This spring I discovered a new Midwest mystery writer by reading her second book first, and then doubling back to her debut. Connie Berry lives in Ohio, a state qualifying her to be in my Midwest neighborhood. I highly recommend her series to all mystery readers, but particularly to those of you who like a British setting and an old-fashioned whodunit.
A Dream of Death is the first book in her Kate Hamilton series. It takes place on the Scottish Isle of Glenroth, population 238. From your first ferry ride across Cuillin Sound to the island, you will discover it is a magical place, and Berry serves up a wonderful slice of its Scottish culture, geography, and history. Scottish phrases like “lass,” A Wee Dram (a local pub), and a detective’s description—”from Suffolk Constabulary in Bury St. Edmunds”—are only a few references that tell you you’re in Scotland. Kill Your Speed signs come into view as you pull up to a country house hotel, and bittersweet is hanging over the door of your cottage. Since Scottish history on the island figures into the mystery, you’ll get a wee bit of that also. The banner of the Jacobite Rebellion hangs over the hotel—a white rose on a red field. Tourists, especially those looking for Jacobite history, provide the main income of the island.
The plot is intriguing with plenty of action throughout the middle of the story. Kate Hamilton is a Wisconsin antiques store owner who travels to Glenroth to meet with her sister-in-law Elenor Spurgeon—the owner of the island’s country house hotel. It is a bittersweet trip for Kate because her husband, Bill, died here on a visit to the island where he grew up. Three years have passed since his untimely death, but his presence and her memories are ever present. Not long after Kate’s arrival, a murder occurs like the one described in a recent novel about island history—the Diary of Flora Arnott, Volume One. A childhood friend of Bill’s, Bo Duff, is arrested for the murder. Kate cannot believe he is a killer.
Kate meets visiting detective Tom Mallory when their cars literally collide in the snow upon her arrival. He helps solve the murder case while she provides clues from the historical diary. A bit of romance is afoot … to be continued…
Kate is an intriguing main character who will undoubtedly grow and change in future books. She is curious, empathetic, and a professional in her knowledge of antiques. She identifies a small-footed chest as a “casket” built of satinwood and inlaid with designs of rosewood, mahogany, ebony and boxwood. She calls her mother back home, Linnea Larsen, who is running the antique store in Kate’s absence. They both are experts in this area, discussing a Georgian teapot over the phone, and Kate’s knowledge is a component in solving the mystery.
The second book in the series, A Legacy of Murder, does not come out until October, but I read it on NetGalley, a website that exchanges upcoming e-books for reviews. In this plot Kate Hamilton is visiting her daughter, Christine, and Christine’s boyfriend, Tristan. They are working at an English village—this time Elizabethan—at Christmas time. Finchley Hall, in the English village of Long Barston, is crumbling and in need of rescue, but Lady Barbara, the owner, is a woman determined to bring it back. She is elderly and almost blind, but she has the loyalty of her butler, Mugg, and the workers on the estate.
On a stroll around the grounds, Kate discovers the body of a young female intern floating in the lake. The intern was working on an antiques collection for the estate called the Finchley Hoard, and soon Kate learns a similar murder happened years earlier to another woman working on this same collection. Lady Barbara plans to exhibit the valuable items in an open house for tourists at her estate. It is to be a huge gala, and she asks Kate to finish the sorting and documenting of the collection. A robbery ring has been working in the area, so this decision is a risky one. Kate discovers a substitution for an expensive ring that is missing from the collection. This discovery is an ominous precursor to the night of the gala, an event fraught with disaster.
An impressive group of suspects dot the landscape: a missing son who fled to Venezuela, an elderly gardener whose spade killed the girl in the lake, and yet another suspect close to Kate. Her daughter, Christine, becomes a suspect when another murder occurs, and the clues point to her.
The characters in this series really draw you in. Kate Hamilton is an antiques expert, a mother in a difficult mother-daughter relationship, and a friend of Tom Mallory, the detective, who shows up again to investigate the murders. The setting is wonderful—filled with historical references—the characters are believable, and the plot never slows down.
If you’re looking for a light mystery with lots of history, Connie Berry’s Kate Hamilton series is a good place to start. Read the first one, and you can anticipate # 2 in October.