Sally Wright’s Ben Reese and Jo Grant Series

In February I started a new crime series, the Ben Reese mystery series by Sally Wright. I think I found it via one of the BookTube channels I follow. I was intrigued because the main character, Ben Reese, works as an archivist at a small University in Ohio. I like reading crime novels in a university setting (my favourite series featuring a literature prof, is by Amanda Cross).

Ben_Reese1

The series is mostly set in the 1960s but some of the crimes reach back to WWII, where our archivist hero was an accomplished scout behind enemy lines (a somewhat reluctant killer in the line of duty). They also touch on questions of Christianity (but quite low-key, not in-your-face), ethics and conservative values. I don’t consider myself a Christian, although I grew up going to Christian schools (both Protestant and Catholic ones, though that was due to coincidence, as those schools were convenient). I still like reading about different religious experiences (also non-Christian ones) and how people strive to live an ethical life, so I quite like this flavour of the novels. Apparently, the author, Sally Wright, was influenced by C.S. Lewis, whose works I also like. I’ve read quite a few of his books, including his (as I remember) quite strange science fiction, an autobiography, and, of course, the Narnia books. He also appeals to me, because he was a member of the Inklings, the group of writers that included J.R.R. Tolkien. I am a great fan of The Lord of the Rings. I don’t consider myself as being conservative, either in life or in politics, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate some of the values of conservatives. Some values are just universal.

Anyway, I very much enjoyed the Ben Reese series, and would recommend them as good reads. They usually have a slow build, with Reese trying to solve a murder by investigating the victims’ background and their relationship with the people in their lives. Near the end, Reese usually has to rely on his skills gained as a scout during WWII to save his own and other’s lives. Things become quite action-packed which serves a fascinating contrast to his archivist personality (not a job one usually associates with soldier skills). There’s also often a bit of academic politics in the novels, struggles for power and influence at Reese’s university. Owing to his job, Reese also travels a lot to research the provenance of documents, paintings, jewelry and other historical objects given to his university by alumni or other patrons. He rides and owns a horse and saves a dog in one of the novels. He’s a widower who lost his wife and their baby son in childbirth. He still mourns them but in the course of the series starts a new relationship (especially in the later books). He’s a well-rounded fascinating character and the supporting cast of characters are also complex and believable. These are the novels, in order:

Publish and Perish

The first book is the only one were the murder is set completely within the academic milieu. The roots reach back to WWII and the murder hinges on a case of plagiarism and a failure of communication. There’s a bit of academic backstabbing, both figurative and literal.

Pride and Predator

Set in Scotland, where Reese is appraising the historical artifacts that his friend Lord Alexander Chisholm, the Earl of Balnagard, has inherited. Another friend of the Earl’s, a minister, dies suddenly of an allergic reaction to a bee sting. The earl and Reese suspect foul play and so the investigation starts.

Pursuit and Persuasion

A professor of literature at Aberdeen University, Georgina Fletcher, suspects that someone wants her dead. She asks her heir (to whom she writes a letter before her death), who happens to be Reese’s apprentice, to hire a detective to uncover her murderer. Again set in Scotland, with some of the characters introduced in the previous novel. Suspects proliferate and Reese is soon in deadly danger.

Out of the Ruins

Set on the Cumberland Island in Georgia, U.S., where Reese is helping a distant relative and looking into the suspicious death of family matriarch. It’s all about who will inherit the land and what should be done with it. Quite different from the settings in the other novels but just as compelling.

Watches of the Night

This one I read last Friday. It’s partly set in Reese’s home, partly in Scotland, where Reese’s potential girlfriend (Kate Lindsay) lives with the father of her husband, killed in WWII (he was one of Reese’s best friends). The climax takes place in a ruined villa in Italy. The roots of this case go back to Reese’s experiences in the war, where he witnessed a murderous act (although hard to prove) by an officer who later faked his death. In this novel, the reader knows more than the protagonist, since we are told how the officer faked his death and who witnessed it. When Reese and Kate start looking into the death of her husband and why she was sent a grisly keepsake years after the war, ties to the officer appear and witnesses turn up dead. The finale is thrilling and there a new start for Reese and Kate (not only on the relationship front, also with Reese’s job which is endangered through enemies he’s made at his university).

