Book: “Murder on Black Swan Lane” by Andrea Penrose
Publishing Info: Kensington Books, June 2017
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: In Regency London, an unconventional scientist and a fearless female artist form an unlikely alliance to expose unspeakable evil . . .
The Earl of Wrexford possesses a brilliant scientific mind, but boredom and pride lead him to reckless behavior. He does not suffer fools gladly. So when pompous, pious Reverend Josiah Holworthy publicly condemns him for debauchery, Wrexford unsheathes his rapier-sharp wit and strikes back. As their war of words escalates, London’s most popular satirical cartoonist, A.J. Quill, skewers them both. But then the clergyman is found slain in a church—his face burned by chemicals, his throat slashed ear to ear—and Wrexford finds himself the chief suspect.
Review: I’m not quite sure how I missed this series when it started up a few years ago. It’s quite obviously up my alley: historical mysteries featuring a man and woman duo. It’s to the point where I almost feel guilty about how specific my reading tastes are for both historical fiction and mysteries. But I finally tracked it down and received my audiobook from the library. Bonus points for being narrated by one of my faves!
The Earl of Wrexford and A.J. Quill operate in very different circles. Their paths only seem to intersect when Wrexford becomes the unwilling star of Quill’s satirical cartoons. But when the feud between Wrexford and a priest that Quill had so delightfully been illustrating goes south with the priest dead and Wrexford suspected, their paths cross in real life. Both are not what the other had thought, with Wrexford hiding a true scientific mind behind his rakish outward persona and Quill turning out to be not a man, but a widow who has her fingertips on the pulse of the city. As they begin investigating the priest’s death, more mysteries begin to appear and the perpetrator may be closer than either had suspected.
Recently, most of the historical mystery pair-ups I’ve read have a distinct “comfort mystery” vibe to them. Both the Amelia Peabody series as well as the Veronica Speedwell are very light-hearted, with equal attention given to the romance and comedy of the story as the mystery itself. So I was excited to see that this was a more serious mystery series. The murder itself is violent, the motives for the various players are appropriately dastardly, and the story doesn’t shy away from the very real challenges of life in this time period.
Mrs. Sloane, of course, most represents this aspect of the story. A widow making a living for herself as a satirical cartoonist, you can feel the way her livelihood balances on the edge of the knife. But her two young wards, a pair of brothers who have grown up on the streets, paint an even more stark picture. At every turn, we see Mrs. Sloane’s desperate attempts to carve out a place for herself and these two boys, both representing groups that society neglects and forgets. She is an excellent character, and I love the fact that there were a number of mysteries about her past and character that were not fully resolved even here. We have enough to paint a general picture and become attached to the character, but enough teases are left to have me eager to pick up the next entry.
For his part, Wrexford is the more typical rich, snarky, seemingly care-free aristocrat. But as the story progressed, he, too, began to reveal new layers. There are fewer mysteries to be found here, but I’m equally intrigued by his ability to put together the pieces behind Mrs. Sloane’s secrets as I am about their ultimate reveals. I also liked the fact that Wrexford was a nice balance between the cluelessness that would be natural to a man in his position dealing with a woman like Mrs. Sloane, while also being progressive enough to be heroic. The balance struck between these two aspects felt believable and compelling.
I also really liked the mystery itself. There were a good number of red herrings and a lot of historical scientific elements that were all particularly interesting. The author also included a great note at the end that went into how she used these elements and which are based in fact and which had been adjusted somewhat to meet the needs of the story. The writing was also very strong and drew me immediately into the story, deftly painting scenes and grounding the world in Regency London. Fans of historical mysteries should definitely check this out, especially if you’re looking for a more serious tone than some of the cozy historical mystery series running right now.
Rating 9: A super solid start to a new historical mystery series with two compelling protagonists at its heart. Of course, I already want them to just kiss.