A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn is the 2nd book in the Veronica Speedwell Mystery series (available January 10, 2017).
Mystery and detective fans will be enchanted with Deanna Raybourn’s new detective, Veronica Speedwell. Aptly named for the plant of the same name—an easy-care perennial with spiky flowers of dizzying hues that attract butterflies—the decidedly un-Victorian Veronica Speedwell is an intrepid and carefree adventuress, avid collector of butterflies, and in the first in the series, A Curious Beginning, a Corsican bandit, the attentions of a killer, and a partner in crime solving.
At the end of A Curious Beginning, Veronica and partner-in-mysteries-and-misdeeds Stoker (aka the Honourable Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, third son of the sixth Viscount Templeton-Vane) are in a near state of penury. In A Perilous Undertaking, set in 1887 London, they get a timely commission from Stoker’s friend and benefactor, Lord Rosemorran. Veronica—lepidopterist and lover of natural history—and Stoker—a natural historian, explorer, and taxidermist—are perfectly suited to curate Rosemorran’s collection of “art, artifacts, [and] treasure of every description” and establish a museum. Their respective occupations also supply them with witty banter, à la Nick and Nora Charles.
Stoker who sometimes hunts argues that that he does not “shoot things for [his] own pleasure,” but only collects “specimens for the purposes of scientific study.”
“That must be some consolation to the corpses,“ [Veronica] returned sweetly.
“You do not hold the moral high ground there, my little assassin. I have watched you kill butterflies by the hundreds with just a pinch of your fingers.”
“Well, I could pin them first, but I am not an enthusiast of torture.”
“You might have fooled me,” he muttered.
Almost before they get started, they must stop their work to investigate a murder. Veronica, the unacknowledged illegitimate daughter of the Prince of Wales, is invited to the ladies only Curiosity Club by Lady Sundridge, the nom de guerre for Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria. She implores Veronica to take on a seemingly impossible task. The princess’s good friend, artist Artemisia, was brutally murdered—apparently by her lover and art patron, Miles Ramsforth. Princess Louise is sure he is innocent, and Veronica is charged with finding out the identity of the true murderer while saving Ramsforth from the hangman's noose.
Veronica and Stoker’s investigation leads them to the Elysian Grotto, a private club for men formerly operated by the condemned man; it is filled with what a blushing Stoker tells Veronica are “olisoboi” in Greek or “if you prefer, in Spanish 'consoladores.' “
”Consolers? But how could they console ... oh. Oh! So they are not for study or ceremonial use but for practical application. How very intriguing.“ Stoker who is both embarrassed and annoyed tells Veronica he is ”pondering the peregrinations of my life and wondering how I came to be here. With you. And this,“ he says, nodding towards the room’s salacious items.
Their next stop on the investigatory trail is even creepier. Veronica and Stoker go undercover as a couple in mourning, hoping to learn some facts from the undertaker who prepared Artemisia’s body for burial. But they first have to prep for the visit.
Since the death of Prince Albert unrestrained mourning had been the order of the day, with crêpe draped at the doors and windows of houses touched by loss.... The Prince Consort’s death had spawned an industry of loss, from flowers to jewelry, fabric to feathers, and shops across the city hired such things to those who had not the means or inclination to purchase them outright.
Veronica and Stoker outfit themselves in borrowed black and, though ghoulish, their masquerade turns into a routine worthy of Abbot and Costello. They play the distraught Sir Hugo and Lady Montogomerie, wanting the best for their dearly departed. Told by the porter that they must come back when the owners return, Veronica realizes drastic action is required to keep them on the premises and lets out a wail:
“Desmond! Oh Desmond! Taken from us too soon.” A thunderous Stoker asks, “Are you happy, man? Look what you’ve done, Lady Mongomerie is distraught.” As soon as the porter leaves them, Stoker says “Desmond? Who in the seven devils is Desmond?” “Our cat,” replies Veronica, “Dashed under the wheels of a milk wagon.” “Poor Desmond,” he said, sweeping off his hat as he glanced about the room. “Where shall we begin?” And they search the premises.
A well matched pair, they sneak around the funeral home in quest for clues, and—in a bid to remain undiscovered—Veronica vaults onto an empty mortuary table and drags Stoker on top of her. ”On his way down, he grasped the sheet and hauled it over us, shielding us from view ... I knew he was stifling a laugh at the absurdity of our situation.” Absurd it is, and they are soon found out.
But, as luck would have it, one of the undertakers, Mr. Padgett, is a fellow lepidopterist and is seeking a replacement for a fading Camberwell Beauty that is “losing its luster.“ He claims he needs it to complete his grouping of purple butterflies. Veronica seizes the opportunity for escape and offers to find him another of the species at no cost.
Getting closer to the murderer eventually leads them to Stoker’s brother, the newly minted Viscount Templeton-Vane, who has been trying to get Stoker to meet with his lawyers to settle their father’s estate. But there is bad blood there, and Stoker refuses all requests until the mystery forces the meet. Veronica and Stoker have dinner with the Viscount, a many times guest at the Elysian Grotto. He becomes smitten with Veronica, and as she and Stoker leave his house—with information that will lead them to the murderer—the Viscount extends an open invitation for her to return.
Stoker is livid and says to Veronica:
”You are not to go anywhere with him. You are not to call upon him. You are not to receive him.“
I was so astonished I very nearly laughed aloud. ”You cannot seriously think I would permit you to dictate terms to me,” I began.
But he says, “I can dictate these terms ... He has taken something of mine for the last time.”
”I am not something of yours ... I don't care what bad blood there is between you, you do not get to tell me whom I see. You are not my husband.“
I pressed my hands flat to his chest and heaved, but he did not move. His hands came up to grasp my wrists hard, and for an instant I saw something like hurt flicker in his gaze. ”No,“ he said slowly. ”I am better than a husband. I am your friend.”
And that is one very good reason why this third son of the late sixth Viscount Templeton-Vane makes for such an admirable partner to the delightful Veronica Speedwell.
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Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.