Murder at Queen's Landing
The fourth book in Andrea Penrose’s series of Regency-era mysteries featuring the Earl of Wrexford and Charlotte Sloane, Murder at Queen’s Landing once again finds our two amateur sleuths drawn into a murder investigation – this time, one that could have far-reaching consequences not just for themselves but for the entire nation. If you’ve read the earlier books in the series, you’ll already know exactly how the cynical, logical and scientifically-minded Earl of Wrexford became acquainted with Mrs. Charlotte Sloane (aka A.J. Quill, London’s premier satirical cartoonist) and the Weasles (two street urchins); if you haven’t then I’d suggest starting with Murder on Black Swan Lane, as this is a series in which the mysteries in each book are solved, but the relationship and character development are on-going.
The mystery kicks off when Wrexford is approached by Griffin, the Bow Street Runner with whom he and Charlotte have worked on previous investigations, and asked if the word Argentum means anything to him. He can’t think of anything, other than it being the Latin word for silver, but his curiosity is piqued when Griffin tells him that it was the final word uttered by a murder victim – a clerk with the East India Company. At the same time as Griffin is informing Wrexford of the crime, Charlotte is hearing about it from Skinny, a crossing sweeper and friend of her two wards, Hawk and Raven. She’s saddened by the news of course – any life lost to violence is a terrible thing – but doesn’t think it’s something she and Wrexford can help with.
A day or so later, Charlotte learns that her friend Lady Cordelia – a mathematical genius – and her brother the Earl of Woodbridge have suddenly left London without a word to anyone, and Griffin informs Wrexford that the murder victim was tangentially connected to Woodbridge through the his cousin David Mather, who is employed at Hoare’s bank, one of the city’s major financial institutions. It seems that Mather and Woodbridge had some recent business dealings, and although Griffin can’t find any connection between the disappearance of the earl and his sister and the murder, he can’t help being curious, especially as Lady Cordelia and Wrexford’s friend Kit Sheffield recently opened an account at Hoare’s for a newly formed company.
Tenuous these connections may be, but the more Charlotte and Wrexford ponder them, the more likely it seems that the murder at Queen’s Landing and the disappearances of Lady Cordelia and her brother are connected in some way. In the way that has become a hallmark of this series, Andrea Penrose incorporates elements of contemporary technological advancement and discovery into the story – in this case the development of mathematical machines and steam powered vehicles – and provides an obviously well-researched historical background. The workings of complex financial systems and how they were being exploited via a worldwide network of corrupt merchant banks and how it all related to the opium trade did, however, go over my head – and as that seemed to be the major impetus behind the mystery plot, it meant that I spent part of the book scratching my head trying to work out exactly why the villains were doing what they did.
I really enjoyed the earlier books in this series, but this one didn’t work as well, for a number of reasons. The mystery didn’t really grab me, and the set up in the first half of the book simply dragged. The premise is interesting, but as I’ve said above, the principal plot point is overly complex (which led to a lot of info-dumping and repetition) and unlike in the last book, where a personal connection with the investigation was quickly established and the stakes were clearly high, here, I never felt as though the stakes for any of the characters were as high as I was being told they were. This wasn’t helped by the fact that we don’t really know Lady Cordelia all that well – or her brother at all – and I found it difficult to become invested in their troubles as a result. And while the author does a really good job of throwing in the red herrings and concealing the identity of the villain right up until the reveal, that person’s motivations are so detached and unemotional that the mystery as a whole lacks any feeling of peril or excitement. Action scenes are eschewed in favour of discussions of what happened after the event, there’s a lot of repetition of thoughts and feelings (Charlotte worries that her re-joining the world of the ton will change her and Wrexford’s preference for logic over emotion is hammered home several times); plus having now reached book four in the series, Ms. Penrose falls into the trap that befalls many authors of series, namely that of too much exposition (and yet more info-dumping) concerning the characters. I know most authors do this, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying or repetitious for readers who have followed the series from the beginning.
The best part of the story is that which focuses on the undercurrent of attraction that’s been running between Charlotte and Wrexford since book one, and those readers who, like me, have been awaiting developments in their burgeoning romance will be pleased at the way things progress. But unfortunately, that can’t make up for the book’s deficiencies – an overly complex and ultimately unengaging mystery, uneven pacing, too much telling-and-not-showing and characterisation that seems to have remained largely static.
I dithered a bit over a final grade for Murder at Queen’s Landing because in spite of my reservations, once the pacing picks up in the second half it’s a relatively entertaining read. But I’m not sure I can recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who isn’t already following the series – and even then, I can only recommend it to those who have been following it and may want to pick it up for the sake of completeness. Nonetheless, I’ll be looking out for book five and hoping for a tighter mystery with higher stakes and a bit more action.