A Matter of Grave Concern
There seems to be a bit of a vogue in historicals at the moment for stories which involve anatomists and/or resurrectionists in some way, as this is the third I’ve read in recent months which features characters who are somehow connected to one of those “professions”. That’s not to say the books themselves have used the same plotlines, because they haven’t – I just thought it was an interesting little trend. In A Matter of Grave Concern, Brenda Novak has taken the unusual step of having her heroine actually join a gang of grave-robbers, which is certainly something I haven’t come across before!
Abigail Hale is the daughter of a respected surgeon and anatomist who teaches at Aldersgate College In London. The up-and-coming sciences of surgery and anatomy are creating high demand for cadavers so that students can study the human body and perform the dissections necessary to arrive at a greater understanding of how the body works, while supply is an even more difficult business than usual, thanks to the recent exposure of the activities of the infamous Burke and Hare.
Abigail is devoted to her father and has hopes of one day being admitted to a course of study at the college, something from which, as a woman, she is currently barred. Knowing that the need of a new subject for study is becoming desperate, (otherwise the college will have to close its doors) Abigail secretly arranges the purchase of a corpse from the London Supply Company, a group with which her father has had previous dealings.
When the gang cheats her – and the college – out of a great deal of money, Abby feels she has no alternative but to locate the gang and steal the money back. She knows she’s taking a huge risk, but without that money, the college will not be able to pay its bills, so it’s imperative she makes the attempt.
She makes her way to the gang’s address in Wapping without incident, but upon entering one of the bedrooms to start her search, Abigail is interrupted by Max Wilder, one of the men she’d argued with earlier in the evening, and the one who’d seemed to be directing the operation. She’d disliked his superciliousness and found his air of ruthlessness intimidating, even as she recognised that he was something different from the other men in the group.
In order to protect her from the gang leader, “Big” Jack, Max tells Abby that she’s going to have to stay at the house – and, more specifically, pretend to be his lover. When Jack sees her, he’ll want to bed her, and then dispose of her to stop her from reporting them to the police, and the only way Max can protect her is to keep her physically out of Jack’s reach and keep her with him at all times.
Abby’s sense that Max is not all he seems is borne out when, after a day or so, he admits to her that he’s not a body-snatcher and has only joined the gang to ferret out information as to the whereabouts of his half-sister, who was last seen in Jack’s company. (Hint – he’s well-spoken and considerably cleaner than the other men – surely he must be an aristocrat in disguise!)
The next section of the story is primarily concerned with developing a romance between Max and Abby, and while normally I’d be jumping for joy about time spent on relationship development, I didn’t feel any real connection between them as a couple. There is a strong physical attraction but little else, and while much is made of the fact that Abby’s education has mostly been a matter of reading whatever books were lying around, and that she has no real experience of society or its expectations of a young woman, I nonetheless found her willingness to use words like “cock” to be rather jarring! Max is only too happy to allow her to indulge her “natural curiosity” about the male body (she’s seen plenty of dead ones, but no live ones, after all!), but is clearly trying to keep her at some sort of distance as he’s happy to indulge in several rounds of “everything but” – yet draws the line at going the whole way, much to Abby’s frustration.
All the while Abby’s willing to put out for Max, she’s also wary of him and continues to be suspicious of his motives. And because the reader doesn’t get to know what’s really going on until Abby does, we’re in the dark about him, too, which makes her falling for him when she doesn’t really trust him rather questionable. Romance readers want and need to connect with the hero – and that’s a very difficult thing to do when his motives remain shrouded in mystery for well over half the book. It’s also difficult to do when something is revealed about him that makes him look like a complete git – and even worse, when it’s something that is present only to throw a roadblock into the way of his relationship with Abby and has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the story.
A Matter of Grave Concern has a great premise and starts off really strongly, but it very quickly loses momentum, and the initial spark between the protagonists just fizzles out. There are chunks of the book where nothing very much happens other than Abby mooning over Max and wondering why he won’t shag her witless, interspersed with a few threats from Jack and Max being snarlingly protective of her. At some point, Abby seems to completely forget her desire to be admitted to the college to study surgery and Max acts like a complete idiot when he decides that as he’s fessed up to Abby about who he really is, he is now free to bestow upon her the gift of his mighty wang. Surprisingly, he’s thrown off balance when she tells him where to stick it.
While the writing is good, and Ms Novak very skilfully evokes the seedier side of early nineteenth century London, the characterisation is thin, and Abby frequently verges on the TSTL given the number of downright stupid decisions she makes. The suspense plot isn’t very suspenseful, and it isn’t until a few chapters from the end that the storyline concerning Max’s search for his sister really gets going, so it ends up feeling as though it has been tacked on as an afterthought.
All in all, A Matter of Grave Concern turned out to be a big disappointment, and isn’t a book I feel I can recommend to others.