accompany her to the seance and that she hopes to contact her brother we are told in great detail how close that friend and her brother were, how hard it was for her when he fell and a detailed run-down of the friend’s other family members (and friends) and why it would be a bad idea when they accompanied her.

This happens again and again. And when we aren’t told what the characters feel, we get plain infodumps about the war, Verity’s work in the secret service, Belgian architecture and a lot of other things we don’t need to know in that much detail.

All this already made me almost quit the book a few chapters in because while I understand that sometimes an author just has to dump some stuff on the reader unceremoniously (especially in a case like this where they want the reader to be able to start reading a series at any point without getting confused by vague allusions to past events) this was just too much. But the mystery was quite intriguing so I read on.

That was a bad idea.

Because it quickly turned out that Verity’s husband is a horrible human being.

You see, Sidney wasn’t just missing presumed dead and turned up again. He deliberately faked his own death to draw out some traitors. Verity though he was dead for 15 months before he appeared again and demanded her help in his plot.

Verity now has some issues. They had a whirlwind romance anyway and quickly after they married he went to war so they didn’t really get to know each other. Then he died and she grieved for him (FOR 15 MONTHS) and then he just pops up again. And he is a different man now because war changes people. It has also changed Verity and now they are essentially a married couple that barely know each other. And that is somehow Verity’s fault as far as Sidney is concerned. When Verity is reluctant to share her own experiences he is all hurt. He shouts at his wife, who he let believe he was dead for 15 months because she can’t bring herself to share intimate details with him.

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After one of these confrontations she points out the whole You-made-me-think-you-were-dead thing and he yells “So this is all my fault?”

Yes, Sidney. It is. It might have been unavoidable to fake your own death. It might have even been unavoidable to not tell her in advance because the grief had to be genuine. But you could have considered telling her quicker than those 15 months. And if that wasn’t possible then you have to fucking deal with it. Deal with the fact that you can’t pick up exactly where you left off.

But of course, Verity doesn’t tell him that. She assures him that it isn’t his fault. (Which I guess means it is her fault. Stupid womenfolk).

That placates him until he finds out that she slept with another man. While she thought he was dead, grieved for him and was probably not exactly emotionally stable. But of course, Sidney is angry that after learning he was dead, his wife did not lock herself in, had no contact with anybody and just dealt with her grief just by sobbing uncontrollably.

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When they encounter Verity’s one-night-stand again Sidney punches him. Because that’s an emotionally mature reaction and doesn’t at all suggest that he will again react with violence when he doesn’t like something.

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But men getting violent because of something you did is so romantic, right?

But despite all that, they reconcile and have sex. And after that, he asks “I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t take precautions?” Because hey! It’s always better to ask for forgiveness than permission!

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In all that it felt like the mystery was just a backdrop to Verity’s and Sidney’s relationship issues (which I felt weren’t handled well…as you can probably tell). It wasn’t bad (yes there were some convenient coincidences but that’s the case in most mysteries) but it would have needed to be fleshed more out in some parts to work really well. But that space was needed to convince us what a great guy Sidney is…

ARC provided by NetGalley

Ekaterina Sedia: The Secret History of Moscow

Ekaterina Sedia: The Secret History of MoscowEvery city contains secret places. Moscow in the tumultuous 1990s is no different, its citizens seeking safety in a world below the streets — a dark, cavernous world of magic, weeping trees, and albino jackdaws, where exiled pagan deities and fairy-tale creatures whisper strange tales to those who would listen. Galina is a young woman caught, like her contemporaries, in the seeming lawlessness of the new Russia.

In the midst of this chaos, her sister Maria turns into a jackdaw and flies away — prompting Galina to join Yakov, a policeman investigating a rash of recent disappearances. Their search will take them to the underground realm of hidden truths and archetypes, to find themselves caught between reality and myth, past and present, honor and betrayal … the secret history of Moscow. 

