Source: Net Galley
One thing must be said about large families: they don’t let you get bored. Lady Julia and her favorite husband, enquiry agent Nicholas Brisbane, were closing in on eight months of honeymoon when her siblings Portia and Plum cornered them in Shepheard’s Hotel in old Cairo.
Portia’s former lover Jane unexpectedly found herself widowed on the brink of becoming a mother. The disposition of her late husband’s estate (a tea plantation outside of Darjeeling, India) depends on the gender of Jane’s unborn child, and based on hints in Jane’s letters, Portia suspects Jane’s husband was murdered. Jane or, worse yet, her child could be next. Portia convinces Lady Julia and her somewhat reluctant husband to accompany her and Plum (Portia’s chaperone—the Lady Julia Grey mysteries revel in their late 19th century setting, after all) to the estate.
The trip is arduous, complicated by family peccadilloes and newlywed strife. The marriage of two personalities as decisive as Nicholas and Lady Julia is guaranteed to be volatile, which is exactly how Ms. Raybourn’s fans want it. Romantic mystery series don’t survive on their sleuth’s deductive prowess. They thrive on tension and conflict, ideally sizzling between the principals at all times in all places—the more exotic the better.
And what could be more exotic than the zenith of the British Raj? There is a full measure of deceit, skullduggery and death awaiting our intrepid aristocrats at the tea plantation known as The Peacocks. But that’s only part of the novel’s allure. Like Elizabeth Peters’ classic Amelia Peabody mysteries, Ms. Rayburn’s lush prose invites readers to become tourists of the mind, exploring some of the most evocative locales in history through the fictional experiences of her likeable, passionate and privileged protagonists. The fact that those experiences resonate in the reality beyond the covers of Ms. Peters’ and Ms. Raybourn’s books is a credit to their skill and in no way diminishes their value as entertainment and escape.
Although the fourth in the series, Dark Road to Darjeeling works well as a standalone mystery. In fact, the relatively small number of family members in the cast may make it easier for new readers than earlier volumes in the Lady Julia Grey series. Ms. Raybourn’s sly, sexy wit shimmers through the pages, and the story is punctuated with the historical equivalent of Easter eggs. Chances are you won’t catch all of them. I know I didn’t. Fortunately, they’re too subtle to qualify as in-jokes, and missing them in no way detracts from the reading experience. But the pop of recognition when you catch one makes it doubly gratifying, like Ms. Raybourn’s tip of the hat to one of the most famous rooms in America. I’ve always loved that room, and I can’t think of a better setting for characters I adore.
Verdict: Two thumbs up.