A Useful Woman
A Useful Woman is the first in a new series of mysteries set in the Regency period featuring Rosalind Thorne, a young lady of good birth who, through no fault of her own has fallen upon hard times. Even though it’s a murder-mystery, it’s a very gentle and rather “polite” story, which I suppose befits the time in which it is set. There are no gritty looks at real life or characters with ISSUES, so the book might suit someone looking for a change of pace from the current trend for grisly, tortuous plots and tormented protagonists as well as fans of historical mysteries in general.
Darcie Wilde has written a number of historical romances, but the emphasis in this book is firmly on the mystery and there is no romance to speak of. There are hints that point towards one for our heroine in the future, and we are made aware that she struggles to deal with the presence in her life of her former beau; but otherwise this is very much a historical mystery with nothing on the side.
The book opens a few years before the main story begins, revealing how Rosalind, in confident expectation of an offer from Devon Winterbourne, the second son of the Duke of Casselmain, has her hopes dashed when her father reveals that he is in debt up to the eyeballs, and then does a midnight flit accompanied by her older sister, Charlotte. Since then, Rosalind’s mother has died, and had not been for the support of her godmother, Lady Blanchard, she would have been completely alone. She was taken in by the Blanchards for a short while, which is when she first began to use her knowledge of the workings of society to help its harried matrons compile guest lists, make seating plans and arrange social occasions, and generally act as a kind of social secretary while also knowing the right ears into which to drop choice tidbits of gossip. Her family situation means that she is no longer regarded as part of the highest echelons, but her usefulness means that she is still welcomed almost everywhere.
The plot of A Useful Woman revolves around that bastion of good ton, Almack’s club. Anyone who reads Regencies on a regular basis will be familiar with it; to be granted a voucher to attend the regular assemblies was essential for any young lady with pretentions to good standing in society and bent on making a good marriage. The rules of admission were complex and depended entirely upon the goodwill of the lady patronesses, any one of whom could veto entry to the club. Quite a lot of the first part of the book is devoted to explaining the rituals surrounding Almack’s and its importance in Regency society, and some of it is quite repetitive. The book is fairly slow to start, which is, I suppose due to the fact that, as the first in a series, there is a fair amount of scene setting to be done.
The story opens as one of the patronesses, Lady Blanchard, is on the point of announcing her resignation as she will be accompanying her husband abroad on his new diplomatic posting. Such a juicy piece of gossip could not be kept a secret for long, and Lady Aimesworth wastes no time in approaching Rosalind and asking her to put in a good word for her with Lady Blanchard. Knowing there is no love lost between these two ladies, Rosalind nevertheless mentions to her godmother that Lady Aimesworth is angling for the position of patroness, expecting Lady B to immediately dismiss the idea. When she doesn’t, Rosalind is not a little surprised, but her questions remain unanswered when their tête-á-tête is interrupted.
The start of the season is fast approaching, and all the hopeful debutantes are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the vouchers that will launch them into society. But when Jasper Aimesworth is found murdered in Almack’s ballroom, the cats are well-and-truly set among the pigeons and Rosalind must use her position as the person everyone talks to and relies on to try to find out the truth. In this endeavour, she is eventually joined by Principal Officer Adam Harkness of Bow Street, a man whose charm and handsome features mask a mind like a steel trap and the determination to uncover the truth no matter the cost.
I had a few problems with the mystery in that it feels rather convoluted towards the end, and the ending is a little rushed. I also found some of Rosalind’s thought-processes made unexpected leaps; I’m not a great reader of mysteries, but when I do read them, I prefer those in which the reader is allowed to make the connections at the same time as the protagonist. There were a couple of times here when I read Rosalind’s thoughts and then wondered how she’d reached a particular conclusion, which briefly took me out of the story. But those issues are balanced out by the strength of the writing and by the way Ms. Wilde so fully and skillfully immerses the reader in the customs and manners of the times. There is a diverse and well-drawn set of secondary characters, ranging from those of the haut-ton, like the waspish Lady Jersey to Rosalind’s two friends Alice and George Littlefield who, like Rosalind, are former gentry and who now have to work for a living. Rosalind is an engaging and sympathetic heroine whose position as an outsider makes her vulnerable, but who is nonetheless determined to hold her head up high even when others disparage her and remind her that her position in society isn’t what it once was.
All in all, A Useful Woman is an enjoyable, easy read and one I’d certainly recommend to fans of historical mysteries. The author’s research into the period has obviously been extensive, Rosalind Thorne is a unique and relatable heroine and I’ll definitely be on the lookout for the next book in the series.