Rating: B-

The blurb makes it sound like a relatively ordinary fantasy novel: protagonist sets out to find a disappeared loved one and discovers a magical world. But it’s not quite. Usually, in these kinds of set-ups, the protagonists take a long time to accept that there is really something supernatural going on. Here, it takes Galina, Yakov, and Fyodor three chapters until they decide that all the disappeared people must have turned into birds and crossed through a portal that appeared in a puddle to a different world. Then they come to the obvious conclusion that they are too large to fit through the puddle-portal and that they need a larger one. Fortunately, Fyodor knows just the place and a few pages later they are in an underworld in which they don’t just meet old Russian Gods and spirits but also humans – from the time of the Golden Horde, the pogroms under Alexander III, the Decembrist revolt and the Stalinist Terror – who also passed through a portal and now live in this underworld. They don’t question any of those things. In fact, it doesn’t take them long to discuss which spirit would be the most likely to be helpful or trust solutions that appeared to them in a dream.

And because they didn’t question these things, I didn’t either. Often enough I do get frustrated when characters just know things or just accept something extraordinary without complaining but here I just rolled with it. More than once I was reminded of Peter S. Beagle’s The Innkeeper’s Song, another book that doesn’t bother much with complex worldbuilding (or going deep into the characters’ motivation) but I felt that it wasn’t necessary for the story.  And similarly, when Galina and the others go and question a celestial cow about the missing people’s whereabouts I just shrugged and went ‘Yeah. Seems a reasonable thing to do.’

What did bother me was that the book doesn’t make much difference between the main and the side characters. Once they appear for the first time, we get their backstory of how they ended up in the underworld but each gets the same amount of detail. It doesn’t matter if the person ends up being important for the plot or just appear this once. It feels like some of the backstories are just there to give the reader a small history lesson about a certain era. I would have preferred to get to know some of the other characters better, especially since there were loose ends in some of the storylines.

I saw that a lot of people didn’t enjoy the book at all and I can understand that. The ‘just roll with it’-attitude won’t work for everybody but for me it did and so I got a charming and magical story.

KJ Charles: A Fashionable Indulgence

KJ Charles: A Fashionable IndulgenceTitle: A Fashionable Indulgence
Author: KJ Charles
Series: Society of Gentlemen

When he learns that he could be the heir to an unexpected fortune, Harry Vane rejects his past as a Radical fighting for government reform and sets about wooing his lovely cousin. But his heart is captured instead by the most beautiful, chic man he’s ever met: the dandy tasked with instructing him in the manners and style of the ton. Harry’s new station demands conformity—and yet the one thing he desires is a taste of the wrong pair of lips.

After witnessing firsthand the horrors of Waterloo, Julius Norreys sought refuge behind the luxurious facade of the upper crust. Now he concerns himself exclusively with the cut of his coat and the quality of his boots. And yet his protégé is so unblemished by cynicism that he inspires the first flare of genuine desire Julius has felt in years. He cannot protect Harry from the worst excesses of society. But together they can withstand the high price of passion.

Rating: B-

I loved Harry’s story: at the start of the book he works in a bookstore and barely makes ends meet. He also has lived through times where things were even worse and he almost starved. Then he learns that he has a rich grandfather who needs an heir because his son (Harry’s uncle) and other grandson died in a fire.

But of course, this isn’t some fairy tale: Harry’s grandfather and father broke when his father married a Radical commoner and went on to fight for the rights of the working-classes with her, a cause he detests. And to get his inheritance Harry has to convince him that he agrees with him on this subject. Of course, he doesn’t: he knows that, contrary to what the upper classes believe, he wasn’t poor just because he didn’t work hard enough. But he has to sit through dinners with friends of his grandfather who believe exactly that and are very vocal about it.

As the reader, you want Harry to jump up and tell these assholes exactly where they can shove their opinions and there are enough books where something along those lines happens. But Harry does that only once, quite late in the book and quickly regrets it and tries to convince his grandfather that it was just a stupid drunken mistake. Because Harry knows exactly what will happen when he displeases his grandfather: he’ll be out on the streets again with no idea if he can afford his next meal and he does not want that again.

