Who killed the English lord? Raybourn’s debut is a lighthearted pastiche of a Victorian murder mystery.
That dying figure writhing on the floor of his London home is Sir Edward Grey, husband of narrator and heroine Lady Julia. Forgive her composure: It has been a disappointing marriage (no children, separate bedrooms), and for Julia, still in her 20s, it is time to move on. Her husband’s weak heart must have given out, she concludes, dismissing the suggestion of a mysterious stranger that it may have been murder. But a year later, in 1887, Julia discovers a threatening message and becomes hell-bent on tracking down the killer. For this she needs the help of that stranger: Nicholas Brisbane, a private investigator hired by Sir Edward before his death. Unlike the effete knight, Brisbane is “dark and masterful,” the kind of man Julia daydreamed about as a young girl; he also has more secrets than a cat has lives. His prickly relationship with Julia, crackling with sexual tension, drives the story as much as the investigation. No bodices get ripped, but there is one furious clinch. It appears likely that Sir Edward was poisoned, and missing pages from Julia’s Psalter, used in those threatening messages, point to an inside job. This makes for good entertainment, since Julia presides over an eccentric household that includes a Gypsy laundress, an Italian butler who was once an acrobat, a gardener who does his best work when drunk and (a recent addition) a talking raven stolen from the Tower of London. There are plenty of shocking revelations—visits to brothels, syphilitic infections, homosexual liaisons and grave-robbing—yet Raybourn keeps the tone light, displaying a gift for badinage. A far-fetched climax unmasking the killer is the sole disappointment. The state of play between Julia and Brisbane remains uncertain, perhaps to be resolved in another novel.
Smart and stylish: Bring on the sequel.