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22 June 2014

Deanna Raybourn: Silent in the Grave (Lady Julia Grey Novel)

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Good start to the Lady Julia Grey series
My attention was gripped from the start by a great first paragraph. "To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor." This is the start of Deanna Raybourn's bestselling Victorian murder mysteries about Lady Julia Grey and her enigmatic companion (later lover) Nicholas Brisbane.

Last year I admired Raybourn's work in A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, an Out of Africa style romantic adventure set in 1920's Kenya. Some of her dedicated Lady Julia Grey fans bemoaned the change of style so I was fascinated to see what they loved. SILENT IN THE GRAVE is an excellent debut novel set in Victorian England in 1886 written by a talented American who must have studied the era and the locations closely to produce this book.

After the death of Sir Edward Grey, Lady Julia Grey, who is only in her late twenties, becomes an extremely rich widow.  As she gets immersed in the Victorian ritual of morning, including wearing full black and not attending any public functions for a year, she starts to realise how much of her independence she had lost when she was married.

She is jolted into reality when Brisbane tells her that Edward had hired him to investigate letters threatening his life. Brisbane is convinced that Edward was poisoned and tries to recruit Julia to help him find the murderer. At first Julia is not convinced that Edward has been poisoned until she finds evidence of the source of the threatening letters. Brisbane is very much a man of mystery, dark and threatening, often difficult to relate to, and subject to violent moods, giving the book a somewhat melodramatic feel.

Raybourn introduces us to one of the most macabre characters I have found in fiction - Aunt Ursula, the "Ghoul" - who could only exist in the Victorian era. Her sole purpose in life is to follow every deathbed and funeral of her family and friends with her trunks of mourning clothes and memorabilia. She keeps a scrapbook of funerals, rating them by the number of mourners, desirability of  the gravesite and even the quality of the food. She moves from one family tragedy to the next, with an inexhaustible supply of black margined writing paper on hand to cover all eventualities.

At the end of her year of mourning Julia emerges as a beautiful, rich and independent woman, dressed in the height of fashion with bold colours and décolletage strongly emphasising and exposing her cleavage. She also has the makings of a super sleuth - but that is one of the reasons for the rest of series.

This is not my normal genre but from time to time I need an interlude between heavier and more action-packed thrillers. The rest of this series may give me enjoyable interludes when I need them.

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