Mon
Feb 12 2018 12:00pm

Review: Death in the Stars by Frances Brody

Frances Brody captures the atmosphere and language of 1920s England while delivering a captivating plot in Death in the Stars—the ninth book in the Kate Shackleton historical cozy mystery series (available February 13, 2018).

It’s June of 1927, and all of England has caught eclipse fever.

The next total eclipse won’t occur for 72 years, so this once-in-a-lifetime event has sparked quite the frenzy. Thousands will be flocking to those spots with the most promising view—and Kate Shackleton will have a prime seat.

The former WWI-nurse and widow turned private detective will be at the colorfully named Giggleswick Academy, where the Astronomer Royal himself will be in attendance thanks to her latest client: the immensely popular singer Selina Fellini.

When Miss Fellini arrives at her door two weeks before the eclipse, Kate knows there’s more to her story than she’s saying. The singer claims to just need someone to handle her travel details. And though Kate does know some reliable pilots, surely a travel agent would be a better choice than a private detective?

The singer casually mentions that she’s had some bad luck lately and has an ominous feeling about the event—but with the capable Kate by her side, surely everything will go off smoothly.

So the two head off with Selina’s good pal Billy Moffatt, a beloved comedian and a man with a gift for turning disappointment into laughter.

… I thought of the people we had seen by the bonfire as we had flown over the countryside. Was that how ancient man and woman kept fear at bay? We were one with those people of long-gone centuries, gathering according to some instinct that preservation or destruction depended on how they danced, sang or sacrificed. Whether we feared or welcomed nature’s proceedings, joining in came from some deep impulse. The tens of thousands had gathered on the hilltops and hillsides like the sun worshippers of old. My brain seemed to longer to belong to me. I was part of something altogether bigger.

Someone from Sir Frank’s party called out, “Five minutes!”

Amid the murmur that followed the announcement, Billy whispered, “It ain’t funny.” A deep silence descended…

But when the silence lifts and the sun returns, Selina’s forebodings prove all too real—and Kate has a humdinger of a mystery on her hands.

Is this latest unfortunate death a case of murder or suicide? Is it connected to the two other entertainers who died over the last year, seemingly of accidents? Is there something astrological involved with the passing of these waning stars of the stage, or is base greed and jealousy to blame?

All Kate knows for sure is that all three of the deceased had one thing in common: Selina Fellini. All were her friends and co-stars at the Varieties, all under contract with her manager, the colorfully named Trotter Brockett.

Could the silver-piped songbird be more than just a grieving friend? Is her war-scarred and erratic husband involved?

As Kate wades into the quagmire of high-strung, slightly shady, and frequently mysterious performers, she’s aided by reliable housekeeper Mrs. Sugden and practical assistant Mr. Sykes, who tackle their portions of the investigation with their usual no-nonsense forthrightness.

Mrs. Sugden wondered which part of the country saw the new moon first. Probably that lot in London if they ever bothered to look up. She had never thought before that each month brought a new moon. It was something you took for granted.

But what that had to do with people dying, she couldn’t think. People are as likely to die when the moon is new as when it wanes. Phases of the moon did not seem to her to be a great starting point for investigating deaths, if that’s what was going on. No ailing person Mrs. Sugden ever knew had looked out of the window, spotted a new moon and thought, that’s me done for then. Time’s up.

It isn’t long before Kate’s sure there’s more than misadventure and bad luck at work here. But she’s stymied for a motive. Why would anyone want to kill a man who performed with trained dogs, an elderly ventriloquist, and a sardonic comedian?

As is usually the case with Frances Brody’s Kate Shackleton series, the ghosts of the Great War are as tangible as the protagonists. Many of the characters have been personally touched by its destructive power, several reshaped into unstable, perhaps even dangerous, new people. The central mystery is interwoven with commentary on shellshock and the various ways ex-soldiers try to cope with physical pain. For all that the war ended a decade ago, for a generation of men, it will never truly be over.

With her theatrical setting, Brody also takes time to paint a picture of a dying era. The growing popularity of motion pictures and the era of “talkies” are just around the corner, and these performers with their motley acts tailored for live audiences will be taking their final bows soon—whether they want to or not.

Why hadn’t I already decided what to say? In danger of being induced into a stupor, I took in the drapes of velvet and silk. It struck me that theatre people are particularly partial to buying glamour by the yard, the glamour that must sometimes seem in short supply when the curtain goes down and theatre lights dim.

… Selina closed her eyes and crossed herself, as if she now fully believed the truth. I have seen before what happens to a person as bad news slowly sinks in. Something invisible detaches and floats away. Whatever it is can’t be seen. The person sits in almost the same way, moves in almost the same way but breathes a little differently and is somehow diminished…

By novel’s end, Kate and her assistants have helped mend a few fences, explored spooky underground tunnels, shined a spotlight on a depraved plan—and had more than their fill of emotional performers.

Brody takes her time getting there; the first half of the book is devoted mostly to the eclipse, a noteworthy and historical moment that she brings to life with an eerie atmosphere and vivid descriptions. It’s clear she did her research and wanted to showcase it. The second portion of the story is a sharp turn from the first, both in tone and content, and far more engaging—if you find yourself drifting somewhat in the first hundred pages, persevere and you’ll find plenty of reward.

While the plot is rife with larger-than-life theatrical performers, the familiar characters still get their moments to take center stage. Sykes gets to show off his softer side, Mrs. Sugden her unexpectedly surprising past, and Kate gets especially feisty with Inspector Wallis.

The man was not just annoying. He was totally exasperating. I decided to follow Beryl Lister’s example and say nothing. I waited.

He waited.

I waited.

Eyeing up the big glass ashtray, I wondered whether anyone had been tempted to hit him with it and watch the tab ends cascade over his slightly pointed head.

Death in the Stars is another solid installment in the Kate Shackleton series. Brody’s balance of history and mystery is as refreshing as Mrs. Sugden’s dandelion wine.

Read an excerpt from Death in the Stars while sipping a few “Death in the Bar” cocktails, inspired by the book!

 

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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

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