But this charade gets harder for him hold up, the longer it goes on. Because while Harry has some issues with the ways his parents fought for their ideals and with the life they dragged him into (a lot of it was spent on the run), he still shares their values and feels like he is betraying their memory by not standing up to his grandfather. And this struggle is so raw and real that it’s impossible not to feel for him.

Of course, there is also another issue Harry has: his grandfather wants him to marry his cousin, to make sure that his fortune stays with the right kind of people. Harry would prefer to lead a life as a confirmed bachelor. If you know what I mean.

Randolph Scott and Cary Grant over a seafood lunch
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Which brings us to the romance part of this story, which was…OK. Now don’t get me wrong: I liked Julius and there was nothing about the development of their relationship. that made me feel uncomfortable. Rather the opposite: I enjoyed that just like in other KJ Charles books there wasn’t one partner who was experienced in everything and one who needed to be taught everything. Their relationship was very balanced with each having some experiences and knowledge the other hadn’t.

In other words, I shouldn’t have any reason to complain and yet…I simply cared a lot about how Harry dealt with his conscience vs. his desire to not live in poverty again. That fact that he found a boyfriend while dealing with these issues was…nice but not the most important thing for me. And I can’t help feeling that in a romance I should care more about the romantic parts. On the other hand, I loved everything else about this book a lot so does it really matter?

KJ Charles: The Henchman of Zenda

Cover: The Henchman of ZendaAuthor: KJ Charles
Title: The Henchman of Zenda

Swordfights, lust, betrayal, murder: just another day for a henchman.

Jasper Detchard is a disgraced British officer, now selling his blade to the highest bidder. Currently, that’s Michael Elphberg, half-brother to the King of Ruritania. Michael wants the throne for himself, and Jasper is one of the scoundrels he hires to help him take it. But when Michael makes his move, things don’t go entirely to plan—and the penalty for treason is death.

Rupert of Hentzau is Michael’s newest addition to his sinister band of henchmen. Charming, lethal, and intolerably handsome, Rupert is out for his own ends—which seem to include getting Jasper into bed. But Jasper needs to work out what Rupert’s really up to amid a maelstrom of plots, swordfights, scheming, impersonation, desire, betrayal, and murder.

Nobody can be trusted. Everyone has a secret. And love is the worst mistake you can make.

RatingB+

I am quite sure my reader is, if possible, even less interested in my paternal grandmother than I am.

I recently read Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair and one of my main complaints about it was that the author tried to fix the not too happy ending of The Prisoner of Zenda in a way that didn’t work for me. The Henchman of Zenda also gives some people a happy ending that didn’t have one originally but goes about it very differently.

In The Hentzau Affair, we learn that everything happened exactly as written in the original and this results in people acting really out of character and a very unbelievable happy end. Meanwhile, Henchman starts off by explaining that Rudolf was full of shit and lied through his teeth to make himself look better and therefore the original can’t be trusted. But that doesn’t mean that it ignores the original canon completely. The major events still happen, only some of Rudolf’s actions are different from what he claimed. That has the great side-effect that even if you have read The Prisoner of Zenda you won’t know exactly what will happen. After all, Rudolf might have been lying. So even the retelling stays suspenseful.

That means it doesn’t really matter if you know the original or not: you get all the fun and excitement of a swashbuckling adventure novel with lots of intrigue and changing loyalties and heroes who can have awesome swordfights and snark at their opponents at the same time. But unlike many of these old-timey swashbucklers (like The Prisoner of Zenda), the female characters aren’t just part of the decoration/only there so the hero can save them heroically because he is the hero. The women in this book also play the game of thrones. (And are better at it than the guys).

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And unlike Cersei, they all manage that without sleeping with close relatives or being overall horrible.

Now I should mention that The Henchman of Zenda is a story about scheming, conspiracy, and murder. It just happens that while doing all that scheming Jasper and Rupert discover that they find each other hot and decide to spend their time together with something more fun than non-metaphorical sword-fights. And after a while, they start caring about each other. But they don’t show this with emotional declarations of love, rushing to the other’s side after hearing that he was injured or anything one might expect from a romance. And while I really enjoyed the adventure part and am perfectly happy with ‘genre + romantic elements’ I wouldn’t have minded if there had been a bit more time spent on their feelings. Their chemistry was so much fun I’d love to have seen more of it.

