I read a lot of mysteries. I’ve narrowed down a small list of favorite authors who I know I’ll enjoy, but I’ve reached the point that I’ve read most of their backlog and now I have to wait until a new book by them comes out. Which means, I’m searching for new authors to add to my auto buys. And I’ve found some good ones. I just took a chance on P.B. Ryan’s STILL LIFE WITH MURDER, and it blew me away.
I like historical fiction. This book takes place in post Civil War Boston, 1868. The heroine is a young Irish girl who had an ugly start in life but didn’t give up and has finally worked her way into a job as a governess for a wealthy family. The matron who hires her is eccentric and suspects that Nell is no innocent and doesn’t care. She’s bound to a wheelchair and sends Nell to find information to prove that her wayward son, Will, didn’t partake of too much opium and kill a man in an alley. While Will’s mother is working to free him, his father is doing everything possible to make sure he hangs, eliminating the wealthy family of the “William Problem.”
The set-up, obviously, assures the story will have plenty of tension. If Will’s father learns that Nell is visiting opium dens and sharing information with a smart, huge Irish detective, he’ll fire her, and she’ll have no job and no respect–she could easily be worse off than before she got the job. Even if she does everything she can, the son–Will–is determined to hang and refuses to do anything to save himself.
One of the things I loved about the story is one of the things that earned it low marks with some readers. The author makes addiction all too real and depression even more realistic. William Hewitt was a surgeon when the war started. He and his brother, Robbie, joined the Union Army because of their excellent horse skills. When Robbie is wounded and can’t be moved, Will has to saw off his arm and stay with him until they’re both captured. They’re sent to Andersonville POV camp, and their lives become hell. Will refuses to give up, though, and keeps Robbie’s wounds clean–no infection, no gangrene. He digs a dip in the frozen ground to keep them from freezing when they’re forced to sleep outdoors because of overcrowding. But when he returns home, alone, the pain from the bullet wound in his leg and his memories make opium appealing.
The author didn’t pull any punches about the war and the after-effects it had on men. She didn’t glamorize poverty either, and I appreciated that. She showed the rich class with its good and its bad. Her characters were complex and well-drawn. I love reading really well-written books. They make me think about what makes them stand out, for me, above other well done books. Nell’s character is wonderful. She’s fierce, loyal, and smart with a big heart. But Will Hewitt with his easy charm, brilliant mind, and weariness of life was fascinating. So many contradictions. And for me, a character that would be hard to write. I’m so glad I read this book. It will make me think about the characters and story for a long time, but more, it will make me examine how the author accomplished what she did and how she threw two very different characters together and let them respect and challenge each other.
A Stephen King quote says that if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write. If a person works, there’s not always time to do both, but most writers are or were people who love books. And reading other authors can inspire us to try harder, to write better, while always staying true to ourselves. Happy Writing!