Murder on Black Swan Lane
Murder on Black Swan Lane is the first book in a new series of Regency-era historical mysteries by Andrea Penrose (who also writes as Andrea Pickens and Cara Elliot), which sees a satirical cartoonist teaming up with a scientifically-minded earl to investigate a couple of gruesome murders. The mystery is well-put together and includes some fascinating detail about the chemical sciences as they were understood at the beginning of the 19th century – the author has clearly done her homework – and we’re introduced to an engaging set of characters who will, I hope, continue to appear throughout the series.
The Earl of Wrexford (who doesn’t appear to have an actual name, just a title) has recently been publicly denounced as the worst kind of dissolute rake by the pompous, puffed-up Reverend Josiah Holworthy. Never one to suffer fools gladly, and the sort of man whom boredom inspires to ever more reckless behaviour, Wrexford responds to his accuser by unleashing his razor-sharp wit in a clever rebuttal, which is printed in the Morning Gazette. An increasingly vitriolic and very public argument ensues between the two men which is eagerly documented every step of the way by the popular satirist A.J Quill, whose cartoons persistently skewer those at the highest levels of society, shining a light on the darkest misdeeds on the rich and powerful.
When the Reverend Holworthy is found dead in a church on Black Swan Lane, almost decapitated, his face disfigured by some sort of chemical, suspicion immediately alights upon Wrexford, whose rather eccentric interest in chemistry is widely known. With Quill’s uncannily accurate drawings and pithy captions stirring up public opinion against him, Wrexford decides it’s time to find out where the cartoonist is getting his information.
A talented artist, Charlotte Sloane picked up her late husband’s pen after his death some eight months earlier and has continued to produce satirical cartoons using his pseudonym, A.J Quill. She guards her identity judiciously, knowing that if it’s discovered that the scourge of the ton is a woman she will be completely ruined and unable to earn a living. So the last thing she wants or expects is to discover the Earl of Wrexford on her doorstep demanding to see A.J Quill. Charlotte’s attempts at deflection become increasingly desperate, at which point the earl realises the truth and offers her a deal. If she will agree to share such information as comes her way regarding the investigation, he will keep her secret and pay for the information. Charlotte is furious at being backed into a corner, but she has no alternative. She is living from hand to mouth as it is, and can ill afford to turn down the money the earl offers or risk being exposed as A.J Quill, so she takes the deal.
Thus begins a very fragile relationship in which both protagonists circle each other warily as they gradually develop a strong mutual respect for the other’s intellect and skills. Wrexford and Charlotte are similar in some ways – they are both keeping secrets and hiding their true selves behind a public persona – but are completely different in others; Wrexford is all about facts and is bothered when he doesn’t have an answer or reason for something whereas Charlotte is far more accepting of the fact that not everything is logical and that sometimes there are no answers.
The murder mystery is intriguing and well-executed; complex enough to grab the reader’s interest but not so complicated that it’s difficult to follow, and peppered with lots of interesting scientific discussions and detail, in particular relating to the study of alchemy and its bearing on the scientific knowledge of the time. There’s larceny, espionage and the discovery of some painful truths, as Charlotte and Wrexford uncover links between her husband’s untimely death and the mysterious Ancients Club, things she had suspected but been unable to prove until now.
There is a small but colourful cast of secondary characters who I hope we’ll see more of in future books; Henning, the dour, Scots surgeon, Tyler, Wrexford’s valet and fellow chemist, Raven and Hawk, the two street urchins Charlotte has taken under her wing and Kit Sheffield, Wrexford’s closest friend who is, at first glance, somewhat of an empty-headed fribble, but who is far from being as stupid as he seems. The two principals are flawed, yet likeable and hopefully, the author plans to reveal more about them in future stories as it’s clear from the hints she drops here that there is much more to both of them than we’ve seen so far.
My one criticism of the book is with the way in which the story is set up. Holsworthy holds Wrexford up as an example of the worst kind of wickedness and denounces him as a rakehell, yet there isn’t much evidence of this debauched lifestyle on the page; in fact Wrexford himself says at one point that the reality of his life doesn’t live up to his scandalous reputation. The man I read about is irascible and highly intelligent with an unusual (for a member of the aristocracy) interest in science, a man who puts logic ahead of emotion and disdains sentimentality. There are a few references to his unsavoury reputation throughout the book, but unless his reputation is for being a man with a hot temper who prefers to go his own way, the idea of a cleric using him as an example of immorality doesn’t really make sense.
I’ll also add a word of caution for anyone looking for a Lady Julia or Lady Darby type of romantic frisson – you won’t find it here. Wrexford and Charlotte develop a strong working relationship which gradually turns into friendship and have developed an almost grudging admiration and respect for each other’s abilities by the end of the book. That’s not to say there is no potential for development in a more romantic direction in future, but for now, this is a solid historical mystery in which the emphasis is firmly on tracking down the killer and proving Wrexford’s innocence.
I enjoyed the story and the characters and am eager to read more of Charlotte and Wrexford’s adventures together. Murder on Black Swan Lane is recommended for anyone in the mood for a well-written historical mystery featuring a moody aristocratic hero and a heroine who knows how to cut him down to size.