Write Stuff – Friday Finds

Not long ago, I compared the recent surge in self-publishing to the California Gold Rush. It’s exciting and, has loads of potential, but also involves wading through mountains of slush to strike pay dirt. So it’s well worth sharing when a glimmer of literary gold shines out of the morass, and Friday Finds will introduce you to some self-published gems. First up is a clever historical mystery by P.B. Ryan, Still Life with Murder.

Still Life with Murder launches Ryan’s mystery series featuring Boston governess Nell Sweeney and former surgeon Will Hewitt, a man with a haunted past and an opium habit. To be absolutely fair, this title was first published by Berkley Prime Crime, but Ryan has independently released the series as e-books. I stumbled across this title on indie site Smashwords and was instantly hooked.

In the autumn of 1864, Nell has escaped poverty and violence to become a doctor’s assistant. Ryan pulls the reader in with rich description as Nell and the doctor rush to deliver a baby. With a storm brewing, their coachman is a “smear of black hunched over the reins” through foggy windows.

More impressive, though, is what the story lacks: the self-conscious dialogue and flouncing petticoats that plague most historical novels, no matter what their genre. Instead, Ryan gives Nell a refreshing maturity and emotional depth. This is a young woman who’s seen life’s seedier depths. She’s had lovers, lost family, and her reactions throughout the book reflect that and make her character believable–she’s no caricature of the swooning Victorian miss thrust into a murder investigation.

When society matron Viola Hewitt offers Nell a place in the Hewitts’ wealthy Boston household, Nell’s quick to accept. But the contentment of her new life is disturbed when reports of the Hewitts’ son, William, surface. A respected army surgeon, Will’s been dead for 15 years, a casualty of the Civil War. Until he shows up in a Boston prison, accused of a savage murder.

Family secrets pit Viola against her husband, August, in deciding Will’s fate. When Nell agrees to help, she finds herself drawn back into the sordid world she thought she’d escaped. The book also highlights an interesting, if little-known, facet of US history: Andersonville, a notorious Confederate prison camp where some 13,000 Union prisoners died of “malnutrition, exposure, and disease” during just 15 months of operation.

Three elements of the book surprised me, two of them positive. First was the author’s knack for believable dialogue. Historical settings often seem like set pieces, with characters sounding historically accurate but stilted. Ryan neatly avoids that pitfall, though, and sprinkles Victorian-era language sparingly through the book. As a result, Nell and the others speak with an engaging realism.

The other pleasant surprise was that several plot twists caught me off guard. You may figure out “whodunit” halfway through the book, but Still Life with Murder is one of the few mysteries I’ve read that kept me guessing.

The only quibble–and it’s a fairly small one–is that there were more editing errors than expected, especially since Ryan thanks her editor in the acknowledgements. Perhaps that’s a holdover from the paper edition of the book, but one more editorial pass would have eliminated the handful of stray commas (“It’s, Cyril Greaves . . .”) and missing words (“from sound of . . .”) that tend to be the bane of indie books.

In all, though, I found Still Life with Murder a great read with an intriguing plot and highly believable characters–especially Nell and Will. I’ll definitely be heading back to Victorian Boston to catch up with them in the rest of the series.

You can check out P.B. Ryan’s website to find out more about this title and others.

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