I was delighted to come across the first book in this entertaining series last year, The Mystic’s Apprentice – see my review. So when I saw this second book on Netgalley, I immediately requested it and I’m very glad I did.
BLURB: December, 1924. Young widow Maddie Pastore feels fortunate to be employed by the well-meaning but fraudulent medium Carlotta Romany. Investigating Carlotta’s clients isn’t work she’s proud of, but she’s proud of how well she does it. Maddie’s talents, however, draw them unwelcome attention: sharp-eyed Officer O’Rourke from the Chicago Police. He doesn’t believe in spiritualism – but in a city packed with mobsters, con artists and criminals, he’ll take any help he can get.
It’s not long before Maddie has a case to bring him. Why did teetotal banker Herman Quillen die of alcohol poisoning? And who is the gold-toothed man claiming to be his brother, and demanding the spirits reveal where Herman hid his money? All Maddie wants is to uncover the truth – but to her horror, she’s soon mixed up in a tangled web of secrets and deception that leads to the heart of Chicago’s violent gangs . . . and she’ll need all her wits about her if she, and her loved ones, are going to make it out again alive.
REVIEW: While I thoroughly enjoyed the first book, The Mystic’s Apprentice, and recommend you get hold of it if you enjoy historical murder mysteries set in the 1920s – it’s not vital to have read it before plunging into this offering. Though do be aware that at one point the first book was released under the pen name, Mary Miley Theobold. That now has been changed, but I mention it in case you come across a copy with the previous name across the cover.
It was a real joy to once again read a story featuring Maddie’s gutsy first-person narrative. She has had a terrible year, going from being a happily married young woman expecting her first child, to being suddenly widowed and out on the streets and penniless in 1920s Chicago. Thanks to the kindness of strangers and her own courage, she has now managed to rebuild her life. Miley portrays this without any sentimentality, which I appreciated. As you’d expect in this genre, it isn’t too long before Maddie’s job collecting information on the clients of her employer and landlady, the medium Madam Carlotta, brings her up against another suspicious death. And while this is a major narrative engine to the plot, I also enjoyed the fact that it isn’t Maddie’s major priority, because her main concern is looking after Baby Tommy. Knowing that so many working mothers have to perform similar daily juggling acts – it was enjoyable to read a book that reflects that reality.
She is also trying to keep him safe from the attentions of the mob. However, given how much the criminal gangs are raking in from Prohibition and how much they have pervaded all levels of Chicago society, that task is harder than it might seem. At the back of the book, Miley explains just how money the likes of Al Capone were making – and the amounts are truly eye-watering. The pages more or less turned themselves, as the vivid characters, complete with seances, mob members and Maddie, along with her friends, leap to life with Miley’s easy prose style. There is plenty of tension and danger, but we also have interludes where Maddie has a brainwave about a present for Freddie, the young orphan that Madam Carlotta has taken under her wing, as they get ready to celebrate Christmas.
All in all, it was a thoroughly satisfying read that completely immersed me from the first page to the last – and I’m looking forward to more books in this entertaining series. Highly recommended for fans of historical whodunits, particularly 1920s America. While I obtained an arc of Spirits and Smoke from Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.