I was in a charity shop a few months ago when a set of book covers leapt from the shelf and viciously attacked my person.
Well, in a nice way.
It was the most random book purchase I’ve made in months. Rarely do I buy a book that someone hasn’t recommended specifically, or that I’ve seen reviewed, so buying a book just because the cover looked cool felt all risqué and flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants and all that. It was a risk. Three books were there and I bought just the first, in case it turned out awful. I regretted that; the next two books were difficult to get hold of in the right editions, but I’m so glad I did!
The book was Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn and good heavens did I devour it. It might as well have come with a knife and fork and some ketchup, that was how fast it went. Raybourn has an excellent way with opening lines (I’d like to leave those for future readers to discover) and although certain aspects of the book felt too modern to fit properly into a Victorian setting, it was a vastly entertaining read that included great characters, wonderful writing and a murder mystery that I guessed ahead of time, but in doing so didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book in the least. Lady Julia Grey – the protagonist – develops wonderfully as the murder of her husband is suspected and then investigated by herself and the dark, mysterious Nicholas Brisbane; she goes from a mousey, elegant, typical Victorian ideal of a wife to someone who is unafraid to show her intelligence and faces up to the rather grim task at hand with great courage. Her family is a madcap lot that offer some entertaining asides (Perdita, her sister, probably the most recurring and scandalous of her many siblings) and all elements together made the story a winsome mix of amusing, exciting, tragic and intriguing.
Silent in the Sanctuary, the second book, continued in the same vein, albeit away from London, at the family seat. It’s a stronger book with a murder that did fox me more than the first book’s mystery did, and the more we see of Julia’s family the Marches the better – they’re a fantastic, chaotic crowd – and I was laughing out loud in various parts. These books are witty and smart, and yes, they have sizeable romantic elements too. At times I found it a tad soppy but the rest of the story – the murders, the family, the other entanglements – was so strong it barely registered.
The third book, Silent on the Moor, was rather oddly the weakest of the three in everything but plot. Without the marvellous March family to give it a bit of levity and character, the setting of a bleak, windswept, barren moor with a dilapidated grand manor and a properly gothic storyline felt too heavy and plodding, though it suited Raybourn’s writing. The humour was sparse, but as a gothic tale it was quite nice and creepy and satisfying in the way that gothic stories usually are. It was a convoluted crime, and the scene in which they uncover the contents of an ancient Egyptian coffin lingered in my mind for some time after. I finished it a couple of days ago and I’m glad to see there’s another book continuing the story as it did feel like despite the tidy resolution, there were enough loose ends for Raybourn to work her magic and conjure up another wicked plot.
It’d be a mistake to read these books hoping for Georgette Heyer levels of historical detail and precision. They have patches of being a bit dodgy in that respect but not so much that it disrupts the flow of the story – rather, it feels a slightly fantastical when considering the gypsy element, and I rather appreciated the pure escapism it offered (I really don’t consider escapism negative in the least).
Basically, my random book purchase that day was an absolute joy and I recommend the books to anyone who likes a good romance, a good murder mystery, a good bit of wit and intelligent plotting. There is a touch of the supernatural about the books, which I felt detracted a bit from the plots and the characters, but I can’t deny that as a plot device it was well (and in the first two books, sparingly) used.
Easily a 4/5. I enjoyed them so much.