A Dangerous Collaboration is a Page-Turner Mystery

A Dangerous Collaboration (March 2019)
By Deanna Raybourn
Berkley/Penguin, 336 pages.

When 19th century activists and writers began to discuss the "New Woman," I doubt that Deanna Raybourn's Veronica Speedwell was quite what they had in mind. Lucky for us. Raybourn's creation is a wonderful combination of fierce determination, pigheadedness, insight, and pluckiness. The New Woman was known for her independence and willingness to defy convention, but I don't know of any who secreted throwing knives in their corsets, were unabashedly carnal, were the "semi-legitimate" offspring of the notoriously randy Duke of Wales, or combined careers in lepidoptery (butterfly studies) and amateur sleuthing.

Everything about Veronica Speedwell is cheeky. Her name is also that of a spiky purple flower that looks a bit like loosestrife, and her partner in adventure is Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, who goes by the handle of "Stoker." One of the first literary figures to write the New Woman into his novels was Bram Stoker. Veronica and Stoker are not exactly lovers–he's recovering from a disastrous marriage–but Speedwell isn't a virgin and she wouldn't exactly kick Stoker out of her bed, or his brother either. In fact, controlling her animal instincts is an ongoing struggle as there's only so much Victorian society will countenance, even from its outliers.

The fourth installment of Raybourn's Veronica Speedwell series is set in 1888, when Jack the Ripper is loose in London. But Veronica's attentions are directed elsewhere–off the coast of Cornwall to be precise. Stoker's brother, Lord Tiberius Templeton-Vane, puts forth an offer Veronica can't refuse: come with him on a short outing to St. Maddern's island, where a rare butterfly exists. There are odd extenuating circumstances. Ostensibly Tiberius is going to cheer up an old friend, Malcolm Romilly, whose lordship of an ancient castle has suffered because of his grief. Because the Romilly family is Catholic, Tiberius and Veronica must pose as affianced. The chance of seeing a butterfly thought to be extinct is lure enough for Veronica, though Stoker suspects it's just a ruse on his brother's part to seduce her. She reminds him in no uncertain terms–and our Ms. Speedwell isn't one to mince words–that she's 26, has no desire to be anyone's doormat or wife, and can take care of herself. Stoker, though, despises his brother, whom he sees as a scheming and amoral aristocrat. A sample of their mutual vitriol–Tiberius: "Peace, brother mine. I can feel you cursing me." Stoker: "And yet you still breathe…. I must be doing something wrong."

Stoker will also journey to St. Maddern's and there, things are odder still. Malcolm desires help is solving a mystery that has reduced him to melancholic torpor. It is the third anniversary of the disappearance of Rosamund, who vanished on the day she and Malcolm were to be wed. What happened? Did she flee? Was she kidnapped? Murdered? No one comes or goes from St. Maddern's in secret, so where is Rosamund? As another detective was fond of saying, the game is afoot. 

Without revealing anything, let's just say that truth will follow a very crooked path. The castle cast also includes Malcolm's reclusive sister Mertensia, who is happy only when tending the castle's extensive grounds, including a poison garden; Malcolm's widowed sister-in-law Helen, who is a medium who proposes to contact Rosamund in the spirit world; her 19-year-old spoiled brat of a son, Caspian; and a full household staff commanded by Mrs. Trengrouse, who has been at the castle since Malcolm was a lad. There is also a village full of eccentrics and fishermen, not to mention the bickering brothers, and various motives that are seldom what they purport to be. 

You might want to get the digital version of this book so you have one-finger access to the built-in dictionary. Ms. Raybourn has an exceptionally large vocabulary that is replete with now-archaic Victorian terms. She also has a puckish wit, such a description of a large castle fireplace "the sort for roasting half an ox or an annoying child." Raybourn engages in subtle gender inversion, such as making Veronica more rational, decisive, and sexually aroused than the men. I suppose some might complain that Veronica is too thoroughly modern at times, but it is a novel after all, not a work of history. If there is a weakness, it is that once the mystery is unveiled, what occurs next is telegraphed and predictable. I didn't care. I ripped through this book in two sittings and felt refreshed to indulge in the wit and passions of Veronica Speedwell, a Victorian for our times.

Rob Weir


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