Murder at Half Moon Gate
Murder at Half Moon Gate is the second book in Andrea Penrose’s series of historical mysteries featuring the scandalous but scientifically-minded Earl of Wrexford and Mrs. Charlotte Sloane, otherwise known as A.J. Quill, London’s premier satirical cartoonist. In Murder on Black Swan Lane, Wrexford was accused of the murder of the prominent clergyman with whom he had been carrying on a very public dispute. Further infuriated by A.J. Quill’s uncannily accurate drawings and scathing commentaries, Wrexford determined to find the man and get him to stop his lampooning – only to discover that he was a she, carrying on the work of her late husband. The earl and the satirist eventually teamed up to find the real murderer and exonerate Wrexford, and during the course of the book forged an unlikely but strong working partnership in which Charlotte’s intuition and observational skills proved the perfect complement to Wrexford’s highly logical scientific approach.
This book begins a few months after the previous one concluded, and although Wrexford and Charlotte have seen each other once or twice over that period, both expect their forged-from-necessity friendship to fade away given the fact that they move in very different social circles. Even so, neither of them is quite ready to let go of the unusual and strong connection that has developed between them – when the murder of a prominent inventor brings Wrexford back to Charlotte’s door.
On his way back from an evening’s carouse in the company of his friend, Kit Sheffield, Wrexford, who is somewhat the worse for wear, literally stumbles across a dead body in a dank alley. Closer inspection reveals the man was brutally attacked, his neck broken, his face cut – and unusually, his clothing slashed and rent as well. With nothing to suggest anything other than an attack by footpads, the earl is relieved to hand the investigation over to the authorities. But the next morning, he receives a visit from a beautiful woman who introduces herself as Mrs. Isobel Ashton and tells Wrexford that her husband was the murdered man he found the previous night. She proceeds to explain that Ashton had been an inventor on the verge of an important breakthrough – and Wrexford, a chemist of some renown, recalls that he had exchanged some correspondence with the man, who needed some assistance with the chemical composition of the iron he was using in his new steam engine.
When Mrs. Ashton tells Wrexford she believes her husband was murdered and asks him to investigate, he is reluctant at first, unable to see why anyone would want to kill an inventor. But as things begin to fall into place, he realises that whoever killed Ashton must have been looking for something – a suspicion confirmed when the widow tells him that her husband had been on the verge of a momentous breakthrough that would have made him a fortune, and suggests there were those who would stop at nothing in order to steal his ideas.
When Wrexford calls upon Charlotte – whose judgement, keen mind and observational skills he prizes highly – he tells her why he believes Ashton was murdered and asks her to see if her city-wide network of informants has heard any rumblings about the murder and who might be behind it. Very soon, Wrexford and Charlotte are embroiled in the search for a ruthless killer who always seems to be one step ahead of them and are confronted with an increasing body-count and an ever growing list of suspects – the Workers of Zion, a radical group advocating violence and destruction on a scale far more extensive than the Luddites, Ashton’s assistants and other associates – including Charlotte’s oldest friend, Jeremy, Lord Stirling, who was one of Ashton’s primary investors – and the dissolute Lord Kirkland, whose association with the widowed Mrs. Ashton places them both under suspicion.
Andrea Penrose has penned a complex mystery full of twists, turns and red-herrings that kept me guessing pretty much right up until the identity of the villain was revealed, while at the same time developing the relationship between her two principals that began in the previous book. It was clear in that story that both Wrexford and Charlotte were keeping secrets and there was more for them to learn about each other (and for readers to discover) and the author has indulged us – to a point – revealing a little more about each of them. I particularly liked seeing the cynical and unsentimental Wrexford’s interactions with the two street-urchins Charlotte has ‘adopted’, and his gradually dawning realisation that when it comes to Charlotte, it’s not so easy for him to remain detached and unemotional. He enjoys the fact that Charlotte challenges and provokes him and is surprised to realise that her passionate convictions are causing him to care more deeply than ever about things to which he has never really given much thought. And Charlotte, intelligent, stubborn and self-reliant, is a little disturbed to discover her thoughts increasingly preoccupied with a certain green-eyed, annoyingly sardonic earl who frustrates and infuriates in equal measure but whose friendship she has come to cherish.
Having a main character who is a scientist makes it natural that the author should focus on the scientific aspect of her stories, but in doing so she has also given them rather a unique slant. The early nineteenth century was a time of huge social change, political upheaval and technological advancement, and all these elements are skilfully incorporated as she takes a good look at the implications on the working poor of the huge strides being made in the development of mechanical processes and of the Industrial Revolution in general:
What place did people have in a world where machines made their efforts obsolete?
Ms. Penrose creates a very strong sense of time and place in the novel; the cartoonists of the day were instrumental in forming public opinion, but the fact that Charlotte is A.J. Quill must remain secret if she is to continue to make a living and retain any degree of respectability, as for a woman to engage in such a profession would have been ruinous. The author’s descriptions of her chosen locations are vivid and really help the reader to place themselves in the more tumble-down areas of London, and she has created a thoroughly engaging set of secondary characters. Kit Sheffield, Wrexford’s closest friend is clearly not so much a wastrel as he purports to be, the unflappable and enigmatic McLellan whom the earl assigns to act as Charlotte’s maid is someone I hope to see more of, and Raven and Hawk, the two boys Charlotte has taken under her wing, are a couple of winning lads who are perhaps a little too good to be true, but who are nonetheless a good addition to the larger cast.
Murder at Half Moon Gate is an enjoyably complex mystery that strikes a good balance between plot, character development and historical detail – and those of us who like a bit of romance thrown in will be satisfied with the direction things are taking. The book is sure to appeal to fans of Deanna Raybourn and Anna Lee Huber as well as those who enjoy a well-plotted historical mystery.