To take a break from Stephanie Plum’s adventures, I betook myself to Victorian times today and read the latest of the Lady Julia Grey novels, The Dark Enquiry. I had been introduced to these by a former colleague last year, and was happy to see the latest one available for purchase as part of my birthday largesse.
The interesting thing about reading any series of books is the chance to watch a character evolve. What had been a frustration with Stephanie Plum is less so with Lady Julia. She reads as an authentic representation of her milieu — a sheltered aristocrat with an unconventional upbringing in a boisterous and loving family. She is honest enough with herself about her own foibles that even her childishness about periodically sticking her tongue out at the people who frustrate her is written in a tone of self-examination and self-mocking.
The most fascinating thing to me about this series is the evolution of the relationship between Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane. They meet in the first book when he is recommended to her as an enquiry agent to investigate the death of her husband. It’s in no way a romantic encounter, but from the first she is fascinated by the contrast he presents to her own life experiences.
Deanna Raybourn’s skillful unfolding of the layers of his background as a half-Scottish, half-gypsy entirely self-made man culminates in this book with a revelation unexpected but not shocking — and promises more such revelations in the future of the series. In fact, there are several surprises at the end of this installment of the series that show not only the depth of their attachment but also a realistic depiction of the enrichening (if you’ll excuse my coinage) of marital relations through the course of shared trauma.
What’s truly interesting about these stories is the role women play. Lady Julia and her sister Portia acknowledge themselves unique within society’s circle, but Lady Felicity proves herself unexpectedly slippery, and there are multiple angles on women who struggle against the strictures of their society’s rules. Even the spiritualist delvings align with the need the women in that Victorian era felt to gain some area of self-empowerment. But the ultimate theme threading through these pages is a tribute to the power of deep emotion, eloquently summed up by Lady Julia this way (ware the spoiler!):
“I understand now… What it feels like to see the one person you love most in the world in peril. And when I saw Felicity aim for your heart, I suddenly felt so very stupid not to have known… How savage it is. You were so right when you said that control deserted you where I was concerned. I could no more have controlled what I did next than I could have flown to the moon. I set off the explosion because I had no thought in my head except to save you. I never counted the danger to myself or anyone else. Only you mattered in that moment. Only you. And I would have done anything to save you. I would have paid any price, committed any sin, sold my very soul to do it.”
For that alone, the series would be near to my heart, but the mystery itself and the way the revelations were sprinkled through the story was very well done. I even love the element of absurd about the family name, “source of the expression ‘mad as a March hare’.” From the clues dropped at the end of the book, I’m going to speculate that Julia and Brisbane will be spending time with the March brother living happily married in Italy in the next book.
But that’s topic for another review. In the meantime, for anyone who likes historical fiction, mysteries, and a titillating dash of understated romance, I can unconditionally recommend both this book and the series leading up to it. There are a few moments that could give a squeamish reader pause, but the pace of the story itself carries you through it all in a realistic and gripping way.