Comparative Mysteries: Helpful Handsome Men and Anachronisms

Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn is about a widowed English noblewoman under the age of 30 in Victorian England who comes to realize her late husband was murdered and is fortunately assisted in her pursuit of the killer by a Helpful Handsome Man wise in the ways of crime fighting. In And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander, a widowed English noblewoman under the age of 30 in Victorian England also comes to realize her late husband was murdered and is fortunately assisted in her pursuit of the killer by a Helpful Handsome Man wise in the ways of crime fighting.

What are the chances? More importantly, how do Deanna and Tasha feel about this turn of events? Does Tasha Alexander, who published her book in October 2005 look upon Deanna, who published her book in January 2007, with the same fondness Martha Grimes bestows on Elizabeth George? The similarities are remarkable but the resulting series are not of the same quality.

Not that I'm in any position to comment on And Only to Deceive since I've only read A Poisoned Season. But I won't let that stop me. Tasha Alexander has clearly written the better plotted and more faithful to the era series. Her heroine, Emily Ashton, is smart and resourceful without being annoying. She grapples with her growing understanding of the limitations of being a woman in her times - she doesn't own the house she lives in or the books she loves, she can go out on her own but she's held to a different standard than the men of her class, etc - without becoming a walking anachronism. Or becoming thoroughly annoying. She's unconventional but she pays the price for her unconventional behavior and at times that price is too high even for her. The handsome man who helps her is Colin Hargreaves, a good friend of her former husband, who does spying for the British Government. Emily has an overbearing yet devoted in her way mother, two close women friends running the gamut from conventional to heretical and access to the highest echelons of society.

The mystery in A Poisoned Season is well-plotted, logical and filled with just the right number of red herrings. Alexander also tosses in a few off-hand remarks that students of the era will find amusing while novices can gloss over them without grinding the action to a halt. I just hope And Only to Deceive is half as good as this one.

Silent in the Grave is another matter. Raybourn can still pull this series out of the clutches of silliness but she needs to work on a few things. Like cutting down on all the March siblings who stroll in and out of the story being relentlessly eccentric. Each in their own way because that's why they exist, to be eccentric enough to deliver the plot devices required. Next she needs to tone down the Helpful Handsome Man, Nicholas Brisbane. He's 1) a detective, 2) he has migraines, 3) he has a mysterious Frenchwoman as a confident, 4) he has psychic abilities(!), 5) he's the grandson of a duke, 6) he's a gypsy, he's ... Just stop, Deanna, ok? Give it a rest. I found Nicholas interesting after 1 and 2, by number 4 I was in "give me a break territory and by 6 I was pondering what a mistake it is to give the Helpful Handsome Man more backstory than the heroine and her murder victim husband combined.

Julia Gray, the heroine in question, is likable enough. She lacks the edge and genuine introspection of Emily Ashton but she could get there. Raybourn gives Julia several witty observations. But she also has her delivering exposition along the lines of "Oh no, don't tell me you've stolen one of the ravens from the Tower? They belong to the Queen and stealing them is treason. Why do I have to have such a reckless younger brother?" Not a direct quote but roughly what I was dealing with. Which reminds me, dump about half the subplots and red herrings next time, Deanna. And lighten up on the scandalous!revelations! Grave robbing, sodomy and venereal disease (not to mention, treason) all in one book? What's up for the next in the series? Incest, genocide and mental illness?

Finally, Julia needs to stop acting like she's born in the wrong century. It's one thing to have her question the rampant antisemitism of her times; it's quite another to have her entire family happily condone her sister's lesbian relationship. Not ignore, not tolerate, but accept like Ellen's mom. That's just plain insulting to anyone who has a clue about the era or about the reality of life for homosexuals in Victorian England. It wasn't chatty dinners with the whole family, just ask Oscar Wilde.

There was enough right about the Silent series for me to try another one. Then again, I'm willing to try another Maisie Dobbs after that unintentionally hilarious group sing-a-long in which the murderer was captured. I may be too hopeful for my own good.

No comments: