Thursday, November 17, 2011
Today we review the second in a new historical mystery series. I wanted to read this as soon as I saw it, for it has a uniques premise for a heroine. We will be in 1870s Scotland with Queen Victoria for the holidays, pack for cold weather and treason.
Author: Carol K. Carr
Copyright: October 2011 (Berkley Trade) 320 pgs
Series: 2nd in Madam of Espionage Mystery
Sensuality: Some adult conversation and innuendo (period euphemisms)
Mystery Sub-genre: Historical Amateur Sleuth
Main Character: India Black, madam of the London brothel, Lotus House, catering to gentlemen
Setting: 1876, London and Scottland
Obtained Through: from publisher for an honest review
The story opens with a rigged seance for Queen Victoria in which the spirit of her departed husband, Prince Albert, literally insists that she spend christmas in their Scottish castle Balmoral. Balmoral was purchased for Queen Victoria by Prince Albert in 1852 (twenty four years before this story) and they would regularly spend the holidays there. But there is growing discontent among Scottish loyalists who resent the British rule. Prime Minister Disraeli is suspicious that Scottish nationalists are planning to assassinate the Queen while she is at the castle. Disraeli decides to enlist the British spy named French (yeah, that gets a little confusing) and his protegee India Black who was utulized as a spy in the previous book. India is a spy in training but normally is an owner and director of a whore house.
French is looking for the Scottish nationalist agent among the guests passing himself off as a womanizer while India is disguised as a servant to investigate the castle staff. India ends up being a lady's maid to the cantankerous Marchioness of Tullibardine with cateracts who mistakes most anything (pepper, salt, sugar etc) for her snuff and sprays everyone in the vicinity with her explosive sneezes. India must dodge the Prince of Wales who will drag any maid into a closet to have his way, while she divides her time attending the Marchioness (including reading to her at all hours of the night) and her investigating. Ultimately India and French are to prevent any assasination attempt and discover who the leader of the Scottish nationalists is. Two accidents appear to French and India as failed attempts and they must work faster before it is too late for the Queen.
The story is told from India's viewpoint and she has snarky humor and is a touch self absorbed. She is unashamed of her business as a madam which she often references - nothing explicit but be forewarned. She finds the spy business exhilarating. She feels that her profession has allowed her to be more liberated and have more freedom and control over her life. Although French acts as though her place is his to command, such as who will join them for a meal. In that situation I really expected India to throw him out, but she lets him get away with such high-handed behavior.
French, is supposed to be a romantic swashbuckling type, but doesn't really come across that way until later in the book. He doesn't recognize that India is working herself to the bone with hardly a few hours sleep while he plays pool and drinks scotch with the guests. That did rather irk me. India shows loyalty to the Marchioness even though it is just a temporary role and shows how she has a heart even though she works hard to keep it hidden. I liked India but French needs an attitude adjustment in my mind.
It is hard to portray historical figures since history can be unkind. Queen Victoria (current Queen Elizabeth's great grandmother I think) was the longest reigning British monarch up to that time and she had nine children with Prince Albert. It is true that when Albert died she was reported as plunging into deep mourning (she wore black for the rest of her life) and avoided public appearances which earned her the nickname "The Widow of Windsor" which accounts for the book's title. The book emphasizes her ongoing mourning for Albert. This book also highlights the reported close relationship Queen Victoria developed with a Scottish manservant named John Brown and the real controversy that surrounded them as to the manner of their relationship. As the Empress of India, she had several Indian servants who are present but only in the background. Also, there is no getting around it, Queen Victoria was a big woman and the book makes reference to it in the rather blunt somewhat unflattering manner of the day. It was an interesting peek at Queen Victoria to be sure.
The Marchioness of Tullibardine is more than she appears and is an interesting character that I enjoyed in-spite her snuff-and-violent-sneeze habit and blunt manners. The plot is not so much a mystery to discover who had done something, but who is involved with the Scottish nationalists and may try to assassinate the Queen. The tartan drenched castle Balmoral is a great location for an espionage novel since it is remote, the castle cold and foreboding, and the land is harsh. The suspects that line up as the book progresses are interesting even though I suspected the main Scottish nationalist agent by thinking "wouldn't it be interesting if it were ____" but did not guess the leader of the group at all. That was a nice twist. I found the wrap up well done and left me with a mystery regarding The Marchioness.
Overall it is a good historical amateur sleuth with a truly unique heroine thrown into political intrigue that brings history alive and holds a promise of romantic tension to come. It may not be for everyone, but is mild compared to many contemporary novels.
Here is a video featuring the castle Balmoral and Victoria.