I discovered Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series* at age 12, and 20-plus years later, I haven’t grown out of the series or the genre. While I enjoy romantic mysteries in general, and romantic historical mysteries in particular, there’s a certain subset I love above all others—stories that feature heroines who’ve grown up in such unusual circumstances that they don’t comfortably fit into polite society.
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They’re the kind of stories that let us have our cake and eat it, too. The heroines are more forward-thinking than their contemporaries—which makes them all the easier for us modern-day folk to identify with—as well as being more assertive and daring, but they also get to swan around, wearing the pretty clothes and engaging in the verbal sparring that we associate with past eras. The non-orphaned heroines usually have large families full of larger-than-life relations: quirky, humorous, warm and loving, yet endlessly exasperating. Whatever the specific combination of factors, if the book also has strong writing, characterization and a good plot, it’s bound to be borderline irresistible.
Up until recently, it’s a genre that (sadly) hasn’t crossed over to the YA stacks with much regularity. But recently, with Y.S. Lee’s The Agency*** series and now, Jennifer Bradbury’s Wrapped (Simon & Schuster, 2011), that trend appears to be changing. A happening that fills me with the desire to do cartwheels of joy.
Wrapped is set in June 1815 at the very end of the Napoleonic years and a few years into the Regency era—Georgette Heyer fans will find the period and London setting comfortably familiar. Our heroine is 17-year-old Agnes Wilkins, who is about to start her debut season in society. Like most every other heroine in this sub-subgenre, she is beautiful but headstrong and takes unusual pleasure in both reading and study. In moments of stress, she habitually translates and spouts off Jane Austen quotes in a multitude of foreign languages—a tendency that her mother desperately tries to curb, as it’s an unacceptably public display of Agnes’ undesirable bluestocking leanings AND her love of novels. (The horror!)
Before her official debut, Agnes attends a mummy unwrapping party held by wealthy Lord Showalter, the most pursued—though not the youngest—bachelor in town. He and Agnes share common interests, and, at the party, it appears that his interest in Agnes might go well beyond conversing about antiquities. Sadly for Agnes’ mother’s hopes, though, that same party results in three major distractions for Agnes: A sort-of-accidentally stolen Egyptian trinket, a sudden and suspicious death and a handsome young scribe...
While Agnes’ voice isn’t pitch-perfect—I was never lulled into completely forgetting that Wrapped is a modern-day imagining of the Regency era—she’s enjoyable to be around, likable, funny and entertaining. As a mystery-lover, I had the Big Bad identified quite early on, and in comparison to other titles of this type, the romance wasn’t all that swoony, but neither of those slight disappointments came close to ruining the fun. I’m already looking forward to the (hopefully) continuing adventures of Agnes Wilkins.
I’m always on the lookout for new titles—so if you’re a fan of the genre, please do let me know about your favorites!
*First title: Crocodile on the Sandbank (Dodd & Mead, 1975). Spinster** Amelia Peabody inherits a large fortune, heads to Egypt on a tour of archaeological sites, stumbles upon a mystery and bustles her way into (and through!) solving it. Additional enticement: Radcliffe Emerson is a dreamboat.
**Because, you know, she’s in her 30s. And it’s the Victorian era.
***Beginning with A Spy in the House (Bloomsbury, 2009). Mary Quinn is an orphan and thief, doomed to the gallows in Victorian-era London! Oh no! But then she’s rescued and ultimately becomes a spy for The Agency, an organization that takes advantage of the fact that most of society underestimates women! Hooray!
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is probably engaged in yet-another pitched battle with her new cat.