Thursday, February 10, 2022

Andrea Penrose - Murder on Black Swan Lane

The Earl of Wrexford possesses a brilliant scientific mind, but boredom and pride lead him to reckless behavior. So when pompous, pious Reverend Josiah Holworthy publicly condemns him for debauchery, Wrexford unsheathes his rapier-sharp wit and strikes back. As their war of words escalates, London’s most popular satirical cartoonist, A.J. Quill, skewers them both. But then the clergyman is found slain in a church—his face burned by chemicals, his throat slashed ear to ear—and Wrexford finds himself the chief suspect.
An artist in her own right, Charlotte Sloane has secretly slipped into the persona of her late husband, using his nom de plume A.J. Quill. When Wrexford discovers her true identity, she fears it will be her undoing. But he has a proposal—use her sources to unveil the clergyman’s clandestine involvement in questionable scientific practices, and unmask the real murderer. Soon Lord Wrexford and the mysterious Mrs. Sloane plunge into a dangerous shadow world hidden among London’s intellectual enclaves to trap a cunning adversary—before they fall victim to the next experiment in villainy . . .

Comment: This title caught my attention while looking for something else. However, the possibility of this story was intriguing enough to make me want to try it and I successfully convinced a friend to read it as well and it turned out we both liked it.

In this historical fiction mystery we meet the earl of Wexford, a former military officer who has a reputation for not being the nicest person and because he isn't concerned about society's frivolity, preferring to dedicate his time to science and chemistry. Since he can't be bothered with silly people, he sees himself exchanging insults with reverend Josiah Holworthy, who accused Wexford of debauchery. Society is having a laugh at them, especially because a famous but anonymous cartoonist is using their "fight" as fodder for newspaper comedy but everything changes in tone when the reverend is found murdered and everyone assumes Wexford might have done it.

This is how Wexford decides to discover who the cartoonist is, even more so when he depicts things that should have been a secret. Wexford is surprised when he finds out the cartoonist is actually mrs Charlotte Sloane, a widow with talent for drawing, but, as their partnership continues so they can liberate Wexford from being the killer, also with secrets of her own. Will they find who killed the reverend before everyone demands Wexford's prison?

My first impression of this story was how well thought it was and how seemingly precise the plot choices by the author. It's the first book by her I try and while the writing style could have some more energy at times, I was a fan of the steadiness and rigor with which things were being imparted. With this I mean the characters don't go into meaningless monologues or superfluous musings; everything seemed to have a place, has proper development and I was quite curious to see where the plot would go.

The main subject of the book is the investigation of the murder, so that the earl of Wexford is cleared of any possible doubts he is the killer. We obviously know he isn't but during the Regency, it wasn't as easy to obtain proof or search for evidence. The author offers a very likely course of action, many things do seem to happen a little too quickly for the time (for instance, obtaining information, dealing with it, putting a plan into action) but I was glad this wasn't populated with too many coincidences, which would remove some seriousness from the plot.

I will be very honest: the murder investigation is the focus, is well done withing the possibilities and I was certainly interested in discovering who did it, but I wasn't that worried about it. Two reasons why this was so for me, I would think: I was more interested in the character's development and I was confident the aim here wasn't to cause stress or turn this into a thriller. I'd say this is more of a clever and not complex plot, so I expected the solution would be found anyway. As I've said, there are some moments where it feels like things are just too simple one can wonder why would they matter so I think a bit more urgency in some scenes might have helped.

The main characters, Wexford and Charlotte, are easy to read in the sense we clearly know they are "good" people. Yes, flawed, but with an inner sense of duty and moral ethics which means even if they say or do things we might say should happen, we know they have a strong moral core. Of course I was rooting for them to discover the truth and to prove Wexford's innocence. Although the tone here isn't one for or of romance, my romance reader self obviously started creating scenarios. Reading the following book's blurbs proves me right and even though we only have very superficial hints about their pasts and some ideas about their personalities, I'm eager to learn more because this certainly means a more romantic aspect will be developed then.

I think this was a good mix of the kind of elements I like in books. The author investigated Regency times, real examples of things at the time (such as how cartoonists would work, for instance) and this gave some resemblance of likeliness to the story. Of course, for some readers some aspects weren't as accurate and for some this is even an example of anachronism or wrong use of British cultural facts. I can't speak on those but from the POV of a fiction reader, this work sounded well enough for me and i will most definitely read the following books.
Grade: 8/10

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