The Sign of the Raven
Opening around a year after the events of the previous book (The Wedding Night Affair), The Sign of the Raven, the second book in L.C. Sharp’s series of historical mysteries set in Georgian London sees husband and wife Ash and Juliana looking into the suspicious death of a nobleman at a firework display. Like the previous book, this story benefits from a strong sense of time and place and two very engaging leads whose evolving relationship is one of the book’s main draws – but the slow pacing meant I found it difficult to get into and the mystery was so simplistic that I was left with a feeling of ‘is that it?’ by the end.
Please note that this review contains spoilers for the previous book in the series. While it’s not essential to have read that first, I’d advise it, as it provides important background information about the two principals and their relationship.
Sir Edmund Ashendon is with his family – his wife and his siblings – at a firework display at Vauxhall Gardens when a member of staff summons him to the scene of “an incident”. The incident in question is actually a dead body – that of a man lying face down on the ground, blood still seeping from the bullet wound to his back. By the look of his clothing and possessions, the man is obviously well-to-do, but neither Ash nor Juliana can identify him. An examination of his pockets yields little of interest other than some tokens made of a dull, silvery metal with something stamped on the surface – and it’s not until Juliana’s parents put in an appearance, disapproval radiating from them, that Ash and Juliana can put a name to the victim – Lord Coddington.
The name rings a bell for Ash; he’s heard of Coddington and his “exploits” – a fondness for gaming hells and running up debts among them. At first, the gossip puts Coddington’s death down to a robbery gone wrong, but Ash isn’t so sure; too many things don’t add up, and when another gentleman is murdered, Ash and Juliana find themselves setting an elaborate trap to catch the killer.
Unfortunately, after a strong set-up, the pacing starts to flag and there is little progress for the first half of the story. I did, however, enjoy the introduction of some important new secondary characters – Ransom, the nosy journalist whom Juliana very cleverly recruits to ‘Team Ash’ – and pickpocket and scoundrel Cutty Jack, who can recruit any number of urchins to be Ash’s eyes and ears on the less salubrious streets of London. I enjoyed reading about the development of Ash and Juliana’s relationship, too, but the mystery here is weak and didn’t really capture my interest.
In fact, the most interesting part of it is the involvement of the eponymous Raven, the mysterious and dangerous criminal mastermind who rules London’s underworld with a rod of iron. He’s been a thorn in the side of London’s lawmakers for some time, and here, he and Ash are set up as major antagonists. I’d begun to suspect the truth of his identity – but only just before the reveal, which certainly puts the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons – or, indeed, ravens – for future entries in the series.
It’s clear that the marriage of convenience Ash and Juliana embarked upon in the previous book has evolved into a strong friendship, and that by the time this book begins, they’re on the cusp of more. For the first time ever, Juliana has someone in her life who genuinely cares for her and her welfare, and Ash is delighted to see his wife growing into herself and recognises that his feelings toward her are changing – but although their relationship has come on in leaps and bounds, what we see here is the result of progress that has happened mostly off page, in that year between stories, and I have to say that I felt a little bit cheated by that.
Once again, the story is very firmly grounded in mid-eighteenth century London, whether the action is taking place in a palatial mansion, a bustling coffee house or the worst of the slums, and those who enjoy their mysteries served with a good helping of historical background are sure to appreciate the author’s skilful way of incorporating interesting historical detail into the story.
Unfortunately however, the stodgy pacing and the lacklustre mystery mean this outing for Ash and Juliana isn’t as strong as the first. I can’t quite recommend The Sign of the Raven, but I’m going to keep an eye out for future instalments and hope the next one grabs my attention more than this one did.