Friday, February 29, 2008

Crossing Genres: Mystery and Romance

I have always loved mysteries, particularly those with a scary, otherworldly feel. And as far as romances go, I started off reading Phyllis A. Whitney when I was young, and still tend to gravitate to those that have a gothic element. Deanna Raybourn’s books Silent in the Grave and its follow-up, Silent in the Sanctuary, combine the best of both. Silent in the Grave also begins with what may be my all time favorite opening paragraph:

“To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor at the time.”

Whether mystery or romance, it’s hard to go wrong with an introduction like that.
The book’s heroine, Lady Julia Grey, is a young matron in Victorian London. Before the first chapter ends, she is a young widow, her husband Edward having died after collapsing at a dinner party in the couples’ home. “The curse of the Greys,” says the family doctor, referring to a family history of early death due to heart trouble. Relatives and friends agree; Edward’s death was tragic, but not surprising. Only Nicholas Brisbane has another theory – murder, cleverly disguised.

Lady Julia takes some convincing. Brisbane, a private inquiry agent, reveals that Edward had hired him to look into threats against his life. Julia is not convinced. She sends Brisbane on his way, and puts the subject out of her mind until months later, when she comes across evidence that her husband was, in fact, threatened and then murdered. At this point she joins forces with Brisbane, and the two work to reveal the truth about Edward’s death.

Raybourn does a great job of throwing a lot into this story without ever taking it over the top. She takes some of the standard Gothic novel elements – the dark, sexy, potentially dangerous love interest, the Gypsy fortune teller, the invalid relative – and combines them with the antics of Julia’s large, eccentric family and some interesting historical detail. The result is a book that is suspenseful and at times funny. I found it thoroughly entertaining, and snapped up the sequel as soon as it arrived at the library.

Silent in the Sanctuary did not disappoint. Lady Julia is in Italy with her brothers, recovering from her adventures uncovering her husband’s killer, when they receive a letter from their father ordering them home in time for Christmas. They all return to their ancestral home, Bellmont Abbey, for the holidays. The family and their guests have barely settled in when the body of a local curate is found in the Abbey’s deconsecrated church. The murderer is clearly someone in residence, and Julia is determined to find the killer. Conveniently, Nicholas Brisbane is among her father’s guests and the two join forces once again. The plot is twisty, Julia’s family is still wildly eccentric, and the chemistry between Julia and Nicholas continues to bring the two closer together. All in all, another well told tale with the same combination of elements I loved in the first book. Though the mystery dominates, these books will also be enjoyed by readers of historical fiction and romance, and I will continue to recommend them to patrons while I eagerly await the next installment.

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