Desert Isle Keeper
A Dangerous Duet
In her latest historical mystery, A Dangerous Duet, author Karen Odden takes us into the passionate heart of music and introduces a young woman so determined to play it that she puts herself at great risk.
To earn enough money to attend the Royal Academy of Music, the quite talented Elinor – Nell – Hallam works nights at the notorious Octavian Music Hall, posing as a boy named Ed Nell. She plays piano accompaniment for all of the acts while sitting hidden behind a curtain, and occasionally does odd jobs around the place. Long since abandoned by their bipolar mother, who left the family in order to become a pianist in Europe, Nell, her brother Matthew and their housekeeper, Peggy, are used to taking care of each other with the help of the kindly Dr. Everett, a phrenologist who works at Charring Cross hospital and fears Nell’s impassioned playing might be a sign of the same sort of condition that plagued their mother.
After accidentally revealing her true identity to the handsome Jack, the son of the music hall’s owner – who is also her new accompanying violinist – Nell is on her way home one night when she finds herself on the scene of an awful crime. Her dear friend and co-worker Marceline, a washerwoman ,whom Nell finds stabbed, badly beaten and with a broken arm, left in the gutter to die.
As Nell tries to figure out who would do such a thing to her gentle friend, her brother Matthew, who’s just begun a career at Scotland Yard, has his first high-profile case – a body found down by Waterloo Pier with three fingers broken, a classic warning sign to gamblers who’ve failed to pay their debts. More bodies with broken fingers begin to surface. Matthew and Nell, working separately, soon realize that each of their cases are dove-tailing together, revealing a theft, extortion and murder ring called The Fleet that encompasses most of England in a rather impressive network of thieving gangs employing underage pickpockets. As Nell tries to surreptitiously help Matthew shut the ring down while keeping her double identity secret, and herself away from the probing eyes of Doctor Everett, she slowly begins to fall in love with Jack. But when Jack’s past turns out to be much more complicated than she anticipated, will Nell be able to keep her two worlds from colliding?
A Dangerous Duet is a fine mystery, but it’s also perfectly successful as a cross-examination of the intersection where thrillers, historical fiction and character studies meet. That the novel works as all three genres is the highest compliment I can pay it. A wonderful and enthralling piece of work, it captures the attention of the reader and holds on to it as Nell’s world contracts and expands against the rhythm of the mystery that surrounds her.
Nell is an interesting heroine, ambitious, in love with music and with justice and with Jack – and she and Jack have a unique friction that perfumes their interactions, well-interspersed with a lovely, deep sense of understanding and affinity. Marceline is the best drawn of the minor characters, but oh, did I love the interesting Doctor Everett, whose ridiculous counterpoints about Nell’s nervous prostration was counterbalanced by his deep caring for Nell and Matthew and his belief in her talents and Matthew’s investigative abilities.
Odden has an excellent affinity for the time period; one can feel the specific griminess of the grittiest parts of London, and the slightly nicer area in which Nell and Matthew are living. There’s special care taken with the portrayal of Nell’s musical talents, and nothing feels out of place or out of step. The author doesn’t shy away from the complexities of human nature; the difficult things good people can do, and how sometimes even the best of us are somewhat wicked even though our intentions are good.
I can’t levy much in the way of criticism against the book; perhaps I would’ve liked more time with Matthew and his deduction skills, but being locked in Nell’s PoV had its boons, and it’s hard not to sympathize with her pursuit of educational enlightenment. A Dangerous Duet is magic both musical and fearsome; there’s nothing quite like it on the market and you’ll have an excellent time with it.