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Historical Mysteries

In Dublin's Fair City, Rhys Bowen, St.Martin's Minotaur, $23.95.

Rhys Bowen has very few peers when it comes to pure narrative skill. Peter Lovesey, Barbara Cleverly and Margaret Maron might be her equal, but she is at the top of her chosen field in terms of sheer storytelling power, and she also seems pleasantly secure and relaxed in her writing in general. Molly Murphy is a well established character and these novels are one of the best historical series being written at the moment. Lively, well plotted, nicely detailed, with the appealing Molly at the center of things, these novels really can't be beat. The book begins with a proposition for Molly - a wealthy theatrical producer wants her to go back to Ireland to try and find the sister he last saw when she was an infant and too sick to get on the boat with the rest of the family.

Molly needs the money but is abandoning Daniel Sullivan, her policeman beau, as he awaits his possible trial and while she tries to feel guilty about it, she's too excited about the trip. The minute she steps on the boat she gets a message to call upon a famous actress, Oona Sheehan, in her first class cabin. Oona wants Molly to change places with her for the journey so she can have some privacy and a much needed rest, and again, the money is too good for Molly to refuse. There are plenty of writers who couldn't cover that much plot in 200 pages, but Bowen manages to cover all of this in a bare few chapters, and what she has done is to skillfully set the stage for the rest of the novel.

I have no idea if Rhys Bowen meticulously plots her novels or if she knows her general direction and forges ahead. I was lucky enough to sit with Julia Spencer-Fleming during a panel at this year's Bouchercon - a panel including Margaret Maron, Carolyn Hart, and Dorothy Cannell. Ms. Maron - to my mind, one of the more gifted plotters on the planet - was talking about how she doesn't really know what's going to happen next. I whispered to Julia that I couldn't believe it - and Julia said, "It's like a gift. The whole picture comes to you while you work on it". It was an insight to me, and I wouldn't be surprised if Rhys Bowen shares this same gift with Margaret Maron. In any case the different parts of this story are seamlessly and deliciously blended together, whatever her method might be.

When Oona's maid is murdered on board Molly is unwillingly made to reveal her true self, only to find that not only has Oona herself disappeared, but she, Molly, is stuck with Oona's 7 or 8 very heavy trunks. After Molly is released by the police she finds herself once again on the shores of her native Ireland and she immediately sets to work to try and find her client's missing sister. Bowen could certainly milk some of this material for sentiment, but she doesn't, and I think it makes her books stronger. Nowhere does she take the easy path. As the two plot lines in this story converge - the missing sister and the missing Oona - the book becomes difficult to put down. Along the way you have become immersed in Molly's world, and it's a world that's hard to resist. As usual for me, the next installment can't come too quickly, but meanwhile, enjoy Molly's return to Ireland.

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