To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.
I stared at him, not quite taking in tha fact that he had just collapsed at my feet. He lay curled like a question mark, his evening suit ink-black against the white marble of the floor. He was writhing, his fingers knotted.
I leaned as close to him as my corset would permit.
'Edward, we have guests. Do get up. If this is some sort of silly prank – '
'He is not jesting, my lady. He is convulsing.'
These are the best opening lines since Sylvian Hamilton's The Bone-Pedlar began with the words: "In the crypt of the Abbey Church at Hallowdene, the monks were boiling their Bishop" . You read this and you are hooked. And the author has no intention of letting you off the hook. (After a description of the guests pressing in around them, the narrator observes that "Edward was proving rather better entertainment than the soprano we had engaged".) What is more, in those few lines, you have the story – and the series – in a nutshell; for this "gentleman" is Nicholas Brisbane, a private investigator retained by her husband when he started receiving threatening quotations cut from (of all places) the Book of Psalms, the victim on the floor is said husband, and the twittering dumb blonde narrator is Lady Julia Grey, whom her husband had (understandably) not bothered to inform about either the threats or the investigator.
Fortunately, Jula turns out – once liberated from the confines of Victorian marriage to a man with no interest whatsoever in her – to be far from dumb.
When Brisbane tells her who he is and why he is there, and that he believes her husband to have been murdered, she sends him off with a flea in his ear. But a year later, when her period of strict mourning over, she begins to sort things out, and promptly finds one such threatening quotation, cut out of a Bible and hidden in a drawer. She rushes to Brisbane – whom she has never forgotten (he is very attractive, tall, dark, strong and mysterious) – only to find that he is no longer interested in either her or her dead husband.
She proceeds to investigate on her own. And in so doing, leaves behind all trace of the repressed and conventional little aristocratic wife and emerges from her cocoon as a sort of Victorian goddess – unconquerable, unconventional and at least as sexy as the French courtesane, Hortense, whom she befriends. (The earlier Julia – the caterpillar – would not have been seen dead in the same room as Hortense!)
In Silent in the Grave, we also meet Julia's father, the Earl of March (a particular friend of the Queen's) and various other members of Julia's family – all eccentric and entertaining.
In Silent in the Sanctuary, the second in this new series, we get to know them all. It opens in Italy, where Julia has spent several months in the company of two of her brothers, one a musician and the other an artist. Lysander, the musician, has clandestinely married an Italian girl and must now return home to his father the Earl – who provides him with the allowance on which he lives, literally, like a lord – and face the music. They return to England all together, planning to spend Christmas at the ancestral home – and there Julia finds that Nicholas Brisbane, from whom she heard nothing during all the long months in Italy, has also been invited for the festive season.
Then a guest is murdered – in "the sanctuary", the old chapel dating from the days before the Reformation when their home, the Abbey, really was an abbey.
Julia and Brisbane find themselves working together once again.
An excellent combination of historical romance and detective story, beautifully written and perfectly set in their period. I can't see anyone who reads them being able to resist seeting aside all other books tbr and moving straight on to the third in the series – Silent on the Moor.