“When selecting an exotic location for travel, it’s advisable to choose one where the air isn’t trying to kill you.”
So begins the first book in Erica Ruth Neubauer’s new historical mystery series featuring Jane Wunderly, a young American widow who is determined to remain single after her husband died during World War I.
It’s 1926 and Jane is on vacation in Egypt with her Aunt Millie who is paying for the extravagant trip and swank accommodations. The Mina House is where wealthy tourists go to experience the pyramids, which are within walking distance from the hotel. Seeing the ancient pyramids is a thrill, but the other bonus is alcohol. America is currently under prohibition and Aunt Millie likes her cocktails.
Jane and Aunt Millie are splendid characters. They are women who are independent in different, yet similar ways. They’ve lived with society’s cruel and mistaken judgments. For both women, death has offered new freedoms. Jane has a deeper interest in Egypt than just the “baubles” that are being dug up at a time when “Egypt was utterly leaking antiquities.” She explains at one point,
“I had been raised without the ritual of religion, and I lost my mother at an early age. When I also became a widow at the age of twenty-two, I became interested in both the ceremony surrounding death and the various theories about what comes after.”
This scene adds complexity to Jane’s character in more ways than one. She’s seeking comfort after her mother’s death and existential comfort for her own new life.
It’s early in the tourist season when they arrive at Mena House, which means it’s extremely hot. Aunt Millie adjusts quickly and connects with two young women. She’s off playing golf with them, which surprises Jane since her aunt isn’t usually the sporty type. Jane, on the other hand, struggles with the heat and decides to take it easy for a few days in an attempt to acclimate herself.
None of this stops Aunt Millie’s drive to see Jane connected with a new man. Of the cast of characters we meet the first night at the hotel bar, several stand out, but the main attraction for Aunt Millie and (begrudgingly) for Jane is Redvers. He’s tall, dark, handsome, and wears his expensive suits very well. He’s in banking. Supposedly. Jane feels an attraction but she’s sworn off any romantic involvement with men due to having been married to an abuser. Before Jane has a chance to get out and see the pyramids, a hotel guest is found shot dead in their room. Jane is a suspect.
Like many people who’ve been in abusive situations, Jane is an excellent observer of people. After the experience with her husband, however, she doubts her ability to read people accurately.
Redvers is always around. Jane runs into him while trying to find clues to the murder. She’s drawn to him, but should she trust him? Then another body shows up.
Murder at the Mena House is a page-turner that strikes a perfect tone for readers who enjoy classic mysteries and cozies. The pacing never drags and the plot is fresh. The supporting characters are familiar but don’t become stereotypes. On the contrary, Neubauer brings a progressive sensibility to characters like Zaki, the head waiter.
The setting in a posh cosmopolitan resort during the Jazz Age was a joy to escape into. Not everyone at Mena House is content or plays by the rules, but there’s no extreme violence or brutality on the page. While reading this novel the clothing and cars from Downton Abby were on my mind.
I’m also a big fan of Elizabeth Peter’s outstanding Amelia Peabody Series and admit that I was a bit apprehensive about taking a trip to Egypt in the hands of a new mystery novelist, but I’m glad I took the chance. Neubauer has created a wounded but strong and interested character in Jane Wunderly, one that I look forward to following on more adventures.
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