ARC received from the author.

David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

Author: David Stuart Davies
Title: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

Colonel Sapt of the Ruritanian Court journeys to England on a secret mission to save his country from anarchy. He is to engage the services of Rudolf Rassendyll once more to impersonate the King while the monarch recovers from a serious illness. But Rassendyll had mysteriously disappeared. In desperation, Sapt consults Sherlock Holmes who with Watson travels to the Kingdom of Ruritania in an effort to thwart the plans of the scheming Rupert of Hentzau in his bid for the throne.

Rating: D-

It was one of Holmes’s most annoying treats that he would keep vital information to himself until it suited him to reveal it, usually at a moment when he could create the most dramatic effect.

Davies does a good job imitating Doyle’s writing style. Die-hard Holmesians might be able to tell the difference but casuals enthusiast will have a hard time telling if a paragraph has been written by Doyle or Davies. Holmes’ manners and his relationship with Watson is also well described (especially the latter is something pastiche authors often fail to do).

However, this isn’t everything because the story as a whole feels everything but Holmesian. It’s more like a Victorian James Bond with a hero who rushes from one dangerous situation into the next and then has to shoot/punch his way out of it. And Davies’ Holmes has no qualms about this. I genuinely don’t know how many people get killed in this 120-page story but I think it’s somewhere around 10. And only one of those gets murdered by the bad guys, the rest are killed in fights with Holmes and his associates. But don’t worry. They are all –gasp– traitors and anarchists.

I don’t object to a bit more action in Holmes-stories. And after all The Prisoner of Zenda is quite a swashbuckling novel full of fights (and also with quite a high body count which only bothers the heroes tangentially) so you can’t fault the book for taking some inspiration from there. But the reason Holmes (and Watson) get in half of these fights is their incredible stupidity:

Just imagine: You are on a very dangerous case. You know your opponents don’t shy away from anything and have already tried to kill you twice. Now you meet someone new. You feel there is something fishy about him but you can’t quite put your finger on it, yet. He offers you a drink. Do you

a) Drink it
b) Wait a moment and try to figure out why you have such a bad feeling

If you answered b) congratulations! You are cleverer than Holmes is in this book!

Gif: Russian Watson is judging you

Then there’s the fact that this is also a sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda and…it’s not a good one. In the original Rupert Hentzau works for the Black Michael, the main villain but while they get Michael, Rupert gets away at the end. As a reader, you can’t help but feel happy about it because Rupert is such a fun villain. He’s definitely bad: he has no issues with killing unarmed men if they stand in his way, and he has no sad backstory as a reason for it (not that sad backstories excuse murder…but there are people who think that) and his ulterior motive is power and money. But he has glorious one-liners, is charming and dashing (even the narrator says so) and gets played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the movie.

I mean:

Once again he turned to wave his hand, and then the gloom of thickets swallowed him and he was lost from our sight. Thus he vanished–reckless and wary, graceful and graceless, handsome, debonair, vile, and unconquered.

Is an actual quote from the actual Prisoner of Zenda. Even Rudolf loves him. Sort of.

In other words: Rupert is a bit of a magnificent bastard.

In The Hentzau Affair, he’s a mustache-twirling villain who abducts children to blackmail their relatives into helping him and has the rhetoric talent of a playground bully.

And then there is the end. The Prisoner of Zenda does not have a very happy ending and it seems the author wants to ‘fix’ this with his book. Now that in itself isn’t wrong but in doing that he ignores all the reasons why there wasn’t a happy end in the original. He seems to think there was only one obstacle and by getting rid of that everything will be fine but there were more reasons.

What now follows are ramblings that spoil this book, The Prisoner of Zenda and its actual sequel Rupert of Hentzau so proceed at your own risk.

Continue reading “David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair”