Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: A Case of Poisons - Hazel West

A copy was provided by the Author
in exchange for
an honest review.
A Case of Poisons by Hazel West
Series: Anthony Maxwell #1
Genre: YA, steampunk, mystery
Published on June 3, 2013
Published by CreateSpace
Pages: 323
Read From: 6.20.13 - 6.23.13

Anthony Maxwell is a private investigator, a consultant for the mostly incompetent inspectors at Scotland Yard, on occasion a writer, and always a lover of coffee. He has been working small cases for several years to pay the bills when he's introduced to the first multiple murder case of her career early one morning, when a witness catches a man trying to unload a body to bury in a nearby graveyard. Soon the first body is joined by three more in the course of a single morning and Anthony realizes this is no ordinary serial murder case. And why is the murderer only targeting beggars and urchin children? If that wasn't cause enough to worry, all the victims are covered with horrible wounds and show signs of exotic poisoning. Anthony, along with his partners, Tobias - an ex-broadsman and well-known charmer - and Scamp - a street-smart and talented young woman - work to find out who is murdering the helpless beggars and children in such horrifying ways.


Cover Blurb: Yes or No? True, there is a character impersonator, but you can't see his face clearly, so I'm perfectly okay with it. I love the gray background and Big Ben; it creates a very effective ambiance and coupled with the obscured figure, it's also very indicative of the story's era.

Characters: Anthony Maxwell is a detective that not only loves his work, but also has a very strong moral sense. As a consequence, he sometimes struggles with distancing his emotions from his cases - especially this one in particular, which takes a personal turn that he can't ignore. I liked Anthony; he was kind, had a quick sense of humor, and I connected easily with his emotional struggles. But the things I liked about him - namely, his overwhelming conscience - also grew to frustrate me just a tiny bit. While I totally sympathized with Anthony's frustration over the case, there came a point in time when I wanted to plead with Anthony to completely lock away his emotions and just concentrate on the puzzle, that way he would solve things quicker. Anthony's constant emoting on the ill treatment of children also got a little tiring after the third or fifth time; in some ways, I think the Author was trying too hard to make it clear to the Reader that Anthony was a compassionate person, when his actions alone made that quite evident. That said, I also believe that the Author made the right decision in giving Anthony such strong and obvious emotions. I'll admit it: when authors nowadays write a story about a private detective who happens to be far more brilliant than anyone at Scotland Yard, I tend to groan and mark it as a poor attempt at creating another Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock, while certainly a man of great emotion, always distanced himself from his cases; he never let his emotions get the better of him. By doing the opposite with Anthony Maxwell, the Author of A Case of Poisons has effectively set Anthony apart from literature's greatest detective, and that's a good thing. As soon as you begin to compare other mystery stories to Sherlock Holmes, there is absolutely no way they can live up to that, and you'll feel nothing but disappointment. So, to recap, I did like Anthony a lot, but the things I liked in him also bothered me, and as contradictory as that sounds, it is the truth, and I would not ask the Author to change him. Where Anthony was very emotional, his friends helped balance him out a bit. Scamp was a practical and spunky young woman, quite capable of taking care of herself without having an Attitude, and Tobias was the charming, loyal friend who also offered some surprising comic relief. He's the sort of character who seems to always get the short end of things, and the Reader always ends up laughing over his misfortune while simultaneously wishing they could get him a cup of cocoa. Archie, the leader of a gang of street boys, was probably my favorite, though, with his quick intelligence, fierce protection of the boys under his care, and his pride in refusing charity. And then there's the villain: Richard (revealing his surname would be a spoiler). When I first met the villain, I quite honestly wasn't sure what to think. At first, he didn't really come across as especially alarming, as he began to monologue about how much he enjoyed his evil work. Okay, villains are well within their rights to enjoy torturing and killing people; I'm not complaining about that. It's when he they start boasting about it that they go from frightening to cliche. However, Richard quickly improved as time went on. He began to display that calmness which betrays the fact that he will never make a mistake, and I began to really like him as a villain at that point.

The Romance: There isn't any! Which is a plus.

