In May, I wrote about romantic historical mysteries in general, and Jennifer Bradbury's Wrapped in particular. I wrote about my love of the pretty clothes and the pretty words; the banter, the adventure, the mystery and the romance; the colorful families and the happy endings. It’s a good formula, and I wouldn’t have thought it could still surprise me, but Alyxandra Harvey's Haunting Violet did just that.
Read the last Bookshelves of Doom on John Grisham's Theodore Boone.
It’s 1872, and the Spiritualist movement is in full swing. For years now, 16-year-old Violet Willoughby has assisted her mother in conducting fake séances. Violet feels guilty about bilking mourners, but she continues to participate—the profession pays the rent and provides a foothold into the kind of society that could lead to a good marriage. She isn’t concerned about angering the spirit world—she’s heard every story, knows every trick. She’s been in the business long enough to be a full-fledged cynic.
Until, one day, she starts to see real ghosts.
A few ways in which Haunting Violet differs from—and improves on—the usual formula:
1. The stakes are higher. Traditionally, Our Fair Heroine finds the rules of polite society somewhat chafing, but, as she was born into them, she understands them. Even if her behavior causes gossip, she is almost always still easily accepted.
Violet, on the other hand, is pretending. She wears the clothes and receives the invitations, but despite her manners and her appearance, she’s still a girl from Cheapside. Her position forces her to lie—through word and action—to everyone she meets. She doesn’t know the rules of high society very well, and she’s always aware that one misstep will expose the entire charade.
2. No traditional support network. Girls in this subgenre often come from a large, somewhat eccentric but always loving family. Not so in this case. Violet doesn’t even know who her father’s name, or if he’s still alive. The only family she has is her mother.
Mrs. Willoughby is a beautiful woman, but selfish, driven and prone to violence when she is angry, drunk or just cranky. Despite her horrid behavior over the course of the book, she’s still a fascinating character. After all, she’s a survivor, and she did keep her daughter when she could have easily deserted her. If Harvey ever decides to write a prequel about her, I’ll read it.
3. A choice between love and security. Rather than meeting a handsome, rich, possibly suspicious stranger and falling desperately in love with him despite that whole “possibly suspicious” thing, Violet finds herself involved in a love triangle. Well, not exactly a LOVE triangle. It’s more of a practicality triangle.
On one hand, there’s the rich-yet-so-bland-he-might-as-well-be-nameless guy who could provide a life of leisure, and on the other, there’s Colin. Colin, who has no money. Colin, who has no real prospects but is trustworthy, loyal, brave and honest. Colin, who has been in Violet’s life for so long that he used to put spiders in her bed. Violet has to decide what’s more important—a secure future or (possibly) true love.
4. The mystery was twisty. There are usually only a few probable suspects in this genre, and it’s pretty easy to identify the villain early on. Not so in Haunting Violet: At one point or another, EVERYONE’S A SUSPECT. The only person I was immediately able to dismiss was the one that Violet suspected! Right up to the very end, I wasn’t sure whodunit. Which, of course, always makes me deliriously happy.
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.