Author: Anna Lee Huber
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐
I had never even heard of Lady Darby. And in the very first chapter, she let on that she had participated in many murderous enquiries. How can enquiries be murderous, I wondered. Still I braced myself for a slow 1800s-pace read.
Sebastian Gage and his wife, Kiera, known as Lady Darby on account of her first marriage, both of who are enquiry agents, are invited to Tavistock Manor, the home of Viscount Tavistock, his maternal grandfather, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his cousin, Alfred, who walked out to the moor 11 days ago and never returned. Alfred is the heir to his grandfather’s wealth, and hence his grandfather wants him found.
The return home after 15 years is not a happy one for Gage, who had left the manor, vowing never to return, after his mother had been murdered. Worse, now that he is back, someone, it seems, wants them to leave, and is willing to resort to foul play to get rid of them.
At first, Gage and Kiera believe that Alfred is hiding somewhere, possibly with the connivance of his mother, Gage’s aunt, or his friends. Since Alfred’s brother, Rory, is next in line, they suspect him of having done away with Alfred, particularly when Rory starts behaving strangely.
Then as they learn of the Swing letters, letters sent to farmers and landowners, warning them to destroy their threshing machines or else make their wills, they begin to fear that Alfred might have met with foul play. And then Rory disappears.
Will Gage and Kiera find both brothers soon or will the unknown villain succeed in his dastardly plan?
The intrigue starts soon enough when somebody enters their room, and nearly attacks them while they are asleep. But these moments are not frequent enough. The pace is rather slow, as can be expected of a time when the fastest speed could only be achieved on horseback.
The state of medicine and the law are antiquated by at least a century. We see this when Kiera analyses the poison, she observes it, and examines consistency, colour, appearance, scent and taste. She cannot check the composition.
The mystery presents somewhat of a challenge, as the couple are plagued by the tension-fraught family dynamics. Gage’s aunt used to treat his noble-born mother and common father with disdain. She is rather hostile. The family also disapproved of Lady Darby on account of her past. Gage himself is deeply affected by the tension in the relationships, and cannot discuss the case with an impartial air.
Contrary to popular belief that the Victorians were a prudish lot, Lady Darby and Gage enjoy their romp in the sheets, and the narrative tells us that often enough. Only they prefer to use words like relations and distraction to describe it. Of course, this is a mystery, not erotica, so most of the telling is suggestive, rather than revalatory, in nature.
The writing evokes the notions of the time when good manners and good breeding were considered synonymous with good character. It is in this spirit that Lady Darby describes the behaviour of Lord Glanville, friend of Alfred, as being inexcusable, as he has not been raised badly or had the disadvantage of being an American.
We also get an understanding of the norms and mores that were in practice in a noble household, the relations between the masters, the Viscount, Dowager Baroness Langstone, and the servant class, including Hammett, the viscount’s butler. And everyone, servants and aristocrats, equally pretentious in their own way, scoffing at those who don’t live up to their exacting high standards.
It was such a tiresome time, when a lady needed help to dress herself, when husbands and wives were allotted separate, adjoining bedrooms. The book brings that out well.
The author does a great job of invoking the period, from the costumes, (women could not respectably wear pantaloons and riding boots.) to the fact that women had no identity or authority of their own, except as given to them by the males in their lives. Gage’s grandfather thinks women should be deferential. Some things sadly remain unchanged today. Women then, as today, are described as saucy bits o’ muslin askin’ for it.
We also get a sense of the dark myths and legends that prevailed in an era when so much was still obscure.
The language also helps place the period. And so we have a surfeit of words like countenance, demeanour. scowl, thusly etc and phrases such as “no love lost,” “neither hide nor hair,” “on some lark,” “in one fell swoop” etc. The phrase, the other side of the blanket, is used to describe illegitimacy. Rory describes the swing letters as naught but toothless yammering.
The descriptions of the outdoors were beautiful. The moors have always fascinated me since Emily Bronte used it as her setting in Wuthering Heights. Here, the author uses the setting to create a deep sense of mystery.
The manor had the feel of Manderley, in Rebecca, where the very house appears treacherous.
Kiera is an interesting character on account of her background (her former husband used to force her to make anatomical drawings), but she wasn’t as feisty as I would have liked her to be. The background was something that she referred to often enough, but since this was my first of the series, I felt a little lost.
Her past, when she was treated like a social pariah, makes her a very interesting character. It was nice to see her respond to the loneliness of Lorna Galloway and accept the tentative offer of friendship she offered.
The story showed a lot of promise that petered out towards the end. There were secret passages in the house which offered a lot of potential. In the end, however, it seemed like more of a family drama than a thriller, with Gage spending far too long confronting the demons of his past.
(I received an ARC from First to Read).