My first book for July is The Body in the Ice by A.J. MacKenzie. This book qualifies for Bev's Calendar of Crime challenge under the April category of 'Original publication month'.
It's Christmas Day in St. Mary in the Marsh, Amelia Chaytor is spending it with Misses Godfrey and Roper, two spinsters of the parish. Their maid interrupts their meal to say that she went up to New Hall to get wood and found a body frozen in a pond instead. The Reverand Hardcastle, who is now the justice of the peace, is called in and goes in freezing weather to investigate. He finds the body of a young black woman, but no one seems to have any clue who she is. Two things are very odd, a) she's dressed as a man and b) one of her boots has been pulled off and left to one side as though someone has tried, and failed, to pull her out.
New Hall is a large mansion now left abandoned after the smuggling and espionage events of the last book, The Body on the Doorstep. Hardcastle cannot understand what this young woman was doing there but discovers that she arrived at the hall with a companion. He still doesn't know who either of them were. The owners of New Hall went to live in America some years ago. Hardcstle takes steps to inform them of the tragic occurence at their house only to discover that the Rossiter family are now back in England. This seems like an odd coincidence. When the Reverand finds out that the dead woman had a brother who came from America with her and that they're connected to the Rossiters, he realises it's not a coincidence at all and he has a case on his hands, fraught with difficulty.
Britain and America are now at peace after The War of Independence but it's a fragile peace and French machinations are not helping matters, especially on the south coast. Hardcastle is told to tread carefully in order to avoid treading on sensitive diplomatic toes. Could Hardcastle's life be any more complicted? Well yes... his sister, a writer of lurid gothic romances, could arrive, foisting herself upon him, bringing with her an Irish wolfhound named Rodolpho...
I think I enjoyed this even more than the first book and that was very good. It's a complicated plot, you need your wits about you to keep track of who's who and what they're up to... generally speaking No Good... but it's well worth the effort. The two main protagonists, The Reverand Hardcastle and Amelia Chaytor are very well drawn and I love their interactions and how they've slowly come to trust and appreciate each other for common sense and intelligence. In a sea of people with either ulterior or self-serving motives it's refreshing to say the least. I shall be very interested to see how their relationship progresses in future books.
Hardcastle's sister has clearly been introduced for a bit of comic relief, it works a treat. I especially love her enthusiasm for her own Gothic writing... and other people's lack of it. The cowardly Irish wolfhound is also a nice touch and I loved a particular scene where four 'fragile' women fought off intruders in the house. Wonderful.
I found the political details fascinating, plenty of things I'd not previously been aware of. I love how fiction can easily teach the reader as much as non-fiction about history, such an easy way to learn. I've never been to the Romney Marsh area on the Kent coast but find myself wanting to now. Proof, if it were needed, that this is a series that works for me and has a lot of potential.