It’s probably not a surprise to any readers of this blog or anyone who knows me in “real” life that I have a weakness for aristocrats, nobility and royalty that goes back very far (like 3rd grade). I enjoy reading biographies about them but even more I enjoy historical fiction. I recently stumbled across Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey mysteries and found them quite enjoyable.
- Silent in the Grave: In which we meet Lady Julia. The book opens with the death of Lady Julia’s husband and introduces both Julia and the reader to Nicholas Brisbane, the physically diverting private detective who stuns Julia with the news that her husband’s death may not have been from natural causes. Julia insists on helping him investigate and as she investigates, she learns sordid facts about the husband she apparently didn’t know. Widowed young and left wealthy, Julia begins to find herself and establish her identity while confronting truths about the life she thought she knew.
- Silent in the Sanctuary is the second book in the series. Lady Julia has spent the last few months in Italy with two of her brothers, recovering from, well. everything in the first book when they are summoned back to spend Christmas in England with their father. Ostensibly, they are summoned due to their father’s displeasure with one of her brother’s sudden marriage, but Lady Julia discovers that her wily father is up to something. They arrive at their family’s country estate to find a house full of relatives and friends…including Nicholas Brisbane…with a fiancee. Soon, the joys of family are eclipsed by a murder in the old sanctuary in the house. And Lady Julia discovers that everyone in the house appears to be hiding something.
Apparently, widowed aristocratic women becoming involved in mysteries is a trend. I can think of one other author right off the bat: Tasha Alexander whose writes the Lady Emily mysteries (though I wasn’t a huge fan of the first novel in the series And Only to Deceive. Writing about wealthy widows makes sense, though. If you write about unmarried women, your novel might begin to resemble or become categorized with historical romance (which of course MUST mean the novel has no redeeming literary value since everyone knows romance novels are a blight on the literary world). The widowed aristrocratic woman had freedom or at least much more freedom than an unmarried debutante did.
Ok, so maybe one other author writing similar novels does not a trend make, but there are other similarities between Raybourne’s and Alexander’s books besides the widowed women and the mysteries: the widows are rich and attractive; they both experience an awakening of the soul or intellect after the spouse’s death. They discover the spouse was not who they thought he was. A new, somewhat mysterious love interest is introduced almost immediately. The widow soon travels to another country (France for Lady Emily and Italy for Lady Julia). The heroine’s parents or family are prominent though in Lady Emily’s case, her family (at least her mother) disapproves of everything she does while Lady Julia’s family is bohemian (though protected by their wealth and privilege). I feel like I just wrote a comparison/contrast essay!
I definitely prefer Lady Julia to Lady Emily. If I recall correctly, I was not a fan of Lady Emily’s character in Alexander’s book. She seemed very brash to me…too used to being the center of attention. Lady Julia’s character seemed to have a true awakening. Growing up in a wild, unconventional family, she wanted convention and not to stand out. As the books go on, she begins to appreciate the freedom she has and take stands on she wants and deserves to be treated and to express herself.
The Lady Julia mysteries deftly explore some grim, sordid topics: sexually transmitted diseases, incest, racism, etc. Sometimes novels set in other eras fail when they attempt to explore topics that would have been a huge scandal in the designated time period because those topics and events just aren’t scandalous anymore. It’s difficult to appreciate how shocking they would have been to an inhabitant of the era. Raybourn does this well, however. I felt Lady Julia’s shock and was just as shocked myself at some of the revelations.
The second book in the series was not quite as good as the first. It seemed like Raybourn tried to do too much in it, and some storylines and characters seemed extraneous. But overall, I highly recommend the series.
- The Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries (they also do “grim” well)