by Deanna Raybourn
"LET THE WICKED BE ASHAMED, AND LET THEM BE SILENT IN THE GRAVE."
These ominous words are the last threat that the darling of London society, Sir Edward Grey, receives from his killer. Before he can show them to Nicholas Brisbane, the private inquiry agent he has retained for his protection, Sir Edward collapses and dies at his London home, in the presence of his wife, Julia, and a roomful of dinner guests.
Prepared to accept that Edward's death was due to a long-standing physical infirmity, Julia is outraged when Brisbane visits and suggests that Sir Edward has been murdered. It is a reaction she comes to regret when she discovers the damning paper for herself, and realizes the truth.
Determined to bring her husband's murderer to justice, Julia engages the enigmatic Brisbane to help her investigate Edward's demise. Dismissing his warnings that the investigation will be difficult, if not impossible, Julia presses forward, following a trail of clues that lead her to even more unpleasant truths, and ever closer to a killer who waits expectantly for her arrival.
(I took away a slightly spoilery bit of the publisher's blurb.)
Interesting-enough story (though the solution to the mystery was pretty predictable). Decent writing. Distinct characters.
A little too Thoroughly Modern Marches (i.e. characters who don't behave at all in accordance with norms of Victorian society). A bit too graphic (for my tastes, in this genre) in some of the gory details. "Issues"/Political Correctness. A romance that could have been more romantic with Mr. Too-Good-to-be-True (except in a few very important ways...). Unexpected (and completely unnecessary, uninteresting) Magical Abilities.
Despite the fact that my list of negatives outweighs the positives, the book was just entertaining enough that I'll probably give the second book a try, then go from there... (This is the first in a series-- one that I was under the mistaken impression ended with the fourth installment, but now I see that it's on-going. I'm not sure how I feel about that.)
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- Some of the reviews I've read have been spot-on regarding Brisbane. Yes, he's an even more romanticized version of Sherlock Holmes! Yes, he's Mr. Can-Do-Everything! (Except, he's not really that great at being a detective. Which is his job, so...) I wasn't at all surprised when he turned out to have gypsy blood (was anyone surprised?), but I have to confess that his mystical powers came as something of a shock. I didn't especially like him to begin with, but the migraine episode won me over somewhat. However, the subsequent nonsense with boxing and violins and the Very Touching Story of his relationship with Fleur... Yuck. Heaping "the Sight" on top of all that was just too, too much.
-- I liked Julia fairly well, though I found it amusing that someone who's supposed to be so original, so unique, so intelligent and logical could be so dense at times. Heck, most of the time! (And she can barely even unlock the front door at the end of the book!! I know that a "fine lady" of that time would never have had cause to mess around with locks much-- because someone else would've done it for her-- but that still struck me as amusing.) Though to be fair, even the Great and Powerful Brisbane isn't always so good at sleuthing.
-- It was very obvious that Edward was a homosexual, and I knew well in advance that Simon must be the murderer (because who else?), but for a while I thought that perhaps he was in love with Julia himself and had killed Edward out of jealousy/revenge for Edward's poor treatment of her. ...I would actually have preferred that motive, by far. As it is, what with the footman (or whatever he was) and Julia's own sister, there's just way too much homosexuality in this book to feel realistic. I mean, really. It's just not that common-- particularly in Victorian England, where it wasn't remotely socially acceptable (despite Portia and Jane's fantasy world where everyone they know was perfectly fine with it).
-- That brings me to one of my biggest annoyances while reading this novel. For historical fiction, it's far too modern. Anachronistic characters are so "enlightened" (in every way) that they simply don't fit into their Victorian world. I guess the author thought she could get away with that by making the Marches such a group of iconoclasts, but I found it annoying. Look, if I want to read tales of mystery and derring-do with politically correct characters, there are plenty of books with modern settings peopled by modern characters with modern sensibilities. If, on the other hand, I go out of my way to choose something set in the distant past, I'm attempting to escape the modern world for a few hours. I'd rather have the setting reflect the intended period more accurately. Trust me, we can handle unenlightened characters. We can find them entertaining and even admirable without condoning every single thing they believe or do.
-- I was very amused that Julia's well-educated father chides the family lawyer to speak plain English when the poor man says nothing more convoluted than this: "I have here the last will and testament of your late husband, Sir Edward Grey." ...Yeah, speak plain English, man! All this highfalutin' talk of "last wills and testaments"! Such lawyer talk!
-- I don't like the implied extensiveness of Brisbane's "experience" (if you know what I mean). It's funny that it never bothered me as much in Jane Eyre. Not that I liked it there, either, but it never seemed as distasteful as it did in this book. Especially Fleur... It seems strange that he's maintained such a close, personal relationship with her, for all these years. I wouldn't be comfortable with that situation, myself, if I were in Julia's shoes. It's kind of creepy. Would a male character be expected to be ok with that, if the roles were reversed and it was the female love interest who was still actively involved in a very close friendship with a former lover?
-- Oh, joy. There's nothing I love so well in a romantic mystery set in Victorian England as anti-Semitism (and racism and classism), homosexuality, horrifying symptoms of poisoning by arsenic, beaucoup de syphilis, prostitution, lots and lots of talk about condoms, and a dissertation on why it's okay for the heroine's brother to perform illegal abortions. ...Yeah, not what I thought I was signing up for, when I started this novel.
-- So. When you have a romantic mystery, you expect some romance, right? It's a fair assumption. Many reviewers feel no chemistry between the leads. I wouldn't go that far. I think there is some tension between the two, but it's of the annoying sort that comes and goes, starts and stops-- and never comes to anything. The Big Kiss Scene is skipped right over-- not even described in detail-- and to be honest, what we do hear (cut, bleeding lips?! a bruise on her back?!) is far from thrilling. There's a tease of more to come in the next book, but this one closes on a low note.