Book Review: Murder at the Serpentine Bridge by Andrea Penrose
By Janet WebbNovember 23, 2022
The Earl and Countess of Wrexford are newlyweds but are currently in London instead of honeymooning at the earl’s country seat. It’s a matter of duty calls because of his elevated rank, as Wrexford and his bride are expected to be present during high-profile events. The visit of the Russian tsar certainly applies, “especially with the grand Peace Celebrations unfolding throughout London to honor victory over Napoleon.” It’s both a political and social obligation, so they decamp to London, bringing their household with them.
For readers unfamiliar with the backstory of Wrexford and the former Charlotte Sloane, the earl is a well-known patron of the sciences. His wife’s occupation is a closely held secret.
Charlotte Sloane’s secret persona as the “controversial satirical cartoonist A.J. Quill” is known to her partner in crime detection, the Earl of Wrexford. Understandably, a creator of “scathing political cartoons” works behind a pseudonym. Furthermore, the haut ton would never recover if it became known that Quill, that skillful skewer of hypocrisy, is a woman.
Wrexford and the Weasels, an affectionate sobriquet for his and Charlotte’s wards Raven and Hawk, are out for a nocturnal stroll. Wrexford can think of things he’d rather be doing—a good book and a snifter of fine brandy come to mind—but the Weasels are ripe for adventure. He warns them against “wreaking any havoc,” although he doesn’t expect trouble. Harper, their fearsome-looking “iron-grey hound” accompanies them.
However, he had sensed that the boys wanted to feel they were having a slightly risky adventure. They were used to having unfettered freedom to roam the city as they pleased. However, their lives had recently undergone a momentous change.
As has mine . . .
Harper spots something in the water and plunges in. It’s a body. What are the odds of Wrexford’s party stumbling over a watery corpse? Wrexford pulls the body out of the water and is surprised by what he sees.
One didn’t often encounter a person of African descent in the exclusive environs of Mayfair.
His brow creased in thought as he fingered the fine linen of the man’s shirt and cravat. Especially one dressed as a gentleman. But he quickly pushed aside his initial shock. Whatever reason had brought the poor fellow to the park at this hour, it had cost him his life.
The poor fellow’s name is Jeremiah Willis, and he didn’t die a natural death. The Crown—in the person of the sinister Lord Grentham, a gentleman who exerts his will incognito—is adamant that Wrexford investigate the death. Apparently, the late Jeremiah Willis was engineering a new, top-secret weapon that is now missing from the Royal Armory’s lab. What Great Britain wants—along with the United States, France, and Germany—is to be first with Willis’s design.
Wrexford is not a man easily forced to do anything, but in a dark corner of a forgettable bar, Grentham, aka Dogsbody, alludes to Charlotte’s secret career.
“We have no interest in your wife’s hobbies, Lord Wrexford.” Dogsbody ran his finger around the rim of his tankard. “Or should we?”
Wrexford schooled his face to betray nothing, but he felt his innards turn to ice. If anyone had the tentacles to dig out the deepest, darkest secrets in London, it was Lord Grentham.
Charlotte’s profession as a caricaturist is a necessary secret because she makes some very powerful people exceedingly uncomfortable. However, it seems someone may have divined her identity. The pair ponders why they are constantly encased in murder investigations.
“We seem to be like magnets, inexorably drawing the iron filings of trouble.”
“Hmmm, that’s a wonderful visual metaphor—I must keep it in mind for a future drawing,” she said.
“You’re skirting the subject.”
“That’s because I’m not sure there is any intrigue.” A pause. “Though I did discover several things that stir some questions.”
Charlotte and Wrexford, with the aid of their closest friends, find out the secret of Willis’s design. As Tyler explains, “Imagine an army equipped with long guns that could fire multiple shots in the time it takes to load one single shot in a traditional musket or rifle.” Today’s readers can imagine the horror of such a weapon, but Andrea Penrose has a gift for bringing the past to life. Her stories demonstrate the potential dangers of scientific discovery even 200 years ago.
No one seems to miss or mourn Jeremiah Willis except his closest kin, Peregrine, 12-year-old Lord Lampson. Peregrine’s presence is an affront to his English relatives, as is his skin color (his mother was black). They’re not very kind to him, as Charlotte learns when they unburden themselves.
“I confess, Belmont and I were quite surprised when we learned Declan had named us as guardians for the child. Our two sons are grown and we hadn’t . . . We hadn’t expected to raise another.”
From the stiffness of Louisa’s voice, Charlotte guessed that the tension ran far deeper than that.
Follow the money. Louisa and her husband “likely thought that he, and his sons after him, would inherit the title and lands.” They didn’t anticipate Belmont’s older brother fathering a son and heir in his later years. Inevitably, Hawk and Raven take Peregrine under their wing. That Peregrine is madly intelligent is a bonus.
The young men are brimming with curiosity, courage, and intrepid decisions—it comes with the territory of living with two skillful and persistent detectives. Tracking down Willis’s valuable design and keeping it out of the clutches of unscrupulous agents is a challenge that is tailor-made for the Wrexfords and their loyal coterie. Another ingenious historical mystery from Andrea Penrose.