Sheri Cobb South’s new release is a gently charming novel – not surprising since Ms. South is known for her wry humor. What is surprising is that this funny and sweet book is a murder mystery. I’ve worked in a mystery bookstore for years and have been reading mysteries for even longer, and yes, many of them have been what I’d term traditional or cozy. But few have struck me in the same way that this one did. Yes, it has flaws. And yet all I remember is the unconventional and delightful protagonists at the center of it all.
Julia Runyon Bertram, Lady Fieldhurst, seems to have it all. She’s young, beautiful, has money, and is married to a viscount. Appearances can be deceiving. What started as a whirlwind romance for Julia has ended in a now unhappy marriage to a man fifteen years her senior. With the passing of each childless year of their marriage, she’s faced increasingly cold and distant behavior from Frederick. Finally fed up with the bitter impasse, Julia is ready to break out in some way. When her long-time admirer Lord Rupert Latham restates his desire for her, a tipsy Julia decides to take him up on his offer. Before they can commence consummating they discover a very dead Frederick – stabbed in the neck with Julia’s nail scissors.
If this were a romance review this is the part where I’d say “enter the hero”. Only this is a mystery and the man entering the story is the detective in charge of the case. John Pickett is four-and-twenty years old and struggling to make ends meet as the youngest Bow Street Runner. His lack of experience makes getting private commissions very unlikely and he has to make do with his wages. A big case could make his living a whole lot easier. And an investigation into the murder of Lord Fieldhurst is the kind of case that could make or break his career.
Though he is intelligent and eager to work the case, John faces one big obstacle. His main suspect is Julia and he’s crushing on her majorly, to use the vernacular. Luckily the more he investigates, the bigger his list of suspects becomes. His list includes Lord Rupert, a missing butler, Julia’s father, a gentleman from the Foreign Office who worked with Lord Fieldhurst on very important intelligence work, and the Fieldhurst heir and his wife. If he can pin the murder on anyone else, Julia will be saved and will just possibly look a little more fondly at him. A man can hope, anyway.
John Pickett as detective is an original. In all the mysteries I’ve read (and there are hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of them) I’ve not run across anyone like him before. He is sometimes a bit befuddled and hampered by his inexperience. At other times he picks up on just the right clue. In both cases his behavior flows very naturally from how he is written. This is a young man investigating his very first murder. There’s no way he’s going to do a perfect job. And watching him charge ahead after each set-back was part of the fun.
Also a big part of the fun is John’s unrequited crush on Julia. At one point he shows up very drunk at her door. After he informs her that her name is Julia and his is John he makes what he thinks is a profound statement “They both begin with J”. A minute later “Am I jug-bitten, d’you think?” Funny. John knows that Julia is far above his reach and yet like any young man, or woman for that matter, he can’t help dreaming a little bit. Whether this relationship ever goes anywhere, I’m assuming we’ll have to wait for more books in the series to discover. I can certainly see the possibilities.
Since Ms. South has a background in trad Regencies, I wasn’t surprised to find that the sense of place was very well-done. And though I’d have liked to see some of the other suspects fleshed out a little more, she did a good job at making each a likely candidate for the murder at one time or another throughout the book. All but one or two, that is. To say much more would take me into spoiler-territory. Let’s just say that some of the elements come a little out of left field. My only other quibble is in how determined John’s boss, the magistrate, is to see Julia arrested. I realize for dramatic purposes, Julia needed to be under pressure, but I found it a little hard to believe that a magistrate wouldn’t want to tread somewhat more lightly around the aristocracy.
As a first time mystery writer I think Ms. South hit it out of the park with her protagonists. I look forward to her next historical mystery, particularly if she tightens up the plotting and develops the suspects more thoroughly.
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