I have probably just been reading and watching too many murder mysteries (and listening to too much Shedunnit) to be won over to the charms of the first book in Manda Collins’s new series, named for its first book: A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem. The setup is pretty simple: in the earlyish (maybe mid) Victorian era, the widowed Lady Katherine Bascomb and her friend, Caroline Hardcastle, begin writing a column together for Kate’s newspaper; however, they foolishly dabble in crime reporting, and publish a column which gets a respected Scotland Yard detective, Andrew Eversham, kicked off his case and an innocent man arrested. Meanwhile, the murders continue.
And, ugh, snooze, honestly. Sure, yes, Kate and Eversham throw some obligatory rivals/enemies-to-lovers sparks, have a couple steamy scenes, etc etc. As a romance, I guess it’s fine, though their chemistry seems more obligatory than innate. Even as their respect grows, the pattern of Kate tries to help, Eversham tries to sneak off to investigate without her, Kate catches up, a clue is found becomes a bit too lather-rinse-repeat for its own good.
Part of the problem is the mystery component. Collins feints at something quasi-gritty, set in the mean streets of London, early on: serial murders in Victorian London! how very sanitized Jack-the-Ripper-ish! But then 1/3 of the way through, it becomes a country house mystery, and it wobbles at maintaining any good development of clues, sowing of possibilities, etc etc. Everything just unfolds in a very paint-by-numbers manner, and one of the ultimate perpetrators (it’s a pair of killers, not just one) isn’t even there in the country house; they just pop up in the last chapters to add some vague sense of danger that doesn’t really land because, after all, they haven’t been a noticeable presence in the story at all up to now. The motivations of the killers and their actual MO are also fairly tenuous and poorly developed.
I’ve been reading a lot of Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie during this pandemic, with some dabbling into Margery Allingham and revisiting of Dorothy Sayers, and let me tell you, the queens of crime would be unimpressed by the construction of this mystery plot. And all four of them knew how to slip some crackling chemistry into their detective novels, too: Sayers had the inimitable Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane pairing, after all (a series that is begging to be re-adapted, I tell you, and if you’ve got some casting in mind I’m all ears), and Christie gave us Tommy and Tuppence (The Secret Adversary crackles with the electricity of attraction), so we know these genres aren’t at all incompatible. But if you want to write a good mystery, you need to plot a good mystery.
And that brings me to my other gripe, which is the use of the Victorian era. It’s poorly done: there’s some handwaving at women’s rights’ issues but otherwise there’s not much beyond some corsets and a mention of William Wordsworth to locate you in time. The dialogue is riddled with anachronisms, and frankly, after reading Y. S. Lee’s The Agency books, and watching Miss Scarlet and the Duke on PBS, it’s hard not to feel what is lacking. Both of those series capture the sense of a society in flux, and Lee in particular grasps the divide between high society and the struggle of the streets. Collins’s setting, in contrast is never very lived in, or fleshed out, and neither are the characters. We’re just going through the motions, promised mischief and mayhem but offered monotony instead.
Book #2, which will focus on Caroline, might be better; the teaser description suggests, perhaps, no mystery plot at all, which is fr the best. But I’m not sufficiently hooked to add it my list of books to watch out for.