Code of Silence

Read last Saturday. This one is a prequel to the series that returns to the time when Reese lost his wife. A recent widower, he is drawn to solve a murder that took place just after WWII during the beginnings of the Cold War. A young woman working with an intelligence agency on Russian codes learn something that causes her to be murdered. Years later an acquaintance of Reese’s also dies under suspicious circumstances. Reese is drawn into finding the murderer, a traitor who spied for the Russians for money. This was the novel I liked least, because all the stuff about Russians and spies in America and McCarthyism was just a bit tedious. But it was nevertheless a good read and I won’t leave it out when I reread the series in future, which I am sure to do, because it’s a good, relaxing, not too demanding series, perfect for rainy or gloomy day (or any old day, really).

When I finished the series on Saturday, I was slightly cast down, because I would have liked to have read more about Reese and Kate and their potential new lives as indicated at the end of book 5. I hoped to find that the author had written another novel or was planning to publish another in the near future. Sadly, I found that the author had died in 2018, so no more Ben Reese mysteries. I did find, however, that she’d written another series, made up of 3 books, the last of which was apparently published posthumously. These are the Jo Grant series:

  • Breeding Ground
  • Behind the Bonehouse
  • The Outsiding

I read the first one on Sunday (as you can see, I was on a binge).

Breeding Ground

The novel has an interesting structure. It starts with short statement by one of the main characters, Jo Grant Munro, giving her reasons for writing the book:

I’ve written the record of what happened – the account, of sorts, that follows. But I didn’t want to say “I” all the time, and explain how I talked to this one, and talked to another, and pieced it all together after the fact. I decided to write it down as though it were a novel, in the order it all happened, and write it from the outside, so I’m being sandwiched in just like any other character.

Sally Wright, Breeding Ground. 2013, Kindle, p. 7

The frame reminds me of the one used in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes novels. In this novel, the frame is set in 1995 while the main part is set in 1962.

Breeding_Ground

The main part starts off with Jo grieving for her brother Tom who died in a motorcycle accident. She is trying to extricate herself from the family horse breeding business. She had been nursing her mother for two years and wants to return to her own job, which is architecture. Jo wants to travel in Europe to get inspiration and training for her work. She must give up her plans because her uncle, who was to manage the family business, has an accident that leaves him unable to do much work for the next few month.

An old friend of her brother’s turns up, very ill, mumbling about not wanting to involve her in any danger. Another friend of the brothers turns up as a potential love interest. The reader gets to know neighbours and friends, all with their own troubles.

The novel gets quite a slow start, with many meandering plotlines. Somewhere at around the two third mark, even I, who like slow novels, started getting a bit antsy: where was the mystery? What did I care about all these people? But then there’s a murder and all the backstories started making sense. The novel had actually done what the pretend author had said at the beginning. Things happened in order and only with the murder did the strings begin to untangle themselves. As usual with Wright’s books, the last part of the novel has action and suspense.

At the end, we get another note from Jo in the first person. She clears up a few minor details and remarks that she has other books in mind to tell what happened to some of the characters of the novel – if she has time. She’s been diagnosed with cancer and given 6 months to live. This is quite strange, as I found out that this had also been the case with Sally Wright, the real author. She had lived with cancer for 7 years, despite having been given just a 6 months life expectancy at her diagnosis. She has fictionalized her own experience.

Despite the many and meandering plot lines, I enjoyed the novel and I am intrigued enough to read the other two. I like the setting, the horse business (I used to read a lot of horse stories as a teenager and always imagined I’d start riding and get a horse myself, which hasn’t happened yet). It’s like a horse story with crime elements for grownups. It also has a cozier vibe than the Ben Reese novels, which I like (though it did get quite violent at the end). The Christian elements, while still subtle, are slightly more prevalent. As they are still nuanced and not preachy, I don’t mind that either. So, I’m looking forward to the last two novels although I may put in a little rest from my binge first.

I found Amazon quite frustrating to search for all of Sally Wright’s novels. Somehow, I only found the Jo Grant novels via Google. During the search I found this interesting website: http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/. It contains lots of information about crime series and authors. A treasure trove! I will revisit it when I need another author to sate my appetite for that type of reading material.

Keep safe, world.

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