The Spanish Diplomat’s Secret (Minotaur, September 2023) is a charming locked-room mystery set in that era of the early–and historic–engine-powered passenger liners, as sail gives way to steam. Yet the transatlantic crossing retains full Victorian cachet and privileged-class luxury, with Nev March creating or capturing a range of colorful characters across the spectrum from disarrayed to diligent, cunning to conscientious, villainous to virtuous.

The author wastes no time assaulting the protagonist Captain Jim in the first scene, indeed the first sentence, with a violent bout of seasickness. Not just a story ploy, Jim’s gastric demon is vividly displayed by March, constantly interweaving Jim’s malady with his detective work. This is her style: fine, even super-fine, details worked into the fabric of both plot and story, whether in speech cadence or facial expressions, characters’ dress or dishes at dinner. Like every good mystery writer, March mines her vein for paydirt, which for her seems to be detail: “Stepping through patches of light, she hurried over in a rustle of silk skirts… passengers making animated goodbyes… ladies feathers ruffling in the breeze, gents clutching their hats… each breath shaking her frame… bloodstains soaking her grey coverlet.”

As in many classic slow-burn mysteries, the author starts the reader at a distance from the characters and action, slowly drawing him/her into an increasingly intimate understanding of key players’ roles and motivations, revealing these layer by layer. While some sequences would benefit from a bit of spatial definition or action/interaction clarification, the cast is elaborate, the stage both intricate and colorful, and climax and resolution sensible and satisfying in equal measure.


Reviewer, Lance Mason: Raised in rural California, Mason’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in 40+ literary journals and collections, recently in The Kalahari Review, Argyle Literary Magazine, The Cowboy Jamboree, and won a Silver and a Gold in the 2024 Solas Awards. A Proficiency in Billiards was released in 2016.