Behind the Shattered Glass by Tasha Alexander is the eighth book in the Lady Emily historical mystery series (available October 15, 2013).
Lady Emily Hargreaves is just sitting down for after-dinner coffee in her charming country manor house when a man staggers through the French doors and falls down dead at her husband’s feet.
A most irregular occurrence: unless you’re a lady detective whose gentleman husband happens to be an agent (AKA spy) for the crown, a lady who frequently finds herself entangled in sordid mysteries of just this sort.
In this, the eighth in the Lady Emily series by Tasha Alexander, there’s a bit of just about everything. Scandalous affairs that would shock proper society. Suspiciously lost heirs to old family fortunes who turn up at the most inopportune moments. Upstairs/downstairs drama and class commentary. Romance. Intrigue.
Alexander manages to weave everything together with a deft, light touch. It’s the sort of story that pulls you in literally from the first paragraph:
“This, Emily, goes beyond bad manners. …One cannot have gentleman falling down dead in the library, especially on an eighteenth-century Axminster carpet! It is entirely ruined; there’s no possibility that bloodstain will come out. Such a thing would never be tolerated at Darnley House.”
Talk about a great opening hook—and the unfolding drama hardly stops for breath. It isn’t difficult to get so caught up in the twisty complications of the case that you find yourself at book’s end in what seems like the blink of an eye.
Dialogue is one of Alexander’s greatest strengths. The witticisms fly freely, and the overall tone is proper enough to feel as if the words are being delivered by Victorian peers and their devoted servants. The language never strikes the reader as insincere or too forced.
The historical air of the story reflects Alexander’s attention to authenticity. This is most definitely Victorian England, where lush manor estates are refuges for lords eager to hunt. It’s a world of diaries and letters and telegrams, and a motley crew of wealthy nobles and impoverished tenants. Where London is beginning to embrace electricity and the telephone is still new enough to be approached with trepidation.
“What troubles me,” I said to Colin as he centered the tall black object on his desk, “is how do we even know we are really speaking to the person we think we’re ringing? Anyone could be on the other end of that wire and we would never even suspect.” I look at it suspiciously. It reminded me of a deranged candlestick.
And what a cast of characters! Lady Emily is our eyes and narrator, a woman of breeding and intelligence who goes out of her way to help those in less fortunate circumstances. Her husband Colin is a dashing man of action with a keen sense of justice. Neighbor and suspect Matilda is a force of nature, her cousin and fellow suspect Rodney an adventurer newly returned from searching for Cortez’s lost gold.
There are trouble-making kitchen maids, a vicar’s daughter who is hardly the naïve innocent one might expect, a marchioness with shocking secrets, and the victim himself, who may not have been the paragon his family believed him to be. Everyone’s hiding something, it seems, and lies run rampant.
But for all of the corkscrew threads and red herrings in the plot, the tone remains fun and easy. This is not a grim mystery full of cynicism and black-hearted cads. Behind the Shattered Glass is most definitely a parlor tale, something that would be eminently suitable for a rainy autumn day.
While it dabbles in gothic territory—with its crumbling abbey and rainy hills, desperate ladies and secret diaries—the pace is too whip-crack to maintain such an atmosphere for long. Alexander knows how to craft a fun, cozy story with just enough shock and drama for spicing.
So who really murdered Archibald, Marquess of Montagu? Was it the slighted vicar’s daughter? His own cousin, who stood to inherit? A former college chum wronged years ago? Luckily for us, Alexander keeps us guessing right to the end—which is a satisfying and genuinely surprising one.
You can’t do much better than Lady Emily when it comes to refined, genteel whodunits. If you think Downton Abbey would only be improved with the occasional murder, this might just be a perfect fit.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.