Received from the publisher via Netgalley – with thanks.
I really needed to read something of a light and escapist nature this last week, which I knew before I began would be a long a tiring one. The San Pareil Mystery turned out to be a good choice. I don’t often read mysteries written now, I generally reach for more vintage stuff but I used to once rather enjoy historical mysteries if they weren’t too gory. The San Pareil Mystery is in fact the second book in the series – which I hadn’t realised when I downloaded it – but it really doesn’t matter, and certainly my enjoyment of the novel was not spoiled by having not read the first instalment. I was particularly attracted by the idea of the theatrical setting – I always think theatres are wonderful settings for drama and intrigue – although the theatre itself plays quite a small role in this novel.
“There, dangling backwards over the jagged edge of the upper floor, was the body of a young woman. She was on her back. Her lifeless eyes stared up towards the cold February sky. Raven hair, turned grey with dust, cascaded from her head down towards the courtyard below. One arm trailed helplessly and swayed in the breeze. Her lower extremities appeared to be trapped beneath the void of the floorboards of the room.”
London; February 1810 and the body of a young actress is found in an abandoned building in the process of being demolished. The young woman, a baron’s daughter, worked at the Sans Pareil theatre, (now called the Adelphi) a theatre unusually run by a woman. That this theatre was (and still is) a real place and that it was run by a real historical figure, adds a nice little flavour of authenticity to this story. In fact I thought many of the historical details seemed very realistic, and Kate Charlton does a really good job at bringing this fascinating period to life. For me as a reader, I enjoy very much being swept up by a period, in reading The Sans Pareil Mystery the modern world frequently melted away from me as I became immersed in the cold, murky gas lit world of Regency London.
Stephen Lavender is a detective with the Bow Street runners, working out of the famous Bow Street magistrate’s court. In the trusty company of his faithful sidekick constable Woods, Lavender sets out to discover how the young woman who has been identified as April Divine, came to be under the floorboards of a dilapidated building. Also on hand to help – in various and unexpected ways is beautiful Spanish widow Doña Magdalena – who had already saved Lavender’s life on a previous case. Magdalena is tough, but vulnerable, her son is away at school, and Magdelena’s money is running low, she is alone in London, but for her trusty young maid Teresa. It is quickly obvious that Magdalena and Stephen are drawing closer by the day.
With the Napoleonic wars still raging across the channel, Regency London is a place of intrigue, a city full of potential spies in the displaced peoples who have fled the wars in Europe. Lavender and Woods, find the case take several unexpected turns, which leads them from the sprawling, colourful life of Covent Garden, to back stage rooms of a popular theatre to the drawing rooms of the aristocracy.
“Dorothy Jordan and the Duke of Clarence were relaxing in front of the fire in their drawing room when Lavender was ushered into their presence. The duke was reading a daily news-sheet and Mrs Jordan had a novella in one hand and a pair of pince-nez in the other. She hastily pushed her reading glasses down the side of her chair cushions when he entered. He smiled at her vanity.”
We meet Dorothy Jordon, the mistress of the Duke of Clarence, herself a famous comedy actress, and another of the strong female characters in this novel. However, Regency England was a much more male dominated world, and a place of prejudice and suspicion. Magdalena’s Catholicism might yet turn out to be a career limiting problem for Stephen, if he decides to marry her.
As Lavender and Woods delve further into the case they begin to realise that the case, involving matters of national security is much bigger, than they had ever dreamed of when they first began their investigations.
I found The Sans Pareil Mystery to be a very engaging, mystery; I loved the Regency setting and the addition of real historical characters – and the relationship between Lavender and Woods is also lovely. There were a couple of elements that I was able to work out myself – and didn’t come as a surprise when they were revealed – but this is still a well plotted mystery with a dramatic climax to the case at the docks.