Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Editorial Book Review: Sleight of Hand by Elizabeth R. Andersen #HistoricalFiction #MurderMystery #EditorialReview #TheCoffeePotBookClub

*Editorial Book Review*

Sleight of Hand

The Alewives of Colmar Mysteries, Book #2

by Elizabeth R. Andersen

In the spring of 1354, all was well in the town of Colmar - until Efi Kleven discovered a hand in her pot of new ale…a hand that was not attached to a body. Now, Gritta, Appel, and Efi, the three alewives of Colmar, must solve the mystery of the severed hand before suspicion falls on them. While they attempt to keep their fledgling brewery afloat, more bodies turn up outside of town - along with more suspects.

With few allies and several powerful men working against them, the alewives find themselves flummoxed: How did the hand of a man from Vogelgrun end up in a cooking pot in Colmar? Why were none of the victims local? And would this most inconvenient ingredient get in the way of Efi's plans to find herself a new husband?

Book 2 in The Alewives of Colmar mystery series, Sleight of Hand follows the three alewives as they confront life after the Black Death with bravery and wicked humor, showing resourcefulness and determination in the face of poverty, misogyny, and murder.

"A hand lay there, dark red and bloated from being boiled with the malted grain."

This second novel featuring the adventurous Alewives of Colmar begins with a shock for young widowed Efi, as she hits an unexpected object when she stirs the ale mash. Thinking it a child's toy, discarded to annoy the women, she recoils in horror when it is in fact a severed hand, with a distinctive feature. But who did it belong to? And what is it doing in their mash?

So begins another gripping murder mystery full of suspects, personal vendettas, intrigues, and a suspected witch!

With her good friends and fellow alewives, Gritta – wife of a drunkard and mother of 12 children – and Appel – a seemingly respectful widow of a certain age, suspected of unsuitable liaisons after dark – by her side, all three become embroiled in a plot that has so many red herrings, it leaves you breathless.

Things turn serious when Gritta and her husband, Jorges, are arrested on suspicion of murdering the now identified victim. Jorges had quarrelled with him, and Gritta, always the practical one, is suspected of helping him dispose of the body.

Believing their friend innocent and the Sheriff Werner utterly biased, Appel begins her own investigation, with the help of Friar Wikerus, A Franciscan temporarily staying with the local Dominicans. This, in turn, leads to further complications which add to the rich tapestry of the intricate plot.

When another murder happens, Gritta is released, but her husband soon falls under suspicion again. As the body count rises, together with severed hands, fear grips the community at Les Tanneurs, a poor tannery quarter of Colmar where the three women live. With the locals in fear, anything could happen.

Will the true murderer be found before any more murders occur? Well, make sure to read the novel to find out!

All the characters in Sleight of Hand are utterly unique, in their views, quirks, lives, and foibles. Appel, Gritta and Efi are so different, their ale-making venture shouldn't work – but it does, as, beyond their often nonchalant surface, they care deeply about one another. Even so, Efi is keen to find another husband soon, Appel vanishes at certain times of day, and Gritta is as outspoken as they come, with almost serious consequences.

The enmity between Friar Wikerus and the Dominican Friar Tacitus is shown with great humour, as the two men of the cloth never see eye to eye. The mischievous attitude of easy-going Wikerus, with a past of his own left behind in his home town of Breisach, on the other side of the river Rhine, is in stark contrast to the serious Tacitus, who sees sinful behaviour behind every corner.

The town's officials are also wonderfully depicted: the rather lazy sheriff, Herr Schlock, owner of the weinstube, and Lord Fridus, who tries not to get too involved in smalltown squabbles.

Through all these unique characters, Ms Andersen has created a wonderfully lively image of a small town in rural medieval Alsace, where you find secrets galore behind closed doors.

The language and description of the setting is exquisitely researched, showing clearly the combined French and German nature of the area. The region of Alsace changed hands many times over the last millennium, and the residents have come to terms with living with two quite distinct cultures and terminologies. Ms Andersen has brought this unique location and its people vividly to life.

 A sometimes subtle and at other times laugh-out-loud sense of humour runs through the novel, adding a touch of lightheartedness that creates the perfect contrast against the dark backdrop of the gruesome murders.

The background of the main characters, which was featured in book #1, The Alewives, is cleverly fed into the plot, and although we would always recommend reading a series from the beginning, Sleight of Hand works well as a standalone story.

 As far as the murder mystery is concerned, we find many false leads and suspects. All the characters I suspected were actually innocent. This is a rare feat, as often you can guess 'whodunit' quite early on. Not so in Sleight of Hand! The author's skill in creating all these different threads – without losing track or losing a reader's interest – is remarkable. As I ticked off the suspects in my head, I was left wondering who it could have been. In the end, the revelation of the murderer came as a surprise. Mission accomplished, Ms Andersen!

Sleight of Hand is an incredibly clever murder mystery, with quirky characters, a fascinating historic location, and intriguing plot lines. The immersive narrative and local, medieval terminology gives you a real sense of time and place.

Fans of medieval murder mysteries and cosy 'whodunits' will thoroughly enjoy reading Sleight of Hand.

Highly Recommended.

Review by Cathie Dunn
The Coffee Pot Book Club

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Elizabeth R. Andersen

Elizabeth lives in the Seattle area with her young son and energetic husky. On the weekends she usually hikes in the stunning Cascade mountains to hide from people and dream up new plotlines and characters.

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