Book: “The Body in the Garden” by Katharine Schellman
Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, April 2020
Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley
Book Description: London 1815. Though newly-widowed Lily Adler is returning to a society that frowns on independent women, she is determined to create a meaningful life for herself even without a husband. She’s no stranger to the glittering world of London’s upper crust. At a ball thrown by her oldest friend, Lady Walter, she expects the scandal, gossip, and secrets. What she doesn’t expect is the dead body in Lady Walter’s garden.
Lily overheard the man just minutes before he was shot: young, desperate, and attempting blackmail. But she’s willing to leave the matter to the local constables–until Lord Walter bribes the investigating magistrate to drop the case. Stunned and confused, Lily realizes she’s the only one with the key to catching the killer.
Aided by a roguish navy captain and a mysterious heiress from the West Indies, Lily sets out to discover whether her friend’s husband is mixed up in blackmail and murder. The unlikely team tries to conceal their investigation behind the whirl of London’s social season, but the dead man knew secrets about people with power. Secrets that they would kill to keep hidden. Now, Lily will have to uncover the truth, before she becomes the murderer’s next target.
Review: I’m always on the look out for a new historical mystery series. And while I love my Amelia Peabody and Veronica Speedwell mysteries, the two together can begin to feel a bit repetitive. They each are excellent on their own, but Amelia and Veronica have similar personalities and their strong women personas both play of the gruff-with-a-heart-of-gold romantic interests in very similar ways. The mysteries and settings are very different, but reading this last Veronica Speedwell book (I didn’t love it in general, so that doesn’t help), left me feeling a bit like the genre was starting to all feel the same. So I was both excited and nervous when I saw the book description for this one. On one hand, a recently widowed heroine is definitely different than those other stories. But then you add “roguish navy captain”…and would this really be all that different? Yes, it was, and it was just the breath of fresh air I was looking for!
Only one year into mourning her beloved husband, Lily Adler decides that enough is enough: it is time to rejoin the world and what better place than London itself in the midst of a Season? With the help of her dear friend, Lady Walter, Lily is quick to fall back into society, making new friends and visiting with old acquaintances. But amid all the typical gossip and small dramas that are always to be found in society, Lily suddenly finds herself caught up in a mystery: a young man murdered in Lady Walter’s own garden. A murder that no one seems to care much about but Lily and a few of her new friends. Soon enough, however, it seems that this young man’s death was only one small part of a much greater scheme and one that now begins to threaten Lily herself.
I really loved this book. And mostly this was down to the refreshing new characters that the story centers around. Lily is by no means the plucky, go-get-em leading lady that we see in Amelia Peabody or Veronica Speedwell. Instead, her strength comes in a calm, steely resolve to do what she sees right, while always maintaining a strong sense of dignity and knowledge of where her own particular strengths and weaknesses lie. She doesn’t seek out this investigation out of any sense of adventure, but rather she pursues it only because of her strong sense of justice. If, by the end of it all, she finds a new direction for her life, it’s not due to any intrepidness that has always persisted throughout her life. She’s a much more quiet, reserved leading lady, but just as skillful in being more withdrawn. Indeed, I think some of her observations, not only about the case but about people’s general behavior, were even more striking for being discussed in cool tones without much flair or fanfare.
I also really liked Jack Hartley, the aforementioned navy captain. Lily’s recent loss and continuing grief over the loss of her husband is never forgotten, which leaves this book to build up a solid friendship and partnership between these two without any real vibes of romance. Whether the series goes that direction or not is yet to be determined (I’d guess yes, but I’m also fine with it staying as is). One that that really stood out for me with this character were a few brief moments when Jack’s beliefs of himself as a man who greatly respects women was truly put to the test. We all to often see these historical pieces with men that “respect women” in the most obvious ways, but the story never really addresses the underlying tones that undermine this supposed respect. Lily calls Jack out on a few of these points, making him aware that as much as he does respect her, he still can fall into traps of limiting his perception of her due to her gender. These are smaller moments, but they are the kind of observations that often are left without being addressed in historical books like this.
I also really liked the inclusion of Ofelia Oswald, a POC heiress who becomes the third partner in this little crime team (Jack Hartley is also of mixed heritage). It’s rare to find historical books that include many POC characters, let alone two in prominent roles in the story. The author also included a great note at the end about her research into the challenges POC people faced in London society at this time and how she chose to position her characters in a way that was historically accurate but also put them at the forefront of the story.
The story was a bit on the slower side, but as I enjoyed the three main characters so much, I never had a problem with this. But I do want to put it out there for those thinking to pick it up: this book is definitely meant to feel immersive and spends a lot of time putting together all the details and pieces of the mystery and the characters involved. I really enjoyed the mystery itself, too. I was able to guess the villain about halfway through, but I didn’t get all of the pieces to fit together until much later in the book. The mystery was well thought out and the pieces were laid craftily throughout the story. Readers looking for a new take on historical mysteries should definitely check this one out!
Rating 9: Excellent. Lily Adler may be quieter than some other heroines in the mystery market, but she’s definitely one to pay attention to!
“The Body in the Garden” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Historical Mystery 2020.”
Find “The Body in the Garden” at your library using WorldCat!