Silent in the Grave
by Deanna Raybourn
Mira Books, 2007
I am trying to figure out if this book is what I expected. Actually, I am trying to figure out what I expected in the first place. I knew this was the first book of a set of mysteries with a female protagonist set in a Victorian era, and that there was a hint of romance, and that Raybourn has a fair following. It is possible I didn't expect to be quite as tangled in it as I became, nor did I expect to be quite as impressed as I am; I wouldn't say I have exacting standards, but I do expect a good story, characters I am interested in, and an actually mysterious mystery from my mystery novels. Silent in the Grave has surprised me, and I am hungry -- nay, ravenous -- for the next. I think I can claim my expectations were surpassed, because if I had known how much I was going to enjoy this book, I would have had Silent in the Sanctuary on hand so that I could start it immediately. As it is, I will have to wait until 9:30 Monday morning, when the local library opens. It's already on hold there, despite the fact that it is closed between then and now. I am taking no chances.
The best place to start is with a summary. Lady Julia Grey and her husband Sir Edward are hosting a musical evening when Edward collapses and subsequently dies. Sadly, this isn't an unexpected event; Edward has always had a weak heart, and he had grown quite a bit worse in the preceeding months. So Lady Julia is quite prepared to put the death down to natural causes, as is everyone around her -- everyone except Nicholas Brisbane, an inquiry agent engaged by Edward some time before his death. Edward was being threatened, increasingly ominously, and Brisbane believes that there was nothing natural about Edward's death.
Part of the charm of this book is the pace. One expects things to get off to a rather quick start, as Edward is dead nearly immediately. But it doesn't -- we are treated to a bit of a study of Julia and her incredibly eccentric, incredibly charming family first. Julia goes about her life, in mourning but increasingly being cozied out of her shell. It isn't until, quite some time later, she finds something while going through Edward's papers that she realizes that the warnings to her were true: something was amiss. She moves relatively quickly after that, though, and the plot starts to thicken immediately.
And thicken it does. There are ominous signs, a fair bit of "but I had no idea how dangerous things would get" sorts of foreshadowing (which is done sparingly enough and fits very well with Julia's character, so doesn't grow tiresome) and a crackling tension between Julia and Nicholas Brisbane that is absolutely fascinating. Julia grows throughout the book from a reserved and naive but frustrated wallflower to a somewhat daring, brave and lovely lady. She is intelligent from the beginning, but has not had any call to exercise her intelligence for the previous five years, and combined with the naivete she ends up doing some pretty frustratingly stupid things. The reader feels she's learned rather a lot about herself and the world by the end of the book, and it's a nice transformation.
As for the plot and mystery, no, I didn't figure out the culprit. At least not entirely. In hindsight I can say I looked at the murderer and thought, "Hmm, wouldn't that be an interesting twist?" but in all honesty, I couldn't imagine how it was done or why, so I pretty much dimissed the thought. There were other little mysteries and side-plots, some of which have been resolved at the end of this book (some rather too neatly, really) and some of which are left dangling for the next in the series, presumably. And things in the middle got thick. There was new information, red herrings, dangerous migraines, disguises, questionable parentage, and even a dash of [perfectly believable, perfectly situated] magic. There was something new and often outrageous happening at least each chapter. It felt like a lot, but Raybourn handled things deftly such that I never felt lost or overwhelmed.
Aside from Julia, the complexity of the characters was another reason I enjoyed this book so much. Brisbane is deep, dangerous, and full of contradictions, and spends relatively little time on screen for the supposed primary investigator of the mystery. Some of the mystery surrounding him is revealed by the end of the book, but much of it is not, and he's a rather infuriating puzzle for both the reader and Julia. We, like Julia, are sure we haven't seen the last of him by the end of the book, and the prospect of seeing him again is both thrilling and somewhat alarming. Julia's relationships with her family and Edward's ailing cousin Simon, as well as her servants, are complex too, and not everything about each person is on the surface. The richness of the family dynamic -- it's not a dysfunctional family, but it is an enormous one, and as all enormous groups go there are the little conflicts and politics to be played with -- is part of what I enjoyed so much about this book. I look forward to seeing what they get up to in the next one almost as much as I look forward to seeing Julia navigate her way about her relationship with Brisbane and solve a mystery.
The writing is clever, in that it hides in the background as needed and clicks along but is always apt and crystal clear. It is not often overdone, and when it is the excess can be put down to Julia, not to Raybourn; I am certain that Raybourn knows exactly how to use language to its best effect. I trust her to tell me a story I'm going to enjoy thoroughly, so I'm very much looking forward to the next one. Fans of British historical mysteries should check these books out, absolutely. One of my most enjoyable reading experiences in quite a while, and that's saying a fair bit as I haven't picked up a dud lately. See you on the other side of Silent in the Sanctuary...