Deanna Raybourn continues her series of late-Victorian historical mysteries featuring the intrepid lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell and her piratically handsome, enigmatic associate, Revelstoke Templeton-Vane (Stoker) in A Treacherous Curse. The big draw of this third instalment was the prospect of at last getting to know more about Stoker’s chequered – and sometimes heartbreaking – past and what exactly happened to turn him into a social pariah with the blackest of reputations. We’re also treated to a mystery concerning a missing Egyptian artefact and an ancient curse – and the two storylines are inextricably linked by virtue of the fact that one of the parties involved is none other than Stoker’s ex-wife, Caroline.
A Treacherous Curse can easily be read as a standalone, but readers will gain a far greater understanding of the still-evolving, complex relationship between Veronica and Stoker by reading the novels in order. I’ll also say now that there are likely to be spoilers in this review for the earlier books, so proceed with caution if you have yet to read them.
If you have read the previous books, then you’ll know that Veronica and Stoker have been employed by the Earl of Rosemorran to catalogue his family’s vast collection of art, artefacts, natural history specimens and mementoes with a view to eventually curating a museum, and that they both work and live on site at the Belvedere, a ‘singularly extraordinary structure’ in the grounds of Rosemorran’s Marylebone estate. Although they have separate apartments, their living arrangements are regarded as being somewhat unorthodox, but then they’re unorthodox individuals, both fiercely independent free-thinkers, estranged from their families and not really caring about the strictures of society. These commonalities are just two of the things that bind this unusual pair; from almost the beginning of their association, each recognised in the other a kindred spirit, and Ms. Raybourn has done a splendid job of developing their friendship and strengthening their unique bond, a bond that relies on an almost soul-deep connection and a love for each other that goes far beyond the romantic and sexual attraction that continues to crackle between them.
“Whatever this thing is that makes us different, this thing that makes quicksilver of us when the rest of the world is mud, it binds us. To break that would be to fly in the face of nature.”
(Stoker in A Perilous Undertaking).
Veronica and Stoker are surprised when they are approached by Sir Hugo Montgomerie of Special Branch and asked to look into the disappearance of John de Morgan, the man who had once been Stoker’s closest friend. De Morgan was engaged as photographer for Sir Leicester Tiverton ‘s most recent expedition to Egypt, but departed unexpectedly and was accompanied back to England by his wife – whose very public divorce from Stoker some years earlier saw Stoker disgraced and vilified.
Sir Hugo explains that the de Morgans stopped for the night in Dover, and in the morning, John de Morgan was discovered to have vanished, along with a priceless diadem from the tomb of Princess Ankheset. Making things even more intriguing is the fact that not only have man and artefact gone missing, but so has John de Morgan’s hotel room! Caroline de Morgan states that her husband’s room was blue with rose-print wallpaper – yet no such room exists, and according to the hotel proprietor, Mrs. de Morgan was travelling alone. Add to this the rumours of a curse affecting members of the dig and the sightings of the figure of Anubis (the Egyptian god of the dead) striding through the streets of London and the stage is set for an entertaining mystery in which our heroes must dispel a curse, fight for their lives, battle vicious rumour and find a murderer.
With that said, however, the mystery feels a little less intricately plotted than those in the other books, and it does take a bit of a back seat to the unravelling of Stoker’s backstory – although I’m not going to complain about it, given I’ve been eagerly awaiting that very thing.
Veronica and Stoker know it’s only a matter of time before the press gets hold of the story, and that once they do, they’re going to “hunt you [Stoker] like a pack of feral dogs” and take great delight in dredging up all the old scandal that painted him as the worst sort of villain, a man whose wife was so terrified of his violent nature that she took advantage of the offer of escape made her by his friend, filed for divorce and then married said friend. We already know Stoker was wronged, and now, Ms. Raybourn fills in the gaps and reveals the whole truth behind his ill-fated marriage and how his career as one of the foremost explorers and natural scientists of the age came to an ignominious end. I love the way she reveals Stoker to be a man of sensitivity and vulnerability while at the same time showing him to be possessed of an incredible determination and inner-strength:
“I have watched you claw your way back to life in the past months, taking an interest in your work, in your future. You have been the agent of y our own resurrection, and you do not even see it… You are a savage miracle, Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, knit together by the hands of Nature herself.”
The way Veronica so passionately champions Stoker is one of the things I really enjoyed about her in this book. She’s opinionated, independent, flawed and unconventional (and thankfully, Ms. Raybourn has toned down those ‘look at me, I’m unconventional!’ aspects of Veronica’s character that grated in the last book), but she will fight to the death for what she believes in – and she believes in Stoker. That’s not so say that things are all one-sided; far from it, as we already know that Stoker would do the same for Veronica (and did, when he took a bullet for her at the end of A Perilous Undertaking). That unquestioning loyalty is one of the things that makes their friendship so special, but I will admit that I’ve become a little impatient at its lack of development in this novel. On the one hand, the author has done a terrific job of building and showing her readers a strong, deeply affectionate and trusting relationship between two extraordinary people; a pair of social misfits who have been lucky enough to find the one person in the world who truly understands them and sees them for who and what they are. And that’s wonderful. BUT… given the off-the-charts sexual tension that has existed between the couple from the get-go, I’ve been expecting their relationship to turn romantic, and so far, it hasn’t. It’s fairly clear that this is partly because both Stoker and Veronica value what they have so greatly that they are wary of changing it, but this book (like the others) is littered with references to the fact that Veronica has the serious hots for Stoker – she’s forever ogling his gorgeously muscled body and pointing out that he has no idea what a babe magnet he is… and after three books, it’s become just a bit tedious and more than a bit frustrating. With the truth of Stoker’s past now out in the open, I’d expected a little movement on the romantic side of their relationship and although it seems that both of them are, at different points, on the verge of an important revelation, it wasn’t enough to satisfy my shippy little heart.
YMMV, of course; the mystery is fun, the dialogue is sharp and witty, and the secondary characters – of whom my favourite is undoubtedly Lady Wellie, the doyenne of society who knows everyone and everything there is to know – are expertly crafted. A Treacherous Curse earns a strong recommendation in spite of my quibbles, and I’ve got my fingers crossed for a bit more romance in the next instalment.
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