In Regency London, an unconventional scientist and a fearless female artist form an unlikely alliance to expose unspeakable evil . . .
This book is the first in a new series and it has so many similarities to the Sebastian St Cyr mysteries by C.S. Harris that it was disconcerting, to say the least. To begin with the cover is strikingly reminiscent of those books, along with Regency setting and some of the main characters. Here we have the Earl of Wrexford, a rather rakish character who disguises his keen intellect and is known for his dissolute lifestyle. He’s not as tortured as Viscount Devlin, but we don’t get a lot of background on him, nor do we know his first name. At the start of the book, there is a gruesome murder committed, with the victim being Rev. Josiah Holworthy, who publicly denounced Wrexford on many occasions. In retaliation, Wrexford issued his own cutting remarks and the arguments were satirized by A.J. Quill, a cartoonist who didn’t hesitate to skewer prominent members of the ton. Naturally, the earl becomes the prime suspect in the murder and has to clear his name.
A.J. Quill is in reality Charlotte Sloane, the widow of the original artist. In order to eke out a living, she took over the work. She has taken two street urchins under her wing, and they supply her with information that she uses for her cartoons. This again struck me as similar to Ms Harris’ books, with the young lad that St Cyr employs. Charlotte is very mindful of keeping her identity a secret, so she is shocked when Wrexford appears at her home, demanding to speak with Quill in order to find out how the artist knows so many details about the murder. Once he realizes that Charlotte is the artist, he strikes a deal with her to pay for any information she gathers and he will keep her secret from getting out.
They begin their unlikely alliance, and slowly learn that there’s more to one another than they first realized. It’s not a romantic relationship, but a friendship does begin to develop as they work together to solve the mystery. Charlotte is a very strong woman, independent and intelligent, definitely able to hold her own with Wrexford. Along the way, they also delve into the death of her husband, which turns out to be connected to this murder. The other characters in the book struck a familiar chord as well – a Scottish doctor, Henning, who doubles as a mortician (somewhat like the one in the St Cyr books); Kit Sheffield, Wrexford’s friend since childhood, and of course the two boys, Raven and Hawk. I’m sure all of these will appear in future books as well.
The story is well written and researched, and there’s plenty of details on the study of alchemy in the Regency period. The one aspect that I found irritating is that Ms Penrose paints Wrexford as being the rake with a scandalous reputation, but she never gives any examples of him behaving badly. I was expecting to read about his debauched lifestyle, but none of his actions seemed ungentlemanly. Too much telling and not enough showing in that regard.
Overall, I did enjoy the book but perhaps if I hadn’t read all of the St Cyr books this year, I might have found it more original.