A Dangerous Collaboration
Like many a fan of Deanna Raybourn’s series of Victorian-set historical mysteries starring the intrepid lady lepidopterist, Veronica Speedwell, I’m as much drawn to the complicated relationship established between Veronica and her delicious partner-in-crime, Revelstoke Templeton-Vane (Stoker), as I am to the mysteries the pair is called upon to solve in each book. We’ve watched the couple circle around each other in what has sometimes been a most frustrating push-forward-pull-back dance; the sexual tension between them is incendiary, even though they’ve shared little more than one drug-induced kiss throughout three books, and the author has done a terrific job of developing a relationship between them that is based on far more than their obvious mutual lust. But there comes a time when even a relationship built on incredibly strong foundations of admiration, respect and trust is no longer enough, not between two people who are so very clearly soul-mates in every sense of the term. And Veronica and Stoker appear to have reached that point, their good-natured, teasing banter and ease in one another’s company having largely disappeared in this book and been replaced by awkwardness and – sometimes – verbal sparring that has crossed the line from affectionate to keenly barbed.
A Dangerous Collaboration, book four in the series, opens just hours after the previous book concluded. Right at the end of A Treacherous Curse, it seemed that Veronica and Stoker were on the verge of declarations, but they were interrupted – and within hours, Veronica is packing for an expedition to Madeira. Stoker is – not surprisingly – angry and hurt at Veronica’s sudden decision, but after making an offhand suggestion he shouldn’t bother writing if it’s too much of a bore, and Stoker’s impassive response that he’s quite used to managing alone – she leaves.
Veronica is away for six months, during which time she hears nothing from Stoker – for which she knows she has only herself to blame – but instead of being energised by her expedition, she’s listless and unable to concentrate on her specimen hunting and the articles she’s supposed to be writing. She wanted time apart from Stoker to try to sort out her tangled feelings and emotions; she’s always taken pride in not needing anyone, on being her own woman and on not wanting to conform to the ideal of Victorian womanhood and get married and have children. So she’s struggling to come to terms with the fact that she has, finally, come face to face with the prospect of commitment to one man – and it scares her.
Men were a joy to sample, but a mate would be a complication I could not abide. At least, this is what I told myself…
Only two days after her return to England, Stoker’s eldest brother, Tiberius, Viscount Templeton-Vane, pays them an unexpected visit. There’s no love lost between the brothers and Tiberius certainly knows exactly how to push all Stoker’s buttons; yet for all Veronica recognises him for exactly what he is – clever, devious and manipulative – she likes him. Tiberius invites her to accompany him on a journey to a small island off the Cornish coast where she will be able to collect the larvae of an all-but extinct butterfly for her vivarium, which provides the perfect antidote to her former lethargy . She accepts with alacrity, knowing also that the trip will enable her to once again put off facing up to the truth of her feelings for Stoker.
Of course, Tiberius has an ulterior motive in inviting Veronica to St. Madden’s Isle, and knew without a doubt that telling Stoker he wasn’t invited was a sure-fire way to get him there as well. What transpires is something of an homage to those classic country house mysteries of the 1930s and 40s; a family tragedy and unsolved mystery haunt the Romilly family, the owners of the island and inhabitants of the castle atop it; and amid an unsettling and unsettled family gathering, Veronica and Stoker find themselves once again embroiled in a mystery that poses significant danger for them and those around them.
The mystery is as gripping as ever, the island setting is vividly described and atmospheric, and the supporting characters and their relationships are all extremely well-drawn. Tiberius is a terrific addition to the cast; a compelling, complex character whose motivations are deeply hidden and whose relationship with Stoker is severely fractured yet somehow strong at the same time. They don’t like each other very much and their history is complicated, yet they’re so similar in many ways – ways that Veronica can see but which escape both of them:
Stoker and Tiberius were wounded things, both of them still carrying the barbs and venom of the attacks they had suffered at the hands of others. Stoker was marked in ways he could never escape, both physically and mentally. But for all his wealth and polish, Tiberius was just as damaged.
A Dangerous Collaboration brings the romantic relationship between Veronica and Stoker to the foreground of the story and it’s about time, because I don’t think my nerves could have taken much more of their continual advance-and-retreat! Ms. Raybourn has done a terrific job in all the books of showing that Stoker is well-and-truly smitten with Veronica, and that she’s strongly physically attracted to him, but of also showing the depth and strength of their friendship, a “mutual understanding beyond anything we had shared with others.” I must confess, however, that I do sometimes find Veronica a difficult heroine to like. I admire her – her quick mind, her independent spirit, her life choices and her determination – all are admirable traits, but sometimes she’s a little too uncompromising to be truly likeable. And that’s fine – if every character in a book was likeable, chances are it would make for a pretty dull read! But I didn’t much care for the way Veronica treats Stoker for quite a bit of the book – even though her motivations are very clear and she’s obviously terribly conflicted – and I can’t deny that I was more than a little bit pleased when Stoker started to get some of his own back, because of course, he knows exactly what Veronica is doing and isn’t above playing the game.
A Dangerous Collaboration is certain to entertain and, if you’ve been following the series since the beginning, cause a widespread sigh of relief at certain developments ;) I hope Stoker gets to bring his “plans” for Veronica once they return to London to fruition before they get drawn into another mystery – which, given the hints dropped, may well be their most challenging one yet!