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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review - India Black and the Widow of Windsor

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.

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Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I adored both boths and can't wait for the third installment. I particularly like that India and French are not involved, that she knows nothing about him, that he remains a mystery to her.

Jo said...

You seem to be on something of a historical kick lately, or is that just what you've been given to review?

It sounds like this series has the potential to be one I'd enjoy, but it also sounds like one with the potential to really bother me. I think I'd have to actually try it to know... and I'm not sure I'd be willing to try it.

A.F. Heart said...

I had not really paid much attention, but I have been reading more historical mysteries lately. They seem to be what is appealing to me of the books sent for review. After all the paranormals during October, I guess the historicals have caught my fancy.

But I will be reviewing the latest Flavia DeLuca in December and some suspense books too.

What is it that you are questioning about the India Black? Perhaps I can answer any questions or concerns you may have.

Jo said...

I don't know exactly. Part of it is that characters are a huge part of what makes or breaks a book for me and it doesn't sound from your review like French is a very good one. Part of it is because historical attitudes (for lack of a better term) can make me queasy, and it sounds like this book might have a lot of that.

I don't know if that makes sense, and I don't suppose it really matters since I have an abundance of other books to read.

A.F. Heart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.F. Heart said...

I understand the dilema. French is a mixed bag. I can't say his character was horrible throughout. He has his moments where he clearly cares for India, which in itself says something about the man considering her profession. This book had some hints that he is growing attached to India beyond working with her.

He never appears to hold her profession against her or looks down at her for it. He does take it seriously that she is going into dangerous work and the opening scene is of them fencing - his attempt to help her learn to better protect herself.

He is still a mystery to India and thus the reader since she doesn't know much about him personally.

My complaints were a scene at India's establishment where a homeless boy who had assisted them in the last book is hanging around French, his hero, and French invites him to dine with them when India clearly doesn't want the smelly boy to. To me that was French being high handed when it wasn't his house. French may consider the boy an asset and not want to slight him or he may just want to feed the urchin.

My other complaint is that the story has India working all hours and gets perhaps an hour or two sleep each night. French even comments that she is looking pretty ragged, but drops the topic since they have a ticking clock. His undercover role allows him far more liberty and thus chances to rest and he didn't seem to appreciate just how much India was sacrificing.

That should give you a pretty good picture of the good and bad of the character so you can judge if those are too irksome or minor for you.

I know how it is with having so many books you want to read, you don't want to waste time with something that isn't going to entertain you.

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