Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review: A Perilous Undertaking

By Deanna Raybourn
Berkley, January 2017

About the Book

London, 1887. Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an invitation to visit the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women. There she meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Accused of the brutal murder of his artist mistress, Artemisia, Ramsforth will face the hangman’s noose in a week’s time if Veronica cannot find the real killer.

But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems, and unmasking her true identity is only the first of the many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer—a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime. From a Bohemian artists’ colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed....

My Review

Ms. Raybourn returns with her unconventional Victorian heroine Veronica Speedwell for this second book in the Speedwell mystery series. Veronica and Stoker are reunited for another mystery inquiry. This time, none other than Princess Louise (one of Queen Victoria’s daughters) asks Veronica to investigate the murder of Artemisia, a young artist brutally murdered while a few months pregnant. Artemisia’s lover and alleged murderer Miles Ramsforth is now awaiting execution for his crimes, but the princess is convinced of his innocence and orders Veronica to vindicate him. 

Veronica is unsure of the princess’ motives but never backs down from a challenge, particularly when she has something to prove. So Veronica and Stoker enter the dark and secretive world of aristocratic eccentricity—secret grottos, pleasure palaces, bohemian lifestyles, and spouses who are supposed to look the other way. Through opium dens, funeral parlors, and aristocratic homes, Veronica and Stoker rifle through the upper class’ dirty laundry to reach the truth.

Like most mystery series (think Columbo or Sherlock Holmes) the main character(s) far outshine the actual mysteries themselves. That is certainly true here but the main characters are so intriguing, multi-faceted, scandalous, and saucy that you could watch them do practically anything and still be amused. Veronica is not your normal Victorian woman. She is sexually liberated, completely stubborn, and ruthlessly pragmatic when it comes to societal conventions. A lepidopterist by day, she enjoys putting her scientific mind to work when it suits her interests.

The sexual tension between her and Stoker is an ongoing (if sometimes overdone) theme. Both Veronica and Stoker are so full of scientific logic, sarcastic comments, biting wit, daring feats, and unconsummated passion, that you willingly follow along, not really caring who was murdered or why but convinced that you’ll enjoy the ride. And believe me, you will. The plot hiccups are easily overlooked when you have so much fun simply eavesdropping on their adventures.

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