For Deader or Worse
For Deader or Worse is the sixth full-length novel in Sheri Cobb South’s series of historical mysteries featuring the young Bow Street Runner, John Pickett who was first introduced in In Milady’s Chamber. In that book, the newly appointed runner encountered Lady Julia Fieldhurst, a beautiful young viscountess who was accused of murdering her older, abusive husband. John was immediately smitten with his prime suspect, which naturally led to a conflict of interests as he raced against time to prove her innocence in the face of the mounting evidence against her.
Through the ensuing books, readers have watched the couple become closer, even though the huge gap in their social stations would seem to make any relationship other than casual acquaintance impossible – until finally, the previous book – Too Hot to Handel – saw them thrust into a situation that meant they could no longer deny their feelings for each other. At the beginning of For Deader or Worse, John and Julia are married and on their way into Somerset, where John faces the prospect of meeting his in-laws, Sir Thaddeus and Lady Runyon.
As well as the development of the relationship between John and his lady, each book is also a self-contained mystery, so they can be read as standalones, although readers will undoubtedly gain more of an understanding of the ongoing romantic relationship if they have read the others. And in fact, this is undoubtedly the most interesting thing in the book, because the mystery is weak and easily solved by the end of the first chapter or so. Oh, there is a bit of a twist before the end, but it’s not exactly surprising or particularly suspenseful, and the ending is so rushed that it’s almost of the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ variety.
On arrival at Runyon Hall, John is dismayed to realise that while Julia had written ahead to inform her parents of her visit, she had made no mention of her remarriage, believing it best to tell them in person. This only adds to John’s apprehension, and he doesn’t make a particularly good impression on first meeting. Both Julia’s parents are aghast that she has married so far beneath her and her father even offers John money to disappear – but the couple is stronger than that, and Julia makes it clear that she married John for love and that what is done is staying done.
Interspersed with these earlier chapters is the story, dating from some thirteen years earlier, of the young Viscountess of Buckleigh, who, at just seventeen, was married off to an unpleasant, older man. She is about to receive a visitor – her neighbour and the son of the local vicar, Jamie Pennington – when the viscount accuses her of cuckolding him with Jamie and beats her badly. When Jamie appears, he is horrified and furious – and takes Claudia away with him, refusing to leave her to the mercy of such a brute.
Back to 1809, and Jamie – now Major – Pennington has recently returned to England following the death of his aunt to survey the property she has bequeathed him in her will. For years, there have been rumours to the effect that he had something to do with the death of the late viscountess; the smashed tea-things in her parlour, the discovery of a bloodied shawl in a ditch and the fact that Jamie disappeared the day afterwards and joined the army … none of them things in his favour, but were not enough to warrant an arrest. All these old memories and rumours are stirred up again when Sir Thaddeus’ head groom – previously employed by Buckleigh – is found in the woods with his throat slit – and John decides to investigate. After all, this murder is clearly connected to his wife’s family and it’s the least he can do. Plus, he hopes it might help to improve his in-laws’ opinions of him.
The first thing that might surprise readers – as it is a surprise to John – is learning that Julia has (or had) an older sister, Claudia. One day thirteen years ago, her horse returned to its stables without a rider, she was never found and was presumed dead. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it’s obvious that she isn’t dead; John is pretty much ahead of the game in working out the truth of the matter, but the reader is ahead of him by several chapters. Given that what is actually going on is very clear from early on, I suppose one could term this a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit, but that doesn’t really help to inject any element of tension or suspense into the mystery.
The best thing about the book is the still-evolving relationship between John and Julia, which is clearly headed down some rocky paths considering they don’t appear to have really discussed their future as a couple. John isn’t rich; he works for a living and has a man’s pride in that he wants to support his wife to the best of his ability. But Julia is the daughter of a baronet, was married to a viscount, has a good income of her own and clearly intends to pick up the threads of her former lifestyle when she and John return to London. This portrait of an unequal marriage with all its issues and pitfalls is far more interesting than the lukewarm mystery, and if I do pick up the next book, it’ll be purely to find out what happens to John and Julia and how they navigate their differences.
John Pickett is a particularly likeable and unusual central character. He’s not darkly brooding or rakishly handsome, he’s just a normal young man who has risen above difficult family circumstances (his father was transported to Botany Bay for thievery) doing his best to make his way in the world. He’s young (not quite twenty-five) and his inexperience sometimes shows, but he’s determined and learns quickly, so that by the time we meet him here, he’s quite confident in his investigative abilities, and able to hold his own with Julia’s father, Buckleigh and Pennington, with whom he strikes up an – at first – uneasy friendship. The secondary characters – Julia’s mother, Buckleigh, the new Lady Buckleigh and her mother – are fairly one-note, although Sir Thaddeus is a little more rounded-out. The difficult relationship between Julia and Lady Runyon is nicely done, and there’s no question that Ms. Cobb South really knows her stuff when it comes to the attitudes and conventions of the time.
If you’re a fan of the series, then I’m sure that For Deader or Worse will appeal, but as far as I’m concerned the mystery is far too un-mysterious and lacks any element of real suspense. If you’re reading primarily for John and Julia, then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, but if you’re looking for a complex and satisfying historical mystery, I’d suggest you look elsewhere.