A lookery at “The Scent of Secrets” by Jane Thynne

The scent of secrets -- Jane Thynne

The Scent of Secrets

Jane Thynne

Random House Publishing Group — Ballantine

Ballantine Books

September 15, 2015

448 pages

$16.00

The Scent of Secrets by Jane Thynne is a historical mystery set in 1938 Germany as the world waits to see if Hitler will invade the Sudetenland.

Ada Freitag is a passenger on a luxury cruise ship sponsored by the National Socialist Strength Through Joy movement. These cruises are now the only way ordinary German citizens can leave the country. Although the trip is supposed to be a treat for its travelers, Ada finds the strictly regulated schedule and activities too regimented for enjoyment. But she is on this trip with a specific and covert purpose. Bored, she strikes up a friendship with fifteen-year-old Erich, before disappearing from the ship.

Cut to Paris and actress Clara Vine. Daughter of a Nazi-supporting British aristocrat and a German mother, Clara is a rising star in the German film industry. As war looms and conditions deteriorate in Germany, Clara turns down a marriage proposal to work as an agent for British Intelligence. She has the perfect personality for a spy and as an actress has the skills to wear a mask when needed. Her career gives her unprecedented access to the upper echelons of Nazi society — especially to the gossipy and loose-lipped wives of the Third Reich’s most elite officers.

It is Clara’s last day in the City of Lights. The filming of her latest role is finished and she is anxious to explore Paris on her own. Before leaving her hotel room, however, she receives an invitation to meet with a representative of London Films at a local cafe.

Clara is instructed to become friends with Hitler’s rarely seen girlfriend, Eva Braun. She is to pinch Eva’s diary and turn it over to British Intelligence. Because Eva is an ardent film buff and admires Clara’s work, a mutual acquaintance introduces the two. Soon Clara and Eva have a quietly forming friendship. Eva shares her passion for creating perfumes with Clara, designing an original scent for the actress.

It is an on-going balancing act for Clara; spending time with Eva, her godson Erich, Nazi officers and their wives, persistent suitors and acting obligations. The tension she feels is palpable. Yet Clara proves resourceful time and again.

Jane Thynne’s The Scent of Secrets is actually the third book in a series featuring Clara Vine. The U.S. publisher released this novel first in the States. I have not read the previous two novels in the set, which have been printed in the United Kingdom. It is my feeling that the back story would have been strengthened by releasing the books in order, but The Scent of Secrets can be read on its own. The background information in the first two books would probably convince me more of Clara’s motivation to serve the British intelligence community and to remain in Germany in spite of her perilous position.

Thynne develops several plots within the story that recreate the atmosphere of fear and confusion the German population must have felt without being sentimental or sappy. The insight she shares into typical and not-so-typical German lives is thought-provoking and interesting. The author uncovers the hardships of Nazi Germany and exposes some of the ridiculous and restrictive rules, as well as the harsh treatment of those who do not fit the Aryan ideal. Even the perks and punishments of the Nazi elite are revealed.

The Scent of Secrets by Jane Thynne can be read as a stand-alone novel. The book would have been enhanced by the release of the first two novels in the series, but on its own, The Scent of Secrets is captivating, and the ending will leave the reader begging for more of Clara Vine.

Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

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A lookery at “Jade Dragon Mountain” by Elsa Hart

Jade Dragon Mountain

Jade Dragon Mountain

Elsa Hart

St. Martin’s Press

Minotaur Books

September 1, 2015

336 pages

$25.99

Elsa Hart’s historical mystery Jade Dragon Mountain takes place in early 18th century Dayan, located in China’s southwest province. The Manchu Emperor, the Kangxi of the Qing dynasty is due in the city in six days to command a solar eclipse. For nearly a year, the Emperor has been traveling from Beijing to this outpost of his empire, while the local population has been preparing for his imperial visit and the wonder and power of the eclipse.

Li Du, the exiled and disgraced court librarian arrives in town, unaware of the Emperor’s upcoming presence and the festival to be held in the Kangxi’s honor. As an exile, Li Du must inform the magistrate of the province of his arrival, and obtain permission to pass through the area to his intended destination of Tibet. Tulishen is the province magistrate, and cousin to Li Du. When Li checks in with him, Tulishen is anxious to have his cousin leave the city before the Emperor arrives. It would be inappropriate for an exile of the court to cross paths with the Emperor, and Tulishen does not want to lose face.

But the magistrate allows Li Du to stay for dinner at his mansion. The town is abuzz with activity and visitors, and the magistrate has many guests. China is a closed country, with Jesuits being the only foreigners allowed in the empire. The Emperor favors the order because of their extensive knowledge, and the priests are eager to learn about Chinese history, customs and culture.

There are two Jesuits staying with the magistrate — Brother Martin and Brother Pieter. Other guests include the Arab storyteller, Hamza, who entertains with his tales and Sir Nicholas Grey an ambassador from the East India Company who is to present the Emperor with gifts, and perhaps gain trading rights within the empire.

The household is run by Tulishen’s favorite consort Lady Chen, who has yet to provide the magistrate with a son, Jia Huan the administrator’s efficient secretary, Old Mu the recordkeeper, Mu Gao, the librarian and Old Mu’s cousin, as well as various other staff, including the disgruntled but pretty maid, Bao.

Tulishen hosts an elaborate dinner for his guests, and Hamza provides the entertainment after the meal with his storytelling. Several people come and go during the story, including Brother Pieter, who is later found murdered in his room.

It is imperative that the murderer be caught before the imperial visit in six days. The magistrate calls on his cousin, Li Du, to remain in Dayan to solve the mystery of the murder.

False leads have Li traveling to visit the Khampa traders outside the town, interviewing members of the household, the guests, as well as a few outsiders. Hamza, who is staying at the same inn as Li Du, often discusses the case with Li. The motive for the murder is increasingly confusing and most believe Li Du will not be able to solve the crime prior to the powerful Kangxi’s eclipse.

At first, I was confused about the plot of the book. Jade Dragon Mountain starts with a brief history of the Yunnan territory, the reason for the presence of Jesuits, and background information on the Qing Dynasty. The story is told in 1780, but flashes back to the first decade of the century. Up until the murder, it wasn’t clear where the story was headed.

However, Li Du’s adventures lead the reader into the meat of the mysterious murder. As a historical mystery, the important role of the Jesuits, provincial and imperial politics and history, the inner-workings of a magistrate’s estate, and the politics of trade are explained.

The murderer is elusive, the rush to find the culprit is critical, and the suspects are many. The book was hard to put away when other priorities called. I found myself thinking about the characters and the country wile anxiously waiting to get back to Jade Dragon Mountain to learn more about the hunt and the era.

Once the story gains traction, Elsa Hart’s fast-paced debut novel Jade Dragon Mountain is an intriguing murder mystery wrapped up in historic background. Much is learned about China’s culture at the beginning of the 18th century while Li Du sets about solving the problem of the Jesuit’s untimely death. Elsa Hart is a new author worth following.

With thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.