Plot: Anthony Maxwell is a private investigator who also sometimes helps out Scotland Yard when they need a pair of extra hands - especially when those hands are so much more adept than they. Up until now, Anthony hasn't had all that many big cases. But when Inspector Garrott summons Anthony to examine a mysterious body, Anthony's career is about to launch into an investigation that he isn't prepared for. The strange bruises and abrasions covering the body leave Anthony completely stumped - what's caused it? And what do the bizarre letters and numbers tattooed to the man's wrist mean? As he investigates further, the bodies begin to pile up, all with the same strange markings, and Anthony soon realizes that he's dealing with more than just a mere murderer. The mystery is a clever one, very engaging, and fast-paced. It's true that there's a lot of back and forthing between Anthony's lodgings, the Yard, and the crew's favorite coffeehouse, as well as a lot of looking things up in books, falling into bed completely exhausted, and LOTS of coffee drinking. And with so much of that sort of thing, A Case of Poisons could have been very boring indeed. But practically every chapter reveals something new to the case - a few steps closer to exposing the man behind the curtain, as it were - and this keeps the plot from lagging. Every new murder gives Anthony a new clue, however minute it may seem, and every studying session eventually turns something up, so we're not left wondering, "Okay, why do we have to read about Anthony poring over yet more dusty tomes?" The need to know how everything connects will keep Readers engaged and hardly noticing that yes, we're going back to the Yard again. As soon as the story begins to feel like it's dragging its feet, something unexpected happens, like another murder, the protagonist is attacked by some thugs, someone goes missing, et cetera - thus completely obliterating any slowness. It even has a secret society, which is just beyond awesome.

Believability: In a steampunk world, there are of course machines that didn't exist in 1887. Like electric automobiles, latte machines, or suicide pistols (although the Author has some very fascinating facts about true inventions that inspired her steampunk machines in the Historical Note). But the reason Readers read steampunk is for the gadgets, however impossible they may be, and the Author actually has quite a few plausible inventions! While the fabricated poisons may not be entirely possible (my microbiology class didn't really go that far into this sort of thing, unfortunately), they made the story interesting and added to the steampunk/Victorian science-fiction feel. We'll accept that in this alternate, steampunk 1887, microbiology was much more advanced.

Writing Style: First person, past tense. The first person narration probably also contributed a great deal to Anthony's overwhelming emotions, as well as his tendency to ramble on about his moralistic views. Anthony has opinions, after all, and he is the narrator. His tangents did get a little old after a while, but they weren't too bad, and I enjoyed his flair for the dramatic. What I would have liked to have seen more of was a fleshing out of Anthony's world. Part of creating a novel that feels Victorian is description. We get plenty of detail when it comes to the mystery itself, but hardly any when it comes to the setting. Where's the heart of London? The bustle, the noise, the millions of personal stories in just one glance? The narration becomes so wrapped up in the plot itself that it forgets to tell the Reader about the world it's set in, and I missed it. Part of my love for Victorian mysteries is the ambiance; the details; the window into Victorian English life - especially in London, which is so iconic for that era. The plot is so wonderfully engaging that I actually didn't really notice what was missing from the story until the end. There was a constant nagging feeling in the back of my head, but I was so caught up in discovering the clues with Anthony that I didn't pay any heed until I reached the final page. Then I was like, "There was something missing . . ." Hopefully in future installments, there will be a further exploration in the heart and soul of Anthony Maxwell's 1887 London. One thing, however, that the Author totally nailed was the street boys' slang, and that did go a long way in adding to the Victorian ambiance.

Content: None.

Conclusion: When the case turns too personal for Anthony, he knows he has to finish this case immediately, and he sets out to infiltrate the heart of the viper's lair. This, of course, leads to a showdown between Anthony and Richard, and while there is some monologuing, it somehow manages to not be cliche or turn Richard into a ridiculous villain who makes the one mistake no villain ought to. In other words, it just somehow worked. I don't know how or why, but it did. A Case of Poisons was a very hard book to review - probably the hardest one, actually. Because I acted as editor for this book, I already knew where the story was going, so it was difficult to once again put my mind back in the state of as if this were my first time reading the book. It was also difficult because I caught many things that bothered me the second time through than I did the first time - like Anthony's excessive emotions and the lack of world description. When I edited it, I read the beginning and then went months before seeing the rest of it, so I had a long break from Anthony's emotions, therefore they didn't affect me the first time like they did this time. And with the plot, the same thing happened to me last time as it did this time: I got so caught up in the mystery that I forgot about the ambiance. I desperately wish I could give half ratings, because A Case of Poisons is a solid 3.5, rather than just 3 little daisies. As a mystery, it was terrific - a real rollercoaster with every little clue connected in clever ways, kidnappings, and secret societies. The characters were great and there was a good balance of humor and drama. But Anthony's world wasn't fleshed out enough and I did get rather frustrated with him after a while. The Author tried too hard to convince the Reader that he was a good man by having him emote on the abuse of children, when in fact she could have just let his actions proclaim what sort of man he was. She did it with the villain, after all. But I don't want to end this on a negative note, because A Case of Poisons truly is a great mystery, and I look forward to future adventures with Anthony and his crew.

Recommended Audience: Girl and guy read, any age, great for Victorian mystery and steampunk fans!

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