I have a small confession to make. If I had looked at the synopsis on the back cover of Silent in the Grave before I picked it up and put it in my backpack, I might never have read it. It didn't look too appealing.
But as I was rushing out the door on my way to work, and knowing that I was close to the end of the previous book I was reading and that I would be miserable on the train without a new read, I simply picked up the closest book to hand, and left myself no choice but to give it a go. And thank goodness, because my sheer good luck was repaid immediately and I found myself hooked from the first chapter.
So enjoyable did I find this wonderful slice of historical mystery fiction, in face, that I can no longer recall what it was about the book that I didn't find appealing. Perhaps the promise of 400 pages spent with buttoned-up Victorian womanhood? Perhaps an unlikely-sounding plot? No idea. Can't remember.
Whatever I was anticipating doesn't matter one jot. What I got was a witty, beautifully-written slice of Victorian life among the upper classes, and a fine mystery novel to boot.
Deanna Raybourn's plot sounds misleadingly simple. A young aristocratic woman, Lady Julia Grey, watches her husband collapse and die of an apparent heart condition during a dinner party. With his family background offering much experience of short males lives, Sir Edward's death is attributed to natural causes. But just as Lady Julia settles into her 12-month period of mourning, a dark figure arrives on the scene telling dark tales of threats and murder.
At first, Lady Julia dismisses the tale of Nicholas Brisbane, a handsome charismatic figure who leaves her flustered, but a year later after finding a threatening note tucked away at the back of her husband's bureau drawer, she realises he was telling her the truth and enlists him to investigate the circumstances of her husband's death.
And so one of mystery fiction's oddest partnerships is formed. The dashing and determined Brisbane and the amateur enthusiast Lady Julia.
The two embark on a dangerous journey that takes them from Gyspy encampments on Primrose Hill through to shenanigans "below stairs" and even into Mayfair's finer brothels.
The story is sparky and exceptionally well told, always amusing and endlessly interesting. The mystery plot develops slowly, but is worth the wait as it boils up to fiery ending. But while biding her time with the plot, Raybourn built her edifice quite brilliantly, revealing much fascinating details about late Victorian mores, attitudes and behaviour. The description of the absurdities of the mourning period and the place in society occupied by the mourner are as hilarious as they are detailed. Not being a Victorian historian I don't know how accurate all of this is, but it is convincing and that is all that really matters from the perspective of fiction.
Raybourn also introduces us to an electic collection of characters who one hopes will populate the promised sequels to this book. From Lady Julia's sapphic sister Portia, through her morbid aunt - nicknamed "the Ghoul" because of her attraction to the dead and dying - through various odd brothers, doctors, servants and society figures. It is a rich and satisfying tapestry.
What is all the more remarkable about this wonderful book is that Deanna Raybourn (who keeps a terrific blog that is well worth a visit) appears to hail from south Texas, amking her detailed research and description all the more commendable.
If I have a complaint, it is this: the second book in the Lady Julia Grey / Nicholas Brisbane series is apparently not going to be published until January 2009. Come on, Deanna, give me a break. I want it now! (And I did get a copy a little early. Click here for a review of Silent in the Sanctuary.)